A New Aesthetic

What is the New Aesthetic?

Now that hype and hyperinflation have killed the art market, what will define the new aesthetic?
New Aesthetic
Damien Hirst - "For The Love of God"

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.”

—Sarah Nardi

76 comments on the article “What is the New Aesthetic?”

Displaying 11 - 20 of 76

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Steven M.

Damian Hirst isn't an artist. He's simply the art director for Saatchi and Saatchi. Purchasing Hirst's "art" is either an act of public relations, or as a status symbol, analogous to Gucci handbags and Maserati automobiles. It's ostentatious, vastly over-priced, and, most tragically, not very good.

Steven M.

Damian Hirst isn't an artist. He's simply the art director for Saatchi and Saatchi. Purchasing Hirst's "art" is either an act of public relations, or as a status symbol, analogous to Gucci handbags and Maserati automobiles. It's ostentatious, vastly over-priced, and, most tragically, not very good.

Anonymous

The article raises a good point - the new aesthetic: what it is? I think, for me at least, an art that respects the viewer in its outlook is helpful. As a counter to our overt commercial imaged world an art that is 'safe' a refuge for tired eyes and minds; a place to look upon and re-build strength, a space to be able to move around freely and be able to think one's own thoughts, not to have thoughts forced upon - egoless art that has been designed to repair damaged gaze. My own work echoes childrens' art and in a way goes back to the beginning, we don't have to start where someone else left off. I see the images that I make as spnge-like, soaking up the pain in order to leave the viewer empty, paintings that absorb - I call them stable sight platforms and they may consist of faces, clouds, bridges and string drawings on cardboard amongst other things. I think an important element of the new aesthetic would be for an image to have a use - in these strange and confusing times we require all the good force available to us to bring us to another point in time and place. Art today as with politics is directionless and void of belief in a better world. Art can bring forth a conception of this other place - our eyes need to look at something worthy of their amazing design.

Anonymous

The article raises a good point - the new aesthetic: what it is? I think, for me at least, an art that respects the viewer in its outlook is helpful. As a counter to our overt commercial imaged world an art that is 'safe' a refuge for tired eyes and minds; a place to look upon and re-build strength, a space to be able to move around freely and be able to think one's own thoughts, not to have thoughts forced upon - egoless art that has been designed to repair damaged gaze. My own work echoes childrens' art and in a way goes back to the beginning, we don't have to start where someone else left off. I see the images that I make as spnge-like, soaking up the pain in order to leave the viewer empty, paintings that absorb - I call them stable sight platforms and they may consist of faces, clouds, bridges and string drawings on cardboard amongst other things. I think an important element of the new aesthetic would be for an image to have a use - in these strange and confusing times we require all the good force available to us to bring us to another point in time and place. Art today as with politics is directionless and void of belief in a better world. Art can bring forth a conception of this other place - our eyes need to look at something worthy of their amazing design.

GreenGestalt

"We were for the war and today we are still for war. Life must hurt, there are not enough tragedies." - Dada I'm actually more inspired than I have been in years over this financial meltdown and political/war nightmare. Back in the 90s people cheered the beginnings of what's happening today. I saw it all happen, just thought it'd take till 2012 to get this far at least. Thought the slide into poverty and slavery was slow. But with the apathy and complacency in the 90s the elites assured themselves that the middle class didn't realize that war had been declared on it since the 60s/70s as punishment for stopping the Vietnam war. But since the elites are trying to accelerate it, we have a chance. Our art can inspire a new generation. One used to living in comfort facing a lifestyle of deprivation that medieval peasantry would resist. One very educated facing pushing brooms if they have any work. One totally willing to now accept the "The rich are only rich because they took resources from you!" line since it's more and more obvious they won't ever be 'rich' no matter what rusty trumpet they polish with their tongues... It's perfect time for most art that I dare say most of us are into, the art of social justice. But don't forget it can be expressed in so many other ways than "Fight da man". We should also consider letting "Big Brother" help us. As the philosopher Hakim Bey notes it's a shame that in Persia they arrest poets but in America they let anyone be a poet and furthermore, poetry is not to music as it must be. The poet is ignored here. Perhaps a method of regaining legitimacy is to use it to stress an already stressed official into arresting a poet. With modern MP3 players some good music for poetry could be carried around cheaply so an arrest doesn't result in the theft/destruction of musical instruments. (one stressed by curious blackouts and collapsed roads and good new buildings falling apart that are doubtless a coincidence due to shoddy maintenance and the economy, of course!) Also note that musical instruments themselves are forms of art, not just tools for it. Anyone here gadget/DIY inclined, there needs to be some good upgrades to the Harmonica and other tools using modern tech. And post the finished designs on public boards so others could make like products. Also, by all means "Sell out" if one invents a device that's cheap ($50 or less when manufactured) that anyone could carry around and learn to play easily with a wide range of musical styles. "The last Capitalist shall sell us the rope with which we will hang him!" If we have another Depression, we need our Woody Gutheries to have easy tools to make their music with, ones cheaper than even Guitars.

GreenGestalt

"We were for the war and today we are still for war. Life must hurt, there are not enough tragedies." - Dada I'm actually more inspired than I have been in years over this financial meltdown and political/war nightmare. Back in the 90s people cheered the beginnings of what's happening today. I saw it all happen, just thought it'd take till 2012 to get this far at least. Thought the slide into poverty and slavery was slow. But with the apathy and complacency in the 90s the elites assured themselves that the middle class didn't realize that war had been declared on it since the 60s/70s as punishment for stopping the Vietnam war. But since the elites are trying to accelerate it, we have a chance. Our art can inspire a new generation. One used to living in comfort facing a lifestyle of deprivation that medieval peasantry would resist. One very educated facing pushing brooms if they have any work. One totally willing to now accept the "The rich are only rich because they took resources from you!" line since it's more and more obvious they won't ever be 'rich' no matter what rusty trumpet they polish with their tongues... It's perfect time for most art that I dare say most of us are into, the art of social justice. But don't forget it can be expressed in so many other ways than "Fight da man". We should also consider letting "Big Brother" help us. As the philosopher Hakim Bey notes it's a shame that in Persia they arrest poets but in America they let anyone be a poet and furthermore, poetry is not to music as it must be. The poet is ignored here. Perhaps a method of regaining legitimacy is to use it to stress an already stressed official into arresting a poet. With modern MP3 players some good music for poetry could be carried around cheaply so an arrest doesn't result in the theft/destruction of musical instruments. (one stressed by curious blackouts and collapsed roads and good new buildings falling apart that are doubtless a coincidence due to shoddy maintenance and the economy, of course!) Also note that musical instruments themselves are forms of art, not just tools for it. Anyone here gadget/DIY inclined, there needs to be some good upgrades to the Harmonica and other tools using modern tech. And post the finished designs on public boards so others could make like products. Also, by all means "Sell out" if one invents a device that's cheap ($50 or less when manufactured) that anyone could carry around and learn to play easily with a wide range of musical styles. "The last Capitalist shall sell us the rope with which we will hang him!" If we have another Depression, we need our Woody Gutheries to have easy tools to make their music with, ones cheaper than even Guitars.

Anonymous

Ahh yes, the poverty and slavery. And I thought we were somehow above a third-world existence? The depravity we've been unjustly forced into by those with fatter pockets than us is disgusting! Living inwardly has become our problem, not the fat cats who cut checks to themselves, riding velvet lined elevators and swilling thousand dollar spirits, smoking Cuban cigars while damning Cuba and getting off on living in high rises, flying fast planes and waiting for one of us to crawl with our heads down underneath their Gator skinned boots. We're all just waiting to get stepped on so we can turn around and be a victim. We're humans too, damnit! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76WQzVJ434

Anonymous

Ahh yes, the poverty and slavery. And I thought we were somehow above a third-world existence? The depravity we've been unjustly forced into by those with fatter pockets than us is disgusting! Living inwardly has become our problem, not the fat cats who cut checks to themselves, riding velvet lined elevators and swilling thousand dollar spirits, smoking Cuban cigars while damning Cuba and getting off on living in high rises, flying fast planes and waiting for one of us to crawl with our heads down underneath their Gator skinned boots. We're all just waiting to get stepped on so we can turn around and be a victim. We're humans too, damnit! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76WQzVJ434

Wyatt

Art, including 99% of what you call music (including your precious indie music) is stale, unsubstantial and derivative. Art does not come out of a vacuum, it comes out of an event. When the atom bomb was first dropped, it spawned a whole generation of artists and musicians and counter-culture revolutionaries. We were all born in a void - an amalgamation of tolerance and over protectiveness - with no great future, and a diluted, distorted jingoist past. What we need now is to turn back and discover our roots, and refuse to take media for what it is. Go back to Woody Guthrie and the Carter family. Go back to the Dadaists, and Whitman, and Poe. Shun the hipsters and the religious stranglehold our culture has on us. What we need is a perspective all our own.

Wyatt

Art, including 99% of what you call music (including your precious indie music) is stale, unsubstantial and derivative. Art does not come out of a vacuum, it comes out of an event. When the atom bomb was first dropped, it spawned a whole generation of artists and musicians and counter-culture revolutionaries. We were all born in a void - an amalgamation of tolerance and over protectiveness - with no great future, and a diluted, distorted jingoist past. What we need now is to turn back and discover our roots, and refuse to take media for what it is. Go back to Woody Guthrie and the Carter family. Go back to the Dadaists, and Whitman, and Poe. Shun the hipsters and the religious stranglehold our culture has on us. What we need is a perspective all our own.

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