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Laissez-Faire Aesthetics

Posted on Jan 30, 2013
Eakins Press

“Laissez-Faire Aesthetics” is the prologue to Jed Perl’s new book, Magicians & Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture (Eakins Press Foundation, 2012). It is used with permission and protected by copyright.

For years now the art world has been unpredictable, fragmented, disorienting, like a hairaising rollercoaster ride. The economic situation in the galleries and the auction houses reaches dizzying heights followed by equally bewildering depths. And fresh artists and art markets emerge even before last season’s artists and exhibitions can be absorbed. All of this has a fascination, no question about it. Drop into the galleries for an afternoon and you will probably find yourself amused. I do. But when I go back to the galleries week after week and month after month, I find that my impressions become increasingly unstable. I feel uneasy. And I know that I am not alone. Although gallerygoers are stirred by contemporary art and museumgoers are having extraordinary experiences, there is a widespread feeling that nothing really adds up—either for the artists or for the audience. No matter how eye-filling the encounters that people are having with works of art, these experiences can end up somehow unsatisfactory, stripped of context and implication. For inveterate gallerygoers the art world has come to resemble a puzzle to which nobody really has any solution. And why is there no solution? There is no solution because too many of the pieces are missing. The shared assumptions about the nature of art that ought to bind together our variegated experiences are nowhere to be found. Look behind the art world’s glittering collage of a façade and you find a pervasive uncertainty, a culture adrift in sour disenchantment. There is so much disappointment and confusion around the very idea of art that even when the art does not disappoint, people find themselves backing away from the experiences they have.

It is not easy for anybody to write about art in this strange, disconcerting time. I certainly cannot say that I find it easy. The days I spend looking at art have their hours of high exhilaration. There is also an underlying anxiety, because the wonders are isolated, and it is difficult to see how things fit together. I keep looking for a key, a theme, a pattern. Week after week, month after month, I go to the museums and the galleries, in many cities, but mostly in New York. And in New York, although I visit museums and galleries uptown and downtown and outside of Manhattan, much of the action, at least when it comes to contemporary art, is to be found along the streets of Chelsea, between 10th and 11th Avenues, north of 14th Street and south of 30th Street. Walking those blocks, waiting for elevators, sometimes finding that the views of the Hudson River outside high windows trump anything on the gallery walls, my thoughts are generally unsettled, more impressions than thoughts. Some days, I see so much and have so few strong experiences that by the time I get in a cab to go home my mind is pretty much a blank. Other times, things begin to fall into place, at least for the moment. Getting excited about new work can be a clarifying experience; that was certainly how I felt when I began to see the DVDs of Jeremy Blake, with their luxuriant, nostalgia-soaked hedonism. At other times, something indifferent or annoying or truly terrible has its own kind of clarifying effect. As I go from gallery to gallery I find myself trying to formulate an idea or develop a little theory, something that helps me make sense of it all. Not long after coming out of a Tony Oursler show—he does elaborate installations with surreal bits of video projected on sculptural objects—I found myself thinking, “Okay, the art world is now a variety show.” At some point after returning from Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the most widely discussed of the fairs where more and more of the business of art is going on, the words “laissez-faire aesthetics” came together in my head. And then there was the afternoon when I wandered across an empty plaza at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wondering what on earth I could say about the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and came to the conclusion that under the circumstances all I could do was send postcards from nowhere.

Writing, no matter how difficult, is just about the only way I have of making sense of the disconnect between the enthusiasm I feel for some of the work that I’m seeing and my more general distress at an art world that’s drunk on money and publicity. Although some have argued that tougher economic times can lead to a more disciplined—or at least a somewhat chastened—art world, my feeling is that money and publicity remain paramount even when the money is drying up. In any event, long before the art market’s most recent slide—actually, there is a boom-and-bust cycle in every decade—I had realized that value judgments, in and of themselves, would no longer do. There had been a time when I imagined that my responsibilities as a critic were fulfilled when I had described my reactions to the work of a particular artist or the work in a particular exhibition. Finding the words to convey those experiences helped crystallize the experiences for me—and, hopefully, for my readers. But description, no matter how convincing or compelling, is no longer enough. Increasingly, what I believe is essential is figuring out how the parts of the puzzle that is the art world fit together—or at least trying to figure it out. I want to look for root causes, for the larger patterns that shape the way art is presented and the way the public perceives it. I’m pretty sure about the kinds of experiences that mean the most to me. But how do they fit together? And why are they constantly elbowed to the side by other kinds of experiences? This is not easy to explain, although it surely has something to do with the rapacity of our new Gilded Age, and with the nihilism of an art market eager to dress each and every new trend in a few moth-eaten costumes from the trunk labeled Dadaism.

Am I too negative? That is surely a criticism leveled against many critics. The response, at least my response, is that criticism, even the most negative criticism, can be fueled by enthusiasm, by avidity. I believe mine is. I criticize because I care. Still, when I’m with art world friends and we are happily, exuberantly complaining about any number of aspects of the current scene, there frequently comes a moment when we hear our own words all too clearly, and a terrible gloom settles over the group. In the silence everybody is wondering: Is it really this bad? When that question is raised, I like to invoke the example of Baudelaire, who in the Salons that he wrote about the art world of mid-nineteenth-century Paris was as devastating as anybody could possibly be about early-twenty-first-century New York. And yet, I remind my friends, Baudelaire was writing even as Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, and Courbet were painting, and he certainly knew there were giants in his midst, even if he had doubts about Ingres’s work. Baudelaire, of course, lived in one of the great ages of criticism, and ours is a time when many question the value of criticism, and newspaper and magazine editors more and more seem to feel that they can do without critical writing. The role that art critics and art magazines play in our culture is greatly diminished. It is the dealers and the collectors and perhaps a few curators who are the arbiters. Even Artforum, a magazine once both revered and despised for its strong critical voice, is now mostly known for the advertisements in the print edition and for a website that has become a key source of gossip about art world goings-on.

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