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 (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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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

53 replies on “Why Slate’s Takedown of the Art World Is Totally Wrong”

  1. “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.”

    We care, because art that tries to shock but merely manages to bore and annoy us represents a sad waste of energy and potential. Telling artists that their gimmicks are tired and that they need to move on is not telling them to ‘shut up’ or ‘fall in line for the good of the children’. It’s telling them to pull their heads out of their own asses and start looking for ways to connect with (not necessarily agree with) the public. So many artists forget that art is about communication, not about advertising one’s own greatness.

    1. M.K., yes, you are totally right—communication is key, and artists, as well as the rest of us, often need to be reminded to pull our heads out of our asses. But I think basically blaming the defunding of arts programs in schools on those who made or make controversial work (or for the sake of argument, let’s say good controversial work), which Doonan and Paglia do, is a bullshit argument that ultimately serves to neuter artists rather than remind them about any type of need for connection. There will always be Republicans who want to defund the NEA and take art out of schools. And we shouldn’t be avoiding provocation just to avoid pissing them off.

      1. It’s about context. I don’t think artists necessarily go out of their way to shock. A lot of artists who have been lumped in the “shock” category actually do so because they’re channeling feelings of discontent in their experiences of daily life. Sometimes it’s a cathartic thing. Sometimes it’s to point out a perceived flaw. Sometimes it’s a challenge to perception. Granted, there are shlock artists. But we shouldn’t generalise. But I agree with the Sontag quote that art is not just meant to be aesthetically pleasing. I think about Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaists and Surrealists all the time. Their work may seem quaint to us now, but it was shocking in their times. Collage as art? Found objects? It’s confounding. But it made us think about what we saw and about the nature and role of art, not just ooh and aah over it as if it were the baby Jesus. Life is shocking. Why shouldn’t art be too?

        1. I often look at art from other periods—especially Duchamp and the Dadaists—and wish I could time travel to experience it when it was new.

          1. This is a matter of perspective! One can experience the newness that is always waiting to be discovered in long-standing art movements/ individual works. Our looking always says something about us the viewer, and not the art per se.

  2. Jillian, I absolutely agree. I read it thinking that there was a case to be made, but was quickly dismayed by how worn out, tired, and wide of the mark the so-called critique turned out.

  3. Whatever! He’s not totally wrong..or maybe according to your closed little world. LOL. so funny. He’s right in soooo many ways that you are wrong. This makes amusing, unimportant, entertainment reading. The least important essays on the planet…Art LOL. so funny. So glad I’m over it. uhhuh sooooo sensitive.

  4. Honest question, Jillian, but I thought Simon Doonan’s only role in the art world was going to the parties? Does he have another role we don’t know about? I don’t remember seeing him at all open studio events or anything else to be honest. Did I miss something?

    1. Not that I know of, Hrag. But maybe that explains why he’s so dismissive/doesn’t seem to actually know much about it? I just found it really annoying that Slate runs nothing about art ever, and then they run this?! (At the same time, I realize it’s very Slate-y of them. They like takedowns.)

  5. Critics like Doonan seem to long for some mythic time past when the best artist were somehow in sync with ‘regular folk’ and the art world wasn’t filled with d-bags. The fact is, that time is always 30 years ago. Back in the 80’s he would’ve said the time of the AB-EXers was “a great time for art”.

  6. While I agree that Doonan and Paglia apply a superficial gloss to the shortcomings of the art world, surface appearances can be telling.The fixation on “transgression” they criticize is a product of the risk-adverse scholar-gallery complex that only tolerates “provocation”–shock tactics that garner attention, but never threaten the status of the artist or his commodity. Seranno and Ofili became notorious among conservatives, but they never risked anything among artists or gallery owners through their work and never really exited the boundaries of tolerable dissent. Neither do the countless lesser names who crank out variations on themes of genitalia, rot, body fluids and morbid sexuality that Doonan references. And how can we blame them? How do you transgress a society saturated with images of violence and sexuality? Real transgression—gestures that truly cut to the core of aesthetic or social values—would be intolerable for most artists and their audiences.So, I don’t think art should be qualified by beauty, craft, or representation, but I also don’t think it should be qualified by continual, flaccid jabs at bourgeois sensibilities.

    1. Yes. It is easy to make fun of a fashion guy who buys the argument that there has been no influential art since minimalism when his industry cannot get enough of Lady GaGa’s recycling of imagery from the work of Carolee Schneemann and Matthew Barney.

      But the question of what subversive art should really look like is interesting and vital.

      Over the last couple of decades, Art History departments full of Marxists, feminists, queer theorists, etc. allowed their workplaces to be converted into tiered systems where a small number of faculty are favored by the university administration with tenure and allowed to pursue their scholarly interests, while most of the paying students are tended to by precarious laborers. Boundaries of tolerable dissent indeed.

      1. “But the question of what subversive art should really look like is interesting and vital.” I agree entirely. I think about this a lot, and I’m sure many others in the art—and larger cultural—world. I just haven’t thought of any satisfying answers.

        1. This will make some people cringe but I sense that the art world desperately needs a once-in-a-lifetime artist who comes in and like an earthquake breaks down a lot of old structures and worn out avenues. We need a 21st century Duchamp. A genius who shifts the course of art.

  7. I think it’s a little personal for Doonan–didn’t he get a cease and desist letter from one of the Chelsea galleries for doing his windows thing with found letters? Some artist claimed it as a trademark or something and the court ruled in the favor of ART. But otherwise, y’know, everyone gets the art that they deserve…

  8. along with much of western and global culture the art world is out of balance … with nature, with human consciousness, with heart, with holistic human aspirations. stress on the walls, factory-made art products, mistaking money for value … lol, it’s all pretty amusing.

  9. I’m glad that you wrote abut this because I saw that article yesterday and its outright nonsense irked me to no end. Not just wrong-minded but wrong about historical facts.

    To address his points in order as he enumerated them:

    1. His complaints about art fairs might be legitimate but the tone of this whole point is odiously smug. His complaint seems to be that he gets invited to too many parties that he doesn’t want to go to and then he seems to think that his whole “No, in fact, I would rather jump in a river of snot” riff is charming and clever and not just grating. Must be hard to be a creative director at Barneys or whatever he does. The irony is, this is exactly what IS wrong with the art world (or the world): Rich, privileged folks who are so oblivious to their privilege that they COMPLAIN about it, ferchrissakes. God, it must really suck to be really well-connected in the art world and have your career be going well.

    2.There’s so much wrong with this but I have to point out that for all of his love for the 80s, his example of “Shock” art includes Andres Serrano whoes only notable/infamous work is “Piss-Christ” (from 1987!) Plus, I don’t know anyone who thinks he’s an interesting or important artist. Same for Hirst. No one’s really that interested in him except all the rich collectors Doonan seems unable to avoid.

    I don’t think that it’s artists’ responsibility to conform to or affirm middle-brow/middle-class notions of quality so that arts funding doesn’t suffer. It’s not like if Keith Richards did less heroin and played more Bach then schools would own more trombones or whatever.By affirming a stupid mis-representation of Chris Offili’s work (as “shock”) he’s encouraging exactly the type of culture war polarization that’s causing the precise problems he’s decrying.

    3. The insuation that Kusama’s institutionalization has something to do with the art market, or that her career hasn’t been well-served by the art world’s support for her work is smug and ridiculous. Also, she’s not “so-called” great. She’s bona fide GREAT (if maybe uneven, but who isn’t.) And does he think he’s being cute calling it the nut-house. If someone makes the life-choice to live in an institution, as she has, does she really deserve to be unnecessarily stigmitized for that decision. So, he sort of comes off as a bit of a dick here.

    4. Post-Skill… Some of lazy “post-skill” work is annoying but I don’t think that any artist makes good art without questioning received notions of “skill.” In my experience, generally, the more conventionally skilled an artist is, the more skeptical they are of “skill” in general. Originality, by definition, I think, means that someone invents their own skill. This process always requires, in a sense, a degree of de-skilling. Does the Art World, as a whole, go over-board in supporting overly “de-skilled” art (the proverbial “tampon in a tea-cup” work?) Maybe, but the skepticism about “skill” and “craft” are also what makes the art world an exciting place where new types of visual language can take form.

    5.Flight of craft. This is just wrong. There are plenty of artists making “skillful”/crafty art. Skill levels are off-the-charts these days. Maybe too many artists are merely just that.

    6. I see a lot of art shows and read a fair amount too and I’ve never heard of Jonathan Seliger and I’m not sure why he’s a representation sample of what’s happening in the art world right now. That piece probably does suck and there’s lots of flashy one-liner art but… based on his glib writing style I think that Mr. Doonan is projecting his own “adderall a go-go” mentality onto the world around him.

    7. I know lots of artists. Most of them would like to make some money at what they do. Most of us also have demanding or draining day-jobs and we work extremely hard. None of us are particularly money obsessed. And ALL OF US have made immense sacrifices in our lives to be artists. Most artists went to college and grad schools. I would say that anyone who grows up with the intelligence and opportunity to get into good schools and then “throws it away” to risk relative penury as an artist is among the LEAST MONEY OBSESSED population of people on the planet. PERIOD.

    8. Coolness… This is ridiculous. Some artists want to be cool. Some are dorky and uncool. Whatever. But, just wrt to Basquiat. Basquiat might be one of the most shameless social climbers in art history. This is a guy who practically disowned his poor/unfamous LES friends as soon as he was granted access to Warhol’s inner circle. The great multi-talented artist/musician/actor John Lurie resented him decades later for this. Also, I always thought that Haring and Scharf’s work was eminently “cool.” They both mined attractive pop styles with a type of semi-ironic distance that was the epitome of “cool” at the time. (I like them both, for the record, especially Haring.) Also, Rachael Whiteread is not my favorite artist but in the right context her work can be pretty amazing. Has it dawned on Doonan, btw, that the whole point of casting the inside of a cardboard box is so that you SLOW DOWN AND LOOK AT IT, re-examine the familiar and appreciate its subtle specificity from a new perspective. -That it’s the exact opposite of the “one-liners” he’s decrying. Actually, this is the crux of the matter. It’s not just Doonan’s ideas that are bad: he has a bad eye for art.

    Then there’s this at the end “Enough kvetching. Let’s end on a positive note. Not every blue-chip artist today is shoving his poo into tins and calling it art.” OMG, ALMOST NOBODY IS SHOVING POO INTO TINS!!! End rant. Wait, let me just add that this piece of garbage has severely damaged my estimation of the Slate.

  10. sometimes i think the myth that “artists shouldn’t care about money” was started by people who didn’t want to pay artists.

      1. HEAR!!! HEAR!!! As if Doonan wasn’t pushing his friend Paglia’s book by saying it is a must read. self promo or friend promo it all benefits someone’s pocket book. Everyone gotta put bread on the table.

  11. I agree with your criticism, but I argue that Doonan made two good points: one about Miami and one about the trend of display in contemporary art. I think he has a unique perspective as a window designer and is right to critique the focus that has been placed onto display, arrangement, and objecthood by contemporary fine art culture, often without a consideration of much else in terms of content. This formal tactic was interesting the first few times I saw it dissected, but it is increasingly becoming the “go-to” for artists and dealers that want to sell a well-designed object or assemblage.

    1. You’re very right, but I just don’t think you can talk about the Miami art fairs as a unified thing anymore. There is a lot of diversity in the types and numbers of fairs that the onus is really on the viewer/collector/anyone to find what you like. If you go to the mothership fair and think that is all there is to see, then that tells me you’re not looking. There are alternative fairs, experimental ones, and some that are more curated than others (and they all have different characters). I just think his lumping them all together tells me he’s not really looking.

      1. This is a great point. And true of any big fairs, festival, and conferences. There is always exciting culture satellites around but apart from the braggarts and the money.

        1. If I may add to that, ABMB is very consumeristic… rows of galleries (hundreds) hocking everything and anything they can sell; the most inspiring art is not necessarily at the beach, a lot of it is in Wynwood, Miami’s art district.

    2. I totally agree. The replacement of skill with object display was his strongest point. I think a lot of people are tired with work that is stapled, taped and hung together on a string.

  12. Doonan’s “takedown” is miserably lazy, but through no fault of its own it does highlight two enormous problems. The first is that no one outside of the art world – the community of artists, dealers, collectors, critics, museums, universities, and self-conscious lovers of art – knows much at all about art. The second is that the ideas people outside the art world have about contemporary art are, well, off.

    The art world could do a much better job educating the wider public about what art is today, and could do a much better job at taking the work that functions as art in the context of the art world and connecting it to the lives of people in the wider public.

    1. You make a very good and important point. But I wonder, too: is the fact that people outside the art world know so little about art just our (art world) fault? Why don’t sites like Slate and Salon cover visual art? Maybe this is a chicken-or-the-egg question, I don’t know.

    2. There is a good discussion! Education about art-making is part and parcel responsibility for affiliation with creativity on any front_ making, selling, representing, etc…

    3. Exactly, it takes someone who really understands art through a historical and theoretical context to write intelligently about art. Doonan might as well be that person in the contemporary art museum who looks at Cy Twombly and declares “my kid could do that.”

  13. The article is generating some conversation… and the comments are smarter and more clever than the article itself. The question becomes, what is on the other side of this silly Art Market? We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, our inheritance is vast (both good and bad)… This culture is in the process of rapid transformation,(crystal ball anyone, perhaps a little omnipotence?)
    Some things do not change for us mere mortals: Integrity, Honesty, Quality, etc… What can we say, create as individuals or communities or as a culture that is inspiring that does infact forward the project called Humanity? This is where opportunity exists…. at least that is how it occurs to me… just another artist talking…. Thanks

  14. I wish Simon Doonan would focus on What’s Wrong with the Fashion World. There’s plenty, and he’s in a good position to know who, what and where.

  15. There seem to be a lot of philistines attacking the artworld these days, drawn out by the enormous sums being paid by hedge funders, oops, I mean collectors at the auction houses. Some, like Doonan, clearly don’t know what they are talking about. Others, like Jerry Saltz, should know better and rethink the damage they are doing both to the world in which they work, and their own reputations.

  16. When I want to be informed about critical art theory I do not read Doonan or Paglia.

    Everybody is pushing something until they decide not to be a product. Money always
    matters, but not at the expense of conformity. However, these days it seems
    like everyone conforms.

    There is a lot of art that represents zero skill, while conceptual art
    simultaneously seems to become more popular or entrenched. Making artworks that
    shock is the lowest common denominator, and it is surely the easiest thing to
    do for any unthinking artist. I guess that’s why there is so much of it.

    I could care less that he is plugging Paglia’s book. Any one who actually reads
    art theory would recognize her work and insight as weak beer. Not everything in
    what Doonan describes about the art world is completely off target. Sure he
    should do his homework, but the author clearly admits in his summary that the
    art market is a farcical world filled with ignorance and money. An often lethal
    combination when applied to things of integrity.

    I always make my work for myself. I set my standards and prices very high,
    because my degree was not cheap.

    Web technology has only enhanced a more omniscient marketing machine, which
    basically obscures what is original or authentic about real good art. Something
    I rarely see anymore. Welcome to the hype.

    A few good authors and a magazine for art theory: October, Arthur Danto, Gilles Deleuze, John Berger,Plato, Kant,Foucault and Jean Baudrillard

  17. Out here in the backwater art offends and shocks Republicans into creating a strong repression of political or nude body imagery. Our local art alliance (cultural center) gets one month a year to show “controversial” art and that was compromised by a 1%er who objected to an American flag installation and the culture center took it down! Post it notes are put on body imagery if children come to visit the Alliance or university gallery. I am currently conceptualizing cast off chainsawed chunks of a Jim Crow lynching tree (city doesn’t recognize the history of lynching here), I might as well be pedaling plague inflected rags. Koch Brothers have culture in lock down mode with the university, curation and professors.

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