Big-Ticket Art Is Breeding Big-Time Haters
Some time ago, I was on a panel in the U.K. about artists and the celebrity culture. The briefing notes told us our job was to discuss “what celebrity can do to an artist to further their careers, and how it can destroy them. Some are damaged by narcissism and excess; others arguably reap the benefits of celebrity to produce better work, and endorse younger and less well-known artists.” They also asked whether “superstar artists in our fame-obsessed, media-saturated culture … become cultural icons due to talent or clever marketing.” And “whether the artist needs celebrity to guarantee a good posthumous reception, and whether fame can help ephemeral work remain in the cultural memory.”
Other speakers included Godfrey Barker, a writer and an adviser to Conservative arts ministers, whose position was described as a belief “that Warhol’s idea of brief celebrity for the untalented in a cultural democracy is destructive. In the age of mass communication, fame has become a measure of success and talented stars are frequently pushed aside in the arts in favor of short-lived celebrities.”
Another outspoken participant was Ben Lewis, best known for a 2010 BBC movie, The Great Contemporary Art Bubble. Lewis regards Damien Hirst as the exemplar of everything wrong with British art today, ran the briefing notes. In his own words: “the entire lexicon of principles and values of contemporary art … have been debased and bastardised by a generation of indulgent and indulged, over-priced auction-artists.”
Panels are a team sport—on the other side were Patricia Lewis, a curator, Richard Noble, head of the art department at Goldsmiths College, and myself—but the event, and its audience, provided ripe examples of the Art Hate that is becoming ubiquitous. Late writers Hilton Kramer and Bob Hughes had conservative inclinations from the get-go, but blistering critiques of the 99/1 art world now come from seasoned radicals like Dave Hickey, who recently announced his retirement from the art world in an interview with this newspaper. It’s a serious question, though: is this a period of salon radicals, Posh Minimalism and assembly lines for luxury gewgaws?
BEFORE ANDY WARHOL, fine artists and popular celebrity didn’t really overlap. Warhol has been much quoted to the effect that there was nothing beneath the surface of his images, but this was a feint. Certainly much of his celebrity portraiture was affectless and deadpan, but he made his first Marilyn Monroe in 1962, after her suicide, and he made Elizabeth Taylor, as he said: “When she was so sick and everybody said she was going to die.” He painted Blue Jackie in 1964. It was the JFK assassination that embedded the model of celebrity-as-tragic-narrative into the very heart of the culture. If there is a startup date of our Celebrity Culture, this was surely it. And Warhol picked up on it.
In Popism, Warhol’s book about the ’60s, he described his first visit to California. It was a four-day cross-country drive in September 1964 with his Factory lieutenants Taylor Mead and Gerard Malanga, and they were off to the opening of Warhol’s second show at the Ferus Gallery, which was of multiple Elizabeth Taylors and Elvises. Warhol had another reason for being excited about going to Los Angeles. He was planning to retire from painting. “Art just wasn’t fun for me anymore,” he wrote. “It was people who were fascinating.” He had decided to be a moviemaker and had shot his first, Sleep, in July.
What drew him to movies?
“Andy wanted to meet movie stars. He just liked the glamour of it, you know,” Mr. Malanga said. Ultra Violet, one of his Superstars, said Warhol didn’t just want to meet stars, he wanted to be a player himself. “He said he wanted to be part of the American myth,” she said. “And the American myth, in many ways it’s Hollywood.”
Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol in June 1968. The shooting caused no abrupt changes in the Factory’s modus operandi, and the following year Warhol launched Interview magazine. It was an alternative route into the movies, at least insofar as getting invited to screenings and meeting stars went.
His career as a celebrity chugged forward. He walked the catwalk for couturier van Laack. The art collector/TV producer Douglas Cramer put him in The Love Boat; Drexel Burnham Lambert used him in an ad campaign.
He fell ill in 1987. “When he went into hospital,” Taylor Mead told me, “he asked, ‘Who is famous here?’ They said ‘Mr Warhol, you are the only one famous.’ But with Andy, it was always sort of a joke about how famous he was.”
Warhol died in the hospital, a B-lister. But he would be reborn as mega-star and auction phenomenon.
In 2009, Eight Elvises, one of the pieces that had taken the artist on his cross-country ride to Los Angeles, fetched a hundred million dollars.
As to Warhol’s posthumous career in Fameworld, he was translated into various things like a band’s name (The Dandy Warhols). As for the art world, his work has become material. Gavin Turk both portrayed himself in Andy’s fright wig and re-enacted the “piss” paintings. Elmgreen and Dragset put a Brillo box onstage at the Old Vic. Banksy morphed his 1962 Marilyn into Kate Moss, and the ineffable Mr. Brainwash put up a Marilynesque Bernie Madoff just off the Bowery.
Marilyn is one of a handful of artworks that have, like the Mona Lisa, moved into the pictorial language of the culture. You could argue that for the under-40s, Marilyn’s unrelenting grip on fame owes much to Andy Warhol. Art and fame have become as indistinguishable as the farmers and the pigs in the final pages of Animal Farm.
With the rise of Neo-Expressionism in the early ’80s, the machinery of the art market revved up, and celebrity magazines began to pay attention. Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Ross Bleckner, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons were profiled in Vanity Fair and became boldfaced names in the tabloids as the concept of an “Art Star” was born. This was not usually a compliment, there still being a widespread feeling that “serious” artists did not get rich and famous. Mr. Schnabel took most of the heat.
The market crash of 1990 was payback time. There was jeering when a Schnabel failed to reach its reserve at Sotheby’s. Ashley Bickerton spoke of a mood of “Kill the Art Stars” and fled New York for Bali. But within a few years, the art market was again rising. Soon it was gangbusters. The ’08 slump came and went. What is going on in the art world today makes the ’80s seem like a dress rehearsal.
IT’S THE SHEER SCALE of everything that some find off-putting.
In 2010, Larry Gagosian organized a tour of the Sistine Chapel for Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and a hundred guests after an opening in Gagosian’s gallery in Rome. This was followed by a dinner in a private room in the Vatican.
Last year’s move of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a 340-ton rock, about 100 miles by truck from a quarry in Riverside, California, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) cost $10 million. It attracted an Oscar-sized crowd and dominated the front page of The Los Angeles Times.
Earlier this month, on Valentine’s Day, the neon images that constituted Tracey Emin’s Midnight Moment were beamed from screens all over Times Square, which had also been the site of a Jeff Koons forerunner of today’s art world, the 1989 billboard promoting Made in Heaven, his never-to-be-shot porno movie co-starring his then-wife La Cicciolina. “In America I’m only known in the art world,” Ms. Emin told me. “In Britain I’m taken like a kind of celebrity. In America art exists on the art pages, whereas in Britain I’ve been on the front pages. It’s a different mentality.”
Jeff Koons’s 70-foot replica of a 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam locomotive hanging from a real 160-foot crane is supposed to stand kitty-corner to LACMA. Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, compares the project, which is estimated to cost at least $25 million, to the Eiffel Tower. In New York, Friends of the High Line have expressed an interest in building a duplicate, causing Mr. Govan to wonder whether the world needs “two Eiffel towers.”
The ArcelorMittal Orbit, the steel behemoth that was created by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond for the London Olympics last year and funded for 10 million sterling by Lakshmi Mittal, is supposedly the biggest artwork in the world. Their next project, Temenos, is to be far, far bigger.
So let’s return to that panel. Ben Lewis described the amount of money an artist can make as “problematic,” though just why shouldn’t an artist do as well as a footballer? Yes, an artist may be tempted to churn out product, but that has always been true. Many more artists have been ruined by failure than by success.
And as for that question, there’s not too much here that smells of the salon. Posh Minimalism? Well, that’s another story, and any art fair is full of stuff that any hotel lobby would love. But as to the ambitiousness, the flashes of hubris, well, bring it on. Artists have dealt with the Church and with the Courts. If they have the stuff, they can surely handle Celebrity Culture, too.