Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

Forget “isms” - except eclecticism

Forget “isms” - except eclecticism, was an October 1st, 2006, essay written for the Los Angeles Times by art critic Christopher Knight. He opened his article with the following statement: “Those discrete movements you studied in art history? They’re long gone. Today, it’s all about diversity - and quality, of course.” Knight moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight with his unmistakably postmodernist declaration. Avowing there are no more movements in art and all genres of art are now equal, Knight declared:

“Twentieth century art was long charted as an almost linear succession of “isms” - from Fauvism in 1905 to Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s - discrete movements that each expressed its own unitary view of things. The monolithic view that had congealed by the 1960s was a belief that the eye held dominion over art. That limited judgment was toppled by Conceptualism, which devalued everything visual in art and instead polished up the stature of ideas.”

Knight’s wholly ahistorical argument describes a world where history and art did not unfold linearly in reaction to historical circumstances. He blithely infers that 20th century western art movements were simply conjured up as matters of convenience, rather than being responses to societal, cultural and economic factors. He apparently wants us to believe that today’s art is somehow free from precisely these same overbearing pressures, and that it possesses no overarching politics. Knight insists that we are living in a period when “isms” have become a thing of the past, but he brazenly ignores the three biggest “isms” of our time, capitalism, globalism, and fundamentalism - all of which are exerting extraordinary power in shaping the direction of contemporary art.

Knight practically gloats over Conceptualism as a cleansing agent - a purer art based on theory and detached intellectualism. His cooing echoes the noises made by those art elites mocked in Thomas Wolfe’s 1975 sardonic screed against modern art, The Painted Word, a remarkably prescient and mordant denunciation of those who would devalue everything in visual art for the sake of theoretical gobbledygook. In his article, Knight advances the notion of the contemporary art world thriving in “robust artistic bounty,” due to what he calls the state of “pluralism” we allegedly find ourselves in, though he prefers to call this condition “eclecticism.”

According to Knight, eclecticism allows for the embracing of diversity “while also demanding quality.” But the postmodernist insistence on smashing and overturning aesthetic schools, styles and structures has delivered only a false model of diversity - that which is found in the fragments of an exploded monolith. As for the question of quality, that too will be left to the levelers, given that we are told one person’s subjective opinions and concepts regarding truth and beauty are as good as the next.

Driving home his point about the multiplicity found in today’s art scene, Knight wrote, “The extreme breadth of artistic diversity is so familiar and so routine as to border on invisibility.” His mentioning invisibility certainly applies to a great many artists, but not in the way he meant. A quick survey of the museum and gallery system in the United States reveals a stunning absence of works created by racial minorities, not to mention the abysmally low numbers of women found in the art world. Art critic Jerry Saltz, writing for the Village Voice, referred to the exclusion of women as “a failure of the imagination that amounts to apartheid.” So much for Knight’s vaunted “diversity.” Obviously Knight was pointing at the numerous range of styles and artistic disciplines competing for attention, but a single worldview can be presented in profuse ways. If we examine contemporary art for content we’ll find not diversity but a stunning conformity.

The missing piece in Knight’s diversity puzzle is an art that is both passionate about humanity and expressive of concerns for social justice. While such schools of art existed previously in the examples set by the Mexican Muralists, German Expressionists, and the Social Realists of 1930’s America, today there is little evidence of such art being included in Knight’s “pluralistic” art world. That’s not to say such artworks are not currently being created, just that they are effectively marginalized by the present-day gatekeepers who shape and manufacture public taste and opinion. There are some ideas in art so diametrically opposed that the discord between them will never cease, and as in every battle, there will be winners and losers. I speak here of the age old quarrel between advocates of art for art’s sake, and those, like myself - who insist art cannot be detached from social reality.

Knight comes close to a revelatory thought when he writes; “The idea that two or more kinds of ultimate artistic reality could comfortably coexist hasn’t always been in vogue.” Indeed, in some quarters the craze of facile aesthetic coexistence is fashionable, but fashion does not make for a set of indisputable facts. Thankfully, we can all take comfort in knowing that fashions melt away and are soon forgotten, so that what is now in vogue will soon be nothing more than tomorrow’s memories. At any rate, we should be exploring and expanding upon what is perennial in art, rather than chasing after the latest fads of the day.

Those long gone discrete art movements condescendingly dismissed by Knight, did not simply appear from the ether, they were logical and necessary developments that ruptured staid and conservative forces, advancing the history of art in the tumultuous process - we are sorely in need of such a movement today. Knight’s attempt to convince readers that the historic “linear succession of ‘isms’” has finally played itself out, and that the art world has forever been liberated by the forces of Pop and Conceptualism - bringing us to the current state of “pluralism” where anything goes and all things are equal - sounds remarkably like the now thoroughly discredited neo-conservative concept of “The End of History.”

American philosopher and leading neoconservative, Francis Fukuyama, wrote the 1989 essay The End of History, in which he stated; “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Fukuyama interpreted the collapse of the Soviet Union as a total victory for liberal democracy, whereupon the human race would step up to the next epoch free of ideology, class conflict, and the linear march of history. There would be no more “isms.” Fukuyama’s hypothesis resonated in the postmodernist echo chamber where it completely dovetailed with the view of a globalized and pluralistic world community without a dominant center of power.

But the neocon bubble burst in February of 2006, when Fukuyama published another controversial essay titled, After Neoconservatism, as the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq approached. The right-wing philosopher could no longer countenance the misdeeds perpetrated by the neocons in the White House, especially when it came to the debacle in Iraq. Fukuyama bluntly stated: “Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.” Suddenly history was once again on the march; if only we had such defectors from the postmodernist camp in the art world.

Knight’s unconvincing depiction of “eclecticism” carries as much weight as the tortuous and threadbare cock-and-bull stories told by Charles Jencks in his 1996 book, What is Post-Modernism? Jencks, a respected American architect, exponent of “radical eclecticism,” and leading advocate of postmodern plurality, asserted in his book that power has today become decentralized and non-hierarchical. I don’t know what world he’s describing, but it certainly isn’t the one I live in. Jencks writes of a modern epoch where “the information explosion, the advent of organized knowledge, world communication and cybernetics,” has done away with all class antagonisms, forever changing the workplace and replacing the proletariat with the “cognitariat” - or those whose job it is to manage information. Jencks wrote the following in his book:

“In the postmodern world, 1960 onwards, most of the previous relations of production have altered and the whole value system has been distorted. (….) Unlike the previous systems of production, where an aristocracy and bourgeoisie asserted power over a limited resource in order to exploit it effectively, the postmodern world is not owned, or run, or led, by any class or group, unless it is the cognitariat.”

Jencks’ claim that in our world, no class owns a limited resource or exploits that ownership to its advantage - is patently and demonstrably ridiculous. Forbes magazine assembled a directory in March, 2006, that listed some 800 world billionaires. Jencks would have us believe that these international captains of industry exercise no effective control over the world economy, and that their power has instead been superseded by a vague and ill-defined group he calls the “cognitariat.” As with the luster of Christopher Knight’s fairytale “eclecticism,” the veneer of Jencks’ idealized postmodern globalized world fades away to reveal the same old hierarchical class relations.

When Art Becomes Inhuman

The article When Art Becomes Inhuman was written by neo-conservative Karl Zinsmeister for a 2002 edition of The American Enterprise magazine. Zinsmeister’s commentary was a general condemnation of modern art, with a sharp focus upon the extremes of postmodernism - which he described as a “left-wing cause.” Zinsmeister sarcastically declared, “Surely you’ve noticed that the art smarties never lay out Cuban flags for gallery visitors to trample on, or decorate Martin Luther King’s picture with elephant dung.” He mocked the mental state of abstract artists by saying, “mightn’t it tell us something that Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionist compositions didn’t change in quality after he lost his mind to Alzheimer’s disease?” Zinsmeister even compared Gays to child molesters when he wrote that works singing the praises of “voyeurism, drugs, homosexuality, and pedophilia” filled the nation’s trendy art galleries.

You might think Karl Zinsmeister to be just another intransigent stick-in-the-mud who takes the furthermost right-wing position on every social issue, a narrow-minded individual to be dismissed and forgotten - and you might be right - save for the fact that he’s a newly appointed member of the Bush administration.

In May of 2006, President Bush picked the 47 year old Karl Zinsmeister as his principal domestic policy adviser. Over the years Zinsmeister has played a leading role in America’s “culture wars,” working for the past 12 years as editor in chief for The American Enterprise magazine. That glossy periodical is associated with the American Enterprise Institute - a think tank for neoconservatives that has done much to shape the policies of the Bush White House. Perhaps President Malaprop first noticed Zinsmeister by way of a comic book published by Marvel Comics in 2005. Combat Zone: True Tales of GI’s in Iraq, was written by none other than Karl Zinsmeister, and supposedly based on his experiences as an “embedded” journalist with the American 82nd Airborne in Iraq.

I mention Zinsmeister’s political views because they have a direct correlation to his likes and dislikes concerning art, and a man in such an influential position should be carefully listened to. It comes as no surprise that conservatives and traditionalists have applauded Zinsmeister’s cutting remarks against modern art - he has a powerful mass base that represents a populist backlash against contemporary art. The Art Renewal Center (ARC), those champions of all things conservative in art, reprinted Zinsmeister’s article in its entirety - though they neglected to inform their readership of the author’s neo-conservative political orientation or the fact that he works for the Bush administration (the ARC has since removed Zinsmeister’s article from its archives, but the piece was reprinted on the right-wing Free Republic website in 2003).

I’m not a supporter of the postmodernist super-stars of the art world Zinsmeister attacks in his article, and any regular reader of this web log knows I’m one of their staunchest critics. But where the right sees politically correct left wingers bent on destroying western heritage, I see apathetic apolitical intellectuals who are socially disengaged. There are few sectors of society less interested in political theory and activism than the contemporary art world, as a cursory view of international art web sites and web logs makes perfectly clear.

It is natural for art to overthrow the established order, and the name for such upheaval is progress. Historically artists have always been visionaries ahead of their times and at odds with the status quo. The Dadaists, Cubists, Surrealists, Expressionists, Constructivists and Abstract artists all hurled their contempt at comfortable society and we’re better off for it. But these eruptions didn’t take place simply because a small group of artists fancied a new style - the ruptures were necessary because established orders became ossified and essentially had nothing left to offer. We have reached another such point in time. While the spirit and motivation of the aforementioned groups was revolutionary in intent, and a similar stance may have once moved today’s early postmodernists - no such spirit stirs in them presently. They merely clamor for wealth, press, accolades, and awards from the established circles of power - of which they are a part. Postmodernism is certainly due for an unseating, but Zinsmeister and crowd are not the ones to oust it.

Zinsmeister and his followers decry avant-garde art as the workings of an ultra-liberal and politically correct art establishment that does its best to “shock, flout, insult, and otherwise chuck rocks at polite society.” But it is hypocritical and duplicitous for Zinsmeister to condemn modern art for its supposed inhumanity, while at the same time supporting a presidency that has sanctioned torture, preemptive war and the abrogation of the constitutional rights of American citizens. In barbarous times there can be no polite society, and Zinsmeister evidently cannot understand, or refuses to admit, that “art becomes inhuman” only when society itself has become a horrid charnel house.

3 Years in Jail for making a Collage?

UK artist Michael Dickinson faces a three year prison sentence in Turkey for creating and displaying a collage that portrays that country’s Prime Minister as a prize winning show dog. The collage, titled Best of Show, depicts an anthropomorphosized Tayyip Erdogan receiving a red, white and blue award ribbon from U.S President George W. Bush. The graphic violates Turkey’s constitution, which criminalizes insults against Turkey’s state institutions and armed forces. Dickinson will be charged with “insulting the dignity of the Prime Minister of Turkey”, but as of yet a court appearance date has not been announced.

Michael Dickinson’s collage

[ Michael Dickinson’s collage, Best of Show, could get him 3 years in a Turkish prison. ]


A year ago Prime Minister Erdogan visited the White House, where President Bush lauded his close ally by saying, “Turkey’s democracy is an important example for the people in the broader Middle East, and I want to thank you for your leadership.” I assume that Mr. Bush’s definition of human rights and democracy does not include the imprisonment of artists for expressing themselves - but in these days of mass wire taps and government sanctioned torture I’m not so sure. It appears the exigencies of the “long war” supercede such trifling things as freedom of expression.

Dickinson, an English teacher who lives and works in Istanbul, Turkey, is also the founder of the Turkish chapter of the Stuckist International. Charles Thomson of the London Stuckists has written a letter to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, asking Mr. Blair to intervene on behalf of Dickinson; “It is intolerable that a country applying for European Union membership should censor freedom of political comment in this way. I trust you will communicate your strongest condemnation and ask for this case to be abandoned immediately. I ask for your assurance that you will oppose Turkish EU membership in the strongest terms, until Turkey adopts the attitudes of the civilized world towards human rights.”

You can read Michael Dickinson’s own words regarding the collage controversy at CounterPunch Magazine.

The Vacuum of the Tate Ivory Tower

The famous German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, once said, “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” I wonder what Brecht would say about banks having become benefactors to today’s art museums? The Tate Modern gallery in London just recently rehung its collection at a cost of £1 million, or around $1,860,000, an expenditure underwritten by UBS - a Swiss bank and one of the largest corporate sponsors of the Tate. Interestingly enough, the giant financial institution has been given access to the Tate so that the bank can now exhibit its extensive private collection of artworks. As you might expect, having the museum exhibiting UBS’s private collection will cause the value of the artworks to skyrocket, and when the bank decides to sell its collection - more than a considerable profit will be made.

Sir Nicholas Serota

[ "We will not showcase a private collection." Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Britain's Tate Modern gallery, standing in front of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych at the Tate Modern. ]


In 2000, Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director, said the ruling decree of his leadership was “simply, that we will not showcase a private collection”. If this sounds like cronyism to you, you’re not alone. Reporting on the controversy, the Telegraph quoted the co-founder of the Stuckists, Charles Thomson; “I think the Tate has tarnished its reputation so much that visitors have no idea what they are looking at any more. What is the reason for a particular work being there? Is it cronyism? Is it mercenary? Or does the work actually have any artistic value. Could I pay for a small room to house my own work? I might be able to outbid the UBS deal.”

I e-mailed Charles Thomson of the London Stuckists and asked him for more details regarding the latest controversy at the Tate, and whether or not the museum had contacted him with the going rates on renting an exhibit room. Here’s what he wrote back:

“Surprisingly the Tate has not hot-footed it in my direction with their rate card, but what is now established is that the Tate can be bought. In the current edition of Modern Painters magazine, Vincent Todoli comments that money doesn’t give power, but it does give access. Of course, access is power, so the whole thing is another Tate mincing of words, reminiscent in particular of Sir Nicholas Serota’s excuse last year for signing a false grant application for trustee Chris Ofili’s work as a ‘failing in his head’ and in general of a trip with Alice through the looking glass.

In line with this mentality Serota has downplayed the UBS presence as just three small rooms. They’re not small and they’re bang in the middle of the third floor (which is the first floor of displays at Tate Modern), i.e. a prime position. Compared to this Vuillard and Bonnard, for example, are tucked away in a much smaller side room.

What is astonishing is that it costs the Tate £1,000,000 to rehang their collection. How the hell do they manage to spend that much money? What are their numerous curators doing the rest of the time? Isn’t that their job - curating the display? Shouldn’t a rehang be absorbed into their running costs? They’ve got 21 staff earning over £50,000 - perhaps they should roll their sleeves up occasionally. Tate Modern’s 2004-2005 expenditure on staff for its ‘public programme’ was £5,775,000 but this couldn’t even accommodate trundling works in and out of storage. (Tate’s total costs for around 1,245 staff were £29,029,000.)

Tate Modern’s first hang was completely off the wall, so as to speak, and deeply unpopular. The Tate nobly advocated that they didn’t want to force the work into a curatorially-imposed straightjacket - in other words to hang it chronologically by school as museums had always done. They succeeded in imposing the straightjacket of all straightjackets by devising abstract categories according to - to what, one might ask? Words such as ‘matter’ and ‘object’ appeared in large lettering and the work was grouped idiotically according to them. If you wanted to find works by Picasso you had to search through different floors and rooms. The trouble is, you still do with the new hang, so the thing that everyone wanted still hasn’t been achieved - namely a genuinely non-curatorially imposed schema, but instead one created by the reality of history, the reality of an artist’s career and the reality of the school within which that artist worked with other artists, influencing and being influenced by them.

Serota doesn’t care much for reality. He attends to the concepts which he constructs in the vacuum of the Tate ivory tower. Just as conceptual art disenfranchises the public through its basis in inbred artworld references within references, so does this museum mentality, which one might term ‘conceptual curating’. Like conceptual art, it’s great in theory and crap in practice. So we haven’t even got our million pounds worth anyway.

Ironically the most successful parts of the new display are the most conventional, like the large room where cubist works are hung (with great daring by the £50,000 p.a. curators) with - other cubist works. Also innovative and enjoyable are some walls where works are hung in a two or three deep design, reminiscent of the old salon style and also, as more than one visitor has pointed out to me, The Stuckists Punk Victorian show at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 2004, which Serota visited and spent a long time studying. The Walker described the show as ‘a really, really popular show and very successful’. Saatchi is now an unashamed Stuckist in all but name and has embodied our ideas in stating painting is the ‘most vital’ art form, as well as creating an open access for artists to post work on his website. Saatchi is six years behind the Stuckists and Serota normally lags six years behind Saatchi, so in 2012 we might even get a hang that is really, really popular and very successful at the Tate. “

The Art of the Fart!

The Tate Modern in the UK is defending its bold resolve to play a non-stop audio tape loop of fart noises as part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. According to the British newspaper The Times, “Martin Creed’s Work No 401 is a recording of nine minutes of the artist blowing raspberries into a microphone, which is played back on a loop. It can be heard throughout the new Material Gestures wing, which contains works by Claude Monet and Mark Rothko.”

Martin Creed’s volley of whopping, supersonic, toxic streaming trouser trumpets announces the superiority of conceptual art, and the twanging air biscuits of his postmodernist fartorama will unquestionably please the most hardcore aficionados of modern art - but it will no doubt cause others to flee as one would before a tsunami of stinky cushion creepers. Let’s give no quarter to those unadventurous conservatives who shrink from works that are innovative and forward-looking. Let’s acknowledge Mr. Creed for what he is - a genius and master fartist.

No mere peep, piffle or imperceptible pip, no squeak or meek butt belch… not for Mr. Creed - come on, we’re talking about real art here. He doesn’t fool around with the minor pocket frog or poot type of flatulence, Creed is an Art Star, and he didn’t get there for lack of technical virtuosity in the fart department - no, he’s well versed in the history of blowing one’s horn, and the elite art critics will never condemn him for laying an egg.

Don’t anyone accuse Creed of not being on the cutting edge, you can’t accuse him of selling out by offering the public scant air tulips - he doesn’t deal in feather farts, toots, guffs, or carpet slippers. Creed belongs to the let her rip, peel the paint off the wall, knicker ripper, open yer lunchbox, let Polly out of jail, rapid succession of particularly pungent ballistic match lighters, school of farting. His conceptual pyroclastic flow is the remote controlled fart machine to blow away those who think art is something old-fashioned like drawing and painting with skill and vision. Fartaholic Creed gives the big raspberry to such antiquated thinking - a Scud Missile, air blast assassination, barn burning, cheek flapping, big rip snorting rhino stopper salute to the death of art.

And then there’s the good staff at the Tate. The Director of the Tate Modern, Vicente Todoli, made a window rattling defense of Creed’s gusty Work No 401 by saying “This kind of acoustic - you hear it every day of your life.” Well indeed, we do hear great big flowery woof woof’s on a daily basis, and the fact that the average human releases anywhere from 1 to 3 pints of flatus each day, well - let’s just say that gives artists a lot of material to work with. But why stop there, we have all manner of bodily secretions to inspire the creation of great artworks. Artists could explore the possibilities of working with vomit, mucus, gastric juice and smegma - and it’s wonderful to know that an institution like the Tate would be willing to support the exhibition of such masterworks.

The permanent collections curator at the Tate Modern, Frances Morris, compared Creed’s wet willy tape to works by past masters, saying “Many of these great works of art were originally deliberately provocative and were met with utter derision.” How true, and being able to compare works created by rebellious Impressionists, Modernists or even wild-eyed Minimalists, to a tape loop of recorded gale force Cockney cheers, is apparently all you need these days to land a job at a prestigious museum. But then, what do I know… I’m just a realist painter passing gas. However, Morris does have a point about the likes of Claude Monet having to suffer the abuse heaped upon him for being a rebellious painter. If only he had known - he would have tossed away his canvases and brushes and instead struggled to become a famous balloon fart arse cruncher.

Warhol’s $11.7 Million Dollar Soup Can

The May 9th feeding frenzy at Christie’s auction house in New York signifies a new level of absurdity for the art world. The New York Times dubbed it the evening when “Minimalism went mainstream.” Walter Robinson, writing for artnet.com, politely referred to it as “irrational market exuberance,” and noted the otherworldly nature of it all, “A galvanized metal box, roughly two feet square and six inches deep, covered with a blue plastic lid — an untitled Donald Judd sculpture from 1985 — the work carried a presale estimate of $300,000-$400,000, and followed the sale of two dozen similar boxes for similarly high prices. $300,000 for a shallow metal box?” Judd’s box eventually sold for $450,000. That evening’s auction brought in $143 million dollars in sales, establishing record prices for several artists living and deceased.

Warhol, a steal at $30 in 1962

Small Torn Campbell’s Soup Can” - Andy Warhol 1971. A steal at $30 in 1962. Sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $11.7 million.

Andy Warhol’s 1962 Small Torn Campbell’s Soup Can was purchased for $11.7 million by billionaire Eli Broad, the same financial magnate behind the gentrification of downtown Los Angeles. After the acquisition, Broad commented, “I collect Warhols, it’s a great work.” Indeed, it’s a celebrated image, and many have referred to Warhol’s soup cans as “the most recognizable images of the 20th Century” - but does recognizability transfer into greatness? And should the mere condition of being recognizable to large numbers of people transform an object into a commodity worth millions? Obviously we are no longer talking about art or its function, unless you accept the notion of art being nothing more than another sphere of commerce, an idea best summed up by Warhol when he said, “good business is the best art.”

Small Torn Campbell’s Soup Can was a painting created by Warhol in 1962, part of a series of 32 paintings of soup cans. Los Angeles dealer, Irving Blum, mounted Warhol’s first solo exhibit in 62 - and ended up purchasing all 32 paintings from the artist for $1,000. In time Blum let his collection of Warhol paintings go, and they eventually made their way to Christie’s auction block - but by then they were no longer worth around $30 each. Three other major sales of Warhol’s were made at Christie’s to unidentified telephone bidders. S&H Green Stamps, also painted in 1962, sold for $5.1 million.

A 1974 silkscreen print by Warhol of actress Brigitte Bardot went for $3 million, while his suite of sixteen silkscreens titled Flowers sold for $3.9 million. The Guardian’s business section reports that the buyers are “believed to be Russian billionaires on an oil and commodity-fuelled spending spree” - which puts an interesting spin on things. The Russian oligarchs with their “shock therapy privatization” schemes made untold billions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving a trail of corruption, criminality and suffering in their wake. While the Robber Barons have enlarged their collection of art, the Russian people will no doubt be happy to know it was done at their expense.

Back in October of 2005, I wrote about Warhol in a post titled, Andy Warhol Still Dead! In my article I reexamined the critique of Warhol’s career made by Robert Hughes, who compared the artist to Ronald Reagan, when writing “the shallow painter who understood more about the mechanisms of celebrity than any of his colleagues, whose entire sense of reality was shaped, like Reagan’s sense of power, by the television tube. Each, in his way, coming on like Huck Finn; both obsessed with serving the interests of privilege. Together, they signify a new moment: the age of supply-side aesthetics.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like Warhol well enough, I have a mechanically reproduced poster of his Dollar Sign silkscreen print hanging in my studio. I’d even be being willing to purchase his original works - provided they carried the $30 price tag of 1962. You may think that a rude remark, but it begs the question, just who is art for anyway? Not so long ago someone actually purchased a Warhol painting for $30, now the same work goes for $11.7 million. Warhol turned to silkscreen printing because it enabled the mass production of image making - a work methodology that you’d think would lead to greater, not less, accessibility to the artist’s artworks.

Ever feel like you've been cheated?

Untitled” - Donald Judd. Stainless steel box. 1971. Mind you, this is not the same masterwork that sold at Christie’s for $450,000 - but when you’ve seen one shallow metal box you’ve seen them all. ]

For some unknown reason collectors continue to amass works by the odious Damien Hirst. His ridiculous 1995 Away from the Flock, Divided, a lamb cut in half length-wise and suspended in two vats of blue formaldehyde, sold for a whopping $3,376,000, marking a record sale for the king of postmodernist taxidermy. Also on the auction block was a scuba diver’s Aqualung cast in bronze by pathetic goon Jeff Koons (Christie’s sold the bronze for $4,608,000) In the best tradition of pseudo-intellectual artspeak, Koons refers to his bronze as a “tool of equilibrium.” The object’s purpose has been nullified. The contraption’s function of supporting life has been reversed into its opposite, it’s become something that would sink and drown a person. This more fully describes the art world than it does the bronze by Koons, and the damned thing selling for over $4 million dollars only proves my point.

Of course there were others sharing the limelight with Judd, Warhol, Hirst, and Koons, but I think by now you are tired of reading about such foolishness - and besides, I must get back to painting at my easel.

Venice Really Is Sinking, Isn’t It?

Francois Pinault is the billionaire who owns the Gucci fashion group, Yves St Laurent, the Chateau Latour vineyard and the auction house, Christie’s. He is the 74th richest man in the world, and it’s only fitting that a business oligarch be allowed to help shape the face of contemporary art, after all - culture is just another commodity in today’s monopolized/globalized market, no? Pinault is one of the elite art world’s gatekeepers, shaping and molding contemporary art through acquisition; he bestows fame and legitimacy to contemporary artists by adding their works to his enormous collection of postmodern art, and his new museum in Venice, Italy just opened to the public on April 30th, 2006.

The Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, an 18th Century palace the magnate purchased from the city of Venice, will now house some of Pinault’s never before seen collection of 2,500 artworks. The billionaire transformed the building into a citadel for the conceptual - and indeed the palace has literally taken on those trappings. Its beautiful neo-classical waterfront façade has been wrapped in a skin of entwined luminous turquoise cords from the roof of the edifice to the waterline below. Created by Olafur Eliasson, the covering is meant to evoke “the motifs of the oriental carpets that once hung from the balconies of the noble palazzi lining Venice’s watery main thoroughfare.”

The Grassi’s first exhibit, Where are we going?, would appear to have taken its name from the famous painting by Paul Gauguin (D’ou venons nous? Que sommes nous? D’ou allons nous? - Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, painted in 1897-98.) But think again, the exhibition almost exclusively focuses on everything but painting. It was named after a work on display by postmodernist art huckster extraordinaire, Damian Hirst, Where Are We Going? Where Do We Come From? Is There a Reason? Hirst’s installation displays the collected skeletons of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, a few impossible hybrids, a human skull and a tiny fetus in a jar. Lucky art lovers will also be able to view two of Hirst’s sliced cows preserved in formaldehyde - now I ask you, why on earth would you want to travel to Venice to see Titians and Tintorettos when you could see a sliced and pickled cow at the Grassi?

Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones reports that Hirst is now worth £100m (that’s around $180,288,800 Yankee dollars.) Jones poses the question, Do rich artists make bad art?, and he answers with the sad lament - “What would Van Gogh have done if you offered him Hirst’s money as he stood there in the cornfield, pistol cocked? I think he would have pulled the trigger that bit more firmly.”

But the Grassi circus doesn’t end with Damien Hirst, you can also see disquieting photos of mannequin genitalia taken by Cindy Sherman, an entire room of minimalist scrawls by Raymond Pettibone, and Balloon Dog Magenta by Jeff Koons - a sculpture that would look more at home in a flower shop. Then of course there’s Carl Andre’s 37th Piece of Work, which is nothing more than a courtyard covered with 1,296 differently colored metal plates (let’s hope there’s not a 38th piece of work.) But the piece de resistance would have to be Maurizio Cattelan’s schoolboy-sized statue of Adolf Hitler, a quite realistic sculpture made of resin, wax, and human hair titled, Him.

Yes, Venice really is sinking isn’t it?

Since Mr. Pinault fancies himself a contemporary Maecenas or Medici, it was only proper for him to be surrounded by fellow barons during the gala celebration that marked the opening of the Grassi. Members of the billionaire class in attendance that evening included Benetton fashion empire board member Alessandro Benetton, heir of the FIAT empire John Philip Elkann, and Ferrari president Luca di Montezamolo, amongst others. Aside from screaming, I wouldn’t know how to behave in such a social situation, and I’d more than likely be seized by an urge to break things - which could be perilous in a room filled with dead bovines suspended in large vats of formaldehyde.

Having traveled the canals and narrow streets of Venice and poured over the city’s priceless art treasures encountered in its many glorious museums, I’m more than a little familiar with the well deserved reputation the place has as a center of the Renaissance arts. Call me a philistine, but I’m not ready to forsake the art of the Renaissance in favor of the money-spinning trend mongers and their stables of fashionable postmodern artists. I’d rather gaze upon a single painting by Andrea Mantegna then view the Grassi’s entire collection of minimalist chicken scratchings.

Like seeing the oil slicks deposited on the Grand Canal by the city’s heavily motorized boat traffic, I can’t help but feel Venice has been contaminated by the presence of Pinault’s collection. There are reports many Venetians have been baffled by what they’ve seen at the Grassi, but their consternation is dismissed by a chorus of media determined to sing the praises of the benevolent billionaire and art king maker, Francois Pinault.

I am here, merely to say - the Emperor has no clothes.

David Byrne & the Filipino Dictators

[ Back in October of 2005, I composed an essay about Here Lies Love, a musical produced by postmodernist artist and ex-member of the Talking Heads, David Byrne. I originally intended to publish my article next March when the musical premieres at the 2006 Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia, however recent events have caused me to immediately publish the expose.

On February 24, 2006, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency in her nation - the very day the Filipino people were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the democratic People Power movement that non-violently toppled the fascist regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Arroyo now rules by decree, and she has revoked all permits for demonstrations, banned rallies and allowed arrests without warrants. She has also given herself the power to seize media outlets and to direct the army to crush political opponents. In defiance, former President and leader of the People Power movement, Corazon Aquino, led a march of thousands to a shrine commemorating the People Power protests - and they were met with riot police who brutally attacked them with clubs and water cannons. As Arroyo drags the Philippines back into the dark days of martial law, it’s time to examine the rewriting of history being offered by David Byrne’s, Here Lies Love. My original article, written in October of 2005, now follows:]

I groaned when I first read that rocker turned postmodernist artist, David Byrne, has written a musical about Imelda Marcos. Does the world really need another de-politicized musical ala Evita? Byrne collaborated with British DJ Fatboy Slim to produce, Here Lies Love, which will premiere next March at the 2006 Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia. A spokesperson for the festival says the musical depicts “a non-stop party, featuring politicians, arms dealers, financiers, artists, musicians and the international jetset. Here Lies Love recreates and musically updates that buoyant mood in a music and theatrical event that hits the highs, the lows, the triumphs, the tears and the eventual fall of this truly astounding political figure.” It’s not often that a fascist tyrant is described as a “truly astounding political figure.”

Byrne’s official website states the artist’s works are “often described as elevating the mundane or the banal to the level of art, creating icons out of everyday materials to find the sacred in the profane.” There was nothing mundane about life under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos - except perhaps the monotonous regularity of political repression, and there certainly wasn’t anything sacred about Imelda - a woman who traveled around the world to shop at the ritziest boutiques while thousands of political prisoners rotted in her husband’s dungeons. The two ran the Philippines like potentates, creating a government of cronies that was nothing more than a cleptocracy. The people suffered massive human rights abuses under the rule of Ferdinand and Imelda, while the two plundered an estimated $20 billion of the nation’s wealth for personal gain. Tens of thousands of Filipinos were jailed, forced into exile, or simply murdered. All of that misery eventually caused the people to rise in revolution.

The final straw came when the dictatorship assassinated Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, a prominent opposition politician. On August 21st, 1983, Ninoy returned home from exile, but as soon as he disembarked from his plane at Manila International Airport he was shot and killed - with his murder broadcast on Philippine television. His killing unleashed the forces that would topple the Marcos regime. In 1986, the non-violent People Power Revolution would sweep the dictatorship away as millions of Filipinos took to the streets - driving Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos into exile. As the people took over Malacañang palace where Marcos had ruled, they were shocked at the ostentatious display of wealth. There were warehouses full of jewels, artworks, gifts, and tribute. Ornate rooms existed for nightly banquets, along with an entire ballroom where Imelda could twitter away the night singing karaoke with her rich guests. And of course there was Imelda’s personal collection of expensive shoes. 3,000 pairs of her shoes were housed in a special five room area of the presidential palace - all at a time when the majority of Filipino children went barefoot and hungry.

According to the organizers of the Adelaide Arts Festival, Here Lies Love focuses on Imelda’s obsessive love of discos, a viewpoint that will no doubt humanize the face of one of history’s worst despots. In all fairness, Adelaide organizers say the musical is a “timeless story with more contemporary resonances than are comfortable.” But that single sentence plucked from the musical’s official press release is the only shred of evidence Here Lies Love may be more than a glitzy production with smoke and strobe light effects. That the musical is supported by the US State Department should tell you everything you need to know. During the cold war the US backed the fanatically anti-communist Marcos, even as he extinguished the last vestiges of democratic rule. Washington’s cozy relationship with the tyrants in Manila ultimately caused Filipinos to speak of the “US Marcos dictatorship.” This is not likely to be included in Byrne’s myopic look at history - hence the US State Department seal of approval. I think the world’s people have heard enough about Imelda and her damn shoes. David Byrne could have better spent his talent writing a tribute to Ninoy Aquino, the man who gave his life to bring democracy to the Philippines.

Ruscha, MOCA, Pettibon & Bush

No it’s not a law firm, but you might be asking, “what on earth do those names have in common?” On January 17th, Artnet Magazine reported that the “Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, has added three new trustees to its board, among them artist Ed Ruscha, whose work has been included in eight exhibitions at the museum over the years.” What Artnet failed to mention in their report was the connection the renowned Pop artist has to the administration of George W. Bush. The Bush State Department selected Ruscha as “America’s representative” to the 2005 Venice Biennale - a position the artist enthusiastically accepted. Back in May of 2005, to the great chagrin of Ruscha’s legions of flatterers, fellow artist James W. Bailey and I wrote about Ruscha’s association with the Bush State Department, an article that takes on renewed importance now that Ruscha has become a trustee at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

And speaking of collaborative projects with the king of minimalist postmodernisms, Ruscha has teamed up with Raymond Pettibon for a two man exhibit at the Pomona College Museum of Art. Billed as an exploration of “the tensions, congruencies, and associations of image and text,” the collaborative works on display at Pomona College consist of new drawings and prints. Pettibon is well known for having designed album covers and flyers for Black Flag, one of L.A.’s most aggressively nihilistic early punk bands. We both worked as artists in L.A.’s nascent punk rock scene, but Pettibon went on to refashion himself into a postmodernist art star, raking in accolades, awards, major exhibitions, and a few million dollars along the way. I’m still waiting for my State Department appointment and an invitation to work with Ed Ruscha.

I’ve had the dubious honor of exhibiting works with Pettibon, once at the 2003 Art of Punk exhibit at L.A.’s Kantor Gallery, and also in 2004 at L.A.’s Autry National Center. But my “fondest” memory of him comes from attending a riotous punk concert in some dark, dank Hollywood venue back in 1980. I don’t remember who was playing, but Pettibon was on the crowded stage horsing around with band members. In a brief lull between songs someone on the stage threw a beer bottle - it arched across the hall and exploded on a wall just inches from my girlfriend’s head. I was fuming mad, yelling insults and bent on reprisal, but as people held me back I could see Pettibon step to the front of the stage, bending over to moon me and the entire audience. That is how I shall forever remember Raymond Pettibon.