March 11, 2009  |  Uncategorized

Scenes from last week’s ARMORY show, NYC…

The recession has been disastrous for the contemporary-art market. That may turn out to be good for the art.
By Peter Plagens | NEWSWEEK

Imagine a Wynton Marsalis quartet playing in Wembley, or the Stade de France, or Giants Stadium in New Jersey—with a lot of Gothic dry-ice effects, fireworks, industrial-scale amps, 40-foot speakers and in front of 50,000 screaming people holding up cell phones and cigarette lighters. The art form—jazz, in this case—would seem out of place, overwhelmed and maybe even damaged in such a loud, bloated and garish environment. That’s what’s happened to contemporary art. What used to be the equivalent of a trumpeter, pianist, bassist and drummer playing in a cozy club before an audience who really dug what they were hearing has become a grotesque imitation of heavy metal for the masses.

Although the phenomenon peaked in the current century, its roots go back to the heyday of Andy Warhol and pop art, when artists didn’t have to be glowering romantics or suffering loners anymore in order to be avant garde. Glib hipness would do the trick. A generation later, when Julian Schnabel and David Salle were making painting profitable on a grand scale, and Damien Hirst was an art student dreaming of pickled sharks, being a contemporary artist was no more unorthodox a career choice than, say, screenwriting. It didn’t hurt that an army of academics wrote professorial advertising copy, in the form of catalog essays and art-magazine reviews. The theorists said, in impressively convoluted terms, that these commercial works of art were as risky and subversive as anything van Gogh, Picasso or Duchamp had ever made.

It worked. Gallery districts flourished, collectors were lionized like Medici princes, art magazines got as thick and slick as Vogue and museums attracted customers by the horde. The Tate Modern in London entertained 5.2 million visitors in 2007. The problem is the hollowness at the core of that statistic. Serious contemporary art’s authentic audience doesn’t number in the millions-per-year-per-museum. The huge crowds are coming not to hear Wynton Marsalis, so to speak; they’re coming for the spooky stage smoke, the fireworks and the thrill of being part of the throng. A long time ago, museum research surveillance revealed that the average time a viewer spent looking at a given work of art was 2.3 seconds. That’s a geologic age compared with the blink-and-a-nod anything gets now. Click HERE to continue reading…

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