I received two documentaries focused on artists who are arguably among the most important in the world as part of the year-end bounty of screeners meant to help NYFCO members pick winners at our December 2012 meeting. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Gerhard Richter Painting” are both now available on Netflix screening and very much worth watching. Around the same time I viewed them, the MOMA show on the birth of abstract art had begun. In my last post on modern art, I tried to get to the bottom of its origins using the analysis of Meyer Schapiro. With Ai WeiWei and Gerhard Richter, you are confronted by the dialectic of art and politics operating in an epoch that might be described as post-modern if not necessarily subscribing to the ideology deployed in its name. In following up on their work, I have learned a great deal about the current state of fine art that is worth sharing with my readers.
Before examining Ai Weiwei’s work and activism, it’s necessary to get a handle on conceptual art, the genre that he works in. I think most of you are aware of some of its more famous objects, even if you are not familiar with the precepts of its makers. For example, New Yorkers must have vivid memories of “Piss Christ”, the photo of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine that received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, something that pissed off Senator Jesse Helms.
This is the kind of work that is often on display at the Whitney Biennial in New York, widely interpreted as “subversive” in the sort of transgressive fashion we associate with postmodernism. It should not surprise anybody that some of conceptual art’s pioneers viewed Marcel Duchamp’s work in the Dadaist genre as a forerunner, especially his 1917 “Fountain”, a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt.
If Dadaism was an expression of disdain for the bourgeois rationality that led to WWI, then conceptual art had a similar birth in the 1960s when napalming peasant villages in Vietnam led many young artists to conclude that art had to be delinked from bourgeois culture. Among them was Joseph Kosuth, born just 5 days after me, who considered Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories and Freudian psychoanalysis a major influence on his work. Kosuth was the art editor at Marxist Perspectives, a journal published by Eugene Genovese in the late 70s through the early 80s. Due to the impossibly dysfunctional archives at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research I was not able to read the Kosuth articles.
In 1990 Kosuth curated the “The Play of the Unmentionable” show at the Brooklyn Museum to answer the likes of Jesse Helm. He included erotic Japanese woodblock prints, a 19th-century painting of a black youth eating watermelon, sculptures by Auguste Rodin of lesbians embracing, and furniture from the Bauhaus, the avant-garde German design school closed down by the Nazis.
Betraying the Wittgensteinan obsession with language and the philosopher’s infamous predilection for the inscrutable, Kosuth’s work almost always includes some text whose purpose is unclear. For example, his most famous work “One and Three Chairs” has a physical chair, a photo of the chair and a text panel with a dictionary definition of a chair. On the MOMA website, a page devoted to this work states:
But is this art? And which representation of the chair is most “accurate”? These open-ended questions are exactly what Kosuth wanted us to think about when he said that “art is making meaning.”
For what it’s worth, this work was constructed in 1965 just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying. A year later I would be studying Wittgenstein at the New School, convinced that such pursuits were useful only for maintaining a student exemption from the draft.
Another conceptual artist also chose her words carefully and arguably with a more outright political intent. Born on the very same day as me, Barbara Kruger became very famous and very wealthy for creating photos overlaid with provocative text and eventually just for works that amounted to electric signboards like the one that carries the latest news in Times Square.
When I worked at Goldman-Sachs in the late 80s, they had one of her signboards in the cafeteria. Back in 2000 I forwarded a nasty swipe at Kruger by Judith Shulevitz titled “Barbara Kruger, Ad Industry Heroine” with my preface:
Back in the late 80s, when I worked in Goldman-Sachs’s new corporate headquarters, I always got a chuckle over how the powerful investment bank had decided to festoon the walls with ‘avant-garde’ art. This was especially glaring in the cafeteria, which served as a mini-gallery for some “daring” neon signs created by Barbara Kruger, who has an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in NYC right now. These signs had slogans like “You think you can escape commodification — You can’t”. Standing on line behind some bond salesmen in $1200 suits, I couldn’t imagine them being disturbed by her archly ironic postmodernism. Now if Goldman-Sachs had decided to put up some of Mike Alewitz’s murals of striking workers, that would have been a different story.
Another well-known conceptual artist is Damien Hirst who is pretty open about his bid to become the artist favored by the world’s one percent. Lately Hirst has been encrusting his work with precious jewels instead of text like other conceptual artists. This approach has generated significant revenue as reported by The Economist in 2008:
Alexander Machkevitch, a Kazakh mining magnate with a taste for metallurgical themes, bought six lots in the evening sale: a large stainless steel cabinet filled with manufactured diamonds, a pair of gold-plated cabinets containing more lab gems, three butterfly canvasses and a spot painting with a gleaming gold background for a total of £11.7m. Other buyers from the region included Maria Baibakova, Vladislav Doronin, Victor Pinchuk and Gary Tatintsian.
In keeping with the financial collapse that began in 2008, Hirst’s work has devalued considerably, with the resale market reflecting a 93% drop in prices.
Perhaps the brick-and-mortar character of the Chinese economy, largely devoid of the postmodern financialization of the world of Goldman-Sachs and hedge fund billionaires, lends a different character to the work of Ai Weiwei who I knew only by reputation. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is not only valuable as an introduction to a most revolutionary figure; it also shows in a highly dramatic fashion what it means to face censorship and repression in a “communist” country.
The film points out that Ai Weiwei became a conceptual artist through his exposure to the thriving downtown New York City art scene of the early 1980s when he was studying at the Parsons School of Design. One wonders if his “20 Chairs From the Qing Dynasty” might be paying homage to Kosuth’s work:
When he returned to China in 1993, he began producing provocative works geared to his country’s traditions. He let a valuable Han dynasty urn to fall from his hands and break. He also painted the Coca Cola logo on other valuable pieces, or after applying garish-colored paint over them presented them as cheap counterfeits. The obvious statement was that China was for sale.
Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, one of China’s leading poets and a powerful figure in the Communist Party. In 1957 he made the mistake of opposing the persecution of Ding Ling, another Communist leader and writer, during an “anti-rightist” campaign. Accused now of “rightism”, Ai Qing was banished to a state farm and his work went unpublished for another 20 years.
Obviously Ai Weiwei inherited both his father’s talent as well as the courage of his convictions. He was the chief architect for the 2008 Olympics stadium in Beijing that he eventually disavowed. In a statement he not only attacked China for cracking down on dissidents but—warming the cockles of my heart—lashed out at Stephen Spielberg for his cozy connections to the CP bosses: “All the shitty directors in the world are involved. It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless.”
Like the late Roger Ebert, Ai Weiwei became totally involved with the Internet to get out his ideas, both through blogging and Tweeter. After a mammoth earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that cost the lives of more than 5000 children due to shoddy construction, he created a work in their memory that like Maya Ling’s Vietnam Memorial is simply a list of their names. He used Twitter to gather together the names of the children.
A year later the Chinese cops conducted a raid on his apartment and beat him so badly that he required emergency brain surgery.
Not content to use physical violence, the state has also tried to pressure him into keeping quiet through legal persecution over alleged tax evasion. If you enter aiweiwei.com as a URL, you will be directed to fakecase.com that has the facts on the latest round of repression. On April 6, 2011 Xinhua News Agency reported: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.” Considering the amount of corruption at the highest levels that the top officials of the CP are engaged in, it is a stunning exercise of chutzpah for the state to single him out for obviously trumped up charges.
My strongest recommendation for watching this documentary. It will show you how conceptual art can be a powerful weapon against the status quo, as long as those creating it know who the enemy is.
If “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is carried along by the force of the subject’s personality, the opposite can be said about “Gerhard Richter Painting”. Mostly giving the impression of being camera-shy and self-effacing, the 81-year-old artist originally from East Germany is content to let his work speak for itself. Most of the film’s action reminds me of documentaries I have seen about the designers Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld that focus most of all on their work in the studio as they prepare a collection for their next show. Since fashion design is probably the art that has most in common with the grand old days of aristocratic or bourgeois patronage, it is not surprising that world class designers fit comfortably into the life-style of their benefactors.
For an artist like Richter, whose works command the highest price tag of any living artist, there’s not much sign of him enjoying a life of privilege. He is seemingly content to live for his work and rather indifferent to celebrity and the luxury it affords.
Unlike any documentary about art I have ever seen, this one is all about the production of work. Approximately 90 percent of it depicts Richter working on his latest series of abstract paintings that are executed through the use of a squeegee. He applies (throws, more accurately) different colored paint on a huge canvas and works them over with the squeegee until he is satisfied with the results. The benefit of the film is seeing a major artist at work. Imagine how this generation could have gained from a similar treatment of Jackson Pollock. Indeed, that would be the artist with whom Richter has the closest kinship.
Richter is a throwback to the modernist tradition embodied in the MOMA show. In 1955 he submitted a painting titled “Communion With Picasso” as part of his BA in East Germany—a sure sign that modern art rather than socialist realism was his preference.
Although I can certainly recommend the film, it is regrettable that it does not have much to say about works that don’t fit into the squeegee mold. He also works in a photorealist style, one that can also be regarded as “post-modernist” in the same vein as conceptual art.
When Richter arrived in West Germany to seek political asylum in 1961, he hooked up with a group of artists who described their work as a “Capitalist Realism” that repudiated the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism. The 1963 work titled “Bombers” speaks for itself:
Another Richter work that speaks for itself, and which also was omitted from the film, was his “October 18, 1977” that consisted of fifteen paintings based on photographs of moments in the lives and deaths of four members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), referred to as the Baader-Meinhof gang by the tabloid press. On October 18, 1977, the bodies of three leaders of the RAF found in their cells and widely regarded as having been murdered by the German state police.
Finally, there’s Richter’s painting from 2009 titled “September”, a reference to 9/11:
Interestingly enough, the work appears to be an amalgam of his photorealism and the “smear” technique used in his squeegee paintings.
In an interview with Rolf-Gunter Dienst in 1970, Richter was asked how he interpreted his role as a painter in German society. He replied:
As a role that everyone has. I would like to try to understand what is. We know very little, and I am trying to do it by creating analogies. Almost every work of art is an analogy. When I make a representation of something, this too is an analogy to what exists; I make an effort to get a grip on the thing by depicting it. I prefer to steer clear of anything aesthetic, so as not to set obstacles in my own way and not to have the problem of people saying: ‘Ah, yes, that’s how he sees the world, that’s his interpretation.’
In my next and final post, I am going to comment on how some leading Marxists (Alex Callinicos, Alan Woods, et al) grapple with the challenge of contemporary art.