In September, just as the full scope of the financial crisis was beginning to come into focus, Sotheby’s was preparing for one of the most ambitious art auctions in recent history. The audacity of the London sale – 223 new artworks by British phenom Damien Hirst – was underscored by the morning’s financial news: Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy in New York. As one titan of commerce fell, another, on the other side of the Atlantic, was rising.
When the final gavel came down, Hirst had brought in more than $200 million, decimating the previous record for sales by a single artist, which was held by Picasso at a mere $20 million. The world was in awe. How could an artist, even one who had proven so commercially viable as Hirst, defy a dawning financial crisis that was widely expected to be unlike any since the Great Depression? Prolific Hirst collector and market maker Jose Mugrabi offered a New York Times reporter a prescient explanation: “When the empires fall – Roman, Greek – all that’s left is the art.”
Hirst and a cadre of other hip, young artists made millionaires by a grossly over-inflated market represent the apex of a commercial age in which the notions of art and commodity became inextricably tangled. What went up on the auction blocks in September was more than artwork – it was the last vestiges of a bloated consumer empire. As financial institutions failed and 60 years of consumer confidence began to crumble beneath our feet, collectors – well-trained in the art of speculation – rushed to snatch up the relics of a dying age. The last bits of art as we know it.
All aesthetic movements are born, in some sense, of rupture. Abstractionism grew out of the carnage of WWI and abstract expressionism out of the carnage of WWII. Mid-century consumer culture marked a distinct break from the anxiety of previous decades and brought with it the idea that art had become too exclusionary and esoteric. Pop art promptly sprang from the void, speaking to the alienated masses in a language they could understand. With pop art and its most recognizable figure, Andy Warhol, a tradition of fetishizing not only art as object, but artist as celebrity, began. Speculators began to enter the market en masse, throwing money behind their bet for the art world’s Next Big Thing. Investors like Mugrabi used wealth and influence to control markets, exerting tight control over supply and demand. As a result, prices skyrocketed – and artists became rock stars. Galleries began to mine graduate schools hoping to discover a nascent Hirst or Jeff Koons. Chelsea felt more and more like Wall Street.
Art today is just one big clusterfuck of artists doing what will get them paid, what will get them laid or what will get them famous.
But then the bottom fell out. And as it continues to fall out of markets everywhere, we are confronted with the rupture that will define our age. Suddenly we’re left to peer out across the chasm that separates real wealth from perceived wealth, inherent value from inflated hype.
And we’re left to wonder – what new aesthetic will spring from the void?
“It’s impossible to define a new aesthetic movement because movements really no longer exist,” says Erik Plambeck, a recent art school grad living in Southern California. “Art today is just one big clusterfuck of artists doing what will get them paid, what will get them laid or what will get them famous.”
“If anything can be said to be an aesthetic movement right now,” he continues “it’s Facebook and blogging – that’s exactly what’s happening in contemporary art. Individuals use generic templates and hope to somehow achieve a sense of acceptance and community. They’re helplessly trying to define their influence by counting how many friends they have.”
Asked if the financial crisis could somehow have a purifying effect on art by moving us away from a formula that concentrates primary importance on money and fame, Plambeck is resolute:
“No, absolutely not. No matter what happens, we’ll never get away from the galleries and museums. They’re never going to stop lining up outside grad schools to find some 25-year-old to give a solo show.” <
Plambeck plans to attend grad school next year.
Marc Schiller, curator of the New York-based Wooster Collective – a website that chronicles street art around the world – is more optimistic. According to Schiller, we already have evidence of a burgeoning movement, the first real defining aesthetic of a new age.
He sees street art growing out of a resistance to the proliferation of mass media advertising worldwide and emerging as a counterblow to the capitalist obsession with private property and development.
So is it a cohesive, insurrectionary aesthetic movement?
“Not every act of street art is necessarily one of protest,” explains Schiller. “But every act carries with it the risk of arrest and no one will take that risk without some sense of purpose and deeper motivation.”
“The artists may not be able to articulate it,” he continues, “but there is a common theme and it’s absolutely socialist in nature.”
What have our contemporary artists been giving us? For the most part, they’ve given us objects and empty forms – golden calves and diamond skulls.
This is a fundamental point. Underlying any viable aesthetic movement is a broader philosophy, a loosely unifying worldview that connects the artists working within it. In the aftermath of WWI, Mondrian and the modernists weren’t just painting blocks of primary color, they were retreating from a physical world that had ceased to make sense into a realm of pure abstraction. They were pursuing the development of a universal language through which to express fundamental truths. And when the “war to end all wars” was succeeded by another, the abstract expressionists retreated even further from the external world, turning inward to search the collective unconscious for some sense of existential certitude.
What have our contemporary artists been giving us? For the most part, they’ve given us objects and empty forms – golden calves and diamond skulls. It’s the economic substructure of art – the underlying network of critics, curators, collectors and tenured academics – that has been imbuing our art with its meaning … and value.
Like everything else in our crumbling financial reality, the art we have lauded as the best of our age has been exposed for what it is – a number on a page that doesn’t represent any real wealth, an object on a pedestal that doesn’t represent any real meaning.
We can’t explore the possibility of developing a new aesthetic until we answer the question of what, if anything, will be the unifying philosophy of our age. If, as Plambeck has suggested, we are destined to be a culture that measures success through a tally of Facebook friends and blog hits, then we have no impetus to collectively tap an undercurrent of meaning and truth. We will be content to live in a world of appearances, virtual successes and hollow forms.
But then again, maybe that’s a bit too pessimistic. Celebrated writer and critic Dave Hickey sees things differently. He has stood as a sentinel in the art world for decades and offers a sage observation on its rise and fall: “Good artists will make love among the ruins” he vows. “Good art will always take us by surprise.”