Culture Wars and Trophy Art

Jed Perl has written a provocative analysis of the contemporary art scene in The New Republic, zeroing in on what he calls the “trophy art” phenomenon embodied by the work of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and other creators of outsized and fabulously expensive installation pieces. According to Perl, this trend is not only over-commercializing art and ravaging museum spaces but also producing an enormous amount of overrated kitsch. He traces the problem back to the anti-aesthetics of the Dadaists, explaining that “the artists involved—beginning with Duchamp and including Rauschenberg, Warhol, Salle, and Koons—celebrate, or toy with, a number of apparently contradictory thoughts: that art is nothing; that art can be anything; that randomness and order are the same thing; that art has no particular place in the world; that art can be found anyplace in the world; that art is just another commercial product, like tennis balls and washing machines.”

As Arbiters of Style, we know that none of these things are true. Art (like style) doesn’t exist everywhere and can’t be created by everyone, or by machine—that’s it’s whole power and mystique, and that’s what makes judging it so damn fun. Snobbery can be grating, but it’s an essential part of the game. (And what gets us up in the morning.) Deep down, no one believes that aesthetic value is entirely subjective, relative, or egalitarian: even the sophomore philosophy major who wants to make that claim about high art will immediately get outraged if you place his favorite indie band on an equal musical footing with Celine Dion. And certainly the artists Perl mentions—even good old Andy—never believed as much either; if art is everywhere or nowhere or meaningless or purely commercial, why would they have worked so hard to achieve the shamanlike status of “artist,” and why would the public have conferred it on them? Rather, these artists trafficked (and continue to traffic) in a simple kind of irony—a parody of anti-aesthetic values, and of the culture that produces them—that can be fierce and dark and even shocking, but that gets exhausted pretty quickly.

Broadly speaking, then, we agree with Perl’s assessment. On the other hand, he indulges in some oversimplification himself, often unfairly lumping together Hirst, Koons, et al. without entertaining the possibility that distinctions exist among them. More importantly, he fails to consider serious counterarguments of the kind that true fans of the artists might make. You could contend, for example, that Koons’ giant puppies embody a spirit of total free play—the spirit that makes children start drawing and sculpting to begin with and that often gets completely obscured in “adult” works of art. (The dog sculptures are, not surprisingly, especially popular with children.) By highlighting this spirit and blowing it up to giant proportions, perhaps Koons’ best work transcends the merely kitschy or ironic. What do our readers think? Read the article, discuss, comment.

Update 6/24: For more commentary on the Perl article, check out Laurie Fendrich’s thoughtful article over at Brainstorm.

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