Uncritical and Affirmative

Barry Schwabsky has a surprisingly hard hitting piece in The Nation on the Koons retrospective, the more so as he affirms the general feeling, held by many artists for sure, myself included, that Koons is a significant figure. It’s hard to accuse any art of emptiness without sounding like an old fogey, but maybe sometimes it’s true. Schwabsky gets to the more important point, which is the artist’s refusal to be critical, and which now seems like one of the stronger positions of the 80s. Koons himself has skewed the discussion toward affirmation versus negativity, which is not exactly right, but still worth some time. The “critical” artist is also affirmative, just on behalf of a life that doesn’t exist, and this is in fact the weakness of that stance. Art can’t change the world, so “critical art” is a born failure, which it knows. The deeper question is whether art really matters as much to life as many other aspects, and the revulsion against formalism was based on a widespread feeling that it didn’t matter as much as justice or freedom or equality or sex or countless ordinary things. But then art is a minority taste, and despite the scale of the art world there are still very few who really care about it more than they do about all the many and silly things people get up to. Am I equating “art” with abstract formalism? Maybe, but not entirely. Artists used to fuss about aesthetic problems, like whether to put a certain color here or there, or what shape to make a painting—now Koons fusses interminably over the perfect polish on a stainless steel bunny, and that is an important change, maybe even a paradigmatic one. It’s the particular emptiness of a period in which everyone talks about art but very few are truly involved with it. Of course it’s the feel or style that matters, and today seriousness about art is tolerated, and deferred to in marketing talk, but it’s a little gauche and even embarrassing. You can never really be taken seriously as an artist if you are serious about art. How naive. After all, what really matters is something else, like money for example, and who can deny that? The problem with critical art is not that it is too negative, but that it has to be evaluated by external criteria. Even if you think the autonomy of art is a myth, that’s still a fatal weakness, because it’s a weakness right at the center, and Koons is the affirmative artist with nothing artistic to be affirmative about. But that’s too much to say. Criticism of that type assumes that we know what the work really is, but history has proven over and again that emptiness is a pleasant but temporary feeling. In fact that was also the mistake of the avant-garde. It thought it had art all figured out, but really knew little about it. Even about abstract formalism.

balloon dog

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