A Reader Asks . . .

IN RESPONSE TO THE EARLIER POST, Art & Money, an astute reader writes to ask:

Perhaps conscientious and knowledgeable critics should try to explain the supply side of this equation, how art is produced to play a role in the continuing cycle.  How does it happen that a woman with no more talent than any teenage girl who draws pictures of rock stars becomes famous, wealthy, and sought by collectors and museums?  Who accomplishes this, and to whose benefit?  Is it for money, or is it that, as O’Brien says in 1984, the purpose of power is power?

To the extent that it is a question—distinct from a subtle statement that contains its own answer—it is a fine one. It refuses to remove any onus from artists themselves for the state of contemporary art. And, of course, it is contemporary artists the man has in his sights. However cleverly earlier artists managed their careers, it is in the lifetime of contemporary ones that art has turned into bullion. That has happened in tandem with a marketing explosion that encourages young people entering the arts to think and talk like pitchmen. They are trained to see themselves as providing a product flow for an audience that will buy almost anything if the packaging is right.

There has never been an easy time to be an artist. Every age is difficult, each in its own way. But ours is difficult in an unusually perverse way. In our time, as in no previous one, the conditions of success are—more often then not—the very things that militate against talent.

Robert Hughes fingered one aspect of this more than twenty years ago:

. . . . The successful artist must work on an industrial scale. How many pictures does Georg Baselitz, that sturdy German fountain of overwrought mediocrity, paint in a year? How many [A.R.] Pencks have been scribbled in the last five? The kind of market pressure we have now tends to encase artists in a formula, but it makes it also makes it hard on the person who paints ten pictures a year: the conditions of maximum exposure demand two a week.

There is more to it than the pressure to saturate the market. There is also the pressure to flatter cultural canards about innovation. Lust for novelty, for The Next New Thing, turns a blind eye on art that bucks the innovational drift. Hughes admits that “stylistic turnover gets more and more gratuitous.” Under pressure to avoid imitating anything, the bulk of artists have surrendered the capacity to produce the inimitable. For artists today, communicative vitality does not have to reside in art. It resides in words, in press releases, in commissioned monographs, in the sales talk of dealers and curators, and in the lingo of postmodernism. Every artist, a thinker. Mais, oui. Naturellement.


Language has become the crux of contemporary art and a crutch for the artist. Art’s collapse—into strained displays of cleverness, ideological postures or mere accident—is inextricable from the corruption of language bequeathed them by the academy. Words are the academy’s Grail, the chalice of salvation that redeems indifferent talents by turning artmaking into a verbal proposition. That inversion delegitimizes the testimony of our own eyes and barricades art from critical judgment. In the abyss of deconstruction, spin prevails. The breach between what you see and what is said about it — the rhetorical gymnastics, the bloated references — raises bluff to a professional code.

This is hardly the whole answer to the question at the beginning of this post. The culture of celebrity and the power of networks are missing. And other things. But it is a start. If you have any thoughts along these lines, do not hesitate to send them.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey