return to homepage
return to 2004

The Cardboard Dragon

by Miles Mathis

Corruption is general but talent is rare.—Balzac


On those days when my self confidence is ebbing just a wee bit, when my hair stands awry, when my mustache won’t curl properly, when my arms begin to burn from swimming so long upstream, when my long list of enemies begins to look overwhelming—if only due to the volume of paper it’s written on—I find that a good pick-me-up is a little trip down to to see what my competition is up to.

At one time in history such a trip, or its equivalent, would have been counterproductive. Imagine if you will a youngish painter in the Renaissance signing on to to see what the competition was up to. He probably would have hung his head and drunk himself to sleep. A perusal of the homepages of Michelangelo and Leonardo and Raphael could hardly have sent him scrambling for the brushes, bristling with self-assurance.

Now it is different. Yes, the words of the enemy, chanted by a thousand mouths, may seem at times a great wall. The odds appear preposterous. Goliath is too big. The dragon too long and scaly. The bridge too narrow. But the works do not support the wall of words: it dissipates like a great wind. Goliath has a magnetic head, and the rock in my sling is of iron. The dragon is a cardboard monster and the bridge likes my stride. The youngish artist is left with the realization that the opposition is only a field of strawmen above a crop of pumpkin-carriages. An army of ghosts, or of skeletons—like in some old movie with Jason or Sinbad. One real man with one real sword can mow them down like corn. One real work will trump them all, like a spade ace on a hundred decks of club deuces.

As it happens, Sotheby’s is having a great auction of pumpkin-carriages, of club deuces, of magnetic Goliath heads and cardboard dragons, and it may be as bracing for you as it was for me to see which is which. After all, when we are criticized by the avant garde, for whatever reason, these cardboard dragons are what they have in mind as the superior alternative. This is the famous and expensive, and therefore important, work.

Public enemy #1 David Hockney makes the November catalog with a semi-abstract painting from 1991, estimated at $300,000. Its shape and pseudo-figures suggest its jokey title: Almost like Skiing. I have an even jokier title for it: Almost like Painting. But, you know, this was before Hockney discovered lenses. Perhaps with the help of the camera obscura he will finally be able to draw, and will not have to paint only as a joke.

Jasper Johns is represented by Green Target, a 9-inch square painting estimated at $4 million.

The poor soul who bids on this work gets to join David Geffen in the cave of the Nibelungs [see my article Ten Biggest Phonies]. In fact, I will add to the lot a touch with my curved stick, the winner getting both the painting and a crack on the head by me, surely raising the estimate another million. The French feminists behind Jenny Saville—Julia Cristeva and the like—will no doubt complain that I am offering the winner phalludation. But I guess they will just have to bid with their own money.

Jeff Koons is also on hand at the Sotheby’s auction with some ugly glass flowers.

If you found them in an antique shop you wouldn’t pay $50 for them, but here the winner will have to pay upwards of $1.5 million to be part of the avant-garde game of “let’s make the living room a gaudy hellhole.”

Yves Klein is in the same class as Johns, but he gives better value. His blue canvas with bits of sponge stuck to it is estimated at $3.5 million, but he gives you 5000 square inches of blue nothing compared to Johns’ 80 square inches of green nothing. It is for those who want a spacious gaudy hellhole rather than a cozy gaudy hellhole.

For those who want less subtlety in the pit, Christopher Wool offers

a stunningly erudite work that will impress all visitors. I can take a joke, but for $200,000 I would like to buy a joke that is funny, or at the very least clever, or at the very very least is not just a cliché stenciled on a canvas. How about this:


Thomas Demand, who is soon changing his name to Thomas Nolongerindemand, has a room up for auction, consisting of fake windows and overturned furniture. The estimate is $100,000. The problem for Mr. Demand is that no one wants to create a hellhole that quickly and cheaply. Part of the fun is assembling it over the years from various big auctions where you can rub elbows with other confused mucketymucks. David Geffen might even be there. There might even be some Indian legwrestling [see Ten Biggest Phonies].

The most expensive painting I could find is Kandinsky’s Sketch for Deluge II, estimated at a whopping $25 million.

This is from 1912, before Duchamp and the Dadas, so Kandinsky is not really good at producing nothings yet. Just a couple of years earlier he was producing paintings that were actually somewhat appealing, like Church with Red Spot. True, another decade on and Kandinsky was getting the hang of offering the viewer nothing, but here we still get a good use of color and form. Not $25 million worth of color and form, but not nothing. Kandinsky can get away with offering the viewer something since he is famous for other reasons than straight nihilism. He is famous for being (arguably) the first to go completely abstract, right around the time of this painting. That is a concern of art history, though, not art. That, by itself, is not worth a bid.

Lucio Fontana’s notorious slashed canvas is the catalog as well, for an estimate of $300,000.

It may be the same one I saw at MOMA many years ago, prompting one of my earliest writings on art. It is an unpainted canvas, cut once down the middle. I only saw a web image, so I want to cover my back if it turns out this is a painted slash and is different from the one I saw at MOMA (as if it matters). In either case it is one man’s entry in the “least thing an artist could do” contest. He got sixth place behind the empty frame, which got fifth to the nail in the wall, which got fourth to the hole without a nail, which got third to the empty room, which got second to the museum not at the address listed in the phonebook, so that the tourists get out of the cab and fall into a pit. I plan to do a drawing of this pit, a sort of Bosch rendering, with tourists eating their own limbs and crying out to the mayor and hiring lawyers to sue the YellowPages and digging in the mud seeking the artworks they know must be there. But no, what a fool I am, I have crossed the line: you cannot draw a picture of nothing.

Tom Wesselmann is an instructive find, especially for me. He is famous for his female nudes. Up for auction next month is his Great American Nude, a plastic figurine that will set you back an estimated $70,000 or so. Or you can get a 4 x 9 inch painting by Wesselmann for only $25,000.

this one sold for over 10 million

Both works are based on blow-up sex-dolls: they have no eyes, the only details being sex parts. Obviously these works are not interesting as artifacts; they are only interesting as examples of political theory. Wesselmann is not an artist; he is a propagandist producing the fodder for critical copy. The single possible interest in such works is what can be said of them. Wesselmann was allowed into the upper echelon with pseudo-figurative work only because he undercut both the subject and the technique while intiming the proper politics. That is to say, the subject and the technique are both jokes, while the politics is a fallback position should someone mistake the work as regressive. A feminist without a sense of humor can be told that the work is actually making fun of sexism, thereby deconstructing it, or some such garbage. John Currin is in the same foxhole with his campy sexism.

The next step up in price from Wesselmann is David Park, who has a 1957 painting in the November catalog entitled Male Nudes. This 20 x 28 inch painting is estimated at $400,000. It is an amateurish sketch that likely took about 15 minutes. It was painted with one large brush. The figures have no definition and no expression. The painting is devoid of emotion. Its only redeeming characteristic is that it is a figurative work painted during the time of abstraction. It really is slightly more interesting than a Hoffmann or a Rothko, if only because it reminds you of naked people. Naked people are like pears: they portend the satisfaction of a hunger. But Park’s painting is only an atom of satisfaction.

If that is still too much satisfaction for your libido, you can try Alex Katz. His painting, called Roger and Sophie, is estimated at $100,000.

a different painting, equally powerful

It is figurative and traditional but no one is naked. It also took less than an hour, although it is 71 x 50 inches. It was copied from a slide (badly). It is flat and emotionless. Its claim to fame, I imagine, is that it is bad on purpose. Like Jeff Koons, Katz takes a so-called pastiche form, like portrait painting, and increases its conventionality to the nth degree. He drains all aesthetic potential out of the work, and leaves only the kitsch. Gerhard Richter is famous for this too. They all take a traditional formula and then ask themselves what a really awful artist would do with it—a sad junior high teacher in Wichita without a shred of talent, or somebody’s addled grandmother in Hamburg. This is supposed to be interesting. Such a painting in someone’s garage is a bad joke; in Sotheby’s catalog it is thought to be a good and expensive joke.

As in most auction catalogs in the past forty years, the most expensive jokes in this Sotheby’s catalog are Warhol lots. Warhol was allowed to be figurative because he treats the figure like Duchamp treated a urinal. It is an empty symbol, or a symbol of emptiness. As such it also stands for Theory. Warhol is more famous than Katz or Wesselmann because he more successfully drained his art of all art. His gestures are emptier, and his jokes thereby become broader. He is not just undercutting a few grandmothers and basement painters, he is undercutting all of history. In that way he reached a position of maximum usefulness to art critics.

Five Deaths Twice, one of his most famous works (estimate: $6,000,000), is just a photo of a car crash silkscreened twice in red. He does not make the mistake (that Koons, Richter, Katz, and Currin all make) of actually painting or drawing the scene. He just uses the photo directly. But even the photo would be too artistic, so he uses a silkscreen of it. One image might still be too meaningful—he uses a multiple image to deflect that possibility.

Jenny Saville, who veers furthest from the avant garde’s traditional concerns, still manages to make the inner sanctum by adopting its politics. She is represented at Sotheby’s by Factor 8 (another one of her fat women),

a different factor

which you can add to your collection for about half a million. Unlike Koons, Richter, Katz and Currin, Saville does not treat painting as a joke. She is not trafficking in aesthetic deconstruction. She is not being awful on purpose, with a nudge to the ribs. Nor is she chopping away at the whole idea of talent and subject matter, like Warhol or Johns. She is attacking the patriarchy, and this is her trump card. Politics was her entrée. But she still would not have been accepted had she not developed one of two styles: the kitsch or the grotesque. Had she attacked the patriarchy with serious realism, she would have been dismissed immediately. No, she must make the proper curtsies, adopt an approved style. Koons and Richter and Fischl and Hockney and the rest had made bad painting stylish, but this was not for Saville, to her credit. Lucian Freud gave her another path. The grotesque. She was too much her own new woman to accept the terms of Sargent and the old patriarchy, but Freud, despite being a man, was fine with her. His example could be followed without apology. Interestingly, Odd Nerdrum learned the same lesson from the same person: if they won’t accept beauty, give them ugly. At least then you still get to paint the figure. It beats getting a real job. Saville also makes a nod to the patriarch Rauschenberg with her title Factor 8. It is not clear to me how the self-respect and individuality of fat women will be re-established by calling them “Factors,” but I guess that is because I am being blinded by my phallus.

Francis Bacon is a precursor of both Saville and Richter. To Saville he suggested political content, to Richter he suggested purposely bad painting. Only the two together can take you as far as Bacon went. The estimate for Pope and Chimp is $4 million.

The painting could have been done in an afternoon. It is a turpentine wash, probably sketched from a couple of magazine photos. It only suggests either Pope or Chimp. Bacon realized that a lot of technique or effort would have been superfluous. The work rests on its vague politics, a sort of anti-hierarchical, anti-past stance that any critic could extemporize on. The vague technique perfectly matches the vague politics. If you hate both painting and the Pope, then this is the work for you. If you hate chimps, too, well, overbid.

And finally, this Rothko sold for over $17,000,000.

I assume that was as an investment, since I can't see any other reason to buy it. In this artistic and economic climate, no doubt this investor will find someone even shallower and more confused to make a profit from. Maybe a hedge fund manager?

Did I see anything I liked? you may ask. Only one thing in the contemporary section: a small oil by Neil Tait entitled Vagrant. It is estimated at $10,000, which seems about right. It is well painted, though only a sketch, and has a strong mood. It lacks just enough finish to be considered modern, I suppose, although it may have made it into this section based only on its date. I don’t know how Sotheby’s creates its categories. Nor do I know anything more about Neil Tait.

When I am scolded for my presumption in painting nudes without any modern deflection or political backup, when I am scolded for my presumption in attacking the rich and famous and powerful people of the avant garde, I have to laugh. Being scolded by the avant garde for being presumptuous, for attacking people, is so incredibly rich. When they add the epithet “tasteless” it all becomes a divine comedy. It makes me want to stencil this cliché on my canvas: THEYCANDISHITOUTBUTTHEYCANTTAKEIT.

The contradiction: the conventions of traditional art must be uprooted, must be deconstructed and critiqued and questioned at every point; but the postulates of Modernism are a priori truths, settled facts, no longer up for discussion. Realist works should be picked apart with a fine-tooth comb; avant works should be taken on faith and never closely examined. Blindness to the defects of classical art is a pathology; blindness to the defects of avant garde is a sign of a big heart. Criticizing realists is a fun and profitable game; criticizing Modernism is dangerous and anti-social. Being passionate about tolerance or equal rights is up-to-date and cool; being passionate about beauty or harmony or subtlety is passé and geeky.

So you can see that Modernism is no longer a Theory. It is a religion, complete with its own dogma and indoctrinations. As such, it is self-perpetuating: it no longer requires proof or argument. Its success is proof of its truth. Supporters say, could something completely without value persist for an entire century, mean so much to so many people? Support such a lucrative market? Of course it could. History is full of easy examples. Hundreds of thousands of people were jailed and murdered over the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and other doctrinal subtleties. The catholic church filled its coffers for centuries with money from the sale of indulgences and fake talismans. And so on and on. People have always believed things that aren’t true, for little or no reason and with little or no pressure. And they preferred the delusions. The more preposterous the belief, the more it was a sign of great faith. Credo quia absurdum: I believe it because it is absurd. That is why Sotheby’s can get $4 million for a Warhol drawing of Where’s Your Rupture? Only someone who sits in the first pew could get that excited over nothing. Anyone can get excited about finding the Ark of the Covenant, but it takes a real pilgrim to get worked up over a fake splinter of the true cross or a millionth copy of Veronica’s veil. Anyone can bid high for a Rembrandt masterpiece, but it takes a true believer to buy a green and black metal box by Donald Judd or a faux-bauble by Jeff Koons or a bronze dropping by de Kooning.

That is why the avant garde doesn’t really attack us much anymore. They don’t argue among themselves, either. Nothing they say can possibly have any force. To make a theoretical critique you must attack from a position: the avant garde has no position. It only has a faith. That faith is based on the perceived usefulness of deconstruction. Deconstruction is the program and we are not in the program. In trying to reconstruct we are guilty of pride. We are not proper moderns, proper egalitarians. We want real excellence, real achievement, which will only reanimate the hierarchy. They have found a way to argue against the hierarchy, but they haven’t yet found a way to convincingly argue against excellence. That would complete the vicious circle, bring the paradox into full view, exhibit the contradiction. So they don’t go there. No, they mostly stick with the provisional plan of most cliques and religions: we are unclubbable. By refusing to mouth the mantras, we become outsiders. We are the untouchables. Pluralism allows for all faiths but the faithless. We are the faithless, the ones who will not or cannot sign the primary document, who will not take the initial dunking. Because we will not sacrifice art on the altar of politics, we are the iconoclasts (ironic, that), the heretics.

Well, I say so be it. I am not like Groucho Marx, who didn’t want to be in any club that would have him as a member. No, I don’t want to be in any club that would have Nauman and Johns and Lichtenstein and Richter and Hirst and Bacon as members. That would have Warhol and Duchamp as Grand Dragons. That would have Greenberg as Grand Inquisitor. I would rather sit out in the wilderness with water and wild honey. Alone but for the naked dryads curled up in the trees.

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.