Friday, July 29, 2011

this l'oreal ad sells - therefore it's real


the image above was photoshopped. then a liberal british politician complained. all of a sudden, lâncome recalled the ad.

but isn't the l'oreal/lâncome ad supposed to deliver exactly such an image? to be an ad is precisely to instantiate and negotiate with such hyperbolic properties. why? because it sells! that julia roberts really doesn't look like the image in the photo is irrelevant. this is exactly how the target audience wants to see her.

here's l'oreal's justification for recalling the ad:
... while L'Oreal admitted to retouching and denied the retouching was misleading, it did not actually provide the ASA with any evidence of how much retouching was done ... to establish that the two ads were not misleading.
let's analyse the first part of the argument: "misleading" means "purposely deceptive" as in photoshopping with the intent of being deceptive. kind of circular, since photoshopping is already deceptive. a technique does what it does and photoshop is an enhancing technique. i.e., once photoshopped a photo (in its realistic modern sense) becomes a kind of digital illustration (i doubt ASA will agree with this assessment). 

then, there is second part, i.e., how to establish that an ad is not misleading, which boils down to l'oreal's claim that roberts' photoshopped image is achievable if used as directed, i.e., as long as the image is "consistent with the public perception of her as a beautiful woman."

who is naive enough nowadays to believe that an ad should follow a one-to-one truth correspondence between a subject and its image? when "true" means "achievable" an ad becomes irrefutable, because there is always a possible world where someone cakes her face with l'oreal makeup as close as roberts' ad. see that it may never happen in our world and still be possible!

none of this is new. is this cecil beaton photo of greta garbo in the 1930's not retouched

unless we rule out light effects + lens filters + photo development. not bad for a surpassed capitalist paradigm!

l'oreal lâncome's recall shows that the media operates at the level of simulacrum, which surpasses -and is more glamorous than- truth. now the reasons coming from the policing watchdog groups seem exaggerated, dogmatic -as if women can't tell that ads are not veridical, and so, the more reasons to pay attention to them!

all of which brings me to jean baudrillard, who had a sixth sense for these games of simulacra. his idea was that the seductive qualities of the image provoke a kind of ecstasy. the observer catatonically absorbs the image regardless of its truth content. in his essay "the sacred horizon of appearances" he explores this ambivalence: 
... these appearances are not in the least frivolous, but occasions for a game and its stakes, and a passion for deviation -the seduction of the signs themselves being more important than the emergence of truth- which interpretation neglects and destroys in search for hidden meanings.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Intentional language sells @

 Nancy Grossman at PS1

The coverage of art has become so lame that we don't notice anymore. Art writers produce reviews for magazines. The review is supposed to be about the art object, but instead the writing presents itself as persuading rather than analyzing, defending, instead of observing. Rarely one finds a genuine desire to problematize the issues being raised. Polished, suave and convincing, these review-like blurbs have become plain art-advocacy (in the meantime art object gets thickened with all this relational layers of blathering and eventually disappears).

I'll try to illustrate my point with two reviews taken at random from A fragment from Beau Rutland:
The works evince an unsettling mix of ebullient pride and painful embarrassment that is only heightened by the implementation of decorative chains, straps, studs, horns, and other trappings of the s/m aesthetic. With only fourteen of these dungeon effigies on view, the exhibition is stunningly sparse, creating a thrilling tension between the presented and the presentation.
"Evince" means "to show clearly." What? an unsettling mix of ebullient pride and painful embarrassment? Not so clear after all, which is precisely why the sentence is so successful. It plays along the reader's embedded ideas about s/m objects. It accommodates perception and agreement. Rutland's creating a thrilling tension adds the anticipated cherry to the cake. Rutland has no desire at all to problematize the tension between presented and presentation. It's all good, and it sells! Let's give him an "A."

This is Ara Merjian, reviewing a show by Katrin Heichel, at Thierry Goldberg Projects:
Here, a cement mixer hovers between schematic presence and prodigious corpulence, enlivened with touches of light and a striking play of shadows at its base. From its gaping hole, a stream of paint pours down the surface of the canvas, congealing in real time and real space in a lumpy pool at its base. Vergangenheit I (Past I), 2011, furthers this play between representation and raw materials. Next to a bucket and whitewashed wall, a painting roller sits at once neatly delineated and heavily encrusted. The coarse material of paint itself flits in and out of likeness and readymade.
The writer reports a cement mixer as hovering "between schematic presence and prodigious corpulence." Sensational. Merjian starts with an objective mark: "here...", then she proceeds to unfold this struggle, as she puts it, "... between representation and raw materials." Clearly, Merjian's intentional language aims at blending description and evaluation. She never departs from being laudatory, which is the goal of her piece. She deserves an "A."

Intentional language* is the staple of today's art reviews. Its rhetoric combines advertising's shrewdness and persuasion. One may retort that there is nothing wrong about using language this way. But here is the catch: The purpose of these reviews is to sell. And the paradox is that in order to sell one has to pretend "as if" one is not really doing it. If the selling is obvious one immediately doubts it.** Right?

Not necessarily. Far from shying from the pretense of selling, the media has adopted a late-capitalist strategy: Consumers are fools. Make the language more than obvious. This way any suspicion of deceptiveness will vanish behind the hyperbole.

In other words, the best way to lie is to lie more.

*Intentional language ascribes propositional attitudes to art objects. So, one can see Mondrian Composition in Gray and Brown,

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Gray and Brown, 1918.

as "an example of temporal dialectics, with each figure struggling two essential properties: shape and color," or "as an implicit political statement about the excess of capitalism hidden, as plain form, behind society's superstructure", etc. One can go on and on... ** I use "selling" in the broad sense of advertising. Writers today don't write reviews of shows they don't like (in our thumbs-up era this is not cool). Imagine what happens in a possible world where reviewers get paid to write about stuff they don't like.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Art = merchandise


After our tentative manifesto, we need to address the art object. Generally there is an double entendre within The System (i.e, the market/institutional totality).

Primarily, the art object (aO here in) is praised for its aesthetics qualities. Aesthetics, if it ever made sense, begged the question by defining aO as art.1 On the other hand, aO is valued as commodity.2 aO appears in a gallery for sale. It is shown with this pretense, i.e., its promotion by the The System presupposes its sell-able potential.3

This money-making face of art is never presented up front. Why? It would destroy art's cultural cachet. It may even devalue its (artificial) value. I say artificial because $value$ is primarily a psycho-social construction.4

Art is sustained by two pillars: the Romantic idea that art can redeem humanity5 and the decadent idea of art-for-art's sake.6 Aesthetics rejects in toto the idea that art can be a commodity, such as corn, sugar or nickel. Yet, art is openly sold at auctions like other commodities, such as boats, Elvis' jumpsuits, etc. Even in its most obvious presentation, the auction, art is surrounded with this aesthetic aura.

aO is sustained by aesthetics's two basic myths: 1- Art's non-functionality, which is contradicted time and again when art is sold. 2- The myth of beauty, whereby beauty becomes the medium which helps commodify aO as such. This tension between aesthetics and the art market was indiscernible as long as aO still retained some independence.

Before the Twentieth-Century, people would admire an artist's expertise to represent reality (whether on a plain canvas or a marble block). Even during the avant-garde the idea of building something from scratch (inherited from the Arts and Crafts Movement) still commanded respect. Not any more. When curators and collectors run after a sculpture by Koons, they could care less for the artist's mastery. Or rather, the mastery is deferred to craft experts whom are paid by Koons to produce objects (they gladly forfeit their rights in the final product).

This is the era of the artist as producer. A producer of what? Merchandise.

The value of Pink Panther does not inhere in the object. Price is contingent. Koons' piece would not fetch $16 million on an auction (thought the expectation was $20-30 million) were it not for the amazing efficiency of The System. So, we can declare the following:

Art = merchandise

Surely, this face of art is taboo. In a vernissage the talk is not about aO as merchandise. As a matter of protocol its selling price appears in a separate sheet (obviously, exposing aO's $value$ has an inhibiting aesthetic effect). While appearing antithetical, the aesthetic and the market sides of aO are in alliance.

The aesthetic discourse has one last salvo to save appearances. Being a commodity is not aO's essential quality. But that is very difficult to sustain in a world where art is run by the art market. Why not inverting the relationship once and for all?

Because the idea of essentiality is the perfect sale-pitch for The System. It turns the buyer into a god and aO into a fetish.7 It's way more appealing to think your money affords an essential, than the idea that your money just reflects a particular market trend. Right?

(to be continued)
1 Aesthetics is the confusing discourse that analyses and stipulates the art-object within the parameters of taste, beauty, etc. Aesthetics assumes that art is exemplified by the work of art, which is true but trivial. There are several approaches: a) the essentialist claims that art comprises only a certain kinds of objects, b) the sociologist sees art as imbued with a social role of emancipation, c) the anthropologist considers art as a particular cultural activity. 2 Every art-object today circulates as potential for accruing value, i.e, acquiring & passing value. 3 That there are non-profit spaces or artist-run cooperatives doesn't change this fact. 4 A we learned from the 2008 financial crisis. A reason banks don't lend money is because "a perception." Consumer spending, as an economic category, depends on overall economic perception. 5See Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man6  See Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic.   7I take Marx's idea of fetishism: The reason commodities cannot express the labor that went into making them nor the social relations of production in which the labor was performed is that value is thought to emanate solely from a commodity's price, not from what money expresses, namely social labor. Apply this, though in a different sense, to Pink Panther and you get a different picture.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The farcical symmetry of dictatorship


Syria's beleaguered dictator Bashar Assad receives his newly appointed governor to the restive city of Hama. The photo has gone viral because of its salient photo-shop attributes. In my opinion, the cartoonish artificiality only makes it the more real.

This is the currency of Syrian-style Caesarism, with all its predictable symbolic elements: big austere, kitschy chambers, frozen jingoistic postures, tall-and-small rank, proper distance from the sovereign, etc, etc. On closer inspection one has to savor the bizarre details: the dictator has no shadow, the floor is slanted, both men don't look straight at each other, plus the dictator's left shoe appears collaged right at the border of the table's leg. 

Once more, appearances are deceiving. This is not a cartoon. Let the image reminds us of the screams of the oppressed, persecuted, shot at and tortured people of Hama. Also, let's relish the anxiety that shows behind the stiff pose of the dictator, his clenched left fist a sign that he -inevitably- is loosing his grip on power.

Monday, July 11, 2011

the Miami New Times contributions to art writing


The Miami New Times is our only weekly, and it does a pretty good job at advocating the shows it features. I understand that artists and galleries need the promotion. I also think that  criticism is not divorced from pledging for art. iow*, saying you don't like something is not saying art sucks.

Carlos Suarez de Jesus, the New Times' arts writer has a flair for writing, loves art and cares for the local arts scene. If there is anyone to blame here is the Miami New Times editor and his idea of mission for arts writing, i.e., to entertain a Miami "average reader" that produces less than average writing. 

For his July 11 piece, de Jesus reviews two shows at DotFifty One Gallery, described as "a pair of pitch-perfect shows [which evoke] an atmospheric vision of social and political dissonance." He declares,
"Universal Melancholy" features an arresting suite of portraits lensed by Swiss shutterbug Liliane Eberle during recent visits to Tunisia, Morocco, Bali, Cuba, and Cameroon.
Let's forget about de Jesus' enthusiasm for a second. Let's suppose he is sincere. He uses "arresting" to describe the photos. Arresting means "striking, or attracting and holding attention". If a seasoned writer claims something like that, he should support it. De Jesus does none of that. Instead, he immediately lends the microphone to DotFiftyone's owner, Isaac Perelman, and quotes him literally:
The fashion in which these shows balance each other is uncanny [...] Both of these artists have served as witnesses of the turmoil confronting humanity from very different perspectives and from vastly opposite chronological periods... [Still], both of these shows reflect social and political realities currently relevant to all of us in a subliminal way.
iow, the pitch-sale for the "pitch-perfect shows" is deferred to the gallerist, who does a pretty good job considering he's, well, the gallery owner, and has a vested interest. Still, Perelman doesn't explain to the reader any expressive properties contained in the photos, because what makes an image arresting is how faithfully the photographer conveys "the turmoil confronting humanity," not what (s)he has witnessed. As a journalist, that's de Jesus' burden of proof (he makes the claim, not Perelman). One gets the feeling that either the writer is not really convinced of what he says, or (even worse) that he's clueless of what's going on.

Please, Carlos, your readers deserve better.
* (in other words).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Christie's auction of Bacon's Study for a Portrait: When serious becomes laughable


In a world where -as they say- anything is possible, one is rarely surprised. But I was shocked when I bumped into this article from the NYTimes by Soureen Melikian. Its title, "A Serious Moment for Contemporary Art," makes you think of an event -after all, a serious one- that marks a substantive difference from the past. This is how it opens:
Is the market for Contemporary art at a crossroads? For the first time in years, it seemed to be heading in a new direction this week as Christie’s opened the round of sales on Tuesday evening.
Melikian is a suave seller. In a snap he takes you from serious time to serious money. How serious though? Inside Christie's auction halls, art remains a commodity. And commodities rise and fall depending whether demand overshadows hope. So, are we to take Melikian's "serious" seriously?

This market-dependent view of art is so pervasive that the writer is betrayed by his own intentional use of language, which takes for granted that art has the ability to perform. In this case, Bacon's Study for a Portrait did -as he puts it- "brilliantly":
Francis Bacon’s 1953 “Study for a Portrait” topped the list. At £17.96 million it exceeded by half the unprinted estimate in the region of £11 million, plus the sale charge, quoted only “on request.” This brilliant performance comes as no surprise. Bacon has long been a blue chip in what I called a few years ago in this column “historic Contemporary,” meaning art that is actually not contemporary because the artists are no longer alive. Bacon died in 1992.
Is there something new here that's so unique to justify this auction from others in the recent past? Melikian suggest what he calls "faithfully figural art" as playing a part. This is interesting, because the previous paragraph suggests that "Bacon has long been a blue chip."

When it comes to circularity none of this matters. The writer trumpets the sale. The sale is a painting by Bacon. Bacon is a hot commodity. Yet, the narrative moves away from price into plain aesthetic territory: 
Interestingly, the study, which does not show the distortions of face and body, ranks among Bacon’s most strictly representational paintings — it may portray the art writer David Sylvester. This appreciation of faithfully figural art probably helped to rescue the “Mao” executed by Andy Warhol in 1973.
Study for a Portrait commands its price because of certain realist features in the painting. Melikian extrapolates that this (recent?) interest may have helped sell another piece in the auction: Warhol's Mao from 1973. The sale at Christie's needs to be explained in terms of art's intrinsic formal qualities. Let's forget about the externalities of why people spend tens of millions on these artifacts. But if art performs because its inherent qualities, how would the writer justify if it did otherwise? Suppose Study for a Portrait performed miserably. Could not one then attribute its failing to the same features Melikian argues for in the first place?

Study of a Portrait's "brilliant performance" begins to show its true face. Bacon and Warhol sold because they are good investments. They are good investments because they have cachet. They have cachet because they have been market-bred for years. Let's not ignore that the article above, authored by Soureen Melikian appears in the prestigious New York Times, which adds another ripple effect to the Bacons and Warhols of future auctions at Christie's and elsewhere.

I know all this is hopelessly circular. But who said the art market is logical?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Art as a political game of redundant stereotypes in The Economist

Thomas Hirschhorn's Crystal of Resistance, 2011 

In the Economist, see Art as a political game. The observations reach a plateau of obscene redundancy. As a way of engaging these platitudes, find, below, different excerpts each with my replies in color:  

1- The scale of the Venice Biennale means that artists, cultural institutions and individual countries all vie, not just for attention, but for international recognition.  As if one doesn't presuppose the other.

2- The fairground atmosphere puts a premium on art as a memorable experience rather than as a precious object.   As if one excludes the other?

3- Pavilions that offer a convincing conceptual environment are the most celebrated. A number of veteran exhibitors have chosen this route, including Germany, which this year won the coveted Golden Lion award, the fair’s highest honour.   "Conceptual environments" (i.e., curators' choice of environments) are the most celebrated, which is why "veteran exhibitors" (i.e., curators' choice exhibiting curators' choice environments) have chosen this route. Why are the most celebrated? Because they have chosen this route! (LOL)

4- ... few understand why this year's Italian pavilion looks like an amateur art bazaar in a suburban mall. Curated by Vittorio Sgarbi, an art historian better known as a pompous television personality, it is entitled "Art is not Cosa Nostra".   Never a negation played its opposite better!

5- By contrast, predictable political gestures invariably come across as grandiose or hollow.  The reason is that they're as invariable as they are predictable.

6- Anarchic and politicised rather than orderly and neutral the pavilion defies Swiss stereotypes. Mr Hirschhorn is an independent spirit who refuses to pander to political authority, fashion or the art market.   In order to praise Hirschhorn, the Swiss become stereotyped, yet the artist shares his compatriots' fate. Being at the 2011 Biennale, exhibiting a prototypical installation refuses a trifle, except the chance to pander to  political authority, fashion and the art market.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cy Twombly R.I.P.

Artist/graffiteur Cy Twombly is dead. He was gentle, demured and saturnine. Many a cold, forgotten wall felt his curious child-like gaze.