The Non-Culture of Narcissism

barneyArt Star/Has Been…. whatever his name was…

“Plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, the ‘psychological man’ of the twentieth century sees….peace of mind under conditions that increasingly militate against it. Therapists…become his principal allies in the struggle for composure; he turns to them in the hope of achieving the modern equivalent of salvation, ‘mental health.'” Thus Christopher Lasch, writing in 1979 in The Culture of Narcissism. By narcissism Lasch meant not conventional self-love but an anxious craving for audience and admiration born of a void within, and maybe it is some such hunger that calls forth the flattering assurances that are pop psychology’s note, as when a counselor reminds his unseen reader of “how wondrous and interesting you can be.”

The influence of pop psychology now extends from the pre-school to the university, from the clinic to the church. Such is the fashion for therapy that it is now offered not only in the psychologists’s office–the modern confessional–but on television and radio and, as in the the instance just cited, in print. It is the print genre of pop psychology that I explore in this book. Somewhere in this vast field there may be a few who do not subscribe to the dubious doctrines probed here. I am prepared to admit these as honorable exceptions.

–Stewart Justman, Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology

Christopher Lasch has to be credited for his acute sensing of what was in store for America in his prescient analysis of The Culture of Narcissism that we all perforce swim in. In America everyone is a star in their own little movie as they wander around in own hermetically sealed dream worlds. America will continue throwing up (good word for it) one art star and celebrity after another, as the old ones age and get boring, a younger replacement will step in to keep the circus going and the audience entertained. Not hard to do as the emotional/intellectual age of the audience will continue to descend as the amusements become more and more childish. Civilization regressing as it declines.

The only question for me at this point is how much lower can it go? That’s really the challenge facing Modern Artists today after all. American Art from the ascent of Abstract Expressionism has been an exercise in hubris. What else could one call the work of artists like Clyfford Still, Barney Newmann, Rothko, Pollock and DeKooning but delusions of grandeur. Grandiose delusion. These artists set out to top the Western painters of the past several centuries. Other than de Kooning none of them having any great drawing or painting skills as they’d rejected the need to have any. As Pollock fatuously announced, “New needs demand new techniques.”

And what would these new needs be exactly? Human beings suddenly have new needs. No. The new needs are to make a big splash in an art world all competing to get under the shelter of the one legitimizing agency for Modern Art. Called what else but The Museum of Modern Art.

And how were Western painters like Titian, Turner, Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Corot to be defeated… particularly by artists whose drawing skill would have had any serious artist of the past rolling their eyes?

The brilliant answer, supplied by Clement Greenberg, was to simply change the playing field. Perspective was rendered dead (no need to understand that, as any kind of illusionistic space was retrograde and belonged to the dead past); drawing was declared dead (since the figure and narrative painting were both dead what possible use could drawing serve?). All one needed to do was find one’s iconic image (a couple squares… an empty field of paint) and learn how to select some colors that were eye catching (op art, pattern and decoration, geometric abstraction,… ). It was a tough task overthrowing the entire history of Western Painting, particularly with such as discriminating audience as the American public who have always been so adept at detecting fraudulent claims. The Europeans were so sick to death of their Old Master junk that they were overjoyed to finally find something new that was so powerful and of such high achievement as to render the artists of Belle Epoque Paris null and void. Not to mention any other decadent strands remaining in the 1950s that might have emerged from it.

We can note that Rembrandt or Turner’s achievement depended entirely on their absorbing and challenging artists like Titian in the former’s case or Lorraine in the latter’s case. The Impressionists and Degas had to contend with challenging Turner.

Americans knew there was little chance they were going to challenge Degas, Manet or anyone else who evidenced intense discipline, skill, and enormous visual sensibility.

Greenberg provided the critical theory to negate all of the achievements of past painters and Art was free to spring forth anew, pure and unblemished by disciplined looking and working, from the head of the delusional American Zeus.

It’s breathtaking how quickly European culture collapsed at the hands of American gung ho enthusiasm and can-do spirit. Hey! You too can stand at the pinnacle of Western Painting’s evolution! No disciplined observation necessary. Heavy drinking and narcissism a plus. Just be positive and believe in yourself! You’re the greatest! You’re tops, kiddo. You’re a genius. Greater than Rembrandt! Tintoretto.. Shmintoretto.., Look at how much time it took that nobody to paint the Scuola di San Rocco… and with what? A bunch of boring Bible pictures. Where’s the excitement in that? None of that wild abandon and “desperate joy” that’s the hallmark of all great art.

Well… let the show continue… Warhol set the standard for the boring and the banal. Koons is a pale imitation. Nowhere near as boring, and his stage act? Like a used-car salesman. Where’s the mystery anymore?  Can’t they find a new Andy?

Richard Prince and his new Twitter blowup photos of Suicide Girls? Andy is starting to look like Rembrandt in comparison to this stuff…. The great painter Richard Prince… I’m getting old but I’m still hanging in there. Really, it’s the Richard Princes that keep me going. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next for the brilliant connoisseurs and critics to enthuse about. What about the next Richard Prince? We need somebody to out new this guy, don’t we? Who’s on the horizon now?

Can’t some of my readers (that is if I have any readers) point a couple of them out? And when is Richard Tuttle going to get a retrospective at M0MA? There’s no justice in the world…

I just ran across the work below done in 2010 . His  progress continues to astonish as the promise of his early work has blossomed into full mastery as he’s aged.  A man of vast poetic sensibilities… I was bowled over lately by his distillation of Petrarch’s Triumphs. Tuttle takes on the themes of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity…. generating the sublime and ethereal masterpiece you see below:


Note that these are “handmade paper with incised and relief wood block, a la poupee, pigmented paper” and were listed on Artspace (the magic of the internet) at the bargain rate of $8500. For an American Old Master of this quality that’s an incredible offer. My sense is that Tuttle is facing what Rembrandt himself faced in old age. Rembrandt was surrounded by a know-nothing public completely indifferent to his painting, consigning him to decline into bankruptcy. I can only pray that Americans won’t visit the same injustice on the work of American Masters like Richard Tuttle, who like Rembrandt, is proving that his skills are not just intact but as he approaches death his artwork is being pared down to his essence..

I’m hoping that a reader interested in the deep psychological and intellectual concerns of Modern Artists of Tuttle’s caliber will write in to explain what makes the work above so compelling. Certainly on the surface, and to the unenlightened viewer, it looks like something the janitor throws out as he empties the waste-basket of a bored office worker.

Janitors! How stupid these people are. What would a janitor know about art anyway? Only members of the upper class and the artists who serve them have the breeding, intelligence and discriminating eye to understand and appreciate artistic masterpieces like those by Richard Tuttle.

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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2 Responses to The Non-Culture of Narcissism

  1. johndockus says:

    Heraclitus wept, Democritus laughed, but Bart does what he does, breathing fire and a kind of weeping and laughing at the same time. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I truly understand it and often find myself doing the same thing. Have you ever seen the movie “God Bless America” (2011)? And “Art School Confidential” (2006), and a movie about the contemporary art scene entitled “(Untitled)” from 2009? Darkly humorous satires revolving around it seems your same targets. Not unrelated to this, but coming at it from another angle, not long ago I met a young man who had just graduated from art school for design and animation. He had a laptop and with a certain software installed he was working on images which appeared impressive to me. He also had his sketchbook with him, and assuming he’d be an excellent draftsman by what he had shown me on his computer, I asked him if I could take a look. But when he flipped his sketchbook open, my heart sank because he possessed only rudimentary drawing skills, his lines heavy-handed and with no life in them, no feeling or expressiveness or passion or obsessiveness which would carry him over the edge and imbue his drawings with some particular magic or unique charm, just bland and flat page after page, no understanding of relation of forms and definition of them. I myself am not very knowledgeable about computers, but I do understand good drawing and am certainly amateurish myself in doing my own but at least show some promise, so I felt kind of duped by the young man.

    Just as the photograph changed painting forever, causing artists to scramble to retain the honor and integrity of the art, confronted with either integrating that way of seeing into their work or separating themselves from it by breaking up the picture plane (cubism, futurism, enter your “isms” here, en route to abstraction of various kinds, and to the painting itself regarded as a physical object, illusionism and representation banished, Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman drawing attention to the “itself” in painting and its materials, terminating finally, yes, in absurdity and farce of various kinds, expressions of cynicism and nihilism, or in the opposite direction, a kind of Buddhistic spirituality entering in with John Cage), so has the computer and all the software developed for it changed what goes on in the arts in more and more radical and extreme ways. Automated processes have taken over and finally triumphed over natural processes. Click, and presto. To me a lot of the backwash and junk left in the wake of computer technology development, is what has washed up in galleries and museums. Pathetic but tragic last vestiges of the natural world. One day it may be that a single line drawn on a sheet of paper, with a real graphite pencil, may seem alien and incredibly exciting to the majority, like a new discovery, while it will cause individuals like us with a memory to gnash our teeth.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    John, sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. I’ve been overly busy. I need to point out though, so perhaps you might consider this before I can address anything else that I didn’t view Art S Confidential as a “dark” satire.. Why would you consider it such? It struck me as a pretty obvious send up of what art schools were like when Clowes was attending them. For all I know I might have been in grad school at SAIC at the same time Clowes was attending classes. Also, I’m well aware of the level of consciousness of that generation of cartoonists having been among them for a few years. They all think that all fine art is a fraud. They’re the true artists. Real real art is made by comic book artists. The genius of Art Spiegelmann and so on. And, naturally, that’s put them all into retrospectives at the Pompidou and each with a gallery selling their “originals”. All of which is fine with me. It’s not art, but neither is much of anything else that’s in contemporary art museums. That Clowes and company are now considered fine artists (and they also consider themselves as such) is simply more proof of my contention that art inside the current capitalist mode is null and void.

    I’m much more interested in examining the roots of the rotten fruit being taught in art schools. Clowes isn’t concerned at all with the kind of financial corruption, CIA funding of AE, Greenberg/Duchamp as charlatans, the art world as simulacra a la Baudrillard. Clowes, to me, is pretty low consciousness/false consciousness stuff. Ridiculing people who are pretty easy targets.

    My questions are: Does art exist anymore? Can art exist anymore within an imploding late capitalist totalitarian market controlled by corporations?

    My contention is that art certainly can’t exist if all it does is follow the definitions of art provided by the corporate boards of Art Museums, Saatchi/Gagosian blue chip factories, French Academy and -ism revivals cut and pasted together.

    But these are questions no other artists seem interested in addressing so if you don’t want to it’s all right with me….. And if any of what i’m writing is upsetting to you or your practice as an artist I hope you’ll just ignore it. While I can go into preaching mode I’m not trying to gain any kind of converts to my way of viewing the world. I’m much more interested in the world than I am in art at this point, so perhaps I’ve given up being an artist, just like Duchamp. I still draw and paint but I don’t see that it has any resonance or meaning to anyone viewing it other than as some kind of visual buzz. See if it can compete without all the other visual buzzes filtering through by the millions on tumblr, pinterest and so on.

    Just please don’t confuse my critique of the art world with Clowes’ critique. Clowes/Zwigoff proceed from the perspective of Duchampian nihilism/cynicism. They offer or propose no alternative. Put another mustache on the Mona Lisa. Hilarious.

    I’m talking about the Western Tradition of painting as an alternative. That there is some place art can go that can become meanintful. But I only see that happening after the collapse of this noise-producing machine of cyber-insanity….I’m not referring to copying art from the past. But a return to the values of the past, what existed prior to techno-delusion and the forced aesthetics that are no aesthetics whatsoever. They’re simply a reflection of mass-consumer taste.

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