Even as more art is being made, seen, bought and sold than at any point in human history, there is a feeling in many quarters of listlessness. Reviewing the Venice Biennale in Newsweek two weeks ago, Blake Gopnik rehearsed the already-tired idea that it showed that art is at an end, “nothing more than a series of moves in a series of games.” We’re stuck or adrift and, as New Museum curator Lauren Cornell put it last fall, “deeply obsessed with the past.”
But there are signs of life. Artists are finding interesting ways forward, and in a number of recent books, philosophers and critics are too. The results are all over the map, but there is a feeling that new ideas are beginning to simmer.
This shift can best be seen in relation to the recent popular success of Rachel Kushner’s rich and pleasurable if uneven sophomore novel, The Flamethrowers (Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99). It’s set in late 1970s Soho—when it was still possible (barely) to see art as a succession of heroic avant-garde movements.
“I thought art came from a brooding solitude,” Ms. Kushner’s artist narrator, Reno, says. “I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk.” After college in Nevada, she moves to downtown Manhattan—“so alive with people my age, and so thoroughly abandoned by others, that the energy of the young seeped out of the ground.”
The book’s nostalgia is central to its appeal. There are boozy loft parties and wild experiments (artistic, sexual), the things that, more recently, Berlin has specialized in. But to Ms. Kushner’s credit, she stops short of romanticizing the era. Reno’s world is already changing into ours. It’s becoming professionalized, and movements are giving way to pluralism. She makes Land Art using a motorcycle and dates an Italian version of Donald Judd. A Mary Boone type rides a crest of talent, hype and money. The world that Dave Hickey once said was run by “4,000 heavily medicated, mysteriously employed human beings” is ending. In a moment of doubt, Reno admits she’s “shopping for experience.” She’s a hipster.
But setting the past aside, part of the present malaise can be attributed to the collapse of any agreed-upon qualitative criteria for judging art. This isn’t exactly a new story. Since Warhol, art has been moving in too many directions at once too quickly for criticism to keep up. How do you compare two burritos on a windowsill, slapdash paintings of blog post screenshots and an artist living on minimum wage with illegal immigrants (to take examples from recent shows in New York)? If you wanted to be dramatic about it, you might say that the belief that art can change the world—that there is “risk” involved, as Reno says—is in serious doubt.
Ben Davis argues in his ambitious debut book of wide-ranging essays, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books, 224 pp., $16), that one way artists and critics could start to tackle these issues is by “[d]isentangling what is aesthetically affecting from what is politically effective.”
A self-proclaimed Marxist, Mr. Davis sees the “contemporary artist [as] the representative of middle-class creative labor par excellence.” She is a laborer in charge of her own production and is thus unable to affect capitalist production like a proletarian. He quotes Carl Andre: “From whom would artists be withholding their art if they did go on strike? Alas, from no one but themselves.”
By acknowledging that artists are, by the nature of their labor, middle class, Mr. Davis says you can “see the natural limits of what you can promise for [art] as a critic or expect of it as an artist.” An artwork is simply not going to bring on the revolution, despite decades of polemics from left-leaning critics. Lower your expectations.
“[P]reserving a mythical ideal of middle-class creative autonomy in the face of a wider culture that has superseded it is the main thing that contemporary art now does, its main contemporary mission,” Mr. Davis argues. That seems like a fairly impoverished goal, but thankfully he also sees the artist as “a hospitable conductor for all kinds of alternative energies,” and wants her to join with progressive forces.
Today’s most financially successful artists, of course, are on the verge of transcending their middle-class positions, running factories with dozens of assistants. (“[E]xploiting their workers, they are in turn exploited by speculators, who themselves make nothing but money,” as Katy Siegel put it succinctly last year.) Does this make their art bad? In Mr. Davis’s estimation, it would seem, yes. He imagines a future in which the values exemplified by today’s precious, high-priced art look alien, overcome by more egalitarian values.
But what do we actually want art to do? As Mr. Hickey loves to point out, it feels good to celebrate art’s supposedly ennobling qualities, even if the evidence for them is fairly slim. And sure, it can march with the progressives, but it can also operate in all sorts of other ways that are not necessarily less worthwhile.
Arthur Danto approaches such issues via an even more fundamental question. What Art Is (Yale, 174 pp., $24) is a summary of his 50 years of thinking on that topic, which all began with an intense encounter at a New York gallery in 1963 with Warhol’s plywood Brillo Box sculptures, “a kind of philosophical Rosetta Stone” for the Hegelian philosopher, he says.
What blew Mr. Danto’s mind about the Brillo Boxes was that in them, art and life seemed to be indistinguishable. At that moment, half a century ago, he floated the notion that we are still grappling with—that art was over. In a sense, he was right. Warhol was repeating and expanding a project started 50 years prior, when Marcel Duchamp presented a snow shovel, a urinal and other banal objects as artworks, emphasizing that he was not selecting them for any visual property. Duchamp “managed to condemn pretty much the entire history of aesthetics, from Plato to the present,” Mr. Danto argues.
Mr. Danto is on the hunt for the ontological core of art, and he homes in on the idea that artworks are “embodied meanings” that viewers interpret. A lot of art was about aesthetics—which is to say, “visual delectation,” to borrow Duchamp’s term—from at least the late 18th century through the mid-1960s or so. But Duchamp, Warhol and then Conceptualism attempted to make art that was pure idea. Their lesson: meaning extends far beyond beauty.