The lady protests too much, methinks.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2, Line 242
The sale in March of Paul Gauguin’s “When Will You Marry?” (1892) to an anonymous buyer for $300 million—the highest price ever paid for a work of art, according to The Economist (April 4, 2015)—brings to mind two of Gauguin’s remarks, both relevant to any discussion of so-called protest art. Gauguin was a protest artist: his “ancient Eve,” as he called his Maori female, was a sort of protest against “the Eve of your civilized conception,” as he wrote in a letter to August Strindberg. She made “misogynists of you and almost all of us”; the ancient Eve, who inhabited a “paradise,” brought a “smile” to a man’s face. Gauguin’s primitivism, as it has come to be called, more pointedly what he called “the barbarism which is for me a rejuvenation,” was a radical protest against, not to say a total rejection of, the “civilization from which you [Strindberg] suffer.”
Ever since so-called “advanced” art—Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Abstract Art—has been a species of protest against supposedly retardataire civilized art. It is a clash of opposites, indeed, a fight to the death: Gauguin preferred beauty that “results from instinct” (e.g., Breton’s “convulsive beauty”) to beauty that “come[s] from study” of tradition (e.g., Renaissance beauty, grounded in the study of classical art). Thus Gauguin’s preference for “the wooden hobby-horse of his infancy” to “the horses of the Parthenon” was in effect a nihilistic protest and revolt against the classical tradition—and with it against the ruling powers and establishment ideologies it served and celebrated. I will argue that this is the model for subsequent protest art, and that it is peculiarly self-serving—and with that self-deceptive—for the protest artist unconsciously wants to join the establishment he consciously protests, and knows that sooner or later he or she will, as Gauguin himself recognized, however reluctantly. His or her art will be appropriated and endorsed by the society it protests, and with that become as dominating and self-important as it is.
“A terrible epoch is brewing in Europe for the coming generation: the kingdom of gold. Everything is putrefied, even men, even the arts,” Gauguin wrote in 1890. Later he wrote, in ironic despair: “In art there are only two types of people: revolutionaries and plagiarists. And, in the end, doesn’t the revolutionary’s work become official, once the State takes it over?” Today the State is Capitalism, and Money has taken over Art, making it officially significant: its meaning and value as Money subsumes all other meanings and values it might have, in effect negating them, so that they become inconsequential compared to the consequence art acquires by being translated into money. Art once served God, the King, the Self: now it serves Capital, the King-God that makes one feel that one has a Self. That’s the point of Warhol’s art and Koons’s art: to kiss the ass of Big Capital, and with that to believe that one has made Big Art. It’s wishful thinking, but Capitalism works wonders—its kiss and blessing turns sycophantic frogs into princely artists (sacred cows?)—at least to its true believers.
It is no accident that Warhol and Koons riff off the popular culture: a product must become popular to sell—make Big Money to become a Big Product. Capitalist culture and popular culture inevitably converge: unless a product is popular it won’t make much money. It is not clear that the art products of Warhol and Koons are as seriously popular as cell phones, computers, and Hollywood movies, but they come close enough to be taken seriously, at least as capitalist phenomena. Gauguin understood the hypocrisy built into the artist’s situation; Warhol and Koons are master hypocrites: the mirror they hold up to capitalist popular culture declares that it is the fairest of all. They seem to ironically protest it, but they endorse it by appropriating its imagery and using its methods of mass production and distribution. They know the lingo of “advanced” art, but they use it, in attenuated and reified form, to make a case for the capitalist mentality it rejected.
The hypocritical farce that protest art has become seems to me self-evident in Okwui Enwezor’s plan to have all of Karl Marx’s Capital read at the Venice Biennale which he has curated this year. The farce is compounded by the fact that Enwezor has chosen a number of prominent black American and British and less well-known African artists to exhibit their works at a time when contemporary African art—and Africa—has become a trendy investment, as “the commercial success of artists of African descent, who are represented by powerful dealers in London and New York, such as Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Victoria Miro, and Luhring Augustine,” indicates. (The Economist, April 11, 2015). “The millionaires who patronize the Biennale”—and who can afford to buy pricey art, made by artists of African descent—will rub shoulders with “the defiant artists … intent on portraying their disapproval of the 1%”: the 1% they want to buy their art. Thus the hypocrisy of the artists and the “left-wing” Enwezor, an au courant extension of the powerful capitalist dealers. Gauguin despaired of the contradictory position of the socially critical artist, rebelling against money and the mentality and the society it created; the artists in the upcoming Venice Biennale, and its curator, are comfortable with the contradiction, which is why they are hypocrites. Perhaps someday one of their works will sell for $300 million, like Gauguin’s painting, but it is not clear that works that explore “the history of race relations and the politics of beauty” will come to be regarded as beautiful as Gauguin’s painting, which has also become, however belatedly, politically correct capitalist art. Perhaps they will respond to their commercial success as Marlene Dumas did when she “briefly became the world’s most expensive living female artist” in 2005, when a work of hers sold for $3.3 million. Dumas, who makes protest art—trendily anti-Israel, she has protested the security wall separating Israel and the West Bank in a series of works—was “not unhappy with her auction results, but she resents being defined by them” (The Economist, February 7, 2015). But it is they that are remembered, not the particular work, which eventually becomes beside the point of the money it made. The money is memorable, not the art. Whatever intrinsic value it has dissolves in its commercial value.
The Venice Biennale is a capitalist showplace and marketplace, and what is marketed and on show is money in the form of art. Venice was an important center of commerce from the 13th century to the end of the 17th century; the Venice Biennale has given it new commercial promise and prominence. Marx, after all, is just another sensational product of capitalism these days, another advertisement for it. He admired it as much as he criticized it, indicating that he also had a contradictory attitude to it. The only cure for the Biennale’s hypocrisy is honesty about its not so secret purpose.
DONALD KUSPIT is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at Stony Brook University.