This week New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl offered some pretty sensible advice to all those who are maddened by the obscene action in today’s high-flying art market: chill out. “Sensing that people will one day look back on this era as a freakish episode in cultural history, why not get a head start on viewing it that way?” he wrote. “Detach and marvel.” Hear, hear! That’s not to say it’s always an easy business, but I’m working on it.
Having said that, let me address, for a moment, the brave and sober art historians of the future who will take up the challenge of understanding this freakish moment: ladies and gentlemen, pick up the crisply written book that artist Seth Price just released on Leopard Press, Fuck Seth Price. It presents the contemporary art world in all of its manic, horrible glory: its commercial market flooded with money, its inhabitants buffeted by existential doubts, its artists under siege by the digital.
The book concerns an unnamed male artist who, Price writes on the first page, one day “found himself carrying out strange and horrible acts: murder and abduction, most disturbingly, but also other furtive activities that he couldn’t quite make sense of.” By this point, we’re told, the artist had pretty much stopped making art, having minted a tidy fortune by making abstract paintings that he carefully calibrated to appeal to collectors. (Sound familiar?) And so begins a little flashback.
One day in the early 2000s, the artist was sitting in one of those then-new high-end restaurants which specializes in elevating a previously cheap, retrograde cuisine (red-sauce Italian-American, in this case) into a pricy, hip one. (New Yorkers can picture any branch of the Carbone empire.) He “found himself wondering whether abstract painting wasn’t due for a spaghetti-and-meatballs recuperation,” Prince writes. His thinking continues rapidly:
Someone, he realized, needed to come along and devise a painterly abstraction that embodied cultural sophistication and ‘nowness.’ It had to look classically tasteful and refer to well-known historical byways, but it also had to be undergirded by utter contemporaneity, either of sensibility or of production method.
The artist brainstorms a few possibilities and then combines them in a materials list which handily brings to mind dozens of artists today (including Price himself): “Foxconn worker’s accidental Coke spills on Nigerian mud cloth, scanned and randomly manipulated in Photoshop, printed on Belgian linen stretched over a vacuum–formed frame.”
Price coins the term “post-problem art” to define the style of abstract painting which has come to the fore in recent years, a period when paintings have sold like hotcakes and “everyone was in agreement that the market was the only indicator that mattered now.” That, of course, is hyperbole, but only slightly, since a whole ecosystem now exists that is made of collectors who vociferously acquire and trade works by young artists who have almost no critical or curatorial track record. Price sums up the prevailing mood with brutal precision:
It was no longer necessary to deem a piece interesting, provocative, weird, or complex, and it was almost incomprehensible to hate something because you liked it, or like it because it unsettled you, or any of the other ambivalent and twisted ways that people wrestled with the intersection of feelings and aesthetics. You almost didn’t need words anymore: it was enough to say, ‘That painting is awesome,’ just as you’d say, ‘This spaghetti is awesome.’
We have all heard that language before—maybe even coming out of our own months.
The painter admits that his engineered style is cynical, but then makes a nice leap: that the work is actually about cynicism, that it’s about the process of selling out and the vagaries of taste. “What if you believed in not believing?” he muses. “Executives or world leaders entertaining this question would rightly be classified as sociopaths, but in the world of art these questions were okay.”
Naturally, as the highs of his new career achievements fade, this leads him to some self-questioning. “Am I supposed to just be a part of this system that generates taste and money, and go on making things until I die?” he wonders. That pervasive dread, I think, explains the fascination in recent years with artists who in various ways have opted to drop out of the art game, like Lee Lozano, Cady Noland, and Charlotte Posenenske. (“It is difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that art can contribute nothing to solving urgent social problems,” Posenenske declared.)
Not many do actually drop out, but Price’s artist does, and though it’s never quite clear what he’s up to, he seems to spend his time writing and performing various macabre activities which he is largely unable to control and of which we only ever catch slight glimpses. All the while, his thoughts continue, ingeniously touching on all sorts of present-day issues, both savory and not.
The artist reasons that since painting is confined by its strict limits (a thing hung on the wall) and tied closely to fashion, the future omust belong to sculpture, which is open to changes, evolving with technology. And, yes, bigger is better. “When devising publicly significant artwork, a good rule of thumb was to aspire to the condition of a handgun: simple, familiar, and loaded,” Price writes, noting that Serra and Koons seem to get this—Serra, especially, who has pushed his work into the realm of architecture.
As Price asks, with a heap of rye wit: “[W]hy were we building bigger and better exhibition halls if not to showcase the limits of human potential, dispatches from the zone where unbounded and well-funded creativity met hitherto unknown capacities for technological ingenuity?” So crank it up!
Incidentally, that question echoes very closely something that the artist Robert Irwin said to me a few years ago, albeit a great deal more skeptically: “We’re building these cathedrals to art today, really almost to the level of absurdity, so you ask yourself, what does it contribute?” He answered with his characteristic optimism: “I’m of the opinion that we are constantly discovering the world and that the point of art is that act.” I suspect we would all happily cosign that statement.
On a day to day basis, though, the book suggests that the job of being an artist, for many leading figures today, consists in large part in managing a business, negotiating control with outside interests (there’s a nice exegesis on the parallels between Koons and Kanye), flying to the openings of oligarchs’ private museums, feeling guilty about the decadence, and deciding when to compromise. Price at one point writes of his artist: “He asked himself whether there was really anything wrong with getting into bed with power and wealth if that was what it took to make great art.”
That feels like an increasingly pressing question, and one that some artists, like Koons, Kapoor, and Serra, seem to have answered quite definitively for themselves. But Price also offers other questions, and they linger. What effect is the rise of digital technologies having on art, our sensibilities, and even our way of thinking? What exactly does great art entail? And, if and when it appears today, can we can even recognize it? Price: “At its best, art was a faith without religions, a gnosis without spirituality, a system without need of names.” So what is that we are actually believing in?