Laissez-Faire Aesthetics

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic, and after reading his essay, Laissez-Faire Aesthetics: What money is doing to art, or how the art world lost its mind, it’s not hard to understand why his opinion of contemporary art is generally reviled in some quarters. While I disagree with aspects of Perl’s critique, he still manages to make a few valid points. Perl believes the art world is suffering a grave crisis brought about by forces indifferent to the spirit of art but wholly enthusiastic about art as a commodity. He believes that a gaggle of art stars, influential writers, art institutions, powerful financial backers and collectors, have distorted the world of art to the point of bringing about its demise. The Laissez-Faire Aesthetics essay appeared in the February 5, 2007, edition of The New Republic, here are a few excerpts:

“We are in a period – and it’s certainly not the first one – when art and fashion and Hollywood are often indistinguishable. Amid the gold-rush atmosphere of recent months, however, something very strange has emerged, something more pertinent to art than to money – a new attitude, now pervasive in the upper echelons of the art world, about the meaning and experience and value of art itself. A great shift has occurred. This has deep and complex origins; but when you come right down to it, the attitude is almost astonishingly easy to grasp. We have entered the age of laissez-faire aesthetics.

Laissez-faire aesthetics is fundamentally anti-dialectical, not only because there is no acknowledgment of the need to comprehend the divergent implications of our attraction to high art and popular culture, but also, strangely enough, because there is a refusal to accept the very existence of competing forces. There is no struggle with distinctions because there is no recognition of distinctions. The result is a flattening of all artistic experience. If the clearest expression of laissez-faire aesthetics is to be found in the extent to which fashionable painters are now embraced as simultaneously offering traditional values and Disneyland-style fun, the new mood is also having an impact in the art museums, where pop culture is often sold as the new laissez-faire avant-garde.

Laissez-faire aesthetics is the aesthetics that violates the very principle of art, because it insists that anything goes, when in fact the only thing that is truly unacceptable in the visual arts is the idea that anything goes. At times, amid the chic hedge-fund maelstrom of Art Basel Miami Beach, it could seem that what had died was the modernist century, with its vehement advocacy of certain aesthetic principles. Perhaps we have to accept that it has gone. But what is really in danger now is something much bigger than modernity. It is nothing less than the precious exclusivity of the high-art experience, which stretches from the Tanagra figurines and the Romanesque manuscripts to the paintings of Rembrandt and Poussin and Corot and Mondrian. There is nothing laissez-faire about any of these masterpieces. When we contemplate them in all their particularity – in the almost delusional extremism of their varied visions and in the insistent singularity of their poetry – we are constantly reminded that high culture is anything but easygoing, that it is always daringly, rightfully, triumphantly intolerant.”

Concerned as I am with the future of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the subsequent paragraph from Perl’s essay really got my attention. He contends that American art museums are steadily being transformed into populist “art boutiques” where low-brow culture has equal footing with masterworks. A good example of this would be placing the Hollywood movie prop statue of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or LACMA’s plans to erect Jeff Koons’ giant Train in front of the museum. In the following except from Perl’s essay, he mentions the architectural renovation of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, a project managed by Renzo Piano, the same architect overseeing the renovation of LACMA:

“I worry about the Morgan. Renzo Piano’s ballyhooed addition, which opened last spring, has transformed what was a series of intimate spaces dedicated to the glories of connoisseurship and scholarship into a bunch of art boutiques in a high-modern mini-mall. This is not to say that the Morgan cannot still offer an unforgettable museum going experience. Yet the signs are not good. American museums are full of curators who worry about the malling of the museum, and realize that there are other ways to answer the concerns of trustees who want to bolster the endowment and combat rising costs. But in a country as wealthy as ours, what are generally presented as fiscal decisions can also be a cover for deeper philosophical predispositions. There may not be a museum director in America who is any longer willing to look a trustee in the eye and tell him that he is sitting in a museum and it is no place to talk about pop culture marketing strategies. There may not be a museum director in America who is willing to argue that an art museum is a particular kind of place, and that particular places are friendly to particular experiences.”

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