ART, POOR ART
“What does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? select? highlight? By doing all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols)
L’art pour l‘art is dead or perhaps never lived. Cave artists drew to assure a good hunt, Michelangelo sculpted to put food on his table too, Van Gogh painted over his demons. The work of art has always had a purpose—an end for which it is the means—for the artist and for those who follow art. Each person’s encounter with an art object/event is different and therefore each end can be as well.
Shown here, in our age of mechanical reproduction, is the most obviously dissonant use of art is the buy-this-become-that school of advertising created mid 20th century by Edward Bernays using his uncle Sigmund’s psychoanalytical insights. Knowing that buying a particular booze, sneaker or purse will not make you any more popular with others or successful in an endeavor, fall on deaf ears to this day, but we buy it anyway. And even the happiness from having new stuff fades quickly requiring another—always stronger—hit.
Less obvious, but more ominous, is art being used to represent a culture by those ruling the culture for ends to their advantage usually at our expense. This is much more serious than the choice of one brand over another. Artists who were OK making art to sell booze and cigarettes—after all, they needed booze and cigarettes to make art—were not OK pushing an ideology not their own, be that communism or capitalism. They asked themselves, “Is there a pure art, a L’art pour l‘art? An art that can’t be used to hurt or steal?” Their answer was only an art that refers to nothing but itself, total abstraction.
Sadly, that didn’t work out as planned. neither the ones who went in for recording non-referential, yet expressive in themselves, gestures nor the ones denying even that, in favor of near-formless color fields avoided becoming isms and being exploited as currency by Artworld marketeers and propaganda for ideologues. Being [used] and nothingness are both bad options.
Also represented here are reactions to those perceived and/or actual missuses. First was when the artists themselves encountered the hopelessness that the DIY chemotherapy co-morbid with the aesthetic philosophizing revealed. The consequent struggle never ended well. But it is often romanticized and commercialized postmortem. That did the dead artists no good as deification and revival are only lucrative for heirs and investors.
Second is what subsequent generations did. They re-politicized what the “late” modernist individualized. And they embraced both form and function of the mass media. At first this cohabitation of sincerity and irony worked, art world was again interesting, but as the embracing artists became themselves seduced, they became one with the marketing establishment. Their spawn were born as celebrities and entrepreneurs and what they “create” is nothing but fashion, haughty couture for walls and vaults for the one-percenters.
Is there hope for art? For artists? While it’s now obvious that imaginary l‘art pour l’art can’t salve any real souls, but maybe some inoculation with a low dose of l’art pour le profit will. Maybe we should try ingesting a small bit of difficult insight and hoping surviving the reaction. We must try to learn to live with the need to trade some pride for bread to eat and make art another day. We must also try not going to dangerous places hoping to score some celebrity instead being content with the less addictive over the counter positive feedback.