A few years back a funny thing happened: As the centerpiece of a VIP pre-opening exhibit of limited edition art the Eyestorm Gallery was an installation work by the young art star, Damien Hirst. Hirst's work consisted of a collection of half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a paint-smeared palette, an easel, a ladder, paintbrushes, candy wrappers and newspaper pages strewn about the floor.
Hirst is the best-known member of a generation of young conceptual artists known as the Young British Artists. The fact that he had signed off on the debris set its sale price—in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—according to Heidi Reitmaier, head of special projects for the gallery. "It's an original Damien Hirst," she explained. Unfortunately, the cleaning man didn't see it that way. In fact, later that evening, after the very important people had moved on, he went to work, clearing the whole mess into trash bags and throwing it away. Hirst thought the whole thing hysterically funny. And as a sitcom it would be funny, but as important art it's just depressing. As important art, it relies on its conceptual edge and that conceptual edge is completely dependent on its other, more recognizable life as banal debris. In other words, as art it is very specifically about not being art.
Which raises some questions: Is art over? How did this happen? When did art lose its aesthetic import? When did visual art lose its visual power? Is beauty really passé? Are the existential implications, of which the intuitive and creative imagination provided some access, no longer of concern? Is there more to the human dimension than ideology and irony? What is the state of art?
If these are questions you'd like an informed and deeply felt response to, you're in luck. Distinguished art critic, Donald Kuspit, has recently published a book that reads as a sort of state of the visual arts address. In The End of Art, Kuspit traces the demise of aesthetic experience, the elevation of the banal over the enigmatic, the scatological over the sacred and the clever over the creative. Currently, he places art in what he calls a post-aesthetic state. Using the art of the twentieth century he crafts a very well argued statement. Beginning with the anti-aesthetic theories of Marcel Duchamp and Barnett Newman, he follows the entropic character of modern art created by the face-off between the sensuous and the intellectual. Because modern art attempted to fill the dimensions left behind by religion, the battle raged with a kind of religious intensity. It was an age of "isms." On one side you had critics like Walter Pater and Clement Greenberg acting as the priests of sensuous and musical abstraction, or purely aesthetic art. On this front, taste became a kind of existential necessity, and autonomy and purity became a consuming concern. The everyday world began to seem a threat to this autonomy and purity and any representation of it was seen as a kind of infection. Not surprisingly, an art that harbors a disdain of the world creates it own end game. The exclusivity and spiritual purity handed down to it from critics on high soon wore thin.
On the other front, a line of intellectual or mental art developed. Starting with Duchamp's Readymades, it made its way through Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes and his association of art and business on into the ideological sloganeering of a Barbara Kruger, and more recently, into the utter vacancy and nihilism of Bruce Nauman's Mapping the Studio I.
Kuspit, though aware of the entropic character of modern art, still finds a lot to celebrate in the era. Unlike the narrow ideological or utterly nihilistic work of the postmodern era, he still sees artistic possibilities in the modern exploration of the unconscious, in its belief in the efficacy of beauty and the reality of aesthetic experience. For him, the prevailing concerns of postmodern art are a whimper. In work like Hirst's, he sees art being subsumed by banality. This kind of art is so close to being simply entertainment, empty money and garbage that it is essentially over as art.
Fortunately, The End of Art ends on a more hopeful note. Despite the vogue for nihilism and sloganeering in postmodern art, Kuspit cites artists he refers to as New Old Masters, who are foolish enough and unique enough to see the value in mastering a medium, who are exploring the fruits of intuitive and imaginative thinking and who are naïve enough to believe in the validity of aesthetic presence.