Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Next Andy Warhol: A Prevention Strategy

I just returned from an enriching symposium at Chicago's North Park University on the art of George Tooker, an artist who cannot have existed.  He maintained the figural tradition through modernism, carried the iconic mantle by painting in egg tempera, and after making it into the canon of twentieth century art, converted to Catholicism to create sincere religious art when that was not the done thing.   I suppose then that the symposium cannot have existed either, so maybe it never happened.  But I'm almost sure it did.

"When Faith Moves Mountains" (2002)
The first presenters, artists Dayton Castleman and Nneena Okore, departed from Tooker to discuss the political art of Ai Weiwei and El Anatsui.  Both employ workers in China and Africa for their respective projects, similar to Francis Alÿs' exhibition, When Faith Moves Mountains, which "employed" a team of South Americans who literally moved a massive dune in tandem with shovels.  Large scale social development projects are a fascinating art world turn, but a specter, it seems to me, looms over such ventures.  Just as Andy Warhol punctured High Modernist pieties by placing a regular consumer product - a Brillo Box - in an art gallery, so some Andy Warhol of the future is being invited to suggest that a regular consumer process has already realized such third world employment ideals.

It's called the clothing industry, and if you wear something produced by our globalized economy, you are a living participant in this impossibly colorful international flash mob, which transcends any gallery or museum space.  The difference, of course, is that the clothing industry employs the impoverished in a relatively sustained manner, versus the stunt economies of given artists who employ for as long as art world fancies can be sustained.  If you were trying to support a family in a third world economy, which would you prefer?  A job for two years working for a Tate Modern exhibition, and then nothing - or a job for generations working, however less glamorously, for Gap?   If that sounds like a provocation that punctures art world assumptions, it is: No more so than Warhol's Brillo Box.

Then again, perhaps we don't have to wait for that Andy Warhol, because he is me.  If the idea is all that matters, as James Franco's Museum of Invisible Art claims, then I have become the next Andy Warhol by writing that last paragraph.  All that remains is for you to send me hundreds of thousands of dollars for my "work."  Of course, that's ridiculous, and Franco's latest contribution to the art world is an imploding white dwarf in the celebrosphere, the reductio ad absurdum of the reductio ad absurdum of purely conceptual art.

Which is exactly what emerged in the last panel of the George Tooker symposium which explored craft and concept.  Art must be made, and it is the business of artists to master the intelligence of this production.  "The conflict of craft and concept," argued symposium participant and painter Joel Sheesley, "is only possible if the artist is numb to the conceptual intelligence that craft necessarily embodies."  In fact, it is just this emphasis on process and craft which rescues what is genuine (and there is much) in the art of Ai Weiwei and El Anatsui from the "Gap is art too" critique mentioned above.

So don't send me money.  Use it to buy art that matters, art with the courage to incarnate a concept, thereby avoiding the art heresies of immaterialized Docetism and contentless Arianism, as exemplified in the work of symposium participants such as Tim Lowly, Cherith Lundin, Kelly Vanderbrug, Laura Lasworth, not to mention Dayton, Nneena, and others.  Each continue to exhibit the neurologically verified intelligence of art for which there is no substitute. But you knew that.