Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The War for Culture

I've stumbled over a few items randomly, which just coalesced into something in my head, so, here we go.

Sam Bankman-Fried, currently on trial for operating an enormous kinda-Ponzi scheme in the crypto world (it doesn't seem to have been as coherent and organized as even a proper Ponzi, it seems to have simply been a sort of maelstrom of money that leaked a lot until the money was gone) is having his private conversations closely analyzed. As some point he seems to have written something or other about Shakespeare, arguing that so many humans have been born since Shakespeare that, statistically, there must have been many better writer after Shakespeare.

This illustrates a profound failure to understand how culture arises. Interestingly, while everyone had a good time making fun of Sam, I didn't see anyone offer a coherent explanation of why he was wrong. I plan to correct that here!

Second item: there's a guy, Devon Rodriguez, who's made something of a name for himself drawing and painting People On The Street. He's all over social media, and if you're looking for youtube videos on drawing portraits you're gonna have a hard time avoiding this guy's useless videos. He's a skilled technician, but mainly he's a social media presence.

He has millions of followers, and the backing of at least one NYC real-estate developer, and so he got a little popup show for his paintings. This show was reviewed on artnet by some hapless critic, who pointed out that the paintings were not very good, and went on about social media influence.

Devon's PR machine, noting an opportunity, decided to pull out the "I won't let the haters stop me!" page from the Social Media Influencers Handbook, and has been running that play for a while.

Here again we see the intersection of "Culture" in the form of Art and Criticism of Same with something more populist.

Finally let us recall that Larry Gagosian got himself a pretty girlfriend, painter Anna Weyant, a hair older than 1/3 of his age, and appears to be trying to make her into a Major Painter using his credentials as an art dealer. Weyant appears to be a significantly more interesting painter than Rodriguez, and is also a fine technician, so I don't really have a sense of whether she's "good" or not, in any way that makes much sense to me.

Let's keep these three little examples in mind.

Culture, contrary to common understanding, is not a distillation of the finest products of the finest creative talents, elected by some alchemy that inexorably whittles away the inferior and reliably, eventually, locates the best. It's just not. It's a hell of a lot more venal than that.

Bankman-Fried missed the point about Shakespeare: we have defined him to be great. Yes, the work is technically good, the meter or whatever you want to name is excellent. Shakespeare is great largely because, for him, the standard is how much like Shakespeare are you? Obviously, he is the best at being like Shakespeare. The attentive observer might wonder out loud how much of "Shakespeare was really good at specific important technical things" is actually "these specific technical things are important because Shakespeare was good at them." It's fair to suggest that there's a bit of push and pull going on here.

Larry Gagosian's efforts on behalf of Anna Weyant are specifically interesting, because Larry is absolutely a member of the club of people who get to decide things like "who are the really great painters anyway?" He's not the only member, though!

And finally we get around to Rodriguez. He has essentially no backing from anyone in that club, but he has a lot of social media followers, and he's got some rich people in his corner. Rich people who would probably like to be members of the taste-making club, rich people who probably go to some of the same parties that Larry Gagosian attends.

What interests me here, though, is whether we're seeing something larger.

Why should a small club of goobers like Gagosian be in charge of High Culture? There certainly seem to be days when they're picking shit at random (abstract expressionism? really?) and there's really no doubt that they do a lot of selection based on how hot and/or slutty the artists are. Why shouldn't TikTok select the Important Artists?

The crypto bros made a brave attempt to seize a beachhead in Culture with NFTs. Unfortunately for them they were thoroughly embedded in the crypto world, which turns out to be 100% scams, and also their art was really really terrible shit, not even rising to the level of kitsch. It wasn't even populist, it was just dumb. The try was bold, though, and it looked like it might work for a while! Beeple and his dumb $69 million dollar whateverthefuck looked like a real thing for a minute (before we learned that it too was a scam, oops.)

I don't much like Rodriguez, in part because his work isn't very interesting (it all looks like it's an excellent copy of some extremely bland reference photo, and some people think that's because they are in fact excellent copies of extremely bland reference photos.) I also dislike him, though, because his videos gum up the search for "how the hell do I draw a nose" with what are essentially ads for his work and his classes. I just want a few pointers on how to draw a nose!

My opinion, though, should not really carry any weight. Who gives a shit what I think?

The very idea is insane that these things should be decided a small group of people with degrees in art history, and an even smaller group of wealthy assholes who've eased their way into advising even wealthier assholes about which art to buy. Why should this specific group be in charge of determining what we see when we go into museums and galleries? Especially the museums and galleries funded by our tax dollars! Maybe we should be seeing a lot more kitsch!

On the other hand, there seems to genuinely be value in some small group making insane selections, however venal the reasons, for future generations. Maybe it doesn't matter what gets picked, as long as it's weird enough, as long as it's not populist kitsch. Maybe the job is simply to weed out things that are easy to like and pick some vaguely coherent selection of stuff that's hard to like. Future generations then have something to think about, something to struggle with. I think I'd rather live in a culture where we have abstract expressionism to gape at, than a culture were it's all likable kitsch.

In general I would rather see the collapse of Art As High Culture. I believe in local art. Rodriguez would do well as a Local Artist. He's entertaining, people like his pictures. I think people should totally be able to buy his pictures, sit for portraits, whatever. I don't think we would be well-served by making him into a Great Artist to Stand With Monet, but then, I'm not sure we're well served by the very idea that artists should be elevated to some stratosphere.

But my opinion doesn't matter. This isn't the first time populist art has made an assault on the cathedral, and it won't be the last. It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out, I guess.


  1. Gagosian is “just trying to protect her [Anna Weyant] from the big bad wolves” (as quoted in ArtNews), because they might want to date her too.

  2. To an extent, I think you're confusing "what's highly-rated now" with "what will be highly-rated in the future"? The big museums and galleries have vast collections of unseen work behind the scenes, most of which is stuff that was fashionable once, snapped up by wealthy fools, but is now uninteresting, repellent, or even hilarious.

    Of course, what stands "the test of time" changes with fashion, too: lots of female and "minority" artists are getting pulled out of the stacks just now, because ... Well, let's not get into that.

    But this back and forth is what makes art and art history interesting. I always enjoy looking at the publisher's lists in the back of older books advertising what was being published in, say, the early 20th century: it's just one "Who?" after another. Then someone will rediscover one of those forgotten authors, or some Big Name from the college reading lists is discarded for some reason, and the "canon" shifts.

    I have to say that I'm glad -- no, proud! -- not to be wearing whatever blinkers prevent anyone from seeing the work of Anna Weyant as tacky kitsch, or Devon Rodriguez as an accomplished but derivative one-trick pony. Although it's true my personal blinkers mean I can never see what makes otherwise sane people rave about Cezanne or Monet, so... "Who gives a shit what I think?" pretty much sums it up.

    Welcome back, btw.


    1. It did occur to me - possibly after I clicked Publish - that it might be fun to look up to see if there have been intervals in which Shakespeare was classified as "who?" I didn't on account of extreme laziness.

      I don't know if he specifically has ever been out of fashion, but I have been told that the list of Great Operas is more or less always in fairly vigorous flux. I assume the same is true of plays.

      So, yes! There is a strong temporal aspect to this! Part of having a small private club of people devoted to choosing What's Great Art is that there's a strong tendency to adjust the list constantly. The old farts who taught Art History 20 years ago were obviously idiots, on account of being old, so clearly so-and-so actually sucks and it's wossname who is the best, and always was the best, and always will be the best. For Today.

      This is balanced by the need to preserve value. You can't go around telling people Monet sucks, actually, because there's millions of dollars on the line. Someone is going to get fairly testy, and there goes your sinecure.

      And so on! It's a fascinating system, about which I know very little! But I know more than some people, I think?

  3. Yes, local art is good.

    Still, I’m glad to know of Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, and Joe Peter Witkin. I don’t think they would be shown now considering the Disneyfication of everything.

    1. Arbus is still getting lots of traction. I agree that, all things considered, it's good to learn about art beyond the local, as well as some of the local.

    2. Sally Mann and Diane Arbus have had major touring shows within the last decade! Hope is not lost!

      But yes, I get more joy from the local muralists and the children's 6x6 paintings here in Bellingham than from all the Monets in the world. And I like Monet pretty well!