Friday, December 18, 2009

Robert Hughes: Charismatic, fun, sloppy - and out of touch?

I was recently pointed to Robert Hughes' Mona Lisa Curse, which is available in 12 parts on YouTube. It's a documentary about the influence of the modern market on the art world. It's also something of a polemic against that influence.

Hughes sees the Mona Lisa's American tour in the 1960's as the starting point, or at least the symbolic kickoff, of an historic realignment of art collecting. Art has come to be seen by its collectors primarily as an investment, and that activity has both priced art museums out of the market and had undue influence on the public perception of relative artistic quality.

Unfortunately, for all his gruff style and contrarian hipness even at 70, Hughes only makes half an argument.

The high prices of blue-chip contemporary art today undoubtably make high-stakes collecting a game for the rich. And it certainly is beautiful to think of a postal clerk and a librarian amassing a major collection, which was once possible and now apparently not.

At least it's not possible if you look to the activities of the rich as your arbiter of artistic quality, which Hughes of course suggests we should not. But at the same time an enormous number of people are making contemporary art, and most of them sell, if they sell at all, at prices quite compatible with a modest income dedicated to collecting.

The same argument can be made for museums: if the rich collectors are skewing the meritocracy of art, why should the museums buy what they collect? And they are not then where exactly is the problem?

Hughes doesn't tell us how this world of the rich setting the public art agenda is any different than it always was. I would argue that it's more democratic by far, even if it's more crass: a Farnese wielded far more power over the art world than a Cohen ever will.

But Hughes argues that the Cohens are lacking taste, whereas the Farnese had it. This may be true, though it could also have to do with the fact that contemporary artists are fairly autonomous and don't do their best work on commission, whereas the Pope could once upon a time tell a Tiziano to paint and the painter would give it his all.

The Mona Lisa Curse also has nothing to say about the personal enrichment of the artists themselves. Much is made of the feelings of betrayal in the early days of aggressive dealership in the US, but that was long ago. Bob Rauschenberg was already a very wealthy man by the time I first saw his work. There is a scene in which Rauschenberg confronts Mr. Scull, who has just made a tremendous profit on work by Rauschenberg and Johns. The dealer tells him, in effect, that he's just made him permanently rich, since his prices will now be much higher.

Scull is right. Rauschenberg is an ingrate. At the moment it probably seemed like precisely the opposite was true, but watching the scene in 2009 it's glaringly apparent how symbiotic that relationship was. Hughes seems to wish it weren't.

And what about the artists?

Hughes spends a fair amount of energy airing his contempt for Andy Warhol, both the man and his work. While quoting him on the Mona Lisa tour, Hughes also calls him stupid. And when discussing a collector who owned 800 Warhols, Hughes is clearly disgusted by the very concept. You can't miss the point of Warhol by a wider margin than that.

Some of the anti-Warhol tirade may also be personal. Considering how central Rauschenberg is to the Hughes canon, and considering how famously Rauschenberg disliked Warhol and his queeny tribe, there is a whif of argumentum ad hominem about the whole thing.

Another artist who takes a beating in the documentary is Damien Hirst. But here it's more deserved: the shark really hasn't aged well, neither physically nor conceptually. And the big visible woman scultpure is truly, breathtakingly awful; freshman work with an industrial budget.

However, I remember being quite inspired by some of Hirst's work when I was studying. Particularly One Thousand Years is still a strong idea. And of course For the Love of God is held up as the ultimate example of the depraved art market, but - Earth to Critic! - it's a work specifically about the depravity of the art market. He might as well have titled it For the Love of Bob.

There are plenty of other artists who have made a lot of money from the modern collecting machine. Would the world somehow be better if they hadn't? Would their art be more pure? Maybe - maybe Brice Marden would make a new picture instead of painting the same old one over and over again. But shouldn't the artists have something to say about that?

And as for the museums being priced out of the game, I see no reason why that matters or is particularly new. Collectors are not the only people who can donate artwork: if major artists don't themselves keep major works for public collections, that's hardly the art market's fault.

Finally there is a segment in which Hughes bullies a rich but clueless collector. This comes across as an utterly unfair fight. And I think Hughes enjoys it precisely because it's unfair, which is sad. The collector has already been shown earlier in the show to be no great thinker on art.

It could have been left at that, but Hughes corners him and effectively requires him to prove that he isn't very bright but thinks his possessions matter anyway. Congratulations. Having now proved, against all odds, that dumb people can also inherit great wealth, which universal conundrum shall the Critic tackle next?

So what is it that Hughes wants artists, collectors and museums to do?

As far as I can tell he wants artists to use their own hands to make works that have to do with contemporary society, as long as it's still recognizably "art."

Collectors ought perhaps to spend less and be less competitive. Less, you know, >new money.< Right, I'll get back to you on that, or my people will.

Museums should be less commercial, less sponsored, less in thrall to their donors and less crowded. I suppose the Getty has achieved that, by having the One Greater Donor and being hard to reach. I'll take crowded, exciting, whorish and available any day. And a knock-off Murakami bag from China.

Hughes is a tough and charismatic contrarian. I highly recommend the documentary. But I can't help thinking he's out of touch.

iTunes Store: Purchase HD, Download Kitchen Sink

Weird: I just purchased a full season of a TV show in "High Definition" on iTunes for the first time, and it kicks off downloads for both the high-def and normal-def versions of every episode. I'm curious whether I'll be charged for both. If not then it's no big deal, but I still have some trouble imagining what having both versions is good for.