Directions in the Visual Arts: Thoughts at the End of the Season

June 25th, 2014  |  Published in *, Features, June 2014  |  1 Comment

by Daniel Brown

As we near the end of another art season, which is generally thought to run from September through June, much like the academic year, some patterns have emerged which we should note.  The predominant movement seems to be towards a near complete domination of the visual arts by non-profits, and the very shaky existence of commercial galleries: at the heart of this matter may be art collecting itself.

Since contemporary art continues to move away from being “product” based (a product would include paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, anything known as “traditional media”) in favor of video, installation, performance and street art, what might have been a holistic visual arts scene is dividing into two parts.  A concurrent movement seems to include the exhibiting of the same artists in the course of a year showing their work at various arts venues.  I am in no way suggesting that the approximately 15 artists in question are not talented and gifted, but I am suggesting that it seems as if the Non-Profit Establishment has determined which artists matter by the time they are in their early to mid-thirties.  Commercial dealers are supposed to work with groups of artists whom they represent, and exhibit their work at differing points in their evolution, but I am not aware that curators of non-profit institutions are supposed to work that way as well.  What appears to happen, thus, is that certain artists become what I call “The Favored”, and we are seeing more of their output than their creativity can sustain.  It appears as if the curators aren’t looking very hard for alternatives, and that entire genres of art—still life; landscape; figure are considered passé and moribund.  Instead of including a figure or a face, we likely to see an appropriation from a film still, which may be trendy, but, to me, manifests a kind of cheap way out of making one’s own.

Since Jasper Johns and Robert Raushenberg came on the scene in the 60’s, creating art about popular culture, or using popular icons in their work, but still using the painterly styles of abstract expressionism, a new dialectic between fine art and popular culture began to emerge: I am still no certain that it has been done more interestingly to this day than Johns and Raushenberg did in their early work.  The apex of the inclusion of popular culture into fine art comes with the genius of Andy Warhol, but I am not certain there has been a truly original American artist working with popular culture since then.  When artists pretend to be critiquing a materialist culture (Capitalism), by using objects from the very culture they are critiquing, as in the work of Jeff Koons and Damien Hurst, the art world is encouraging a kind of feedback loop within its ranks, or a kind of a tautology which finds its best friend in the extravagant pricing of contemporary art, at art fairs and at auctions.  We are likelier to hear about the price paid by such work than we are to find any critical analysis of it (what we find instead is a mountain of theory that simply justifies what is being made in Post-Modern Academese).  Thus, the “in crowd” contemporary art world is seen at key art fairs, particularly in Europe and in Miami Basel, where the social events surrounding these exhibitions now predominate over the art, which is more or less the same at every one of them.  One notes that those who cover art fairs are as likely to be social writers as art critics, and moneyed buyer are followed slavishly by the art press.  In real estate, we see the same phenomenon: for example rich Londoners down on their heels sold their country houses to Arabs in the 80’s and 90’s; the same properties are now owned by Russian billionaires, and we are made very aware of their art purchases for these estates, and the art press is very likely to show advertisements for such lifestyle phenomena as limited edition watches (sorry, “timepieces”), automobiles and other consumerist products.  It’s not just that art as investment now dominates the field, but that art which pretends to critique consumerism also dominates the field: this paradox is at the heart of contemporary art right now.  Whether you take the art out of the museum or not, the same dynamics are at play, although you can count on a mountain of theory to justify the aesthetic choices (or lack thereof) being hawked at us.  Fresh and motivated art will always be found, but I fear that the non-profits now feel a need to find the next trendy artist, rather than the next good one.  I also note with real dismay a tendency for curators, or guest curators, to include their own work in their shows: this tendency should be avoided at all costs, as it simply appears to be a conflict of interest, and/or a promotion of oneself and one’s friends (again, work by “The Favored”) will appear with shocking regularity in such shows in any city (I am simply extrapolating from the local to the national or international).

People rarely collect the kinds of art under discussion, other than the Koons’ object, or its simulacrum of the moment, and we now have photography poised to take off in either direction: photography should be the most easily collectable of art forms, as there is so much of it, and generally it isn’t expensive.  But if it heads into a kind of collusion with the installation/video approach, it can’t and won’t be.  Most museums consist of art that someone has collected, rather than art that has appeared in an installation.  As the latter began to dominate, what may be collected will come from a narrower and narrower field, and all aspects of the competitive private sector economy will have been tossed out in favor of some new intellectual trope.  When the dominant institutions in a city do not set some sort of tone for art collecting, even if indirect, then that I believe that collecting is in serious trouble and that the private art gallery is teetering on failure (and I do not believe that the computer has anything to do with that).

We have a good number of new curators here, and they have an opportunity to choose which paths these institutions will follow in what they exhibit, and what the museum purchases.  We hope that these curators are open to multiple points of view, and will show as much interest in, say, the enormous resurgence of realism in contemporary art, as has been shown to “new media” in general.  There is more than enough room for varied points of view in contemporary art.


  1. Constance McClure says:

    July 10th, 2014at 7:08 pm(#)

    Thank you Daniel Brown. Your work is always beautifully written. And a big thanks for covering the many aspects of the art world locally and “internationally”, which today, thanks to the internet, we can follow as well.

    I hope you write something soon regarding the “entertainment” aspect of Museums, in particular our own Cincinnati Art Museum. Some of us enjoy the quiet of the place to look at new work as well as earlier acquisitions which are like old friends.