Thursday, February 15, 2018

How to overegg the art pudding

Danh Vo, Theodore Kaczynski’s Smith Corona Portable Typewriter, 2011 (via Art News).  

aLfrEdo tRifF

Art News covers a show of Vitnamese artist Danh Vo, @ the Guggenheim in NY, reviewed by Andrew Russeth, who opens with this imbricated salvo:
 “I think Danh Vo is trying to end art,” an art dealer said to me a few years ago. It was a great quip, delivered excitedly, as high praise, and I took it to mean that, by presenting historical artifacts and other people’s artworks in his shows, the Danish-Vietnamese artist was working in a way that was so nakedly factual, so close to real life and real history, that he was stretching the definition of art just about to a breaking point and making other supposedly radical practices look a bit lame by comparison.
What a plenitudinous excerpt!

"nakedly factual"
"so close to real life and history"
"stretching the definition of art to a breaking point"
"making other supposedly radical practices look a bit lame by comparison"      

What we have above your typical art-magazine's reviewer/blast. FYI: contemporary art reviewers' job is to inflate the merchandise. The writing plays a faking game of being "impartial" if the term offers any consolation of a bygone time when the writer would leave their bias at the gallery's door for the sake of the public good. Art readers get it and look the other way, assuming quality of norms and integrity  if the writing has the back of established publications (thus perpetuating the vicious cycle). The truth is starkly simple: readers are already conditioned to digest contemporary art reviews as unapologetic ballyhoos (we call it artblicity).

Let's come back to Russeth, who uses his dealer's "quip" to set the tone on the march up the mountain of praise. As the critic proceeds to present his friend's hyperbole in politically correct verbiage, he lets out his own normative tract in the open:

... but that dealer’s enthusiasm has proved prescient.

After this unsubtleness, it occurred to me that Russeth may have invented the dealer as an autre to whom to transfer his personal bias while pushing for much needed aesthetic consensus. A compass  north of impartiality works in the reviewer's favor by pulling against his unchecked bias. Russeth's responsibility is to himself and the other (the artist & the reader). What we have here is the "dealer" opinion as replacement and reinforcement for the biased reviewer. In other words, if Russeth's responsibility could be delegated or shared, then it would not be only him who is on the spot.

As he plows ahead his panegyric, Russeth uncontrollably discloses his admiration:
Vo has emerged as one of the signal artists of our tumultuous era. He is a sensitive, gimlet-eyed observer of geopolitical events and his own family’s history, and how they intertwine. He is also a uniquely bold risk-taker, one of the rare artists who can act with the cold precision of a surgeon or a seasoned criminal.
You know a true praiser from a "would be" by his doubling & tripling hyperboles. A received idea in art reviewers' circles is that aesthetic evaluations require Xtra oomph. The goal is to sell the show, thus the choice, "gimlet-eyed observer," over just plain "observer" as if squinting one's eyes or frowning snobbishly would elicit perceptible changes in the laws of nature.

"gimlet-eyed observer of geopolitical events,"
"uniquely bold-risk taker,"
"rare artist,"
"who can act with the cold precision of a surgeon or a seasoned criminal,"

Russeth's "uniquely-bold-risk-taker" deserves a Saint-Simon Prize! Who would resist this shower of accolades? Never mind that in closing Russeth gets a bit of buyer's remorse and guardedly adds:
I have swooned over Vo’s work for years, all the while eyeing him with the suspicion one reserves for those who make it all look a bit too easy.
They are plain easy, trendy & nostalgic, which is precisely the theme of this epoch if there was a theme for an epoch, that is. Contemporary art and celebrity objects  are a binity.

In the study, Newman, Diesendruck and Bloom attribute "celebrity objects" to three factors: memory, money and magic:
Celebrity possessions are often one of a kind, which by definition makes them a scarce commodity. Add to it the market value they command. An object that belonged to that celebrity is valued because it serves as a physical reminder that helps people to relive those pleasurable emotional states. 
Clearly, Vo understands and plays these connections adroitly. He starts where Duchamp's readymades left off, but without Duchamp's acid, anarchist bent. Vo's objects are charged with history indeed, but history doesn't discriminate. History happens to all the elements under its domain. The Vietnamese artist makes his bet for nostalgic & celebrity history and the two make an indelible friendship, something Russeth never takes into account as a possible check to his normative credulity.

Let's close with a tad of humor. How about a show entitled Celebrity & Identity @ The Guggenheim, featuring a Vo-like artist, where amongst many other "subversive" pieces, Scarlett Johnson "used tissue" wins special praise from the Russeths of the world as "simultaneously evading and confronting the true face of banality"? Plausible indeed.


david rohn said...

Interesting points Alfredo; and I find myself dissatisfied with contemporary art, it s motives and self-referential, sometimes obscure intellectualism, it's financialization, and it's dubious communication values..Aren t we, after all. in 'communications'?

People who may not feel they're being communicated to could perhaps be forgiven for that-no?

Once upon a time . people who had access to education studied Philosophy - they accepted the Greek idea that 'the unexamined life is not worth living'.
Hardly anybody anymore has even a passing knowledge of Philosophy, although a huge section of bookstores on and offline include 'New Age'. self-Improvement and 'Spiritual', categories.
Into the 19th century, poetry became an important subject for the educated classes in Western civilization, who sought aesthetic pleasure and expression.
Know anybody who reads Yeats or Shelley anymore...let alone who's even heard of them?

That's gone too; replaced by rock n roll lyrics (as in Dylan winning last year's Nobel Poetry Prize), and the incredibly fecund wordsmiths of Rap.
So now we have street art too.
I guess the point is that when one cultural form ceases to respond to it s audience, or who's audience ceases to respond to it, is replaced by one that does...Not overnight maybe, but over some period of time.
Luckily we're in a time of change: what s no longer working will be extinct (even tho it may not go gracefully or willingly).

so...the beat goes on . and in the future it will once again be real (I hope).

Alfredo Triff said...

David, thanks for your comment. You're smart and resilient and your work speaks of your commitment. The "new" is always a bit confusing and it makes contemporary art a pretty interesting phenomenon. :)

swampthing said...

david rohng is often right