The art industry defines each generation by a very few artists, and buries the rest in an unmarked, mass grave. As the machinery supporting them grinds into production with prestigious museum exhibitions, globe-spanning presence, and schiltrons of press coverage, they are riveted into the scaffolding of art history. These extraordinary efforts are to convince ostensibly the public, but actually wealthy buyers, that certain names are so vital that without them we’d be plunged into an aesthetic dark age. After these rites of beatification, the convinced masses gaze up at the illuminated altars of their easels, believing them to be unique. Most well-known artists are no more deserving than hundreds of thousands of others—serendipity, timing, location or trend often play a part. But the critical mass of inescapable attention fixes them into societal consciousness so that sedition becomes pointless.
This swindling doctrine is founded on the domineering opinion of a small number of puppeteers befouled on money, nepotism, and ambition for their investments. Like all religions, the dogma’s hierarchy brooks no dissent. Resist its greatest idols, and that heresy will be met with mockery for one’s philistinism. The apparatus relies on one jealously guarded act—denying the truth that everyone’s taste is equal. It is as acceptable to admire Thomas Kinkade as it is Henri Matis$e or Marcel Duchamp, but if that were to be permitted, the architecture would collapse. There might even be revolution at the gates of art’s most storied institutions with the realization that people could decide for themselves what important art is, instead of paying twenty-five dollars to be culturally radicalized into someone else’s inclinations. Education may expand and evolve one’s field of vision, but the result is not better, just different. Confidence in one’s appetites however isn’t always so surefooted, and that is what the structure exploits.
There are only dozens of famous name$ upon which art’s narrative rests. While there may have been occasional visionaries, there were no geniuses—the development of art doesn’t require them; only the marketplace does. But there were dealers and collectors, shrewd and adept, who alchemized their preferences into gospel. Had Jack$on Pollock’s demise in a drunken car crash turned him into a live-action version of his splatter paintings sooner, someone else would have become known for splashing paint about canvases as he did. Vintage photographs of the artist in his studio consumed by his proces$ don’t make him more convincing, but they are propagandized to make him seem so. The camera does lie. You may enjoy his work, but do so knowing that we would have had another Jackson Pollock, had it not been the one we are accustomed to—he might even have been a rightful woman. The machinations that position art history have been so concretely effective that we need never actually see another exhibition of his work, nor of Willem de Kooning’s, Donald Judd’s, Carl Andre’s, nor any other bone-dry avatar. There is nothing new to be gained but visitor numbers, brainwashing and money. There are almost no canonical names without whom art wouldn’t still have moved forward in the spirit of discovery. It would be interesting to go back over the last century and repopulate the arc with deserving others who were ignored but were of equal ability, instead of endlessly regurgitating the statuary that is in place for minimalism, abstract expressionism or pop art.
Heirs to the latter category (or pop-ish) offer perhaps the most egregious examples of attempts to stretch the timeline. Of these producers, Jeff Koon$’ wretched descent into creative bankruptcy should continue to be seen in museums, that we might study how consequence and folly can lay waste to the soul. KAWS, is another pitiable example; Brian Donnelly is a designer, illustrator, and toy manufacturer, whose pilfering and derision of iconic cartoon characters isn’t re-inventive, pop-cultural commentary. It is lobotomized commercial waste; at least until it was slyly co-branded as art, supported by impressive exhibitions—including at, to their withering shame, the Brooklyn Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum—with resources sorely needed by underserved artists everywhere.
His output is acquired, in some cases for millions of dollars, while his merchandise increases in scale and ubiquity. It is understandable to think that he has achieved great success as an artist; but it would be more accurate to say that he has achieved great success at the expense of artists. At least his eyeless figures are spared the sight of their own degeneracy. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, is the latest to soil itself with a KAWS exhibition, “Alone Again,” which it declares:
“represents an underlying irreverence and affection for our turbulent times, as well as KAWS’ agility as an artist to appropriate and transform.”
Read that again; “affection for our turbulent times.” This disqualifying language of Olympian stupidity and ignorance would be dumbing down if it hadn’t started at the bottom. It is a disgraceful bid to shoehorn their charge into a conversation to which he has no claim, exposing the museum’s flagrant disregard for integrity, its desperation for attention, and its incompetence as a conduit for art that can handle the incredible circumstances in which we are living. Outsized or shiny objects look fun, they’re great for selfies with the kids, and museums know it, which makes the deceit of their constituencies all the more reprehensible. They know there isn’t a shred of intellectual value in what they offer. While decisions on programming aren’t made by a single voice, one wonders if MOCAD’s executive director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, or the organizers of the previous exhibition$—at the time, curator, Andrea Karnes at the Fort Worth Modern for “Where The End Starts” (2016); the Brooklyn Museum’s curator of contemporary art, Eugenie Tsai for “Along the Way” (2015); the Aldrich Museum’s curator, Mónica Ramírez-Montagut for “KAW$” (2010); the museum board$, donors, or any other involved influencers—can feel proud of what they have done. Can they really be at peace with the part they have all played in the foolish sanctification of an emperor who surely knows full well that he is stark naked? One can only hope that they at least shuddered with dread, upon realizing that their names, reputations, and accomplishments would be aligned with those exhibitions.
The dominant ideology and its whorish adherents—Petzel, Mary Boone, Gago$ian, and Perrotin among them—peddle the commercial infantilism of Koons, Donnelly, Daniel Arsham, Paul McCarthy, Joyce Pensato, Dan Colen, Paola Pivi, and any number of witless, Disney Club expirees whose collective artistic IQ couldn’t power a Tickle Me Elmo. This is all presented as significant in the pristine gallery rooms of the machine, where regular people are rarely invited, and while the tastes of those very citizens are disdained and lampooned. None of these artless wastrels know what it is to subvert and torque the motif$ of American culture with efficacy. But one conceptualist did, and with a shaking, bloodshot depravity that endowed his skanky, junkyard Mickey Mouse, anti-hero with zeal and charisma beyond the comprehension of these pretenders. He was Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the creator of Ratfink. Roth achieved something lasting, abject, functional, revered, and sank it into the greasy fabric of America’s hotrod underbelly like a stain. His admirers have Ratfink tattooed into their psyches, not scrubbed clean, and seen from a respectable distance in Detroit or New York, because they’ve been told to admire him; nor because museums insisted that he was worthwhile, but because their natural affinity confirmed it. But where is Ratfink, besides his marvelous museum in rural Utah? He is unconsidered, dismissed as what, folk art? Purely commercial? There isn’t a justifiable reason that wouldn’t be outright hypocrisy.
But meritless celebritie$ are merely the symptom, not the cause, and it is probably unreasonable to ask them not to make the most of such opportunities—however undeserved. Although, as some of the most visible representatives of a vast artistic spectrum, they should know that their piffling output is harming the public’s perception of art’s sincerity, and is smothering opportunitie$ for others. The irony is that many famous artists could contribute meaningfully to art history, by withdrawing their abysmal, feckless trinkets from view, and giving those of nobler mien the space to expand it.
Obscenity in art has nothing to do with prurience, or straining Instagram’s community standards; it lies in the corrosive, structural underpinning of the entire septic game. It assaults the sanctity of authentic, expressive intent practiced by legions of creative workers across the country, working hard and thanklessly to reach their audiences, and further art’s connective capacity to the majority of the population. The same public that those of influence in the topmost strata pretend to address, while spoiling and squandering that potential by feting and rewarding spectacle and superficiality at the expense of substantive, consequential artistry which society might actually begin to trust. Until then, alienation and hostility remain more likely. Beyond any auction hou$e record, that dereliction constitutes the art world’s greatest cost.
Darren Jones is a Scottish, United States-based art critic.
A project supported by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program