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  • Writer's pictureSusan Fellows

When Art Stinks

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

For every artist who has ever felt belittled or ignored by art snobs, a movie came out in 2019 called “Velvet Buzzsaw”. A satire-horror hybrid, I found it appealed to my sometimes dark sense of humor in the way that it skewered the very pretentious world of high-priced art. It's a world that is easy to make fun of, dedicated as it is to promoting (and profiting from) the new, the different, and the ugly. But how did it get this way? You'd think it would be the very opposite.

For 2,000 years, artists in western society labored to produce work to inspire, deepen, and uplift the viewer, but then something happened. It began with changes in society in the mid 1800's. The growth of a middle class, along with advancements in technology, including the invention of photography in the 1860's, helped give rise to a new style of painting called Impressionism. Though a bit shocking at first to their viewers, these were still works of genuine merit. Then came the 20th Century, bringing an avalanche of change and upheaval to nearly every facet of life. In this environment, the past seemed stodgy and old-fashioned. It was time to throw out the old, and embrace the new and Avant Garde. Unfortunately, for the art world, this pursuit of the new often meant throwing out the accumulated artistic wisdom of millennia, and as a result, standards steadily declined until eventually, there were no standards. By the mid century, artistic expression had pretty much been reduced to nothing but personal expression, a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” mentality. For many artists, seeking an education in art became as much about philosophy as technique, and those wanting to develop their skills were often forced to forage elsewhere.

The idea that there could be a universal standard of quality in art was now widely mocked and ridiculed by many in the art community. However, the assertion that something is “art”, simply because someone says it is does not sit well with many artists. Add to that the injustice of bad art selling for huge prices, while so much good art goes begging. It's good that artists tend to be an independent lot. As the art world in general embraced the silly, the pointless, and the offensive, many artists simply shrugged this off, and continued making art in whatever way seemed best to them.

Without aesthetic standards, we have no way to determine quality or inferiority. If technical merit, the how it was done, is no longer considered relevant to making art, then what is left? Content, or what a work of art is about. Let's consider what the pinnacle of the Art World holds up as the best of the best. That's what it should all be about, isn't it?

Most people use the terms “Modern Art” and “Contemporary Art” interchangeably, and they do overlap, but Modern Art is generally considered to cover art made from the late 1800's through the 1960's, while Contemporary Art means art made from the 1970's to the present day. In much art made today, the medium used is no longer relevant. Anything from the digital to the scatological can qualify. The overriding principle for the most expensive (and I mean millions!) sought-after works being produced today is “concept” and “process”, and being “art of the moment”, whatever that means. Apart from pure abstraction, social issues, shock value, politics, and critiques of all kinds make up much of the subject matter.

When looking a little deeper into this rarefied world, it becomes clear that this kind of art is all about money, BIG money, and this global audience has no boundaries. It's a commodity-driven environment, populated by trophy hunters with millions to spend, who often depend on others to tell them what is good. Art consultants actually train their buyers as to what they should like! In this place, artists are celebrities, whose star power or “brand” gets carefully managed by art dealers always looking to “up their value”. I heard of one art dealer who averages a million a day in sales!

So what is this kind of art like? Well, the Guggenheim Museum featured “America”, a fully functioning toilet made of 18-karat solid gold. Visitors were welcome to “interact” with the piece. “Mother and Child Divided” consisted of a cow and unborn calf bisected lengthwise and preserved in formaldehyde. One art show showcased a collection of electric chairs, each selling for millions. “Petra” was a lifelike policewoman in riot gear, squatting to urinate. “Dirty Corner” was a large cone-shaped structure, surrounded by rubble, which was installed in the immaculate gardens of Versailles. It became a huge target for graffiti that took a court order to remove. An Italian artist installed a gigantic hand directly in front of the Italian Stock Exchange. It was notable in that only the middle finger had not been chopped off. “Piss Christ” depicted a crucifix completely immersed in a glass of the artist's urine. It's easy to detect a trend among these stand-outs. It's a whole new genre of art, complete with a 2016 manifesto, “A Brief History of Poop-Related Art”.

The trouble with things like shock value, however, is that soon they no longer shock. At some point, the difficult questions will arise, and as in the classic tale, the emperor is likely to be found with no clothes. “How can something with no intrinsic value go for millions?” “Why does anyone put up with being the victim of such bad taste?” This question overlies a deeper and more disturbing one, “What does this decline say about us and our culture?” Probably a lot.

Some are counting on the effects of time to winnow out the good, and let the bad sink into artistic oblivion. It is also true that the lack of attention to permanence and durability that often accompanies Contemporary Art will have it's effect. It's more important for artists and art appreciators to not be afraid to make their opinions known. The tragic legacy of a lack of art education and exposure to the Arts, are people who fear expressing their views about what is good or not. How sad it is, that the Arts seem to always be the first to feel the budget axe! In spite of this, a great many artists do strive for the eternal values of beauty and excellence in their work, because these are things that feed the soul, and no matter what happens within our culture, these are things that will always be in demand.

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