There’s a smell of insider-trading, then censorship to silence the whistle-blower. If art is anything you can get away with, the worst you can get away with is always the best strategy, leading to a consistent degradation of the field.
Postmodernism is the urge to shock; we’re repeatedly told it’s the most exciting art of our time, yet doubts remained. When post modernism denies tradition no one knows what art is anymore. So when a dominant trend rejects our expectations, leaving us clueless, some pioneers carve out a new path that others follow.
For example at the 1976 Venice Biennale, Michael Asher filled a corner of the Italian Pavilion with twenty-two folding chairs. He wanted the space to be a “functional” lounge where “visitors communicate with each other on a social level”. 29 years later, in 2005 Geoffrey Farmer filled the Power Plant gallery with old desks , followed a month later by Luis Jacob filling the Art Gallery of Ontario with furniture. Jacob wanted the space to be a “functional” lounge where “visitors communicate with each other on a social level”. The artist said his work was important. Some felt it was dubious while others, including the curator, considered it art.
Geoffrey Farmer later cut pictures out of art books and glued them to sticks, Luis Jacob cut pictures out of art books and framed them without explanation. Although imitation is the most sincere form of flattery it is not “the most exciting art of our time”. Postmodernism brushes such critique aside with cheerful scholarly articles commissioned by important curators. It is said that the less effort it took the more conceptual the work.
Tom Wolfe satirized this pose in his novel Back to Blood; “The artist… had no hand at all in making them. And if he touched drawings or photographs, it was just to put them in an envelope and FedEx them to those hired to produce the work, although I’m sure he has an assistant to do things like that. No Hands—that’s an important concept now. It’s not some artist using his so-called skills to deceive people. It’s not a sleight of hand. It’s no hands at all. That makes it conceptual, of course. That way he turns what a manual artist would use to create…an effect…into something that compels you to think about it in a deeper way.” (1)
Unpacking this wisdom yields disingenuous assumptions. An artist does not use skill to deceive people, any more than doctors use skills to deceive patients. Skill takes so long to learn, requires such deep commitment and dedication, that anyone able to make the grade will not wastes their life deceiving but will produce the vision that drove them that far. So the idea of skills deceiving people? It’s the ones lacking skill who need to deceive. Nor does a skilled artist creates an effect when in reality it’s a statement and a work of love.
Which brings us to “the deeper way that artist would compel us to think”. That deeper way wonders where’s the art – if the artist is MIA? We’re compelled to deeply think that this is the art of the salesman, not the art of the artist. There is no art here, only clever marketing; any pretence to art is obviously fake, and that’s a postmodern strategy.
“Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling…” so Roger Scrutton writes in Aeon; “ Anyone can lie. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but the fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member. Understanding this phenomenon is, it seems to me, integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted.” (2)
In Europe during the period known as the Enlightenment, (1685-1815), individuals used reason to question contemporary practice. It is a shame postmodernism has put reason aside just as it discarded skill, in order to overleap tradition. Now we learn of Luis Jacob’s artist fee for bringing chairs to that room, he’s obviously worth every penny. Compared to the working class janitor who brings chairs to that room with small change in his pocket, Jacob does it with an artist’s fee in his wallet. The indifference to skill is so professional it makes Luis conceptual indeed. Surely he wouldn’t be nosing the feedbag if bringing furniture into a room weren’t the most sophisticated of Canadians arts? Being an artist and curator is no easy life they say, one needs to be noticed; one needs to shock.
In his BBC article “How modern art became trapped by its urge to shock”, Roger Scrutton wrote that “The fake is a person who has rebuilt himself, with a view to occupying another social position than the one that would be natural to him. Such is Molière’s Tartuffe, the religious imposter who takes control of a household through a display of scheming piety…(3) So powerful is the impetus towards the fake that it is now rare to be a finalist for the Turner Prize without producing something nobody would think was art until they were told.” In Canada we won’t be left behind when the Sobey prize was awarded to a 2m long metal fence rented from home hardware. You can put a wig, false eyelashes, even an entire beauty parlour inside an art gallery but it will never be more than a circus, an elaborate pretence, a counterfeit pretending to have meaning. When art is fake the power comes from personalities able to influence others, among actors they’re the most convincing.
Making art purposefully incomprehensible is a postmodern strategy. Duchamp set that precedent with the Large Glass, the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors. Duchamp intended the Large Glass to be accompanied by a book, in order to prevent purely visual responses to it, (4) but the notes and diagrams in the book explain elements not present in the work. Marjorie Perloff suggests “Large Glass is also a critique of the very criticism it inspires, mocking the solemnity of the explicator who is determined to find the key”.(5) There was no key. The strategy of the Large Glass is that it pretends to meaning: there’s nothing to get except the suggestion that there’s something to get.
Duchamp wanted to deny even his own inclination, his own taste. The only problem was that lacking taste, a work isn’t interesting, it’s common. Personal taste gives art meaning. If we didn’t know the Large Glass was by Marcel we might see it as no big deal, yet it is seminal because for the first time Duchamp made work that strategically pretends to meaning without having any. Jacob and curator produced something similar, perhaps to shock the spotlight. You bet everyone expects hidden meanings from this artist‘s superior intelligence. You got owned! Perhaps we should look at how intelligence interfaces with art.
In a 1968 BBC interview with Joan Bakewell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his time painting was retinal, what you could see, that he made it intellectual.(6) Today we know Duchamp then stopped painting; he made no paintings anymore after he made painting intellectual. It was like a broken leg he said (see Cabane interviews), and soon after he stopped making any art. For another twenty years he poked and prodded at Étant donnés in a room behind his now empty studio as if trying to revive a lost relationship, but along with the visual language of aesthetic sensibility that Duchamp discarded the art was gone… and like every spurned lover she’s not coming back. Academia must be teaching young students to be chess players, not artists, since by promoting Duchamp they’re teaching youth to paralyze their instinct by thinking too much. We admire Duchamp, having learned in school to do so, when we should see him as a cautionary tale. This failure of logic is toxic to the arts, it corrupts.
Luis Jacob today at TPW.
Ten years later in Toronto, Luis Jacob cuts pictures out of art books, then frames them and hangs them without further explanation “in order to destabilize your viewing conventions”.
Luis will later destabilize the budget of the Art Gallery of Ontario or the National Gallery; curators were already at the opening sniffing the burnt offering… after all these are pictures cut from art books!
Destabilizing is this year’s word at the National Gallery, they use it till it wanes superficial and fades to a cliché. Jacob has a budget for writers to explain why you were destabilized once again (yawn) … as if 40 years of destabilizing weren’t enough… please… can’t you just give it up… just let it go? These strategies provide Jacob with a now unstable (destabilized) audience who are fed their own ignorance as humble pie, followed by a hefty dinner bill.
Luis is a high-earning artist and I hear a tenured professor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, and he’s also a well paid curator at the National Gallery of Canada…so none would dare question his OCADU lecture fee for an evening titled “What’s Your Disruption?” Sounding like a grasp for street credibility, is he asking for disruption or is it about him disrupting others? Well, Jacob as a curator should appreciate my article; it’s Foucault’s parrhesia, a hot disruption of Canadian art history. But I’m humane, I don’t want to hurt his feelings so I didn’t disrupt his evening at OCADU or TPW. I didn’t rain on his parade, nor did I make him cry at his party even if he wanted to, but enough! When artists and curators call for disruption they mean exactly this level of scholarly activism… so any touchiness at my words is obviously misconstrued and surely inappropriate. Roger Scrutton explains how a high culture gets corrupt, and boy, our times are swampy as it gets.
If you read anything he’s written you’ll know that Luis Jacob is a literary genius. I’m astonished how well he weaves ideas, themes, and metaphors in a beautiful tapestry of words and thoughts. His writing puts mine to shame and if he restricted himself to writing books I would buy every one to enjoy late at night by the fireplace. Unfortunately Luis Jacob writes exhibition proposals.
They persuade juries his work is something special when perhaps it is not; it’s his writing that’s special whereas Jacob’s art looks like juvenilia. As a University of Toronto fine arts professor, National Gallery of Canada fine arts curator, trendy rebel lecturer, and art world networker, it could be that he is too busy to be a practicing artist when art is anything you can get away with, and if anyone gets away with it, it’s Jacob.
When pictures are cut from art books it’s not a viewing convention that’s destabilized but the public’s faith in whoever jerks their leash. Our viewing conventions were developed over 500,00 years and replacing them with the superficial is a loss, not a gain. Conceptual art is about the idea, here the idea is to turn the tables on an audience expecting sublime art, to shame a gullible public for old-fashioned ideas. Of course insulting your audience earns their respect, as do lectures on how important this work would be to us… if we but knew what it meant, which we don’t, proving the artist’s superior intelligence. This curating by low self-esteem must stop
Some believe art is mostly the idea but that has to be wrong; only a narcissist would assume we’ll admire every thought passing through their head. Art has always been about work, as in a work of art. As the researcher K. Anders Ericsson has shown, becoming an expert at anything requires the development of neural patterns that are acquired through much practice and repetition. Surely if he locked himself in the studio for a year like performance artist Tehching (Sam) Hsieh, Luis Jacob might produce something, the physical trace of a subliminal unfolding, the process of mastering and making art.
Canadian art is post-truth, postmodern, and post mortem… If we believe a room stuffed with chairs is art, or pictures cut from art books, then we need to revisit the movie “Idiocracy”.
Luis belongs to literature, he should write books. Following Lucian Freud’s maxim and the #ArtToo movement, Luis Jacob should “act like a gentleman and leave art alone”.
1- Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood, p352, Little, Brown, and Co. N.Y.
2– Roger Scrutton, The Great Swindle – A Cult of Fakery has taken over what’s left of high culture
3-Roger Scrutton, How modern art became trapped by its urge to shock, BBC Magazine
4- Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: A Biography, p. 297.
5-Marjorie Perloff The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage p34, (Princeton UP: 1999).
6- Joan Bakewell, Joan Bakewell in conversation with Marcel Duchamp Late Night Line-Up, 1968 BBC ARTS.
Miklos Legrady, Toronto Editor
Volume 32 no 6 July/August 2018 pp 23-25