The last few months have been a period of burrowing down deep for me, of incubation and isolation. But now my show is up in Provincetown and a new body of work has emerged, I am back up on the surface again and getting re-acclimatized. It feels similar to returning home after a month of trekking in the remote Himalayas where the isolation is so pure you really were in an enticingly news free zone. So when you come back you ask your friends, “So, what did I miss?”
It is in that catch up state that I’m coming late to conversations that have been bandied about over the last few weeks. One big nest of issues has erupted on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere around Jerry Saltz’s piece on the Venice Biennale in New York magazine, Generation Blank: The beautiful, cerebral, ultimately content-free creations of art’s well-schooled young lions.
I took a pledge when I was young to never be a generation basher like my hippie-hating parents. Each generation brings its own set of defining issues, concerns, expressions and sense making. And whatever that is, it isn’t going to look or smell like yours.
But at the same time there is something in me that feels compelled to comment when trends don’t trend in a way that makes sense to me. It isn’t generational criticism (I don’t think anyway) as much as it is trend criticism. And while trends have a generational skew to them to be sure, but they are not only generational issues.
So Saltz’s comments correlate with a whole slew of observances I have about the practice of art in 2011. So much art now is “ready-made for critics who also love parsing out the isms of their elders.” I keep looking for art that passes the Roberta Smith litmus test who, like me, is looking for this: “art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”
Saltz addresses the problem of an all too recognizable “generic institutional style”, one that rehashes the same issues over and over again:
It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.
There’s always conformity in art—fashions come in and out—but such obsessive devotion to a previous generation’s ideals and ideas is very wrong. It suggests these artists are too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, not really making their own work. That they are becoming a Lost Generation.
Strong words. Here are a few other excerpts from Saltz’s piece that stood out for me:
A feedback loop has formed; art is turned into a fixed shell game, moving the same pieces around a limited board. All this work is highly competent, extremely informed, and supremely cerebral. But it ends up part of some mannered International School of Silly Art.
Art schools are partly the villain here. (Never mind that I teach in them.) This generation of artists is the first to have been so widely credentialed, and its young members so fetishize the work beloved by their teachers that their work ceases to talk about anything else. Instead of enlarging our view of being human, it contains safe rehashing of received ideas about received ideas. This is a melancholy romance with artistic ruins, homesickness for a bygone era. This yearning may be earnest, but it stunts their work, and by turn the broader culture.
While this isn’t the program I’m watching personally, I see evidence of it everywhere. I resonate with Saltz’s cogent articulation of these issues. For those of us who are not caught in that particular trend net, there’s still plenty of breathing room to be found both in and out of our studios. That isn’t intended to sound smug and oldish, just a reminder to myself of how wide open art making actually is.