Book Review by Gerard Brown:
The End is Near. . . Again: Robert Morgan's Tiresome Tirade on Art World Politics
The End of the Art World (Aesthetics Today Series) by Robert C. Morgan, Allsworth Press, 1998, 222pp. with index, $18.95.
Fans of Robert C. Morgan's book, The End of the Art World, would like you to believe that the poet/critic's attack on the art market is a bold effort to throw the money changers from the temple of culture. In reality, Morgan's dreary rant on an art world he sees as plagued by rampant careerism is little more than an attempt to blame artists for the venal sins of an evolving cultural community.
Not content to declare the death of art theory (as Victor Burgin did in his 1986 book) and not willing to go as far as Arthur Danto did in declaring art itself over (with his 1997 volume After the End of Art"), Morgan's primary beef is the what he sees as a lack of "inner-directedness" among contemporary artists. He laments a bygone era in which "art was about a certain resistance to mass-produced culture" and defines the contemporary art world as "less a community of creative people than a detached network of subscribers whose existence depends on a precise set of taxonomical divisions." Morgan calls for an art world which more heurist than careerist, implying an underlying belief in art's leadership position in culture.
All of which sounds just swell. Well. . . not really. As a critic and professor of considerable experience, Morgan must be aware that his (occasionally) thoughtful argument would be reduced to yet another cry for artists to retreat to the monastic sanctuaries of their studios and become modern shamans. Moreover, he overestimates the control artists have in the display and discussion of their work. Whatever distinctions exist between the studio and the market are erased in Morgan's book, as any artist who considers the relation of his or her work to an audience forsakes some mystical sense of "inner-directedness" that Morgan somehow feels qualified to discern.
And what's wrong with artistic practices evolving to mirror the social transactions of the larger community? Sarah Burn's persuasively argues in Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America that corporate behavior was an essential characteristic of American Modernism and instrumental in breaking away from the foppish European model of the Bohemian dandy-artist. Leo Steinberg mused on the parallel nature of corporate problem solving and aesthetic thought when defining his Other Criteria. Despite Morgan's protestations that he believes artists should not shrink from "the present realities of speed, information and an accelerating market economy," these institutions are endlessly derided as "seductions" (and somehow Morgan succeeds in capturing the horrible carnality of that word in a way that few since Calvin have done) which lead artists into a thicket of galleries and magazines from which there is no return.
So, short of forming some white robed pre-Warholian brotherhood to restore pre-commercial values to high art, what is Morgan interested in? His reviews indicate a certain predilection for theatricality mingled with a rabid aversion to spectacle. That's how he can get away with liking someone like sculptor Nancy Gross (whose drawings and sculptures are nothing if not salable objects) and trashing video/ installation artist Bill Viola (who makes nothing if not objects which require large public institutions for their presentation.) For me, the book's chief problems reside in this sort of hair splitting, because that's what reveals that Morgan is not really talking about a critique of the art world when he talks about "The Death of the Art World." He's really talking about a critique of the capitalist system. . . and a fairly elitist and undemocratic critique at that. Overall, painfully few pages are given to reviews. Morgan appears to prefer to discuss art in more general terms using manifestos (and, honestly, is there a more undemocratic mode of writing than the manifesto?) and position papers. This frees him from the burden of specificity and gives almost every page an irritating combination of moral absolutism and descriptive vagueness. Consequently, the word "community" is never used unless it follows the word "artistic," as if the art community were somehow separate from the world at large and not, in fact, merely a subset of it.
Morgan's remedies for what ails the art world (if a dead art world were, in fact, remediable) are almost unimaginably weird. Criticizing the 1996 Hugo Boss Prize show at the Guggenheim, he plaintively suggests that "perhaps we should to become na´ve again" (as if it were possible, let alone desirable, to forsake the experiences of the recent art history now matter how distasteful they might be.)
Given the evangelical fervor of his arguments, and the certainty that those who regard the "cultural elite" as contemporary Pharisees will adopt Morgan's text for their own troublingly conservative purposes, it seems appropriate that the last word on "The Death of the Art World" should belong to W.H. Auden, who spent no small amount of time thinking about the divisions between art and the spirit. In his Postscript: Christianity and Art, Auden suggests that artists will always answer to a higher power when he declares that "we cannot have liberty without the license to abuse it." Amen.
Artist Gerard Brown is an independent critic and curator living in Chicago .