The above is the title of a book by Stuart D. Hobbs that I recently unearthed but haven’t yet read. It tailors with the current direction my thought has been driven to. My long, near lifetime obsession has been watching the mushrooming of a gigantic NYC based contemporary art world which I felt almost nothing toward but complete alienation, even having lived their for 17 years from 1984 – 2001. My overwhelming interest in pure painting without contaminating theories coming from a diseased intellectual culture made it impossible to operate within that art world. Nor to have any serious interest in joining it. The quote on the back cover clarifies this somewhat. The location of the death of the American avant-garde is located in the 60s. I didn’t enter art school into 1972, fresh and naive off the boat. I now thoroughly understand what I’d entered into and that’s why I’m spending time lately looking at it in a more structured way.
From the book:
In 1962, painter Ad Reinhardt declared, ‘No art as a commodity or a jobbery. Art is not the spiritual side of business.’ The commercialization of the advance guard concerned Reinhardt and other cultural radicals. If the avant garde did not quite become the spiritual side of business, the movement certainly became an important part of the business side of business. In an economy of abundance in which consumption was the goal, the avant garde fulfilled a need… Both cultural radicals and businesspeople of the twentieth-century challenged the values of producer culture. The members of the advance guard advocated liberation through creative self-expressionism. The corporate leaders advocated liberation through consumption. In the end, the merchants of consumption defeated both producer and avant-garde cultures. By the 1960s, creative self-expression and consumption were all but indistinguishable.
And so the dance of death has continued between business people and artists for over four decades. Is it showing signs of collapse. Yes, in my opinion. Having watched it closely for that length of time it’s showing enormous stress, primarily connected to the collapse of capitalism as a workable social model. Without the global empire of capital manipulating puffed up “art stock” like Hirst and Koons, the entire artificial system of art values would collapse overnight. But even advanced galleries like Gagosian are noticing that they’re in a nose dive of no credibility, thus artists like Picasso and Monet are being given summer blockbuster shows at his gallery along with major catalogues and promotion.
Modernism is under complete attack by the “traditional academies”. MoMA dismantled its narrative of Modernism years ago. Gagosian and his brethren know Modernism needs to be propped up in ways that would formerly have been unimaginable. Why? Because without it’s tenets, Koons and Hirst have no value whatsoever. And the empty, repetitive banalities of art like that of Koons and Hirst have undermined that kind of work as remotely credible to any serious artists.
The prominent critic, Donald Kuspit, bailed on it a few years ago, writing “The End of Art”. Even the critics with enough financial detachment (or savvy knowing where the trends are turning) could write a book demolishing the whole American avant-garde.
Those are indications of clear end times. Other factors, like the emergence of the other markets outside the US point to the collapse as well. What will happen, I have little idea. I’m just looking at what looks to me like a system in peril…. much as I viewed the dotcom and housing bubbles long before their complete collapse. Whether the art market will follow those kind of collapses I have no idea. But a ponzi structure isn’t hard to identify these days, having witnessed so many of them.
The collapse of the housing bubble has initially boosted the art market bubble, where else for all that cash that the American public kindly restored to the banking class? Gold, silver, oil futures, art work…. Diversified portfolios. Capitalism does nothing but create instability and massive bubbles, and my hunch is the art market is next in line. “All that’s solid melts into air.”
Incidentally, I don’t mean to use Hirst and Koons as poster children. They’re just big enough for most readers to identify what I’m talking about. I don’t have animus towards them as individuals. Just as I don’t have animus towards Warhol, Johns, or the many artists whose work I find lifeless and mediocre at the end of the day.
To get back to the narrative, Ad Reinhardt was doing his level best fighting a rear-guard action to save the avant-garde but his only chance of doing that was the kind of “purity” that drove out all human creative expression and content. Fatal to any kind of art. Art without a depth of belief and human feeling is art with no future.
This is a black painting by Ad 1960-1966. It’s hard to read it as much more than an epitaph for the American avant-garde.