seeing out loud

When Did the Art World Get So Conservative?

Photo: @jerrysaltz

First and foremost, the art world is a place that says it wants people to be free. This extraordinary openness is what gives art its ever-changing adaptable agency. Or gave.

Flexibility is life, but lately I keep thinking that the art world has gotten a lot less flexible, and the freedom that I’ve always thought of as completely foundational — freedom to let our freak flags fly and express ourselves, even bizarrely — has constricted considerably. And it’s happening at such mutated and extreme rates that we must ask if the art world is not now one of the more self-policing areas of contemporary culture. How did we come to live in an insular tribal sphere where unwritten rules and rigid moralities — about whom to like and dislike, what is permissible to say and what must remain unsaid — are strictly enforced via social media and online disapproval, much of it anonymous? When did this band of gypsies and relentless radicals get so conservative?

Perhaps the art world is just enacting its own micro versions of the kind of flash fires that swirl around mass-cultural figures, politicians, and pop stars, transforming every public gesture, tweet, selfie, or silly picture into a contested act of identity-politics war. (Sex activist Dan Savage calls each of them a “tempest in a privilege pot.”) The weirdest part is that it all feels strangely familiar, very déjà vu. And pervasive. The sad part is that the art world has always been the place I’d run away from all that bullshit to.

Or maybe it’s me. Because, to be fair, a lot of this tempestuousness has been happening around moi. And not just after I was on a Bravo reality-TV game show about art for two seasons a few years back and was told I was “destroying art.” (From the looks of things, art muddled by.) I know I can come off like an irksome clown and have a lot of public media platforms, but over the last year the accusatory hyperbole has gone into hyperdrive, with parts of the art world now acting like purity police, little Napoleons and Savonarolas purging perceived injustices, bad actors, and evil from our insular ranks. Loudly. Insultingly. Often.

A handful of cases in point, all from the last year (and not including being trashed for daring to call Trayvon Martin shooter George Zimmerman “psychotic” on CNN or not hating George W. Bush’s thrift-store paintings). When I wrote that I didn’t like phenom Oscar Murillo’s gallery-filling David Zwirner chocolate factory, it was said on Twitter that I had “a brown problem”; others threw the word racist around. When I loved Kara Walker’s large sugar sphinx in Brooklyn and wrote that I thought the sculpture should be made into a great float and pulled across the country as a reminder of America’s original sin of slavery, I was said to be “disrespecting” Walker. Amazingly, these comments didn’t stop after Walker herself wrote on Facebook, “I like what Jerry Saltz wrote.” No matter. I was now a “certified racist.”

Since then, I’ve become “sexist,” an “abuser of women,” and a “pervert” for posting on Facebook a graphic picture of a woman’s thrashed behind. The photo was a self-portrait from one of my Twitter friends’ feeds. It’d been posted proudly by her. No matter. I got scores of Facebook messages from horrified “friends,” and tweets like, “What was Jerry Saltz thinking!” People stormed off the internet in disgust; letters were written to my editor demanding that I step down and asking me to “explain myself.” The strange thing was that I’d already posted dozens of similar and in fact far more graphic images on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — images from medieval illuminated manuscripts featuring men being castrated, tortured, and set upon by demons, each posted with some idiotic caption like, “This is what art critics do to bad artists.” These images delighted everybody (or seemed to). But when I switched the gender of the “victim” (now female) and the medium (now photography), all hell broke loose, and the decency police descended. I’ve never said I have good judgment or that my id is pure. But I’d hate to think what these people would say about Humbert Humbert or Raskolnikov. Still, I couldn’t help notice that the next week, when I posted a more explicit image of a rape, hundreds of people on my Facebook “liked” the picture (and over 2,500 on Instagram). It was a detail of a Bernini sculpture. Medium counts. And so does Facebook, apparently (of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Facebook is by far the most conservative).

That medium thing reared its head again a few weeks ago, when I wrote about Richard Prince’s Instagram paintings at Larry Gagosian. And didn’t call them “prints.” (The same stupid argument flared when I called Wade Guyton’s work “paintings” and not “prints.” Oh, art-world formalist dogma.) Beyond that, there were thousand-comment threads on Facebook tearing me a new one, calling me “sexist” and “fawning” for liking Prince’s work and not decrying it as “sexist.” A large number of the commenters are contemptuous of me being 63 years old, or, rather, “an old man” and “ancient.” In a post headlined “Richard Prince Sucks,” blogger Paddy Johnson opined that my Prince article “really annoyed me” (now, there’s some good art criticism) because I’d found “Prince’s blatant sexism worth championing.” I was championing sexism? Funny, I thought I was trying to make a case for the work (and in doing so, compared him several times to Nabokov’s pedophile). Finally, when I wrote a few weeks ago that Chris Ofili’s paintings had “the lateral waggle of a swaggering pimp,” I was again called a racist. One of the canvases I was talking about was called Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy.

Of course, my wife, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, is right to quote Virginia Woolf: “I’m to write what I like; and they’re to say what they like.” But this isn’t just happening to me, and it isn’t just happening to critics. I see artists being subjected to this, too. When a Carroll Dunham painting of a nude bather was posted on Facebook, Dunham was branded “a pedophile.” And for his Instagram paintings, Prince was called far worse names than I was. There was a huge uproar at the Whitney Biennial in response to work by a white male artist (Joe Scanlan) featuring a fictional black female artist (Donelle Woolford) played by black actresses (a project that has been ongoing since 2005). One artist collective actually withdrew from the Biennial in protest and was applauded for it. When Christopher Williams included a topless picture from advertising in his recent MoMA show, many in the art world wagged their fingers at the image as “sexist.” Artist Ann Collier had shown similar images before this, and nary a word was spoken. In January, artist Bjarne Melgaard was attacked by people in the art world as racist for a reprise of an iconic pop work, in this case, a black woman in the shape of a chair. All this is my way of saying that there’s enormous controversy going on around anyone deemed not to have one’s sexual and racial political papers totally in order, using the “proper” words and designations. And the decency police have an obsession with money, too; with very few exceptions, if an artist has any commercial success, the “values” of the artist are called into question. This from a BFA-ed and MFA-ed art world that, even at its almost-poorest, is often technically in the 5 percent.

Obviously, as a good little progressive humanist myself, I love holding people accountable for prejudice and bigotry. There is genuine progressive value in that, especially these days. This is why we have to address military and campus rape, laws restricting voting, the relationship of the police to people of color (in Ferguson and everywhere else), and dozens of other issues on which righteous indignation is a weapon. But when we’re treating works of art as ruthlessly and unsubtly as we would hate speech, is it political progress or aesthetic ignorance?

This is where the déjà vu comes in. The last time political rules were being enforced in this way was the culture wars of the early 1990s. Language was vigilantly policed; all politics were called into question; art had to be on the right side of the issue. Black artist Betye Saar attacked Kara Walker for her incendiary cutout silhouettes about the antebellum South. Painter John Currin was often excoriated for supposedly being a Republican — never mind that the majority of collectors that make progressive artists rich are said to be wealthy Republicans. (Klaus Biesenbach now regularly escorts Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendy to art-world affairs, where artists all chat her up.) If you didn’t make overtly political art, you were called frivolous and said “not to care.”

So, why this return to the political and cultural commandments of 20 years ago? Perhaps because now everyone has a voice and an opinion about every issue, and that voice, even if it’s alone, can sound loud; perhaps because, with a crisis of authority in media and politics, people are policing themselves and reverting to the last time the rules were known, agreed on, and enforced. This may also explain why so many early-1990s bands and musicians are being revived. For part of the culture, this is a return to their youth in the 1990s; for the other older part, it’s a return to the good, old days, when everyone knew what was right and wrong, what was allowed, and what wasn’t. But to me, this doesn’t look like separating right from wrong. It looks like we are eating our young.

When I wrote about that Ofili show, I started with the memory of the controversy surrounding Sensation’s arrival in New York, when half the city railed against this ornate painting by a black artist of a black woman. I said then that it was hard to believe how distant that time of political witch-hunting felt now, with the art world in such ascendance that no one would question its right to a home in this city. And yet, and yet. Now I realize that things aren’t so different — that we’re doing the same thing to ourselves in the name of better values, but with the same dogged close-mindedness that turns any human virtue alien and ugly. If there are only a handful of acceptable ways to express yourself, no one is really expressing themselves at all.

One of art’s great weapons is its bad taste — how something can seem ugly, wrong, or off but still help extend art. Art is for anyone; it just isn’t for everyone. And we have to stop acting as if it is something to be domesticated, proper, good. Oscar Wilde thought that art is amoral, something first for itself; sometimes, it’s something you cross the street to avoid. Sometimes art is Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” blatantly howling a barbaric yelp. Come what may. Operating within rules isn’t art. It’s about acceptance. Being good. Moreover, if we’re this bunkered in, what are we retreating from? What are we so afraid of? And why?

When Did the Art World Get So Conservative?