Monday, April 14, 2014


Although I usually talk about art-n-stuff on the weekends, I have to direct your attention to an excellent piece on Salon, "David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture," by Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll. Long-time readers know I consider irony -- in writing as well as painting -- an act of cowardice. The hipster smirk ceased to require any courage about five or six decades ago. Irony became the default mode because it is easy and cheap.
But what if irony leads to a sinkhole of relativism and disavowal? For Wallace, regurgitating ironic pop culture is a dead end:
Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
So where have we gone from irony? Irony is now fashionable and a widely embraced default setting for social interaction, writing and the visual arts. Irony fosters an affected nihilistic attitude that is no more edgy than a syndicated episode of “Seinfeld.”
However, renegade accomplishments like Rauschenberg’s gave way to an attitude of anything-goes pluralism. No rules governed the distinction of good and bad. Rather than opening doors, pluralism sanctioned all manner of vapid creation and the acceptance of commercial design as art. Jeff Koons could be seen as a hero in this environment. Artists became disillusioned, and by the end of the 1980s, so much work, both good and bad, had been considered art that nothing new seemed possible and authenticity appeared hopeless.
Let me interrupt right here. A big problem pops up every time I slam Jeff Koons, the major Fraudist of our time. There's always some idiot in the audience who will say: "Oh, I see what this is. This is the old argument about realist art versus abstract art, right?"

NO. NO IT FUCKING ISN'T. I don't know why so many people reflexively want to rehash the problems of a hundred years ago, but this ain't that.

Koons does not make abstract art or cubist art or impressionist art or expressionist art. He doesn't have the talent. The only way to get a good abstract painting out of Koons would be to blow out his brains against a blank canvas -- not a procedure I'd recommend.

Koons hires other people to make what I guess can be called a form of realist art. Looky see. See any abstraction in there? No, you do not. (Well, maybe that BMW he painted...) With that out of the way, let's return to our Salon piece.
In the same period, a generation of academics came of age and made it their mission to justify pluralism with a critical theory of relativism. Currently, the aging stewards of pluralism and relativism have influenced a new population of painters, leaving them confused by the ambitions of Rauschenberg. Today’s painters understand the challenging work of the early postmodernists only as a hip aesthetic. They cannibalize the past only to spit up mad-cow renderings of “art for no sake,” “art for any sake,” “art for my sake” and “art for money.” So much art makes fun of sincerity, merely referring to rebellion without being rebellious. The paintings of Sarah Morris, Sue Williams, Dan Colen, Fiona Rae, Barry McGee and Richard Phillips fit all too comfortably inside an Urban Outfitters. Their paintings disguise banality with fashionable postmodern aesthetic and irony.
Actually, I like the work of some of the artists listed above. Sue Williams is the best living abstract painter known to me.

Richard Phillips? Well, my feelings are very mixed. Too glossy, too reliant on photography, and too ironic. The irony makes me want to vomit. The guy can paint, but I wish he'd divorce himself from commercial imagery. That shit's old. Dude, just paint a picture of a girl you want to fuck. Paint her using really expressive brushwork and interesting colors, based on a drawing you made from life. That never gets old -- it'll still be new 1000 years from now -- and it's honest.

If you're a painter looking for an escape, here are my suggestions:

1. Never use the term "postmodern" again. It means nothing.

2. Stop making paintings about ideas. You don't have any. If you had ideas, you'd write a blog. Make paintings about beauty. 

3. Believe in the beautiful. Don't laugh at it. Only a poseur laughs at beauty. Mean it.

4. Remember: Hip = evil.

5. A few more equations: Fashion = evil. Celebrity = evil. Money = evil. You can figure out the rest from there.

Popular culture is not intrinsically evil, although it must be approached with the correct (non-hipster) attitude. Popular culture includes comic books, which are drawn by real artists -- the best working today.  For pure draftsmanship, David Finch is the real thing, and Richard Phillips is a poseur. If the ability to draw means nothing to you, never talk about art again -- in fact, just kill yourself.
To me, irony seems like the wrong description for what you are ranting against, Joseph. Irony's meaning must have been stretched almost out of recognition if it really is the right word....or maybe I failed to get the point here.

It was a cliché, once upon a time, oft repeated in the UK, that Americans don't understand irony.
Maybe they've simply re-assigned it? ;-)

Believe in the beautiful. Don't laugh at it. Only a poseur laughs at beauty. Mean it.

I thought I was the only one to think that.

Never heard of Jeff Koons until this article and I know a lot about art. I have to agree with you 100% on this: his stuff is terrible which is probably why I had no idea who he was. When did things like art and philosophy die in this country? At least music seems to be making a comeback with a lot of new material that has actual melody in it again with a blessed lack of auto tune.
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