The art world is not propelled by artworks. It never really has been, and these days, in this contemporary period, the strength of artworks adds no horsepower to the engine that is moving tastes and trends. The usual pieces are still integral: the lack of art education of those in financial positions to buy work at auction, an increase in scholarship and media coverage of the art world, and the emergence of overlooked and marginalized traditions and voices. One component seems to prevail over the rest, however, when it comes to what is defining the contemporary art scene– brand.
This process likely begins with someone whose name has been forgotten by history, so I’m going to credit Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain as the first piece to ask, on a large scale and to the whole of the art world, the question, “Does good art need to be good art?” The piece is the beneficiary of all of the work in abstraction that came before it, but more than anything else it offered an affront to those still holding onto the notion that traditional skill was necessary for an artist to have. Since the introduction of the readymade, the art world has continued to ask, and never quite answered that original question. The question that the art world did answer was the question of whether or not expensive art or famous art needed to be good art.
The contemporary art world stands on the shoulders of pop-artists like Warhol, avant-garde artists like Basquiat, and pictures-generation-artists like Barbara Kruger (among many omissions because how could anyone ever list all the names relevant to the state of our current world?). Somehow, those standing on the shoulders of our historical giants seem to be shorter, barely clearing the neckline, small in stature by comparison. All art is of value and worth and blah blah blah, but the work which holds such titles as most expensive work by a living artist to be bought at a Sotheby’s auction doesn’t seem deserving. There is so much incredible contemporary art being made. Look at any work by anyone on Jack Shainman’s roster, then look at Jeff Koons Rabbit, then try not to scream in anger.
Fountain was the first domino, and now we can look at a pool of ceramics pointing out that skill is not what determines what is and what is not good art. Forget the distinction of expensive or worthy of fill-in-the-blank. It is so difficult to decide what art is good or not good because the distinction of what is and what is not art is so wildly blurred. It is, now more than ever, an era where anything goes. So what do we, the art-loving, creativity consuming, pretentious people of the world have to go on when our non-art friends ask us what the heck is going on when we take them to Art Basel or Frieze? We have a brand. We have, “well, I mean, it is a Murakami.” That lack of real opinion says a lot. It says that name is the definition of quality these days.
Names are often made on skill, on toil and pizza delivery day jobs, and genius. But sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are made on luck and patriarchy and a good jawline. Part of the struggle in differentiating the two is oversaturation. There is just so much out there, and so much of it good, that it becomes difficult to distinguish the great, the important, the worthy. What we have to go on is a name. What we have is “well, I mean, it is Turrell.” In many ways, this is helpful for the public because it would be hard to expend effort and decide if we liked something. It is not helpful for the incredible artists who lack PR skills. It is not helpful for those with messages that are easy to be ignored. It is not helpful for the state of the public.
These are late-capitalist days where the idea of yourself is your greatest conduit of value. In a way, it is very artistic. It forces a performative aspect onto every piece. To create in today’s climate you must create good enough work and a spectacular artifice. You must craft a facade to be seen, and heard that exists independent of the quality of your work. It isn’t Sotheby’s fault. It’s Duchamp’s. His question does seem to have an answer, and that answer is “no, good art does not have to be good art.”