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Damien Hirst, Doha, 2013 (photo by Gazanfarulla Khan/Flickr)

What does it say about the character of art audiences when artists who had previously been adored fall out of fashion and have scorn piled on them? There was talk earlier in the year about the music group U2, which has fallen from the peak of their fame — performing in the highest grossing concert tour in history — to the point where they could hardly give away their newly released album. In the visual art scene there is the example of Julian Schnabel — he of the once great plate paintings — who upon more sober public consideration came to epitomize the excess of the 1980s and 90s and the prodigious egos that accompanied the most celebrated figures. He fell from grace, but resurrected himself as a filmmaker. Though he has now returned to painting, he does not enjoy the kind of attention and fascination he once did. Damien Hirst also went through a period a few years ago when prices for his work fell precipitously. Market demand is one indication of Hirst’s public estimation, and in his case seems closely linked with critical appraisal of his work; as the demand declined he was pilloried as a gleefully defecating celebrity clown.

U2, “Pride”, Rose Garden, Portland (photo by Matt McGee/Flickr)

When these artists depreciate in collective value there is a tendency for critics to gleefully crow over their loss of status. We might take this to simply be schadenfreude (the literal German translation of which is harm-joy), a sadly typical human response of taking pleasure in another’s misery. Routinely, schadenfreude is explained as a permutation of envy. However, there is more than envy at work in the polar swing from loving an artist to loathing them. When we laughingly disdain work we once venerated, I believe we are disdaining a version of ourselves, essentially admonishing ourselves for ever having subscribed to the idea of the artist’s supposed greatness.

In the background of this argument is a premise located in the philosophical tradition of German Idealism that resolves the subject/object and ideal/real splits by essentially making the basis for all forms of knowledge self-knowledge. This may explain what we do when we face the fact that something we genuinely once cared for has somehow shifted in our consideration to become rubbish. What the shift suggests is that the self that one used to be is flawed or worse, is unreliable. We deal with this unreliability by displacing it, by heaping scorn on the object, thus distancing ourselves from it.

This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with this psychological strategy. We make our accommodations to living with ourselves as best we can. But rather than heaping scorn on an artist or practice we once esteemed, we can also recognize that when we come to hate something we once valued, it has not changed; we have. The poet Amy Lingafelter writes “Each time we fall out of love we/ we say it wasn’t really love at all, as if/ landing a plane would say no, not/ actual sky. While I am in the dark ”

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

6 replies on “When We Fall Out of Love with Artists”

  1. The biggest difference between U2 and Schnabel/Hirst is that at one point U2 were actually good.

    Schnabel and Hirst have seen their careers take a sharp down turn in large part because their work was such crap to begin with. Yes, both have a couple decent pieces. I would argue that Hirst’s giant painting made of dead flies is actually (and probably accidentally) amazing when seen in person. That said, who outside of lower tier collectors who just want to be able to say they have a Hirst gives a damn about his spin paintings, pill paintings, etc..? The spin paintings especially seem like a joke on the art world, and not a very funny one for anyone. Schnabel was always a man of titanic ego which in the 80s was thought to somehow also mean titanic talent, which it did not. His word paintings and his forays into gluing more and more “mythic” crap to his slapdash paintings and his constant self assurance that his most banal utterance was freighted with profound import… as well as opening his own gallery specifically to sell his own paintings thus cutting out the rest of the gallery system all together finally led to his critical demise

    To put it simply, both produced tepid and weak work that needed the hype of gallerists and collectors to push it into the spotlight in the first place and to keep it there. By mocking, deriding, and undercutting that very system that got them where they were, they were abandoned by the system. They each bit the hand that feeds once too often.

  2. Someone has, no doubt, already said, “Celebrity corrupts, and absolute celebrity corrupts absolutely.”
    Hasn’t fine art always been status symbols for the one-percenters? The only new bit is that capitalism has made it a liquid investment for them as well, and that can account for its volatility, yes? And fine artists have always been entrepreneurs but not the latter to the near-total exclusion of the former until recently.
    The article above mentioned “Market demand” “public estimation” “critical appraisal” as if they were referring to the same group of art appreciators. I don’t think they do. The one-percenters are the market that demanding a profit, the critics are intellectualizing click-seekers and the public is the rest of us—a small fraction of the rest of us, I should say—who,when we care click, but are otherwise priced out of any other involvement with “fine” art.

  3. Could it be that the artists just suck now? Yeah Hirst and schnabel were always over-rated but U2 were once a serious driving force in the growth of post punk. They are now musical bullshit artists that have been treading water in the shallow end for about 17 years. And Bono’s an ass-hat, tax-dodging politician with the morals of a banker. I see your point that as our tastes change over time they reflect shifts in our own personality but sometimes when old heroes fall out of favor it really is because they have grown to suck bilge water.

  4. “They’re talking about things of which they don’t have the slightest understanding, anyway. It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”
    — Franz Kafka, The Trial

    1. A more complete answer would be in French artist Charles Meynier (a largely forgotten star of the art world); it happens to all of us -not have any clue of reality.

      However, I wouldn’t blame “object blamers;” there was certainly a lot of hype that was promulgated by a set of actors and their media (about the art and culture in their day), all with their own interests involved -some as owners.

      I would distinguish some of these objects as more artifacts than art (but there are always a lot of useful tips); and I sympathize more with the tone of the commenters here than the author, who seems attempting to rationalize something and writes more as an apologist.

      If it’s PoP art, then this article is about the Justin Biebers and Miley Cyruses of the “Art World” and no one should be making a big deal out of it. But when it becomes a parody of itself, somehow it’s real art? It just goes back to the owners and the market [see quote above].

      Anyway, I don’t know what art is supposed to be, but certain things (paintings) going in and out of fashion, or interest for it’s “art sake,” is the norm, not the exception.

      So this is just another boring story of something that happens everyday but people mostly forget -and we need to be reminded.


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