Anything Goes

Anything Goes

Amid the gold-rush atmosphere of the current art world, a strange philosophy has emerged: laissez-faire aesthetics.

Read Time:
2m 38sec

The source: “Laissez-­Faire Aesthetics: What Money Is Doing to Art, or How the Art World Lost Its Mind” by Jed Perl, in The New Republic, Feb. 5, ­2007.

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, newly luxuriant after a renovation by the famous architect Renzo Piano, simul­tan­eously featured the following treas­ures this season: medieval illumin­ated manuscripts and metal­work, a group of drawings by Fragonard and other artists of the 18th century, a show of Mozart manu­scripts, and Bob Dylan’s American Journey: 1956–1966. If this were an SAT test, the question would be obvious: Which one of these does not belong? But even to raise the ques­tion is to invoke the wrath of intellectual hipsters, writes Jed Perl, The New Republic’s art ­critic.

Amid the ­gold-­rush atmosphere of the current art world, a strange philosophy has emerged: laissez-faire aesthetics, he says. Laissez-faire aesthetes have come to believe that any experience that anyone can have with a work of art is equal to any other. An artist such as the enormously successful John Currin can proclaim that his art is directly descended from Cranach the Elder and a raunchy comic in the Mad magazine tradition. “Transcendence and stupidity, formal perfection and kitsch: It’s all just part of the same big expensive banquet,” Perl observes. Whatever floats your ­boat.

Of course, nobody woke up last fall to be shocked to see fast money thrown at ­flash-­in-­the-­pan art. The ­what-­the-­heck attitude of the moment has its roots in the early 1960s. But the difference between garbage then and garbage now is that works of pop art and other “bad paintings” were ironic. “They depended on the existence of a standard that was being mocked,” Perl says. Laissez-faire painting mocks nothing; irony is too much of an idea for ­it.

A case in point is this season’s star, Lisa Yuskavage, whose ­“lesbo-­bimbo” figure paintings of comic­ally en­dowed nude women recall Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They seem like a ­joke—­only they aren’t.

Forty years ago, the “evil prophet of the profit motive” was Andy Warhol, according to Perl. Warhol launched the trend toward ­laissez-­faire taste that is currently embodied by an artist who does collages incorporating his own semen. A business model has come to drive the art world, and the arts community must anoint a new artist to top Warhol, to trump the latest show at the Modern every season, no matter ­what.

In mixing medieval manuscripts and Bob Dylan, the Morgan curators fail to recognize that high culture and popular culture are so wonderfully different that they cannot be put together, Perl writes. ­“Laissez-­faire aesthetics is the aesthetics that violates the very principle of art, because it insists that anything goes when in fact the only thing that is truly unacceptable in the visual arts is the idea that anything goes.”

More From This Issue