Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The End of Art

The following is a synoptic introduction to Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

This book provides a brilliant and devastating diagnosis of what ails post-aesthetic or postmodern art: its failure to facilitate an aesthetic contemplative alternative to the “ugliness and injustice” of our social world (failing to realize that beauty is the ‘ultimate protest’ against ugliness); its constitutional inability to provide a “psychic space” that permits or encourages autonomy (wherein the ethical is inherent in aesthetics and beauty); its penchant for the tragicomic or farcical wherein the work of art, constructed by the would-be celebrity-artist, is merely a “psychosocial construction defined by its institutional identity, entertainment value, and commercial panache.”

Kuspit defines the “post-aesthetic” character of art as having abandoned the “heroic idea of the human potential of aesthetic experience,” which includes the “further[ing] [of] personal autonomy and critical freedom.” Postmodern “art” has become “consummately commercial,” causing the artist, the public, the patron and even the connoisseur to confuse or conflate commercial values with the spiritual values of art: “When commodity identity overtakes and subsumes aesthetic identity, so that an expensive work is uncritically accorded aesthetic significance, not to say spiritual value—they become everyday artifacts.” Postmodern art’s commercial value is linked to its role as entertainment: for the wealthy, who can afford its products, and the hoi polloi, whose consumption is passive, collective witness to the commercial spectacle and permitted vicarious association with the rich and famous aesthetes by way of “the museum,” an institution that serves as “an intellectual sarcophagus, as much as a physical museum.” Postmodern artists hanker after “an audience that will make them popular, giving them the celebrity and charisma they believe they are entitled to as artists.” Kuspit dares his readers to show him “the contemporary artist who would prefer to live from hand to mouth rather than fall into the hands of an art dealer.”

Kuspit laments “protest art” and art that is ostensibly “moral,” enlisting art in the service of “meliorative criticism and social advocacy” because it tends to “regard[] form as a kind of scaffolding for subject matter from which it can be proclaimed,” and “the artist tries to bully the spectator into believing what the artist believes,” all the while leaving matter more or less “aesthetically untransformed” and evidencing a “certain failure of creativity.” Protest artists (producers of what others call ‘agitprop’),

“fail to realize that beauty is the ultimate protest against ugliness, which why the absence of beauty in their works shows that they are not critical. They are in fact creative failures. Indeed, the inability to imagine beauty is a sign of the creative inadequacy of post-aesthetic art.”

By contrast, “traditional art reveals the qualities—dignity and empathy especially—that make us human. It is morally concerned, and often shows the moral siege in an immoral world.”

Kuspit’s stinging lament does not end in despair:

“The anti-aesthete, anti-imaginative, anti-unconscious seem to have destroyed the possibility of making an aesthetic masterpiece, but there are still artists who believe in the imaginative refinement, under the auspices of the unconscious, of raw social and physical material into aesthetically transcendent art.”

Image: By Avigdor Arikha who, together with Lucian Freud, Kuspit christens “Deans of the New Old Master artists.”

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