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Beyond Belief


“TRASH” ACCORDING TO Sabine Folie, chief curator at the Kunsthalle in Vienna, “has become a transc end ental necessity.” Folie, about whom I know nothing other than her absolutely perfect name, is writing in the catalogue of “‘Dear Painter, Paint me...,’” an exhibition that recently toured Europe and included work by John Currin, the fly speck of a painter who has been stuck in many a New Yorker’s eye since his mid-career retrospective opened at the Whitney Museum in November. In a rational world, Currin’s mousy imitations of old-master portrait styles would not earn him a freelance gig as a magazine illustrator, but we are living in a very different kind of world, where Currin and his ilk are showcased at the Pompidou Center in Paris, accompanied by an essay of Folie’s titled “Meta-Trash,” in which she observes that “there can no longer be any painting without trash.” She hastens to add that “This observation does not exclude seriousness of intent.... The more everyday ‘trash’ invades and contaminates our pictorial worlds, the greater is the potential for the ‘magical’ quality of a work to emerge.” I would take the lunacy of Folie’s argument for a parody in a novel about the contemporary art world, except that this winter some version of Folie’s turgid mix of hipster metaphysics and academic aggression has been circulating in just about every corner of Manhattan where people are talking about the paintings of John Currin.

Currin is a symptom. He reflects the cracked values of an art world where most of the people in charge no longer know what gives a work of art life. The unease or confusion that greets Currin’s portraits of suburban matrons and young cuties and gay couples, which are larded with allusions to old master paintings and pop culture, is said to mark the emergence of a freshly off- kilter sensibility. Currin’s lounge-lizard gambits are hailed for giving classical values a modern ironic twist. Robert Rosenblum and Peter Schjeldahl, writers so suave that they pass as something other than the connoisseurs of fashion that they are, marshal all their formidable erudition and literary ingenuity to make the case for Currin as a major player in the art historical games. In the catalogue of the Whitney show—which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Serpentine Gallery in London—Rosenblum announces that “Currin knows his old masters inside out,” and tells us how much he enjoyed touring the Metropolitan’s permanent collection with the artist. Last year Currin himself curated a selection of masterworks at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, thereby proving that he likes Velázquez as much as the next guy. Currin certainly knows how to spritz ideas. He’s got a line on everything, from photographs of models in Cosmopolitan to Cranach’s Venuses and Eves. He dabbles with misogyny, but slyly, so that it registers as nouveau masculinity. And of course this pleases the guys in Tribeca, with their fashion-model girlfri end s and steak dinners and cigars, among whom there might be somebody with the half-a-million bucks that you now need to buy one of Currin’s paintings. 

THIS RELATIVE NEWCOMER—Currin was born in 1962—is the art world’s equivalent of the fast-talking politician. He will overwhelm you with glittery ideas even as each sentence that comes out of his mouth leaves you more convinced that he believes in nothing. In the arts, believing in nothing can seem like a high-class position. While every artist surely needs a healthy dose of self-critical skepticism, Currin’s standpoint is just nihilism-lite. His admirers read the limpness of his work as a new brand of world-weary sophistication. I think the paintings are merely ill-focused. Whatever the knowingness of his allusions, classical structure and modern skepticism are for Currin not grand principles to be grappled with, but intellectual accessories, attitudes to be tried on for size like the latest rags from Jeffrey’s. As a dissent from modernism Currin is a joke. The critique of modernism’s rage for purity, which is as old as modernism itself, requires a gravitas that is beyond the reach of this prime-time buffoon. Currin’s oft-admired “technique”—he is said to paint fur and hair especially well—would not have earned him an entry- level job in a painter’s workshop three hundred years ago. Many of the poverty- stricken girls who painted flowers on porcelain plates in nineteenth-century French factories were more talented than he is. He is merely the latest sharpie to make a killing with the sodden heap of gimmicks that Eric Fischl and David Salle used to bulldoze their way to SoHo stardom in the early 1980s. His work is toxic—art pollution. 

My feeling is that the mainstream museumgoers who take an interest in contemporary art are baffled by Currin. His work arrives accompanied by a confetti shower of doubletalk and disinformation that can make anybody’s head spin. He is heralded as an original when he embraces such hackneyed late modern gambits as the return to painting, the revival of portraiture, ironic traditionalism, and tongue-in-cheek social commentary. While critics are glad to register a few qualms about the work of a relatively young artist, as if they were kindergarten teachers leaving room for improvement, almost nobody in the press questions Currin’s alleged importance—certainly not The New York Times, which has more and more become a cheerleading section for whatever the museums choose to do about contemporary art. And the public, hoping to make what they see jibe with what they read, has embarked on a series of earnest discussions about Currin’s painterly technique and the ironic attitude that he takes toward the middle class. People are simply not accepting the evidence of their eyes. They are instead looking for rationalizations for Currin’s glassy surfaces, weird passages of impastoed paint, fakey feathery brushwork, and violations of anatomy, which may be conscious stylizations but are more likely signs of plain incompetence. Formally, Currin does not have strategies; he has twitches. And the attitude that he takes toward the aging matrons and the snub- nosed lads and lassies whom he paints feels slapdash, perfunctory. You are left wondering whether Currin loves or hates these people. My guess is that he doesn’t know or care. 

Some say that Currin is still growing as an artist, that his technique is improving, that he is becoming more serious. I understand where these people are coming from. They are the sweet, earnest souls who want to believe that all is well in the world. But Currin’s strongest supporters know that those sober, sympathetic museumgoers are a bunch of chumps. Currin’s core constituency—the people who put him where he is and mean to keep him there—believe that trash is transc end ent. They locate Currin in the kitsch hall-of-fame genealogy of the exhibition “‘Dear Painter, Paint me...,’” which began with the unctuous nudes that Francis Picabia painted from photographs of pinups in the 1940s. Since the 1980s, those seedy compositions have been the subject of an intellectual game in which bad painting is turned into good painting, which in turn is represented as something bad, and so forth, until the very idea of taste becomes a sick joke. 

I really don’t care if Currin has actually put a little sweat into his musty impersonations of old master techniques. You can give the canvas a workout and still be a stinko technician. The real problem here is that technique in art cannot be divorced from belief. And Currin believes in nothing. I expect that Currin’s fans will roll their eyes at the very mention of belief. The idea that some artistic faith ought to have a hold on their hero-of-the-moment denies Currin the swaggering indep end ence that is mistaken for creative freedom. Currin’s supporters, and they are the same people who have pitched for Lichtenstein and Schnabel and Koons, have moved beyond belief. Of course this attitude has a long history, going back to Duchamp’s frontal assault on the magical aura of the work of art. But there is a new quality to the skepticism that we are seeing today, for it is not so much a skepticism about the modernist orthodoxy—or about classical or romantic values—as it is an unwillingness to believe that anybody ever actually believed in anything. 


CURRIN AND THE BAND OF sleazeball figure painters with whom he is associated- -they include Elizabeth Peyton, Glenn Brown, and Lisa Yuskavage—would like us to imagine that we are living in the wreckage of a leg end ary era in the arts, an era when modernism was the reigning belief. I do not agree. I take it for granted that modernism, which has always been expansive enough to push at its own limitations, remains the reigning belief among the artists for whom there is still such a thing as belief. At the core of the art world’s troubles is not a shift in beliefs, but a collapse of belief. There is an unwillingness, or perhaps an inability, to accept art as a complex, wondrous universe that contains laws, truths, myths, and mysteries. Like all the essential theories about the nature of art—like classicism in parts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, like romanticism in the early nineteenth century— modernism began as an attempt to explain what made art tick, to account for the overwhelming emotional experiences that art provides. Modernism gave birth to an orthodoxy, and like all great orthodoxies the modernist one has some of the drama of a throw-down-the-gauntlet proposition. It holds that what counts in painting are the elements that are inherent in painting, such as shape and color. The modernists have always argued that all art lives or dies in its own formal terms, and this argument represents a part of the truth, just as the classicists were partially right when they argued that there are certain timeless structural principles, and the romantics were partially right when they argued that art’s power is grounded in the inherently unpredictable nature of the creative process. 

Modernism, like most orthodoxies, has probably always been healthiest when it has been a little rough around the edges, when people have questioned it and taken it apart from the inside. This kind of critique continues today, and it is reflected in the best shows that you can see in the galleries—this past fall in Stephen Westfall’s geometric abstractions, with their dramatically deep- toned colors and held-in yet heaving emotions (at Lennon, Weinberg); Mari Lyons’s panoramic views of New York’s Upper West Side, in which simplification and exaggeration become the artist’s way of making the city her own (at the First Street Gallery); Jeremy Blake’s meditation on Swingin’ London, Reading Ossie Clark, a DVD full of lustrous imagery and rhythmic ingenuity that brings to mind the most exciting experimental films of the 1950s and 1960s (at Feigen Contemporary); and Gael Mooney’s delicately painted, prismatically colored impressions of the interior of the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris (at the Bowery Gallery). 

Westfall, Lyons, Blake, and Mooney all have “issues” with the modern orthodoxy. Each of these artists, by taking an interest in metaphor or narrative or naturalistic allusion, questions the modern idea that all feeling resides in the form. And yet such questions are themselves part of an old modern controversy about the limits of orthodoxy, an argument that even Mondrian, the supreme master of nonrepresentational expression, posed with the intricate metaphorical implications of his last completed painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie. The trouble comes not when orthodoxy is controversial or embattled, but when the orthodoxies are stomped out or discounted—and that is where we are today. 

I wonder if there is any longer a chance of rescuing the serious critique of modernism from a postmodernism that hides its cynicism beneath a veneer of traditionalist good manners, as in Currin’s work. It is all too easy to mock the idea that formal values could ever have been the be-all-and- end -all that Clive Bell, a founder of modernism, believed them to be when he made famous the term “significant form.” After all, when we look at one of the greatest portraits by Ingres, we are aware that no matter how much the painting’s power dep end s on the expressive perfection of Ingres’s shapes, that power also has something to do with the woman’s smile and the luxuriousness of her dress—and yet the notion of significant form takes us a good deal of the way toward an understanding of Ingres’s portraits. When we argue with the limitations of significant form, we are also acknowledging its strength. Nearly all the modern masters would have agreed. When Matisse, that prophet of flat color, painted some of the most beautifully sculptural figures in the Western tradition, he proved that an impassioned pursuit of orthodoxy is precisely what makes heterodox experience possible. He demonstrated the open- end edness of true belief. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, when John Currin was just a kid, the modernist orthodoxy was already losing its granitic power, and yet it could still have the richness of a grand, lofty vision, a fortified city more complex and more ambiguous than many who were standing guard would have had us believe. If you kept your eyes open back then, you could see that there was an argument with modernism that burst out of modern belief itself. That argument continues today, though it barely registers in the galleries and the museums where artists such as Currin ply their wares. Back then there were many people who wanted to see more of the nudes and the interiors that Matisse did in Nice in the 1920s, of Marquet’s landscapes, of Braque’s late studio paintings, of Masson’s intricate phantasmagorias, of the rigorous elegance of geometric abstractions by Ilya Bolotowsky and Burgoyne Diller, of anything by Balthus. Those works represented aspects of modern art that did not fall within the various definitions of modernism that were marshaled to explain Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, but they were nevertheless the works of supremely modern artists, artists who plainly knew far more about color, shape, and touch than the Color Field painters whom Clement Greenberg was pushing. Those of us who howled at Greenberg’s parochialism and haughtiness were not so much trying to storm the fortified city of modernism as we were anxious to get inside and open up some sealed rooms and see some new perspectives. We wanted to complicate the significance of significant form, not to eliminate it. 

I will never forget the warnings of Leland Bell, a formidable painter of the figure and a mesmerizing lecturer on the art of Corot and Derain and Dufy. Bell was an unsparing critic of the violent anti-modernism that was already circulating under the guise of a revival of traditional values. Bell insisted that artists were repeating the old mistakes when they undervalued abstract form because it had sometimes been over-valued by the modernist orthodoxy. They were throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What has happened in more recent years is that the bathtub itself has been smashed to smithereens. What we are living with is not the courage of artists who fight orthodoxy, but the blithe opportunism of artists who do not know what those fights are about. For the arguments over the orthodoxies—the arguments about modernism, about classicism, about romanticism, all of which in some sense are still going on—are always about something even bigger, which is the value of art itself. 


FOR THE RELATIVELY small audience that has reacted to the Currin show with horror, the interesting question is not why Currin’s paintings are so bad but why he is so successful. His celebrity represents the latest triumph of an art- world mafia that trumps taste not by confronting it directly but by treating it as beneath contempt, or by standing it on its head. We were already deep into this topsy-turvy world a few years ago when the critic Dave Hickey subjected Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, with their competent, humdrum compositions, to a full-dress analysis of geometric pressures and counterpressures. Such analysis is a purely academic exercise unless it is being applied to the elusive structural imperatives of a painting by Poussin or Cézanne. 

This past fall, when the Philip Guston retrospective reached the Metropolitan, topsy-turvydom was the order of the day, for Guston’s cartoon- inspired later work, which you might have imagined was ripe for some sort of critical evaluation, was presented as if everybody understood that these gimmicky works had the emotional power of late Rembrandt. I know that people of taste have made a strong case for Guston’s scabrous account of twentieth- century America—it’s a grizzled harlequinade full of hooded Ku Klux Klanners and hairy-armed Nowhere Men and empty horizons. What disturbs me is that nobody any longer wants to grapple with the startling disjunction between these self- consciously coarse-grained works and the rosy-hued abstract canvases that Guston painted in the 1950s, which remain the most instinctively delicate compositions ever to emerge from the studio of an American. I can see why the man who had painted canvases that have the muted intricacy of harpsichord sonatas might later aim for something blunt and anti-atmospheric. Artists like to try different things. And it was the difference that made Guston’s new figurative works so enormously controversial when they began to be shown around 1970. The trouble is that very few people now notice the difference. 

What is involved in the critical response to Philip Guston and Norman Rockwell and John Currin is not a healthy playfulness about values but a wholesale derangement of values. Art writing has been so perversely clever for so long that some of the people who are banging this stuff out on their laptops may no longer recognize their own jokes. When an earnest critic in Time announced, about the Currin retrospective, that “almost three decades after the death of Fairfield Porter, we could use a decent genre painter again,” I felt assaulted from several sides at once, because Porter is so much more than decent and Currin is so much less, and because so many immensely interesting artists have been working with the figure for the past thirty years, year in and year out. Currin floats upward in an atmosphere of critical unreality. 

WHILE THE REASONS FOR Currin’s ascent are no doubt complex, we should not underestimate the brute power of money in all of this. In the middle of the Currin retrospective’s run at the Whitney, The New York Times printed a story on the front page of the Arts section, above the fold, with the momentous news that Currin was leaving his longtime dealer Andrea Rosen, a highly respected figure in Chelsea, for the Gagosian Gallery, a decisive force in the art market. Paintings by Currin, it was reported, had already traded for something like five hundred thousand dollars; where things could go from there was anybody’s guess. 

Now this is certainly not the first time in history that there has been a wildly inflated market for meretricious art. The sums that smarmy academics such as Bouguereau and Bastien-Lepage received for their paintings in the nineteenth century can still stand your hair on end. And that inflated market helped to create the oppressive conditions under which so much of the early avant-garde toiled, conditions about which Zola wrote so memorably in The Masterpiece. The dealers and the collectors who have shaped the careers of Gerhard Richter and John Currin are having a similarly deleterious effect on the art world today. When collectors invest hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of dollars in an inherently unpredictable commodity such as contemporary art, there is no way that these investors—who are often also museum trustees, and major contributors to arts organizations, and the moneybags behind the hot dinner parties—are not going to do everything in their power to see that museum directors and curators and magazine editors and critics help them make good on those investments. This is how the system works today. Among the small group of movers and shakers who really decide who’s up and who’s down, the positive reviews that Currin has received from Peter Schjeldahl and Michael Kimmelman are important insofar as they protect certain people’s investments. 

I have heard first-rate painters exclaim in wonder and in despair that if somebody would only start paying five hundred thousand dollars for their paintings, they would gladly accept. And why shouldn’t the best painters be getting those prices? How could anybody who is not hopelessly cynical imagine that the big money people have unerringly bad taste? The thought is too paranoid to appear credible. Wouldn’t anybody rather buy a future Cézanne than a future Bouguereau? It is a better investment, if nothing else. 

These are perfectly good questions. And the closest thing to an answer that I can offer is based on empirical observation. While more and more out-and-out mediocrities, such as Richter and Currin, rise to the top of the heap, nearly all the best contemporary artists remain unknown in the wider world, including painters such as Bill Jensen and Joan Snyder, who have exhibited at blue-chip galleries and therefore at least in theory have access to big-time collectors. So I have been forced to conclude that money generally likes mediocrity. Perhaps the self-satisfied vacuity of artists such as Richter and Currin feels familiar to the Wall Street wizards and the Hollywood producers who buy half-a- million-dollar paintings in their spare time. I can find no other way of explaining why certain people find it perfectly logical that a John Currin is worth five hundred thousand dollars, while the very same art world smarties were sent into peals of laughter a few years ago when galleries in London and New York had a price tag of a few million dollars on Balthus’s last masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a painting that will come to be loved the way the nudes of Correggio and Titian are loved today. 

TO SOME, THIS ACCOUNT OF THE art world will sound like the rant of a crackpot Marxist aesthete, but I swear it is the sober truth. The art world is overrun with collectors who care no more about art than the people who ran Enron cared about corporate America. Conservatives may be tempted to argue that what many of us regard as one of the triumphs of democratic experience, namely the increasing availability of high culture, has finally precipitated a new kind of cultural demagoguery, and certainly the triumph of motorcycles and Armani at the Guggenheim Museum suggests what a new kind of art world money, fueled by a marketing exec’s bottom-up mentality, can do to serious art. I am not convinced that even a decade or two ago a stronger response to the art-and- money synergy would have made much of a difference, and by now it is certain that the people who are behind Currin and his kind are firmly in control. The critics and the curators who have staked their reputations on the sophisticated fun involved in believing in nothing have much to answer for when it comes to explaining why the irrationalism of the art market mirrors the madness of the NASDAQ. By now even a principled Dadaist can look like a dangerously orthodox fellow, because he actually believes in something. Currin, by contrast, is the big collector’s perfect boy toy. 

Many critics and many artists are amused, of course, by the idea that the art market now runs the art world. For those who were always uncomfortable with art’s transc end ent possibilities, the spectacle of artists being brought to their knees by collectors with oversized checkbooks can be a relief, because it represents the obliteration of the artist’s romantic aspirations, aspirations that were always an essential element of the modernist faith. At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, where the scholarly programs are frequently a bellwether of art world thinking, the research theme for 2003-2004 is “Markets and Value,” and an exhibition called “The Business of Art: Evidence from the Art Market” opens in March. 

While the study of taste is an old and fascinating and worthwhile subject, at the Getty the history of taste may be shaping up as yet another way of denying art its primary stand-alone value. Thomas Crow, the director of the Research Institute, has observed of the “Markets and Value” theme that “the creation of art is a multilayered process and it is important to see all sides— the creative process alongside patterns of reception and dissemination.” These words demand close study, for they help to explain the mindset that has accompanied the ascent of John Currin. The idea that there is a parallelism or an equivalence between the creative process and “patterns of reception and dissemination” must be rejected at all costs, for this idea elevates the collector who pays half a million for a painting to an importance that rivals that of the artist in the studio who paints the painting. 

When the art market becomes a subject that can be discussed in the same breath as art itself, we have crossed a line that should never have been crossed. Soon enough the belief systems by which art lives and dies—whether they are modernist or romantic or classical or some combination of these—have become mere marketing strategies, gambits in a game of reception and dissemination. The finest art history and art criticism, in spite of all its necessarily complex scholarly and theoretical mechanics, has always represented a struggle to account for art’s shocking, preemptory potency. Much of what passes for top-notch art writing today is characterized by a frenetic complication of what is at heart daringly simple, and all the talk about reception and dissemination is mostly a way of imprisoning art, of denying art its unruly power. It has become nearly impossible to persuade people that the great visions in art, no matter how difficult they may be to express or to compreh end , are always fundamentally simple. 

A few weeks ago, as part of the celebrations of the centenary of Balanchine’s birth, PBS re-broadcast a 1984 special about the choreographer, and the footage of Balanchine and Stravinsky discussing dance and music brought back to me the blunt eloquence of the essential modern ideas. Music has no subject other than music, Stravinsky said, and it was left at that, even though we knew full well that he had composed The Rake’s Progress, an opera in which music serves much more than music. As for Balanchine, he insisted that dance is only about dance, and then, without skipping a beat, allowed the possibility of a narrative, because once a man and a woman are dancing together, he observed, there is something more, a story, the beginning of a love story. So here was the modern orthodoxy, the idea that art is about the purity of art, presented in a few words and then beautifully complicated with a few more words. 

THE TASTE FOR TRASH––FOR the everyday, for the overlooked or rejected or forgotten—was always an aspect of the great modernist dream. Both Stravinsky and Balanchine were acute students of the popular arts, as was Picasso. You might say that for the moderns the idea of trash—of the formally flawed and the brazenly sentimental—was purity’s doppelgnger. Trash can be a rousing artistic provocation or complication, but only for the artist who approaches it with a sense of the inviolable nature of art. When Sabine Folie announces that “trash has become a transc end ental necessity,” she has pitted trash against art, and thereby robbed art of its value. For people whose memories go back a generation, this question of the artistic meaning of trash may bring to mind Pauline Kael’s essay “Art, Trash, and the Movies.” But we must be precise: Kael’s point there, which was that “trash has given us an appetite for art,” has nothing to do with Folie’s bottom-up authoritarianism. When Kael spoke about the unruly excitement of some messy, powerful movies, she was using the idea of trash as a new way of expressing a fundamentally romantic sense of the animating essence of artistic experience, and this has nothing to do with the garbage-dump Parnassus that Folie imagines, any more than Fairfield Porter’s sly rendering of the lettering on a cereal box has anything to do with the motifs that John Currin borrows from photographs in Cosmopolitan magazine. 

Museumgoers have been treated like zombies for so long that by now many of them have given up and are inclined to check even their most cherished assumptions at the door along with their coats. This go-along-to-get-along attitude prepares the way for Currin. Since nobody is sure what he thinks or feels, he can seem to be as hopelessly uncertain as the people who have come to see his paintings at the Whitney. For some visitors, the Currin retrospective may create the illusion that the artist and his audience are getting together to assess our sick society, with its blow-dried matrons and giggly suburbanites, but of course the playing field at the Whitney is anything but level, because Currin is making a fortune by mocking the very people who have paid the price of admission. With Currin, the taste for trash is a kind of free-floating prurience that embraces fashion magazine photography, afternoon soap opera sentimentality, the va-va-voom proportions of Vargas girls pinups, the slick graphic tricks promoted by mail-order learn-to-draw programs, the sensuous tug of pictorial illusionism, the pretensions of the art audience, and the overloaded emotionalism of old master paintings. What the sophisticated audience knows about art—that it can be abstract or representational, that it can be sincere or ironic, that the old masters can be made modern, that the art market is itself a form of art—becomes a series of talking points that give Currin and his sour eclecticism a dizzying aura of significance. “Trash,” Sabine Folie remarks, “hangs over our heads like a sword of Damocles.” But the truth is far worse. The sword has fallen. And the mayhem is almost indescribable. John Currin, with his studiously inept mix of Cranach and the Cosmo girl, is “meta-trash” triumphant.

This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.