“The Wow"

“The Wow"
April 1, 1999
p. 93

I read an article a couple of years ago in which a number of art world professionals—museum directors, curators, etc.—were asked to define art and none of them could. I found this unnerving—imagine, for instance, talking to a doctor who couldn’t tell you what the practice of medicine meant to him, or a lawyer who didn’t know what the law was. While art defies any singular definition, is it unreasonable to expect those who have made the pursuit of art their lives to be able to state what it is? At this point I believe the art world is in a state of crisis because, outside of commercial concerns and self-aggrandizement, there seems to be no sense of purpose around what we are doing.

Explanations having to do with some kind of linear development from image to non-image, object to non-object are no longer meaningful. Painting has been declared dead so many times that we no longer believe it any more than we do when fashion editors announce that black is out. There are no movements to signal to us what’s going on, no avant garde to make us feel hip. Instead we find ourselves inundated with every conceivable kind of image—from Odd Nerdrum to Damien Hirst—and no yardstick by which to judge them. As galleries and artists proliferate, truly satisfying contemporary images become more and more rare so that when MoMA puts on a Jackson Pollock exhibition that everyone can relate to, the art world breathes a collective sigh of relief.

After a few months out of the city I returned to be shocked anew at the thinness of gallery offerings. At one particularly banal group show that included a chair too narrow to sit in and a tombstone made of talcum powder, I turned to my companion, also an artist/teacher, and commented "My graduate students do better work than this." "No kidding," he said. "That’s because they have regular critiques. We won’t let them get away with it. Once they’re out, however, they can do anything." Sometimes I worry that my lack of interest in much new work is a sign of encroaching fuddy-duddy-ism, but my fear is dispelled when I realize my students have the same problem. The question they most frequently ask is "Why is so much of what we see so bad?"

One reason is we’ve gotten stuck on this idea of art as innovation. In the March 1999 Art in America, Barbara Rose, commenting on the thinness of Bill Viola’s content, says that he confuses "technology with innovation." But what is there about innovation itself that makes it art? Can’t we ask more of art than that it be simply a cool idea? To me this includes "innovations" in style and theoretical precepts as well. I do agree with Rose, that right now, sadly, the medium is very often the only message. A colleague said recently "Thank heaven we’ve gotten over being impressed with the fact that we can take photographs. Unfortunately we haven’t gotten to that point with video." Put it on video or do something, anything, with talcum powder, bodily fluids, or cut-up cows and you’re home-free. This is one reason why I’ve chosen to be a painter. While I retain an intense interest in the possibilities other media present (and will readily cite Robert Irwin as the artist whose work has most affected me), I’m challenged by the fact that painting, having been done for centuries, has the weight of human history behind it, and has very specific material limitations. It’s a place where I can’t hide out.

Another thing we’re stuck on is art as content, and much of it rather simple-minded at that. Awhile ago, all one had to do was reflect the politically correct stance, and I remember feeling that Mark Stevens summed it up when, in his review of the Whitney’s "Black Male" exhibition, he ended by saying: "Outrage matters greatly in Goya’s picture of a summary execution, May 3rd, 1808, but we do not remember the painting because Goya opposed capital punishment or the French invasion of Spain." Sensationalism, however, is always in and every year it’s as if we just discovered sex. There is still a lingering vogue for images appropriated from the media and mass marketing (haven’t we gotten over Barbie and Alfred E. Neuman yet?), and we suffer from a dearth of original imagery.

Often a premise is all that’s needed to justify the work and we expect that artists be able to explain the thought processes behind everything they do. This presupposes that art is an intellectual exercise rather than an intuitive one. In the Times obituary Roy Lichtenstein was quoted as saying "I don’t think artists like myself have the faintest idea what we’re doing…". While every artist starts somewhere, a concept on its own is meaningless and should be valued for what it is—another tool, a means to the end.

Although we revere technology on the one hand, on the other we act as if technique doesn’t matter (or, in the case of Robert Gober, that it matters too much). I remember once doing a crit with Kenji Fujita, and asking a student what art she looked at. "I don’t look at art," she said, "I just want to express myself." "Sorry," Kenji said, "but all the people who just want to express themselves make stuff that looks alike." Everyone has a story—it’s the form it takes that makes it unique. Whether the execution is as refined as a Richter, or as seemingly casual as a Basquiat is unimportant—what is important is that it be the perfect vehicle for the content.

At best both technique and ideas are so unobtrusive, so completely developed and intertwined that they disappear altogether, thereby revealing the experience. When I’m inside James Turrell’s Meeting at P.S. 1 (1976) or Robert Irwin’s Homage to the Square (1998) at the Dia, I’m much too busy having the experience to wonder what mechanism Turrell employs to protect it when it rains or how many staples Irwin used. Similarly when confronted with Walter de Maria’s Broken Kilometer (1979) I’m not thinking "Containing a kilometer in a room—what a great concept." In fact I’m not thinking at all, but absorbed by a moment where I’m taken out of myself, away from the familiar. Call it transcendence if you will, but isn’t this what we’re looking for? A truly great work of art contains such an alchemy of content and execution that when we look at it we’re not saying "Wow, what a great idea" or "Wow, what a great technique" but simply "Wow."

So how did we reach this lamentable state where "Wow" is so rarely our response to art? One reason is that while our culture persists in the fantasy that great art is the product of an individual genius, most often that "genius" (think about Duchamp, Picasso, or Pollock) wasn’t working alone, but was part of a milieu in which ideas were fomented and filtered through dialogue. Where is that intellectual climate now? In the fifties, it was the Cedar Bar; in the seventies it was Magoo’s and the Mudd Club, but with eighties’ money artists became divided between those who could afford reservations at the Odeon or Mr. Chow’s, and those who could not. With no more cafes or salons, no places where artists can gather informally and where younger artists can mingle with those more established, M.F.A. programs can be seen simply as expensive substitutes for art bars.

In the eighties, too, passion was no longer the driving force behind the making, selling, or collecting of art. Collectors began hiring others to make their choices for them, dealers entered the art world because they thought they could make money or because it was a cool thing to do (I recently encountered a gallery owner who has never had of Joan Mitchell, and another who confided that he doesn’t exhibit the work he loves), and artists, consciously or unconsciously, began tailoring their work to what would sell or get them attention. With it came the myth of discovery (the emerging artist syndrome) which has caused art to be promoted before it is ripe, as well as kneejerk sainthood for a few elder practitioners (Rauschenberg comes to mind) whose current work is less than inspiring. Art has become more about second-guessing the market than anything to do with—here’s that word again—transcendence.

But how can we ask for passion when, at the moment, it’s totally unhip? We live in a tyranny of the cool and I think many people are suckered into accepting work they don’t believe in because they don’t want to appear out of it. Ours is a cynical world and art, by and large, celebrates and reflects the dysfunction of modern life. But will it always be that way? We make the mistake of forgetting that the art world shifts and changes (remember NeoGeo?). I tell students to be aware of what’s going on now but not to look to the art of today for inspiration, because they’re making the art of the future and we don’t know what that looks like. Our definitions, therefore, must be able to include the unknown.

So what’s my definition? I believe it is the role of the visual artist to create a moment through which we leave the literal world for the infinite—to express a new truth or perspective communicated by a visual language, the result of the magic that happens when form and content are brought together in perfect synthesis. The "new truth" I seek is individual truth, as writer Huston Smith put it, "the soul made visible" which, through its genuineness, makes itself understood to a universal audience.

Perhaps art is running dry because individual truth has come to mean self-gratification, and extremism and eccentricity are mistaken for individuality (hence the obsession with work that exhibits obsession). This rampant egotism has also blinded us to the possibility of what can happen when artists join together in creative endeavor. Perhaps all of the experimentation with materials is preparing us for collaboration—not only with other artists—but with practitioners of other disciplines, including science and architecture, as well. In my utopian dream art, like health care, is "holistic," intrinsic to the fabric of life.

So I’m not asking for dogma—God knows we’ve had enough of that—or a definition on which everyone can agree. What I’m seeking is clarity and thoughtfulness, for those in a position of influence to be able to state what they like and why, to stand behind their choices and, because art is subjective, to have the flexibility to change their minds tomorrow if they want. I’m asking for dialogue, for discrimination and integrity, for excitement. If we hold art to a higher standard, it is more likely to be achieved.

There is a great hunger for art. It has been reported that 11,000 people a day attended the Pollock show and the Getty, that overwrought temple on the hill, is the new Parthenon. Pilgrimages are made, not to Lourdes, but to Bilboa. A friend, who is going next week, says "We want to be transported." People are looking to art to tell them about life, and they want art to help them stretch the limits of what’s possible. In Writings 1962-1993, Gerhard Richter posits "Now that there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world." It’s an awesome responsibility. But why aspire to anything less?

–Carol Diehl