The Everything Cup

“We do not know how art began anymore than we know how language started. If we
take art to mean such activities as building temples and houses, making pictures and
sculptures, or weaving patterns, there are no people in all the world without art. If
on the other hand, we mean by art some kind of beautiful luxury, something to enjoy
in museums and exhibitions or something special to use as a precious decoration in
the best parlour, we must realize that this use of the word is a very recent
development and that many of the greatest builders, painters and sculptors of the
past never dreamed of it.”
- E.H. Gombrich

For thousands of years, art making in a western context was a trade - masters taught
apprentices how to make objects. Now it’s a field for academics. Professors teach
students how to conduct research. It used to be blue-collar, now it’s mostly white

This all happened starting around the 1860’s, as two dueling styles, Romanticism
and then Realism, were slowly taken over by Impressionism. That began the
cavalcade of ‘isms’ that defined modernism, and modernism is what really changed
art from a trade devoted to decoration, into a far more intellectual pursuit, devoted
to ideas.

Sure artists still make stuff. Lots and lots of stuff as a matter of fact, which is curious,
given the fact that doing so at all is unnecessary. But the way they do it, and whom
they do it for, is profoundly influenced by Art’s new academic identity. I’ll get to the
nuts and bolts of that in a minute. But for now it’s important to understand that
artists are no longer mere decorators; they are also philosophers, and sociologists,
and anthropologists, and psychologists, and critics. Most of them have taken
advantage of this new and tremendous opportunity to invest their art with
socio/political and psychological layers that wouldn’t have been possible a mere
century ago.

That’s made it an incredible time to be an artist. Freeing up the role of art freed up
the idea of what defined art in the first place. This inspired a mad rush to strip bare
the roots of art itself, and all the aforementioned Isms quickly followed. After
Impressionism came cubism, fauvism, futurism, surrealism, minimalism, de stijl,
dada, expressionism, color field, abstract expressionism, op art, pop art, installation,
earthworks, social practice, and so on. The irony is that the whole time we thought
we were out there looking for the cutting edge of art, what we were really doing was
finding the cutting edge of ways to contain art. All of the above list, (and then some)
simply amounted to formal approaches designed to invite art in. For that reason, it’s
fair to say that modernism concerned itself with a very rigorous exploration of form,
not necessarily content, and what it proved after more than a century of dedicated
effort, is that the form doesn’t really matter much. Sometime around the early
1970’s, we realized that any single Ism we came up with was probably as good as
anything else, which essentially meant that art could land anywhere, at any time,
beckoned by anyone.

This is where things get very interesting. If we accept that anything is art if an artist
says it is (the famous description coined by the artist and writer Donald Judd), then
making art doesn’t seem all that special. How could it be if it’s anything you want for
chissakes? Of course, you don’t have to agree with that theory - maybe art still is
something specific. But if it is, then by default you are (still) a modernist. That’s
because if art is something in particular, and not just anything, then doing that thing
becomes important. Not doing it means that you’re not making art after all. As Piet
Mondrian said, (certainly a poster child for modernism) “true art like true life takes
a single road.”

Most of us by now would reflexively disagree with a sentiment like that, and defend
the right for artists to do whatever they want. No single road for us! But being able to
follow any conceivable path instead of just the one has some pretty interesting
implications. And the main one is this: if art has no real definable characteristics
anymore, then it’s possible to see art as potentially anything. If it’s possible to see it
as anything, then it’s possible to see it as everything. This for all intents and
purposes eliminates art as a definable category. And while there is a certain poetic
vastness to that, akin to the ‘we are all stardust’ thing, the big picture view
eliminates our ability to take it in, making it unknowable in any functional sense. Which makes art essentially meaningless, right?

Wrong! While it may be true that art is a thing that resists definition, we also know
that the definition that modernists were looking for was a formal one. Imagine a
cup, and in that cup is a small amount of water. The design of this potential cup is
virtually limitless - almost any shape, size, or color would do the job well enough - it
just has to hold a bit of water after all. But what happens if the cup doesn’t hold
water, due to some truly adventurous design tinkering? In that case, what happens
is that the water just splashes to the ground and goes somewhere else. So too with
art. Dispensing with the different forms to contain it – the cup in this analogy –
doesn’t mean that we have dispensed with art itself. Making the cup go away doesn’t
make art go away. What it does mean is that the conversation has profoundly
shifted, away from what the cup might look like, to where to find the water.

The Visitor

Not that long ago I realized I was asking myself one simple question every time I pondered the contents of a museum or gallery: is it art, or is it artworld?

Art is famously hard to define of course. Artworld on the other hand is surprisingly easy - that’s because artworld has become a genre, just like craft is a genre, and pop-surrealism is a genre, and public art is a genre, and burning man is a genre, and vernacular art is a genre, and glass art is a genre, and so on. To understand artworld, the genre, all that is required is to go to artworld, the place (i.e. any contemporary art museum, gallery, or art fair), and look around.

The first thing to notice upon entering artworld is the sheer amount of stuff, the staggering variety… how in the world could any of it be lumped together? Simple: artworld stresses the importance of the idea over the object, and shies away from the technical skills found in other genres. The caveat to that is artworld allows unlimited fabrication razzle-dazzle from paid assistants, as long as the artists themselves retain a sort of white-collar managerial role. But for the most part, pushing the idea forward, and removing (or disabling) the hand, has really come to define artworld’s signature style. That’s why it’s nutty to imagine re-staging any of its marquee shows at the Renwick say, or the Cooper Hewitt, or the Mint, or installing them bit-by-bit as public art. The contours of artworld reveal themselves as soon as one steps outside of it.

It should be noted here that artworld is fantastic, a lot of the time, and it’s just filled to the brim with talented and fun people. So the real question is why does the whole genre thing even matter? To go a step further, genres are not only fun, they actually serve a function – innovation and insight are direct outcomes of sinking into any field deeply. The result of that is really the story of civilization itself. Why shouldn’t that same model apply to artworld?

It should. And it does. And by god we have innovated the shit out of artworld. This is no screed denouncing that, or denouncing genres in general. What I’m trying to do instead is explain why art isn’t one, and why that matters.

Imagine that there is a station on the radio called The Music World. It’s at the end of the dial, past the jazz station, and the hip-hop station, and the reggae station, the oldies station, the rock station, the metal station, and soul station, and country station, and so on. Music World is great. It’s definitely your favorite. But regardless of your feelings about the rest of what’s playing, the other stations play music too. Hopefully the analogy that I’m making here isn’t too terribly subtle: artworld might have the word art right in the title, but it sets itself up for a particularly unreasonable set of expectations if we imagine it to be the only place where art lives - much less the place where importance lives, or relevance, or meaning – because it’s simply the place where artworld lives. Art and artworld aren’t the same thing.

Before I get much further, I should describe how art, the word, got emptied of any specific meaning. If you don’t think so, then just ask any artworld denizen to define it quickly, and watch the tongue-tying begin. It’s necessary to explain how that happened, because despite what I’ve just said above, a lot of people still think of art as exclusive to museums and galleries - which is to say, art and artworld actually are the same thing. But starting about 150 years ago, art really dedicated itself to discovering it’s own borders, and by the time the dust cleared, it turned out that there were no borders – no hurdles, no barriers, no walls. And in that great expanse, the more we looked for art, the more we found.

The first real move towards figuring that out was impressionism, followed quickly by post-impressionism, then fauvism, cubism, expressionism, De Stijl, and so on and so on, at an increasingly dizzying pace. Modernism is described as the era of the Isms, and really it’s impossible to know how many came along during that time, but certainly it was in the hundreds. The upshot of all of this exploration was the realization sometime in the 1980’s that pretty much all avenues had been explored, and the only thing left to do was to make work pointing that out. The result of that realization gave us the last Ism in a long line of them: postmodernism. By that time, many of the proceeding things, from as far back as dada, up through earthworks, social practice, and a whole lot else, had moved things way beyond a particular venue, medium, or discipline. The final kicker in the whole search for borders thing was to realize that all the new avenues to be discovered in the future wouldn’t really have to convince anyone that they were art, like the old one’s had to. In other words, the battles that abstract painters waged, or minimalists, or performance artists, or even photographers, just to be considered art, would no longer be necessary. That's because art that challenges whether or not it's even art, as a conceptual approach, has by now become orthodoxy. You want to be a cook at your opening? That’s great. Do you just want to hire actors to greet gallery goers at the door? Excellent! How about making the lights turning on and off for your museum show? Yes please! Let’s give that one the Turner Prize. (Those are three of my favorite artists btw). The famous quote by Donald Judd, uttered in the early 70’s, about how art is whatever an artist says it is, has come true in practice: art has not only literally left the building, (those being museums and galleries), but it has left the studio as well. It re-appears there on occasion of course - art comes and goes as it pleases, free of any specific address - but wherever it goes, it’s only a visitor, not a permanent resident of anywhere.

Meanwhile, possibly because of some kind of autosuggestion built in to the name, art and artworld have gotten hopelessly tangled. People have tried to pin art on the artworld alone, while at the same time denying or diminishing art as a part of other genres. Here is the philosopher George Dickie, outlining what he calls the ‘Institutional Theory’ of art: “The primary function of the Artworld is continually to define, validate, maintain, and reproduce the cultural category of art, and to produce the consent of the entire society in the legitimacy of the artworld's authority to do so. The Artworld is distributed through a network of institutions (schools, museums, galleries, commercial market systems, and professions), all of which participate in constructing a global, international system or network of networks for Art. The Artworld is thus part of our system of professions, and many parts of the artworld network are now highly professionalized and careerist.”

In Dickie’s definition, art is a thing that springs directly, and solely, from the institution of the art world. This line of thinking defines what I think of as the Invisible Membrane Theory, where art exists only in certain places and contexts. Here’s George Dickie again; “What makes something an artwork is invisible: there's no "there there" outside a position in the artworld network. What makes something an artwork is not an observable property in an artwork itself. The work is a node in a network of forces without which it would be unrecognizable-- literally invisible.”

But the Invisible Membrane Theory has some very obvious problems. For starters, any complete definition of art essentially attempts to make an open ended concept, like art, which is based on the idea of endless revision, into a closed system, where it exists only when it satisfies certain conditions. To close the system is to fundamentally cripple the idea of endless, which means that any revision that happens must do so within the borders of a genre.

But the second thorny problem with the invisible membrane theory is that it’s like saying that beauty only exists within the fashion world, or that intelligence only exists within academia - that these concepts become genre specific. ‘Beauty’ and ‘Intelligence’ are both pretty squirrely concepts to nail down of course, but very few of us would see them as the exclusive property of a specific place or people.

And the same goes for art. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the stuff of art is everywhere - if it wasn’t, than it would be meaningless to encounter it in a museum. It’s the day-to-day experience of living our lives that makes art a possibility, and not the other way around. Before we knew what art was, we knew what living in the world was. That means that art – or the building blocks of it – are everywhere.

But the same can’t be said for artworld. That became clear to me in school, where I was discouraged from pursuing certain things (furniture, utilitarian objects, craft), discouraged from using certain words (illustrative, narrative, vernacular, traditional, regional, artisanal), and even discouraged from living in certain places (anywhere outside of New York, Los Angeles, London, or Berlin).  At the very same time, ironically, I was told how art was a place free of borders, or even rules. That story isn’t exactly wrong – art probably is free of all that - but artworld isn’t. It’s pretty clear which one of the two I was being taught.

Not like I blame school for that. Artworld is actually teachable, like any genre is, while art, (that indefinable thing that floats around indiscriminately), not so much. But the schism between the two really begins when school tries to make them one and the same. The irony is that academically approaching art is like academically approaching free jazz say, or punk rock – good in theory, but rooted in paradox. As soon as there is a pedagogy designed to teach freedom and flexibility, the cognitive dissonance begins. Meanwhile other genres, like craft, or furniture, or glass, already know this, and are content to dispense technical information as part of their training, without calling the results art. Art school on the other hand sees their goal as teaching art, full stop, rather than what it actually is, (or should I say usually is) – artworld.

The other thing that school doesn’t tell you is that artworld exists primarily as a high end, luxury brand for the wealthy. Again, there isn’t anything inherently bad about that; it’s at least logically conceivable that meaning is available for money, and that the most meaning is available for the most money. It’s the conceit of artworld that it can make those distinctions. But it’s illogical to conceive of a situation where the only way to experience meaning is to buy it, because those of us who don’t collect art still manage to have meaningful lives. That means that despite artworld’s heroic effort to commodify art, (and godspeed to you artworld), its success at doing so has been dubious at best. What it’s been hands down brilliant at is finding new exciting versions of artworld. But just like the idea of buying anything intangible, like love, or virtue, or truth, the buying of art is more aspirational then proven - who knows what the hell art is?

That’s how we have arrived at a point in time when using the word art actually confuses things rather than clarifies. If art can be anything, anywhere, via anyone, then it really has no functional meaning. The solution that artworld has come up with to deal with this state of affairs is to install a complex series of gatekeepers, tasked with winnowing out the art from the non-art. Or should I say the artworld from the non-artworld? Meanwhile, as the specialization of artworld increases, due to the influx of a lot of non-artist, academically minded arbiters, the knowledge required to participate in the conversation also increases. But despite that sophisticated chatter, there still is no reliable litmus test for what art is, so that effectively means doubling down on the artworld genre. What else is there really to decide on?

In the 1970’s, the Artist Joseph Beuys described something that he called ‘Social Sculpture’. He emphasized how politics and economics required a humanizing force to make them bearable, and that humanizing force was art. In his view, participating in culture was enough to qualify anyone as being an artist – artistry was required for the greater good of society. His famous sound bite ‘Everyone is an artist’ comes out of identifying this universal need.

The whole thing is a very compelling argument, though Beuys chose to retain the word art – which ironically, he himself did so much to make meaningless. So let’s start over, with a new word: is it culture, or is it artworld? It should be implicit by now that cultural relevance is not bestowed simply because of allegiance to a genre – which is why a movie, a video game, a novel, a You Tube video, or an art show at the Tate Modern might have cultural relevance, but then again, might not. The curious corollary to this is that even if they turn out to not be culturally relevant, they could still be perfectly acceptable examples of artworld. Which is where we run into problems.

Making perfectly acceptable artworld, for an artworld-centric audience, is to really take advantage of the fact that every genre I’ve mentioned is more defined than ever. In fact, our era could really be described as the era of the developed niche, the rabbit hole, the echo chamber. We can disappear into our instagram, our chat rooms, our twitter feed, our blogs.  And before you blame it on the internet, a brief look at history will confirm that the postmodern arc we were already on really was sending it in that direction anyway - the internet just turbocharged it.

Postmodernism is in politics, it’s in art, it’s even in things like science, and sports, and television. Postmodernism was the method by which we fractured narrative down to smaller and smaller bits, deconstructed as it were, and in so doing we created many different stories, rather than just one.

That was a good thing. The arrival of postmodern thought was logical, and necessary. Postmodernism ultimately allowed a lot of voices that weren’t being heard, to have their say, even if it was only in a muted form a lot of the time. Which is why there is still a need today to cast light on dominant forms of power in order to challenge them.

But like anything at all human-related, there were unintended consequences as well.

Different stories means different allegiances. It was once famously said by Daniel Patrick Moynihan that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Now, in the postmodern era, we are finally entitled to our own facts.

Rather than having one story that we agree or disagree with, there are many, a cacophony. Choosing sides in a debate today, on any subject, means retreating into our various bubbles, with facts and studies quoted to support whatever side we want. But how can that be possible if we soberly assess the data in front of us? Easy. A life lived under a constant stream of advertising has made all of us extremely wary of ‘facts’ and ‘studies’. Couple that learned wariness, with a primary human impulse towards emotionally spinning information, and the motivated reasoning begins.

Motivated reasoning is a clinical term by the way - psychologists have studied this phenomenon for years. Motivated reasoning is emotion enabled by data, usually parsed, and often flat out wrong. It’s reasoning not designed to uncover the light, wherever the light might be. It’s reason designed to generate it’s own, and shine it on what we want to see. Voila! The result is a world that makes sense to us emotionally, even if it doesn’t remotely add up intellectually, or factually. And that sets the tone for a postmodern world – the one filled with conspiracy theories, endless political debate that goes nowhere, incredible passions, and equally numbing apathy.  

It’s not surprising that a lot of us have discovered how comfortable it is to stay deeply ensconced in our particular niche. Disappearing up our collective asses is more available to us now than it’s ever been - our warm, safe, comfortable asses. And that’s about as useful as it sounds.

We have cultural problems that need to be addressed that require talking to each other. Not just a few of us, but all of us – our problems span the globe, they span races and creeds and economic strata, and they are devilishly complex. Talking through all these things amounts to more than a political imperative at this point (though our racial dysfunction alone should make that clear), and more than an economic one as well (though billions of us live in squalor), it’s a species survival imperative. Our emergencies are real, and multiplying, even as we retreat from them.

Beuys was basically right – the peculiar super power of culture is that it is able to connect pretty much everybody. We reject that power when we are content to make stuff look like art, and sell it at art fairs - winning at artworld doesn’t equal cultural relevance. Beuys himself was a very committed teacher, and found that to be one of the most important aspects of what he did. He also made stuff for artfairs, ‘natch, because that’s no crime. But he had the presence of mind to understand the difference.

So the real question becomes, how do we learn to poke our heads up from our developed niches/genres every now and then, and maybe even learn to travel freely between them? What is the mechanism for going beyond what we already know and agree with? How do we learn to talk to each other, and maybe more importantly, to listen? How do we learn to be visitors, like art is?





How Long It Took

When people first see my work, a good portion of them ask me one simple question: how long did that take? To which there is a simple answer: I have no idea.

The reaction to this, most of the time, is poor. I’ve seen confusion, and even suspicion cloud people’s faces. Gears churn, judgements are rendered. Why doesn’t he pay attention, set a timer, do some basic book keeping here? But the truth is, my total disregard for time keeping is actually worse than it appears: I don’t ever bother to date anything I’ve done, (or sign anything for that matter), so I don’t even know when I started a particular piece, much less the specific hourly total it took to finish it. Clearly, the time spent is a detail I just don’t think about. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of a detail that matters less.

On the other hand, I sure can think of one that matters a whole lot more: total awesomeness. But how long does awesome take? Yeah, I don’t know either. What I do know is that the total time spent is moot when all that matters is the end product – I’m sure as hell not getting paid by the hour.

If we can all agree that awesome takes awhile, (assuming that it’s achieved at all) then a better question might be, why strive for such a lofty goal in the first place? Answering that means first acknowledging that there are plenty of other things for people to look at besides my sculptures. Like things from the Renaissance for example. Or Egyptian ruins, or  Gothic cathedrals, or Mayan pyramids, and so on and so on. To expect people to look at what I’ve done for any length of time, much less deeply or contemplatively, a pretty high bar has to be cleared. With that in mind, awesome doesn’t seem crazy, it just seems reasonable.

Seen from that wide angle view, the onus is on me to get really really good at what I do. And it goes without saying: having an onus on you is pretty motivating.

So pretty early on in my career I spent a lot of time getting better at making things, settling in to a role as a perpetual student, taking the discipline of it seriously. And as I did so, things took a surprising turn: getting better increased my technical skills, true enough, but more importantly, I gained a kind of fluidity with my creative thinking, as well as increased confidence in trying new and dificult things. In other words, working with my hands had a mental, and emotional pay off, not just a technical one.

And I noticed something else: merging ability, confidence and creativity sets in motion a proccess that begets something I’d never really understood before - ownership. Notice I didn’t say mastery, which is perhaps a synonym, because mastery sounds like a rank, and I’m not trying to earn a black belt at this. Ownership is my preferred discription, which to me simply means the co-mingling of knowledge and ability. The result is alchemical. The better I get, the greater the ownership I have. The greater the ownership I have, the greater the agency.

Ownership, knowledge, ability, agency…the jargon mounts. But really all of it leads to that last one: agency. Agency relates to options, choices, avenues…my dictionary defines it as “Active force; action; power. That by which something is done…” Gaining agency therefore operates in a different way than buying something, which is really the more orthodox path to ownership. Buying, (usually with the swipe of a card), gives said swiper the right to use, and then store, that something in perpetuity. Ownership, as I’m defining it via agency, is more about expanding on one’s powers, rather than simply paying a usage fee.

At this point I should interject that I understand the sheer utility of paying for stuff – buying things is great. Thank you capitalism! (Though I prefer the part before the oppressive plutocracy takes hold.) But the convenience of the one method doesn’t erase the truth of the other.

Expanding on one’s powers, or even having any power at all, is an essential human need. That’s how money takes on such a mystical aura – most of the time money is the replacement part for power – we usually see it as one and the same in fact. It is certainly hard to argue that buying other people’s knowledge and labor is an easy and addictive short cut to knowing much of anything at all. On the other hand, one could argue (and I would), that true poverty is ignorance, and no matter how much money you have, you can’t pay cash for knowledge. That’s why it’s completely possible to be rich, and ignorant, and powerless.

Buying information is possible of course. So is downloading it for free on the Internets. But I now understand that there is an important distinction between knowledge and information - information might spark knowledge, but then again it might not - it’s neutral, inert. Here’s an example: Imagine a bunch of sticks lying on the ground - An architect draws up plans to build a house with them. The plans are information. Knowledge is the thing needed to actually build the house, (or to artfully conceive the design, and draw up the plans for that matter). Knowledge can be gleaned from the assembly process, if those involved actually follow through, (because it’s a lot easier to not follow through on plans after all) and if those involved pay attention. The really compelling point out of all this is that knowledge comes out of actions, not just words, and results in a physical artifact. After awhile, if a bunch of houses get built, and all the attendant hassles and challenges are overcome, that now familiar alchemical process of merging ability, confidence, and creativity is set in motion to form… well like I said above, to me it equals ownership.

We live in a time when we are removed from the world, physically, and creatively. The cycle of buying things, as opposed to knowing how to do things, means that we are more and more dependent on the ability of others for the necessities of our lives. Our creative interaction withers as a result, because we can’t tinker with systems we don’t understand. I like the idea of understanding a system, of really being on the inside of something. Knowing something, really knowing it, in any sphere (it sure doesn’t have to be carving), becomes a transferable skill - it might not mean that you can become an expert at everything, but it does mean that you can confidently attempt pretty much anything.

So how long did it take? No idea. I’m still working on it.

Duchamp Carves A Chess Set

It wasn’t that long ago that I ran across an image of something made by Marcel Duchamp that I was completely unfamiliar with: a chess set. He had made it in 1918, during a nine-month sojourn in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That I was unfamiliar with it surprised me; I was pretty sure I’d seen every single thing he’d ever made.

Not like that’s a real feat of scholarship by the way. His output, compared to pretty much any other artist out there, could charitably be described as sporadic, and sparse. It meant that when I did actually see his chess set, designed and made by his own hand, it felt like finding something in King Tut’s tomb that had been overlooked somehow; a forgotten artifact in one of the most picked over spots in the world.

A couple of things struck me about it immediately: the first was that he was a woodworker, like me. This was such an improbable realization I laughed out loud. The image I saw in my head of Duchamp surrounded by sawdust, with cuts and calluses on his hands, seemed to upend everything I thought I knew about him. True, he probably had help with it, and true, most of the pieces looked like they were turned on a lathe, but the knights and the rooks were definitely carved, something that Duchamp was known to do in his past. The second thing though was that it was free of any kind of oppositional posturing, which is a quality that permeates virtually all of his art. The feeling I got from it instead was one of comfort, utility, and beauty, three words that I would have a hard time attaching to anything else he ever did.

It could be said, of course, that he wasn’t trying to make art with the chess set, which is why it reads so differently. But it could also be said that he didn’t really want anything he ever made to look like art - he bridled constantly at what he considered traditional art making, without ever being able to fully free himself of it. That’s because, while he might have made non-art instead of art, the negation of something is only possible if the original something exists clearly in the mind of the negator. But all of that gamesmanship (no pun intended) falls away with his handsome, carved wooden chess set, free of any kind of obfuscation, humor, or oppositional critique. It’s just…a chess set.

Something nagged at me about it though - there seemed to be a set of contradictions bundled up in there that begged to be untangled. It had always struck me as ironic that Duchamp was (and is) exhibit A when it comes to defining iconoclastic, rule-breaking artists, yet at the same time, he was slavishly devoted to a game whose rules he happily accepted, played on a mere 64 squares. The irony of that extends even further with this chess set, because it intersects with aesthetic decision-making, and actual hand-making for that matter– the stuff of traditional art. It makes clear that he had a certain posture in the art world, a certain stylistic and conceptual starting point, that simply fell away as soon as he was outside of it.

That realization quickly lead to another: if one has separate aesthetics for art and for life, then how do you make art about life? To which the answer might be – you don’t. As Duchamp himself once said: “There are two kinds of artists: the artist who deals with society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has nothing to do with it – no bonds.” It’s pretty clear which one he saw in himself.  And while Duchamp was original in most things art related, his no-bonds thing was very much a product of his time. The image most of us have of the unshackled, rule-breaking bohemian artist is very much a modernist invention, and defines how we view artists even now. It’s such a cliché that we forget why it was so important for artists to be unshackled in the first place. And it was because freedom was important.

Pushing the boundaries of art defined progress, because artists saw the freedom of art as analogous to human freedom in general, and they very consciously saw themselves as being the ones tasked with enlarging its sphere. As Gordon Matta-Clark said in one of his letters: “The value of art as it services and sometimes flourishes in our system is so closely related to occidental beliefs in individual rights of free expression that one can accurately speak of the state of art as a measure of the state of freedom in our society”. The idea of artists getting into the weeds about feelings and desires, or human foibles, or just making something beautiful, wasn’t nearly as grand a vision as enlarging the human capacity to be free. Art was a noble struggle. For that reason, art wasn’t about showing life, as much as it was about being life - this the crux of the work by Jackson Pollock for example, or Mark Rothko, two artists whose work attempted a spiritual realism, while being mislabeled abstract expressionism. And while they and others like them might seem laughably romantic to us now, viewed through our suspicious postmodern haze, understanding this fundamental impulse during the modernist era is key.

Into this project stepped Duchamp. Or should I say, he stepped in for a minute, and then he stepped back out. His patience with the art world could at best be described as limited, which explains why he was in Buenos Aires in the first place; he was trying like hell to run away from it. That also explains why he was in New York, (the place he left to get to Buenos Aires) he was trying like hell to get out of Paris. Here he is sharing some of his observations about the art world to his friend Katherine Dreier: “The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get to be successful in the smallest way. This means also that all the dogs around artists are crooks. If you see the combination fakes and crooks how have you been able to keep some kind of faith (and in what?) Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole “art game.” In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much.” It may even be accepted by the “holy” museums. So much for posterity.” And here he is, writing to his friend Alfred Stieglitz, who asked him if a photograph can have the significance of a “Work Of Art”: “You know exactly how I feel about photography, I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.” And here is one more, in a letter to his sometimes-patron Jacques Doucet: “ All expositions of painting or sculpture make me ill.” And so on.

He may have been running away from art, but in Buenos Aires he found something he could run towards: chess. He had always liked the game, but his time in Buenos Aires made him into what he later described as a ‘Chess Maniac’. He joined a chess club, he hired a coach, he played so often, and for so long, that his girl friend left him. He made the aforementioned killer chess set. And he basically embarked on a new career.

When he came back, he said in a letter to his good friend Man Ray, “My ambition is to become a professional chess player”, which he did. At this point it’s important to note that those who think Duchamp’s incessant chess playing was some kind of performance piece, and that he was really an artist the whole time, tend to ignore not only his words, (lots and lots of words), but his actions. As Calvin Tompkins notes in his biography on Duchamp, “For about 15 years, from 1918 to 1933, Duchamp’s activities had very little to do with art.” but everything to do with chess. In time he achieved his goal and became a touring professional, he wrote a book about chess endings, (woah) and even represented France in the Chess Olympiad. Here he is describing the difference between artists and chess players: “From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” Even when he wasn’t really in the art world, he still took the time to flog artists now and again.

For decades afterwards, it’s difficult not to get the sense that Duchamp was a chess player first and foremost, who occasionally, on a strictly part time basis, and with very limited conviction, made art. That phase lasted until well into his sixties, when people like John Cage coaxed him back into the art world. Even then, as a new found fame was settling on him, he said: “Art is only one occupation among others. It’s not all my life, far from it.” To which he added this capper: “Art is a habit forming drug. That’s all it is for the artist, for the collector, for anybody connected with it. Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth. People speak of it with great religious reverence, but I don’t see why it is to be so much revered. I’m afraid I’m agnostic when it comes to art. I don’t believe in it with all the mystical trimmings.” And so on and so on.

Spending a lot of time outside of the art world really allowed him to identify the invisible membrane that separates the art world, from the world world, and artists from regular civilians. He was able to see an insular aspect to the art world that simply did not occur to his peers, subsumed as they were within it, and dependent as they were upon it. His readymades in particular seem to demonstrate that anything within that membrane can plausibly be seen as art, while those same things seen outside of it, not so much. That’s how a urinal flipped on its back could be art – it was dependent on the context to make it so. The same could be said of a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa, with a mustache and goatee hastily drawn on it. Inside the membrane, it’s a comment about authorship, appropriation, gender roles, and so on. The commentary and scholarship on that piece alone is vast. Yet outside of that membrane, it’s just visual detritus, graffiti, or a prank. And to Duchamp it actually was a prank of course; if the whole alchemical process of the art world seemed suspect, and worthy of his mistrust, well it was - in his era, and in ours.

There is an inherent irony to this observation of course. (The word just can’t be avoided with him). If art is a thing separated from life by context, and that separation seemed like it was worth pointing out, then he failed to notice that he was guilty of doing the same thing - that’s how a chess set and a readymade don’t operate in the same way. Not like Duchamp thought they should – he was into the no-bonds thing after all. But if art was about being life, and not simply showing it, then his chess set is a whole lot more convincing than a snow shovel, or a bottle rack – things he deliberately chose because he had no connection to them, aesthetically or otherwise.

Be that as it may, his shots across the bow of the art establishment, on those rare occasions when he actually made art, were exactly what it wanted, and exactly what it needed. Which is…ironic. And so is the idea that his very mistrust of the art world ended up setting the stage for his chief artistic contribution to it, which was to understand that art was a thing dependent on context rather than on aesthetic choices, much less on the vagaries of taste. The ability to understand that required having a clear view of the big picture, and seeing the big picture required distance. Duchamp did distance better than anybody.

Today, it’s very hard to resist accepting as gospel what Thierry De Duve calls the ‘Duchamp Syllogism’; that is, Duchamp is generally assumed to have said that if a urinal can be art, than anything can be art, and therefore, anyone can be an artist. Duchamp managed, in other words, to single handedly liberate art from any conceivably objective definition. That didn’t happen of course. First of all, it’s necessary to note that ‘Fountain’ wasn’t really seen by anyone until Duchamp’s retrospective in 1963. The original object was lost not long after it was created, 46 years beforehand, and had never been shown. Secondly, Duchamp wasn’t really positing artistic liberation, as De Duve further points out. He was more concerned with poking the eye of the Society Of Independent Artists. They were the group that held the show that ‘Fountain’ was submitted to, a group that Duchamp was also member of. They wanted to have a juried show based on the idea that everyone who entered it would have their work accepted. This was pure hypocrisy of course, as Duchamp made perfectly clear, by submitting something that was summarily rejected. But as we’ve seen, his concentration on critiquing art meant that art was the context that defined him - he was never fully free of it, despite repeated attempts.

While other artists in the 60’s may have garbled Duchamp’s message that anything could be art, the fact of the matter is that the membrane that separated art from life was finally breached for good, making the Duchamp Syllogism essentially true. That this happened at all was a lesson in how misreading historical precedent is every bit as effective a driver of change than actually understanding it. What people like Beuys, Kaprow, Judd, Warhol, Matta-clark (Duchamp’s godson), Smithson, Rauschenberg and Cage took from Duchamp may or may not have been what he intended, but it was definitely what they needed. Their subsequent efforts made Duchamp one of the 20th centuries most important artists, and prompted the walls separating art from life to all come tumbling down.

Today, we live in an environment that has made the idea of defining what art is, or who exactly artists are, essentially moot. There are not many people left who would say that there is a narrative structure that defines art, or a training regimen required to become an artist. (That would eliminate Duchamp by the way). So while we are generally able to agree that art is an environment free of limits, there seems to be latency in understanding what that actually means. What happens if you demand freedom and you actually get it?

The first thing to realize is that expecting artists to figure it out what happens next is to miss pretty much entirely what just happened. And what just happened (really over the last century or so), was an incredible effort designed to make the word ‘Art’ functionally meaningless. That in turn has meant that the people who describe themselves as ‘artists’ are essentially out of a job – who exactly are ‘artists’ without ‘art’, and what exactly do they do? At this point though, we are pinned on the horns of dilemma – there may be no more art as we formally understood it, but there is definitely a need to digest the experiences of our lives, and the need to share those experiences with others. We are beings who are aware that we are aware after all, able to contemplate the past and the future, along with the consequences of each. It turns out that the existential questions that awareness entails don’t go away even as we tinker with the semantics related to describing it. Which is why, as the dust clears, we become aware that art hasn’t completely disappeared; it just has gotten subsumed by something bigger – life.

In 1912, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this about Duchamp: “ Perhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations, and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people.” To which Duchamp himself responded later, “What a joke!” Forcing art and people to become friends seemed as silly to him then as it probably does to most of us now. If anything, we are more comfortable than ever with the idea that art is not suited for a general audience, a stance that Duchamp himself would have undoubtedly approved. In fact, within this vast new territory we find ourselves, it’s not surprising that a whole lot of people would prefer that the walls separating art and life were still there. Call it Basel Syndrome. Into this latency comes what I now think of as the Neo-New - a genre of activity that retains the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’, and casts both in the familiar roles of Modernist Freedom Fighter.

And yet, Appolinaire’s wish that art and the people reconcile in some ways sounds more prescient than goofy, mostly because that’s exactly what happened. Not like people in general are suddenly endorsing contemporary art right now – they aren’t. Contemporary art is a niche experience at best. But they are endorsing the need to digest the experiences of their lives through visual information, the same as they have done for what increasingly looks like millions of years. This end run around the established art world can be seen in the rise of things like the Pop Surrealist movement, glass art, the interest in websites like Etsy, Instagram, and basically the entire Internet. Feel free to scoff at the philistines who are responsible for this stuff (art people scoff the loudest), but visual culture has moved on, with or without artist’s approval, much less control.

That lack of control is in some ways the fulfillment of the modernist mission to morph art into life, though somehow that conclusion has the feel of an unintended consequence. The shock of what that actually looks like is probably analogous to what rich landowners felt like when they allowed everyone to vote. Modernism essentially allowed everyone to vote. Spurred on by Duchamp, and re-assessed, re-cast, and re considered by others, it knocked down every wall, hurdle, or barrier designed to limit what art could be. No limits means no edge, no edge means no more membrane separating art from life, and no more membrane means art dissipates like a puffy little cloud into a clear blue sky, falling as life-giving rain now and again when it’s needed. Part of a larger eco-system, rather than creating it’s own.

Today, we could see someone like Sam Maloof, the MacArthur award winning furniture maker, being an equally important figure in this conversation, as well as someone like the carver and craftsman Wharton Esherick. Neither of them was ever concerned with art as an end point. Here is a picture of a chess set Esherick made in the thirties:


The difference between Duchamp’s chess set and Esherick’s of course is that the rest of Esherick’s house looks like it, all of it designed and made by his own hand. The idea of having separate aesthetics for anything wouldn’t have occurred to him. And as for Maloof, his own 22-room house, also made by him, is now a museum. The way he lived his life is every bit as important as any piece of furniture he ever made.

These are people for whom life was the subject, and the artifact was art, rather than the other way around. In fact, maybe the word ‘artifact’ can be thought of as describing a welcome byproduct to something, almost by accident, and 'art’ is just shorthand for whatever that is. For example: if one wanted to facilitate thinking, and daydreaming, and reading, and having long conversations, it might be logical to make a chair. The artifact would be the result of that original intent. A crap chair wouldn’t do the job efficiently of course, so making a good one would be key. Artists wouldn’t call the results Art (too crafty!), and neither would Sam Maloof, but what exactly is art again? And what is it supposed to do? The repercussions of deliberately eliminating art as a description of anything specific means that trying to achieve it as a goal is functionally impossible. And as the old saying goes: if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads lead there.

Maybe the new conversation that we have, the one that starts when we have fully digested the repercussions of no longer needing to have an art world to have art, involves talking about living life as a full expression of one’s values, and then seeing what comes from that. This represents a fundamental flip in approach – the modernists made art, and the outcome defined their lives. The new approach sees making a life – and the outcome defines art.  Seen through this lens, we might start talking about the time that Marcel Duchamp, the famous chess player, made a lovely chess set. He would be so relieved. 


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.