Friday, November 30, 2012

An Essay on the New Aesthetic

Bruce Sterling
I witnessed the New Aesthetic panel at South by Southwest 2012. It was a significant event and a good thing to see.

If you know nothing of the “New Aesthetic,” or if you have no idea what “SXSW” is, you should repair your ignorance right away. Go peruse this:


Now, I know full well that many people never returned from that link I placed up there. There was plenty going on over there to beguile them quite a while. I’m glad that they’re gone, because I intended, all along, to write a long, much-pondered essay for the rest of you. You, the people who marinate themselves in 5,000-word critical exegeses about contemporary aesthetics.

You people are either exceedingly determined blog-readers, or else you already know something about the New Aesthetic. Likely you’re as fretful about it as I am. Likely, you were part of that small elite physically there in that SXSW2012 audience, and hoping that you didn’t have to write this #sxaesthetic essay yourself.

You people already know who you are. So do I. Let’s cozy on up in here and get this over with.

Joanne McNeil of Rhizome was right when she said at SXSW that things like the New Aesthetic often happen. They do indeed happen, but we don’t see them around much, nowadays. The New Aesthetic is one thing among a kind: it’s like early photography for French Impressionists, or like silent film for Russian Constructivists, or like abstract-dynamics for Italian Futurists.

The New Aesthetic is image-processing for British media designers. That’s more or less what it is, and although it belongs to a small group of creatives right now, we have every reason to take it, and its prospects, seriously.

This is one of those moments when the art world sidles over toward a visual technology and tries to get all metaphysical. This is the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality. These things occur. They often take a while to blossom. Sometimes they’re as big and loud as Cubism, sometimes they perish like desert roses mostly unseen. But they always happen for good and sufficient reasons. Our own day has those good and sufficient reasons.

The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is. There are ways to make that stark, lava-covered ground artistically fertile and productive. Lush, humanistic, exotic crops will grow from that smoking, ashy techno-rubble of ours, someday. I live to think so. I’m all for that prospect. It’s exhilarating to see such things attempted, especially in a small auditorium before the straights catch on.

What’s more, I rather like the trend-line there. I’ve seen some attempts along this line before, but this one has muscle. The New Aesthetic is moving out of its original discovery phase, and into a evangelical, podium-pounding phase. If a pioneer village of visionary creatives is founded, and they start exporting some startling, newfangled imagery, like a Marcel Duchamp-style explosion-in-a-shingle-factory… Well, we’ll once again be living in heroic times!

I admired the way that panel behaved. Everyone participating in it (for the record, that was James Bridle, Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope, and Russell Davies) had a clear idea of what the concept meant and why it mattered to them. They were fully-briefed and they sounded plausible.
James Bridle is the master of that salon. James Bridle has never yet claimed to be the Andre Breton-style Pope of the New Aesthetic, but in practice, nobody ever asks the central questions of anybody else but him. So, Bridle’s the guru there. Fine. To be an art-guru is never an elective office. I was glad to see a volunteer for this public labor. He chaired the panel and he did a good job of it. That role suited his extensive talents. He should do more of that.

He has company. The New Aesthetic has the “scenius” of London’s Silicon Roundabout to support it. These people are working creatives of Bridle’s generation, with their networked tentacles sunk deep in interaction design, literature, fashion and architecture. They do have some strange ideas, but they can’t all be crazy. They are focussed and energetic, and some of them are getting famous fast. With the New Aesthetic, they’re coming up with something that looks more or less like a weltanschauung.

Not being British, I always like to spare the blushes of the British. I don’t believe that the New Aesthetic crowd, who are Britishly reticent and decent and all that, much wants to be branded as a significant avant-garde group. It must pain them to be praised for being important to us foreigners. Still, it makes some sense.

Where else would something like this emerge nowadays, if not London? London’s not so perky and dopey as it was in the miniskirted days of Mary Quant, but it’s still London. There are even technical aspects of London — like the relentless machine surveillance — that no other region can match.
If you wanted a creative movement whose logo is a Predator supported by glossy, multicolored toy balloons, London would be its natural launchpad.

Having established this, I must now try something more difficult. I must try to explain the New Aesthetic to a wondering mankind. Everybody who attempts this seems to hope and feel that the New Aesthetic must be a private solution to their own personal creative problems. Well, I myself don’t believe that. As a creative who mostly types a lot of words in a row, I have some other personal creative problems. I do think the New Aesthetic offers solutions to some of London’s modern problems. That would be a big deal in itself.

The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”
The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.

There are some good aspects to this modern situation, and there are some not so good ones.

Art movements used to be Left Bank café tables where disaffected creatives quarreled about headlines in newspapers. “Theory objects” from the Internet are squamous, crabgrass-like entities, where people huddle around swollen, unstable databases. We know more or less how analog art movements once behaved. We don’t yet know much at all about collectively-intelligent theory-object “shareable concepts,” whether they’re worth anything or can deliver anything. Maybe they will brilliantly synergize. Maybe they will ignobly crash. Maybe they’ll have the mayfly lifespans of their hardware support. Maybe they will become things even harder to describe than they are now.
First, some “good” aspects of the New Aesthetic.

Above all, the New Aesthetic is telling the truth. There truly are many forms of imagery nowadays that are modern, and unique to this period. We’re surrounded by systems, devices and machineries generating heaps of raw graphic novelty. We built them, we programmed them, we set them loose for a variety of motives, but they do some unexpected and provocative things.
Bridle’s collection of this material is huge. The evidence is impossible to refute. Anybody with a spark of perception who looks through this thing: must recognize that modern reality is on display there. What we think about that, or do about that, is another matter. That it exists is not in question.

Look at those images objectively. Scarcely one of the real things in there would have made any sense to anyone in 1982, or even in 1992. People of those times would not have known what they were seeing with those New Aesthetic images. It’s the news, and it’s the truth.

Next, the New Aesthetic is culturally agnostic. Most anybody with a net connection ought to be able to see the New Aesthetic transpiring in real time. It is British in origin (more specifically, it’s part and parcel of a region of London seething with creative atelier “tech houses”). However, it exists wherever there is satellite surveillance, locative mapping, smartphone photos, wifi coverage and Photoshop.

The New Aesthetic is comprehensible. It’s easier to perceive than, for instance, the “surrealism” of a fur-covered teacup. Your Mom could get it. It’s funny. It’s pop. It’s transgressive and punk. Parts of it are cute.

It’s also deep. If you want to get into arcane matters such as interaction design, computational aesthetics, covert surveillance, military tech, there’s a lot of room for that activity in the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic carries a severe, involved air of Pynchonian erudition.

It’s contemporary. It’s temporal rather than atemporal. Atemporality is all about cerebral, postulated, time-refuting design-fictions. Atemporality is for Zenlike gray-eminence historian-futurist types. The New Aesthetic is very hands-on, immediate, grainy and evidence-based. Its core is a catalogue of visible glitches in the here-and-now, for the here and for the now.

It requires close attention. If you want to engage with the New Aesthetic, then you must become involved with some contemporary, fast-moving technical phenomena. The New Aesthetic is inherently modish because it is ferociously attached to modish, passing objects and services that have short shelf-lives. There is no steampunk New Aesthetic and no remote-future New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic has no hyphen-post, hyphen-neo or hyphen-retro. They don’t go there, because that’s not what they want.

The New Aesthetic is constructive. Most New Aesthetic icons carry a subtext about getting excited and making something similar. The New Aesthetic doesn’t look, act, or feel postmodern. It’s not deconstructively analytical of a bourgeois order that’s been dead quite a while now. It’s built by and for working creatives.

It is generational. Most of the people in its network are too young to have been involved in postmodernity. The twentieth century’s Modernist Project is like their Greco-Roman antiquity. They want something of their own to happen, to be built, and to be seen on their networks. If that has little or nothing to do with their dusty analog heritage, so much the better for them.

So. These seem to me to be fine things. They’re not my own things, but I can see why they make good sense. They show promise. They have depth and breadth. They matter. They will have lasting consequence.

It’ll take a while for the New Aesthetic to go somewhere important, if it goes anywhere at all, but that’s all right. This decade of the teens already has a set character, it is crisis doomer gothic favela atemporal. The New Aesthetic isn’t like that, and doesn’t belong to that. It is a fresh and different thing. It’s an avant-garde, and it commonly takes years for society to recuperate an avant-garde. In 2012, premonitory blogposts; in 2022, solo shows and coffee-table books.

So we may anticipate. Now for some of the more troublesome aspects.

First, the New Aesthetic is a gaudy, network-assembled heap. It’s made of digitized jackstraws that were swept up by a generational sensibility. The products of a “collective intelligence” rarely make much coherent sense.

It was grand work to find and assemble this New Aesthetic wunderkammer, but a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview. Look at all of them: Information visualization. Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s.

These are the forms of imagery that Bridle’s collaborators have thrown over his transom. There’s lots, they’re all cool, and most are rather interesting, and some are even profound, but they don’t march together.

Those cats just don’t herd yet; that puzzle is still in its pieces. One can try to cluster them, in a vague ecumenical way, by saying, “This is how contemporary reality looks to our pals, the visionary machines.” But that’s not convincing. I recognize that this is an effective, poetic formulation, and I’m touched by that, but it’s problematic. When you abandon the feel-good aspect of collectively discovering new stuff together, and start getting rigorous and picky about what you’re actually perceiving, the New Aesthetic Easter eggs rather overflow their wicker basket.

Let’s critically nitpick a little, shall we? Dazzle camouflage has nothing to do with “machine vision.” Machines are incapable of a state of mind like “dazzle.” Camou is all about human vision.

Glitches and corruption artifacts aren’t “machine vision,” either. Those are the failures of machine processing, and failures of machine displays built for human vision.

Satellite views are not new, but as old as the Space Age. Locativity is rather new, but aerial views were championed by Marinetti as “aero-futurism” way back in the 1930s. Aero-Futurism failed quickly, because aerial pictures are visually boring. If aerial views weren’t boring, we’d all stare in fixed awe from the portholes of our big boring jetliners, and even New Aesthetic guys can’t bring themselves to do that.

“Render ghosts” are not “ghostly.” They are unlikely to provoke any Gothic shivers in anybody who’s ever seen clip-art.

Finally, retro ’80s graphics are sentimental fluff for modern adults who grew up in front of 1980s game-console machines. Eight-bit graphics are pretty easy to carve out of styrofoam. There’s a low barrier-to-entry in making sculpture from 8-bit, so that you can “rupture the interface between the digital and the physical.” However 8-bit sculptures are a cute, backward-looking rupture.
So, these are some critic-style aesthetic problems, although it’s old-fashioned to talk that way about an archive assembled from the Internet. Beefing about a Tumblr full of cool pix is like complaining that a logjam isn’t as neatly assembled as a dam.

However, dams accomplish purposes that logjams can’t accomplish. Because dams have purpose. Crowdsourced heaps of eye-candy are inherently low on purpose. Nobody ever writes art-history about big committees.

The problem I’m describing here is rather like the famous Walter Benjamin problem of “art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” As we all know nowadays, when those machines showed up, that aura went missing, somehow.

James Bridle obviously gets this, or he wouldn’t write manifestos about remaking electronic books so that they have some more Walter Benjamin aura. But Bridle is facing a new but related problem, which is native to our own time. It assails critics like Walter Benjamin, rather than Walter Benjamin’s hapless artists.

James Bridle is a Walter Benjamin critic in an “age of digital accumulation”. Bridle carries out a valiant cut-and-paste campaign that looks sorta like traditional criticism, but is actually blogging and tumblring. His New Aesthetic Tumblr bears the resemblance to thoughtful critique that mass production once did to handmade artifacts.

Now, this isn’t some personal James Bridle failing. Mr Bridle didn’t invent social media, any more than the industrial automation of atelier artwork was somehow the fault of Herr Walter Benjamin.
However, this is a pressing New Aesthetic problem, maybe the core problem at the root there. The bandwidth is available, the images are there, and the robots and digital devices get plenty of look-in. Where did the people go? Where is the aura, where is the credibility? Are robots with cameras supposed to have our credibility for us? They don’t.

We’re not going to be able to gloss over this gaping vacuity by “making the machines our friends.” Because they’re not our friends. Machines are never our friends, even if they’re intimates in our purses and pockets eighteen hours a day. They may very well be our algorithmic investors, but they’re certainly not our art critics, because at that, they suck even worse than they do at running our economy.

If machine vision was our pal, then we wouldn’t need James Bridle to assert that for us. We’d have a Bridlebot, a Googleized visual search-engine that could generate as much aesthetics as we want.

That won’t happen. Why not? Because it is impossible. It’s as impossible as Artificial Intelligence, which is a failed twentieth-century research campaign, reduced to a sci-fi conceit. That’s why the “New Aesthetic” isn’t about “robot vision” from “digital devices,” even when it claims that, as a rhetorical gesture to grant itself some aura.

The New Aesthetic isn’t a chromed android glistening with scifi robot-vision aura. The New Aesthetic is a rather old, and hearteningly traditional, story about a regional, generational cluster of creative people who are perceiving important stuff that other, older, and dumber people don’t get quite yet. It’s a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society. That’s what is going on.

We’re all supposed to think that an avant garde is impossible within postmodernity, so we don’t talk about it much nowadays; the very term “avant-garde” sounds musty and weird now, very old-fashioned future. However, time passes, and such things happen anyhow, because generations change and technologies change. Changes in personnel and the means of production will trump the formulations of an aging philosophy. These avant-gardes pretty much must happen, and there isn’t any honest way to fob this problem off onto some romanticized vision-bots. The bots are just not going to carry that water-bucket. There’s an Uncanny Valley there.

Anybody with Instructables can make a working robot nowadays. Nobody builds Turing-Tested machines that hang out in a really-interesting London atelier and talk and act like Alan Turing, only much artier. If you don’t believe me, try that. Build it, do it. Smarter, better-funded people than you have failed at that for sixty years. It’s a lure and a snare.

Sure, there are ruptures and crossovers there: bots, infomorphs, algorithms, autonomous Yankee illegal killer aircraft, and so forth — but aesthetics is not a place where they can thrive. They can’t do that any more than a drone can lay eggs.

James Bridle has said many times that he thinks that “New Aesthetic” is a problematic coinage, that it’s “rubbish.” However, rubbish is what appears when one is trying to hide out in the tall weeds instead of manfully sweeping the floors. The true problem with the New Aesthetic is that it truly is a new aesthetic. It has to become one, even if it doesn’t much want to be one.

“Aesthetics” are more that whatever gets splashed onto Cafe Press T-shirts this season. Aesthetics are by their nature metaphysical.

Aesthetics are, by definition, how beauty is perceived and valued in a human sensorium. Aesthetics is therefore an issue of metaphysics. Perception, beauty, judgment and value are all metaphysical issues.
Our human, aesthetic reaction to the imagery generated by our machines is our own human problem. We are the responsible parties there. We can program robots and digital devices to generate images and spew images at our eyeballs. We can’t legitimately ask them to tell us how to react to that.

I hasten to assure you that I’m not making lame vitalist claims that our human reactions are mystical, divine, immaterial, timeless or absolute in truth. I am merely stating, as a stark and demonstrable fact, that our machines have no such reactions. To rely on them to do that for us is fraudulent.

Hiding that aesthetic problem under a machinic fairy-tale is like hiding the political problems of the Internet by stating that it’s a Noosphere. That can be done. It’s undoubtably a cool thing to say: Teilhard de Chardin said that, and John Perry Barlow said it. A theologian, a poet and songwriter, cool guys, I love those guys, lots of them around. Critically speaking, that is rubbish. The New Aesthetic is gooey all over with noosphere sauce. It can’t go where it needs to go, unless it climbs out of that old rubbish patch. Over it, around it, through it, whatever it may take.

The New Aesthetic is a genuine aesthetic movement with a weak aesthetic metaphysics. It’s sticky with bogus lyricism.

I will hammer that iron nail a bit more, in case you aren’t getting it yet. Because this is the older generation’s crippling hangup with their alleged “thinking machines.” When computers first shoved their way into analog reality, they came surrounded by a host of poetic metaphors. Cybernetic devices were clearly much more than mere motors and engines, so they were anthropomorphized and described as having “thought,” “memory,” and nowadays “sight” and “hearing.” Those metaphors are deceptive. These are the mental chains of the old aesthetic, these are the iron bars of oppression we cannot see.

Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.

Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any. Tossing in more software and interactivity, so that they’re even jumpier and more apparently lively, that doesn’t help.

It’s not their fault. They are not moral actors and they are incapable of faults. It’s our fault for pretending otherwise, for fooling ourselves, for projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built, that are very interesting to us, but not at all like us. We can’t give them those qualities of ours, no matter how hard we try.

Pretending otherwise is like making Super Mario the best man at your wedding. No matter how much time you spend with dear old Super Mario, he is going to disappoint in that role you chose for him. You need to let Super Mario be super in the ways that Mario is actually more-or-less super. Those are plentiful. And getting more so. These are the parts that require attention, while the AI mythos must be let go.

The New Aesthetic dusts off the Turing Test in a new Super Mario robot-vision guise, but it can’t get away with that attention-compelling metaphysical maneuver. That’s why it does smell of rubbish, and why the things it assembles look like a dustheap, instead of a coherent creative program to transform the way people perceive their reality.

The New Aesthetic can’t even get away with the seemingly mild error of claiming they’re “metaphorically” the same– that a “render ghost”, for instance, is metaphorically about being a sensitive creative among the hordes in East London who suddenly realizes how many cameras the cops have. No. The British cops have boatloads of surveillance cams, heaps of ‘em. Better cams all the time. That cop network isn’t going to magically become an art connoisseur. The aesthetics of surveillance cams are not value-free. Because aesthetics are not value-free.

So the New Aesthetic is really a design-fiction, it’s a postulated creative position. By metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends, we can see what they ‘see,’ and think what they ‘think’… We do get a payoff for that effort. We achieve creative results that we would not have gotten without that robot disguise.

I don’t dismiss this approach. That can work, more or less. Mark Pauline, for one, used to get tremendous effects by moodily staring at his performance robots, and trying to “do what they really want to do.” The robots didn’t really want to do what Mark darkly imagined they did, but Mark Pauline was, and is, a strong and widely influential artist.

But that’s merely a tactic — it’s a hoax, a put-on. I write fiction, so I have no inherent problem with pretending things, but an insincere aesthetics is bad for you. This insincerity is all the difference between a beautiful portrait of your spouse, and a beautiful portrait of your spouse repurposed as a deodorant ad. Same pixels on display, so why aren’t they both just as pretty?

If aesthetics could be hacked like code, then a beautiful rose, in the beak of a beautiful flamingo, flying in a beautiful sunset, would be 3X-beautiful. It isn’t. It never will be. You can’t make it be. That’s not the way the world works.

A sincere New Aesthetic would be a valiant, comprehensive effort to truly and sincerely engage with machine-generated imagery — not as a freak-show, a metaphor or a stimulus to the imagination — but *as it exists.* The real deal, down to the scraped-metal chip surface, if necessary.

Artists have used mechanical means of perception for a long time now. One doesn’t have to apologize for this nowadays, in the way Baudelaire used to wring his hands over daguerreotype cameras. That fight’s over. Everybody’s got hardware. People who can’t read have hardware. Every ivory tower we possess is saturated with hardware.

 One doesn’t need to retreat into mystic obscurantism in order to understand that CERN is worthy of interest. CERN invented the World Wide Web. Contemporary artists don’t have to grasp at metaphors in order to log on to the CERN website. CERN built it, we live it now.

You can have all the machinic imagery out of CERN that you want, but the question is: what does it mean, how does it feel, what you do with it, how can you create? Is is beautiful, ugly, worthy, worthless, how is that good or bad, how does it change us?

It’s easy to sidle over to the subterranean cyclotron to take Instagrams of the many curios at CERN. I’ve seen them, they’re strange to me, but they’re not strange to the guys who built them. An aesthetics that’s overdependent on weirdness lacks ambition as an aesthetics. Weirdness is merely relative. Weirdness is never value-free.

A genuine New Aesthetic in CERN would ask for some aesthetic help there in CERN, in tackling one of the biggest problems in the history of aesthetics. Which is: why is some (but not all) mathematics “beautiful?”

The “beauty” of mathematics is a fact of creative life. The beauty of software code is also a fact of creative life. Math people and coders both know that those beauties are real, real like anvils. Yet that is a truly deep and wicked aesthetic problem. A modern aesthetic movement who could resolve that problem would have a grand achievement. Instead of merely collecting weird seashells on the vast Newtonian shore, they’d be able to state that they had carried out a huge land-reclamation project.

An intellectually honest New Aesthetic would have wider horizons than a glitch-hunt. It would manifest a friendlier attitude toward non-artistic creatives and their works. It would be kinder with non-artists, at ease with them, helpful to them, inclusive of them, of service to them. It’s not enough to adopt a grabbier attitude toward the inanimate products of their engineering.

I see some daylight in the general cultural situation. I was happy about the New Aesthetic panel, because it revealed things I had never seen. It was exciting because it touched something new, true and real.

The arts and sciences are, clearly, almost equally bewildered by their hardware now. The antique culture-rift of C. P. Snow doesn’t make much sense five decades later — not when sciences and the fine arts are getting identical public beatings from Lysenkoist know-nothings. Those abject talking-heads, abandoning charge of their machine-crazed economy.… Come home, artists and scientists; all is forgiven!

Our hardware is changing our lives far more profoundly than anything that we ever did to ourselves intentionally. We should heed the obvious there, and get used to that situation. We should befriend one another, under that reality. We should try to see what that means.

People have tried such things before. The Surrealists once valorized the “imagination of the unconscious.” But, as the Situationists pointed out, a generation later: the imagination of the unconscious is impoverished.

Valorizing machine-generated imagery is like valorizing the unconscious mind. Like Surrealist imagery, it is cool, weird, provocative, suggestive, otherworldly, but it is also impoverished.

That’s the big problem, as I see it: the New Aesthetic is trying to hack a modern aesthetic, instead of thinking hard enough and working hard enough to build one. That’s the case so far, anyhow. No reason that the New Aesthetic has to stop where it stands at this moment, after such a promising start. I rather imagine it’s bound to do otherwise. Somebody somewhere will, anyhow.

That is my thesis; that’s why I think this matters. When I left the room at the SXSW “New Aesthetic” panel, this is what concerned me most. I left with the conviction that something profound had been touched. Touched, although not yet grasped.

I’d suggest getting right after it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Street Art Utopia

Street Art Utopia has a nice collection of favorite photos from their site. It can be found here.


From Trash to Treasure: Everest Litter Becomes Art

The 75 sculptures, including one of a yak and another of wind chimes, were made from empty oxygen bottles, gas canisters, food cans, torn tents, ropes, crampons, boots, plates, twisted aluminium ladders and torn plastic bags dumped by climbers over decades on the slopes of the world's highest mountain.

Kripa Rana Shahi, director of art group Da Mind Tree, said the sculpting - and a resulting recent exhibition in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu - was aimed at spreading awareness about keeping Mount Everest clean.

"Everest is our crown jewel in the world," Shahi said. "We should not take it for granted. The amount of trash there is damaging our pride."

Nearly 4,000 people have climbed the 8,850 metre-high (29,035 feet) Mount Everest, many of them several times, since it was first scaled by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953.

Although climbers need to deposit $4,000 with the government, which is refunded only after they provide proof of having brought the garbage generated by them from the mountain, activists say effective monitoring is difficult.

Climbers returning from the mountain say its slopes are littered with trash which is buried under the snow during the winter and comes out in the summer when the snow melts.

Fifteen Nepali artists were closeted for a month with a heap of 1.5 tonnes of trash picked up from Mount Everest. When they emerged, they had transformed the litter into art.

The trash used in the art works was picked up from the mountain by Sherpa climbers in 2011 and earlier this year and carried down by porters and trains of long-haired yaks.

The yaks were commemorated in one work. For another, empty oxygen cylinders were mounted on a metal frame to make Buddhist prayer wheels.

Another, by wall painter Krishna Bahadur Thing, is a Tibetan mandala painting showing the location of Mount Everest in the universe - made by sticking yellow, blue and white pieces of discarded beer, food cans and other metals on a round board.

Visitors said they were amazed at the way waste products were turned into useful items.

"It shows that anything can be utilised in an artistic way and nothing goes to waste in art," said 18-year-old fine arts student Siddhartha Pudasaini.

The art is on sale for prices from $15 to $2,300, with part of the proceeds going to the artists and the rest to the Everest Summiteers' Association ESA.L, which sponsored the collection of garbage from the mountain, organisers said.

"Garbage on Everest is shameful. We are trying to turn it into gold here," ESA chief Wangchu Sherpa told Reuters.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christo to Build World’s Largest Permanent Sculpture in Abu Dhabi

The Mastaba (Credit: Wolfgang Volz)
The Mastaba (Credit: Wolfgang Volz)
Christo, the artist best known for wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin and The Gates in New York’s Central Park, is building the world’s largest permanent sculpture at a cost of US$340m in Abu Dhabi.
Christo, who was in the emirate last month to launch the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, told the UK's The Observer he will create a 150m, flat topped pyramid using 410,000 multi-coloured oil barrels called The Mastaba.

The Al Gharbia site for the permanent sculpture has already been approved, Christo told the newspaper.

The project will be financed “independently” through sales of his work and “different investors”, he added. He declined to elaborate on whether or not the country’s ruling family is among the investors.
Abu Dhabi is investing billions of dollars in infrastructure, real estate and tourism projects as it moves to diversify its economy away from oil. Tourism projects include branches of New York’s Guggenheim and the Louvre.

Christo described the land, around 100 miles from Abu Dhabi city, as “spectacularly beautiful” desert landscape. Stacked oil barrels painted in colours inspired by the desert surroundings will recreate the visual effect of a mosque, he said. “When the sun rises, the vertical wall will become almost full of gold,” he added.

The artist first envisaged the sculpture through a series of images more than 30 years ago with his wife and artistic collaborator Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, but was forced to delay the project in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war.

Construction on the sculpture, which will also include a nearby art campus, luxury hotel and restaurant, is expected to take 30 months.

The Bulgarian-born artist launched the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award in Abu Dhabi last month. The award, named after himself and his wife and artistic collaborator, awards US$5,000 to winners to allow them to realise their projects.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Contemporary Art Gives Sotheby's its Best Result

Sotheby's staged the biggest auction in its 268-year history on november 13, led by a $75 million Mark Rothko and a record-setting $40 million work by Jackson Pollock at its post-war and contemporary art sale.

With an impressive total of $375 million, the auction showed the buoyancy of an art market that has mostly been on a roll since its quick recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.
Sotheby's said it was the best result it ever had for a single auction, and it beat the high pre-sale estimate.

A "screaming pope" piece by Francis Bacon sold for nearly $30 million, a Willem de Kooning fetched just under $20 million and a $17.4 million Gerhard Richter augmented the muscular results for the vibrant Rothko masterpiece "No. 1 (Royal, Red and Blue)" and Pollock's seminal drip painting, "Number 4, 1951."
Officials said they were thrilled with the outcome.

"If you want to talk about the market being happy, healthy and well, well, here it is," said Tobias Meyer, auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art. "That's probably about as good as it gets."

The sale was driven by collectors who flexed their financial muscles after largely sitting on their hands a week ago at Impressionist and modern art auctions. The strong prices gave testament to the deep pockets of determined collectors' pursuit of the rarest and most highly regarded trophy works.
Bidding for the Rothko started at $28 million, but immediately jumped to $35 million. As increments of $1 million drove the price to $56 million, a bidder, who ultimately prevailed, upped the ante by bidding $60 million.

he work, which Sotheby's had estimated would sell for $35 million to $50 million, had been in the same collection since 1982 and thus marked a rare opportunity for trophy hunters. At $71,122,500 including commission, it was the second-highest price paid for a Rothko at auction.
The Pollock, part of a group of eight abstract expressionist works from a private collection, fetched $40.4 million, easily eclipsing Pollock's auction record. It has been estimated to sell for $25 million to $35 million.

Other highlights of the sale, at which virtually every major piece was sold and 85 percent of the 69 lots found buyers, included Andy Warhol's "Suicide," which soared to $15.2 million, or more than twice the pre-sale estimate, and Franz Kline's "Shenandoah," which fetched $9.3 million, beating the high estimate and setting an artist's record.

The auctions wrap up on Wednesday when Christie's holds its sale of post-war and contemporary art.

The Curse of Warholism

I AM SORRY TO REPORT that Andy Warhol’s throwaway sensibility is not being turned into landfill, at least not anytime soon. Toss Warhol’s stuff in the trash and it appears in recycling, invariably with a higher price tag. Half a century after he became the artist of the moment, Warhol is more with us than ever, now the throwaway with a takeaway in which many see the key to the art of our time as well as the art of the future. Warhol has become his own ism. Warholism is the dominant ism of our day, grounded as it is in the assumption that popular culture trumps all other culture, and that all culture must become popular culture in order to succeed, and that this new high-plus-pop synergy relieves everybody of the responsibility to experience works of art one on one. The belligerent knowingness of Warholism is what fuels “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” the extraordinarily elaborate exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nearly everybody agrees that the show is a mess, although few seem to have stopped to wonder if Warholism is the reason why.

Whatever you may think about Warhol and Warholism, there is something astonishing about Warhol’s ascent from hot chic amusement to a philosophical visionary who is compared to Emerson and Whitman. I have to admit that for a long time I was inclined to ignore the Warhol saga. Why bother being incensed by Warhol’s work, which at its infrequent best has only a chilled-out romanticism? In his most striking paintings, which date from the early-to-mid-1960s, the drunkenly misregistered silkscreened color gives a smudged-lipstick sensuality to photographs of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Troy Donahue. Warhol’s portrait of the gallerist Holly Solomon, a multicolored grid of Photobooth snapshots, is brilliant shallow fun. And the two self-portraits from 1967 with which the Metropolitan exhibition opens—in my view, the highpoint of the show—have a muffled manic-depressive fascination, with the torrid colors confounded by Warhol’s gesture, the young man so shy that he holds two fingers over his mouth as if to obliterate his own powers.

Warhol without Warholism is a troubadour of café society and its mentality, his visual effects closer to the quicksilver insights of a fashion designer than the adamantine decision-making of a painter. These are period pieces with an enduring formal jolt, comparable in some respects to the work of Florine Stettheimer, who in the 1920s and 1930s chronicled the parties and pastorals of high bohemian Manhattan in paintings that transcend illustration, but just barely. If you want to know what the passing parade looked like when it included Marcel Duchamp, Stettheimer can tell you. Warhol can tell you a historical thing or two as well. What’s missing in Warhol’s work is Stettheimer’s artisanal energy, the intricate fashioning of the image that gives her social documents their poetic vibration.

WARHOLISM IS NOT so much an outgrowth of Warhol’s paintings and sundry other products as it is the state of mind in which his work thrives. Warholism is bigger than Warhol. But Warhol’s work, fueled by popular culture’s cult of gigantism, is that rare hot air balloon that has been overinflated without ever bursting and collapsing, at least until now. At the Metropolitan, Warhol and Warholism are all things to all people. Museumgoers are primed and eager to embrace this enormous pop culture smorgasbord of a show that one of the greatest museums in the world has dumped in their laps. The show has a warm, fuzzy, familiar feeling, what with the Coca Cola logos, the Brillo boxes, and the famous faces ranging from Jackie to Reagan to Mao to the Mona Lisa. If museumgoers feel their minds shutting down well before the end of the show, some will say that is because the Metropolitan, in its eagerness to please, has given visitors too much of a good thing. Warhol is presented as a connoisseur of popular culture and celebrity culture, as the inventor of new forms of abstract painting and the truest disciple of Duchamp, as a comedian and a pornographer, a society portraitist and a self-portraitist, a formidable draftsman and a great filmmaker, a site-specific artist and a conceptual artist, a nihilist and a religious artist. And if all of that were not enough, he turns out to have a great late style, too. Has there ever been an artist who accomplished so much?

Yet to chip away at the claims that are made for Warhol can seem futile, because they are not made on behalf of the work so much as they are made on behalf of Warholism, of which particular works are only demonstrations. The party line is that we are all Warholians now. And if you are not with the program, you are quite simply irrelevant. This view was already taking hold nearly a quarter century ago, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted a vast retrospective. Kynaston McShine, the exhibition’s curator, began his catalogue introduction by asserting that “he quite simply changed how we all see the world around us.” And in a catalogue essay the art historian Robert Rosenblum, who began his career as a refined and adventuresome analyst of Ingres and Neoclassicism, announced that “we may all owe a debt to Warhol ... for reflecting exactly that state of moral and emotional anaesthesia which, like it or not, probably tells us more truth about the realities of the modern world than do the rhetorical passions of Guernica.” Today such ideas are taken for granted, as witness Peter Schjeldahl, who in reviewing “Regarding Warhol” in The New Yorker announced that “out here, like it or not, we are all Warholians, immersed in a common chaos of signs, gadgets, and sensations, and somehow detached from it, too.” The argument is that we are all soulless in the Warhol way, all victims of cultural anesthesia. And if you question these assumptions or attempt to change the conversation, you will be told that you have done nothing of the kind. If we are all Warholians, then even our distaste for Warhol is a Warholian act. The attitude suggests a certain philosophic finality, which explains why so many intellectuals are fascinated by the phenomenon.

Back in 1989, two years after Warhol’s death, some imagined that the Museum of Modern Art was overestimating Warholism’s reach when they dedicated two floors to “Andy Warhol: A Retrospective,” which contained approximately three hundred works. As it turned out, Warholism was only beginning its rise as the state-of-the-art state of mind. In recent years there has never been a time when there was not a big Warhol show up in one or another American museum. Beginning in September 2009, “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade” toured the country for fifteen months, with stops at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December 2010. “Warhol: Headlines” premiered at the National Gallery in Washington in September 2011, traveled to Germany and Italy, and has come back across the Atlantic for a final stop at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. This past summer “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol” was featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. There is also an endless stream of gallery exhibitions, some of them quite massive, especially “Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol,” mounted at the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street in New York in the fall of 2006. And then there are the books. According to my bathroom scale, Andy Warhol “Giant” Size, published by Phaidon in 2006, weighs thirteen pounds.

“REGARDING WARHOL” has been designed to top all the competition. Thomas Campbell, who has been the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for nearly four years, wants everybody to know that America’s greatest museum will no longer be taking a measured, wait-and-see attitude toward recent art, as it did when Philippe de Montebello, his predecessor, was in charge. The big, bold, blowsy Warhol flower paintings that have been hung in the Metropolitan’s Great Hall seem intended to get visitors in the mood. “Regarding Warhol”—mounted in the enormous rooms on the museum’s second floor that have in the past hosted unforgettable explorations of Byzantium and Renaissance and Baroque tapestry—is a bewildering, bombastic affair. Visitors are going to be sorely disappointed if they expect a historical survey tracing Warhol’s influence from the 1960s to the contemporary global art world, where Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst reign more or less supreme. This show is not art history; it is agitprop.

The show is organized thematically rather than chronologically, as if to emphasize Warholism’s status as a wrap-around 24-7 experience. Themes are introduced with tabloid vehemence, the boldface section titles and subtitles hammering us with their relevance. There are sections dedicated to “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” and “Queer Studies: Shifting Identities.” In each section, works by Warhol are jammed together with works by his contemporaries and by younger artists. Each room feels like a fairly miscellaneous group show, the sort of thing a high-end Chelsea gallery might put together during a slow month, with a Hirst from stock, a Ruscha borrowed from the gallery next door, and a Warhol borrowed from a collector who is considering selling.

The last two sections—“Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality” and “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle”—wander off in so many directions that museumgoers, not surprisingly, are left looking lost. Although the exhibition was organized by Mark Rosenthal and Marla Prather, curators who have both done distinguished work in the past, “Regarding Warhol” seems to lack a guiding curatorial hand. Could it be that Warholism is by its very nature irreconcilable with discrimination? Musing in a catalogue essay about Warhol’s paintings of Campbell soup cans, Brillo boxes, and Dr. Scholl’s foot products, Rosenthal’s mind wanders to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. He wonders if “her phrase could be turned around to become the ‘evil of banality,’” and speculates whether “that rhetorical expression [might] somehow apply to much of Warhol’s subject matter.” Who can be surprised that Arendt, too, is dragged in, as company for Emerson and Whitman? Where Warholism is concerned, nobody has any shame. The strongest part of the project is a series of interviews with artists that Prather has contributed to the catalogue. Here you feel a skillful curator’s intelligence at work, with the pay-off in some especially invigorating conversations with Alex Katz and Vija Celmins.

Katz cuts right through the Warhol mystique, bluntly observing that although “he was a terrific graphic artist ... he couldn’t paint as well as I can.” You have to respect Katz—an octogenarian who now shows with Gavin Brown’s enterprise, the cool cat among blue-chip galleries—for sounding like a grumpy old man when he points out that Warhol didn’t know what to do with a paintbrush. Of course the criticism can seem beside the point, because the inflationary claims made for Warhol are in large measure extra-artistic, grounded in the assumption that he altered the way we see the entire world.

I WOULD BE PERFECTLY happy never to see anything by Andy Warhol again. But Warholism does need to be addressed, because it poses a direct threat to any nuanced experience of the arts. There is something about Warholism’s way of mimicking the optimism of the avant-garde that brings to mind the strange allure of “midcult,” the cultural transformation that Dwight Macdonald first diagnosed in the late 1950s and described in “Masscult and Midcult,” originally published by Partisan Review in 1960. That essay, forgotten by all but a few stalwart students of the New York intellectuals until it was brought back into circulation in an anthology of Macdonald’s writings edited by John Summers last year, has still not received the fresh attention it deserves. The young Brooklyn bohemians who are quite rightly troubled by our Gilded Age, and still look to Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” as they try to disentangle the relationship between high culture and popular culture, will find much more of immediate relevance in “Masscult and Midcult.”

Dwight Macdonald in 1960 was a far more disabused observer than Clement Greenberg was in 1939. Even at the close of the bleak 1930s, Greenberg still believed it was possible to set high culture and popular culture in some clear dialectical opposition. Dwight Macdonald, writing twenty years later, had pretty much given up any hope for cultural clarity. With Macdonald’s essay, we are in the already murky regions where we live today, when it is not high culture but “midcult” that reigns in the museums, the concert halls, and the magazines. Macdonald calls midcult a “peculiar hybrid” of high culture and “the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity” that he associates with popular culture. Midcult is popular entertainment, only covered with “a cultural fig leaf.” Macdonald worries about a new culture that “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” This is precisely what Warholism has done to the avant-garde. Of course part of the beauty of Warholism—for those who are with the program—is that anybody who questions its populist claims is immediately dismissed as a snob.

“Regarding Warhol” is a midcult extravaganza, pop imagery with that “cultural fig leaf” that Macdonald talks about—although by now the fig leaf has been Photoshopped. Many of the works in “Regarding Warhol” are so poker-faced that heartfelt engagement can hardly be what is desired or expected. Consider a few offerings toward the beginning of the show. Jeff Koons’s Ushering in Banality is an oversized version of a dime store collectible, with a polychromed wood pig surrounded by three polychromed wood cherubic figures. Damien Hirst’s Eight Over Eight is one of his medicine cabinets, designed to hang on the wall and outfitted with rows of pharmaceutical products. Tom Sachs’s Chanel Chainsaw is a model of a chainsaw made of cardboard and thermal adhesive and emblazoned with the fashion designer’s name. You may be tempted to try and figure out what the artists expect you to glean from their works, but if the answers given by Koons in an interview with Prather are symptomatic, the explanations are so obtuse as to be pretty much useless. Of Ushering in Banality, Koons explains in his faux-naïf way that “it was kind of autobiographical. I’m ushering in banality, and it doesn’t matter what people think. I just feel that I have good intentions here about what I’m trying to communicate to people. In a way, spiritually, it’s like I have God on my side or something.”

TO BLAME THE MALAISE that hangs in the stale air of “Regarding Warhol” on either the organizers or the museumgoers sidesteps the real problem, which is that Warholism as a faith ought by now to be in ruins, although you certainly wouldn’t know it from the prices that Warhols are reaching in the auction houses. Warholism is half a century old, and like some other faiths the world could do without, it is especially difficult to uproot because its origins are mixed up with a line of distinguished if misguided thought. Though Warholism can claim no foundational text on the order of Das Kapital, there was a flurry of writing in the early 1960s that definitely set the stage, and among the most compelling of those first theoretical speculations were Leo Steinberg’s “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public,” presented as a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, and Arthur Danto’s “The Artworld,” published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1964. As Steinberg and Danto grappled in the early 1960s with new forms of pop culture imagery in the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, they were determined not to repeat the mistakes of commentators half a century earlier, who had reacted with uncertainty if not shock to the work of Matisse, Picasso, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Duchamp.

So Warholism began with an anxiety—the anxiety of philistinism, or the fear of an allegation of philistinism—to which a few writers proposed a few tentative solutions. For the educated public that even back then was beginning to fear cultural ostracism, Warholism offered the assurance that anybody who climbed on the Pop Art bandwagon could have the social cachet of an avant-gardist. Steinberg in particular brooded about what he saw as the inability of even some legendary avant-gardists to accept a new avant-garde, recalling Signac’s difficulties with Matisse’s most simplified work, and Matisse’s difficulties with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Braque’s first Cubist compositions. Steinberg is understanding about their equivocations, concluding not “that only academic painters spurn the new,” but that in fact “any man becomes academic by virtue of, or with respect to, what he rejects.” Confronting that dilemma, Steinberg found himself worrying that he, too, might be left on the wrong side of history. For Steinberg and Danto, this fear of being mistaken for a philistine or a reactionary was such a central concern that the works of art they were actually considering in the 1960s became pawns in a great dispute—a dispute about the nature of art and experience.

Steinberg—whose writings on Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Picasso are among the most penetrating published in his time—describes his impressions on first seeing Jasper Johns’s work in 1958 with an admirable scrupulosity. He speaks of “The American Flag—not a picture of it, windblown or heroic, but stiffened, rigid, the pattern itself.” He discusses paint quality, composition, the transformation of real objects into the different reality of the canvas with considerable care, and he is attentive to the differing responses of artists and curators. In the end, though, Steinberg’s encounter with the work resolves not into an understanding of the work but into something entirely different: a romantic fixation with his own psychic processes. “The value which I shall put on this painting tests my personal courage,” he says. He quite literally changes the subject, pivoting from the contemplation of the work of art to the contemplation of his own courage, or lack thereof. Seeking to avoid the error of earlier generations, Steinberg makes everything too much about himself, so that avant-gardism becomes a form of narcissism. He describes “a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful. I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right.”

Danto, who is temperamentally unsuited for Steinberg’s hairsbreadth impressions and psychological shadings, has the altogether admirable impulse to consider the new realism of Warhol and Rauschenberg in relation to ideas about the nature of art and reality that go back to Plato and Aristotle. But Danto, too, in writing about the new pop culture subject matter, and in particular about Warhol’s wood boxes silkscreened to look like cartons full of Brillo soap pads, pivots away from the direct confrontation with the work to intricate reflections on how a person ought to regard it. He does not seem to care about his particular response to the Brillo boxes: “Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art. The impressive thing is that it is art at all.” What the work itself elicits is far less important than the task of locating whatever happens to have turned up in the art galleries in some historical scheme. “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art; an artworld.” This statement bears close examination. The art world has trumped the art—and Warholism is born. “What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art.... The world has to be ready for certain things, the artworld no less than the real one. It is the role of artistic theories, these days as always, to make the artworld, and art, possible.”

WHAT STRIKES ME as rather extraordinary, in Steinberg’s retreat into psychological self-analysis and in Danto’s dependence on philosophical categories, is an unwillingness to trust the experience of the eye. Now we all know that aesthetic experience is complex, ambiguous, subject to revision; and it goes without saying that there is no such thing as direct experience unmediated by ideas, theories, and earlier experiences. But behind both Steinberg’s and Danto’s thoughts I see a deep worry, a fear of the direct experiences that they believe so often misled those who first encountered the work of an earlier generation’s avant-garde masters. Steinberg cites Leo Stein, who bought Matisse’s work at the beginning of his career, as a man who was willing to take the risks needed to access “a novel and positive experience.” But when I turned from Steinberg’s essay to Leo Stein’s various recollections of his early encounters with the work of Cézanne and Matisse—you can find them in his book Appreciation and in a collection of letters called Journey Into the Self—I was struck by how different Stein’s experience was from Steinberg’s. Whatever elements of discomfort, whatever desire to embrace some fresh theory, were involved in Leo Stein’s encounters with modern art, the first and last thing was always the visual power of the work of art—not a problematized power, but power plain and simple.

With Steinberg and Danto, avant-gardism begins to look less like a heartfelt experience than a foregone conclusion, generated by a desire to be on the right side of history and ratified by a new theory. As for visitors to “Regarding Warhol,” they are given nothing but foregone conclusions—Warholism as a faith in a particular artistic future that eliminates any of the risk-taking involved in individual judgment. Considered in this light, the decision to organize the show thematically rather than chronologically makes perfect sense, because it turns Warhol’s obsessive timeliness into a timeless condition. What is most shocking about “Regarding Warhol” is the crudity of the lineages and spheres of influence the exhibition sets out. The presence of Alex Katz in a show about Warhol’s influence is peculiar, because as Katz himself explains in his interview with Prather, it was in fact he who influenced Warhol. We do not have to take Katz’s word for that genealogy, which was described long ago by Frank O’Hara, who saw a succession running from de Kooning’s Woman series to Katz’s glamorous portraits of his wife, Ada, and then onward to Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy. “Regarding Warhol” has no use for the niceties of influence and implication. With Warholism, either you’re in or you’re out, and the fact that Katz actually is part of an entirely different stream in the history of art in the 1950s and 1960s, one that includes representational painters such as Fairfield Porter, Philip Pearlstein, and Louisa Matthiasdottir, is too remote from the highways of midcult to deserve a mention.

WARHOLISM is an octopus whose tentacles reach in every direction. I never imagined I would be defending Marcel Duchamp, but one of the most disturbing developments in “Regarding Warhol” is the failure to make any distinction between Duchamp’s intricate nihilistic aestheticism and Warhol’s slap-happy cynicism. Whatever one may think of Duchamp’s Readymades, they represent a lofty and austere critique of popular culture, and are worlds away from anything Warhol imagined. It is embarrassing to find Vija Celmins and Robert Gober, two artists dedicated to the most laborious artisanal practices, caught in the grips of the prefab pomposities that dominate this show. Both Celmins and Gober are much involved with the poetry and even the poetic banality of quotidian experience, but when Celmins paints a painting that imitates the black-and-white of news photography, and Gober constructs a fragment of a figure out of beeswax, wood, and oil paint, they are trumping pop culture through the authority of the artist’s hand—and this Warhol never does.

Celmins, in her interview with Prather, emphasizes the importance for her work of Morandi and Johns, and only gradually, perhaps responding to the insistence of the questioning, entertains the influence of Warhol. Like Katz, she may be glad to be included in an exhibition that will clearly get a good deal of attention, even as she worries about a distorted view of recent history. As for Gober, who has contributed a statement to the catalogue, when asked to consider if his body-part sculptures were influenced by Warhol’s Disaster paintings, his response is, “I honestly don’t know. Influence is murky water. Weegee maybe, or fragments of antiquities, or real life.” More generally, Gober turns Warhol’s influence back, musing that although he read The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,it may have encouraged my reluctance to speak publicly about my own work, never trusting I could be that clever.”

Of course nobody should be surprised by the collapse of all distinctions that addles “Regarding Warhol,” as this is a central tenet of Warholism. Warhol himself, who in his early years actually went to the trouble of having his portrait painted by Fairfield Porter, would surely be delighted to be paired with Porter’s old friend Katz. He would undoubtedly love the everyone-in-the-pool chaos that Rosenthal and Prather have created at the Metropolitan. Warhol’s vaunted openness to all influences and associations—he likes porn stars, movie stars, Picasso, and Leonardo—must be engineered to make his critics look small-minded. Some will recall that in 1970 Warhol produced a wildly eclectic show called “Raiding the IceBox” from the holdings of the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design. The exhibition was dreamed up by the museum’s director, Daniel Robbins, during a freewheeling conversation with the collectors John and Dominique de Menil.
In an account of Warhol’s curatorial activities in Rhode Island published in the catalogue of the 1970 show, Andy is the pied piper and everybody else just falls into line. Shown the museum’s collection of antique shoes, Warhol, we are told, “wanted the entire shoe collection. Did he mean the cabinet as well? ‘Oh, yes, just like that,’” was Warhol’s response. To which the director of the museum observed that no ordinary curator would have thought of exhibiting the shoes “just like that.” Coming along for the ride was Dominique de Menil, one of the most refined collectors of recent decades, who nonetheless had quite an appetite for Warhol’s antics. At one point a modest but charming Cézanne was found. “Yes, we’ll take the Cézanne,” Warhol announced. And then he went on. “Is that a real Cézanne or a fake one? If that’s real, we won’t take it.” Which seemed to disturb poor Mrs. de Menil, who asked, reverting to her pre-Warhol self, “Why not have a real Cézanne?” Why not, indeed.

To watch Dominique de Menil, who created in Houston one the most beautiful small museums in the world, dance attendance on Warhol is to begin to grasp the intoxication of Warholism. If somebody whose taste was as practiced and independent as hers succumbed to its fascination, we can hardly wonder why most of the major museums in the United States and Europe have jumped on the bandwagon. Of course the sensational auction prices are part of the equation, raising Warhol’s prestige among the high-end collectors who sit on museum boards and are involved, whether directly or indirectly, in decisions as to what exhibitions are approved. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Thomas Campbell has made crystal clear his desire to see the museum vigorously embrace contemporary art, Warhol is a no-brainer. For Campbell—as for Dominique de Menil and so many others—the fascination is not so much with the glitter and the glamor of Warhol the man as with Warholism as a creed. In our disabused era, when so many people are reluctant to argue for a work of art that makes particular demands on the audience, Warhol’s insistence that cutting-edge contemporary art is easy to make and easier to like comes as a cathartic revelation. How Thomas Campbell must yearn for some of the Warhol magic! What is most interesting—and encouraging—about “Regarding Warhol” is that nobody has found it a cathartic experience. Could it be that some museumgoers are wondering if Warholism has turned out to be yet another god that failed?

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Warholism As a State of Mind.”