But Is It Art?

But Is It Art?

THE SOURCE: “Cash-and-Carry Aesthetics” by Jed Perl, in The Baffler, June 2012.

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2m 17sec

Jed Perl, art critic for The New Republic, is a regular gallerygoer. He finds a lot to like, but for the past few years, he and many other art lovers have felt disoriented because “the shared assumptions about the nature of art that ought to bind together our variegated experiences are nowhere to be found.” In assessing artistic value, markets have taken over the function that ideas used to have. Good art is now simply defined as art that sells. Current art scene darlings, courting popular appeal, create work that is a mishmash of contradictory images.

Prime offenders, Perl says, are Lisa Yuskavage’s “soft-porn figure paintings, with their smarmy renderings of babes with big breasts and big hair,” and John Currin’s “slick, sleazy studies of suburban housewives.” Perl views the Cremaster cycle, by former model Matthew Barney, with special horror. The five-part video installation depicts the artist in “a sprawling but static pageant of athletic prowess, cross-dressing, and gender-bending.” Barney’s unbeautiful, arbitrary images don’t add up to anything, and the audience isn’t supposed to ask for something as old hat as meaning. These artists are the children of pop art, whose practitioners often included the trappings of mass culture—such as comics and advertisements—in their creations. Their campy works were meant to be viewed ironically: Their distance from an aesthetic ideal was the point. Perl laments that today’s “laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea.”

The arguments that once ignited artists and gallerygoers—about “representation and abstraction, form and content, high and low, good and bad”—now embarrass them. The old debates were, admittedly, often academic, or ignored the emotional component of experiencing art. But without intellectual rigor, audiences now doubt their own aesthetic experiences, even when they enjoy a certain work: Are they being had?

The sort of contemporary art that Perl applauds is based in craft, evidences deep knowledge of the masters, and follows a particular, personal vision. He champions the artist Bill Jensen, whose paintings of layered color draw on Japanese brushwork and the work of abstract expressionist greats. The paintings create both an intellectual and a felt experience: “When his color becomes extravagantly giddy, with eye-popping oranges and purples and greens, the point is not to be campily carnivalesque but to be heartfelt, exuberant, exultant.” Jensen’s admirers are devoted but, compared to those of Yuskavage, Currin, or Barney, small in number. That’s fine, Perl concludes. Unlike pop music or movies, great art does not have to have something for everyone.