Corrupted Art: Why You Shouldn’t Give Up On Art Just Because Rich People Buy It
“The rich, with their understandably human desire to own beautiful things and stake a claim on cultural immortality, have often made (and are obviously still making) gestures that seem to make a mockery of artistic inspiration by putting down disgusting amounts of money for objects that are (arguably) inherently worthless.” Jerome Kugan asks: What can artists do when art gets used as pawn pieces by the rich and powerful?
Revelations in the past week over the obscene amounts of money that have exchanged hands over artworks by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, et al, in the pursuit of wrongful dealings have only served to strengthen to what many of us have suspected ever since a Michelangelo sculpture — copied from, made to look like, and passed off as a Greek antique by an art dealer — was sold to a Roman cardinal in the 15th century: that art is not only arbritarily valued, but has been used as pawn pieces in the ongoing struggle for the possession of culture between the haves and have-nots.
The rich, with their understandably human desire to own beautiful things and stake a claim on cultural immortality, have often made (and are obviously still making) gestures that seem to make a mockery of artistic inspiration by putting down disgusting amounts of money for objects that are (arguably) inherently worthless. It really makes one question their actual value.
The late art critic Robert Hughes put it succinctly in his 1980 documentary series “The Shock Of The New” when he said: “I doubt if anybody nowadays can look at a Cubist [painting by Georges] Braque, or a [painting by Mark] Rothko, or a Russian Constructivist sculpture, without being deeply affected by the fact that the prices of these things have become absurdly high. And in some crucial sense this has removed them from the realm of ordinary experience.”
So what is an artist to do? How can an artist reconcile this great disjuncture between the cultural value and monetary worth of art itself? For some, the answer lies in making art that is temporal (performance art), untradeable (installation and land art), or even untraceable (virtual, video, embedded art).
Of these, one can argue that performance art, because of the nature of its staging and use of the human body, is the most immediate. It is also the least attainable, that is to say it’s unsellable. Perhaps because of this, it still has the power to provoke a primal reaction from audiences. The most asked question is whether these acts can be defined as art at all… but it is exactly in this question that performance art derives its power to challenge the status quo.
The most famous performance artist of our time, one who has attained celebrity status, is Serbian artist Marina Abramovic, whose performances such as “Rhythm 0” (1974) (contains nudity) are visceral, unsettling and yet rooted in deeply moving human experience.
Abramovic is not the inventor of performance art, of course. That honour goes to the Italian Filippo Tomasso Marinetti who, inspired by the writings and plays of French absurdist Alfred Jarry, formed the Futurist movement in 1909. Anarchic, bombastic, and full of themselves, the Futurists published countless manifestos, painted dynamic abstract canvasses, drove fast cars, and advocated for the First World War as the cultural disinfectant that bourgeois Europe sorely needed — ironically, they were later co-opted by Mussolini and Fascism. The Futurists’ most original contribution to art was their “evenings” which combined theatre, noise, satire and poetry blendered into a confusing performance with no apparent sense of narrative or logic — in a very conscious way, they were trying to recreate the accelerated and dislocating experience of modern life.
The Futurists’ ideas of revolution in modern art sent ripples throughout the world, first across Europe, inspiring the nonsensical, primitivistic, stream-of-consciousness gibberish of the Dadaists in Vienna, later replicated in Berlin during the Weimar era, and then evolving in Russia as Constructivism during the post-Revolution years, then much later at Black Mountain College in post-WWII America, and so on (leading to the births of the Fluxus, Situationists, etc). These revolutionary ripples were also felt in Malaysia.
Pissing and balloons
In what is perhaps the most notorious incident cited by many academics including Rahmat Haron in his essay “Radical Gestures in Malaysian Performance Art” (translated by Izmer Ahmad, in Reactions – New Critical Strategies: Narratives in Malaysian Art Volume 2, edited by Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Beverly Yong, with T.K. Sabapathy, published by Rogue Art, 2013) as the beginning of a tradition of a truly transgressive art movement is when the poet Saleh Ben Joned urinated on Sulaiman Esa and Redza Piyadasa’s manifesto in their 1974 exhibition “Towards a Mystical Reality”.
(The pissing is described vividly by Simon Soon in his essay “An Empty Canvas on which Many Shadows Have Already Fallen” in New Malaysian Essays 3, edited by Yin Shao Loong, published by Matahari Books, 2010 — it is reprinted in Reactions, ibid).
Saleh’s act of pissing was vandalism… it was a sensational act… a political act… borne out of the same frustration that the Futurists had felt… and one could argue, a sincere reaction to what he must have perceived as a pretentious radicalism that had somehow managed to institutionalise itself in 10,000 words.
Fast forward to the recent past and you have theatre practitioner Ayam Fared’s provocative (sometimes beer-stained) performances and, most recently, dancer and arts activist Bilqis Hijjas’s yellow balloon protest. And who has not chuckled at the clown faces of Fahmi Reza? Needless to say, in all these acts of transgression, you simply can’t put a price on them because their value goes beyond money.
(At this point, I wish to apologise for not being able to cite more instances of performance art in Malaysia, simply because I’m not an expert on it – I’m really out of my depth here. You have to read up on writings on the subject by performing arts historians such as Kathy Rowland and Ray Langenbach, et al, for more details. Or you can approach them in person: they’re super friendly!)
Some people may say that the avant garde is dead and that art has lost its ability to make us think and feel on a very deep level. But I don’t think so. The way I see it, we’ve just been discouraged by the wealth and consumerist culture that has co-opted art and turned it nothing more than commodities.
Of course, art of the pretty painted sort that passes as light entertainment still deserve to have a place in the larger milieu of the arts. We can’t all be Fahmi Reza, and nor should we — diversity is crucial and the whole arts industry still need to make a living.
But just because it’s been prostituted by certain unnamed persons for their own financial gain, we should never lose sight of art’s ability to make us think about issues that are really affecting us right now. Otherwise, we would be pissing on the one thing about art that is truly priceless: its humanity.
To the artists out there, I would say, please don’t give up. And please don’t be afraid (even of pissing). In your work, you must continue to put your trust in the transformative power of art, for it may still save us all from the tyranny and bleakness that is to come.