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PRINCE GIMMICKby Miles Mathis
I remember that George Carlin started one of his last routines by saying, “I'd like to begin by saying fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb empty expression on his face. I'm tired of that asshole. And while you're at it, fuck Tiger Woods, too. Aren't you tired of having other people tell you who your heroes should be? I can pick my own heroes, thank you very much, and so can you.”
I feel like that about the art heroes of the 20th century that have been shoved down our throats by the various promoters and pimps in New York City and elsewhere. For instance, fairly often when I tell someone I am a realist, they say, “Oh, like Chuck Close.” No, not like fucking Chuck Close, that fat overpriced phony. You can tell a lot by people's heroes, and Close is not one of my heroes. One of Close's heroes is Andy Warhol, and that told me just about all I needed to know, from the very beginning. Warhol was the goddamned king of the creeps, and no one worth knowing would claim him as a hero. If anyone starts talking about Andy Warhol, I just walk the other way. Nothing else really needs to be said: the chance that person will say anything intelligent or interesting is zero, and I'm not going to hang around to listen to it. The stories we hear about Close's lousy childhood tell us the same thing: Close wasn't interested in being a great artist, he was interested in being a famous artist like Andy, and he says it straight out. He was ambitious. As greedy little Americans we are supposed to be impressed by that. We are supposed to slobber on his piles of money and kiss his gold-plated flabby ass. But it doesn't impress me at all. I don't want that and never have and never will. He can have his money and his fawning promoters and his interviews with the CIA. . . I mean media. I find my heroes elsewhere, and pick them by other standards.
Fortunately, high profile people like Close allow us to see the people around them for what they are, too. When you see people standing in front of a Close canvas, truly fascinated by the method, you know you are in the presence of a breathtaking stupidity. These are people that are trying to pretend to know something about art—that is why they are in the gallery or museum, we must suppose—and yet here they are judging art on its method. They are parked there, mouth agape, in wonderment at pixels in a painting. They will tell you Close painted it without a paintbrush, and expect you to find that nearly miraculous, like someone who built a spaceship out of toothpicks and superglue. These people may be wearing $20,000 watches and $500 haircuts, but they are precisely as elevated in their tastes as those agog in Cawker City, Kansas, clucking over the world's largest ball of twine. No doubt they would find the Mona Lisa more interesting as an artifact if it came to their attention that Leonardo painted it without a paintbrush, perhaps using the pubic hair of Vestal Virgins mounted on the blades of his proto-helicopter.
These people seem incapable of seeing the artistic bottom line of any Close painting: it is ugly. It is some big head of some fat-headed nobody, purposely painted as if a machine painted it. That is already inartistic in three fundamental ways. Nietzsche said, “It is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful.” So Close has chosen giantism, of course. By choosing to blow up face-on snapshots of fellow fakes and phonies, Close has also denied us interesting subjects. He could not bother to try and show us someone we might wish to see. Finally, mimicking a machine is not artistic, by the very definition of artistic. If a machine can do it, it isn't art. So why would anyone bother to mimic a method that was inherently inartistic, and why would anyone find it fascinating? This entire phenomenon is useful only as a very tall sign announcing the ineptitude and confusion of the milieu. In the 19th century, artists and clients tried their best to avoid looking like boobies. In the 20th century, they tried their best to look like sub-boobies, and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Close all but admits that he wanted to be shallow and plastic and one-dimensional, and the clients admit it, too, not even being careful to avoid those words. Also, in the 19th century, at least one critic in 50 years would have suggested that Close was suffering from chronic self-plagiarism and an amazing narrowness of conception. But I have never read a hint of it in the 20th or 21st centuries. The narrower the better, I suppose.
And as for the “virtuosity” we hear so much about, that should have been deflated in 1988, when Close lost the use of his hands. He has still not regained use of his fingers, but we see no difference in quality before and after that time. To see what I am getting at here, we have to imagine that if we went back to the 16th century and lopped off both Michelangelo's arms, his work might have suffered just a bit. By the same token, if we went back to 1970 and crushed all Van Cliburn's fingers in a vise, his piano playing might have taken a noticeable dive. It is hard to play Rach3 with your two elbows. Therefore, if the loss of the use of his fingers has not affected Close's paintings, then it is hard to see what role dexterity or virtuosity has played in their creation. I will be told that the virtuosity is in the conception, but the conception is just blowing up a photo very large and painting swirlies in the pixels. That isn't virtuosity, that is a gimmick.
Close has neither elevated nor updated nor “modernized” the portrait, he has simply sullied it. Like other moderns, he has misdirected the audience's attention into forms and conventions, when real art and portraiture have nothing to do with forms and conventions. Forms and conventions are means, and the ends of art are not the same as the means. A perfect technique is actually a technique the audience never notices, as we have been told by many of the wise over the centuries and millennia. Calling attention to technique has always been a gaucherie, and still is. So why do the moderns misdirect us this way? Why are we always looking at forms and conventions with these people? Because if you are looking at forms and conventions, you aren't noticing the complete lack of artistic qualities. You aren't noticing that there is no beauty or emotion or subtlety or intimacy. Gimmicks are used specifically to draw your attention away from fundamental disabilities and shortcomings. Because the “artist” is not capable of real art, he redirects your gaze with a set of parlor tricks. The artist himself does this with gimmickry and politics and theory, and the gallery does it by filling your ears with big meaningless words and sentences. You are so overwhelmed with various stupidities and vulgarities, your eyes and heart forget to notice that you have been served no art.
Because Close is now in a wheelchair, he is supposed to beyond criticism, but that is just more modern bullshit. As if I have to like everyone who is disabled in any way, or give them a pass. I feel precisely the same about Close as I do about Stephen Hawking. As with Close, I think Hawking's theories and press releases and books are bunkum, and the fact that he is or is not in a wheelchair has nothing to do with it. These guys don't want our pity and say so, and yet most people judge them—or refrain from judging them—out of some mistaken idea of pity. At least I do them the favor of treating them like the other artists and scientists worthy of my polemic. I despise them without prejudice.
But it is not just the clueless clients and promoters of modernism that pretend to find Close fascinating. Even my fellow realists often talk about Close with stars in their eyes, or with some apparently real levels of admiration. I used to think it was a relative thing: at least Close was not piling rocks on top of eachother or exhibiting lotto tickets or turds. As a painter of heads, he had one thing in common with us. To “go with the flow” just a tiny bit, we had to mention someone we could tolerate, and Close was at hand for this. But now I am of a different opinion. Realists are almost insupportably naďve, and this naivete is manifest in the pathetic hope that they themselves will someday be tapped by Pace or Gagosian or Saatchi or Mary Boone. They think they are maintaining bridges or at least avoiding burning bridges by saying nice things about Close or somebody like him. They imagine that art is becoming more inclusive, and they imagine that it is best to live and let live.
Wrong. That is like imagining that the banks and the oil companies are becoming more inclusive. That is like Lehman Brothers assuming that Goldman Sachs' company policy was “live and let live.” It is the cardinal error of the unilateral ceasefire. The moderns have been strafing us non-stop for a century, but we think if we blow them a few kisses they will call it quits and invite us across no-man's land. I have news for you: it ain't gonna happen, not this decade, not next decade, not ever. NEVER. If you are a real artist, the fact is their definition of art is the opposite of yours, and they are not inclusive. They have not included you or any like you, they do not include you or any like you, and they will never include you or any like you, as long as they run the show. On the contrary, they will continue to make sure that you are kept out of the graduate programs, the NEA, the museums, the magazines, and the top galleries. They have made this very clear. They are not pretending otherwise. They have put up no white flags, signed no treaties, sent no ambassadors of peace.
No, Modern art has proved to be like kudzu or cockroaches or bagworms: there is no living in peace with it. It is like living in peace with a python wrapped around your neck. There is only one sort of peace the python wants from you.
There will be no self-created Renaissance, no spontaneous uprising, no “natural return to sanity.” If anything happens, it will be because real artists made it happen. No one is going to rescue you: you will have to rescue yourselves. And if you don't rescue yourselves, you can be sure your children and grandchildren will live through the same sort of crap you lived through. I am sure the realists in the 1950's thought as you do: they thought it was passing fad, a swing of the pendulum, something beyond their ken or control. They were wrong and so are you. Pendulums do not swing for no reason. They swing because they are pushed. If you do not push back, the pendulum will knock you over and over and over.
Close's hero is Warhol, but one of my heroes is Whistler. I often sound like a 19th century artist or critic when I attack the moderns, and this is no accident. In my opinion, that is the last time artists or writers had any sense. Neither Whistler, nor for that matter his archenemy Ruskin, would be impressed by Close. And while I am at it, neither would Van Gogh. Vincent hated insincerity above all else, and all of modernism reeks of insincerity. No one except maybe Seurat would have been impressed by Close, and that is because Seurat was a precursor of Close: an artist of small talent hiding behind a gimmick. Like Close, Seurat was a one-trick pony, and the one trick wasn't even impressive from any distance. But back to Whistler. Whistler is a hero for two reasons: 1) he understood what art was about, 2) he understood that you have to fight back. If you don't, these hoards of imposters will overwhelm you. He saw it coming, and provided the method for defeating it even as he fell to it. He fell to it because he had no allies. Like me, he was very nearly a lone voice. But it takes very few allies to win such a war, since the enemy is so weak. Yes, the enemy has numbers and it may control the media and so on, but it has no real power. Power is defined by the ability to do things, and these people can't really do anything except get in the way. They can stand around and flap their gums and have parties and sell crap to eachother, but they can't create art. If you can't create art, it is difficult to have power in art. As a matter of art history, your influence is only negative, and it is not clear to me that negative influence can be called a form of power.
Real artists have always had a massive amount of power that they have usually refused or declined to wield. Because they can create art, they have already trumped an infinite number of people who cannot create art, so numbers mean nothing. There is no democracy in art. Seven billion non-artists voting for non-art cannot make anything art. Only an artist can make art. You cannot vote feeling into a painting, just as you cannot vote a man into outerspace without a rocket. History has proven again and again that a small number of people who can do anything can defeat vast hordes of people who can do nothing, and that rule holds across all fields—war, politics, science, art, sports, you name it.
Yes, Whistler, like Thoreau and Emerson and Carlyle, understood that numbers mean nothing. If you are an artist, you can't be outnumbered in your own field by non-artists. Prunes can't outnumber apples on an apple tree. The current confusion can only be created for and by people who don't know what words mean. I know that nothing these people do is significant, by the simple definition of significant. This is because I judge art by artistic standards. The art at Pace or Gagosian may be significant financially, and this is the way it is judged by most; but I can see that is illogical. It is like judging Wall Street by artistic qualities. If I judged a stock transaction by its line quality or its feeling, you would think I was insane, and you would be right. But you see people judging “works of art” by their sales prices, and you find nothing strange in this. Every article about Close or the other artists of Pace or Gagosian or Saatchi is heavy with dollar signs. Why is Close famous, a reader will ask? He is famous because he sold for $3 million at Sotheby's. That is not a logical answer. Nobody remembers what Michelangelo was paid for the Sistine Chapel. If a young person should ask, “Why is Michelangelo famous?” we don't answer, “Because he was obscenely rich.” We show the young person the Sistine Chapel, and that is all the answer that is required. That is all the answer required because any child can see the virtuosity and the emotion and the greatness on the ceiling, without any subtext or audiotape. Real achievement requires no promotion, since it is never in doubt. Does Kobe Bryant require promotion? No. His agents and sponsors don't have to promote him, they only have to use him to make money. Conversely, modern art requires exorbitant levels of promotion. As a percentage of product, the promotion of modern art exceeds even that of Hollywood movies. The less real product there is, the more promotion it requires, for obvious reasons. The more something is advertised, the less likely it is you need it, and the more likely it is to be worthless.
I said that Whistler fell, but even that is giving the moderns too much credit. Whistler only fell with his death, and if you study the timeline you see that real art pretty much fell with him. Whistler won every argument and always managed to make his opponents look ridiculous. He also managed to prop up his own career all along, against ever increasing tides. One might say he even prevented the deluge for a short time, since England was the last place modernism really took off. You have to define Whistler as modern to make England modern, and I have shown in other papers why that is misdirection. Whistler is called modern for saying that art was an arrangement of colors and lines, but of course he meant an aesthetic arrangement, not a formal arrangement. He had no interest in forms for the sake of forms. Again, they were a means to an artistic end, not an end in themselves. Regardless, it is his fight against all the various forms of advancing vulgarity that is important, as well as his recognition of the danger of the writer and academic—the litterateur. In short, his crusade against the hack, in all his various guises, as fake artist, fake writer, fake critic, fake gallery, fake museum director. Whistler demanded artistic qualifications from those who would enter his field or his studio, and, lacking those qualifications, he simply dismissed them as interlopers and carpetbaggers. He unmasked them and cut them into little pieces, till they could no longer stand on their own legs. That was the winning formula, and still is.
Whistler never really fell, he just failed to be followed up. No one took up his cudgels. His side in the fight didn't lose, it just quit fighting. It lost by default. It wasn't defeated by superior works or superior arguments or superior wit, it was defeated because it no longer believed in itself, for some reason. It was its own self-criticism that defeated it, its own sinking and spreading feeling that it had no good works left in it, that it had done all it had come to do. It couldn't go on painting Greek gods and goddesses forever, and what else was there? If you can't keep climbing, you might as well fall and keep falling.
Well, I now know they were wrong. Yes, it was time for new subjects and new treatments, but no fall was called for. For the creative, there is always something new under the Sun. I may not be able to equal or surpass the greatest artists of history, but that is not my concern. Clement Greenberg claimed that Michelangelo stopped the early 20th century in its tracks, since no one could hope to match him, but that didn't stop artists in the 17th century from painting. It didn't stop Rodin, at the end of the 19th. So the problem couldn't have been of that sort. The problem wasn't an end of art, or a lack of possibilities, it was emasculation of the species. It was the arrival of the lastman. It wasn't that great art couldn't be done, it was that a new century of Bartlebys preferred not to. It was easier to pass off urinals as art, and the new century preferred the easy way. This century wanted the rewards without the work, the fruits without the watering, the crop without the plowing. Which is precisely what they have. They have the food without the vitamins, the science without the mechanics, and the art without the feeling or skill. We exist in a depleted culture, and the only thing we haven't yet done is remove the oxygen from the air. But we are working on that, too.
Modern art is depleted just like the soil and the oceans and the food. Depleted soil is stripped of its important constituents, and only the bare sand and rocks remain. In the same way, a Close painting has been stripped of its nutrients, and it can only induce an artistic hunger. It is the tarted up husk standing for the corn, the straw standing for the wheat germ. Monsanto itself has learned from Close, giving us bigger and shinier food in lieu of nutritious food. It is easier to be gigantic than to be nutritious. The same sort of people are fooled by Close as are fooled by Monsanto. They mistake the form for the substance.
But real figure painting and portraiture are still possible. There are things to do. Among all the easy paths and shortcuts and mazes of cutbacks and reversals, real roads still exist, and you can get somewhere by walking them. You may not arrive at the bank with heavy pockets, but you will arrive at more meaningful destinations, with your hands quite full.
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