I’ve interspersed the work of Toulouse Lautrec with that of the American comic artist Al Williamson for comparison. It’s notable that Williamson exhibits drawing skill approximating Lautrec’s virtuosity. But one also notices that Williamson doesn’t allow himself to express anything with it other than the conventional comic banality — one won’t find a drawing of a woman remotely approaching Lautrec’s depiction of Yvette Guilbert, for example. Just as today, male heroes are invariably well-muscled and good looking, women fair skinned and curvaceous. Americans, at least since the days of Madison Avenue brainwashing in the 50s have been obsessed with cleanliness in their art.
Most of what is considered great American art since the 1950s (and the grubby Abstract Expressionists were dispensed with) exhibits a bland, sterile, polished new look. This art is also a perfect expression of a mechanistic/technological and largely brain dead culture. It’s perfectly logical that artists like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons would be viewed as two of the greatest American artists of the 20th century.
Abstract painting, which is fashionable decoration at best, is elevated to absurd heights by empty advertising drivel strewn through gallery brochures and art magazines. The history of the ascension of Abstract Painting to metaphysical fetish object parallels the rise of the American surveillance state/war machine. There couldn’t be a more perfect art for corporate boardrooms than the decorative abstractions that are as dehumanized as the people who collect them. Ortega y Gasset in 1925 wrote “The Dehumanization of Art”. He was all for it, as are all art critics and art historians. Since artists will now say nothing whatsoever in their works, it leaves it to the critics and historians to explain the metaphysical profundities of a colored grid.
If figuration makes a return, it’s invariably ironic or completely banal. Pop Art and its derivatives are mechanistic, detached, and impersonal: minimal art, photo-realist art, photography, video art, op art, the bulk of neo-expressionist art (throwing paint around aimlessly is just as mechanistic as paint-by-numbers photorealism), concept art, contemporary realist art, neo-romanticism, strewn detritus art, etc. etc.
The market system demands work that’s reliably mediocre, empty of authentic feeling, and repetitive. It’s art that mimics Capitalist industrial production. The less human it is and the more it’s dictated by empty theories and simplistic formulas (pick up an art how-to book), the easier it is for brigades of other artists wanting to enter the fraudulent art system to copy it.
One sign that art is dead is that the inhabitants of the art world are resolutely devoted to staying disengaged from the profound social deterioration that is going on in the country. The art world has nothing whatsoever to say about America’s transformation into a militarized police state with a corporate-owned government with the biggest prison population in history, corporations ravaging the environment at will, an educational system producing students who can’t think or write coherently, a working class going down the drain (40 percent of them now living in poverty), or the activities of the banking elite that are pushing the working class into poverty. Political art with no serious thought behind it (Banksy, Fairey) is more than welcome as it says nothing whatsoever outside of making pointless jokes or pointless anti-art gestures that couldn’t be more obviously hypocritical. Faux-political art is all the rage as it’s a fraud.
As a single example of the art worlds’ complete indifference to the seriousness of our situation in this country, is anyone aware of a single artblog in the entire cyber-universe discussing this latest Supreme Court decision which moves America another step closer to full out corporate fascism? Do any of the people trolling around in their la la land of beautiful Art know what the McCutcheon decision is, or what it means? Could the name the judges on the Supreme Court? Or even the Chief Justice who presided over the ruling below?
Art is dead. As Marx wrote regarding Capitalism: “Everything solid melts into air.” One of the things that’s melted into air is Art. Anyone thinking that colorful objects devoid of any connection to lived human reality are “art” are delusional. There’s all the difference in the world between a consumer product and a work of art.
I’m not condemning nice decorations and consumer products. I just wish we could face the reality that the decorative consumer products we’re making bear about as much relation to to the art of the past as Al Williamson’s comic book work bear to Toulouse Lautrec’s works of art.