Saturday, October 31, 2009

What is Art, Part VI

October 31, 2009

[somehow this post never got published at the time it was written....probably because I am a computer dummy and let it remain in the drafts folder without realizing it...but here it is, in all its gory glory]

It seems oddly appropriate to be writing about the paintings of Jenny Saville on Halloween. But, first, I want to relate a brief anecdote that seems very indicative of the state of art today. A young bladesmith was staying with us overnight. He and I were collaborating on a series of pieces and he brought his art student girlfriend along. She has a nice presence about her, and we were delighted to meet her. At breakfast I asked her about her work and how much more time she had before graduating. This led to the fact that she was working on her senior show, the equivalent of her thesis. Of course putting up a show also entails explaining it, much in the same manner that one has to ‘defend’ their thesis. So, I asked how far along with it she was. As it turned out she was mid-process with organizing it, had chosen all the work that would be included, and it would only be a matter of a couple of months before her show. So, I asked what it was about. And, she looked at me with a puzzled expression, then said, “I haven’t got a clue.”

I smiled, sure that she must be joking. But, at that moment, I recalled seeing a piece on Sunday Morning. It was about the annual show at the Guggenheim for ‘hot young artists’, the ‘up and comers’. The interviewer was asking another young woman about her art, which was an installation encompassing an entire room of the museum. She did the same thing…looked him right in the eyes and said she had not the foggiest idea what it was about. Okay, what is going on here? Both of these artists had been through extensive art educations, both were seemingly far from novices in their chosen media. Both were in the position of putting their work in front of audiences….and both had apparently done their work so well that it bamboozled themselves as well as, potentially, their audiences. I say this only partly tongue in cheek, because to young art students it seems readily apparent that doing their ‘job’ means coming up with something that A) hasn’t been done before, at least not in that particular style, and B) is so obfuscatory and puzzling that it defies comprehension by the uninitiated.

Apparently, neither of these disarmingly honest women felt themselves far enough along to qualify as ‘initiates’ into the club of oh so wise people who look at the incomprehensible and comprehend it. In fact, a true initiate can spout volumes of ‘art speak’ in defense and explanation of such work. Kudos to these woman for choosing to be honest instead of being willing to lie and pretend they knew what they didn’t.

This is at the very core of ‘the game’. Artists like Lucien Freud and his army of clones, like Jenny Saville, have mastered this at the skill-level of a Fifth Avenue pick-pocket. And, young artists who are working towards becoming ‘great artists’ look around the art world and clearly see who is being rewarded for their efforts…not merely paid, but becoming multi-millionaire culture heros. It doesn’t take them long to realize that if they want to be initiated into this august inner-circle they will have to figure out how to twist peoples' sensibilities in knots too.

So, along comes this new generation of ambitious artists. They have teethed on self-interest…the artist as the center of the Universe…and they want material success, in fact, feel they are entitled to it. There is no room at the inn for anything approaching ‘ideals’. They are hungry and they are ruthless. They will do whatever it takes to get on top. And, Jenny Saville, an English painter, is quite happy to work hard at one-upping even the great Lucien Freud in his comparatively tame efforts to disgust and offend. Sweet Jenny paints very large canvases of people who appear to have just been beaten savagely, bloodied and stunned. Apparently, some of her subjects are close-up views of people who have just come out of plastic surgery. How clever of her.

She paints in a way that is coldly calculated to assault the viewer’s sensibilities on multiple levels. Some of her subjects appear to be corpses, others are wickedly dehumanized by having ‘target lines’ inscribed on their morbidly obese bodies, rendered as if they are billowing and bruised containers of lard. Some of her pieces are self-portraits, also presented in a calculated manner, intended to hammer the viewer. I come away with the distinct feeling that her 'pain' is not even genuine, but merely a contrivance to gain notoriety. It has become her trademark 'theme', and it is certainly her message, but it isn't either as deep or dramatic as her gruesome canvases would have us believe. We are not being asked to witness something authentic, but, like a Hollywood horror movie, to take a bath in the gory reds and morbid violets of her two-dimensional screams. She is flogging us, and demanding to be paid lavishly for doing so. She's far more successful as a sadist than as an artist.

Of course one can argue that she is giving us a front-row seat into the perverse regions of her psyche, a genuine insight into her personal weltanschauung, her very own little shop of horrors, and that this somehow broadens our understanding of the human experience. No sale. She just wants to win the game of who can shock an audience that is becoming increasingly jaded by continuous exposure to pathos in the news, and in the movies, video games and even in our own lives. Who can smash through our numbed out complacency? Succeeding in doing so is intensely rewarding, as mentioned above.

This also points to a pivotal fact in the underlying philosophy of today’s art: it has moved from being about life, nature, the human experience and a desire to deepen and enrich…to being all about the artist, and whatever pathos they can dream up to dump at our feet that will defy comprehension. “There, take that you idiots.” The only connection with an audience is either with other people who see life primarily in terms of their own damage, and with people who want to be seen as insiders because they can embrace and understand what the rest of us find repugnant. In some perverse way—in their minds anyway—that makes them members of an exclusive circle of insiders. The fact that they have sold this outlook to an audience who will pay millions for the perverse, is, to them, proof that they are right and the rest of us are simply ‘left out’, i.e. outsiders who will just never ‘get it’.

Know what? In the words of Mary Chapin Carpenter: "You can have it. I don't want it. When you've got it, I'll be gone." If the day comes that I can look at the vile art of somebody like Jenny Saville and pretend that it is somehow a useful contribution to the history of art…I will suddenly realize that the king had a new suit of magic clothes all along, and I was just too ignorant to see them.

In the meantime….uh, er, that his willie I see? Gawd, it’s so....tiny.


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