Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sebastian Smee and the giant penis of money

Koons encounters a potential critic.
I've been thinking of late (again!) about our mainstream press criticism. This was probably brought on by Bill Marx's recent rant regarding Don Aucoin's clueless putdown of Albee's A Delicate Balance. I poked some fun at Marx over this at Art Hennessey's site - after all, Marx's Arts Fuse is hardly The New York Review of Books; it's basically an extension of the educated-middlebrow ethos one finds at WBUR and NPR (and no doubt other 'Rs), the kind of tiny pond Marx can comfortably dominate as BU's best-read poobah.  (Although to fair, when I saw Aucoin's rave today over Patrick Stewart's Macbeth, I thought, "You know, maybe Bill Marx has a point!")

The trouble is that Marx's point doesn't really go far enough - his case against Aucoin is that the Globe's lead drama critic doesn't have much in the way of critical chops - indeed, he points to the paper's film and music critics as examples of the kind of talent it will pay for when advertising dollars are at stake.  I've made that point myself, of course, but I have to say - even if Aucoin did have some intellectual mojo, would that help the situation? In a way Marx doesn't seem to appreciate the real problem at the Globe - and frankly, at the Times, the New Yorker, and most publications that still feature criticism.

Consider, for a moment, the case of Sebastian Smee.  No, he's not a character out of Dr. Seuss or Roald Dahl - he's the Globe's leading visual arts critic.  And unlike Aucoin, he's undeniably knowledgeable, and a very witty writer.  Trouble is, he rarely writes actual criticism - he sniffs at a lot of local art as beneath him (he leaves it to the less-able Cate McQuaid), and is happy to dodge with literate fluff the salient points of an exhibition if they're controversial, and he doesn't see how engaging with them will help his professional ascent.  Smee's best, in fact, at brilliant recapitulations of conventional wisdom, as in his various analyses of Matisse (hedonist or hero?). You've heard it all before, but Smee puts it so much better than you could that it's fun to revisit what you think already.

"What you think already."  That really should be the tagline of the Globe's arts section.  For the paper's writers are hardly engaged with the art they supposedly cover - instead they're engaged with their audience, and what they think that audience can understand and will pay to hear.  In a word, they're mirrors, not windows.  It's true that some of the mirrors are smarter than others - but they turn that intelligence into a sharper picture of their readers, not the art they're supposedly writing about.  Because, in a word, that's where the money is.

Take for example, a recent snippet from Smee about the artist Jeff Koons:

I can't think about Jeff Koons without laughing. He's a living, breathing, ongoing wisecrack. He's revolting of course, but undeniably mesmerizing, and so funny - in ways that make me giggly and nervous, ways I can't ever quite incorporate into a stable critical framework - that he leaves me speechless.  . . . Luxumburg and Dayan, a commercial gallery in uptown Manhattan, has just opened a revival of Koons's "Made in Heaven" paintings [one at top left] kitsch, explicit, hyper-real depictions of Koons enjoying sexual congress with his then wife, the Italian porn star Ilona Staller, otherwise known as Cicciolina. Those paintings were made 20 years ago. (The marriage went sour, and Koons and Staller were subsequently embroiled in a bitter fight for custody of their son.) 

Yeah, that Jeff Koons - what a comedian! He's still trying to profit off of hardcore photos of his son's mother. Who absconded with said son, Ludwig Maximilian (no, I'm not making that up) to Italy, where a court ruled the kid was better off without Koons - who despite being worth millions, then cut off child support. Yup, a laff riot from beginning to end.

And something about that "it's revolting, but it makes me giggly and nervous" line suddenly made me think of Ty Burr - who often strikes precisely the same tone about this or that movie he thinks is "unholy" or whatever.  Oh my God, my Mom would kill me if she caught me with this!  is essentially the message here.  Only both these men are middle-aged, which makes their shared stance a little weird - until you remember that it's their editors' stance; they're being paid to re-iterate (and massage) a key boomer cultural meme: that "real" art should shock Mom and Dad.  And it's only a small step from that to "If it shocks Mom and Dad - then it's art!"  After all, who's to say otherwise, you know what I mean?  (Certainly not the critic!)

This kind of thinking has turned the Globe critics into living, breathing personifications of cultural co-option; they subjugate high culture to pop on their laptops every day, in fact.  And the smart ones do it just like the dumb ones do; they may do it better, more seamlessly and entertainingly - they insinuate between the lines that they know better - but they still do it.

Kind of the way Koons keeps doing it - you'd be hard pressed to see much development in this particular artiste over his thirty-year-career.  Maybe that's what makes Sebastian so giggly!  Although I think I can help him out with "creating a stable critical framework" for Jeff Koons.  And why not start with his chief patron, Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou?  Joannou is behind a lot of bad art (Kiki Smith, Matthew Barney), and is a board member of New York's Guggenheim and New Museum (which he basically financed, and now uses as a springboard for enhancing the value of his own collection, in shows curated by - wait for it - Jeff Koons). One of the few interesting things about Koons's "Made in Heaven" series was that it revealed that, even if his financial assets were enormous, his personal ones were merely average in size; but you have to remember that behind the beaming, physically unimpressive former commodities broker stands Joannou, a gigantic virtual penis of money spewing enormous gobs of capitalist ejaculate over the landscape (a lot of it on Koons).

Want to know more about Dakis Joannou (at left, with Koons and Duchamp, who may in the end be to blame for all this)?  Well, it's kind of hard to find out more - the Internet seems almost scrubbed of data about anything but Joannou's art collection.  But I do know that his country is basically in default - there has even been talk of Greece selling some of its islands to Germany to make good on its debt, which makes said islands an interesting setting for recent art junkets featuring Joannou, Barney and Koons (who also, btw, designed Joannou's $115-million yacht, "Guilty"). I did eventually discover that Joannou is the chairman of J&P Overseas and J&P-AVAX (and that even though these are publicly-traded companies in Greece, his son Christos runs both). J&P's stock is in the gutter, of course - because the firm essentially builds major construction projects and luxury real-estate in spots like the Middle East and North Africa, and thus is wildly over-leveraged.

So Koons is a bit like the happy face pasted on the secretive networks of the global economy (and its resulting meltdowns) - and basically, trying to discuss him without discussing Dakis Joannou is a bit like trying to analyze Michelangelo without mentioning classical Athens or the Catholic Church. Of course, to be fair, it's easier to analyze the Catholic Church than it is to analyze Dakis Joannou!  But without going into some deep economic exegesis, Smee could at least grapple with the fact that, just as Titian and Raphael painted Madonnas for their patrons, so Koons produces imagery that reflects his patrons - thus his outpouring of porn and plastic, and his mania for childish, commercialized satisfactions that repel as much as they attract. Yes, there's a yin-yang between pleasure and horror that haunts his work - but horror of what, exactly? And why should Dakis Joannou recognize in it his own reflection?

But Smee can't answer those questions - because he's inside the post-capitalist bubble too.  None of this can be discussed; that's not his role.  So instead Koons is a "comic genius." Well, I'm not laughing.


  1. "real" art should shock Mom and Dad. It's only a small step, after all, from that to "If it shocks Mom and Dad - then it's art!" After all, who's to say otherwise, you know what I mean?

    Of course, the real idiocy of this meme is that some of us have Moms and Dads who have been enjoying "modern" (and not so modern) art since before we were born.

  2. It's hard to argue that the rich aren't just right as a matter of self-evidence. However they had a hand in creating the world that rewards them, and it has led to a dominance of their kind of art, art that repudiates centuries of work.

    The derivative was invented in 1973. As a financial instrument, it de-emphasizes the physical product in favor of a bet on the product's price. It is no coincidence that the dollar itself was delinked from its physical anchor in late 1971. The architects of this new monetary scheme were interested in helping people, yes, or at least growing the economy. They thought it would be better if the Federal Reserve could inflate or deflate the dollar for to smooth out the economy and avoid recessions.

    This was the time when the financial sector really came into its own. It had little to do with the old practice of banks making loans to build businesses. Now it was based on arbitrage around the movements of the currency. It became common at this point for the currency trader to make much more on the rise and fall of the price of corn, much more than the farmer ever made growing the corn itself.

    We can forget for now that the currency trader probably had all kinds of friends at the Fed or in the Treasury who could give him a little "heads-up" about what's happening to the money. That kind of corruption has always been there. But the reliance on an economy that denigrates production in favor of plain mongering has led the practitioners to favor art that works that way too.

    The middle class idea attached work to some kind of reward worked its way out in art that demonstrated skill, or better yet, made it look easy. But even then we understood that the skill was under there somewhere. But if you have become super-rich by undermining such notions, then art that shows work is hateful and repellent to you. You want something that reinforces your worth. It's even better if the artist degrades and debases himself, or acts as a helpless sex object.

    There may be some hope for the artists themselves: those who continue to strive with the physical test, to try, fail and correct, may turn out to be the best thinkers of all -- there is some evidence that this is the way our brains develop. However as long as the economy works the way it does, and the super-rich can get away with perpetuating this junk machine, then artists who do the best work should not expect to be rewarded financially.