Yes, But…

New York park pond
“Hydra,” by Kay Canavino*, a photograph in my personal collection that I look at every day and adore

I keep coming to that tough place, the one where you just have to say, “Yes, but…” It is a pervasive thing, this need to straddle. It isn’t just in the area of art and art making, but in so many aspects of life. How many times a day do we encounter strongly stated opinions, ones that make a case with unyielding certainty? The problem is, I don’t believe in certainty, so the push back is constant.

Here is a good case in point: The ongoing argument regarding the nature of art criticism and the role that it plays in relationship to experiencing and coming to terms with art. In an interview with the art theorist Arthur Danto (who passed away last October), he is asked to define the role of the critic who has lived during the transition from modernism to postmodernism:

Modernist criticism is formalist, while postmodernist criticism is relativist…My objection to formalism is that it tends to imply that formalism is all there is to criticism. My objection to postmodernism is that it tends to imply that there are no universal truths about art. Postmodernists base this belief on the radical pluralism that has overtaken the art world in recent decades. I am entirely a defender of radical pluralism (the term was invented by William James), which may make it seem that I am in fact postmodernist myself. But I am, to the contrary, an essentialist, and my project as a philosopher of art has been to nail down the definition of art that covers all cases, western and non0-western, contemporary and traditional. So I am entirely anti-relativist.

Nail down a definition of art that holds in all cases? Is he serious? Later in the same interview he says, “the method of art criticism I practice is much like science, in the sense that in science, one infers to the best explanation of the data.” Not my way of experiencing (or creating) art.

Another critic, Donald Kuspit, answers the same question:

In modernism aesthetic and cultural values, and the value of art itself, seemed clear, however debatable. In postmodernism, nothing is clear—everything to do with art is open to interminable discussion. Uncertainty rather than certainty reigns. It is no longer possible to be definitive: to have a decisively closed reading, an absolute idea of value, a linear historical narrative…In postmodernism the canon has collapsed, and the collapse reverberates back onto modernism: there is no such thing as modernism, but rather a pluralism of modernisms, each with its particular concerns and values, and each addressed to a different audience. We are truly in what André Malraux called “museum without walls”—a museum in which no artists have a place of privilege, and every artist, however ostensibly innovative, is simply one factor in an ever expanding field of artistic operations and audience participation.

Yes, but…there are other versions of what is happening. This is just one.

But then, in the same interview, Kuspit drills down deeper into a particularly harsh and discomforting reality—how the market for art is affected by those trends:

In postmodernism the market has become the major determinant of art’s meaning and value, thus usurping critical consciousness, which is a tragedy for both art and criticism. Both have become peculiarly impotent–encapsulated and neurtralized—by the popularity and importance that money confers. Art has entered the capitalist mainstream: more than ever, its exchange value matters more than its use value–its value for consciousness, emotion, subjectivity, and more broadly culture. Decades ago Meyer Schapiro noted that the spiritual and economic value of art tended to be confused. Today the economic value of art confers spiritual value on it, at least for the public at large.

He engenders less of a push back from me with this point of view. Kuspit’s take on things closely tracks with a recent piece about the rise in art prices at auction in the New York Times titled, The Great Divide in the Art Market. Addressing the impact of these economic changes on art investing, this article dovetails with the conclusions of the cause célèbre book at the moment, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, written by rockstar economist Thomas Piketty.

From the Times:

Where does that leave a lower-level art investor?

“People look too much at auction results,” Mr. McNerney said. “Rich collectors compete in auctions to prove how much money they have. The rest of us should just have a discussion about the art we like.”

And so with “investment grade” works beyond the reach of most wallets, buyers at the lower end of the market are having to fall back in love with the idea that art is a commodity that generates something more than mere financial returns.

“Art gives you something every day,” said Pilar Ordovas, a London-based dealer and former European head of Christie’s contemporary art department. “There are several art markets, and it is possible to buy good things that are prints and works on paper. It’s all about developing an eye and not ticking boxes and thinking about stocks and shares.”

I am less with the “Yes…but” with this report and more with the wish that someday, somehow, more people will figure out how intense and powerful the connection can be with art that was not purchased for investment purposes. Imagine! Buying art that you picked yourself, because it spoke to you personally. The walls of my home are filled with works that enthrall me everyday, most of them by artists whose names you would not recognize but who are as committed and hardworking as those who show up in auctions.

But that is another topic for another day.

*You can see more images from Kay Canavino here.

3 Comment

  1. Love this post – so relevant right now. Would you share the link/source to the Kuspit interview? Thanks!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Diane, it is the same for both Danto and Kuspit.

  2. Thanks so much, Deborah – a rich resource!

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