Jed Perl’s “Postcards From Nowhere”
Damien Hirst, “For The Love of God”
The latest edition of The New Republic has an article by Jed Perl, entitled “Postcards From Nowhere“, which takes on the works of a few contemporary global art stars of our day. Many bloggers have responded to Perl’s missive in a derisive manner. Yet Perl has taken on a subject that I have often thought about, and I’m quite certain many others have as well.
Let me first say I’m not consistently enamored with Perl’s art criticism in general. He wrote a fairly famous article about Gerhard Richter’s MoMA exhibit entitled “Gerhard Richter Is A Bullshit Artist” in which he excoriated Richter’s paintings. Pearl was simply wrong about Richter’s work. His emphasis on formalism in painting (a loosely defined concept that is his go-to hammer when he wants to critique works he doesn’t like), and Richter’s rejection of such “formalism”, caused Perl to completely miss the boat on Richter’s work. But that does not mean I dismiss Pearl’s writings as a matter of policy. His knowledge of art history is quite impressive. Regardless, I find Pearl’s most recent thoughts on the works of some of our contemporary art stars quite valid and well thought out.
Perl’s “Postcards From Nowhere” is another example of the person who states the obvious – that the king has no clothes. The easiest comeback to such claims is that they’re boorish, and why ruin a good thing going? But is there something articulate about Perl’s comments? In my view, Perl’s article thoughtfully illustrates the nature of works by art stars such as Jeff Koons, Damiem Hirst, Murakami and others in our contemporary age.
Takashi Murakami, “Killer Pink”
Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog (Green)”
Perl’s central thesis, that these heralded contemporary works lack a sense of place might not be completely accurate. I think works such as Koons’s, or Hirst’s diamond encrusted skulls, or Murakami’s visually hyper paintings, or Eliasson’s light shows do exemplify a certain place: Spencer’s Gift Shop in malls across the country. Such kitsch (I think everyone is in agreement that these are in fact kitsch-y) is emblematic of the shallow, juvenile, addicted consumer, and where better to find such commodities than Spencer’s Gifts? Tell me Hirst’s bejeweled skull doesn’t belong hanging by a chain on the rear view mirror of some dude’s boss El Camino. Koons’s Balloon Dogs and other baubles would fit nicely in a home decorated with bean bag chairs and shag carpet. Murakami’s “paintings” would look so cool next to the myriad day-glo velvet rock and roll posters available at Spencer’s. Oooh, and Eliasson’s lights would be a nifty addition to the strobe lights and illuminated wave machines on sale. So awesome!
My question is, how did this “art” find its way into the major museums in this country? There’s no disputing that the works have engendered enormous financial profit, and in fact it is the salesmanship involved in promoting these works which would seem to be the real Art at work here. Such salesmanship would bring a smile to P.T. Barnum’s face. Finding these works in the big museums are more examples of Duchamp’s toilet being exhibited in an art gallery (the only difference is that Duchamp could actually draw and paint – his Nude Descending Staircase is a wonderful painting). This practice of displacement has been done many times over the past fifty years, and is actually formulaic at this point. But, it works. As Barnum said “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
The works themselves don’t bother me, but it does disturb me that these works are offered up as the art of our age. The works cited by Perl in his article are not representative of our age, despite what MoMA, and The Met, and The Broad Contemporary Museum (not to mention the history books) might say. There are many other artists who are creating works that are much more prescient and deserving of such a claim.
The contemporary stunts that will allegedly define our artistic age are a continuation of artistic movements that have become increasingly specialized and outside the reasonable understanding or knowledge of common people, who may not have a degree in art or art history. Despite a lack of such specialized education, the average joe can identify great art, and will reward the artist with his or her attention, money, and appreciation. What these spectacle types of works do is continue to make a joke out of the subject of art, and render it inconsequential and meaningless in daily life. Not a joke as literary form, but more like “the joke’s on you sucker”. For those of us who value creativity and the arts, is there no greater sin?