You’ve seen it peeling off walls and marring the lawns of armchair liberals. Shephard Fairey’s iconic ‘Hope’ poster was the face of the Obama campaign, painting the president in day-glo red, white and blue (devaluing his blackness perhaps?) and characterizing him as the purveyor of Hope, Change, and Progress.
Mr. Fairey epitomizes the post-modern bottom-feeder who draws on legitimate tactics of appropriation for less than honorable reasons – to make a quick buck and ride the wave that someone, somewhere, with much more talent has started. While artists like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine steal images to ask Deep and Important questions, Fairey plagiarizes relentlessly and without credit. After a great deal of waffling and misdirection, he admitted that his Obama poster reproduces, without permission, a photograph by another artist.
And yet he famously sued an Austin-based artist for doing something similar to his own imagery. His art, which now adorns the t-shirts of upscale clothing stores, appropriates the aesthetic of graffiti art to politicize his commercial efforts. As a cog in the political machine, his poster looks uncompromising. As a work of art, it’s unquestioning. Let us stand up for art and intellectual honesty; it’s high time to consign this piece of generic graphic design to the annals of Art That Sucks.
The aim of this column is to skewer pretentiousness and honor the creative genius of artists who genuinely work to think outside the box, provoke critical thought, and attempt to create objects of beauty. Thomas Demand is sometimes one of them, but his photograph from 2008, Presidency II, lacks almost all of these qualities.
Demand painstakingly recreated the interior of the Oval Office out of paper and photographed it. Inventive yes, difficult surely, but more than an impressive display of labor and obsessive attention to detail? I think not. The latest artist to latch onto Obama’s tailcoats, Demand shows but doesn’t tell; if he stimulates critical inquiry, it’s more to do with our own notions of Obama and the relationship between the president and the press.
True, the piece is undoubtedly self-aware, calling attention to the limitations of perception, construction, and our own obsessive need to picture the intimate spaces of celebrities. But as I’ve tried to argue in previous columns, art should do work rather sit back smugly and point out our own shortcomings. Demand’s photograph represents the work of an artist who has found a formula and stuck with it to the point of absurdity. Really, who needs a picture of a model that apes real life? An army of French philosophers made the same points forty years ago. Memo to art; let’s move on.
This week starts with a thanks and an apology. An apology that I missed a column last week, and a thanks to everyone who emailed me with hideous pieces of art. You all have great taste for awful pictures.
This week’s piece is by Kenneth Noland, the poster child for High Modernism. In ‘Sarah’s Reach’ he paints three lines in slightly different colors on a blank background. Perhaps compensating for something, Noland made the painting nearly eight feet tall. There’s very little to separate ‘Sarah’s Reach’ from a typical wallpaper design, except wallpaper usually has more pizzazz.
It may be big, it may be boring, but never fear! Noland backed up his art with a mountainous heap of theory. It’s a wonder his canvases could still stand under the weight of the multisyllabic words critics heaped on them. According to the tenets of High Modernism, Noland’s piece is Good because it acknowledges it’s status as a picture (flat), as painted (colorful), and as a piece destined for a gallery (hence the white background).
To be fair, ‘Sarah’s Reach’ is like the airplane food of Noland’s oeuvre. It’s light on substance and heavy on convention, and over the years he’s painted far more interesting, moving, and aesthetically pleasing works that don’t rely on convoluted theories. Nevertheless, it deserves to be singled out as an example of Bad Art that gives Good Art a Bad Name. Art should be more than an illustrated intellectual argument; that, my friends, is a diagram.
In that spirit, go forth and submit RAW applications. Don’t let art that sucks overwhelm art that doesn’t.
This column, here to help you navigate around the hype and hypocrisy of the art world, would simply be incomplete without an informed condemnation of Damien Hirst’s spot and spin paintings. These paintings look suspiciously like the artist invited a group of unsuspecting grade-schoolers to his studio, fed them all skittle-molly cocktails, and had them do their worst with paint and paper. And then did it again. And again. And several thousand identical paintings later he still sells them in droves to avid collectors.
He is the world’s second-most expensive living artist, who sued British Airways for painting spots on their adverts. The man apparently believes that he owns the artistic and commercial rights to round blobs of color, and makes no bones about the financial motive behind his artwork. Largely devoid of talent, Hirst has made a career out of actively demonstrating the power of money to determine art’s validity in the contemporary marketplace.
Paying other artists to paint spots, then re-selling them for a profit, is indeed an interesting concept. But Hirst has made a career out of it, reducing artistic practice to a business transaction. He is an investor, and a good one, but the lack of aesthetic complexity in his spot and spin paintings sets them apart from far more interesting conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt. They aren’t much more visually engaging than the faux-art digital canvases perpetually on sale (for reduced price) at Target and Urban Outfitters.
Put simply, Hirst’s spot and spin paintings are little more than business ventures that self-consciously defraud the art world. It is time to tell Damien Hirst that these travesties against vision do, indeed, suck.
Here’s the premise: I have been expiring from heat, starvation, and general intellectual fatigue on a desert island for the last twenty years and am on the point of kicking the proverbial bucket when lo and behold! As the Good Lord comes to claim my soul, my last earthly vision is a piece of art that is so bad it actually devalues the canvas it’s painted on.
Some art is good. Some art is great. Banksy’s Luxury Loft sucks. Telling dead horses and camels that a ‘Luxury Loft Complex is Coming Soon’ is neither subtle nor witty, and probably clichéd enough that Metallica would consider it for an album cover. Sue Coe has already called attention to the hypocrisy of nationalist sloganeering, and Guernica is a far more visceral reminder of the raw tragedy of war. Banksy, your slickly ‘ironic’ art is part of the same culture of consumption and manipulation that you purport to criticize. If I Luxury Loft was my living sight I would probably stab out my eyes post-mortem.