Contributed by Carter Ratcliff / Let’s begin with a painting—not sure it’s a work of art—that could have been painted only now, during Trump’s presidency. This is The Republican Club, a group portrait of selected Republican presidents, by Andy Thomas. Hanging now in the White House, it appeared behind Trump during a recent television interview. Though the figures’ gazes are not well managed, it seems clear that we are to see Trump as looking across the table at Abraham Lincoln. Everyone remembers that Trump said, of John McCain, that he prefers war heroes who do not get captured. Perhaps he is telling Lincoln that he prefers presidents who do not get assassinated.Artists and poets sometimes present themselves as prophets. Both an artist and a poet, William Blake had a vision of England redeemed from everything dark and demonic. In the verse introducing Milton: A Poem, one of Blake’s epic prophesies, this vision becomes vivid as he evokes the legend of Jesus’s visit to England. Did, the poet asks
. . . the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
After calling for his “Bow of gold” and his “Chariot of fire,” Blake ends with one of the most stirring stanzas in English poetry.
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Despite what we might wish, all the “Mental Fight,” all the imaginative power, of all the artists and poets and novelists and playwrights and composers of the modern period have not built the New Jerusalem in England or anywhere else. Yet the prophetic impulse persists.
The utopian modernists who emerged after the First World War—the artists and architects of de Stijl and the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism—prophesied that their formal innovations would carry over from the studio to ordinary life, remaking society along lines laid down by their principles of coherence and harmony. We call the paintings of Piet Mondrian’s de Stijl period abstract and yet he did not want his audience to see them as detached, self-referential exercises in pictorial form.
An “equilibriated composition,” he said in 1919, refers to social structure, because “art and life are one.” According to Mondrian’s utopian logic, the formal harmony of his painting prophesied social harmony, hence the proliferation of his version of modernism would institute justice throughout Europe and eventually the world. The other utopian modernists made similar prophesies and not one of them was fulfilled. Art is not prophetic. However, the art world—or a certain sector of the art market—has displayed a certain oracular power.
In 1987, a buyer paid $85 million for Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, from 1888.
This price tripled the previous record. Buyers set a cluster of record prices in the 1990s, a few more were set during the following decade and a half, and then another, larger cluster of records was achieved in 2006-2008. And the pace kept accelerating. Over half of the hundred most expensive paintings were sold in the past seven years—a surge of extravagance that culminated in November 2017 with the sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi for $450 million. This is not a very good Leonardo, if indeed it was painted by him. However, most of the paintings on the top-hundred list are of high quality: major works by Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock, Titian, and Rembrandt. And a great Pontormo portrait
This painting went for nearly $70 million in 1989, a price that puts it near the middle of the list of the one hundred most expensive paintings.
Pontormo, Picasso, and the others I have mentioned are old masters and old modernist masters. Quality falls off precipitously when we turn to contemporary works that have been knocked down at auction for record amounts.
In 2015, Sotheby’s sold Van Gogh’s L’Allée des Alyscamps for just over $68 million.
Two years earlier, Christie’s sold Balloon Dog (Orange) by Jeff Koons for $63 million.
Prices like these make sense only if they are paid for paintings and sculptures valued not as works of art but as something else. But what? How can a buyer see L’Allée des Alyscamps as anything but a work of art? As our economy tilts further and further toward oligarchy, flagrant and grandiose oligarchy, that becomes an easy question. When you pay a record price for a Van Gogh, it becomes a prize, a trophy, in a highly competitive game of ostentatious display. You show that when it comes to showing off, money is no object. You have more than enough.
Now, I’m not saying that all the buyers of overpriced Van Goghs and Titians and Cézannes are entirely indifferent to the high quality and art-historical significance of their purchases. After all, it is the quality and significance of these paintings that makes them suitable trophies in the high-stakes competition for prestigious works of art. So it may be that some who pay outrageous prices for old master and old modernist master paintings are able to cherish them not only as trophies but also as works of art. This cannot be said of those who chase after overpriced works of contemporary art. That is because trophies in this variation on the game—works by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Christopher Wool, and a few others—are not works of art. They can be prized only as trophies.
How can I say this? Koons presents himself as an artist. His balloon dogs are shown in art galleries, reviewed by art critics, offered at auction in sales of contemporary art. You might say to me, well, you don’t like the balloon dogs, you think they are bad works of art, but surely that doesn’t disqualify them for the work-of-art label. To that I would say, it’s not entirely true that I dislike the balloon dogs. They have, after all, a silly likability. But even if it were unmitigated my dislike of the balloon dogs would not exclude them from the art category. What excludes them that category—or, to put it the other way around, what makes them works of non-art—is their paucity of meaning.
A work of art is inexhaustibly meaningful, significant, evocative. There is no end to interpreting a work of art, and that is why critics never agree. That is why each generation finds its own range of meanings in works of art—in the plays of Shakespeare, in the poems of Wallace Stevens, in the paintings of Cézanne and Barnett Newman. To qualify as art a work must be endlessly—and fruitfully—ambiguous. A balloon dog fails to qualify as art because it is not in the least ambiguous. It is an immediately recognizable emblem of its maker’s unwarranted claim to be a great artist. That’s all there is to it, and that narrowness, that shallowness, of meaning is effective, for it makes a balloon dog an extremely efficient emblem—or logo—of Jeff Koons. But a logo is not a work of art. It is the product of a design process. None of this is troubling to those who chase after balloon dogs and pay absurd prices for them.
Serving as a logo of Koons’s grandiosity, it also serves as a logo of the buyer’s affluence. In the performance of these functions, the balloon dog asks to be recognized, not contemplated. There is much to say about the social, cultural, and economic factors that turned this object into the emblem that it is but there is nothing to say about the emblem in and of itself once you have read its simple and tightly circumscribed meaning. There is nothing more to interpret, to understand, and nothing more to say. You have exhausted the subject. The crucial comparison is to the inexhaustibility of, say, a scene from mythology as painted by Titian.
This is Titian’s Diana and Actaeon from the late 1550s. It was sold in 2009 for just over $80 million.
Here, a rich interplay of form and subject raises questions of gender and sexuality, power and justice, and more. Everything in Titian’s image is in question, nothing can be known for certain. Its meanings are inexhaustible.
By contrast, images and objects that fall under the headings of logo, decoration, illustration, and graphics are intended to achieve a strictly delimited purpose and thus their meanings are quickly exhausted. Grasp the purpose, get the message—or, in the case of a decorative image, get the effect—and that’s the end of it. Again, one can talk endlessly about the socio-cultural-economic origins and applications of such objects and images. In short, we can talk around these artifacts. But when we focus on the artifacts themselves, we find nothing to do or say but to acknowledge their narrow purposes and judge their success in attaining those purposes. Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with any of this. I’m not a great fan of logos but I love illustrations, especially the ones I remember from certain children’s books. There is decorative imagery that I like—the floral patterns on 18th century Venetian furniture, for example. I like graphic design in the Art Deco manner. But graphic design in whatever style is exhaustible and therefore not art.
Here is Apocalypse Now, 1987, by Christopher Wool.
Its claim to be a work of art rests on its medium: paint on canvas. It’s a weak claim. What this work can legitimately claim is graphic punch in the service of an anxious joke—or near-joke. Get the mood, the message, and that’s it. You’ve exhausted Wool’s Apocalypse Now. Further looking gets you nothing, though critics have credited the canvas with conceptual content impressive enough to give it the status of an artwork. According to these writers, Wool generates this content by quoting a passage from the screenplay of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Viewers who recognize the passage are reminded of the film in all its richness and ambiguity, and some may displace these qualities onto Wool’s Apocalypse Now. That would be a mistake. For his canvas is neither rich nor ambiguous. It is a work of graphic design with a narrow purpose: to remind us of a movie with a wide and ultimately undecidable purpose—a movie rich enough in meaning to qualify as a work of art. What if Wool had rendered “To be or not to be” in his signature graphic style? Would we credit his work with the richness of Hamlet?
Here’s a decorative image by Damien Hirst. Gly-gly-ala, a woodcut from 2016.
Hirst makes images like these in many sizes and mediums. Some are priced to be affordable, others are very expensive. A few years back, his gallery showed 300 polka-dot pictures rendered in paint on canvas. One hundred were for sale, at prices ranging from $1 million to a million and half. As with the painting by Christopher Wool, these works do not reward extended contemplation. They are non-art, pleasant enough if that’s what you like, but nothing more than that.
Like graphics and decoration, illustration is exhaustible. This is Banksy’s Girl with a Balloon, the one that recently tried to shred itself just after it went for nearly $2 million at Sotheby’s.
There is not much to say about this illustration, distinguished as it is by sentimentally and undistinguished drawing. What you get when you buy a Banksy is a sort of proximity to a high-profile art-world satirist.
Turning again to Koons’s Balloon Dog, the one that brought $58 million at auction, I can only repeat that as a logo it is effective—more so than many corporate logos. All right, you might say, but what, exactly, is the problem?
The problem is that Koons’s logos and other works of non-art put depletion in place of plenitude, narrow and shallow meaning in place of full, inexhaustible meaning. They usurp art. Because they have gotten scads of attention for doing this, they have reduced much of the art-conversation to platitude and sensationalism—all those headlines about immense prices, all the reporting on the busy beavers at Koons’s studio. And think of the reasons for Koons’s inflated prices. A balloon dog is sought after and overpaid for because it conveys so efficiently a brash and simple message: I am expensive. Furthermore, says the Balloon Dog, I am perfectly willing to serve as a sign of a collector’s wealth, as the embodiment of a vulgar boast.
The producers of high-end contemporary art—or, rather, non-art—have for some years now collaborated in the project of filling the world of art with vulgarity. Distracting all too many with an aesthetic of ostentation, they have offered brazenness as a kind of virtue. Thus they resemble Trump. And because, as I said earlier, the overinflated art market began to develop long before Trump became president, we can see this segment of the art market as prophetic. Poetry is not prophetic, nor is art, but the ultra-high-end art market, which has placed vulgar trophy hunting at the center of the art world, prophesied a president who has put vulgarity at the center of our society and our politics.
What more is there to say?
I was stymied at this point until I remembered another poem about the Millennium—another one beside Blake’s, which looks forward to the time when England becomes the Promised Land. I remembered The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats, which announces that a dire millennium is upon us, or was upon the world in 1919, when the poem was written. Its first stanza is well known.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Because this is a poem, a work of literary art, its meanings are inexhaustible. Moreover, those meanings are undecidable. No interpretation can claim to be the right one. This gives me latitude, to make what I will of Yeats’s language and imagery. I would like, for this occasion, to zero in on the notion of the center and the implied faith that, in ordinary times, the center holds. It is stable and coherent. But now, in unsettled times, “the center cannot hold.”
Imagine that the center is society held together by a cluster of compatible and interconnected standards and virtues. The virtues include but are not limited to kindness, generosity, open-mindedness and curiosity, courage, and the capacity for fairness and forgiveness that encourages social harmony. “Includes but is not limited to” is the sort of language we might find in a contract, and that phrase comes to mind because one of the crucial fictions of early modern political theory was the social contract. I call it a fiction because no society rests on a contract explicitly accepted by all its members, yet Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and other social-contract theorists were onto something, for a society does not cohere—its center does not hold—unless most of its members agree, for the most part implicitly, that a certain set of virtues should be cultivated. And certain standards must be maintained. In our society, these include standards of justice, decency, and rationality. The center cannot hold if we are not rational enough to distinguish the true from the false.
Nor can the center hold if there is no authority that the majority is willing to acknowledge. Authority resides partly in institutions—the institutions of government, federal, state, and local; the institutions of academia and science; of the press, in all its variety and varying degrees of seriousness. The authority of custom and tradition does not always take institutional form, yet it is powerful nonetheless. Though we hope for the best from authority, those hopes are not always met. Authority is sometimes deployed cruelly, to marginalize minorities—ethnic, gender, religious. Running counter to our ideals of fairness and decency, our standard of equal justice, marginalization of this kind is absolutely unjustified. But there are other kinds of marginalization.
When society’s center holds, it is in part because criminal activity is marginalized—kept under some degree of control. The exercise of this control, this marginalization, is justified, as is the marginalization of hate groups. Now, hate groups often behave criminally, yet there is a distinction to be drawn between their members and the members of criminal groups. The latter are driven chiefly by a desire for gain, usually monetary. Hate groups are driven by bigoted ideologies. And we find a different driver when we look at cults, justifiably marginalized groups of yet another kind. A cult is driven and sustained by its members’ faith in a delusional fantasy. These fantasies can be apocalyptic. Or they can be nostalgic. The hardcore members of the Trump cult are united in a delusional faith that he is going to return America to a lost state of imaginary perfection. He is going to make America great again.
Having gathered a sizable minority into its ranks, the Trump cult is now a significant presence in the social center. Some members of the Trump cult also belong to hate groups, which Trump and influential Trumpians have encouraged to leave the margins of society and take up positions near its center. Various police and prosecutorial agencies have characterized the Trump organization as a “criminal enterprise.” By residing in the White House, Trump has brought criminality as far from society’s margins as one can imagine. The center, many of us fear, is not holding, though it is misleading to talk of the center. There are many centers, among them the one occupied by art—not by the art world but by art itself.
There are many ways to think of art. At present, I am thinking of it as a tradition. There are, I know, many art traditions. I want to focus on the tradition of Western art, which reaches from this moment back to ancient Greece. Or further back, to archaic Greece. During two and a half millennia, through extraordinary shifts in theme and style and media, in patronage and purpose, the center of this art tradition has held, stabilized and rendered coherent by its persistent—its traditional—values and standards. These include visual flow or grace, which the Greeks called “rythmos.” Their “eurythmia” is what we call formal harmony, which overlaps with “symmetria,” the commensurability of part to part. These ideals came together in the Italian Renaissance under the idea of composition, which the painter and architect Leon Battisti Alberti described, in 1435, as “that rule of painting by which the parts of the things seen fit together,” adding that the grace “we call beauty is born from the composition.”
My talk of compositional harmony and grace may seem to make a bad fit with the harsher styles of art. In Self-Portrait with Model by the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirschner, for example, we see forms flattened and distorted by splotches of raucous color. This quiet painting simmers with difficult, potentially explosive feelings.
Yet, as I just mentioned, our tradition of pictorial composition persists beneath every style, even the ones invented to convey extreme emotions. In this self-portrait, Kirschner has given a suave unity to his deliberately awkward, even jagged forms. Formal coherence works here as it usually does, to bring about a smooth reconciliation of image and enclosing frame. This is a harmonious, well-composed painting.
Art and society both include “harmony” on their lists of virtues. That may be why Mondrian, with his visionary inclinations and his deep knowledge of the tradition of Western art, came to believe that there is an inevitable connection between the forms of society and the formal structures of paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Whatever connection there may be, it is not inevitable in any strong sense of the word. That is, art’s fit with society is not logically necessary, nor it is necessary in the light of some transcendent truth. There is, though, a rough equivalence between social values and art values. From this equivalence follows an analogy between the pattern of center and margins to be seen in the structure of our society and in our tradition of art.
The analogy is not perfect. What society justifiably marginalizes is bad—crime, hatred, toxic delusion. The same cannot be said of the non-art marginalized by the art tradition. Graphic design, for instance, can be good, but only by its own standards. Its standards are not those of art, and that is why art marginalizes graphic design, along with illustration, the decorative, and the entire range of emblems and logos. We have already met the principle that guides this marginalization: if the meanings of an image or an object are strictly delimited by a definable purpose, it does not count as an artwork. It has no place in the center of the tradition sustained, made coherent, by visual qualities of the kind that generate the inexhaustible meanings we find in art.
Zooming out, we see that the two centers I have all too sketchily mapped are holding only tenuously. Both centers are agitated these days by a sense of instability and fears of disintegration. For both have been vigorously infiltrated by all that they justifiably try to marginalize. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with, say, decoration or any form of non-art. Yet their incursion into the center of art is driven by vulgar ambition, by brazen ostentation, of a kind also seen at the center of our society in the age of Trump. The art world and the larger society are being distracted, even demeaned, by spectacles of vulgarity and boorish pretension, and by the indifference to the larger good that self-absorbed pretension always displays. But vulgarity is not the worst of it.
The worst of it results from the simplification, the crude devolution, that our values and standards suffer when vulgar spectacle distracts the center from its true interests. For these are spectacles of brutal competition and toxic power. They have their debased meaning at the expense of better meaning, at the expense of the subtlety, the nuance, and the admirable grandeur that we find in art and society at their best. So that is the worst of art and life in the age of Trump: the destruction of meaning. If the capacity for meaning in all its complexity is not preserved—if it is not grounded in history and endlessly renewed—we will be unable to realize the best promises of our society and our tradition of art.
I have painted a grim picture. I want to end by arguing that it is not the whole picture. The second stanza of Yeats’s The Second Coming begins with this line: “Surely some revelation is at hand.” If so, I am not aware of it. All I know is that, despite all the unwelcome incursions into the realm of art, authentic artists of every generation continue to make valuable work in all mediums, modes, and styles. Some of these artists are in this audience. Others are elsewhere. There are genuine artists throughout the city and up and down Hudson Valley, where I live, and throughout the state, throughout the nation and the world. Art persists and thrives, supplying the meaning-laden confrontations and exchanges, the interactions at once aesthetic, social, and cultural, that will, despite our present situation, help to ensure that the center does indeed hold.
Note: This lecture was originally presented on October 24, 2018, at The New York Studio School.
About the author: Carter Ratcliff is a poet, art critic, and contributing editor of Art in America. His writings on art have been published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Guggenheim Museum; the Royal Academy, London; Maxxi Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome, and many other institutions. He has contributed to the leading art journals of the United States and Europe, including Art in America, Art Forum, ArtNews, Arts, Tate, and Art Presse, as well as Vogue, Elle, and New York. His books include The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art, Out of the Box: The Reinvention of Art, and monographs on Andy Warhol, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Gilbert & George, and others. Among his books of poetry are Fever Coast, Give Me Tomorrow, and Arrivederci, Modernismo. His first novel, Tequila Mockingbird, was published in 2015.
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