The ghosts of 1913 were trotted out yet again in response to a recent, spectacularly provoking episode of 60 Minutes entitled, “Yet, but is it Art?” On the program (broadcast in September), Morely Safer spent 20 rather vidiotic minutes suggesting that much of what passes as contemporary art is hyped-up junk. “Watching Morely Safer,” responded Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, “I felt transported in time. To the year 1913, to be precise, the year the Armory show introduced European modernism to a largely baffled American public.”
The tone of Kimmelman’s article was not merely dismissive; it was, like one by Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice, surprisingly anxious and defensive. ”No one who genuinely cares about art and esthetics can feel anything but alarm while watching lampoons like the one broadcast into 17 million households the other night,” continued Kimmelman. “Will populist rage overcome the middle class’s deference to educated expertise?”, worried Schjeldahl, “It could have been the whiff of that possibility that stunned many of us as we watched Safer’s lovable-curmudgeon turn.”
This was more than a case of simply responding to a routine, know-noting attack on the avant-garde. Something in Safer’s piece seems to threaten art world insiders as no other critique has done since Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, published in 1975; Safer himself says that he was expecting to ruffle feathers, but not to get an “explosion.”
All this in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it) that Safer’s piece, judging from a printed transcript and brief video clips, was hardly a statement for the ages. Using a contemporary art auction at Sothebys as his centerpiece, Safer chose to focus on easy targets like a painting y Chris Wool with the word “Rat” repeated three times that sold for $30,000, or a Jeff Koons sculpture with three basketballs in a fish tank that fetched $150,000. Koons himself makes an appearance, talking about the basketballs in water as an “ultimate state of being,” and a “definition of life and death.” A “major New York collector” is shown with her Robert Gober urinals, saying, “They look like urinals, but they really aren’t.” Safer even stoops to the ultimate, “I know what I like “put-down; he interviews a teenager at the Whitney Museum’s Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective saying that he could do it better. (David Ross, Whitney director, later responded, “Great! The kid understood!” Meaning, I suppose, “He’s an artist, too!)
It’s not that Safer is unsophisticated or malicious; far from it. But he is working in a medium that enshrines the quick hit and the sound bite and discourages anything approaching “reasoned discourse.” He includes nothing of what is good in contemporary – say the Beckmans or the Gillespies – and nothing to suggest the history that might lead a serious (if misguided) painter like Robert Ryman to create paintings which are merely white rectangles on a white field.
But I have even less sympathy for his critics. Kimmelman bemoans the loss of credibility of contemporary art compared to the glory years of the ‘50s when it had the “guaranteed protection of the mainstream”; Schjeldahl defends Koon’s basketballs as a “cunningly decadent bauble,” and attacks “liberals with free-floating loathing looking for safe places to dump it (i.e. Mr. Safer).
What’s really going on here is the fact that establishment art professionals are being put in an increasingly tenuous position. Though museum attendance continues to rise, the amount of money spent collecting modern art does not. As Kimmelman suggests, corporate and media patronage of the avant-garde is on the wane. It has been years since mainstream magazines had an art movement to celebrate (both Ab Ex and Pop were big media hits), and as has been recounted previously in these pages, there has been nearly unanimous condemnation of recent major survey shows like the Venice and Whitney Biennials, usually occasions for art world self-congratulations and hype.
In this uncertain atmosphere, Safer’s skillful manipulations of lingering suspicions regarding modern art must seem particularly threatening. Kimmelman wonders aloud if the art world hasn’t gone wrong somewhere; perhaps it’s the bad writing in art magazines, he wonders; perhaps it was those big bad shows.
As a further follow-up to 60 Minutes, a New York talk show convened a stellar assembly of art-world luminaries at the end of October to debate Mr. Safe. The guests were museum director Ross, artist Jenny Holtzer, critic Arthur Danto. The hurt of these insiders is palpable; their argument resurrects yet again the ghosts of 1913. When a slide of a De Kooning is shown, Ross cannot resist saying, “They thought it was garbage at the time – now it’s a classic.” Safer gets on a few useful words in edgewise (he admits to like Christo and Stella), otherwise he is castigated for lack of balance and having too narrow a “comfort zone.”
I found the last few statements the most illuminating. In response to Safe insisting that good art can speak for itself, Danto replies that “you can’t just look at the objects. You have to work at it. You have to read.” And a moment later, Jenny Holtzer turns to the audience and says beseechingly, “People will need to forget that (Morley Safer) said to enjoy the work.”
Tom Wolfe was right. Modern art is borderline; take away the theory, the money, and the media (or suggest the emperor is nude) and the whole damn thing can start tottering, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in a storm. “You are stuck in the muck of decrepit modernism,” says Safer to Kimmelman. “We are the healthy subversives here.”