Art is Theft

Andy Warhol collectors are currently up in arms about the dramatic loss in value some works attributed to him are suffering. One work from the Red Series made the dramatic descent from $2 million to nothing. The cause of the decrease was the stamping of ‘denied’ in bright red on the back of the canvas.

That stamp was a costly little addition given by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as part of its authentication efforts. What, above all, has got people up in arms about that stamp is that the actual process of determination is entirely secret and appears arbitrary. That 1 in 5 of works attributed to Warhol are knocked back amplifies the significance of the issue. The ramifications, however, run much deeper than the trade-able value of certain works by a certain artist, the situation highlights a general arbitrariness in the determination of art as art.

This is part of Warhol’s great contribution to the art world. Most of his works came from what was called ‘the factory’, a semi-industrial set up in which he and colleagues would design and print, or simple design and then send off to be printed, some sort of idea – like an image of soup cans. In this corporatized production process the attribution of artistic merit is dissipated throughout a process that holds little difference to any other system of manufacture.

Such manufacturing of ‘art works’ rendered authentication a ridiculous exercise. The corporatist style of production means that the only gauge of authenticity that can be used is ‘who had the idea first’. Such authentication, as with similar cases in schoolyard and workplace debates, is always arbitrary since the origin of ideas always lies in the interaction of other ideas held by people. The eventual conclusions have far more to do with issues of popularity, sexual desire and charisma then anything related to an actual object.

In light of this one might suggest that the attribution of the name Warhol to any of the works that came from ‘the factory’ is rather arbitrary. Where an idea originates is a question that cannot be answered definitively and so none of Warhol’s work can really be said to be truly Warhol’s work.

This is opposed to something like the work of Rembrandt where the brush strokes can be used, because of certain peculiarities of style terribly difficult to replicate, as indicators of authentic products of the master. In the case of something like a Rembrant if the ‘art’ behind the work is important we can find its origin via the brush strokes that brought into the world.

Authentication is easier here, but nevertheless Warhol affected such works as well. He affected these works in so far as he brought forward the importance of the idea in locating the specifically artistic quality. He broke the link between craftsmanship and artistic merit. Thanks to him all works can only be referenced in terms of the specifically artistic by either finding the ‘artistic’ idea in them or tracing the work to the origin of the idea, an origin that has to be guaranteed in some way as ‘artistic’.

Warhol’s artistic contribution might be summed up as the severing of the link between a craft and artistic merit. It severed the assumption that certain schools of certain crafts were able to imbue their students not only with technical proficiency but also some quality known as ‘artistic merit’.

Thanks to Warhol (and others before him and indeed after him) questions are raised. Did Rembrant think up the idea of a particular work or was it somebody else? Where is the mark of the ‘artistc’ idea in Rembrant’s work? What is an ‘artistic’ idea? And what makes Rembrant an artist and not just a decent painter? Art is no longer indelibly connected to a specific craft or crafts but is something that must be determined independently.

What is needed is some definition of the specifically artistic, a definition of ‘artistic merit’. If there is no such thing as a specifically artistic quality that adheres to objects then problems such as those with the Warhol Foundation can only be solved through fraud. The fraud such as the pretence that this quality exists in the body of work of a particular artist. If indeed there is such a thing as ‘artistic merit’ surely it would be evident regardless of the presence of the signature of a particular person, no matter how cool their hair.

Such ‘artistic merit’ must be distinguished from other sources of value attributed to objects in the art world. Some works, such as Rembrant’s, might be valued for their craftsmanship or for simply being old. Some might be valued for being particularly seductive. The specifically artistic must move beyond these if we are going to assume that there is some sense in the history of art at all. Not all works attributed as artistic hold those values mentioned above; ugly, simple and novel things are all found in our National Galleries. And on the other had some works of greater technical skill, comics for instance, or greater seductive power, pornography, are not called art.

What is it about Duchamp’s toilet in a gallery that makes it artistic? What is so special about soup cans printed on canvas? What is the difference between a crucifix in urine and a can of tuna?

Why is a Warhol worth $2 million in the first place? The creativity behind the works does not seem especially profound. It seems the only genius behind them, their special quality, is the kind of genius that is found in the skill of, as the saying goes, selling snow to Eskimos.
It is the genius that is able to convince a whole bunch of rich people that a work that has been produced carries some sort of quality incommensurable with anything else. That over and above any value of craftsmanship, seductiveness or age there is some quality X that means this particular object is worth lots and lots of money. It is the ‘art’ of the tailors of naked emperors. Whilst such a trick might be commendable that does not make the ‘clothes’ such as those of the naked emperor any more valuable.

Perhaps the trick is a matter of association with objects that are made to astound by technical proficiency or unique seductiveness. Perhaps the trick lies in a high profile life-style and a great deal of networking. In this way the works might be considered a form of seductive expression, albeit the seduction occurs off canvas, in a lifestyle that possession or viewing of the object will allow a person to partake in. Perhaps it is thought that it is worth $2 million to be associated with the frivolities of Andy Warhol. Whatever the trickery there is always an X, even the attractiveness of the lifestyle of Warhol was centred around that X of artistic merit.

This X could be considered in light of the notion that art has something to do with truth. Truth in the sense of absolutely convincing. Not in the sense of ‘scientific consensus’ but in the sense that there is no criticism because there is no criticism. It is truth in the sense of truth being equal to beauty, infallible and universally recognised.

Works such as Warhol’s fit into this but they seem to do so in a way that eliminates their distinction from any other object. In Warhol this quality lies in the equation of the commodity with the artwork. It is an equation that might be considered a demonstration that such truth is realised as something more like an attitude of the viewer than a quality of an object. His work therefore is also a demonstration of the superfluity of the art object.

A brief history of art is perhaps called for in order to explain this.
One might consider medieval art as being a reflection of truth in so far as truth is revealed in the acts of God. Acts manifest in such miracles as the birth and life of Christ. Hence the works of the middle ages were reflective of truth in so far as they reflected it as revealed by God and transmitted via the church and tradition in the form of some sort of apprenticeship in a craft. Hence order and religious scenes ruled the day.

But then it was noticed that that was not in fact true. The world did not reflect the order that God had ordained and that the church passed on and faithfulness to truth demanded that that be faced up to. Hence there are then works such as Goya’s The Family of Charles IV, a work in which the order of the royal household was depicted far more accurately.

The king, rather than noble and strong appears cautious and distracted. Those around him, rather than being dutiful subjects gaze about here and there, one woman with a child, possibly a nurse, is obviously far from happy to be present. The Queen, reputed to be of the adulterous type, is depicted as looking rather strong-minded, as the polite would put it. The portrait is a portrait of people posing for a portrait, people with interests and characters outside proscribed orders.

The next event might be described as the realisation that the artist cannot be the final arbitrator of truth. It was the realisation that what was depicted by Goya was his interpretation of the family of Charles IV. It was the realisation that there is nothing to prevent us suggesting that the rumours that seem to be reflected in the portrait were not, in fact, creations of Goya’s own mind. Truth in art, one might then say, lies only in the recognition of the fallibility of our own particular ways of looking at the world. That is, art only has a relation to truth, in the sense mentioned above, in so far as it is self-reflective of its own limitations.

This is what is given expression in the works of Warhol. Perhaps most poignantly however it was given expression in Duchamp’s placement of a urinal in a gallery. Removed from the public toilet where it served its function it became an art object once placed in a gallery (where it was no longer used). The taking of any object and placing it in a museum realises a connection between an object and truth. That truth is the truth of the objects value, the fact that its identity is entirely circumstantial.

Truth adheres to these works in so far as they are efforts to eliminate the author and thus draw attention to how they are constituted by circumstances. It is by their negativity, their nothingness, that we are pushed away from them and discover the infallible truth that the origin of their meaning is but social circumstance.

This history is a way of describing the ways of thinking about art as art. It is a description of the ways of approaching the quality that adheres to those objects called art objects that is not about craftsmanship or seductiveness but is only about art itself. It is a way of describing the ways we understand the beautiful, the expression of an infallible truth.
We still see artists creating works that refer to an order laid out as truth. And in works that border on journalism or seek to play the Jerry Seinfeld observational trick of ‘did you ever notice…’ we see works of art that try and represent the reality of a situation, the truth of a situation.

Yet in both these cases the claim to truth is undermined. It is a provisional truth that they put forward not the unassailable truth that we are looking for. In a sense they can be reduced back to the qualities of craftsmanship and seduction for it is only insofar as they are seen as attractive that they are bolstered with the proclamation that they are true.

The only irresistibly true works are those of people like Warhol and Duchamp and this is the case only insofar as these works undermine themselves as works of art. It is only insofar as they direct us away from themselves and towards the circumstances that constitute their meaning that they are beautiful bearers of truth. They are infallible in the sense that what they are strikes everyone. It might be ignored or reacted against but it remains a fact that we always turn away from these objects.

The discovery that such artists bring with them is that any object is in fact capable of this. The discovery is that the specifically artistic adheres to no object but is a quality of a person’s approach to an object.

Problems such as those encountered with the Warhol Foundation are a result of this discovery being pushed aside by the art world. The motivation for this is surely that the consequence of its recognition is that the entire art world, that is the industry that looks at works for a specific artistic quality, can no longer be. By demonstrating how art is a quality of thought and not of an object no object can claim special status as artistic.

The history of art as displayed in galleries may have a purpose in educating people about this fact, the same with variations and repetitions of the work of Warhol and Duchamp. These works and that history may be useful for teaching people about being open to such beauty and accommodating them to the peculiarities of the circumstances of their locality. But any other object would be of equivalent usefulness, the substance of the task here is pedagogical, the presence or absence of ‘artistic’ objects is irrelevant.

A child that succeeds in such education at 5 or 6 should be highly commended but to suggest anybody deserves anything beyond a teachers wage for making the demonstration as a profession seems absurd. If such openness to thought about objects, to the realisation of their social constructedness, is not taught by grade 10 we should consider something to be quite amiss in the schooling system. Equally absurd as gross over valuation of certain teachers is elevation of the other approaches to the distinctly artistic.

To suggest that somebody’s observations and perspective upon the world is to be valued more than another’s by the term art is ridiculous. Everybody is a beautiful and unique snowflake. One person’s suggestion that the body and machines are in many ways indistinct, for instance, has no especially relevance over any other observation, no matter how banal.

It is true that such works do have a merit beyond the seductiveness and craftsmanship that they entail. The presentation of other opinions serves to make people aware of them. Bill Henson’s controversial work of a couple of years ago makes us aware that even though we as a society have banned sexual engagement with children they can be viewed erotically. However trite such observations may seem they do have some value, it is the value we see in freedom of speech.

Nevertheless, this is an educative or communicative value not an artistic one. It is about informing people about the desires of others. Any opinion, from any unique and beautiful snowflake, can do this. To merit one, such as Bill Henson’s as especially important, over anybody else’s by associating it with Art should be resisted.

When it is suggested that the pointing out of social issues is the speciality of the artist all that occurs is the robbery of the democratic citizen. It is robbery in the sense that the opinion stating of art is valued higher than the opinion stating of that that is not art. It is also robbery in the sense that the fate of so many such works of opinion is to be shut away in the basement of some investor to await for an increase in value, the world in this case is robbed of an opinion to learn of.

And of course to suggest that works that try and assert that the world can be understood as a closed order should be praised is something that just seems unconscionable. Unconscionable since the truth of such assertions is only reliant upon the ability of its adherents to exercise violence in order to either eliminate or cover up that which challenges that order.

Despite Duchamp and Warhol art remains. Value is attributed to objects simply by virtue of that label. A value that goes beyond a work’s seductiveness and the qualities of craftsmanship. A value that goes beyond a work’s educative or political qualities or even its status as an antique. Galleries continue to buy new products and claim they have a special place in the world specifically as art. Art collectors buy art because they hope that some value attributed to that object is specifically artistic. Artists are paid to be artistic. Why?

Perhaps the great artistic task of this century, a task associated with truth, is actually a political one. A political project that could be described as an effort to procure a public warning campaign against the hucksterism of art.

The aim would be to have broadcast a warning to the population. It would state: there are some that go around trying to make money by suggesting that some objects have something called artistic merit, a value that goes beyond the craftsmanship and seductiveness, or any other use value, of a particular object.

Such a broadcast would continue in this way: although people are free to participate in these shenanigans they must be aware that the value of art as art is nill. There is a long history of art institutions suggesting some objects have a closer relationship to truth than others, this is a falsity artistic institutions sometimes use in order to increase sales. Each object of the world has exactly the same relationship to truth as any other. An objects relation to truth is entirely in the eye of the beholder, in the realisation of the particularity of that object. Buy beware.

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About barkingcoins
This author is just another fucking dickhead.

One Response to Art is Theft

  1. Pingback: Banning Super Art: A step in the right direction « Barking Coins

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