The following is an expanded version of a lecture delivered in the early 2000s.
When I was a kid of seven or eight, there was a TV show called Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I remember being particularly impressed by one episode about a guy who claimed to have eaten his car. It took him more than four years, but by chopping the car into tiny pieces and swallowing a little bit every day, this guy managed to eat the entire thing: steering wheel, chrome, tires, and all. He didn’t even know he was making art.
Here’s the situation as it stands today. Contemporary art is divided into two main camps. On the one side, we have the centuries-long continuity of work that is primarily pictorial in nature, and on the other, the growing body of work that is more presentational in attitude—that is, art that privileges intentionality and the delivery system, the context in which art appears. One type of art says, “Look at this,” while the other says, “Look at me looking at this,” or in a further evolution, “Look at me looking at you looking at this.” This not a distinction between painting and non-painting. There are plenty of non-painters making work with an outer-directed energy combined with pictorial intelligence.
Though intertwined in practice, the pictorial and the presentational represent two different worldviews, one identified with art as form, as something made, or something its maker arrives at, while the other regards art primarily as a set of cultural signs, or a strategy that produces an artifact, something meant to be read. This may sound like the old Duchampian distinction between the retinal and the cerebral, but the balance has tipped in a way that Duchamp could hardly have imagined 70 years ago. In the last few decades, the emphasis on theory, and on relational aesthetics generally has seriously eroded, if not invalidated, one of the core beliefs about how art functions. In times past, art was thought to possess a quality—something that stimulated the senses—called presence, or aura. Baldly put, a work of art was said to emanate this aura as a result of the transference of energy from the artist to the art, an aesthetic variant of the law of thermodynamics. Few people today would defend that idea. The question remains, what do we have to replace it with?
I recently visited the Zurich home of my friend, Bruno Bischofberger, the great collector and dealer who represents appropriation artist Mike Bidlo. In Bruno’s living room, by a window with a view onto Lake Zurich, was a Bidlo bicycle wheel sculpture, after Duchamp. You know—the wheel mounted upside-down on a simple wooden stool. Although an exact replica of the Duchamp original, which itself is an assemblage of commercially available objects, the Bidlo bicycle wheel lacked presence; it was, in fact, rather inert. Strange—how can that be? It’s an exact replica of a non-artisanal object. As we stood looking at Bidlo’s sculpture, Bruno’s wife, Yoyo, made the astute observation that “an artist’s work either has presence or it doesn’t, and although anything can have it, nothing has it necessarily.” It might sound like magical thinking, but the original—in this case a funny word to use—bicycle wheel is gratifying to look at. It has an aura. The replica, not so much. Is context alone, and the expectations that come with it, enough to explain the difference?
The disparity between the older view of art’s perceptual gestalt and that of Duchamp’s many descendants involves more than a distinction between expressionist and detached art, or warm art and cool. Cool art can be highly pictorial; perhaps most art that we remember is simultaneously pictorial and presentational. Like many things in life, it’s a matter of emphasis, a question of sensibility. Art is often bound up with certain abstract ideas: about space, materiality, cultural history, identity, narrative time, styles of representation, and the very nature of the image, to name only a handful. In the art that we tend to remember, those ideas are embodied by form. Advanced pictorial art also contains an element of the presentational; the presentational is baked in, in a way. Sophisticated paintings are self-aware, they present themselves. One thing art does is to strike a balance between those two aspects of the self, one quality acting as a brake on the other.
However, with the canonization of Duchamp following his death in 1968, presentational art began proliferating, and, like a drug, it soon swamped the brain’s receptors for other kinds of sensations. As the audience for contemporary art grew, work that engaged the delivery system itself began to eclipse the thing being delivered. There are a number of reasons that this approach to art making flourished, principal among them is simple demographics: the great increase in the number of young people enrolled in art schools and the adjacent curatorial programs. Another reason, also demographically determined, is the rise of the tourist model of international art fairs and biennials—what Peter Schjeldahl has dubbed “festivalism.” The context for art does, to some extent, shape what will be created.
We have also seen a proliferation of art whose function is to deliver content of a specific, legible sort, which, if you’re of a certain age, calls to mind the joke about the painter’s reply when asked what his work meant: “When I want to send a message, I call Western Union.” In social realist painting of the 1930s, a work was judged by what it had to say about class conflict. The visuals have changed but the criteria for judgment of message-laden art are still with us. Message first, art as a thing, second.
I’ll confess straightaway that the proliferation of presentational art makes my heart sink. The inconvenient truth is this: It’s easier to present art than to make it. It’s easier to select than it is to invent. It gets confusing, because some of the great pictorial inventors of the twentieth century, like Andy Warhol, obviously, appeared to be doing nothing more than choosing—but that was an illusion, something borrowed from the beauty industry, where the amount of time spent in the makeup chair is meant to result in an effortlessly natural look. To make something that really holds our attention, especially over repeated viewings, requires levels of integration—intellectual, visual, cultural—expressed with a unique physicality. Art that eschews this integration is unlikely to be durably compelling for the simple reason that less is at stake. One component without the others is like an unstable chemical compound; it will degrade, or, to continue the chemistry analogy, it will fail to catalyze. Over time, the result will come to have the flavor of commentary.
Sometimes I think we don’t know what kind of artists we want. Shaman or perceptual psychologist? Poète maudit or activist? Inventor or theoretician? Sacred monster or good citizen? Of course, we want all of the above and more, but at certain times one image of the artist holds more allure than others. There have always been the kinds of artists who present themselves as avatars of our perceived cultural moment, as if that’s the job description. And no doubt for some it is.
From time to time, the slate is wiped clean. New audiences arrive. Life goes on, artists adapt to new technologies, as always. Art in the largely presentational mode has now evolved further; it has embraced its seeming opposite and merged with the iconic spectacle, which, far from denying art’s aura, has transferred the idea of auratic vibration to how something can be staged for the camera. In the past, iconic status was conferred by history. Today, an artist may see no reason to wait, and will try to preempt the ratification process—by going straight to spectacle. Spectacle is a form of illustration—it illustrates an idea, usually a big one. Shock and awe, indeed. There has emerged a newish form, a kind of art whose pictorial values are meant to be understood, perhaps can only be understood, within the framing device of a magazine page, or a screen. I don’t mean here the staged photographs of Cindy Sherman, an artist more or less universally admired. I refer to a more controlled use of pictures within the systems, both social and editorial, that deliver them. We may have invented a new hybrid form of journalism and art combined, one derived from the 70-year tradition of the picture press.
The implications are kind of interesting. We find among art students now a reluctance to make any meaningful distinction between art and ads. I am, perhaps, generalizing, but it’s a noticeable shift. Today’s art students can’t easily recognize the difference, and also don’t see any particular need to do so. As I’ve suggested, maybe this is simply a different kind of aura, one that the audience is already sensitized to. Why not? A picture is a picture. An example of what I mean might be Maurizio Cattelan’s re-creation of the Hollywood sign in the hills above Palermo; the photograph in Artforum makes us smile; we appreciate its complex layers of cheekiness. But how many of us really feel compelled to go to Sicily to see it?
Frank Stella, never one to shy away from a fight, mince words, or go with the flow, has this to say:
Owing to its reading of Duchamp, the literalist art of the last twenty-five years has defined itself by the act of presentation. Artists have tried to make a mountain out of a molehill, and celebrate their ability to select objects and activities from daily life and to present them in a different context, the context of the art museum or gallery. Where literalist art challenges painting by asserting that the art of presentation is the equal of the art of creation, we have to recognize its lack of seriousness.
The New York art market flourished for a time in the 1980s, and this attracted the attention of the mainstream media. The art world hadn’t been considered interesting to talk about for a while—all that conceptual art making people feel stupid—and now there was something to dress up for. The gossip was amusing, some of the personalities were colorful. Most talk about the art of the ’80s and ’90s is really talk about the art world as a social system, and while this may be mildly interesting, it’s not the same, nor as interesting, as the art itself. The art market was robust, briefly, after a period of quietude that had gone on so long it was considered the norm, and when it changed, some people, instead of taking the long view, had an attitude about it. They stopped looking at the work. I remember sometime in the early ’90s receiving a query from something called the Nordic Art Review that posed the stark question, “The 1980s: what was it good for?”
At least as far back as the Renaissance, the arts have been populated by eccentrics with strange and sometimes alarming personal habits—the Mannerist painter Il Rosso, for instance, reportedly lived with an ape as his domestic companion. Closer to our own time, Calvin Tomkins, in his biography of Duchamp, describes a peripheral artist of Duchamp’s circle of the late ’20s in New York, a proto-performance artist who used to walk down Fifth Avenue with live birds pinned to her skirts, as being “unhampered by sanity.” I don’t think we’d want it any other way. One way a work of art takes on meaning is when its formal, pictorial patterns resonate with systems of attention in the larger world. Another way is when the larger-than-life personality of the artist accomplishes a similar cultural rhyme. When something is judged to be passé, what’s really meant is that the image of the artist encoded in certain patterns of behavior is the wrong one for the moment. Hemline too long, or too short.
Fashions do change. A disheartening aspect of the art world of the 1980s was its willingness to indulge in ad hominem attacks disguised as a defense of certain values. Much of the criticism of ’80s art was nakedly elitist. People didn’t like a painting because they didn’t like the people who did. Critic Robert Hughes’s venomous attack on ’80s art included contempt for its collectors, and the smug tagline “newly minted art for newly minted money” was thrown around, as if the Farnese or Borghese were fundamentally different in their day. Today we can see Hughes’s rhetoric for the distasteful snobbery that it was.
But let’s return for a moment to the problem of representation. It’s been the case for quite a while—at least since Picasso—that how well a work reproduces in the media plays a significant role in its popularity; the work of the most acclaimed artists from the ’60s, for instance, look fabulous in reproduction. This isn’t to suggest that those works didn’t also have tremendous physical presence, but the fact remains, most people are familiar with a work of art through reproduction; those who have the good fortune to experience a painting firsthand are fewer in number, and those who have the luxury of actually living with it are very few indeed. But that’s different from the situation I’m describing: art that tangibly occupies three-dimensional space, yet seems to exist in more compelling form when seen in a magazine than it does in real life.
What is the difference exactly? Art conceived as spectacle comes from a different impulse, essentially that of an art director, and is the legacy of conceptual art fused with irony. Art direction is the science of directing attention, often to a con; a place of making you think you’re smarter or more attractive than you are. Increasingly, the art world is in thrall to the triumph of art direction, something which places art in the service of the ironic presentation of forms, our distance from which is the art’s message. As noted earlier, kids in art schools today don’t care about the distinction between art and ads. And why, you might ask, should they, as long as no one else does. I’m not referring to art made out of the raw material of advertising imagery—works like Richard Prince’s Marlborough Man—but rather to the increasingly porous boundary between public and private, between inner and outer directed impulses. This is in fact the generating impulse behind some of the more radical of the recent art. And in a way, I feel a little twinge of responsibility.
At CalArts in the halcyon early ’70s, when the school was still flush with Disney money, students could apply for grants to carry out special projects. I once sat on the panel to pick the winners. One guy asked for $3,000—a lot of money at the time—so that he could hoist a television and generator up to a remote mountaintop, where he intended to watch reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies and then, mid-episode, blast the TV screen with a 12-gauge shotgun. We offered him $300 with the suggestion that he check into the worst fleabag hotel in downtown Los Angeles and shoot out the television in his room with a BB gun. Sometimes, less is more. Since that innocent time, things have developed dramatically, and museums now routinely fly artists around the world to create works that are subsequently photographed and disseminated through the art publications and social media to produce the kind of photographic aura we’re talking about. Nice work if you can get it, as the saying goes, and what we’re left with is an image in a magazine.
A version of this text was recently published in How to See: Looking, Talking and Thinking About Art by David Salle. ©2016 David Salle. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 82 under the title “School of Presentation.”