The Great Debasement
How art-world institutions have corrupted the terms of the art encounter, for Tablet
A long-form essay originally meant for this Substack was published today in Tablet magazine. I hope you will read it. My subject is the visual art world’s ruinous and indiscriminate reframing of the artwork as a message-delivery system, an approach to art that can be summarized as follows: “One visits a museum seeking not aesthetic experiences but the feeling of knowingness—that placid state of mind, the elevated station. If one gets Rothko, and Sargent, and Nevelson, and Brancusi, one has them. Now, on to the new acquisitions.” I describe the utilitarian turn taken by institutional bureaucrats within museums and galleries, universities, the art media, and the nonprofit, for-profit, and state-run agencies and foundations that fund the arts, and offer one explanation for how the great debasing of art has come about. In illustration of the state of things, I describe two recently mounted major exhibitions: Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain, which closed in March, and Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast, currently on display at the Met in New York.
Here’s the opening of the essay:
Artworks are not to be experienced but to be understood: From all directions, across the visual art world’s many arenas, the relationship between art and the viewer has come to be framed in this way. An artwork communicates a message, and comprehending that message is the work of its audience. Paintings are their images; physically encountering an original is nice, yes, but it’s not as if any essence resides there. Even a verbal description of a painting provides enough information for its message to be clear.
A companion essay, “On Craft; or, When Museums Sold Their Souls,” is forthcoming.