Thirty years ago, the performance/installation artist Chris Burden succinctly captured the prevailing mood in contemporary art with his statement: "Art doesn't have a purpose. It's a free spot in society, where you can do anything." For Burden and throngs of his peers, works of art no longer strive to exalt, provide answers or address universal truths, but rather should erase complacency, challenge proscription and push the envelope with a vengeance. The result is visual art that can be bizarre, bewildering, and often offensive to the general public. How we got to this state of affairs was the subject of Art in America managing editor Richard Vine's provocative lecture entitled "Why is Contemporary Art So Weird?", delivered last Thursday at the Idaho Historical Museum.
Vine's visit was jointly sponsored by Boise State's Visiting Artist and Scholar Program and the Boise Art Museum. The subject of his lecture is apparently an issue that resonates with many Boiseans, as it was standing room only. Vine is, not surprisingly, an astute observer of and commentator on the art world, and he knows how to enliven a potentially dry subject. He walked attendees of his talk through the historical, socioeconomic, psychological and philosophical elements of this evolutionary tale with humor, insight and startlingly graphic visuals.
As Vine noted right off, art today is a world unto itself, set apart from mainstream society. This is a situation that fosters an "us versus them" mentality that he said is similar to the religious right. Some statistics provide the evidence. The most widely read art magazine in the U.S., Art in America currently has 90,000 subscribers, and the subscription base of most art publications is a fraction of that. Rolling Stone magazine, on the other hand, has 1.25 million subscribers. There are some 5,000 art events a year in New York City alone and around 27,000 nationwide. Vine's publication covers about 450 shows a year. So a very limited, select readership is being exposed to a tiny percentage of exhibiting artists. It is indicative of how insular the art scene has become and why it is so fiercely competitive.
Vine said the brutal competition for recognition and sales is an outgrowth of a process dating back to the demise of the patronage system, exacerbated by the astonishing growth in art school graduates. Vine described the "commercial and intellectual displacement" accompanying the modern era that set the stage for unfettered artistic license. Modernism's revolt against academic art's hierarchy of technique and taste corresponded with the intellectual upheaval sparked by Darwin, Marx and Freud, which focused on man's baser instincts. The emphasis on the "new" that fueled modernist formal and expressive innovations has morphed today into the relentless pursuit of a radical break with the past, including one's own, leaving the artist in the unenviable position of having to top oneself. Concurrently, it became artists' self-imposed mission to investigate gritty reality including all the non-pretty facts and bodily functions that constitute it. And, Vine pointed out, reality in our health-obsessed, stimulation-addicted, image-saturated society is pretty weird. Accordingly, artists either burn out from the pressure to "advance" their art, or they isolate themselves in radical weirdness. It's a depressing scenario.
Yet it seems too simplistic. When Vine turned to slides showing some of the more outrageous and controversial examples of post-modern excess, an objective response is that it doesn't necessarily lead to this. The spectrum of "weirdness" we witness in art today is certainly broader than these examples suggest (the vehemence of the performative pieces is particularly dated). Still, Vine does a service by reiterating the sublimity of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, and the poignant bravery of Hannah Wilke's continued use of her naked body after her considerable beauty became ravaged by disease. While flaunting taboos, these artists demonstrate all is not lost.