Portrait of the Artist as a Scalawag

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Today’s artist has a special status, somewhere between a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan and a circus carney for Barnum and Bailey. He is a rebel who gets invited to all the best parties. He is a bit-actor on the margins, taken seriously by the rich and the powerful. He is an icon-buster, peddling his own shoddy images for worship and glorification. And, he is a born genius, with no visible talent, except for self-promotion.

In short, he is a humbug.

Artists have always been critics of the times and conventions they lived in. When Dante drew his picture of Hell, he made sure to put into it all the leading citizens of his day. Shakespeare made almost all his Englishmen either pathetic or comic. The artist has his task cut out for him, for no time and no race is ever perfect. It is he who has to draw out the beautiful and noble from the dross and bilge of contemporary life.

But cometh the 20th century — and now the 21st — the artist has taken on a new role. He has greased himself into the job of Arbiter of Cool. He is the bouncer at the local hot spot who gets to tell the customers if they’re hip enough to enter or not.

The humbug has a whole platoon of partakers — museum curators, critics and most importantly, the art promoters. It is, after all, they who make the crucial decisions. They are in cahoots. One stumbles across some no-account brush-wielder and promotes him to his friends in the museums. The friends bring in the critics early, so that the shysters can then claim to have discovered the great one before he became great. And at the end of the assembly line, weak-minded collectors and greedy investors are lured into forking over enormous prices.

Meanwhile, the whole concatenation of grand larceny and petty indecency creates such a buzz that it convinces the rest of the world that it has a real talent on its hands. What else does the rest of the world have to go on? The artwork itself may be as empty and meaningless as a state of the union address, but it is hanging in an important gallery! Van Der Loon said it was “original.” Some chump paid big money for it!

We marvel at the elegant symmetry of it all: Things with no value are bought by people with no sense. Money flows from weak hands to stronger ones. Make believe art flows from scalawags and hustlers to dimwits and social climbers. Life goes on.

Andy Warhol was not a great artist, but he was no fool. When he died, it was discovered that with his own money, he bought traditional, representational paintings — not post-modern blotches. He was a great promoter. His Portrait of Nelson A. Rockfeller #3 sold for $401,750 just six years ago. Last week, it brought $1,136,000. Mark Rothko’s White, Orange, and Yellow, an amazingly dull painting, brought about $300,000 from some sad-sack investor 12 years ago. Last week, it was expected to go for as much as $3 million. Instead, a much greater fool came along and paid $4,160,000. And the big winner was a silly painting by Roy Lichtenstein entitled Sinking Sun, which brought $15,696,000 — about 150 times more than it sold for in 1974.

Why the high prices? A study published in the Feb. 10, 2006, issue of Science magazine, helps to explain it. The authors, Matthew J. Salganik and Peter Sheridan Dodds of Columbia University, and Duncan J. Watts of the Santa Fe Institute, looked at how people judged music on their own and compared that to their reactions when they knew how popular the music was among their peers. The results were hardly surprising. People appreciated the songs in a fairly random way when they were left to their own devices, but as soon as they had “social influence” to guide them, they tended to focus on just one or two popular songs, while ignoring those that were judged by the group to be unpopular.

A few decades ago, a man who made some money would buy his way into a higher status society by getting Gainsborough to paint his wife or buying a Chippendale dining room set. Now, it is cool that counts, and a man desperate for social status has to hang framed trash on his walls. Or put pickled sheep on his mantelpiece.

In 1997, a show of contemporary art in London called “Sensation,” broke all records for attendance and bad taste. It was so lewd and repulsive the papers couldn’t stop talking about it, which, of course, only brought in bigger mobs of gawkers. But there were also howls of complaint, too. For, included was a giant painting of Myra Hindley composed from a child’s handprints. Americans may not recognize the name, but they will recognize the modus operandi. Hindley is infamous, and behind bars, for murdering children and recording their screams as she tortured them. Outraged viewers — including the parents of the murdered children — begged the Royal Academy not to exhibit the painting. When officials refused (they risked being un-cool!), protesters attacked the painting with eggs and ink. Thereafter, it had to be restored and protected by plastic. One of the mysteries of contemporary art is why anyone bothered to restore it; the painting was no less attractive, and no less shocking, after its amending by the protestors.

“Sensation” was sensational. It gave a boost to contemporary “art” that was felt across the pond, when Mayor Giuliani threatened to withdraw funding from the Brooklyn Museum for hosting the show. But Giuliani eventually backed down. He didn’t want to risk being too “uncool” either — not when the U.S. Senate beckoned. The show went on…and the prices went on to rise.

Since then, “art” has gotten even more repulsive and ridiculous. Ex-stripper Stella Vine, promoted by Charles Saatchi, pandered to celebrity culture with a painting of Princess Diana with blood dripping from her lips. More recently, an artist invited to exhibit at a Swiss art center, proposed a bit of performance art — bulldozing down the center!

Even a jackass could see that this doctrine leads nowhere. “Artists” are already fornicating on stage. We wait for the day when they will be shooting each other, drenching the bodies in anti-freeze and putting them on display. Then, perhaps a bout of mass-murder, nun-raping and, even worse, cigarette smoking! Sooner or later, they will run smack into the residual decency of the public, if there is any left. And then, of course, their oeuvre will really soar in value!

Works of “art” have turned crude and hideous. The artists are divided between charlatans and cretins, and the promoters are Hell-bound perverts. But it is the buyers, the investors, and the collectors for whom nature reserves her hardest kick and her heartiest laugh.

Critics of contemporary art, on the other hand, are so indignant they can barely chuckle, worrying over how it undermines high taste and presses down on popular culture like a container full of Che T-shirts. Of course, they are right. The modern artist is no artist but a swindler who cannot do the job of distinguishing between the beautiful and the ugly — or the sordid and the noble. He cannot really draw out beauty, because he lacks the skill. Nor can he even criticize, because he lacks an aesthetic reference. All he can be is a provocateur, shocking the bourgeoisie.

The critics take the whole thing too seriously and miss the elegant comedy of it. No sooner do people get their hands on money, than nature comes up with absurd ways to take it from them. Who would have believed that any man declared compos mentis — able to drive a car or serve on a jury — would pay $95 million for one of Pablo Picasso’s oeuvres from his “I hate my girlfriend” period? Who would pay $598,000 for Elizabeth Peyton’s wretched painting of David Hockney? Who would pay $100,000 for Damien Hirst’s bottled fish? But didn’t Damien Hirst entitle one of his paintings, Kiss My F**king A**? What could be cooler than that? And isn’t the whole idea of art to break taboos? No one held a gun to the buyers’ heads. No court order required them to do it. They just did it, driven by some natural urge to part with their wealth.

And then what do you suppose happened? Even greater fools (where do they get these people?) came and paid even more. If a bull market can turn a moron into a genius, the art market deserves federal funding. It has done for the elite what the housing boom has done for the lumpen. They all think they deserve a Nobel Prize. What a delight for the art mongers! The buyers’ pockets are full, their heads are empty, and the coast is clear.

Recently, Chinese “artist” Zhou Tiehai decided to test the art establishment’s pretensions. At first, he tried various combinations of avant-garde collages. At one point, so to speak, he even stuck fellow “performance artists” with a needle…prefiguring his later jabs at the art community. When none of that took off, he must have asked himself what taboo could be left. Art itself, of course, the idea of the artist, busting through the icons of bourgeois society…liberating the masses from their subservience to the money gods and the sanctions of everyday convention. What better icon to hit with a sledgehammer? In short, Mr. Zhou decided to pull the art world’s leg.

What could be more commercial, more artistically shallow, more intellectually dmod and more culturally mal vue than that symbol of cigarette advertising — Joe Camel? Zhou hired some local hack artists (he saw no reason to get his own hands dirty) and drew out a few images — putting Joe Camel’s head into well-known, classic European paintings — and let his crew turn it into a work of art. Perfect, he thought, an icon of modern predatory commercialism grafted onto the work of a great master. They will see that I am mixing together the great and the crass. They will see that I am mocking the whole idea of icon-busting art.

“It’s really not that hard to create art,” he says.

Not the way Mr. Zhou does it. But in making fun of art, Mr. Zhou managed to put himself in the forefront of the taboo-bashing league of mediocre clowns who make up today’s art world. Instead of being shunned by the elite art collectors, critics and buyers whose legs he pulled, he was embraced by them.

Instead of slipping his paintings in their closets and admitting that they’d been had, they proudly put them on the wall…and paid as much as $100,000 for them.

But contemporary art is still going up in price. Vox populi, vox dei. Collectors and investors are making money, but pity them anyway. The “art” may be worth a fortune, but they have to live with it. No amount of money could be worth that.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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