By Matthew Milliner
TIRED OF THEORIES ABOUT ART, which I had either absorbed or spun myself, I did the decent thing at last. I took the inductive path— wandering the galleries themselves. Mockery had proven too facile, even if the offerings of New York galleries and museums had facilitated that posture. It left me hollow, especially after realizing that the closest one can come to the official channels of art criticism are doing a fine send-up job already. And so I walked, like a penitent pilgrim, and did so for approximately seven years. Austrian Heinrich Harrer had his seven years in Tibet, and I my seven years in Chelsea, scaling the cliffs of culture in that extraordinary concentration of art galleries on the west side of Manhattan. Looking back now from a professorial post, the precious leisure that enabled an art history graduate student to so frequently pound the New York pavement seems unimaginable. But some lessons require leisure to learn.
Chelsea is a relatively new feature of that ever-shifting accident of cultural history so clumsily referred to (as if it were something monolithic or definable) as the art world. One enthusiastic art historian has called this concentration of well over three hundred individual art venues “the most extraordinary gallery area in human history,” which sounds impressive until one remembers that the gallery as we know it is a late-nineteenth-century development, or that an Amsterdam census in 1650 showed there to have been more painters in that city than bakers. But no matter. Chelsea as an art center is still impressive, born in the mid-1990s, thanks to the overconfidence of SoHo’s downtown gallery district, which had chased out its clients with skyrocketing rents. This immediately made Chelsea, a drug-infested, low-rent holdout, home to a different kind of dealer. Out stepped the prostitutes, in stepped the painters in that well known waltz of gentrification. The enormity of the spaces, former warehouses from the neighborhood’s industrialized past, made them ideal venues for art’s expansion into grand-scale performance and more ambitious installations. Before long, nearly half of the galleries in Manhattan found themselves here. Indeed, nearly all galleries of major international standing have a space, or spaces, in Chelsea.
To assist in the bewildering task of evaluating art, Henry James famously offered three questions: “What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he/she succeed? Was it worth doing?” As I attempted to evaluate what I witnessed in Chelsea, I generated three answers to the first of those questions. Firstly, there was art about art: art that somehow commented upon art history or the state of art today. “Being an artist now,” explained conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, “means to question the nature of art.” This kind of art can be of interest, but it also becomes irrelevantly insular very quickly, so I’ll politely leave such exhibitions aside. Secondly, there was protest art, what could be called the art of the barricade. This is art that critiqued, problematized, or even attacked what we might call the artist’s host society in some way. Thirdly, there was art that could be categorized under the banner of beauty, so long as—and this is very important—beauty is not precisely or narrowly defined. In short, to navigate the Chelsea galleries in the years that I did was to witness the eclipse of the second category by the third, the barricade being overtaken by beauty. Beauty, after all, is a protest of its own, because the presence of the kind of apophatic, indefinable beauty I am describing naturally—and far more effectively—challenges the injustice and disorder of a necessarily imperfect world. My claim to have witnessed a transition from the barricade to beauty requires explanation, much of which, I’m afraid, has less to do with a grand-scale societal re-enchantment than a plain, uninspiring appeal to politics and economics.
The Bush years, when my sojourns in Chelsea began, had the effect of galvanizing the art world’s Democratic bloc into a vague coalition of resistance. This was accomplished by (perhaps appropriately) intensifying anxiety. When Artforum, surveying the art of the last decade, put forth that it is “heightened insecurity that much art has attempted to manifest, even to exacerbate,” this is largely—it seems to me—what they meant. On one of my first visits, I recall not knowing how to relate to Thomas Hirschhorn’s Superficial Engagement, a collage of gruesome Iraq war images that had mutated to encrust the entire Barbara Gladstone Gallery like gangrene. Hirschhorn responded to media saturation by attempting to outdo it, not unlike—it seems to me—attempting to fight fire with gasoline. He combined horrifying images of war with copies of abstract art, as if to call attention to the impotence of paint before blood. Hirschhorn’s was a walk-in Guernica, where the crucifixions—mannequin hands punctured with hundreds of nails—were multiplied, but to no salvific effect.
Not all barricade art was as serious as Hirschhorn’s. Another artist, featured at a Whitney Biennial if I recall correctly, simply placed a Michael Jackson bobble head that he had purchased in a toy boat alongside a drunken Uncle Sam. The artist’s statement spoke of the “death of America” (and this in an exhibit that the curators promised was “not cynical”). Another artist depicted the American male as a life-size Minotaur leaning on a cane made of Budweiser cans (“I hope people can see this is made with love of men,” pleaded the artist in the audio guide). There was also the video installation that simply comprised video footage of the Mall of America, stained red, with loud, menacing music in the background, or another video of people rolling around in fake blood shooting fake machine guns. Henry James’s two questions (“Did he/she succeed?” and “Was it worth doing”) come to mind, along with the words no and no. As I suggested, the official voices of art criticism are quite good at giving this kind of art what it deserves. Harvard’s Benjamin Buchloh aimed his arrows at the plumpest of targets: “Matthew Barney, even more than Jeff Koons...is a proto-totalitarian artist for me, a small-time American Richard Wagner who mythifies the catastrophic conditions of existence under late capitalism.” Likewise, Yve-Alain Bois of the Institute for Advanced Study complains: “The paradigm isn’t resistance versus dissolution any more: resistance is immediately dissolved in the new situation.” Indeed, that seems to constitute the essence of art theory’s momentary vanguard: protesting, from the world’s finest universities (or a Manhattan pied-à-terre), that artistic strategies of resistance to the late capitalist regime might not be effective. I cringe to suggest this because it echoes the complaints of certain reactionaries who unjustly dismiss our universities in toto, but on this particular point, the complaints are unfortunately correct.