for my first ArtBabel post I thought I'd dust off an old number from the archives...enjoy:
Rattling around the artblogs recently I've noticed a cloud of thought hovering over the notion of "value" in painting. "How do we determine value in art?"..a question asked (and answered) by Jed Perl, among others in direct response to the vast influx of hedge-fund money that seems to be turning the notion of artworld correctness and propriety upside down. To me it's a curious problem because it represents an alchemical conversion of abstract ideas and concepts into a numerical equivalent in currency. This is ostensibly a method of gauging the collective belief and confidence in any given set of "values" that may be winning out against other values at any particular moment in the popular imagination. The problem is not in the notion that certain ideas seem to be more popular than others within the context of a moment in time (a constantly changing and unreliable measurement), but the tendency for "value" judgements themselves to assume either/or categories, bifurcations that represent false dichotomies .
Here are a few false dilemna's you may be familiar with hidden in rhetorical questions and statements:
Are you with us, or with the forces of racism and oppression?
Are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?
America - love it or leave it.
Nobody wins unless everybody wins.
In art history, the contrived dualisms that best represent this type of Manichean logic have seemed most salient to me in the relationship between two artists such as Fragonard and Greuze. Fragonard came to be eponymous with the Rococo and the artificial tastes of the Aristocratic culture he catered to. On the other hand, inspired by the writing of Romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his insistence on "natural" virtues as an antidote to the corrupt "ancien regime" that hovered like a bloated corpse above French society of the 18th century, Greuze embraced the simplicity and sincerity of common villagers and the "realness" of their everyday lives. We are aware of course that Greuze is the "winning" side in this contest, with the French Revolution virtually annihilating through exile or beheading the patrons that supported Fragonard, who died penniless and forgotten in 1806.
Looking at Greuze in 2007, it's hard for me to see "naturalness" and sincerity. Instead, I see a pantomime of these virtues that borders on histrionic. The work only communicates simplicity in the way that a caricature might. It is ham-handed, farcical, melodramatic, and calculated. It is only by placing the work in a false dichotomy besides it's conceptual enemy do these characteristics become even a little bit real.
Dichotomies are common in Western thought, a condition that C.P Snow has described as the "culture of argument". In such a climate, dialogue is characterized by a warlike atmosphere in which the winning side has truth (like a trophy). In such a dialogue, the middle alternatives are virtually ignored. Obviously for art to have numerical value in currency it must pass through this odd mechanism of valuation. And maybe this is why the pugnacious disgust at what Jed Perl has described as "Laissez- Faire" aesthetics might be a little over blown. I'm not advocating a sort of glib nonchalance that represents a superficial and shallow commitment to the world of ideas…but I have to say that today's culture is clearly based on a model of cultural customization that seems to represent a step away from the epic righteousness of dialectical thought. Although it's clear that the impetus for this de-valuation of "value" has more to do with fashion, constantly shifting tastes, i.e. trendiness, and the "democracy of access" granted by new money, the net affect is a logical and positive step away from art as yet an other emblem of ideology (..."-ism").
It's not insignificant to note that Greuze also died broke and penniless a year after Fragonard..a victim of his own extravagances and a deep inability to manage his own success. In my mind the notion of "victory" and "revolution" are absurd concepts that by necessity create pathological cults of belief. In this way winning and losing are real concepts, but ironically can never be consummated. Today's winner is tomorrow's loser, and the individual is caught in a never ending whirlpool of torment that to me seems the most tragic reality that an artist can know. People that talk about moving art into what's "next" usually do so because they believe their contribution represents the inevitable destiny of the conversation of art history, and see their own art embedded within this sequential narrative. This dissatisfaction can generally be thought of as a subjective affect that I feel is an inevitable byproduct of lamentably mistaking the social-economic matrix of the "artworld" for the broader concept of "art" as a concrete cultural manifestation of applied philosophies-which should ideally transcend notions of game theory and market value. Implicit in this new version of historicity is the diffraction of all Grand Narrative outwards into an multi-dimensional Field of possibility and connectivity. In this way there is no such things as "winning" and "losing", but rather all that exists are vectors of relateability that are separate and distinct from a bounded and linear time-based model that we have come to call "Art History". The emergence of recognizeability or "celebrity" among an enormous pool of abundantly talented artists is merely an epiphenomena of social conditions/networks in a media driven culture along a given axis of causality and should not be regarded as an inevitable destiny that has become manifest.
"Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. If it is so disgusting to judge, it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment. What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come?"