What Are They Reading?
THE END OF ART.
By Donald Kuspit.
Cambridge. 224 pp. $28.
Before you place a bid on that original Jeff Koons ceramic Puppy vase, you might want to take a peek at Donald Kuspit's The End of Art. I've rolled my eyes many a time and gone off about the stuff that passes for art in today's crazy world--but I'm just a layman. Kuspit, on the other hand, is a professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook; he's written over twenty books and is a contributing editor to Artforum, Art Criticism and New Art Examiner, among others. He has won awards, fellowships and honorary degrees from such institutions as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, the Fulbright Commission and the San Francisco School of Art.
The "end of art" is actually a Hegelian theme, but rather than embark upon a lengthy philosophical discourse on the estrangement of art from its telos, Kuspit sums it up with a cover photo of Damien Hirst's Home Sweet Home, an assemblage composed of a cheap ashtray brimming with cigarette butts. I gazed upon the image and then read this: "The resentment and repudiation of beauty," argues Kuspit, has resulted in "postart," an egregious offense committed against our souls by "postartists." Andy Warhol, who "made art as consumable as the popular culture it preyed on," and his predecessor, Marcel Duchamp, who tried "to deny the finality of aesthetic judgment," carry much of the blame for this state of affairs.
Kuspit's view: Whereas modern artists soldiered against entropy despite grim developments of their time--mainly mass media, mass destruction, the death-in-life of our industrialized and "administered" society--the pomos have comported themselves like a classroom of naughty children giggling just a little too hysterically over the loud belch they just heard, never mind that it was actually the death rattle of Art. They vie with one another for their fifteen minutes of shock value and the money it attracts. If banality is engulfing humankind, they've rallied with the cry: "Surf's up, dude!"
Kuspit's view is persuasive. Postartists, he rants, seal their shit in cans and expect you to buy it. They craft verbose, oblique footnotes and post them next to otherwise common or meaningless objects. Postartists maintain their supercilious "personalities" at all costs, disdaining warm-blooded personhood. They mock and exploit the legitimately insane by filming them or clumsily endeavoring to create "pseudo-insane" art. Postartists "lack imagination and have no need for it." Their work travels the short-circuit of ephemerality--nylon mesh "trucker" hats sprang to mind: trashy, thus edgy, then trendy, thus tacky, at which point the fundamentally unappealing objects acquired the murky patina of irony.
The postscript about postart concludes the book with images that allow beauty to speak its truth. Here are works by April Gornick, Don Eddy, Jenny Saville and a few other "New Old Masters." Complex, poignant and emanating the soothing mystery of Buddhist koans, these pictures seem to vibrate on a different frequency than that of the postart examples. They don't demand attention, but they hold it.
Kuspit tacitly discounts the loftier social and political underpinnings of postart, for example, the original intent of conceptual artists to liberate art from commerce and elitism by "dematerializing" and popularizing it. Art's value, he suggests, is ultimately aesthetically qualitative; the recognition of its value is intuitive, and therefore accessible to the very people who may not be able to develop a taste for Jackson Pollock, no matter how routinely and emphatically his genius is extolled.
The End of Art didn't make my mind up for me; rather, it opened up room for debate with artist friends and fellow gallery hoppers about the definition of art, whether it can be judged according to a universal standard and where it's going. It made me more aware of my powers of perception and my power as a perceiver, and encouraged me to seek out art that pleases me, for whatever reason.