April 12, 2007

The Future

Administrator’s note: Arash Mokhtar lives and works in New York City, maintaining a studio in Brooklyn where he works on his paintings, photography, collage and sculpture, continually entertaining studio visits to court gallery representation. He also writes, and his essays and reviews are considered and occasionally published online at ArtCritical. Professionally, Arash transitioned from the decorative and scenic art world to the independent film industry in New York, working as Assistant Director, Art Director and Production Designer on productions, features and shorts. He is currently working on a feature screenplay and adapting a Mark Twain essay into a short film.

His essay, “The Future,” represents a recently graduated fine artist’s view of contemporary art’s possibilities. While maintaining an incendiary and distinctively critical tone, his inquiry ranges from the art market’s “power” structure to the scourge of “relativism,” finally yielding to the dialectics of historicity. I am particularly impressed with Arash’s mind and his writing abilities, and I publish this piece because I feel it is essential reading for art students and practicing artists.


“Endurance is more important than truth.”
-Charles Bukowski

It is the first day of spring. For some ancient cultures it is New Year’s Day, the vernal equinox. Our American culture is facing off against other nations in an increasingly troubled era. Our limited resources undermine our expansionist tendencies. Art today reflects our limits.

Like U.S. politics, art culture has taken many missteps in the recent past. Relative to its place among the rest of society, the “art world” in America, that is to say, galleries, museums, so-called collectors, board of directors of fine (read High) art along with many well-established “emerging” artists are in a state of crisis, or perhaps more importantly, the work is. Not an impending doom like a horrible natural disaster coming in off the horizon, but more like a catastrophe brought about by a toxic mix of insouciance and greed.

Art, as a concept and a practice, possesses power. Many of the conflicts our nation seems involved in, and many of its scandals, are about this power, the power to represent. (The Middle East has been in a conflict to represent itself, unmediated by imperialists, colonialists, and “free-market” capitalists for nearly a century…) People’s minds can be affected, perceptions altered, lives and histories changed. The power to affect, to cause an effect, is an increasingly unpopular notion among the upper classes of art world insiders. (In the interests of full disclosure, I myself was at one point an art school rat and have been graced with the academy of High versus Low and exposed to the doctrines of post-art’s relativisms and theory.) Artists and dealers, academics and gallerists, enthusiasts and collectors, are all in a state of market-driven appeasement. The roster of endless art fairs circling the globe rather seamlessly testifies to this. Who is feeding this market? Who is driving it? What is the product? Has art, or what we’ve come to regard, and reward, as art become simply another negotiating tool? A product whose mutability can suggest an infinite market of goods that ride the guise of creative liberties? After all, who can really say what is art and what is not? What has quality and what does not? Can a judgment really be made?

This mish-mashed understanding of relativism has bred not only unimaginative imitators who find no need to endeavor to invent (and don’t believe in the concept altogether) and a cynical marketplace unwilling to seek out freshness and vitality in its young art. Of course, these traits can be imitated, much like the co-optation of underground and once transgressive subcultures throughout the U.S. as evidenced in stores, clothes, magazines, sports, and movies…ad infinitum. It almost seems like the human compulsion for rebellion, especially adolescent rebellion has been replaced by the deep desire for conformity and success. Art, as seen in commercial galleries and fairs, is fronting the cynical machinations of the desire and envy industry, most notably Fashion. Art is no longer in a relationship with fashion, it has become it, stripping away any real power it has. Possessive appeal usurps meaning. It no longer represents, it duplicates. The broadest possible appeal has brought with it the most irresponsible kind of neglect. The marketplace has infiltrated the studio, and worse, the creative imagination. Is there even an ongoing discussion in the intelligentsia, through magazines, newspaper articles, online forums, schools, etc. or is there only a whole lot of self-congratulatory validation going on? One senses that criticism has ceased to exist outside of the minutiae of what was created when and by whom and exhibited where; a veritable celebrity digest of who’s who in art now. How many artists compete for a chance to have a place in a true cultural dialogue, rather than a spot in the so-called “canon” as exemplified and disseminated throughout the market? How many works are made heavily tempered with a learned careerism that dismisses originality, struggle, failure and accomplishment as outmoded human qualities that belong only to Greenbergian notions of art? Works are made pre-conscious of their place in the bazaar. This is not a marketplace of ideas. It has degenerated into a self-actualized boast, a grandstand of privilege. There are now many easy prisons of thought seeking to restrict any art that attempts to provide something that could be called experience.

American art is moving through a state of crisis and denial, a deluge of newly minted art and artists of the anti-ecstatic. Real connection and parallels have been replaced by isolated gestures. A sense of proportion, or scale, is lost, in terms of where one’s work fits in any historical context. The idea of history itself is dismissed as mass appeal has replaced individual curiosity. This is the dictum of marketing. Art can, and should be, more. Young artists in the States seem to be embarrassed and repelled by honest exchange. The work masks emotional response with a superabundance of stylistic metaphors and cliché colloquialisms expressing ennui. Art is ideas and can provide truly unique and independent experiences for people. This, in fact, can be a responsibility of art, if artists choose so. This is not a precept of artmaking, or necessary condition, as any cursory glance at the history of art would easily demonstrate. Anything goes, obviously. There should, however, be more than lazy intellectualism and regurgitated theory; stylistic meanderings of the comfort class. Outside of a handful of artists, art seems so safe, an easy commodity that doesn't dare disturb the ether of sales, but only postures and poses in neo-punk platitudes and stylings.

This is a crisis that comes in the form of willful neglect. We live in a time of global connectivity, radical change and superb action. Being disconnected from change and relying on heavy-handed imitations with total disregard for invention and investigation should be detestable, not readily rewarded. Too much that passes for Art today avoids connections that could provide experience. It dabbles in fashion-driven marketing practices. It has been recruited and reprogrammed to drive the engines of mass culture: to forget history, deny experience, and forego relationships. These things can be messy, awkward, “uncool” and discomforting, much like our troubled times. But art in America today reflects little to none of this. It relies highly on distorted capitalist notions of success--fame and fiduciary evidence being the proving factors. Connections to history are crudely drawn in afterthoughts only to prop up the artist’s myth and to provide depth to otherwise vapid art. It has become a race to the bottom. Forget history. Broadest possible appeal. Lowest common denominator. Is this the future of American art? Is everyone really so tired that they feel actually “feeling” something is too much effort (and much too embarrassing)? Our culture, our collective American consciousness, is at a low point. Artists seem afraid, uninterested and not up to the challenge. They should attempt something more but don’t. Why should they compose work when an isolated and meaningless gesture will do? Why should they develop if imitation is enough? Race to the bottom…when we reach it, I hope some of us will continue to possess the desire, and energy, to find our way back up.

Reading for 18 April: Chapter 25: Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices by Nana Last.


Rebecca Jones said...

this is becky

"Art is no longer in a relationship with fashion, it has become it, stripping away any real power it has. Possessive appeal usurps meaning. "

One piece of art holding "any real power" seems so hard to accomplish in the setting of art fairs and on "ArtNet". Maybe since today art is so transportable and so physically close to many other works at one time, artists become more inspired to make a comment on that experience rather than any experience that can be totally contained and separate in a single piece.

The oppurtunity for art to affect will always be there of course. But as an American (and as a Washingtonian), even though "the power is in the people", today, it's easy to feel like ones voice has barely any power. I definitely agree that the art coming from this culture could be symptomatic of this feeling.

Rebecca Jones said...

What I mean by:

"Maybe since today art is so transportable and so physically close to many other works at one time, artists become more inspired to make a comment on that experience rather than any experience that can be totally contained and separate in a single piece."

Is that this phenomenon could account for works that are not so much about the artists hand, or the artists personal emotion and experience and for works that are about/use imitation and anonymity.

Liana said...

I think that there aren't any big direct challenges today as there may have been previously. Instead, today, I feel as though the self is more important than any political or other challenge and so artists and viewers alike are more prone to creating art relating to themselves instead of rising to a more universal challenge.

Jessica v said...

Although the main tone of the essay is a critical one, critical of the art market, artists, and the art itself. But it ends with a sense of hope. Leaving me with the possibility of a positive future but one I'm going to have to work for.

Antea Roberts said...

Just throwing this out there: Why must we create a future for art? Why can't we make art for ourselves, with out the art world and its interests in mind, solely for our own benefit? Is it necessary to help the art world along? Why?

Nicholas said...

This essay brings up some serious points that should really resonate with all of us. How many times have you looked at a piece or thought of an idea and said to yourself, "could I see this in a gallery?" The gallery as a symbol is supposedly representing some measurement of success and maybe we are just using it to engage is a sort of self-appraisal so that we can be validated in some way. It is simply a meager attempt at defining "good art". This mindset could very well be having an overtly negative effect on the work we are generating and ultimately be leading copies after copies after copies.

Randolph said...

It is ofcourse very possible to create work without regard for the public. Simply creating intuitive works that reference personal experience, and ignoring the history of art. However this becomes a real challenge in a world where the most mundane of events are recorded.

What we are forgetting truly is that there is art that exists without the gallery that contain pungent messages. But to place yourself alongside objects within a gallery, and not aknowledge your relation to those objects and the history of those objects becomes detrimental.

Anonymous said...

This is Patrick Donovan

A theme of this essay seems to be that the current art environment is over-commercialized. This may be the case, but would the alternative be preferable? Nothing prohibits anyone from participating in a non-commercial manner, and commercial success and a booming art market provides an opportunity for more artists to create art.

George said...

Arash sums up the current condition of the art world perfectly.

Where I might disagree slightly, is with his notion, What has quality and what does not? Can a judgment really be made? I would say yes, and that ultimately history is the cruelest judge.

Is this the future of American art? Is everyone really so tired that they feel actually "feeling" something is too much effort (and much too embarrassing)? resonates with my perception as well.

New art must fight the war for authenticity. Authentic art destroys fashion, even if it becomes fashionable

A worthy manifesto for the future.