Portrait of Barbara Rose. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
There is the argument that all art is political because, however abstract, it inevitably expresses the values of a given culture or social class. Before the 19th century, artists understood they were being paid to create propaganda for the church, the state, or powerful figures that wished their images embellished and their status confirmed. All that changed when artists began making works that were not commissioned, leaving them free to be critical of the ruling class, its bloody wars and oppressive social practices. The price for this freedom, however, was marginalization, poverty, and in the more extreme cases, exile or incarceration. This is not a price contemporary Western “political” art has to pay, however, because it can be seamlessly absorbed into the existing institutions, including museums, commercial galleries, and auction houses where the work often ends up being bought by the same speculative interests it supposedly criticizes.
This painless integration into the cultural status quo is, moreover, the implicit objective of leading M.F.A. programs, which rather than developing “old fashioned” manual skills, teach budding artists how to thrive within this system. Thus the Whitney Biennial is but a step up from the Whitney Studio Program. This progression dovetails neatly with the obscurantist line of theoretical free association that dominates the academy, where 85 percent of art history doctoral degrees are in contemporary art. In currently fashionable critical studies programs where Google has replaced Schlosser, the ephemeral is given permanent status. In the digital world of proliferating dissertations, quoting each other’s footnotes on “institutional critique” and “relational aesthetics” is a sure path to success.
The bad faith of those who participate in this happy accommodation is cloaked in the rhetoric of criticality, as if what is being taught and produced is in any way opposed to the dominant values of the culture that welcomes toothless conceptual distractions as proof of deep philosophical questioning. Artists in search of winning formulae find ways of bottling this rarified Duchampian air de Paris. These “discourses” and “practices” encourage a public that aspires to hipness to collect conceptual expressions whose iconography is empty rhetoric.
Today there is no shame on the part of artists pandering to and celebrating the base and uneducated taste of their public. At the Metropolitan Museum an exhibition of Warhol’s followers ends in a gallery exalting art as business. Naturally it features Jeff Koons, king of kitsch, who does not bother to deny his adulation of the basest stupidity, vulgar bad taste, and crass materialism. Koons accomplishes Warhol’s definition of success, summarized by Andy, as “he wants his cake and eat it, too.” Warhol ingeniously turned the factory assembly line his immigrant proletarian father slaved on into a factory for making art that appealed to narcissism and the cult of celebrity into which American culture has degenerated. A genuine revolutionary, Warhol aimed to destroy bourgeois culture, an objective he appears to have realized given what he spawned.
There is no question Warhol was a genius, fusing subversive content with...