State of the Art
The many uses of the Zeitgeist
Everyone involved in contemporary art believes in a ghost, even if few admit to it. It’s called the Zeitgeist. Take a look around. Curators love a survey – maybe it’s a generational overview or a medium-specific temperature gauge or a set of snapshots organized along national or continental lines, or gender or sexual preferences. Critics and magazine editors chase it too: we can hang articles off it, or try and map the directions it’s been floating with entire issues (like this one). Even critics who hate contemporary art reckon on it – it allows them to use a small handful of particularly loathed examples in order to damn an entire system. Many dealers and collectors also believe in the Zeitgeist; you can sell things with it (press releases are, of course, the best place to find overblown claims to history made on behalf of artists by their representatives), or flatter yourself that you’re one step ahead by buying into someone else’s alleged intimacy with it. Market analysts believe it takes the form of numbers, and they scour the latest auction results for evidence of its mysterious ways. Artists might swear they’ve no interest in it (at least, the ones who aren’t career-obsessed egomaniacs do) but deep down in many of them rages a personal struggle with art history – otherwise known as documented collected sightings of the Zeitgeist.
Of late, the Zeitgeist has been lurking at the edges of conversation more than usual. Sometimes it’s referred to as ‘the crisis’, or more coyly – as if to acknowledge its complexity – ‘the current situation’. The economic downturn and all-out exposure of systemic avarice within major financial organizations initially generated mixed responses in the visual arts, with many talking piously, if vaguely, about ‘the crisis’ being ‘good’ for art – a bit like drinking cod liver oil or getting some fresh air. This was interpreted to mean a number of things: less silly money blowing after artists barely out of nappies; fewer low-concept/high-production spectaculars; cut-backs on lavish parties; no more galleries opening unnecessary ‘project spaces’; biennials opening every two years rather than seemingly every two weeks; fewer curators playing at being power brokers; and a halt to collectors opening narcissistic temples to their own acumen for acquisition. An upswing in thoughtful discussion and approaches to making art, and reinvigorated roles for criticism and educational institutions were forecast. Of course there would be some collateral damage; a few superfluous art consultants, dealers and artists (sadly some talented ones, as well as the careerist variety) would fall by the wayside, public funding purses would get tighter, art magazines would shrink, and there would be some facile articles in the broadsheets misinterpreting the demise of the market as heralding artists returning to their senses and making nice landscape paintings. But, on the whole, the losses would be for the greater good. A year on from the initial economic earthquake, where are we?
zeitgeist ‘So, team, how’s The Crisis going?’ zeitgeist area manager (arts division) ‘Business is slow today boss.’ zeitgeist ‘Oh that’s a shame. No seismic shifts in contemporary art production to report? No return to Enlightenment values of technical skill and transcendent moral values detected? No realization on the part of humanity that creativity is innate within them all and that its commodity role within the capitalist realist world-view is fundamentally wrong?’ zeitgeist area manager ‘’Fraid not, chief.’ zeitgeist At least tell me that Damien Hirst has retired or gone bankrupt?’ zeitgeist area manager ‘Sorry to report, captain, but in late 2009 he gained much attention for turning to painting awful pastiche Francis Bacons.’ zeitgeist ‘Bugger.’
Confusion reigns. Here’s an example: in New York at the end of October, Creative Time staged a day-long ‘summit’ at the New York Public Library on ‘Revolutions in Public Practice’, at which more than 40 speakers made presentations on art and community engagement. Less than a week later was a tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless exclusive ‘performance-based art work’ organized by Rob Pruitt as a fundraiser for the Guggenheim Musuem, White Columns and a youth arts scheme. It was an Oscars-style ceremony called the First Annual Art Awards, which included gongs for ‘Artist of the Year’ (Mary Heilmann), ‘Curator of the Year’ (Connie Butler) and ‘Exhibition Outside the United States’ (which just happened to be by an American artist: Jeff Koons at the Château de Versailles, France). I’m sure the award ceremony – a bit like the Hugo Boss or Turner Prizes, but with no pretense of gravitas – was way more fun than the nine hours I spent at the Creative Time Summit, but somehow the coinciding of these two events revealed the Zeitgeist to be a confused mess. There are certain sectors of the art world that crave a useful social role for art. Others see art as an activity making important contributions to intellectual discourse. Many look to art for pleasure. And then there are those who appreciate all of this seriousness, but crave the trappings of the entertainment industry too – fame, power, money, glamour, hierarchies, cultural parochialism. One year the art world is interested in this, the next year it’s interested in that. It wants to party, it wants to be scholarly. Markets go up, markets go down. At the same time as the Serpentine Gallery is showing Gustav Metzger, people are posing for photographs licking a giant chocolate facsimile of a Jeff Koons sculpture and throwing themselves on giant mounds of peanuts at the gala opening of PERFORMA 09. America elects a mildly progressive president and suddenly people scream ‘socialism’ as if the year is 1954 and Senator McCarthy is on the warpath. Everything changes and nothing changes. Feeling confused or anxious about contemporary art? Someone recently told me about a book they’d read, in which it was posited that the apocalypse happened before humans evolved and that everything humanity has done since has been in a post-apocalypse society. So don’t worry: the end has been and gone. Learn to love the confusion.
Dan Fox is based in New York, USA, and is senior editor of frieze.