Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saatchi's Defection.

The leading British collector Charles Saatchi ranks as one of the most influential figures in the world of contemporary art.  Twenty-five years ago he began an energetic campaign of acquiring work by such artists as Derek Hirst and Tracey Emin.  Known collectively as the Young British Artists, these figures and their associates are credited with revitalizing art in the United Kingdom, raising it to world-class status.  Eventually, Saatchi created his own gallery of these works, finally donating them to the British public.

Because of his prominent role, the fact that Saatchi published a skeptical article on the art world in December 2011 made waves.

Born in 1943 to considerable wealth, Charles Saatchi founded, together with his brother Maurice, an advertising agency that emerged as the world’s largest in the 1980s.  Concentrating his resources, Charles Saatchi was able purchase pretty much anything he wished.  He began  collecting in 1969 at the age of 26, specializing in late modern works, most of them non-British. At one point the Saatchi collection contained eleven works by Donald Judd, twenty-one by Sol LeWitt, twenty-three by Anselm Kiefer, seventeen Andy Warhols and twenty-seven by Julian Schnabel. In 1988, after visiting the Freeze exhibition organized by Damien Hirst, he switched to the Young British Artists. 

What are the problems that Charles Saatchi highlighted in his piece of December 2,  2012 in the Guardian?  The article bears the title of “The Hideousness of the Art World.”  He pulls no punches.

“Even a show-off like me finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow.

“Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for this year's spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-fillled socialising, from one swanky party to another.”

He goes on to ask:  “Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.”

The curators must shoulder some of the blame.  “For professional curators, selecting specific paintings for an exhibition is a daunting prospect, far too revealing a demonstration of their lack of what we in the trade call ‘an eye.’ They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers. This 'conceptualised' work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s . . . ”

Charles Saatchi’s beef seems to come down to this.  Unlike most earlier collectors of the avant-garde, the new breed of acquisitors has no background or even affinity for art.  The objects are simply status symbols in the most obvious sense.  In collusion with dealers, who are getting rich off this feeding frenzy,  money corrupts everything.  In this donnybrook, curators have been falling down on their job.

Saatchi’s cri du coeur raises several interesting questions.  What exactly are the origins of the new superrich vulgarians who are polluting the art world?  Since I don’t frequent such circles, I can only hazard a guess.  Some may be Russian oligarchs, others Silicon Valley tycoons--and (maybe) big-time drug dealers.

What does this influx of ignoranti collectors have to say about the art they choose?  Has their corrupting influence had a noxious effect on current production?  Evidently not--at least not yet--because Saatchi says, accurately enough, that this Conceptual stuff has been prevalent since the 1960s. 

It is not clear to what extent Charles Saatchi might now regret the purchases he so avidly made during his salad days.  Some items, though, he apparently sold off before he donated his hoard to the British nation.

SECOND THOUGHTS.  When I first read Saatchi's attack, I experienced an agreeable sense of schadenfreude.  Now, I thought, the swindle of contemporary art is getting what it deserves!  One of the prime culprits has seen the light, and has openly confessed his complicity.

Perhaps, though, Saatchi as he now is, and I are just old fogeys.

Some further reflection suggests that the nature of art has fundamentally changed, and not necessarily disastrously.  It may be that art has finally escaped its focus on holy objects, a concept traceable ultimately to medieval reliquaries, and has become participation and performance instead. At any rate, it is this concept that is drawing in so may savvy young people in their twenties and thirties.  This is particularly true of the Tate Modern, a vast pile in London managed by the brilliant Nicholas Serota, which attracts five million people a year.

The nature of the Tate Modern experience has been ably captured by John Elderfield, one of the most eminent senior scholars in the field of modern art.  Elderfield believes that what has happened at the Tate Modern is "a radical change in how people use museums now.  It's not only about looking closely at works of art; it's moving around within a sort of cultural spectacle.  I have friends who think this is the end of civilization, but a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things and be transported by them."  (Quoted by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker, July 2, 2002; a piece unfortunately protected by a firewall: https://www.google.com/search?q=Tomkins%20The%20Modern%20Man&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&source=hp&channel=np).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The concept of ethnic self-hatred.

Advocates of social change for traditionally disadvantaged groups--including African Americans, Hispanics, women, and GLBT people--have long been troubled by a particular issue:  why do some individuals in these communities seem to embrace the values of the host group which, as the advocates plausibly maintain, has been oppressing them?  To use the language of World War II, why do some people in these groups become collaborationists?

To be sure, such charges of collusion with the power structure can be abused, as when some Jews charge those who do not share their view of the Israel-Palestinian question of being “self-hating Jews."  Similarly, gay and lesbian people who are not enthusiastic about same-sex marriage are met with the accusation of harboring “internalized homophobia.”  Some young African Americans chide their peers for “acting white.”

Contested though it may be, the issue of  the “self-hating” minority member is central.  How did it develop, and what positive use can one make of this concept?

An important advance in this realm was made by Kurt Lewin (1890-1947),  a German-Jewish scholar who settled in the United States in 1933. Too little known today, Lewin deserves to be honored as the founder of social psychology.  He was one of the first to put the study of group dynamics and organizational development on a firm basis.

Lewin observed a tendency for some members of underprivileged groups to display a degree of contempt or animosity towards their own group. Although his account particularly concerned Jews, self-hatred could be detected among many disadvantaged groups, such as African Americans as well as Polish, Italian, and Greek immigrants in the United States. That self-hatred could be found at both group and individual levels. At the group level it was seen in hostility between different Jewish groups (e.g. between German and East European Jews in Europe, and between Spanish and German Jews in the US). At the individual level, it was seen in hostility towards “the Jews as a group, against a particular fraction of the Jews, against his own family, or against himself. It may be directed against Jewish institutions, Jewish mannerisms, Jewish language, or Jewish ideals.”

Seeking to escape the consequences of anti-Semitism in Europe, Lewin was dismayed to find that it occurred, less lethally to be sure, in his adopted country.  Lewin focused on the phenomenon among Jews not solely because the subject was of personal interest to him, but because of attention that had been given to the matter by such Jewish intellectuals in Central Europe as Otto Weininger and Theodor Lessing.  In particular, Lessing’s 1930 book Der jūdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-Hatred) had put the term and the concept before the general public.  As analyzed by Lessing and others, the concept stemmed from the dilemma of German and Austrian Jews who sought to assimilate to “Germantum,” but found themselves all too often shunned by those that they would join.  By the same token, Zionists excoriated the Jewish assimilationists for their naiveté.

Based on his own experience, Lewin noted that some people seek to distance themselves from membership in devalued groups by adopting the negative evaluations held by the majority.  In addition, they view their social origins as an obstacle to the pursuit of social status.  These ideas were further explored by such social scientists as Gordon Allport and Erving Goffman.  Such investigations have not always been uncontroversial, witness the doll studies of Clark and Clark (1947), and subsequent work which claims to show evidence of “black self-hatred.”

New light has been thrown on the origins of this general approach by a book that has just appeared: Paul Reitter, On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred  (Princeton University Press).  A scholar of German literature, Reitter  has established that the expression “Jewish self-hatred” was not coined by Lessing in 1930, as is commonly thought.  Rather, Lessing purloined the term from a now forgotten Viennese writer, Anton Kuh, who had used it a decade before. Somewhat paradoxically, both Kuh and Reitter do not simply condemn the tendency.  Rightly used, they seemed to believe, the concept of self-criticality could be constructive.  As such, Reitter argues, they advocated its extension to all of humanity.

Thus the origins of the concept of ethnic self-hatred.  As we have seen, through later studies the concept has become better understood.  Surely, though, there is more to be learned about the utility and limitations of this social-science motif.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Books once more. 

A recent article asserts that the US had only 500 real bookstores in 1931. What we had, most of us, was libraries, as Ray Bradbury eloquently explains.

" I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school."

In my impoverished childhood I (WRD) mainly went to libraries for books. Then when I could, I started acquiring them, big time. Now I have way, way too many. Why have them? I used to say that if I am up until 3 in the morning I can't go to the library. But now there is the Internet, available 24/7.   There are several other reasons--or rationalizations.  I like to mark my books, so as to find particular passages. Then there is object fetishism: I love the way books feel and smell.  Unlike people, they can never up and leave you of their own accord.  Barring a fire or some other disaster, they only clear out when the owner decides that it is time to end the relationship.

OK, fine: there are reasons for having a moderate number of books, but why so many?  I currently have some 14,000.  For this surfeit I blame two estimable figures: Aby Warburg and Jorge Luis Borges.  During the sixties I spent many absorbing hours in the Warburg Library in London, which exemplified Warburg’s ideal of using books to show cultural transmission, so that for Dante, for example, there would be versions in several languages as well as studies documenting the “fortuna” of that author.  Borges’ idea was even more grandiose.  The library should mirror the world.  But doesn’t travel accomplish that purpose?  That is true, and I did quite a bit of traveling.  But books mirror or represent the world in the way that the real world does not.