My story “Adam Miller and Salvatore Guerrero. When Artist & Patron Go Big” – in the latest edition of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. Don’t miss it! Here are the first few paragraphs, but you’ll have to buy your own copy to read the whole story and to see the gorgeous art that Adam is creating.
“In this historic year of elemental iconoclasm, when monuments to yesterday’s flawed heroes and Confederate generals alike are dishonored or ripped down, perhaps it is strange to speak of the importance of sharing humanity’s great ideas. Although it is easy to be discouraged by the graffiti, boarded-up windows, and overall mood of destructive anarchy, now—more than ever—we need to be reminded of the good ideas that have shaped us, and to prioritize them over those that are evil.
Mobs tearing at the scabbed sins of history cannot erase its wounds, but their destructive zeal will change the aesthetic priorities of our shared cityscapes, sometimes perhaps for the better. After the spray-paint and shattered stones have been removed, empty plinths will remind us that society once prioritized the evil of inequality, and now it does not. It is likely that decades will pass before new sculptures fill these empty spaces, for the fragile sphere of public discourse is too easily punctured by insensitive choices, and well-intentioned committees will slow their procedures to a crawl. All public art is political, and there is little chance of finding consensus in this divided time.
Because public art is frozen, we will have to depend upon private patronage to nurture the big ideas of our time. But what are they? The Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari’s epic survey of the big ideas, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind(2015), has inspired the brilliant painter Adam Miller (b. 1979) and his patron Salvatore Guerrera to produce an ambitious cycle of four 8-by-10-feet oil paintings. Together these scenes will span human history and reveal its most important strands: the cognitive revolution of 70,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, the scientific revolution of 500 years ago, and the present.”
Don’t miss picking up your copy of the September edition of Fine Art Connoisseur. In it, you’ll find my story about the relationship between Adam Miller and his patron Salvatore Guerrera. Adam is producing extraordinary art, doubtlessly made possible by the support he receives from Mr. Guerrera.
I suspect that we will see a lot more private patronage in the next five years.
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The art business is a five-ring circus, but its clowns and acrobats are worthless without a ring to perform in. Although Covid-19 is the diet soda of plagues compared to previous pandemics, it has been a catastrophe for four of the five rings in the art world big top.
The first ring of the art business circus is the primary sales market. The grand art fair spectacles where many of the most dramatic sales and attention-grabbing headlines took place are closed and show no sign of re-opening. Commercial galleries are shuttered and allow art-browsing by appointment only, and attempt to sell on-line in half-hearted digital exhibitions. The big top is dark, the performers have left, and the party-animals of the audience, the first-class sensation-hunters, the elite who satisfied their desire for sensual indulgence in the pleasure gardens of art have nowhere to go, to see, and be seen.
The second ring is occupied by the museums, vying for the notice of the public with block-buster shows and spectacular marvels. The American Alliance of Museums reported that one in three American museums is likely to close down as a result of the crashed economy. Those which allow socially distanced visits are earning a tiny fraction of their income.
Public art occupies the third ring. Here, grant-funded sculptures and murals find the lenses of regional television cameras, and engage the public in the issues of communal approval. The carnival of iconoclasm at recent BLM and Antifa demonstrations removed hundreds of sculptures from the public arena, which will not be replaced for decades. Public art is now so divisive that the word “artist” has become synonymous with “political sloganeer” in the popular press.
Ring four is the stage for the secondary market, where the major auction houses perform, and huge sums of money change hands. Here art is often a token of exchange, and dollars often seem more important than the works that they buy. Recently, the auction analysis website MutualArt reported that the major houses sold only as much art in the first six months of 2020 as they had hammered in May of 2019 alone.
Thus, the decadent and spectacular art circus of the oughties and teens has been afflicted. The primary market is closed, the public sector is closed and contentious, the museums are collapsing, and the secondary market is reeling. The circus is almost silent now.
Only one arena remains in which new American art might continue in any meaningful and significant way while corona reigns over us. This is the fifth ring. Unlike the other rings, it is usually private, a quiet place where the discrete and sophisticated dance of patronage is performed. In the fifth ring the lights are dim, and the performances are finely crafted for the satisfaction of individuals. This is where hope for art rests, for it is only within the fifth ring of patronage that artists have a chance to meet philanthropy and benevolence. This is a golden moment for wealthy Americans to become buyers of a new kind of American art. But what kind of art will they commission? And what kind of people will commission it?
The black death eliminated a third of the population of Europe. After the tidal plague receded it had transformed the world. Medieval feudal hierarchies collapsed. Either killed by the disease or bankrupted, much of the nobility was replaced by a novel and dynamic bourgeois class of merchants who hungered for wealth. This new social mobility allowed the families of former soldiers to become dukes, and former peasants to become bankers. Education became a necessity – mathematics for the bankers, languages for the international traders, engineering for the builders, science for the warriors and the merchants. These families were keen to show that they were worthy of their new status, and demonstrated it by commissioning masterpieces in the explosion of the renaissance. And they shared much of the new art they commissioned with the people of their cities.
Our plague is a lightweight compared to the heavy black death, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that it will kill up to 1.7 million Americans, most of them elderly. This spike in mortality will speed up the immense transfer of wealth from the baby boomers to the younger generation that was predicted before Covid-19 had appeared, and an extraordinary $30 trillion will change hands in coming years as boomers die. This historic change will create a class of millennial Americans who have suddenly inherited great wealth, a new class which will feel many of the same insecurities as those families of the renaissance. Many among them will be keen to show that they are cultured members of society. Among this new, well-educated generation of American aristocracy there are many who know and understand the big and good ideas that provide the foundation for the liberal democracy that makes their lives possible. This enlightened class has our culture in its hands.
Covid has forced us to experience the disturbances of great social change. Such changes tend to cause a reaction against the preceding order. Could there be a reawakening among the new millennial aristocracy, a drive to seek out sincerity, depth, meaning, skill and goodness? Surely, among the rising millennial generation, there are decent, honest people who believe in the value of the virtues. The circus is closed. It is time for you to commission the art of the new renaissance. It is time for you to become our artistic leaders, to show by your example how we should live in these dark days.
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“Many of the surrealists left the mysterious landscape of the imagination largely uncharted, barely penetrating the frontiers of the subconscious. Not so Heffernan.”
I really enjoyed writing this.
I try to write my articles to reflect the art, and it seemed to me that the rich flow of imagery that I love in her paintings resembled hypotaxis – a sentence with multiple subclauses and sideways journeys, so I wrote the first paragraph in that manner. It’s 354 words. However, I was also struck by the contrast between the richness of the paintings and her studio, which is so simple and bare. So I wrote the next paragraph describing the studio using parataxis, which is the opposite of hypotaxis, language written in short, undecorated sentences, punchy, to the point. I liked the juxtaposition of the two very much, because the styles paralleled the real world.
You can see more of Heffernan’s paintings in her books:
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I wrote this article for MutualArt about the problem with hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin’s purchase of a Basquiat for $100,000,000. In it, I describe the issue faced by US museums that it doesn’t really matter how many paintings by minority artists they buy, nor how many of their employees are from minorities – they will always be accused of virtue-signaling until their aristocratic, white boards include minority members who are equally as rich as them.
You can see why Basquiat made such a huge impact on the art world by flipping through this lovely volume of his energetic work, published by Taschen.
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He was an excellent host, and allowed me to explain the early history of the avant-garde and its indisputably proto-communist origins. I regret that I didn’t have time to talk about how New York brahmins appropriated the term “avant-garde” to mean something quite different.
Early 20th-century American art critics Guillame Apollinaire, Clement Greenberg and Edward Jewell subtly changed the meaning of the term when they began applying it to left-wing artists who were individualists, instead of using it to describe artists who were socialist-realist propagandists. The transition began with Apollinaire, who had coined the terms “surrealism” and “orphism,” and also used “avant-garde” in 1912 to describe “the young painters of the avant-garde school.” Apollinaire said these avant-gardists wanted to make pure paintings after the fashion of the legendary ancient Greek painter Apelles, who had used delicate lines to compete with his rival Protogenes.
Regardless of whether Apollinaire was unaware of, or did not understand the history of the term as the specific domain of socialist realism, or if he deliberately appropriated it in his search for the nomenclature of modern painting, using “avant-garde” to describe modern and abstract artists was a significant choice, for now the term was equated with radical efforts to find a new art to satisfy the new time, not to describe specifically communist propaganda.
In Fall of 1939 Greenberg’s Avant-Garde and Kitsch was published in Partisan Review – an American communist journal. The article was written from the position that in the 1930’s, capitalism was perceived as a failed and broken system for which the only antidote was Marxist communism. This apocalyptic stance colours everything that follows in the essay. With remarkable pessimism, Greenberg claimed that avant-garde culture was a response to “the last phase of our own culture.” He starts well, noting that the birth of the avant-garde coincided chronologically – and geographically, too – with “the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe,” which presumably means Saint-Simonian proto-communism. But he quickly gets his facts absurdly wrong, ridiculously claiming that bohemia “was then identical with the avant-garde,” despite his own admission that bohemians were “demonstratively uninterested in politics.” He maintained that the avant-garde had emigrated from bourgeois society to bohemia, and rejected the markets of capitalism, but that bohemians were also conscious of the fact that bohemia needed bourgeois money. Greenberg correctly explained that his avant-garde artists – he really meant bohemians – had rejected revolutionary politics and embarked upon a search for the absolute, manifested as art for art’s sake, at which point subject matter or content were “avoided like a plague.” His avant-garde, then, tried but failed to imitate, not god, but “the disciplines and processes of art itself.” This imitation of imitation was “the genesis of the ‘abstract.’”
This was an hopelessly incorrect application of the term “avant-garde” to the true situation in mid-19th century France, in which the bohemian and individualist practitioners of art for art’s sake would have vehemently objected to being described with it.
By describing bohemian abstract artists as “avant-garde,” the Marxist Greenberg had appropriated bohemia and given it a radical left flavor. The contradiction was self-evident – hadn’t he said himself that his avant-garde was umbilically attached to the American elite by capital? His claim that after 1848 bohemia had become a sanctuary from capitalism jars with the historical narrative of the repeated story of bohemians either maturing into members of the bourgeoisie as they found success, or, as Murger had described, finding the hospital or the morgue instead.
This new avant-garde was still used as a propaganda tool, but now it was a tool that projected American soft-power.
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MutualArt has published my most recent piece of journalistic writing, “Carl Dobsky – Prophet of the West.” This was a really enjoyable journey into the world of prophets, as I did some background reading to understand how Dobsky’s paintings affected me. I hadn’t previously considered that 20th-century performance artists who were concerned with social criticism were the equivalent of old testament prophets. Biblical prophets often used performance and visual props to make their ideas more impressive.
In Jeremiah 19, Jehovah gives the eponymous prophet detailed directions on how to stage a performance outside the East gate of Jerusalem for the kings of Judah, and the city’s inhabitants, in which he smashed a clay pot, using the event as a parable to illustrate how the faithless city would be ravaged by the anger of their god – “Even so will I break this people, and this city.” More recently the Chinese performance artist Ai WeiWei used this same gesture in a brief video, which he titled “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” to emphasize his disrespect and distaste for Chinese traditional culture.
Jehovah instructed another Prophet, Ezekiel, to perform a lengthy endurance event, According to the Tanakh, he said, “Now, son of man, take a clay tablet, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face toward it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the house of Israel. Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the house of Israel. After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her. I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege.”
Doesn’t this remind you of the performance artist Chris Burden, who spent twenty-two days in February of 1972 confined naked to a bed in a Los Angeles gallery? What did it mean? The audience felt frightened. Burden described feeling like a repulsive magnet. Willful self-imprisonment, deprivation, and suffering. Compare the masochism of Burden’s action with the religious extremity of Ezekiel: – the former is an act of self-indulgence, the second, an act of a zealot.
Surprisingly, there are several books about prophets as performance artists. Here are a few:
I’m glad that painters as skillful as Carl Dobsky show that cultural criticism was not only the domain of the avant-garde, and I’m glad that he is willing to point to the hypocrisy of the West, and I’m glad that ancient prophetic performances show that members of the avant-garde were as conservatively traditional as representational artists, if more disingenuous about their intentions. The prophets of the Torah never felt the need to pretend that they were artists doing something new and radical. The prophets were the self-confessed preachers of their faith, just as many performance artists of the avant-garde were preachers of their own intersectional faith, which had nothing to do with any god.
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