Art Criticism

Against Essentialist Views on Art, Art-Making and Artists: The Market-Based and Critical Argument




I don’t know what art is. I don’t know what art-making is, apart from the fact that in some logical way it has something to do with making, and that it fit some view of art;  that is, art-making is a circular business, the snake eating its own tail. The rest is empty, is silence, is the rigorous condition of the mute.

However, pieces abound like the recent Details magazine piece that suggests that artists–individuals who are necessarily subject to definition as such, in an obvious way– have the kinds of skill sets that demand attention from the corporate world during this time, the present time, of duress, confusion, insufficiency and sky-rocketing equity prices.  That the piece seems directed at the young stock brokers and B-school students who read Details is quite beside the point. (Unless, I’m mistaken and it’s entirely the point. Well, at least for the magazine, it is.)  What struck me is the essentialist flavor of the piece that suggests that artist are X kind of people. They’re creative, out-of-the-box’ers, you see, and they hustle and they move and they shake. They shake off their sloth and they shake off the dust that covers and cloaks their mighty, arty, imagination. All this, to better manipulate the market. All this, you too can learn my young Whartonian.

Consider also the recent piece on Kehinde Wiley published in the Economist that suggested that his art, like other international-styled art, has legs beyond the local art markets of Chelsea, Williamsburgs, Bushwick and Blah. That Wiley’s work works outside of what used to be his New Haven-bound practice that said something very, very, very specific about  the “young, black male” identity. To me, that this work said all this about all that in Gant-centric New Haven was what made the work powerful. All that seems to have got lost in this new work, the World Stage series, about black males in Israel and, apparently, Palestine.  Maybe better put: all that lets lost in the write up about that work. For, the write-up suggests that Wiley’s work, his paintings and videos, are essentially a strategy to invoke community and knowledge and that it works everywhere. That the essential bargain that you engage in when you see a Wiley is something that remains constant across spaces. That constancy is the stuff of the creative artist who can negotiate a world through his art during trying and difficult times. Moreover, the piece suggests that work along that view of constancy, Wiley’s practice, can also negotiate those circuitous paths out in the world.

Now, see, I love Kehinde Wiley’s work. It moves me and often it blows my mind. But it does so mostly when I know that the work functions as something other than beautiful paintings sat pat on a nice big wall. I like the work “more” when I know about the history behind his work, the stories he hears and the videos he shoots. Unless I’m mistaken (and I’m often mistaken) this new work will only work in that way when more of the history of that work is put out into the world.   But I welcome that. I welcome that like I welcome a piece of dark chocolate sea salt bark right about now.

My problem is that these pieces suggest that artists are one sort versus another. That they are creative, or they engage a public, etc, etc, etc.  The Economist piece seems to get at that when it quotes Wiley: “My work is a deconstruction of the language of painting, sexuality and class. It’s a lot more content than just hip hop.”  Fair enough. And fair enough that the people who constitute the market for his work may not know that. At least they may not know that at first pass. And fair enough he wants the people who constitute his market to know his work works in such and such a way. Fair enough. But, the piece still says that Wiley is saying something true about the black experience all over the world.  And, as I argued above, I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

I think what IS true is that some artists make art like a business and are sometimes successful at it. Koons, Murakami, Hirst et al are the exemplars of that model. I think some artists, like Wiley, get at some part of the human experience, or the black experience, in some parts of this country. This does not mean that the same artist is equipped to address black male identity in the same way all the time, in another country or, indeed, all over the world.

Artists are people. Yes, I wrote that to point to the following. Artists are people: inconstant as people; untrue as people; insecure as people; unkind as people; kind as people.  Nothing about artists holds essentially. Nothings abides, necessarily. And nothing commits an artist to anything, apart from what she will.  There are good artists who succeed, sometimes, because they are one kind of artist, incomplacent, in charge, sure. There are artists who succeed because they are seemingly flakey and in touch with something immediate and entirely contingent, sure. But neither sort of artist succeeds all the time because of the kind of artist they are. They succeed for all sorts of reasons that  have nothing to do with the essentializing discourse of categories.

It bears mentioning that Jerry Saltz’ recent article in New York magazine hinted at the view that many artists who’ve become part of the canon were artists who were self-reflective and self-critical.  I think that’s true for some people. Indeed, it is my view that though the piece reads as an argument essentializing mechanisms to achieve art historical import, Saltz means something of the sort that the people he likes who’ve been deemed successful and art-historically important are people who worked at their work tirelessly and without regard to what those artists and others might have deemed essential to their own work. That this argument just fails to be an essentialist one by the skin of its own teeth is rather remarkable.

Artists are successful as they are good brothers and bad sisters.

Ahh, this rant and this writing. Ahhh, were that there were chocolate at the end of each piece of writing one accomplished. So that chocolate were consequent to each pronouncement: “It IS ACCOMPLISHED.”

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