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by Miles Mathis

My father sent me a link today to Peter Schjeldahl's new article in The New Yorker entitled “Skin Fruit.” I have to get my information second-hand and filtered, since I refuse to buy or read any of the modern forms of media on my own. It's all propaganda, as one of the artists in the exhibition Skin Fruit admits, so why listen to it? That is the un-addressed paradox in Modern Art (one of many): as part of the con-game, the artists now admit it's all a con-game. This is supposed to be an ironic trope, or something like that, but to me it is just a continuing sign of confusion. Once the magicians/thieves/scientists/politicians/artists have admitted it is a con-game and a bald example of agitprop, why does the audience continue to show up? It is just proof the modern audience—in every field—is completely captured. They have absolutely nothing else to do, apparently: they must go the museum, they must read the journals, they must vote for the two parties, or they will cease to exist. Their minds have been emptied of all but the required media inputs.

But, honestly, I couldn't get very interested in picking apart Schjeldahl one more time. It is too easy, and it is pointless. Schjeldahl is un-embarrassable and un-indictable. I could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he was the son of Beelzebub, that he was draining your personal checking account every month, and that he was visiting your eight-year-old children in their sleep, and no one would care. Most of you would go on as before, and would pick up a New Yorker to browse in your next fit of boredom. Why? Because, as Schjeldahl says, it gives you something to talk about. Schjeldahl and his readers and all the denizens of Modernism have nothing to talk about when unprompted by the cheapsheets.

However, I did find one new thing to get me through my current fit of malaise and disgust, and that was Schjeldahl's mention of Jeffrey Deitch. I haven't bludgeoned Jeffrey yet, and it is just possible I may be able to push him over some ledge, literally or figuratively. I have to give it a shot.

I hadn't heard about Deitch until now, but he has been the curator at the Deste Foundation in Greece and is now the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. A newly-hatched bigwig, in other words. An article Deitch published with The New York Times in 1992, which helped him move up in the world, and which was re-published with this Skin Fruit show at the New Museum in New York, gives me a tiny bit of substance to attack. But before I get to that, some background on Deitch:

The dealer [Deitch] had heard about the two young artists who spent the occasional evening ransacking a hotel room, ripping apart phone books, writing on the walls and getting stoned. Even the artists weren't sure this was art. But Jeffrey Deitch was. He handed them keys to his SoHo gallery and for almost a week they crammed it with 2,000 shredded phone books, and stabbed a broomstick and broken wine bottles in the walls for "Nest," a show that was to remain there for a month. It didn't even survive the raucous opening night party. The next morning the gallery was such a smelly, flammable beer-and-urine soaked mess it had to be completely cleaned out and refilled with another 2,000 shredded phone books. But the show captured the high-drama of a certain group of cool New Yorkers, and Deitch was considered brave for providing them a platform.

That is from The LA Times, January of this year (2010). I suppose it is meant to be a list of credentials for the man now in charge of MOCALA. My only commentary is to tie those credentials to Deitch's 1992 article. In it, Deitch proposes that we are even now transcending “post-modern.” We are, instead, becoming post-human. Unlike Nietzsche, Deitch does not see this as much of a problem. He addresses in passing some of the possible negatives of this post-humanism, but mainly he sees it as a sales opportunity. Novelty will become exponential, which will allow salesmen like him to manipulate a quicker turnover and an even more confused and unrooted public.

What one might call the kernel of the article is Deitch's rhetorical question: will the next generation be the last generation in history that we can call human? Deitch suggests that this may be the case, and although it is clear that he is suggesting it mainly as a way to achieve poignancy, there is a clear undercurrent of personal glee. He seems to be saying, between the lines, “I certainly hope so! Because if we salesmen can utterly transcend humanity, our ability to lead the future will be unfettered. There will be no limit to what we can sell these plastic people. A people that feel a constant need to 'reinvent' themselves, whether it be with plastic surgery or with gene manipulation, are a people with an endless marketing potential. Such constant reinvention must cause a constant increase in self-analysis and self-doubt, and, as we all know, that is the recipe for a complete capitulation to products.”

Deitch never actually reaches the level of poignancy I have created for him, since he doesn't like to tell the truth as baldly as I do. He slips and slides through his article like the modern invertebrate he is, only suggesting things 'umbly, like a new Uriah Heep. But even though I have given him the poignancy he lacked, I can top this poignancy with hardly any effort at all. I can stick a pin in this temporarily interesting doll I have created. Because there is a better answer to his question. “Might the next generation be the last generation that is fully human?” he asks. No, I answer, because the last generation that was fully human existed about a century ago. Our current generation is hardly human at all. If it were human to any recognizable extent, it could not read articles like Deitch's in the New York Times, finding them either poignant or entertaining. If it were human it could not read the LA Times entry above, finding it either amusing or informative. If it were human it could not read about or visit current exhibitions. If it were human it could not abide people like Deitch in positions of power or authority. Any group of people that retained their humanity would pull Deitch out of his museum by the ears and throw him in the bay.

Only a culture of lastmen could countenance an article by a critic suggesting that we had reached the end of nature or the end of the human. Deitch ends the article with this:

What we do know is that we will soon be forced by technological advances to develop a new morality. . . . In the posthuman future artists may also be involved in redefining life.

You see, he is not suggesting we resist the loss of nature or humanity. He is telling us how to make the necessary transition. It is a thing that must happen, therefore we had best re-fashion ourselves to fit it, as he already has. Deitch has clearly already jettisoned his morality and his humanity and his rationality. He has been a fully functioning man-of-plastic since at least the '80's, so he sees himself as the perfect modern guru. His soul was tiny and barely functioning from the beginning, so he had little trouble letting it go. If you are reading his articles, your soul must be nearly as vestigial as his was, so you will feel as little loss as he did. Like Deepak Chopra, he will show you the way. Just get an expensive suit, move to the big city, and attach yourself to the nearest billionaire with a snorkel. You will be fine.

Well, I think I have had enough of Deitch already. With only a few moments of research I can see that he, like Schjeldahl, is unpushable. It is impossible to kick a man covered in Crisco over a cliff. You will just get your boots scummy. But I did find some more pictures while I was doing this research, and this will take us back to the exhibition. I started this so I may as well finish it.

That is by Jeff Koons, and it is Schjeldahl's favorite work from Skin Fruit. Yes, it is a basketball floating in an aquarium. Schjeldahl says, “It’s a ravishing piece, deft and subtle, which reminds us of Koons’s first-rate sculptural knack and conceptual economy.” Ravishing. Ravishing. Ravishing. . . .

Why should I need to analyze that statement? A fully functioning human should be able to read those words, see that image, and figure it out. New Yorker readers, if they were human, would not put up with it. For their three dollars, they would demand an art critic whose retina was attached, however distantly, to his brain.

The same could be said of readers of The New York Times, who, if they were human, would also fail to be entertained by articles on such exhibitions, or by sentences like this, from Roberta Smith: “Barely any intellectual glue holds the show together.” That is supposed to be a stab at Koons, who “curated” the Skin Fruit show (that he was also in). But the sharpness of the stab is on her end of the needle, since she is the fool who went to such a show expecting intellectual glue. Based on what precedent? What show of modern art ever contained a dab of intellectual glue? Did she seriously think that a man who put a basketball in an aquarium and found it thrilling would supply any measurable dose of intelligence and acumen? Beyond that, Smith is known to be an art critic: given the waters these people swim in, does anyone imagine she is capable of sorting intellectual glue from non-intellectual glue or pseudo-intellectual glue? Put simply, if she were capable, she wouldn't be where she is.

If she were capable, she wouldn't have chosen this to lead the article:

That is Terence Koh's “Chocolate Mountains,” which Smith calls “implacable landmarks of waste and ruined beauty.” Beauty. Beauty. Beauty. I just wanted to be sure the words had lost all meaning. If they still retain any meaning, say them over and over until your humanity evaporates from the top of your head. You are then ready to re-read Ms. Smith's article.

Your humanity gone, you are also ready to read Schjeldahl's final paragraph.

His [Koons] career and the plutocratic culture that it has adorned represent an epoch-making collusion of mega-collectors and leading artists, which has overridden the former gatekeeping roles of critics and curators and sidelined the traditional gallerists who work with artists on a long-term basis of mutual loyalty. With numbing regularity, newly hot artists have abandoned such nurture for gaudy, precarious deals with corporate-style dealers like Larry Gagosian, Pace-Wildenstein, and David Zwirner. In the boom era, buzz about the opportunistic exhibitions of such dealers and the latest sales figures from art fairs and auction houses were what passed for critical discourse.

Unlike most of Schjeldahl's output, those sentences almost begin to make sense. We should ask why. Schjeldahl is forced into a close pass with rationality because he is defending himself here. He is complaining about the loss of power the critic had, back in the time of Greenberg and even the early years of Hughes. He is hitting out weakly at billionaire collectors like Dakis Joannou (whose collection this show was taken from), millionaire artists like Koons (who can now ignore criticism) and galleries like Gagosian (who never had to listen to critics, since they owned them). Unfortunately, Schjeldahl proves he can't achieve rationality even when he desires to. He leaves himself wide open. First, he admits that critics were once gatekeepers, and implies they should be again. He doesn't seem to understand that the term “gatekeeper” is now a pejorative one, indicating transparent fascism. What qualifies a writer to be a gatekeeper of art? Whistler was the first to ask that 150 years ago, but even the young artists of the avant garde are catching on. They have finally seen that the critic is just one more middleman that can be bypassed. Why kiss the critic's tush when you can plant one directly on the billionaire? Second, he implies that talk of sales figures and market buzz is a bastardization of critical discourse, not seeing that critical discourse had hit such a low, on its own propellant, that there was no possible bastardization. It is impossible to cheapen something that is already worthless. If criticism is so easily by-passed now, then critics like Schjeldahl can take full credit for that. Those who are doing a necessary job, and doing it well, are in no fear of the pink slip. We can only hope that Schjeldahl's fears are justified, and that the new art market will find a way to exist without his “help.”

Finally, I must include this subtle bombshell from Ms. Smith's article: Koons collects extensively, but he collects old masters. That would suggest that the future art market can exist not only without critics, it can also exist without modern art. The 60% drop in the modern market in the past two years (according to the Wall Street Journal, March, 2010) also suggests the same possibility. We are only 40% away from the goal. The billionaire Joannou may be able to show his private collection in public museums in which he is a trustee, but it is doubtful this will save his “investment.” The art market, like all markets, survives not only on bought or stolen PR, it must survive on a base of wealth broad enough to provide continuance. The billionaires, with their various treasury-draining schemes, appear to have forgotten that basic principle of long-term wealth. In other words, it may be that Goldman Sachs needed to keep Lehman Brothers around, just to have someone to sell their crap modern art to. If you get rid of all your competition, you also get rid of your fellow bidders at Sotheby's. It doesn't require just one stupid billionaire to propel modern art. It requires an endless line of ever-stupider billionaires. Our current batch of billionaires has no trouble supplying the “stupid,” the only question is whether there is a long enough line of them.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.