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.
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 ”