Ban the Narrative! Stop Talking and Use Your Eyes

September 30, 2012


When I hear the phrase “contemporary art” I want to gag. When I see contemporary art I usually want to double gag. The art world has managed a stupendous trick with contemporary art: It’s replaced the creation (that now-useless thing that people in previous centuries seemed to think was the art, like a painting or a sculpture) with THE NARRATIVE. Take away the narrative about a piece of contemporary art and what do you have? Not much. All that talk. All that nonsense.

To make a sale today you need a compelling narrative. There’s another word for the narrative – it begins with B and ends with T. Without a narrative, art sales people (and museum curators) are left with the ‘thing’ itself, which too often has no value minus its narrative.

Did you see the segment earlier this year on the TV show “60 Minutes” in which the interviewer questioned the value of a tangle of electrical cords selling for a ‘modest’ $35k? The entire value of the ‘artwork’ was in the narrative: something about an emerging ‘international’ Korean artist who very artistically tangled up the hardware store electrical cords, probably while zoning out on original Star Trek reruns dubbed into Korean. (My electrical cords seem to get tangled up pretty much the same way, without any input from me.) The rest was just hooey. The work itself was irrelevant without the narrative. Almost all contemporary works are. Almost all. The Israeli (I think) tank/treadmill at the last Venice Bienniele was pretty damned cool.

Several things have created this trend.

1. Art galleries and museums have quit caring about art. Art fads now rule. There is no such thing as good – only what sells. Galleries are just retail outlets now. Sure, they always were, but not exclusively. There might be a few holdouts huddled in galleries here and there, but they are marginalized. To you few gallery people who still care: I salute you. I don’t know how you manage to stay in business.

2. Galleries and museums have outsourced the job of educating the public to critics and art writers. None of them (or vanishingly few) are proficient artists themselves and all of them must generate a constant outpouring of “new” to keep their jobs. New can also be spelled with that same word beginning in B and ending in T. In addition, they can never criticize, only praise (again, if they want to keep their job). When was the last time you read an art review you could understand? As the old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with B...t.”

3. The cult of celebrity has taken over.

Example: when I went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, the show on display was all about her: sultry pinup photos of GO’K in her prime, including some titty; GO’K going camping with her girlfriend; letters penned by GO’K about how great it was to go camping, and so forth. They even had a little diorama with her tent and cookstove. Almost all her art on display was third rate – mostly sketches and studies they substituted for paintings. Like a rube, I went there to see some good paintings. Hah! Another ten bucks down the drain. Suckah!

Witness Andy Warhol: everything you read about Andy Warhol is about some concept – how he “smashed the line between fine art and mechanical reproduction;” how he “lifted mundane objects of everyday life to the level of fine art,” (it used to be called plagiarism, selling silkscreens of trademarked food labels and other people's photos). Almost nothing references Warhol’s art from a qualitative standpoint. I wonder why? The art world has a lot invested in the Warhol narrative. If he was revealed to be a fraud, or just a twirpy New York City social climber, the net worth of the 1% would plummet from the cataclysmic freefall in prices of Warhol artwork… uh, reproductions. Or are they all in China now?

Witness Cindy Sherman. Witness the flood of celebrity fashion designer shows that have pulverized art museum calendars. Art museums now concentrate more on the artist, or even the artist’s benefactors (think: Gertrude Stein) than their art.

4. If it ain’t moving (read: video) it ain’t worth much. The public, at least the Amerkin public, requires motion to stay interested. 2D (aka wall art) is dead; 3D, as in sculpture, is dead too, except for … I can hardly make myself say it….installations. Sorry, I forgot- what’s important is the narrative. You don’t even have to be able to read the narrative now - it’s a video narrative, with an app on your phone. The actual artistic content is nil, forgotten, unimportant.

Or is the narrative now the content? Is it now the product? Have the art elite finally turned the whole content/narrative relationship inside out? Is that dubious thing formerly known as the artwork now just a prop for the narrative? If so, how soon until we simply discard the artwork as a useless appendage and go straight to the narrative? It’s probably already happening – I just haven’t heard about it yet.

We’re a society of proxies now, aren’t we? Aren’t social media just proxies for friendships? Aren’t drones proxies for soldiers? Aren’t smartphones proxies for just about everything? Isn’t China a proxy for a manufacturing industry we used to have? Our art narratives are just that – proxies for art. Apparently we’ve quit being able to distinguish between the two.

What’s the fix? It’s really simple. Refuse to read or listen toanything about a work of art. Just LOOK. Let your eyes and senses tell you what you need to know. Ignore the narrative – totally! Refuse to let a narrative in your brain. The narrative is a lie. Quarantine it. Your eyes will tell you all the truth you need to know. Just trust them.