An earlier edit of this article was published by Maple Tree Literary Supplement.
issue #23 presents a correction of contemporary art by Miklos Legrady
Canadian Postmodern, a Cognitive Dissonance.
Like salt in your coffee, the #wetoo of art criticism.
It’s obvious that anyone criticizing the National Gallery of Canada or their current crop of curators and artists would look unreasonable. Objections seem absurd when an entire profession agreed on peer-reviewed norms, and we’d rightly be sceptical of claims the art world’s gone down the drain. (Who said that?) But only nine years ago the banking industry lost it over sub-prime loans; that global catastrophe reminds us that even conservative bankers make bad choices, and artists often wear the emperor’s new clothes.
What I do ask is my reader’s patience as I trash the status quo, in order to question well-known artists and curators praised nationwide; that question is credible, logical, and deserves a hearing. Derek Guthrie, publisher of London/Chicago’s New Art Examiner, warns that we must keep a vigilant eye, otherwise insider trading will determine success in this troubled art world. A glance at the panopticon suggests some Canadian curators and artists in influential positions are insider-trading and wrecking havoc. Have they risen high because they’re the best or the most aggressive?
Kitty Scott says no one knows what art is anymore, which sounds like we've lost our sense of judgment. Perhaps given it up in defeat at a postmodern paradox that says the less something looks like art, the more art it is… just as we wrongly believe that the more political and the louder it signals virtue, the more credible the art must be. In sad truth the more we deny common sense and instinct the more charlatans hold sway.
“So powerful is the impetus towards the collective fake that it is now an effective requirement of finalists for the Turner Prize in Britain to produce something that nobody would think was art unless they were told it was”, so Roger Scrutton writes in The Great Swindle. The dominance of the fake suggests a decadence in our time as bad as ancient Rome.
My published research includes a bioptic on Marcel Duchamp that confirms he often said the Readymade were never art, not even the urinal, which was not by Duchamp; Fountain is likely by Dada poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, also known for another plumbing work called God. In the Cabane interviews, Duchamp said the found objects, such as the bicycle wheel on a stool, were a past-time chosen because they could not have anything to do with art. This applies to all found objects; they are only found objects and nothing more, they're not art. You can now clear your archives and collections of all that trash from the town garbage dump! As a cautionary tale we also note Duchamp said he made painting intellectual... after which he stopped painting. For twenty years he poked at Étant donnés at as if trying to revive a lost relationship, but he made no more paintings after he made painting intellectual. We suffer from scholastic illiteracy and as we ignore history we surely repeat it.
When art is anything you can get away with, the worst you can get away with is always the best strategy, creating steps of degradation. We live in a time when the art world is corrupt, does not know it’s corrupt and denies that it is corrupt.
Academia relies on disproved theory and discredited ideas by Walter Benjamin, Duchamp, Lewitt, Buchloh and others. Yet closing an eye to cognitive dissonance, in the last 30 years artist-scholars embraced postmodernism, the excitement of denying logic, common sense, aesthetics and the nature of art. What madness is this?
Canadian artist Charles Stankievech is a National Gallery curator, a professor and department head of the University of Toronto Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, who tells us (in a 2016 Sobey Award youtube video) that the role of the artist is to draw several disciplines together over a large historical arc, to map things across disciplines in a way that allows us to look at the large picture.
That's not art, it's sociology: Stankievech just described a social scientist’s mission statement. Stankievech is a sociologist, a social architect, but he’s obviously not an artist. Unfortunately he diverts funding from art to sociology and teaches sociology to art students who imagine they're making art. Why does no one correct him? It is likely that those who should cannot follow this critique, for no one will take sides against their colleagues, their own career, or long held ideas even when those are obviously wrong. Sol Lewitt says everything we think and do is already art. This means there's no need for effort or vision, we're good to go, at which point identity politics take over the shell of what was once the discipline of fine art. Compare the danger to Canadian art posed by Charles Stankievech to the harm already done to photography by ICP curator Charles Desmarais, described at the end of this essay. Heed what the insensitive can do.
Andres Manniste, Montreal painter and Professor at Dawson college, remembers a studio visit with a 62 year old Jacques de Tonnancour who didn't want to talk painting insisting he was an entomologist. To make sense of this, science tells us art is very specific, it’s genetic, it’s biology. Art is not anything you can get away with; that's called a circus. Art is the semiotic language of sensory cognition and is tracked by a science that says art’s complex differentiations are crucial for evolution and mental health. It's only 30 years ago the negation of art was an exciting option that became the dominant mode. So what happens to mental health? When art legitimizes bullshit the public pays attention, believes it… and eventually votes for Donald Trump. Art influences culture, postmodern creates post truth. A delusion, in other words, but one embedded in academia. If so, what is art?
In the 1970s Abraham Moles and Frieder Nake analyzed links between beauty, information processing and information theory. Physicist Paul Dirac is quoted saying “if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress”. Denis Dutton was a philosophy professor and editor of Arts & Letters Daily. In The Art Instinct he suggested that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. “There is evidence that perceptions of beauty are evolutionarily determined, that things, aspects of people and landscapes that are considered beautiful are typically found in situations likely to give enhanced survival of the perceiving human's genes.”
A Postmodern Farmer in a Potemkin village
In Canada, unfortunately, beauty is scorned by the academic-curatorial complex and that’s why we can’t have nice things; will our genes survive? We answer that our curators promote artists cutting out paper dolls. This being the art world, their assistants cut out the paper dolls for them; the optics are terrible...
Surely not everyone’s assistants are allowed to sit on marble benches in the National Gallery of Canada lobby, cutting pictures from art books purchased minutes ago at the National Gallery bookstore. They’re probably dripping glue on the marble floors that visitor’s footprints will later track to exhibition rooms. Nor can any artist then take the elevator upstairs to sells those very same cut-out dolls back to the National Gallery for the price of prime real estate in downtown Toronto. In Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass we see exceptional people-skills; this artist gets along fabulously with curators, he’s in their comfort zone.
Except that’s not art, it's just pictures from art books glued to sticks, sold for a big bite of taxpayer's money. There is really nothing philosophical, nor creative, nor of any depth. The work at first looks impressive; it’s long with lots of pictures glued to sticks. But after looking closely at a few pics on stick we lose interest; it’s just a bunch of pictures glued to sticks. Leaves of Grass is a classical example of superficial art. We can only have a superficial view of it because there are no contingent relationships between the images, and while we expect that the work has deeper layers of meaning, a roving eye detects that it does not. How low we've fallen since Kitty Scott said no one knows what art is anymore!
In New York, Walter de Maria's Earth Room is a different kettle of fish. That's a potlatch, a massive spending on prime Manhattan real estate; a status symbol and pissing contest of how Castelli pays the highest rent then fills the rooms with dirt. The credit should go more to performance artist Leo Castelli who, in so doing, dispels any doubts clients may have at paying $135 million for a Warhol. Shock pays for itself.
Possibly the philosophy of Farmer's Leaves of Grass lies in the financial trap it creates much like a white elephant; perhaps it gains accrued financial value through the cost of restoration The sticks are brittle and break, the Styrofoam decomposes; this work needs ongoing expensive care by highly paid museum conservators. The cost of each restoration adds quite a bit to the value of the work, as the more invested in repairs the less the work can be neglected and the more money it will cost next year. This very expensive object may illustrate the cost of technical expertise that exists around institutional art, for other than being a financial black hole the work begs understanding.
It's true that making incomprehensible art is a postmodern strategy. And for that reason the public is quite right to question the National Gallery and the artist run centers as to why they keep promoting fake art instead of raising an eyebrow, if not a full face lift. It seems that right now, fake is in.
The National Gallery of Canada’s press release of another Farmer work, Trailer, proudly says that it's not a real trailer, it's a fake trailer. When they spend big money on a fake trailer, that's how you know it’s real art. Surely no one would pay that much money for a fake trailer that was fake art?
“Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling…” so Roger Scrutton writes for the BBC: “Anyone can lie. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but the fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member. Understanding this phenomenon is, it seems to me, integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted."
Potemkin was a Russian general who built façades of villages, cut-out pictures, fake fronts painted like wealthy peasant houses. This was to fool Catherine the Great as she rode by in her carriage, when she toured the country to see the nation’s wealth… and so large sums from the treasury went down Potemkin's pocket. Some Canadians are now waltzing the Potemkin, their paper dolls snipped by assistants paid minimum wage while the stars pocket handfuls of tax dollars; their façades then ‘enrich’ Canada’s status overseas, or so it seems to the simple-minded, when really it brings us the scorn of the illuminati. Raising the roof, tearing down a wall, placing a convenience store in a museum or recreating a beauty parlour in an art gallery, these are neither art nor original, they're just a horrible waste of art funding. The cloth woven on the Emperor’s loom unravels, even when we assent to deception... for lack of courage and a failure of responsible scholarship.
The National Gallery's marketing budget can raise a curator’s brand at institutional expense but it doesn’t do much for Canadian art even when “the trash had been declared art by experts”, as Dario Gamboni wrote in The Death of Art. Any curator can say that trash is art, for who dares question them? What if we insisted that trash is not art?
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347, 8). It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” Who will save Canadian art?
Canadian Art Magazines
It certainly will not be the editors of Canadian art magazines who rejected this article as unsuitable, and of no interest to their readers… many only print what drops from the psittacine cage. H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World described the papacy of Innocent III (1160-1216), which sounds a lot like a conference of Canadian art rag editors.
“And it was just because many of them doubted secretly of the entire soundness of their vast and elaborate doctrinal fabric that they would brook no discussion of it. They were intolerant of questions or dissent, not because they were sure of their faith, but because they were not.”
In Michel’s Foucault’s view, all discourse gains acceptance by expressing, fortifying and concealing the power of those who maintain it; and those who, from time to time, perceive this fact are invariably dismissed as fools or locked away as mad — a fate Foucault himself unaccountably avoided. Danielle S. McLaughlin of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says that when we can no longer explore and express ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, we are limited to approved doses of information in community-sanctioned packets.
With that in mind Contemporary Calgary hosted a community-sanctioned packet titled “Never the Same: what (else) can art writing do?” The panellists, as expected, were the usual suspects predictably saying what’s expected of them (what else?), pious editors who abhor controversy while claiming the mantle. Their writers, we’re told, are “risk-takers, art historians, popular voices, and truth-seekers”. They’re pretending to be me? Not a chance! Give me a break; what they really do is abuse and obscure academic jargon in exchange for a horse’s feedbag! One celestial journal speaks Mumble, that obtuse language with long words; it’s good for avoiding ruffled feathers by saying very little in a serious way while praising the hand that feeds you.
Another Canadian art magazine seems desperate to signal virtue, even to drown in virtue on a coy note; they print unverified and highly biased political tales, evidently false, arguably nonsense, believing it helps their brand to look politically correct (as if). With their highly educated crop of editors and their risk-takers, art historians, popular voices, and truth-seekers blinded by jargon, peer pressure and tunnel vision, most Canadian art magazines are irrelevant in spite or because of their academic argot. Again, exceptions prove the rule; some like Hamilton Arts & Letters occasionally break the mold, Blackflash keeps an open mind, and YYZ Artists’ Outlet is courting controversy in their upcoming Decenter Redux II. Disclosure; it includes an essay of mine.
Nor am I heartless, indeed I’m moved to tears by Contemporary Calgary’s (predictable) cry for help; “what (else) can art writing do?” The answer is that if you’re reading this you’re on the right track. Yes that's funny... it's also true; what (else) can art writing do?
Margaret Heffernan in “Dare to disagree” insists on the importance of speaking out. “The fact is that most of our biggest catastrophes rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to, because we don’t want to handle the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.”
Luis Jacob at TPW
In Toronto, Luis Jacob’s assistant also cut pictures from art books just like Geoffrey Farmer's assistants. But instead of gluing them to sticks, they frame them and hang them without further explanation in order to destabilize your viewing conventions. Luis will later destabilize the budget of the A.G.O. or the National Gallery by selling them these cut-outs for an obscene sum; curators were already at the opening sniffing the burnt offering... after all these are pictures cut from art books! Destabilizing is this year’s word at the National Gallery, they use it till it wanes superficial, a cliché. Jacob has a budget for writers to explain why you were destabilized once again (yawn) … as if 40 years of destabilizing weren’t enough… please… can’t you just give it up... won’t you just let it go? These strategies provide Jacob with a now unstable audience who are fed their own ignorance as humble pie, followed by a hefty dinner bill. Are we that ignorant? Have we really sunk to the level that cut out pictures are our highest cultural achievement? These days, that's already a high achievement; when skill is no longer a requirement for artists then everyone stays a beginner.
Luis is a high-earning artist and a salaried professor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, (he was hired by Charles Stankievech), and he's also a well paid curator at the National Gallery of Canada…so none would dare question his OCADU lecture fee for an evening titled “What’s Your Disruption?” Actually a bourgeois grasp at street credibility, a real disruption would be horrid unless he was disrupting others. Yet Jacob as a curator should appreciate my article; this is parrhesia, one hot disruption of Canadian art history right here on the Akimbo cultural platform. But I’m humane, I don’t want to hurt his feelings; I didn't disrupt his evening at OCADU or TPW, I didn’t rain on his parade, nor did I make him cry at his party even if he wanted to, but enough!
Since Jacob vacuums up artist and speaker fees, we are grateful his own time is not wasted even as he wastes ours. Did Hans Haacke return to map out this art system? To expose a postmodern insider-art trading strategy is a real disruption, an example to learn from and to conjure with, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, chickens come home to roost. When artists and curators call for disruption they admire exactly this level of scholarly activism so any touchiness at my words is obviously misconstrued and surely inappropriate.
If you read anything he’s written you’ll know that Luis Jacob is a literary genius. I’m astonished how well he weaves ideas, themes, and metaphors in a beautiful tapestry of words and thoughts. His writing puts mine to shame and if he restricted himself to writing books I would buy every one to enjoy late at night by the fireplace. Unfortunately Luis Jacob writes exhibition proposals.
They persuade juries his work is something special when regretfully it is not; it’s his writing that’s special whereas Jacob’s art is juvenilia. As a teacher, theorist, curator, lecturer, networker, he is too busy to be a practicing artist when art is anything you can get away with, and if anyone gets away with it, it’s Jacob.
Some believe art is mostly the idea but they're wrong; only a narcissist would ask that when an artist has an idea we should gape in admiration! Art is about work, as in a work of art. Surely if he locked himself in the studio for a year like performance artist Tehching Hsieh, Luis Jacob might produce amazing work, and we’re deeply troubled he doesn’t have the time, like so many contemporary artists too busy for the required hours of studio practice. It’s telling that professional musicians don’t have that luxury. Canadian art is post-truth, postmodern, and post mortem… but technically once you’re outed you can’t go back into the closet.
This curating by low self-esteem must stop. When pictures are cut from art books it’s not a viewing convention that’s destabilized but the public’s faith in whoever jerks their leash. Just what’s wrong with our viewing conventions that a superficial trope is seen as the cure? Conceptual art is about the idea; the idea here turns the tables on an audience expecting sublime art; the idea is to shame them as a gullible public for their old-fashioned expectations. Insulting your audience earns their respect, as do lectures on how important this work would be… if we but knew what it meant.
Luis belongs to literature; he should write books. Following Lucian Freud’s dictum, Luis Jacob should act like a gentleman and leave art alone.
Postmodernism unveiled, exposed, revealed
So where is the art? Postmodernism’s about denying our expectations of art; the counter-aesthetic mode is a seemingly brilliant repudiation of our instincts. Note that cut-out pictures and broken sticks will never be art; to claim them as such looks like a clever and extreme postmodern strategy, which it would be if everyone wasn’t following the same trend. Conceptualists forget that when deceits are normalized it destabilizes the system and when the system’s destabilized it is dysfunctional, and then “nobody knows what art is anymore” as our curator wrote from the rabbit hole… not the best location to write from.
Lacking checks and balances to the Canadian curatorial system, this small flock of fakes who are monopolizing Ottawa will entrench themselves, prosper financially, and influence art’s narrative for a long time. In Canada art is a tight network that ensures funding goes to... those who deserve it. With this group's finger on the pulse of Canadian art funding, we’re looking at Fake Art dominating the Canadian landscape for decades to come. It's as if Trump ran the arts in Canada, while Peter Doigts are squeezed out of the country. We’ll be looking at beds inside a gallery, at metal fences inside a gallery, broken sticks inside a gallery, at rows of lights inside a gallery, at beauty parlours inside a gallery, at shopping carts inside a gallery, at cut out pictures inside a gallery, at blank canvasses inside a gallery, and every commonplace idea by derivative artists whose thinking stops at putting a found object in a museum.
Marcel Duchamp said the Readymade and such found objects were never art. In Duchamp’s words the Readymade was a mirage exposing those foolish enough to think it was the real deal. This suggests Farmer’s and Jacob’s projects lack legitimacy; based on historical illiteracy, they make no sense except as predation. Everyone loses when scarce resources are thrown at clever attempts to be tedious, boring to all but the players themselves who perversely insist it’s exciting... You have been warned. Beware! Be very beware!
Rumors Around Town
Our critique of postmodernity now looks at a suburban university gallery curator rubbernecking her artistic side when she teams with a South American artist for a joint show at her own gallery; such ethics raise eyebrows. No word how artist fees were allocated (eyebrows again, doesn't one get fired for that?)... but the budget had a carpenter build shelves inside the gallery and then… wait for it…. they had the exact same carpenter build the exact same shelves in the hallway outside the exact same gallery! (At the same height too!) What’s not to love? I’m hysterical! (Honest!)
Blake Gopnik’s blog mentions a better known Hispanic artist who did that exact same show in New York a few years ago and it was terribly boring. How exciting! Who copied whom? We all channel our inner artist but some have the sensitivity of a steel bat hitting a brick wall. Others fancy that being an artist needs neither talent, vision, skill, the idea is all. We all have ideas but few have creativity and inspiration; lacking both you can cause some serious harm.
Charles Desmarais was an influential curator during the 1990s at New York’s ICP, the International Centre of Photography. Later on, the San Francisco Art Institute Board of Trustees appointed Charles Desmarais school President, proof that while incompetence does gets promoted upward, the worst cases rise directly to the top. Charles Desmarais’ scorn for creativity and frigid disdain for aesthetics meant that over thirty years under his watch photography was degraded to a tool whose main purpose is documentation. When postmodernity denies visionary aesthetics, photography is no longer art but a lens-based practice. We lost a lot of beautiful photographs, so many Grand Central Terminal 1930 by Hal Morey that were never born.
Another curator writes “since no one knows what art is anymore, it makes a curator’s job so much harder”. A fortuitous confession, I was, like… Facepalm! If you don’t know what art is, why don’t you just ask? You’re a top tier curator at a top institution; someone there should know… oh… unless you’re right… maybe no one does. Such laxity isn’t amusing; it’s an irresponsible failure, a crack running through the entire academic-curatorial network, badly in need of a fix. In every other profession they know what they are doing.
Philip Monk is proud that he brought French semiotic theory to Canadian art in the 1980s. Robert Storr, curator at MOMA and now Dean of Fine Arts at Yale, says that he doesn’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt School in contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody. Tough call? Psychologist Carl G. Jung suggest the intellect lacks the grasp of subconscious depths, meanwhile Duchamp's case proved that an intellectual approach blocks inspiration; never ask a millipede which leg goes first. When I apply for a grant all you guys mentioned here better recuse yourself! Oh... there'll be no jury members left? That is corruption indeed.
“The corruption that infects the art world is not one of the heart, but one of control. The liberal condition has become one that hides decision making and takes constructive criticism as an attack”, as per Daniel Nanavati, European Editor of Chicago’s New Art Examiner. When there’s no place left for constructive criticism, then comes the storm.
They claim art has a wide compass, the entity contains both the theatre and its double, which is non-art. Non-art is the new exciting thing as it’s fast, requires neither skill, training, nor effort… how more popular can you get? Non-art conquered academia so now a large number of people who consider themselves artist or curators are neither; they’re esoteric priest in a popular cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from true medicine. Today’s professional art world is further from art and closer to the Delphic cult, spread throughout the Mediterranean, that revolved around the Greek oracle.
Oxford’s professor A.J. Ayers writes in Language, Truth, and Logic “the criterion we use to test the genuineness of statements is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person if, and only if they know how to verify the proposition it purports to express”. Lacking that a curator’s job is harder; you’re supposed to know what art is. All the money spent on cut-out pictures and broken sticks; it used to be trash, now it’s art, only the curator knows what’s what? Meanwhile others paint on cardboard lacking canvas, they eat cake for lack of bread.
Beware, Be Very Beware! (prequel to a French revolution)
Heed the call for change when peasants gather with pitchforks and torches, deadly art critique, or mustard and ketchup. Once upon a time art meant a succulent roast chicken with salad, a French baguette, a glass of red wine. The Emperor’s new clothiers replaced that with cut-out pictures, Styrofoam, and a glass of disruption. It saves money they said; you’d be surprised how few notice they said. People noticed. When a pinch of cayenne is added to food the zest is unmistakable but when cayenne is the main course the cook has clearly gone insane; there are no checks to abuse of power on the high seas of Canadian art.
Our art stinks like a dead whale but as everyone feeds off the carcass, so no one dares to rock the boat. I’ve been asked why an artist would speak ill of others in our line of work, but a politic silence over time filled the room with the kind of elephant that no one will talk about. What sort of retaliation should we expect for whistle blowing? Few dare provoke the powerful but in a corrupt scenario a person who desires nothing is literally invincible; in any case there comes a time when a person puts personal loss or gain aside for a greater cause. Now you can see how the waters around you have grown, so you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changing.
comments to legrady(at)me.com
May 14, 2018
Thank you thank you thank you for your delicious rant! It’s gotten to the point of ridiculousness, not only, but especially in Canada. I’ve started leaving comments like “Huh? Really? You’ve GOT to be kidding!” in gallery comment books. Not that it will help. Just want to let them know some of us can see through this pathetic ruse of promoting and selling such numbing emptiness.
Keep writing! You do it well enough. Maybe The Globe would publish something like this? Shame on Canadian Art!
Abraham Moles, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Moles