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Important art

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Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009

Ainsley Drew, a guest blogger at Kottke, linked to this essay by Shane McAdams about how art collectors use the word important in describing the art they have invested in.


There is no better way to shield something from real criticism than to make it taboo or sacred. When that collector said “important” he was without knowing it creating a protective cloak of mystique around the work of art, because “important” is to culture what “holy” is to religion.


What was being protected was not the art’s allegedly important meaning, but its actual value in capitalist culture—its price. Investing in contemporary art is a matter of investing in the highly variable reputation of the artist; it makes more sense if you are in a position to bully public opinion about what sort of art is worthwhile—which makes it smart for collectors to get involved with museums and other institutions that validate art’s importance, staffing their boards and guiding their acquisitions and so on. The reputational issues provoke a lot of aggressive promotional and misleading talk—“over the course of the last 20 years we’ve watched ‘bad’ work somehow turn into ‘sensational’ work, ‘sensational’ turn to ‘provocative,’ ‘provocative’ into ‘important,’ and ‘important’ back into ‘good.’ It’s a collecting world’s semantic shell game”—that drowns out meaningful criticism, which presumably decides what is truly good. I’m skeptical of that—I think cultural capital is always at stake in determining what is “important” or aesthetically “good”, and the critics merely fight with words because they lack the money to fight on the collectors’ turf. That cultural capital plays in determining who is included and excluded in the art world more generally, which in turn feeds into the larger stakes of social class.


McAdams cites an essay by art critic Dave Hickey, “Frivolity and Unction” (pdf), where he imagines resigning from the art world after watching its emissaries try to defend themselves from an attack on its frivolity and corruption on 60 Minutes—a middlebrow attempt to demystify the art world and devalue its cultural capital. (Hickey calls it “bourgeois punditry.”) “The presumption of art’s essential ‘goodness’ is nothing more than a political fiction that we employ to solicit taxpayers’ money for public art education,” he concedes, though that is just one example (as McAdams points out) of the many political struggles art can be recruited to figure in to. Hickey ends up essentially wishing that cultural capital didn’t figure in at all—that contemporary art had no cultural capital and was widely ignored, regarded as unimportant, unvirtuous. Then we could go back to appreciating the actual work again rather than what it signified in class struggles, and in struggles for funding. “I could practice art criticism by participating in the street-level negotiation of value. I might disregard the distinctions between high and low art and discuss objects and activities whose private desirability might be taken to have public consequences.” His rallying cry becomes: “Art is bad, silly, and frivolous, so what?”


His contention is that the art world is or at least should be “an ongoing referendum on how things should look and the way we should look at things”—but in so doing, it also lays down aesthetics along class lines, with moneyed interests weighing more heavily in the referendum. Ordinary people, it seems to me, do their best to ignore the dictates of the art world, which doesn’t have their ability to appreciate art in mind at all, and instead derive their aesthetics from a hodgepodge of sources as a means of resistance. Taste is best-kept provisional, a work in progress, and all the judgments we share are probably best expressed that way, as theses rather than passwords into some discriminatory club.

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