The Art Kids Are Not Alright

The Blank Generation (image via nymag.com)

Jerry Saltz is like the art world’s hip uncle. But is he getting too curmudgeonly to hang with the kids? In the critic’s recent New York Magazine essay, Saltz calls young artists “Generation Blank” for being not original enough and too digestible by critics — cliche. Meanwhile, other art youth compare GIF size.

Saltz “went to Venice and came back worried” because of what he witnessed in that sunken port city. Too many artists’ bodies of work were dominated by “a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style” made up of a string of contemporary art stereotypes:

Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction.

With all these cliches in evidence, what is an art critic to do? Oh yeah, write a reactionary article about how young artists can’t be original any more. Saltz suggests that we’re coming to another Mannerist era of art, in which the tenets of the academy are the only way to go, and the academy is boring. “Artists are too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, not really making their own work … they are becoming a Lost Generation.”

Yale University, home to a well-regarded MFA program (image via wikipedia.org)

Art schools exist, for Saltz, only to teach artists how to appropriate other artists’ work and then re-digest it. Onoes! Is meme culture making contemporary art into lolcats!? Art historian Mira Schor responds with a post entitled “Should we trust anyone under 30?” The post, with some well-placed art historical mumbo-jumbo, underlines Schor’s observation that many younger artists are apolitical, unwilling to take a critical stand, not wanting to fight the feedback loop of history.

“The MFA generation of artists,” Schor writes, are a group “who have learned all the rules of the art market, are incredibly professional and well-behaved, and would never dream of questioning the status quo of the art market beyond a certain point of academic correctness.” Saltz and Schor both seem to exhort artists to be original! Stand up! Don’t capitulate to dominant trends! It strikes me that they might be looking for young, original art in the wrong places.

If these older critics aren’t finding anything that doesn’t look like it was mass-produced out of some prestigious MFA program (which can, and often do, become echo chambers), then they’re not doing their job. One only has to take a step outside the pre-approved, pre-commercialized art scene to see stuff that might not be great, but is certainly different. Both critics are largely aloof from street art and graffiti, as they are from the new media and internet art communities. These are bodies of contemporary art that are still developing, still fighting fresh battles and having arguments over what works and what doesn’t.

In fact, Schor and Saltz both seem to only be looking at work that is pre-commercialized, already adopted into the ebb and flow of the art world. Again, the Venice Biennale and MFA thesis shows aren’t exactly hotbeds of insurrection. Schor goes at lengths to point out that we can find overtly political and rebellious, living art made by artists other than those youths fresh out of school, but she doesn’t suggest any alternative places to look.

Image via tommoody.us

Over at Art Fag City, there is a 70+ comment thread about GIF size, file structure and possible obsolescence; an argument over an obscure artistic tidbit that I daresay neither Saltz nor Schor are really aware of, and even less aware of the possibility that the topic could cause heated controversy. The discussion is a microcosm of the relatively young new media and internet art scene, complete with Tom Moody accents to spice it up. Street art is only just starting to establish itself in the museum world: Art in the Streets presented what was probably the most controversial museum exhibition of the spring. There are so many questions left to ask, so many conflicts to resolve and new vocabularies to define. This seems to run exactly counter to Saltz’s claims.

Dear established critics: if you’re thinking that all is a little too smooth and easy in this young art world, it would behoove you to dig a little deeper for the movers and shakers. The Venice Biennale and the critical echo chamber probably isn’t the place to find something new and different. Schor writes that “a general atmosphere of a new conservatism among twenty and thirty somethings is evident on all societal registers.” I think if Schor and Saltz could look around a little more, they would find the liberal dialogue that they’re missing.

comments (0)