Bulking Up the Avant-Garde

John Haber
in New York City

Those who remember the past are condemned to teach it to undergraduates.
      — Anonymous

Roger Kimball at Bard College

Banks Violette and Niche Markets

With so much out there, it gets harder and harder to describe contemporary art. It makes less and less sense to talk about an avant-garde or art's future, as if art were all headed in the same direction. Still, one can always count on two things—a lot of fashionable artists and a lot of mediocrity. Oh, and did I mention that they might overlap? Banks Violette's Not Yet Titled (Light Spill) (Barbara Gladstone, 2007)

When Roger Kimball pays a visit at Bard College, he finds just that. Writing in The New Criterion, he slams the new CCS Hessel Museum and its opening exhibition for what he calls "avant-garde in bulk." He has found a telling phrase for a glaring symptom, but has he diagnosed the right disease?

Kimball puts it all down to liberals in academia, including lax standards, meaningless theory, and political bias. I have run the politics of art into the ground by now, but Kimball's little rant makes an intriguing case study nonetheless. It also makes a useful contrast with a much more representative example of artistic fashions the same summer, in Banks Violette. I shall argue for something about the particular and unprecedented dimensions of today's art markets. Instead of the Salon and the avant-garde, art suffers from a split between blockbusters and niche markets. Straddling Chelsea and Soho, Violette manages to dip into them both.

A Hessel hassle

Contemporary art has definitely bulked up. Think of the perpetual art fairs from the Armory Show to Volta, where another critic plays curator, or so many galleries in Chelsea alone. "Avant-garde in bulk" will surely resonate with critics left, right, and center. Jerry Saltz has written about art's "superparadigm." I myself once tried to define Postmodernism as Modernism pressed for time.

A thriving art scene combined with an uncertain state of the art may seem paradoxical, but it has more than enough parallels. Think of the extravagance of the late Baroque gone bonkers, for example, or the nineteenth-century furor over a stale Salon. Could success and crisis, then, have something to do with each other? Scholars and critics, who earn their keep remembering the past, like to think so. When it comes to the mess today, one can count on them to blame the art market. One can count on one other thing, too—that the right will then blame scholars and critics.

Happily, when a wealthy collector of contemporary art gets her own museum, right on the campus of a decent college, both sides can pat themselves on the back. Roger Kimball certainly does. He also uses it to proclaim "Why the Art World Is a Disaster." It all comes down to "criticism, political activism, and pseudo-philosophical speculation" detached from good taste and the old-fashioned "practice of art."

His charge may not make much sense on the face of it, not when the critics themselves are so critical. So, for that matter, are artists, who mostly prefer intuition and process to theoretical "speculation" anyhow. Kimball in fact acknowledges that the artists at CCS Hessel are trying to shake things up, but he dismisses that as old hat by now—my word, before even Bush. One wonders what he would make of Rembrandt at four hundred.

One wonders, too, how he can lump together everything from feminism to Matthew Barney as political dogma, except as a way to disguise a narrowness dogmatism of his own. Come to think of it, Feminists for Matthew Barney might hold some really entertaining meetings. Its members would know I made up the epigraph to this article.

They might also balk at bowing so readily to the power of money alone, something rarely a problem for conservative readers of The New Criterion. If Bard represents a protected enclave for left-wing speculation, it has also bowed to a donor, herself reflective of values created in an open art market. She lends her name to the museum, and her private collection makes up its first show. Its only notable bow to feminism comes in the association between a woman and financial success. Feminists for Barney indeed.

Illiberal elites

Before you rush out to start your own chapter, though, it pays to listen more closely to Kimball's rhetoric. He does not deny the role of big money, so long as it has nothing to do with the glorious free market that economists such as David Galenson have posited for art. Collectors have muscled out museums before, like the Nasher collection at the Guggenheim or the UBS Collection at MoMA. Kimball, however, locates even wealth in academia, where pampered students pay huge tuition. He "motored" up to see them, the quaint word marking their isolation from mass transit and unclean masses.

Now, perhaps your first association with competitive private colleges is how hard these kids and their parents worked to get in. Perhaps you worry about the debt that they will carry into their future, a debt now incurred even at public universities. Perhaps you suspect that classes have grown more racially and economically diverse since the donor's undergraduate years, even as tuition and other fees have soared. Perhaps you wonder if conservative funding priorities in education have played a role in the latter. And perhaps your first association with cars on campus is a commuter school, for a still more struggling cross-section of America.

However, when a thesis does not quite make sense, it helps to look past that to the framing of the issues. (A good critic does much the same when it comes to many a flawed exhibition.) The right-wing agenda does not just get art wrong. It also parallels precisely a broader agenda for politics. Just as conservative spin wants you to know the price of Al Gore's house or John Edwards's haircut, it wants to pretend that the real balance of power lies not with big money, good intentions, and stale ideas, but with liberal elites.

Forget that feminism has valued precisely the craft that Kimball prefers, while Modernism sometimes did not. Forget that artists have rebelled against his vision of art in the hope of broadening it beyond the wealthy or academics. The whole point is to turn the rebels into the elite, in order to stifle change. It creates an enemy that has at once abandoned standards and imposed values, in order to cut off debate on its own standards of judgment and interpretation.

One might, then, consider the summer's leading example of "avant-garde in bulk." The artist in question works on a large scale and acts like a rebel, while showing in two of the city's most prestigious galleries. One even moved from Chelsea to Soho, to become a "destination" quite as much as a suburban college. The artist refers simultaneously to the underground scene and a past avant-garde, perhaps the last avant-garde, while simulating the destruction of both. He also happens to be male and anything but political or theoretical.

Kimball might wish to despise him or to ignore him. I might wish to like him or to score points off him. But can we fairly, without betraying something in ourselves—or in the art itself?

Vapor trails

I still think of Banks Violette as way too cool for me. I just picked the wrong day.

The front door in Chelsea stood open in the middle of a heat wave, and small box fans at the base of the street wall let in more sunlight and warm air. They seemed to go with the atmosphere of torpor and collapse. Black plastic lay here and there, only occasionally rising to alarming heights. More than one kind of white heat seemed to have overwhelmed everything else, starting with the usual intense light of a gallery's white cube. White shards, representing fragments of amps and speakers, mixed with rock salt. Florescent tubes at odd angles topped the largest piece with a harsher white light.

Two tanks of liquid nitrogen behind another black proscenium wall promised relief, but nothing played out on stage. Perhaps the band had quit after its equipment exploded, although one sculpture emits a steady drone. Most of the audience must have followed them. The show was supposed to go on anyway, with a release of artificial clouds. But the work looked as lifeless and oversized as the rest of the show, and I felt the heat all the more. Where is a blast of vapor at seventy degrees above absolute zero when I need it?

Violette hints at existential questions, but he stumbles on practical ones of function and common sense. The show continues downtown, with much the same imagery but pumped up even further, in sculpture and prints. The florescent lights flare out like a death star from one wall, with a mysterious cartoon outline at its center—whether the trace of the artist or a mirror of his viewer. Instead of frigid gas, an exploded drum kit has the potential to emit flames, when it feels up to it. As the musical references make clear, this artist comes from the right scene, and you obviously do not. He also takes himself very seriously.

Today, Minimalism may seem as pure and formally reserved as Modernism could ever become. This same summer, Richard Serra has supplied the Museum of Modern Art with blockbuster crowds and its latest old master. At the time, however, Minimalism seemed anything but pure. Michael Fried famously complained that the art object had given way to theater.

Violette riffs on that generation, but he means theater more literally—not as a shared space for art to address the viewer, but as stage set and spectacle. The light fixtures may recall Dan Flavin, but they function clearly as props, and they give off a lot more heat. They project artificial light, because they refer to a world that comes alive only at night. The rock salt surely alludes to Robert Smithson, who used it as a material and proposed art as a site of entropy. It could also come right out of a frozen margarita.

Blockbusters and niche markets

Violette's grand theater extends the pretension of Bill Viola or Matthew Barney. Where they cite opera, though, he still believes in rock and roll. His bombast and breakage also belong to the current fashion for installations that reach to the gallery walls in order to trash the joint. He also has much the same impulse, in a gallery's need for superstars, the kind that simulate entropy in order to leave their mark. A star like this can bring fans out for his first New York solo show in years even in summer.

At his best, Violette makes one take a giant step back to avoid the heat. Earlier work set out beds of neon lights, with covers like those of an outdoor grill. I thought of a cross between a tanning salon and a torture chamber, and I mean that only halfway as an insult. Too often, though, he comes across like a musician who still considers it the height of transgression to crank up the chords and to smash his guitar. He thinks literally in black and white, not to mention fire and ice, and I could stand for a real blast beyond the smoke and mirrors.

A show like this represents the bulkhead of "avant-garde in bulk," but need that entail complicity with the culture industry or complicity with the art world? Yet it is totally sincere and totally lacking in an academic agenda. It likes both a studied air and an off-gesture, as in works titled Not Yet Titled. It also creates memorable images, even if they seem like images from a manufactured rebellion. They show why the puzzles and problems of contemporary art do not boil down so easily to finding someone to blame. And that someone could not so easily satisfy artistic or political conservatives in any case.

It comes back to the puzzle of success and inertia. In almost all entertainment media, audiences and commercial pressures have grown. Major distribution outlets lie in fewer and fewer hands, while alternative outlets grow exponentially, like this Web site. Think of the death of free-form radio, as fewer and fewer companies own stations, combined with more and more concert spaces, more downloads, and satellite radio. Think of so many multiplexes with the same few choices, combined with Netflix and YouTube. Then think of the kind of the entertainment that results, torn between mindless museum blockbusters and indie niches.

Art remains separate from mass entertainment, because of its smaller audience, but also because art cannot separate itself from its history. As the audience for art grows, however, it has to face some of the same pressures, as at the suffering Brooklyn Museum. Higher prices and hundreds more galleries again translate into a dizzying mix of oversized special effects and new creative niches. One might think of the blockbusters today's Salon, the niches today's dumbed-down art movements, and Violette's bluster and echoes of performance pay dues to both. They mean a more overwhelming art world, but also art worlds now in the plural. Love or hate it, fear for its future or fear for oneself, it does not conform easily to the conditions for an avant-garde.

Art reflects an uneasy confluence of two shocks—more rebellions and more money, now fated to feed upon one another despite themselves. It may no longer make sense to speculate about the next big thing, as if another Modernism lay on the horizon, rather than the next outburst of little things. As Marx might have said, artists can make history, only not in conditions of their own choosing. Not even, one might add, had they talent, moral standards, and spiritual values enough to please all the Kimballs of this world. The problem for art is that even rebels and cynics may no longer find anything not for sale.

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Banks Violette ran at Barbara Gladstone and Team through August 17, 2007. Roger Kimball's assault on Bard College ran in The New Criterion for June 2007. While this site keeps returning to the politics of art, note in particular articles on Kimball himself, censorship, the necessity of political art, Chelsea's "battle for Babylon," and two views of the art market, and an interview on political art.


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