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More Sleight of Hand
from the

by Miles Mathis

by Damien Hirst

The Wall Street Journal has once again run a feature article on new realism, this time on the front page of its “Weekend Journal” [July 14, 2006]. And once again it has chosen to focus on the lowest, though most visible, rung of new realism. The writer, Kelly Crow, purposefully presents us with an artworld composed of only two subsets: one subset is represented by the “poster boys” made good—commercial artists like Thomas Kinkaid and Pino—and the other subset is represented by the “cognoscenti”—those champions of the avant garde who are “chagrined” to discover that anyone else is making money in the field they thought they controlled.

Now, I have attacked Pino and Kinkaid in several recent articles, so some will find it odd that I am about to attack a fellow attacker, but there it is. I am on no one’s side anymore, remember, since no one on either side is speaking sense, being honest about their concerns, or producing great (or even earnest) works of art. Had Ms. Crow simply stated that the market for these artists like Kinkaid is absurdly inflated and that the buyers are ignorant people, I could not have found room to disagree. But when she drags in the Museum of Modern Art, drops big names like Franz Kline and Damien Hirst and quotes the art critic James Elkins and the modern dealer Richard Polsky, it is a whole other ballgame. To show what I mean by this, I will start with her quote from Polsky (who, we are told, has sold works by Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha). Polsky says,

You’re seeing a self-created art market that’s sleazy and embarrassing.

The irony is so great in that one sentence that it jumps screaming off the page, puts its elbows in your eyes, and blows your hair up into a point. Where, by god, does a man who sells Warhol find the footing to attack someone for being sleazy or price-inflated? Where, by god, does a writer who is presenting Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread as positive examples of art find the footing to attack anyone for being sleazy or price-inflated? Hirst, I remind you, sells rotting cows’ heads and Whiteread sells molds of negative space, both for six figures and up. If the people involved in this aren't embarrassed, it is because they are unembarrassable. Polsky is of the type that is taking over the world—who we see on TV literally every minute—who will say anything, no matter how outrageously false or absurd, without blinking an eye. They will stand directly in front of the sun and tell you it is night, and then threaten a lawsuit for slander when you don't believe them. Art may be dead, but lying as an art form is hitting peaks never before scaled or imagined in history.
      And that word "chagrin." Only aristocrats of some sort can be “chagrined” at anything. No one in the modern world has the credentials to be chagrined, and we might as well wipe the word from the dictionary. To achieve a state of chagrin would require some critical or moral or aesthetic elevation, elevation that none of these people has. Their arguments make sense for about half a second, the time it takes to remember who is talking. Ms. Crow mentions the Museum of Modern Art as if it is a bastion of quality, an institution of great learning and high standards. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a destroyer of standards. According to the museum's own philosophy, “quality” has no meaning. This museum exhibits ballpens and cans of excrement and empty frames as great (and expensive) art. Mentioning it in an article like this can only be unintentional farce, for anyone who can see through a glass wall.
      As for the critic James Elkins, he says, “Art should be difficult.” This can be attacked from so many angles I don’t know where to begin. Firstly, most of the work of the avant garde is not difficult in any conceivable way. Great swaths of it are purposely banal, minimally aesthetic, and marginally moral. The Whitney and Venice Biennials are full of expensive art is that is not difficult at all—unless you mean difficult to understand how it is so expensive or difficult to understand why it was curated into the show. Secondly, art history from the beginning up to about 1900 had nothing at all to do with being difficult. Only in the last hundred years has being difficult become one of the requirements. It has become one of the requirements only because the critics have got their feet in the door and they want to push the game in their direction. They want to have things in art that you can talk about endlessly, without any tangible proof or method for judging. And this brings me to my thirdly: a guy like Elkins claims that art should be “X”, and I have to ask, who put you in charge of defining art? Why in the name of all that is holy is James Elkins preaching about art, and why is anyone listening? Why does Kelly Crow think he is an expert and why should I? He teaches art criticism in Chicago. So what? As Whistler said, “In the same sentence, we have thus his position and its worth.” Any phony with a PhD could be teaching the same class. I might say, only a phony with a PhD could be teaching such a class. No real man or woman would be caught talking publicly about these things, rattling on endlessly about art’s necessary social structure, its crushing need to be up-to-date and relevant, its need to wear a little mouse costume and eat cheese and agree with everything the magazines say.

Ms. Crow has one Miami gallery owner say, "Walking into a NYC gallery, you feel like you need a PhD in art history." The reader is supposed to see this as an admission of ignorance by the opposition; if these "commercial" people knew a bit more, they would see the lie of the land. But to me, everyone concerned is nowhere near land. They are all adrift in competing seas, rudderless, sailless, keelless and oarless. The commercial people are ignorant, without question. But all art for sale is commercial art. Look up the word. The avant garde is simply commercially more successful. The people in Modernism are just better salespeople.* They have more contacts and fewer scruples. They have no compunction in lying about art history or anything else. All their years in university are used only to mislead simple people and to further their pathetic careers. They have sold out art history in order to promote their unartistic friends and unartistic selves. They don't care a pin about what art is, was, or will be. They have a lot of words to spill and a lot of names to drop, but when you delve a tiny bit deeper it always turns out that they don't have any idea what they are talking about. They don't even get the facts right, much less the feeling. To lay it right on the table, they are horrible people, so horrible they make the money grubbing "shopping-mall masters" in the article seem relatively harmless. These faux-artists may be shallow and vulgar, but at least they can claim they don't know any better. People with PhD's in art history shouldn't be complicit in destroying art. As it is, they are just sophists, pettifoggers, using knowledge to deceive. There is nothing worse, nothing more immoral, than intelligence that corrupts.

Beyond all that, I must comment again on how strange it is to see all this coming from The Wall Street Journal. In a previous letter to Forbes I found it amazing that a rightist journal that revolves around money could critique a group of people for making money. But in that letter I reminded myself that many people are heavily invested in modern art. The Wall Street Journal, like Forbes, is just protecting its little egg. The artists like Hirst and Kline and Warhol and so on have managed to keep their prices incredibly inflated over decades only because their protectors are so powerful. The people who own all this garbage also happen to be the people who run Wall Street and who run the newspapers. So it all works out.

Modern art may be considered by the man on the street to come from the furthest reaches of the left, but as soon as it convinced the right that it was a firm investment, all other considerations were basically out the window. God knows how it did this, in the first instance, but once the initial sales were made, the thing became self-perpetuating and semi-permanent. The rich don’t like to admit they were cheated, and as long as you can dredge up another buyer who is as stupid as you are, you don’t ever have to admit it. If you are so rich that you also own all the media, then you have the perfect tool for creating these new buyers. You feed them the same horse manure you were fooled with, way back when, and you take the money and run. Its such a beautiful machine, since the world keeps churning out a new generation of babies, babies that have to get their information from us. We can just keep selling our babies our bad investments and they can pass the buck on to their babies. Nothing ever has to come due that way.

The avant garde pretends that it sells to the right in order to create the richest possible con, a sort of Robin Hood morality that is self justifying and a great joke at the same time. But the truth is it sells to the right in order to guarantee its future. In no other way could modern art have become what it is. In no other way could such absurd price inflation have persisted for so long. Modern Art is like one of those parasites that piggybacks on some more robust species, like a remora that couldn’t even swim if it didn’t have the shark carting it around all day. If the rich guys on the right hadn’t taken a personal interest in the avant garde—if only by buying it because it was expensive—then it would have tanked in a single generation. It is only because The Wall Street Journal continues to publish articles like this that the market doesn’t immediately collapse. Left to its own merits, Modern Art would immediately sink to the bottom of the ocean. But by cleverly promoting Modernism in articles like this, the WSJ leaves the economically inclined reader with the impression that Modernism is a worthy and stable institution, one with experts and cognoscenti, one with enough elevation for chagrin. Notice how it is almost invisible—the way the article seems to be about the poster boys—but how it is really about the superior resale value and price at auction of the avant garde. All but a few of the avant garde artists are also tanking at the major auctions, but the article does not mention that. The article does not mention that a majority of the second and third-tier modernists are seeing their prices fall and have been for a decade; it does not mention the great numbers of them that aren’t worth a third of what they originally cost, or that are worth precisely nothing, since they crumbled into their constituent parts years ago. No, none of this is hinted at, since the article was published in order to create confidence. Not confidence in the art, but confidence in the market. The art doesn’t have to be described, in the way that the poster-boy art is described, since it is beside the point. What must be highlighted is that all the experts and cognoscenti and major institutions exist on the side of the avant garde. With all this support, the market must be a lock, right? If I huddle with the experts and rich guys and major media, my money is safe, right? Right? Hello?

One more thing before I quit. Even though I knew from the first word that this article was a complete misdirection, I took the time to follow up the links and make up my own mind about the artists mentioned. I had never heard of Thomas McKnight, so I went to his site and studied it. I haven’t seen any of his work in person, but I have to say that there seems to be more here than just commerce. I can understand how Kelly Crow might have lumped him in with Pino and Kinkaid, since he has used the available outlets to full effect. That is to say, he has chosen to accept the terms of the market, and this has both helped him and hurt him. It has helped him to a very large income, but he has been hurt by the perceived “lightness” of both his products and his style. Once you agree to do Christmas cards and giclees, you are lost to high art forever. But I must say that I am not much offended by the success of Mr. McKnight. He has a very large talent and produces some fetching images. I especially liked his etchings.

His homages to Gerome and Seurat had a charm altogether lacking in the originals, in my opinion. I would like very much to see his new book Arcadia, and to see his work in person. He seems to be a well-educated man in possession of a self-deprecating sense of humor, which came across even in the WSJ article (where he said, “It’s better if you can get a painting in the Met that they actually wanted to hang”). He might have taken umbrage at the implication, by the writer, that he was lying about being in the Met collection already, but instead he chose to be gracious. For now, I am altogether smitten by some of the images of Thomas McKnight. Taken on their own terms, they are all they should be. I submit that as a far more useful definition of art than the one from our critic above.

*To show you what amazing salepeople the avant garde is blessed with, see Paul Brent, one of these shopping-mall masters, bragging that his collection includes a Rauschenberg. You would think that one con-man could spot another. You did not see P.T. Barnum shelling out money at the circus next door. But Brent cannot be satisfied sitting on the money he has bilked from the consumer: he must be bilked himself, and brag of it in print. Only a master of prestige suggestion could con a fellow con.

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