Innovative, original, fresh, new, cutting edge, formative, groundbreaking, exciting, evocative, daring…these are all words I’ve heard curators use to describe the kind of art they’re looking for today. But words like these also show up in ad copy for things like cars, or computer gadgets. Just like any other facet of the commercial world, which art is so very much a part of, newness has become a matter of course, an unspoken demand that has had the ironic effect of making newness into orthodoxy. Along the way, a million separate rebellions have somehow managed to make newness rhyme with consensus; art fairs fill up with deer heads one year, stripe paintings the next, knitted things after that, day-glo abstract paintings after that, crystal shapes after that, and clumsy ceramics after that. All seem to show up by previous unspoken agreement in amazing numbers. And while it’s not clear that relentlessly ping ponging from one thing to the next has necessarily been good for art, it has been good for business – interest in contemporary art, as well as the prices people pay for it, continues to climb.
Things might not feel brand new anymore, but they have somehow managed to feel Neo-New, as our search for the new thing has become the old thing. Back in the 80’s, when sticking the prefix ‘Neo’ on things began, (think Neo–Geo, or Neo-Expressionism, or Neo–Dada), it all seemed to point to the fact that the search for the truly new, in a modernist sense, was over. As the parade of Neo’s came to the fore, producing what the French baker Lionel Poilane calls ‘Retro-Innovation’, it was pretty much understood that the idea of pure originality – that is, something completely free of precedent - probably ended with the big bang.
Not like that seemed to matter much at the time. I was in school then, and we were taught that art could be anything an artist wanted it to be. Which made it clear we had plenty of options. But truly digesting the reality of postmodernism had a curious outcome: If a bunch of people tell you that art can be anything for long enough, than it starts to seem like it’s everything, and then pretty quickly after that, it becomes nothing at all. That’s because if art is anything, and therefore everything, the word ‘Art’ fails spectacularly to provide any kind of specific information. And rather than being a satisfying riddle that rewards deep pondering, like a Zen koan might, it stands to reason that if art can be anything, then it is, full stop, and we no longer need the word.
It’s important to note here that jettisoning a particular word doesn’t mean we also are jettisoning the importance of digesting the experiences of our lives into imagery, words, actions, or objects. Far from it. What modernism began, and postmodernism finished, was in essence a discussion about definitions, and semantics. That might sound dry and academic, but it had huge real world consequences: as the borders of art were pushed outward, and then fell away, we stumbled into the search for compelling lives instead. And in the wake of that realization, it’s also important to note that a clear disconnect begins to appear between the art world, which constantly trolls for the next new thing, and a whole lot of artists, who are surprised that that even matters.
But hold on! Art has to be something still, right? And looking for the newest version of whatever it might be seems legit. It’s very possible that art hasn’t really gone away, but that a new definition is necessary. Say for example that art is something made by artists. I’ve heard that definition used more than a few times. That theory, by default, ascribes special abilities to artists that non-artists don’t have, sort of like a starting point guard in the NBA say, or a chess grandmaster. But if only some people can make art, and not others, then we might as well pretend that the last 150 years of art history never happened – when Marcel Duchamp said he was ‘Anti-retinal’, and ‘Wanted to forget how to draw’, he was speaking as one of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th century. And when Joseph Beuys said that ‘Everyone is an artist’, he similarly echoed a sentiment that specialization in a field called art was a thing of the past. Tearing down the ‘myth of the artist’ was talked about from the minute I got to art school, and that ‘myth’ entailed certain people ciphering the cosmos in a way that other people couldn’t. Artistic training by that time had long ago jettisoned teaching traditional skills and calling the results art - it was all about ideas, not objects, and everyone could have an idea, right?
One more try: art is something intentional. That is, if I have chickens in my back yard, and I say that they are art, that makes them art. My neighbor’s chickens, on the other hand, are just chickens. Intention in this definition operates a bit like a magic-wand; simply by waving it over something, art appears. Andy Warhol’s Brillo box is an example of this in action, a replica of something put into a gallery context, which then becomes art. But what’s interesting about Warhol’s piece is that it sees the distance between art and life as an artificial one, a distance which summarily collapsed. Duchamp’s urinal from 1917 posits much the same idea. Everything has the potential to be art, these pieces say, and if that’s so, then we’re back where we started from; everything essentially is. And yes, ‘Potential’ is different than an actual piece (rocks in a quarry aren’t St. Peter’s cathedral), but it’s now understood that those rocks could be St. Peter’s cathedral, and spending time convincing people that this is so is time wasted - a hundred or so years into this, we get to skip that part.
By now of course, most of us accept that absolutely everyone, just by breathing air, has the ability to be an artist. In fact, the word ‘ability’ here really becomes a meaningless distraction – every single person, by whatever means they so choose, can call whatever they do art. The only bar to entry in becoming an artist is simply to say you are one, and bam, the thing is done. Trying doing that to become an astronaut, or an air traffic controller. The slightly tragic irony of this is the fact that so many young people spend so much money on a brand name art education – The Neo-New sure loves those Yale kids and UCLA kids and Columbia kids, and Whitney Program kids – apparently the lack of any clear definition of ‘good’ has meant that the pedigree itself has become in some ways a replacement part.
Meanwhile, operating within an environment free of any kind of discernable limits, at least from an artists perspective, yields some pretty obvious conclusions: looking for something like the ‘Cutting-Edge’, or ‘Originality’, are pointless tasks. What is the cutting edge of the universe? Better questions by far revolve around what is meaningful, what is useful, what matters, what’s good. And by lucky circumstance, artists today (that is… everyone), gets to ask these questions and pursue their answers however they see fit. What we might have formally called good art, we might now justifiably call a good life. For my money, that puts us in an era of unprecedented potential for fantastic things to be made and written and experienced. Except that not many of us take that seriously. Instead, we remain stuck in an endless loop related to specifically pleasing a niche market – the art world. And it definitely is a niche. If the word ‘art’ has exhausted itself as a way to describe anything, than what exactly does a world devoted to it mean?
Other than gold rush, of course. Though like the actual gold rush, only a few people are getting rich. The art world is filled with plenty of murky attributes, but one thing is crystal clear: there is a shit-ton of money there. And those willing to spend it need some sort of direction to wend their way through its mind-boggling array of choices. Luckily, there are a whole slew of consultants, dealers, museum directors, curators and critics, all available to help. Which is why the Neo-New is primarily driven by people who are not artists – it’s driven by a very layered bureaucracy, interleaved within a very successful business model. Oh, artists play a role in perpetuating it course, and certainly the most visible one. But artists are really only a small part of the art world, which at this point is a vast eco-system.
How powerful are these non-artists? In 2013, the magazine Art Review listed their ‘Power 100’, the annual list of the art world’ most powerful figures. And most of them are… collectors. That’s because, in the art world, money makes the engine run. And if you are the person making the engine run, then that means most of the time you end up in the driver’s seat as well. And by the way, congratulations Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani! In 2013 you were the number 1 most important person in contemporary art, due to the fact you spent a cool billion dollars on it… Damn, girl!
That is just how we do it in the West – for centuries we have tied art to money in a way that very few other cultures have done. (Though the factoid above means we are exporting that idea pretty successfully to other places). Our marriage of money and culture at least partially explains why we have been able to monetize every twist and turn artists have taken through modernism and beyond. Around the time that Jackson Pollock was written about in Life magazine, in 1949, a new kind of collector became involved, a new kind of art critic, and a new kind of art dealer, and finally a new kind of curator. In 1967, a program to train them appeared at the Whitney museum in New York. But it really wasn’t until the late 80’s, with the appearance of a formalized degree program at the École du Magasin in Grenoble, France, that having a degree to put on a show really seemed necessary. A few years later, (1992!) a master course in curating appeared at the Royal College of Art in London. Now of course, we can’t think of a time before curators, with a thicket of degrees, just getting off a plane from somewhere. Or collector’s doing the same. But this world we take for granted is maybe 30 years old, as is the speculative contemporary art market as we know it today. Pollock himself wouldn’t recognize any of it.
But artists sure have adjusted! The increased emphasis artists place on talking about their ‘practice’, of mentioning their ‘research’, or hiring assistants rather than making stuff themselves like regular working stiffs, these are all nods towards the particular audience that runs the art world, an audience that is overwhelmingly academic, writerly, theory-centric, white collar, and often wealthy. Artists have naturally learned to talk like them, rather than the other way around, for the simple reason that these people are the gatekeepers to their careers.
Having a whole cadre of professional art lookers (which Arthur Danto called the Curitoriat) has meant the art world is in a perpetual state of discovery. Lots of people are able to have lots of shows in lots of places, which means new blood is constantly required. In this frenzied environment, the Curitoriat makes us feel like we are seeing the best of the best, and potentially, even genius in its nascent form. Doing so disrupts the familiar modernist fable which goes something like this: Artist X does something incredibly forward thinking and brilliant, but hardly anyone gets it during artist X’s lifetime. The implicit promise of the curator is that we will get it (and have it explained to us) in real time. Of course, the postscript to this origin story is that now Artist X’s art is worth lots of money. So much like the origin stories in Silicon Valley, there is at root an entrepreneurial subtext to the Neo-New. Understanding the new thing is interesting, and getting there first is exciting, but the impetus towards doing both is potently intertwined with striking it rich.
If you’re thinking at this point that I find the Neo-New to be driven purely by a solid business model, along with a fast maturing bureaucracy, you are mostly right. But not totally. Like any good idea, the Neo-New is actually based on something with unimpeachable validity, which is that being current has value. For that reason I don’t want all of this stuff to leave the impression that there is no utility in the art world itself, to which lots of talented people owe their living. But I do want to point out that being Neo-New, as opposed to new, are two different things. One has to do with a hybrid form of entertainment, via an endlessly percolating now, and the other has to do with something that’s a whole lot like entertainment’s antonym.
First though, it needs to be said that the sheer utility of being in the moment really can’t be denied – doing so is in fact one of the primary tasks of art (though far from the only one). Being current might sound like a straightforward thing to do, but it is far from it; the ability to see the unadorned now requires real genius to overcome some very ingrained inhibitors towards seeing it at all. That’s because we can really only know with certainty what we’ve left behind. In a state such as this, a rational person would experience a permanent state of loss for what has already passed, as well as a sense of trepidation (ramping up to an unbridled terror) for events that haven’t happened yet. This rear-view-mirror experience of time results is a sense of cultural latency as we hurtle ever forward, going backwards into the future, accepting with difficulty the now that is rather than the now that was. For that reason, the artists that are best able to show us the present are very often taking an unsuspecting audience beyond what they know, into places that they don’t. And that is often a very unpopular ride.
It stands to reason then that someone who accurately depicts the now, would struggle to find a sympathetic audience. Let’s look at one artist who was an excellent example of someone who saw the present with astounding accuracy, and got almost no love from his fellows, artist or otherwise. And that artist is Eduard Manet. In the image below he paints a very unusual picture of a mother and child, in the streets of Paris. The background is dominated by a cast iron fence, which in fact looks like a jail cell, from which the child looks out as if she is trying to escape. By posing the child in this way, Manet denies us a view of her (probably) adorable face, the bread and butter of the mother and child portrait genre. Instead of looking at us, the child is gazing at the marvel of that era, the train. Except that this particular train isn’t really much more than a smudge of smoke, which the child just might choke on. The mother herself looks exhausted, distracted. She appears unaware of her child. Finally, it’s worth noting the way the paint is handled- flat colors, low contrast –seems informed by photography as much if not more than the standard painterly techniques employed at the time.
Manet depicts the dawn of the industrial age with a postmodern touch – borrowed sources (photography, art history), a sly reference to other work (the model is the same one he used in ‘Olympia’, a painting of a prostitute. In this one, she is a frumpy mother). Finally, he clearly is ambivalent about progress, choosing not to make something heroic out of his depiction of modern living.
Manet did not want to be original- he just wanted to impress the painters in the French Academy, from whom he desperately wanted acceptance. But his observations about the way the world was, and his uncanny ability to capture it accurately ironically kept that prize from him. In our modernist daydream, we would like to believe that artists are all brave trailblazers, who grasp the importance of Manet’s vision quickly. But that assumption would be wrong. His vision of the world was jarring, less than beautiful, not entertaining. It’s no surprise that his ultimate goal – to be a member of the Academy- was denied him. By the time Manet died, at the age of 51, (of syphilis, ‘natch) he was unsure about his success as an artist.
Of course, Manet ultimately did find success, though he was dead and gone by the time it happened. It’s largely in response to this kind of story, that today there is an incredibly large and sophisticated industry devoted to finding our current Manets, a vast academy bigger than anything that’s come before it. Pretty much all of the members of this academy see their jobs first and foremost as championing the new – a very modernist endeavor in a postmodern world. But championing the new is a whole lot different than championing the good, much less the meaningful. Conflating that which is new with that which is culturally relevant is not exactly connecting two dots by their shortest distance – it’s a leap of faith. Especially in an era where artists realize that that’s exactly what curators are looking for, and are more than willing to give them what they want. Meanwhile, there has been latency in squaring to the fact that there really is no new, and that novelty in the arts, whenever it happens, may or may not be that significant.
Bear in mind- Manet was significant not because he made unusual art. He was significant because his unusual art underscored similar changes in the culture. Cultural changes happen for a myriad of reasons of course, and understanding why they come about can take decades or even centuries to unravel. In the meantime it should be understood that artist are never the authors of those changes - ascribing them that power is like ascribing a bend in a river to a single stone – yet the important roll they play in identifying them can’t be overstated. Modernism, or Postmodernism, are very large abstract terms used after the fact to describe paradigms that span entire cultures. Artists are able to be very specific about what those terms actually mean by showing them. In order to do that accurately means connecting to that culture – not separating from it. But that’s exactly what creating a World called Art has done.
Other academies in other times have gotten things wrong as well of course. The French version, despite its member’s wisdom and experience, failed to grasp important changes in their own culture. Our own version of the Academy, far larger and far more credentialed, has had a similarly spotty record. And on this point we only waste time fooling ourselves that this isn’t so; The French Salon, despite its demonstrable myopia, frequently attracted more than 20,000 people a day, for much of the 19th century. Today, a truly epic blockbuster attracts about 6,000, and there are very few of those. Visual art intersecting with the public consciousness today at all is usually in a spirit of abuse, or of sheer financial incredulity (He paid how much for a shark?); a curiosity far from real life. This is in opposition to what Duchamp saw, or Warhol, or Matta-Clark, where the distance between art and life had collapsed. The Neo-New has made it a field for specialists instead, exclusive, and even intimidating to those outside it.
And it hasn’t been an accident. An important aspect of the Neo-New is that a general audience isn’t the goal anymore. In fact the idea of a general audience for anything seems antiquated; like the Burning Man festival say, or a Star Trek convention, the goal now is to attract a core group of highly motivated, highly informed people who together create a culture. Think of Harley riders going to Sturgis North Dakota, or world leaders going to Davos Switzerland, or Insane Clown Posse fans at the Juggalo festival in Michigan. Brand identification, and loyalty to that brand, is far more important than sheer numbers, and often times emphasizing the marginalized status of a smaller group can make brand identification that much easier. We no longer live in a homogenized world, where people look like us, or believe in the same gods as us, so it stands to reason that we would find other ways to create a tribal identity, and through it, a shared culture.
In the art world, brand loyalty has definitely been achieved. Its maturation into a series of high-end bazaars, and institutional shows spanning the globe, has cemented the notion of art being the luxury brand for the rich. Not that this is a completely new concept of course – the Medici’s and the Hapsburgs would recognize it as such and undoubtedly approve. What’s different today though is that by endlessly promoting the Neo-New, we are effectively selling a luxury brand based on the idea of freedom, and rebellion. Rock music tried something similar in the 50’s and rap music did as well in the 90’s. Seeing that methodology recycled once again at an art fair, where freedom and rebellion are once again for sale, is to experience the pure screech of cognitive dissonance. Institutions rush to support it, awards are given to those we think embody it. Freedom and rebellion become a pretty solid career move. So the question really becomes inevitable: If rebellion has this kind of broad institutional and monetary approval, how free and rebellious can it be?
Being able to buy a contact dose of freedom is now the cornerstone to the contemporary art brand. The convergence of an anything-goes aesthetic, courtesy of postmodernism, and now the Neo-New, coupled with the creation of lots of really rich people globally, has made a very vibrant market possible. But the niche that art now inhabits turns out to have some striking differences to the one Cosimo De Medici was familiar with – (other than the branding of rebellion) - now it is private, rather than public, secular, rather than religious, personal, rather than shared, speculative, rather than commissioned. As Ross King says in his book ‘The Judgment Of Paris’, “In nineteenth-century France, murals were still what they had been during the Italian Renaissance, the most exalted form of painting.” And he goes on to quotes Ingres, saying “It’s the decoration of churches, of public palaces, of halls of justice, that art must dedicate itself to.” Artists from Michelangelo to Gericault were essentially public artists, with a sideline in easel painting. That has almost completely flipped around now, with many artists never doing public commissions at all. Artists weren’t selling freedom as much as they were selling a communal voice.
It’s interesting to think of a world that included artists in that manner - they were integral to civic architecture, to the public square, to church on Sunday. In other words, art was an inescapable presence in people’s lives. Today, movies and television fill that role, becoming art for most people by default. Filmed entertainment is one of the few genres left that fully embraces the idea of making something to attract the widest possible audience. That idea now seems foreign to most of us, and even slightly suspicious. But it turns out most of us would rather be spectators than doers anyway, which is why the movies are the 20th century’s most important artistic innovation – they allow us to sit in the dark while other people’s art washes over us.
And yet… effort defines creativity. Creativity gets engaged only when a solution to a problem is required – creativity re-arranges and re-orders our available set of knowledge in new and surprising ways, thereby forcing us to extend our knowledge whenever possible, and forcing us to re-examine what we thought we knew. True creativity requires limber thinking, and eloquent execution. And it isn’t just artists that have to be creative - it’s art lookers that have to be as well. That’s because everyone has to be creative to some degree, whether it’s just deciding which shirt goes with which pants, or writing code for a computer app. Good art allows us to see a particular problem, and therefore appreciate, even savor, the solution. It’s the experience of realizing that a story isn’t just the words that are written on a page, but a whole lot of other things that those words imply. It’s the experience of seeing a Manet painting, a few square feet of canvas, and realizing that we have to consider the whole world based on seeing this tiny bit of it. Doing that work makes art (whatever the hell that might be) come alive – not doing the work, or not being asked to, means that we are simply distracted for a moment.
The Neo-New can be, and quite often is, a distraction. If art can be anything, and can be anywhere, then finding it beyond the borders of the reservation it has been put on seems not only logical, but necessary. Which is not to say that a contemporary art fair excludes things of meaning – meaning is everywhere, including there. It’s also not to say that everything in the art world is Neo-New – that phenomenon is culture wide, and illustrating it via the art world doesn’t mean that it alone is guilty. But the Neo-New shines in stark relief there. It demonstrates so clearly how the idea of isolating a place to contain things of meaning makes it that much harder to find.
The reason I’m an artist is not because of all of the galleries I went to as a kid, or because of all the contemporary art I saw. There was no contemporary art where I lived, much less anyone who looked at it. The reason I’m an artist is due pretty much entirely to looking at things that had no aspirations towards even being art: comic books, airplanes, models, bridges, trees, architecture, tools, clouds, the national geographic. I made forts in the woods, I built things, I dug snow caves. I read lots of books. Channeling that wonder into a set of possibilities (some might call it playing) is really the job of childhood. The job of adulthood is to assemble those parts, and anything else one can find along the way, into a meaningful life. Some, but not all, of the artifacts related to fulfilling that task might fit comfortably inside an art fair. But probably not many. Meanwhile, the Neo-New rolls on. Innovative, original, fresh, new, cutting edge, formative, groundbreaking, exciting, evocative, daring… repeat.