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Taking a stand against art-about-art-about-art

This piece on the Venice Bienale, by New York Magazine's Jerry Saltz, gets at what I think is one of the pervading problems of the contemporary art world today: a surfeit of art about art. Too much painting that references other painting, or sculpture that talks about other sculpture, without the addition of much else to sustain our interest. (The best works of art strike a much better balance between historical nods and forward thinking.) Or criticism focused almost exclusively on where an artwork sits in the grand narrative of art history at the expense of understanding what it actually means to us today.

An excerpt:

...many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.

There are plenty of people in the art world who luxuriate in the game Saltz mentions in his piece, of finding the sometimes elusive references and connections among seemingly disparate artists and styles. (This can often be fun, even for non-art dorks, as it is in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's "Arp, Miro and Calder" exhibition.) But the problem is that most of the people who draw pleasure from that sort of approach were born and bred in the art world, which is microscopically small compared to the general audience for art in museums and galleries.

Not many of the people who walk past the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's new Nancy Rubins sculpture really, genuinely care that it mirror's Kenneth Snelson's nearby sculpture, or that it takes cues from David Smith. They mostly care that it looks really cool, or appreciate that it's a little bit of the edgy Los Angeles style transported to Elmwood Avenue. Or that it's made of actual boats that not too long ago bobbed in the current of California's Russian River. Or that Rubins' work arguably reflects and influences a style of graphic design that we're seeing today all over the pop culture spectrum, from superhero movies to animated logos. (Contemporary connections are far more interesting to most people than historical ones.)

Give Saltz's piece a read, and drop a line in the comments to let us know what you think.

--Colin Dabkowski

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