Tag Archives: Robert Hughes

Charlatans of the Art World

The accusation of charlatan is sometime levelled against some artists. Robert Hughes made this accusation to Jeff Koons. Koons replied to was to point out that if had put his talents to use in the business world he would have a bigger income.

Chelsea, NYC stickers, 2013

Chelsea, NYC, stickers, 2013

I smile sadly at the street artists who snigger about all the street art photographers, the artists who dislike collectors and the accusations of “toy” amongst the street artists. I understand the artists who hate critics, although I think that critics are misunderstood. For all of these people are all part of a system that creates and defines what art is.

Artists, collectors, curators, critics, gallery visitors, gallery directors have many different ambitions, drives and desires; one artist may have many different ambitions, drives and desires. The game of art, if it resembled any game, is like a role-playing game; in these games the players are not directly competing against each other but playing characters in a story.

I regularly play tabletop role-playing games and the players have a variety of ambitions within the game: the power player, the character actor, the storyteller and the puzzle solver are the typical variations. Like any game there people playing it for a variety of reasons from the social to personal. In the game of art there are artists and other people playing with all kinds of ambitions within and outside of art.

There is early episode in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Tom and Huck are playing at highwaymen and Huck complains about the futility of playing at gentlemen highway robbers.

“He (Tom) said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called ‘Don Quixote’, I would know without asking… So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in all the A-rabs and the elephants, but for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday school.”

Tom Sawyer’s self-conscious play demonstrated awareness of the rules of genre whether it is highwaymen or pirates. He makes the painting of his aunt’s fence into an event, although the event lacking any authentic emotional or artistic quality it is very profitable one for Tom. (Read more in my forth-coming book, Tom Sawyer, Art Entrepreneur. Syndicated chapter from the early years about Tom getting the local street artists to paint his Aunts fence for nothing, they even brought their own paint. But I digress.)

One can always have doubts about Tom Sawyer’s true intentions or have doubts about Duchamp – serious, joke or both? Tom Sawyer chooses to play at being pirates or highwaymen just as Duchamp chooses to play at making art. However whereas Tom Sawyer slavish follows the conventions of the genre, to Huck Finn’s great consternation, Duchamp incorporates jokes about them into his games. Jokes were about being aware of the conventions of the art gallery and the art world. Duchamp did not change the conventions of art galleries and the art world, the changes had already been made.

Isn’t a charlatan just the opposition’s view of a magician? (Are we talking stage magician or someone like Gandalf?) I am referring to Jed Perls’s new book Magicians and Charlatans.


Problems with Art History

Too much of popular art history is not history; it is hagiography or jeremiad. The stories of the lives of progressive artists with their trials, tribulations and triumphs are comparable to the lives of saints (hagiography). Or a jeremiad, a general complaint about how art has lost its way, declined and become decadent. Art is not a religion and art history should not be religious doctrine.

If art history is history then it is often a ‘whig history’, as defined Herbert Butterfield The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), with a belief in the progress that praises some artists as ahead of their time while condemning others as obstacles. The crucial fault of a ‘whig history’ is that the past becomes an anticipation of the present. Like Robert Hughes Shock of the New, these histories tell a story that concludes with the most progressive, modern art. No wonder Hughes thought that later artists, like Jeff Koons, were frauds because they were subverting his history and not perpetuating it. These new artists were new obstacles in a race that had already, in Hughes opinion, been won.

Andre Breton’s list of precursors to Surrealism, like Arcimboldi or Bosch, forms a similar retrograde model of art history. Instead of trying to understand the historic forces that give rise to the play of the conscious and unconscious mind in the creation of fantastic images Breton distorts history to tell as story of with visionary artists anticipating the general rise of Surrealism.

The curators of early art museums adopted an even more antique system of periods from the classical to the modern. This system is without historic or scientific validity; the strata are not always clear, they are not universal and do not form neatly deposited periods. However, the collections of museums were developed to illustrate these periods or styles and current curators continue to distort art history with these collections and exhibition. The blockbuster exhibitions in particular that celebrate certain artists in the canon of significant artists; and once again we are not dealing with history but hagiography for ‘canon’ is the word for the official list of saints.

The glorification of certain canonical artists is endlessly repeated in TV documentaries like Simon Scharma’s The Power of Art. I never wanted to see another documentary celebrating the life of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Picasso before his series was even made. (How about a Vincent Van Gogh action figure?) Art history, even in its popular form, could still have a strong narrative but look at the commissions, the exhibition venues, the media, the collectors, the public and non-canonical artists.

The idea that artists are the driving force in art history ignores so many other forces at work on its development. It is as absurd as to consider politicians and royalty the driving force of history. This idea of artists as the primary actors has then influenced the development of art history. The conclusion that if artists could invent art styles then they could end them created the modern art history of isms based on artists’ proclamations; and when artists and the public tired of the fashion styles were described as “dead”.

The didactic family tree of art styles is a pruned version of illustrations of evolutionary tree of life, as if art styles were determined by survival of the fittest. The typical tree of styles is pruned for purposes of didactic clarity although many of these styles continue, as do many early life forms. Styles do not become extinct when a new style appears (many species continue in their niche as others evolve around them). Byzantine style continues in the creation of Orthodox Church icons, folk art styles continue and as do many other styles.

Popular art history, academic art history aside, is in a sorry state principally because it has not been genuinely separated from religious thinking.

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