A Capitalist Walks Into an Art Gallery, and Knows Nothing At All

Fresh off my last post on one of my academic majors, an article in the Wall Street Journal by famed critic Camille Paglia has sent me into a fresh case of umbrage regarding art history. Basically, this article is like a shooting gallery tailor-made for me.

Paglia, renowned for her being the biggest feminist poser in the business, writes that visual art has failed in the face of the iPhone generation, and that the fine arts’ resurrection will come through capitalism. She makes her case, first, with the example of architecture:

…work of bold originality and stunning beauty continues to be done in architecture, a frankly commercial field. Outstanding examples are Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

She is right, in part. Architecture as an industry is absolutely booming right now, and there is some staggeringly beautiful work being done right now. For instance, Jeanne Gang’s Aqua apartment building opened in Chicago recently, and it is a truly amazing skyscraper, unlike anything else on the city’s skyline. It was designed floor-by-floor, with unique plans for each story, based on environmental conditions at each specific altitude, and a general dedication to sustainability in its whole conception. It’s a revolutionary approach to architecture, and should be celebrated.

However, Aqua is still not exactly a building for everyone. Nor, really, are any of the starchitect’s projects that she mentions. To live in Aqua, you’re going to be paying anywhere from $299,000 to $3,000,000. It’s not doing a whole lot of good for anyone outside Paglia’s cherished capitalist upperclass, and that is the fundamental problem of architecture. As best laid out by scholar Margaret Crawford in her article “Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?”, it is, as the system currently functions, it is impossible for architects to be truly social justice minded, for in order to build on any sort of scale, huge amounts of money are required. So, yes, Paglia is right that there’s lots of cool architecture, thanks to capitalism, but, as we will see below, her admittance of this is the first of so many convoluted contradictions in this piece, in her name-dropping of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan; a white, rich, privileged man who wrote extensively on social architecture theory who only built buildings for the rich and powerful.

She goes on to talk more in-depth about the visual arts:

Today’s blasé liberal secularism also departs from the respectful exploration of world religions that characterized the 1960s. Artists can now win attention by imitating once-risky shock gestures of sexual exhibitionism or sacrilege. This trend began over two decades ago with Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a plastic crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine, and was typified more recently by Cosimo Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord,” a life-size nude statue of the crucified Christ sculpted from chocolate, intended for a street-level gallery window in Manhattan during Holy Week. However, museums and galleries would never tolerate equally satirical treatment of Judaism or Islam.

It’s high time for the art world to admit that the avant-garde is dead. It was killed by my hero, Andy Warhol, who incorporated into his art all the gaudy commercial imagery of capitalism (like Campbell’s soup cans) that most artists had stubbornly scorned.

The vulnerability of students and faculty alike to factitious theory about the arts is in large part due to the bourgeois drift of the last half century. Our woefully shrunken industrial base means that today’s college-bound young people rarely have direct contact any longer with the manual trades, which share skills, methods and materials with artistic workmanship.

Essentially, her main point is that the decline of industrial America, and the supposed lack of artists rising from working class backgrounds is killing the visual arts, that young people have to be “rescued” from their “sanitized, middle-class backgrounds. Apparently, these sanitized backgrounds lead to icky art like Serrano’s. I’ve re-read this piece several times now, and no, I still don’t understand the connection.

Furthermore, her point of “college-bound young people,” presumably future artists, have no relation to manual labor is not only ridiculous, but betrays her capitalistic removal from reality. The fact that college-bound young people don’t have to do manual work in factories and such is directly related to their acceptance into colleges; that being that these are children whose parents can afford to send them to universities. Kids of working class parentage most often cannot afford university, so go into the sectors where college degrees are not required, sectors wherein capitalistic exploitation of labor and outsourcing has minimized the industries to an absolutely enormous degree. Her solution is the problem.

As a case in point, she claims that there have been no truly big art names to emerge since the 70s, with Minimalism and Pop Art. This, quite frankly, is not true; Damien Hirst came up with the Young British Artists in the late 80s-early 90s, and proceeded to take the entire art world by storm. His pieces sell for tens of millions of dollars, the absolute epitome of Ms. Paglia’s capitalist dream and, for the most part, are terrible. Banksy, too, is another example of this, but in a very different way; he never designed his graffiti work for consumer consumption, but instead his work as been coopted onto t-shirts and internet sites everywhere, and as such is now the artist every middle-class person likes to namecheck in order to prove they know something about contemporary art. Hirst and Banksy are only the two most famous examples; to say that the art world hasn’t had any “big names” is ridiculous and completely false.

But beyond them, there are many, many brilliant contemporary artists working in visual mediums today. Take a look sometime at Davis/Langlois, or Nick Cave, or Carrie Mae Weems, or Juan Angel Chavez. These are just the artists I know of most closely, from my work at the DePaul Art Museum. One of the many, many problems of the current art world, particularly in Chicago, is that the artists working now aren’t celebrated. They can, and should be, and deserve investigation.

In conclusion, it seems that for a critic of Ms. Paglia’s stature, she apparently hasn’t read any art history. At least, not outside of the mainstream canonical omnibuses. This is the only conclusion to be reached from reading this article of hers, for the only way such a bogus conclusion could be reached is through lack of proper investigation. So, just like a capitalist, then.


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