Dear Claes Oldenburg,
I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue. It’s regarding something you published in 1961 titled ‘I Am for an Art …’ which has been on my mind lately. I love the way it’s written in the first person, like an open letter to the world, so I thought I’d write back.
‘I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. / I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero. / I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.’ I think these first three lines of your declaration should be ceremoniously read aloud at the inauguration of every biennial and carved into a stone tablet and buried in the foundations of every new mega-museum. Why? Because these silly, sad, surreal sentences – and the 50 or so that follow them – are a serious exhortation to appreciate life beyond what is cosily called the ‘art world’. This ‘art world’ has changed a heck of a lot since ’61; today it’s so structurally, financially and administratively top-heavy that it should be re-dubbed the ‘art industry’.
‘I am for an artist who vanishes, turning up in a white cap painting signs or hallways.’ A sceptic might call you out for indulging that middle-class fantasy of the artist as blue-collar worker, but I reckon you’re too savvy for that. Perhaps you meant it as a reminder to take pleasure in things in the world and not fret about their pedigree as ‘Art’. You’re certainly reasserting the old avant-garde desire to dissolve art into life, and although that’s an act of self-erasure few seem to chance nowadays – what would happen to all the free dinners, institutional glory and symbolic labour for urban gentrification? – it’s one that nevertheless begs the question of art’s influence beyond art; grubby questions about taste, audiences and who this whole game is for.
I’m reminded of something the composer Morton Feldman wrote in 1969, titled ‘Neither/Nor’: ‘Before determining just how much art should or should not infringe on social life, let us remember that social life never infringes on art. In fact, social life doesn’t give a damn about art. Social life, as I see it, is a sort of vast digestive system that chews up whatever finds its way into its mouth. This vast appetite can swallow a Botticelli at a gulp, with a voraciousness frightening to everyone but a zoo custodian. Why is art so masochistic, so looking for punishment?’
Partly it’s a case of embarrassment. When half the world doesn’t have clean drinking water, a show about ‘the crisis in painting’ can seem pretty decadent – we have to put something back in but, for some people, pictures and objects don’t wear their community service badges proudly enough. It’s also because art has had to contend with internal developments that haven’t bothered other cultural forms to quite the same degree; literature and cinema, for example, never had a Duchamp moment, a fundamental shift that complicated what they were doing so much that they’ve been grappling with the aftershocks for the last 100 years. (Ask yourself this: why are bookshops still mostly filled with novels that use conventional narratives rather than wild Joycean prose? Why do feature films still tell stories instead of montages of surreal, dissociative images? Then look at what’s showing at New York’s MoMA or at Tate in London.)
Art has obviously developed fascinating, complex ideas, but it’s had to work hard to explain them and to prove their worth in society. Yet nobody quite knows how much reach these ideas have beyond specialist circles. The industry superstructure is today so noisy we can’t tell whether it’s the structure or the art that’s having the effect. From outside, the art industry looks like a rarefied cultural activity. Newspapers like to portray it as a place for extreme shopping for the one percent. Neither of these views is entirely wrong, but nor are they entirely correct either. So much energy, dedication, love – entire lives – have been put into art’s hard-fought battles over identity, appropriation, feminism, abstraction, institutional critique, Conceptual art, Pop, Op, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, De Stijl, Arte Povera, Fluxus, Mono-ha, Postmodernism, Happenings, Abstract Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, realism, photorealism, painting, sculpture, performance, installation, video and so forth that we crave a sign that it’s all been worth it. (The legacy of Minimalism can’t just be ikea tables.) The problem is that the art industry longs to have the mass appeal and legitimacy of pop culture – the same stripes awarded to cinema and music – but it still has to sell itself with some ingeniously gussied-up new angle on ‘high culture’ to justify its extravagances. We want the person in the white cap painting a sign also to have an opinion about this year’s documenta.
Big claims are made in our industry that leverage contemporary art as a form of salvation-cum-revolutionary-gesture such as ‘This show challenges your preconceptions’ or whatever toothless assertion of radicalism you wish to name. And still the world turns. Nothing changes. We’re quick to see a Jesus-shaped silhouette in a piece of toast and declare it a sign of the Second Coming. Cognitive dissonances have developed that allow for all kinds of mental contortions: a hair-shirt criticality that sees artists decrying capitalism in their commercial gallery shows, for instance, or artists having successful ‘practices’ making work ‘about failure’. All the PR, all the iconic museums erected in the hope of instrumentalizing art as an economic adrenaline jab, all the art fairs, biennials, MFA programmes, magazines, dense jargon and newspaper articles about how to make it in the art world – look at all that from outside the art industry, and it doesn’t add up to what we think it does. The signal-to-noise ratio is out of whack.
Our noses are pressed too close to the screen. We fret so much about the legitimizing footnotes – the art-historical lineages, the curatorial contexts and paradigms – that we forget to measure the proportionate importance of our discussions as they intersect with ‘social life’. I am for an art that knows where it stops and life starts.
I am for an art that doesn’t see Jesus in a piece of toast.
First published in Issue 148