Piling It On, Or, Why Do I Read This Stuff…

You don’t often see me write about Contemporary Art on this site, and there are various reasons for that. Among these is the fact that I prefer to read and think and write about art and design created by people who have been dead for awhile. History and a bit of distance usually, although not always (see, e.g., Basquiat) allow us the chance to examine the work of these individuals in a more balanced, dispassionate way.

That being said, in order to keep up with what’s going on in the art world, I read about all kinds of Contemporary Art in the dozen or so art news sites I visit daily. As it’s hard enough for me to slog through the written gobbledygook that usually makes up this sort of news, I don’t feel the need to impose that same level of suffering on my subscribers by writing in an opaque fashion. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to show you, at least occasionally, why it’s important to me to curate what I write to you about, in the hope that you’ll have something edifying to take away with you when you read one of my posts.

Jeff Koons, the American artist known for designing things like the infamous porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with Bubbles the Chimp, or giant puppies made out of topiary – he doesn’t make them himself, he has minions for that – has a major work coming to market shortly at Christie’s. Described by Art Market Monitor as “one of Jeff Koons [sic] complex and exacting Play-Doh works”, the fourteen-by-fourteen foot “Play-Doh” is expected to fetch at least $20 million at auction next month in New York. Made from painted aluminum, one of his preferred materials for monumental sculpture, the piece “took 20 years to realize in the manner Koons found acceptable.” Personally, I would have found the piece more interesting, albeit not $20 million interesting, if it were made from actual Play-Doh, but there you are.

Koons

Koons has always been something of a whipping boy for conservatives who don’t actually understand very much about art. That being said, even he has come under fire recently from the intelligentsia, thanks to his offer to “donate” a memorial to victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris: but only if Paris pays him roughly $4 million to create it. The sculpture, “Bouquet of Tulips”, is of a giant human hand referencing the Statue of Liberty, holding a bunch of tulips. It would stand nearly 40 feet tall, and be placed outside of the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

Back in January, a group of French intellectuals signed a letter in which they quite reasonably asked why it was that such an important monumental commission, on such a prominent site in Paris, was simply to be given to Mr. Koons, rather than be opened to competition to include French artists [“…si une œuvre d’une importance inédite devait être placée dans ce lieu culturellement et historiquement particulièrement prestigieux, ne faudrait-il pas procéder par appel à projets, comme c’est l’usage, en ouvrant cette opportunité aux acteurs de la scène française ?”] To date, Koons has not responded to this criticism. Meanwhile, since the art world is rather a closed universe, if one group of intellectuals starts attacking a particular artist, then the rest of the art world commentariat will eventually fall into line and do the same.
Tulips

Yet even when criticizing what is ultimately little more than showmanship on a grand scale, and of the sort that says little to nothing about the victims of violence, the art world can’t help but pen excremental missives that attempt to provide deeper meaning to what is ultimately little more than an occasion of flatulence. “Even as Koons reiterated images of kitsch culture,” wrote one critic in Apollo, jumping on the “Non” bandwagon several weeks after the publication of the aforementioned letter, “his vibrantly sensual surfaces seemed to collide the erotic with the deathly, and space-age technology with the infantile, anatomising the fetishism at the heart of the aesthetic lure of the commodity, even as they enacted it.”

Quite.

So the next time you see something I’ve written about art, architecture, etc., gentle reader, keep in mind that the reason you’re seeing it at all is because I sloughed through tons of the forgoing sort of material, in order to bring you news which, hopefully, you will find worthwhile.

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The Courtier In Chicago: “Cloudy Witnesses”

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to speak to the Catholic Art Guild in Chicago on Saturday, May 5th, at 11:00 am. I’ll be speaking on a problem that has been plaguing the art world for some time now: cultural illiteracy in sacred art. The talk will take place at St. John Cantius, the grand, historic Baroque Revival church located on the city’s West Side. [N.B. On a side note, I’m looking forward to poking around this rather grand building, and snapping a mountain of pics for my IG account.]

I’ve tentatively titled the presentation “Cloudy Witnesses”. This is in reference to Hebrews 12:1 where, after recounting the lives of those who had gone before him in faith, the author speaks of the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs as a “great cloud of witnesses” who inspire the Church. Yet in our present age, the shining examples of these people of faith, so often the subjects of great works of art, have in many cases become clouded over.

As Western society becomes more aggressively secularized, understanding of the meaning, purpose, and significance of Christian art is declining. Formerly well-understood iconography and symbolism is becoming obscure; meaning is being falsely re-interpreted and distilled through secular philosophies, which usually have little or nothing whatsoever to do with the beliefs of those involved in the creation of these works. Such factors, combined with the decline of standards in art education and art media over the past several decades due to an almost exclusive focus on secular, Modern, and Contemporary Art, have created a climate of widespread institutional and popular ignorance when it comes to sacred art. As part of my presentation, I will attempt to offer some practical proposals for addressing this situation, which I hope will both serve as a clarion call to my fellow Catholics, but which will also prove of interest to non-Catholics who admire and appreciate beautiful works of art.

I’ll be posting the link to the event once that goes live on the Guild site. For those of you unable to attend in person, please note that the Guild will be filming the event in order to make it available on YouTube at a future date. Past speakers before the Guild have included philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, architect Duncan Stroik, sculptor Anthony Visco, and many others, whose presentations you can find on the Guild site. I’m deeply honored that they would include me in such illustrious company.

Esglesia

Suffering As Joke: The Horrors Of The Contemporary Art Press

As regular subscribers know, I read about a dozen or so outlets of the art press every day, so that you don’t have to. Most of the time, I focus on following stories that I like: fascinating discoveries, interesting exhibitions, and so on. For the most part, it’s actually a very difficult and painful task, for this particular corner of the media is primarily focused on the world of Contemporary Art, which the art press worships and makes excuses for in ways that, at times, can be truly sickening.

Take the Chapman Brothers for example. Jake and Dinos Chapman are two middle-aged British brothers who enjoy creating adolescent art in extremely bad taste, in order to shock their viewers. I’ve written about them before, as you can see here. Suffice to say, they create garbage art which they are able to sell for significant amounts of money, largely because the art press is able to persuade major art collectors that they ought to do so.

In their new show at Blain Southern in London, the Chapmans bring together both sculpture and graphic art. We will ignore the unbelievably bad taste that characterizes the former (which are, if you can believe it, bronzes representing terrorist suicide vests), and instead concentrate on the latter. For the Chapmans, you see, are obsessed with “The Disasters of War”: the hugely significant, nightmarish images of atrocities engraved in the early 19th century by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Goya is a monumental figure in art history, whom one might describe – as I did last week to a curator from the Musée d’Orsay, who did not disagree with my assessment – as the Beethoven of Western art. He straddles the world of the Old Masters, from the early part of his career, and the development of what we now call Modern Art, which he helped to usher in. His personal experiences and observations during Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain radically changed what had been the work of a sly, cunning follower of fashion, highly conversant with all of the frippery and mockery of the Rococo era, into a bitter old man who was a brooding, haunted genius, pursued by thoughts and images of evil, suffering, and death.

The Chapmans on the other hand, would be more at home straddling a dirty urinal in the loo of a fast food restaurant. They became famous roughly twenty years ago by deliberately destroying Goya prints in order to make their own art. And that pretty much sums up a good 50% of their output over the past two decades.

Mind you, these Goya works are not the sort of prints you might order from Zazzle at $1.99 a pop, i.e., digital photographs of existing images. Rather, they are printed from the original plates etched by Goya himself, using carefully-chosen inks and papers, and drawn from the printing presses by artisans trained in the skill of producing high-quality, museum-level images. If you wanted to buy one of these prints from an art dealer or at auction, each would cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Apollo Magazine, which used to be a stalwart publication for the promotion of connoisseurship, good taste, and culture for art and antiques enthusiasts. Unfortunately it decided quite some time ago to follow the Tina Brown formula for the revamp of The New Yorker, by cheapening itself for the sake of popularity among the high rollers and hangers-on of the Contemporary Art world. Nowhere is the decline of this particular media outlet more obvious than in its reaction to the latest Chapman expo.

In a piece out yesterday, Apollo described the latest Chapman Brothers show as “superb”, naturally glossing over the fact that Goya’s art is being destroyed in order to create it. It describes as “pleasure” what it terms “the subversion of the horrible to the hilarious.” It observes how, in the Chapmans’ defacing of the etchings, “Goya’s hussars become disco pirates; the dismembered corpses of Grande hazaña! Con Muertos! look like they are wearing leotards or yoga leggings.”

How very “hilarious” it is indeed, to not only destroy great works of art, but to mock the suffering and death of thousands of people. Particularly at a time when Spain is experiencing so much political upheaval and violence, Goya’s prints seem painfully redolent of that country’s bloody past and present. But never mind: in the eyes of Apollo, if the Chapmans can belittle the experience of human suffering, so much the better, because the end result is so amusing.

Unfortunately, the Art Newspaper is no better. In describing the defacing of Goya’s work, the publication explained how the Chapman brothers “have superimposed images of artists such as Jackson Pollock, clowns’ heads and other ghoulish features on to the etchings, which have been reworked in various media (The Disasters of Everyday Life, monochrome collage set; The Disasters of Yoga, glitter set; and The Disasters of War on Terror, watercolour set).” One wonders what Pollock, much as I loathe his work, would think about destroying Goya’s art just so his face could be superimposed upon an etching of a corpse.

While granted, the Art Newspaper’s piece is more of a bland bit of reporting, rather than an exhibition review, like Apollo it fails to question why a reputable gallery, art publication, or the like should even take the time to consider these pieces. In the Chapmans’ empty-headed appropriation of both the hard work and sufferings of others, neither publication appears to hold any qualms. And of course, the greatest irony here is that not only do publications such as the Art Newspaper and Apollo routinely call for the preservation of artists’ rights in their own works, they are the same publications which champion works of Contemporary Art created to draw attention to the suffering of refugees, illegal immigrants, and so on. Perhaps it’s easier for them to overlook the rights of both artists and suffering people who have been dead for quite awhile, since they won’t be posting rejoinders on Instagram or Twitter.

One of the Goya prints defaced by the Chapman Brothers for their latest show is titled “Bárbaros!” (1810), which from the first series of the artists “The Disasters of War” etchings. The original shows a man tied to a tree, facing the trunk, who is about to be shot in the back at very close range. It is one of the many images which Goya created based on what he saw, read, or heard about, during the effort to overthrow Napoleon and his troops. The artist wanted to make certain that the world did not forget what had happened to many innocent people.

Unfortunately it seems that the art media, which gives succor to mental defectives such as the Chapmans in the first place, finds all of this terribly funny: forgive me if I don’t get the joke.

Barbaros