A couple days ago in the NYTimes, Holland Cotter, extremely agitated by the sorry state of the art world, ranted about the detrimental effect big money has had on art production, the lack of cultural diversity, the failure of art schools, the high rents, museums’ focus on the box office, conservative art criticism, and more. He even took a swipe at abstract painting as the most salable and least adventurous type of art being made:
Outside auctions, the marketing mechanics buzz on. Roughly since the end of the multicultural, postmodern 1990s, we’ve watched new art being re-Modernized and domesticated, with painting the medium of choice, abstraction the mode of preference. Together they offer significant advantages. Paintings can be assembly-line produced but still carry the aura of being hand-touched. They can be tailored to small spaces, such as fair booths. Abstraction, especially if color is involved, can establish instant eye contact from afar. If, in addition, the work’s graphic impact translates well online, where stock can be moved eBay style, so much the better.
Other traditional forms — drawing, photography, some sculpture — similarly work well in this marketing context. But an enormous range of art does not, beginning with film, performance and installation, and extending into rich realms of creative activity that defy classification as art at all. To note this dynamic is not to dismiss painting or object making, but to point to the restrictive range of art that the market supports, that dealers are encouraged to sell, and that artists are encouraged to make.
I agree with much of what Cotter says, particularly the lack of adventurousness among the top art collectors and the need to support independent art writing, but I would argue that most artists aren’t really being encouraged to make anything, and many painters, in an age of relational aesthetics and hybrid painting practices (painting+sculpture, painting+installation, etc.), are sheepish about the fact that they still make traditional paintings. Aside from a handful of super-successful stars or careerist up-and-comers, most abstract painters, if their work is at all difficult, are not painting because that’s where the money is, but, rather, because they love the process and challenge of painting.
Image at top: Mary Heilmann, Sunset Waves, 2013, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth.
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