Why Slate’s Takedown of the Art World Is Totally Wrong

Eva and Adele at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011
Eva and Adele at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011 (image via Flickr/ChrisGoldNY)

As a longtime reader and admirer of Slate, I’ve often lamented the fact that there’s pretty much zero visual art content on the site (although, to be fair, they’re only one of a handful of culture publications that ignores the category, and their new photo blog is great). So I was excited when I saw they had published a piece about the art world and Art Basel Miami Beach yesterday — until I read it.

The essay comes from Slate columnist and fashion maven Simon Doonan, who is officially the creative ambassador at large for Barneys department store. Sweetly titled “Why the Art World Is So Loathsome,” it lists eight “theories” about why that may be the case, starting with “Art Basel Miami” (is it catty to point out that he left off “Beach”?) and working through such categories as “Blood, poo, sacrilege, and porn,” “The post-skill movement,” and “Adderall a go-go.”

Now, I’ll give Doonan Miami Beach, which he dubs “a promo-party cheese-fest” — most people in the art world can barely stand the weeklong affair themselves, if they’re sober enough to remember it. But the rest of the piece reads as a bunch of  tired and cliche generalizations about a scene Doonan clearly knows little about. I suppose the first alarm bell should have come when he invoked Camille Paglia in his opener. He mentions her no less than four times, calling her new book, Glittering Images, a “must-read.” This is a book that posits the death of the artistic avant-garde and hails director George Lucas as the world’s greatest living artist. So … there’s that.

Simon Doonan
Simon Doonan (image via racked.com)

Doonan’s second reason for the horribleness of the art world is that “Old-school ’70s punk shock tactics are so widespread in today’s art world that they have lost any resonance.” And the big problem there, he says, borrowing from Paglia, is that because artists like to be controversial and piss people off, funding for government and educational arts programs has suffered. First off, the NEA culture wars took place twenty years ago, and I have to say, I think the recession is the biggest reason governments are killing school arts programs these days, not Karen Finley. Second, if art no longer has the power to shock, then what do we care about the results of all that non-shockingness? Most importantly, telling artists that they should shut up and fall in line for the good of the children is basically a way of relieving art of all its potential value and saying it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter.

Doonan goes on to quote Paglia in her assertion that “No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s.” He then decries the existence of pretty much all installation art, adding his own two cents:

As stated above, a lack of skill and craft among artists is sucking the life and the gravitas out of the art world. There are, thank God, still some artists and designers who are bucking this trend and making gorgeous stuff. You won’t find it at trendy galleries or at Art Basel. You are more likely to find it among the potters and craftsmen on Etsy.

This is among the most tired laments out there. To say that there have been no major artists since the 1970s is naive. (Love him or hate him, Jeff Koons has been influential.) To dismiss pretty much all art made since the 1970s is shortsighted, offensive, and boring; it shows a lack of interest, of curiosity, of knowledge. And note Doonan’s use of the term “gorgeous stuff” as the holy grail. “Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty,’” Sontag once wrote. “As if art were ‘about’ beauty—as science is ‘about’ truth!”

In his second-to-last theory, Doonan upholds the comical — and dangerous — myth that artists shouldn’t care about money. He uses his father as a saintly example: “Unfettered by the impulse to grease his creative journey with financial validation, he pursued his art with freedom and authenticity.” Yes, and those of us who want to get paid for our creative work are monsters!

Doonan’s last reason is that artists today are too worried about being cool, a point he argues by invoking “[t]he dorky uncool ’80s.” This is baffling to me, and suggests either cultural amnesia or a lack of art historical knowledge. Remember Julian Schnabel? Robert Longo? Richard Prince? The ’80s were all about being macho cool. To a gross degree.

Today’s art world clearly has plenty — plenty! — of problems. It is often a money- and popularity-obsessed place, filled with lots of bad or overexposed art and rich people who don’t actually care about quality. But a critique like Doonan’s is the easy way out — a naive, sweepingly dismissive diatribe that probably garners a lot of pageviews but doesn’t offer anything substantial. I don’t blame Simon Doonan  for avoiding Art Basel Miami Beach like the plague, but the next time he wants to write about art, I suggest he does a bit more homework.

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