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“Postwar” Art

by Miles Mathis


One of the lead stories at Yahoo today (11/9/2006) was an Associated Press article by Ula Ilnytzky entitled “Postwar Art Auction nets $491 Million in Sales.”  This was a lead story since that monetary figure is an auction house record, by a large margin.   Most people aren’t too interested in art, but they are always interested in a dollar sign with the word “million” after it. 

        I myself clicked on the link for other reasons.  I am not too interested in postwar art—and the same can be said for money—but knowing what I do about postwar art, I was surprised to see it setting an auction record.   One glance at the first paragraph of the article surprised me even more, since I was immediately greeted with the name Gustav Klimt.   Scanning the other paragraphs I found the names Schiele, Kirchner, Gauguin, and Picasso.  In fact, these were the only artists’ names in the article.  There was not one postwar artist mentioned, and it was unclear, without further research, whether Christie’s “postwar” auction included any postwar art at all.

       The term “postwar” is generally used to refer to art created after 1945, since, according to recent research, the Second World War may have ended in that year.   Or not.  I mean it is hard to prove anything absolutely.   There is a sliver of a chance that all the documentation and photos and gravestones were faked, but I think I can state without fear of contradiction that there is bipartisan agreement that WW2 ended in the 20th century, sometime after WW1 ended.

       Now, according to research that is just as widely accepted, Gauguin died in 1903, Klimt and Schiele died in 1918, Kirchner died in 1938, and Picasso died in 1973.  That means that Picasso is the only artist mentioned that survived into the postwar era.  Unfortunately, the artwork mentioned in the article is Picasso’s “Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto,” which is a Blue Period painting.  The Blue Period ended in 1904, so unless Christie’s or Ms. Ilnytzky is referring to the Second Boer War, we are still not “postwar.”

        It would appear from all this that American high-schoolers are not the only ones who can’t place historical figures in the proper decades or even the proper centuries.  According to Christie’s, the Associated Press, and Yahoo, Gauguin’s “Man with an Ax,” from 1891, is now considered to be “postwar.”  World War Two is now believed by some to have occurred in 1890 or before. 

         Or maybe I am reading the headline wrong.  Maybe Ms. Ilnytzky means that the auction itself is postwar, since it happened this week.  The editors at Yahoo and the Associated Press can’t be expected to read her mind: I mean, for heaven’s sake, 2006 is after 1945, so what’s the problem? 


But seriously, the reason I think this is important—why it is not just a joke—is that I really believe it was done on purpose.  This headline was not a mistake.  It was not added later by some bonehead who knows nothing of history.   Christie’s and Ms. Ilnytzky and lots of other art industry insiders would be perfectly content if a majority of readers thought that postwar art was setting sales records.  That fiction is probably the thing they most want—the thing they are asking Santa to put in their stockings.  Therefore, when I see it in a headline, I cannot think it is an accident.  It is just another piece of very bald propaganda.   It is both a trial balloon (to see how stupid the audience has become) and an intended mistake.  A disingenuous “oops!”  If it gets printed in a newspaper, that paper may have to print a correction; but they can bury the correction somewhere, knowing that many fewer will read the correction than will have read the original headline.  But on the internet, no corrections are printed, not anywhere.  Have you ever seen Yahoo or AOL or MSN print a correction or retraction?  I haven’t.   This means that most people will be left with the immediate impression that postwar art is setting auction records, and they will continue to think it until they are corrected personally by me or by the few thousand other people who know better.  The odds of that happening are very low, so the writer of the headline wins.


Modernism is based on a million kinds of misdirection, and this is just one of them.  What we have here is the creation of an ever-increasing circle of confusion.  The art market requires that the buyer be as indiscriminate and ill-informed as possible.  So he or she is fed a truly stupendous amount of false or nonsensical information.   While the buyer is trying to sort through all this, the seller takes that opportunity to stir the product some more.  The galleries and auction houses want to match the prices of late 20th century art to the prices of early 20th century art and late 19th century art, so they gather it all into the same pot, call it by the same name, and try to pass it off as basically equivalent.  This is why we are told that Modernism started way back with the Impressionists.  Impressionism is, as a whole, the most expensive period ever to exist in art, so of course the salesmen want to start their pitch there.  According to this pitch, the Impressionists were new and exciting, they were great thinkers and they influenced everyone we love and admire, up to Madonna and Shaggy.  The world basically began with Impressionism, and you can write off everything before that as old-fashioned, brown and grey, regressive, and, you know, like totally not sexy.   Then the salesman creates a direct line of descent from those big sellers to all the other big sellers, ultimately reaching those living artists whom he hopes to make the next big sellers. 

           What you, the buyer, are supposed to understand is that a big name is a big name, whether it belongs to Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Warhol, or Hirst.   It is like a shell game, where your eyes have to be kept off the main action, by whatever ruse.  In both the shell game and the art game, this is achieved mainly by a constant line of annoying chatter.   Your brain is turned into jelly by the tintinnabulation of a million words, and your eyes can do nothing but fold back in your head, leaving your money unprotected on the table. 

           These articles from Christie’s and Sotheby’s and the like achieve their purpose insidiously, since after a while a normal person will give up.  Presented with an infinite line of lies, a person eventually just has to say, “What does it matter?  Postwar, post-coital, post-menopausal, it is all the same.  I am rich, just take my bid and leave me alone with my expensive purchase.  I don’t care when WW2 ended or when Gauguin went to Tahiti or when the Great Auk went extinct.  I’m not claiming to be a fucking genius, I just want my name in the paper.  I want to have things on the wall to point to and talk about when I am drunk, I want hookers to look at me with saucer eyes when I tell them how much it is worth, I want my expensive alarm system to be doing something besides guarding my Callaway Big Berthas, my complete Simpson’s collection and my wife’s 200 pairs of shoes.”   

         In this situation, the art becomes completely interchangeable, and that is just the way the market wants it.  Look at the photos that are always run with these auction house stories.  In a logical universe, or in a world where people actually cared a whit about art, you would be shown a close-up of the painting.   But go to the Yahoo article and notice what photos ran there.   We see three photos.  In the first, a famous Klimt can be seen hazily in the background; but in the foreground and in tight focus we see the phonebank, where half a dozen nattily dressed salespeople are taking bids directly from billionaires too important to even show up.  In the second photo we see the auctioneer in a tux, gesticulating like a concert conductor.  In the third we see a handsome woman looking at a long line of magnificently framed and presented works.  Unfortunately, we are at such an angle that all we can see are the frames and walls and the woman.  The frames could be empty and we would never know the difference.  But that is OK, since most of them are as good as empty, and since the average reader will be more impressed by the frames anyway.

         As another example, go to the major magazines that promote and sell Modernism.   Most of the ads will just be a name and a gallery.  It has been like that for many decades.  It isn’t about the art.   It is the name and the price.  And if you can stir the names up enough, then the price will be interchangeable, too.   First you call everything postwar art, then you call everything avant-garde art, then maybe for a few years you call everything poststructural art or post-Imperial art or postcolonial or postmodern or post-toasty.   It doesn’t really matter.  You just want to destroy boundaries and all logic.  Once you have achieved that, then you can start the bidding at ten million for every object created since 1860.    Some 20-year-old kid can come in with a swastika made out of used Sucrets and Tictacs, you can call it postwar art, and the guys in tuxes at the phonebanks at Christies will soon be swamped by billionaires.  

         In fact, it is actually very difficult to parody these people, since no matter how ridiculous I make my examples, they aren’t ridiculous enough to qualify as exaggeration.  The guys in tuxes at the phonebanks have, in real life, already been swamped by billionaires for artworks that were less substantial than my Tictac Swastika.   I was sitting at my computer for a whole minute trying to come up with something faintly amusing, but for almost a century hundreds of thousands of artists have been sitting around doing precisely the same thing.  Despite spending much more time on the project than I did, and getting paid much better, few were able to come up with anything more potent than the Tictac Swastika.  For you see that this is what art has become.   Damien Hirst’s whole career is sitting around trying to find that thing that is least like art, so that he can call it art and be seen as novel.  The Chapman brothers do the same thing, and thousands of other “artists”.  This line of art might be called post-Duchamp art. 

          It might be except that the market no longer wants to make distinctions like that.  The market wants all saleable art to be in the same category.   That’s why we don’t hear as much about -isms these days.   “Pluralism” is the last important -ism, and that includes everything.   The –isms served their marketing purpose historically, since they sold the world on the importance of novelty.  But marketing has since become more sophisticated.  It was realized sometime in the 90’s that –isms created schisms, and that schisms created winners and losers.  The art market wants only winners.  Anything that it agrees to hang should be a smashing success, and smashing successes aren’t created by cut-throat competition.  Therefore, everything that is accepted by the major galleries and auction houses is now incorporated into one overarching concept: Modernism.   That is to say, it is good art, in the way that Monet-Cezanne-Picasso-Pollock-Warhol-Johns-Rauschenberg-Freud is good.  It is good because it is famous or soon-to-be-famous.  And it is famous or soon-to-be famous because it is very expensive.

       And this is why Klimt is “accidentally” called postwar.   The audience is being accustomed to further non-distinction and non-discrimination.  Any image that you see hanging behind a bunch of guys in tuxedos at a phonebank talking to billionaires is an image to remember, and to bow down before, no matter what it is.  And as an image, it is strictly equivalent to any other image you see in the same place.   It is a “super-commodity”, a grand totem, a cultural icon, and as such is beyond your comprehension, judgment, or understanding.  Only a billionaire can afford it and only an expert can tell you what to think of it.  So back off, buddy!  Don’t make me call a guard!

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