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 one smallish word doesn’t mean we are also 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. As Tristan Tzara wrote in 1922 “Art has not the celestial and universal value people like to attribute to it. Life is far more interesting.” 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.
As we move away from asking the question “is it art?” to simply asking “Is it awesome?” we leave the confines of a place that carried on a rather specific and centuries old investigation, into one where countless investigations are happening at the same time. All of the new ‘non-traditional’ approaches to making art, therefore, invariably intersect with something else, and usually that something else comes with a very developed history. If you are using technology in your art for example, it’s worth noting that NASA, (your new colleagues), have a rover on Mars right now. That Tetris exists. That there are millions of apps for your phone. That your phone exists. And so on. You begin to realize that it’s impossible not to step into something that lots of other people haven’t thought about, researched, tinkered with, and sweated over.
Truly digesting the fact that art could be anything has made a whole lot of people retreat backwards, towards something that is more familiar. All of the preceding Neo’s were a precursor to that phenomenon, which at this point has solidified into a genre that I just think of simply as Artworld. It’s a genre that pushes an idea forward, and then removes or disables the hand (unless it’s courtesy of paid assistant), resulting in something that is really a signature style. If that sounds facile and formulaic, it often can be. But the need for something that is definable is hard to dismiss.
But hold on! Art has to be something bigger than a genre, right? Isn’t there something that it alone does especially well? 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 that he ‘-unlearned to draw. I had to forget with my hand’, 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 it very much remains so today.
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 magically conveys my chickens into the art world, where that particular context allows them to transform. Andy Warhol’s Brillo box is an example of this in action; a nearly exact replica of a mass-produced item, transformed into art when put into a gallery context. But what’s interesting about Warhol’s piece is that it sees the distance between art and life as an artificial one, a distance that has, in the minds of many, summarily collapsed. Warhol, maybe more than any other artist, was able to illuminate the invisible membrane that separated the World from the Art world, and deftly point towards the door. Duchamp’s urinal from 1917 pokes holes in the same imagined barrier. Everything has the potential to be art these pieces say, in the art world, though outside of it, not so much. But pretty quickly the inside/outside dichotomy really becomes untenable: can we reasonably say that things outside that membrane are not art? Examples are legion - was grafitti an art form before it was shown in galleries, or only after? Were medieval gargoyles? Or Gees Bend Quilts? Or totem poles? Intention becomes another way to slip the art world membrane around something that might exist perfectly well outside it.
If there’s no walled-off, specific preserve where art lives anymore, then we’re back where we started from; everything has the potential to be the building blocks of art. 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. Meanwhile, negotiating our way through the murky gray between ‘potential’, and ‘art’ is something that requires an arbiter of some kind to determine, which explains the rise of the curator (which I’ll talk more about in a bit). And despite lots of smart people and good intentions, choosing between ‘potential’ and ‘art’ has consistently been riddled with bias, blind spots, agendas, and sheer ignorance. In other words, curators are people like the rest of us. Which is why a large part of the problem in identifying art has to do with adjusting the eyes of the looker, rather than adjusting the art of the maker.
At best, it is a process undergoing constant revision. Which is good. Still, it doesn’t pass the laugh test to think that something like the Whitney Biennial has become the arbiter of what visual culture is for everyone. That's because the people who decide what art is are no longer the only arbiters out there. All the street artists, skateboarders, surfers, tattooists, instagramers, fashion designers, advertising agencies, pop surrealists, chop shops, burners, viners, video gamers, you tube channelers, et al, have made different choices about what makes something relevant, as they logically should in an environment that is so entirely free of definition. The issue is no longer what is art, but what is culture.
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 Bard 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. 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 opportunity 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 in it. 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, and websites, 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’s 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 person to connect all of the dots: a 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. New blood is constantly required as more and more people have shows in more and more places. In the midst of this ferment is the growing realization that curating itself is an art form (surprise!), and the true marker of accomplishment within that sphere, the brass ring as it were, is the uncovering of actual genius in its nascent form.
It’s worth following the rational for this, because the unintentional blowback of finding genius in real time, noble as it might sound, ended up becoming one of the founding principals of the Neo-New. First the noble part: curators saw themselves then, (and still today), disrupting a 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) as it happens. Of course, if you plan on finding a genius you also better plan on having lots of shows, because geniuses are really rare. But let’s say, after lots of high-concept, thematically tight shows involving artists from all over the world, our intrepid curator manages to uncover real talent. That segues into the not-so-noble part: implicit in 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 intricately tangled with striking it rich.
If you’ve read this far, you most likely have concluded that I find the Neo-New to be driven by a fast maturing bureaucracy, smoothly running a solid business model. And that description would mostly be correct… 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, 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. Ironically, that place is directly where they are standing.
It's not really a news flash 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, able 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. Make it tough, don’t sell out, don’t pander, these were all-important criteria when I was in school. Broad acceptance was a sign of failure, not success. It never occurred to us that what we were actually doing was learning to make things for a particular audience, with very specific parameters. 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 all the same, or believe in the same things, so it stands to reason that we would find other ways to create a tribal identity, and through it, a shared culture.
The Basel fairs, the Biennials, Documenta, these are all the art world’s version of their own tribal gathering spots. Along the way, the maturation of the art world into a series of high-end bazaars 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. But there are a couple of glaring differences that separate today from back then. The first is that the basis for what collectors and curators are looking for is still rooted in a modernist version of originality, and disruption. That’s actually been great for business, because by endlessly promoting the Neo-New, we are effectively selling a luxury brand based on the idea of freedom, and rebellion, which has a track record of working really well. 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 very much embedded into 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 really illuminates the second key difference between now and other, pre-modernist eras. Art is no longer public, but private. It’s no longer commissioned, but speculative. It’s no longer shared, but personal. 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.
The communal voice that is being sold today is really for the art world, and pretty much the art world alone. And as I’m trying to make clear, there is a certain understandable rational for that. If one goes to an art fair today, it’s hard not to notice that all of those people wandering around have certain similarities in common, a subtle consensus in terms of dress, and behavior. The tribal association extends beyond just to the art, to include each other. It stands to reason then that this art fair tribe would share a frame of reference, an aesthetic, and even a lexicon, which over time becomes like a regional accent. (Try explaining what a ‘Gallerist’ is to a civilian, or how ‘Basel’ is a place in Florida). The same could be said about people at a football game, or a NASCAR race; the tribal gathering aspect in some ways trumps the event itself. Of course, right on the heels of that realization comes the crushing sense of a world reduced, made simpler, safer, and more predictable, rather than what it actually is: big, scary, and complex. Filled with people who may not agree with you. Like I said, it’s understandable why people do this.
In the case of the art world though, shrinking the world comes with a heaping dose of irony. If showing the unadorned now is one of the main jobs for art, then facing big scary and complex things should be embraced, whereas a World for Art talking to Itself can, and does, become solipsistic pretty quickly. A whole bunch of artists can, (and do), make art about art, or even just the art world itself, and have perfectly viable careers. Meanwhile, it’s difficult for me to discount different eras and cultures that saw artists as integral to civic architecture, to the public square, to church on Sunday (or Saturday, depending on the faith). In other words, art was an inescapable presence in people’s lives.
Today, the only thing that comes close to accepting the idea of a general audience is probably television. The idea of a general audience for anything now seems foreign to most of us, and even slightly suspicious. And while it is true that most of us would rather be spectators than doers anyway - which is why the movies and television are the 20th century’s most important artistic innovation – a select few t.v. shows manage to ask something of us, to challenge us without losing the that inclusive starting point.
It’s a tough assignment to be gracious and inviting on the one hand, and challenging on the other. And most t.v. shows don’t do it of course. It’s far easier (and more profitable), to allow us watchers to sit in the dark, slack jawed, while shit blows up. But meaning and engagement happen only when it’s not just the artists that are exercising their creativity, but the art-lookers as well. It’s the basis for 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 understanding that seeing a Manet painting, a few square feet of canvas, requires us 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. That’s because, as a place supposedly devoted to ideas and meaning, the art world demonstrates better than anywhere the barriers we put in place to make those things 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.