Robert Cenedella, a veteran figurative painter, is a pupil of George Grosz. A teacher at the Art Students League, he was the subject of a film Art Bastard (2016). Now Cenedella has sued the five major Manhattan art museums for 100 million dollars, alleging that they are part of a “corporate museum cartel” that conspires to promote mainly artists whose works are already in their collections. He asserts that they work hand-in-hand with the five top New York galleries to drive up prices for the artists they represent. The obvious effect of this conspiracy, he argues, is price fixing.
The idea that the contemporary art world is a scam is not unfamiliar. Now and again accounts in the popular press ask whether the art shown in the commercial galleries and major museums should really be taken seriously. And some major writers have taken up that theme — Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) is perhaps the best-known example.
That Cenedella’s lawsuit is being covered by Artforum.com and Hyperallergic shows, however, that right now some people within the art world find such claims deserving of attention. In two recent books (Wild Art, 2013, and Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained, 2018), Joachim Pissarro and I have argued that there is no difference in kind between art world art, art found in the serious galleries and museums, and all that other art, what we call ‘wild art’: graffiti, tattoos, hotel art, and the like, which is never taken seriously by the art world.
Wild art stands to art world art as wild animals to house pets, or weeds to cultivated plants. In one way, we note, the new work destined for our art world continually changes quickly and radically. Consider the multitude of movements of the past few decades: Arte Povera, Photorealism, Pattern Painting, Support/ Surface, ‘Bad Painting,’ Decorative Painting, and many more. What, however, has not changed is the basic distinction between art inside the art world and wild art. Right outside the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art you find venders selling knock-off African masks and a variety of other street art. These works will never make their way into the museums. In restaurants near these museums you see popular history paintings and Italian beachscapes. Artists doing such work will not be invited to exhibit in these museums either.
If there is no difference in kind between museum art and wild art, then, in principle, there is no art form that cannot move into the museum. The history of Modernism and what comes after demonstrates that as soon as critics decree that some quality is essential to any legitimate museum artwork, some young artist will make art lacking that quality, and eventually achieve success. Thus anything can move into the museum. But not everything can, for the very existence of the art world depends upon barriers between the art world art and wild art. And it is these barriers that give rise to Cenedella’s conspiracy theory. We don’t ourselves believe that curators at MoMA and the other leading museums get together and conspire. On the contrary, the very nature of their activity, identifying the newest artistic trends, means that they have to compete with one another as well as with their immediate precursors. Think of what a different view of contemporary art was presented at MoMA under William Rubin or Kirk Varnedoe. Our art world requires perpetual revolution – that’s its essential nature. But still, as we have said, the exclusion of wild art never changes. In that way, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMA’s founding director and its youngest curators are in agreement, for without excluding wild art their institution could not exist.
Paradoxically, we think, the problem with Cenedella’s analysis is that it isn’t radical enough. He believes, we infer, that there are objective standards for contemporary painting, standards that presumably his art satisfies; his only complaint is that the museums and art dealers have the wrong standards – they leave him out. We believe that what history shows is that there can be no such standards. But what is impossible is to have an art world without some exclusionary principles, some way of excluding all of the wild art. The abolition of all exclusionary principles is, quite literally, unimaginable. There simply is no precedent in the entire history of the public art museum. If you compare Cenedella to most of the artists showing at Gagosian or Pace, then indeed he is a marginal figure. If, however, you step back, and set him alongside the very many artists working everywhere, then he is very much an art world insider. You can view his works online, he teaches at a major Manhattan art school, and, as we have said, he is the subject of a body of commentary, including now our account. Only in the narrowest sense, then, is he an outsider to the art world. We say that without offering any critical account of his paintings. We agree with him that right now, museums are unlikely to ask him to exhibit. But that might change tomorrow. And so, whatever your critical judgment of his paintings, his lawsuit provides a richly rewarding perspective on how that world functions. And that, we think, is a great achievement.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.