Letter from London

Letter from London: Everything Must Go

Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko in "Red"

John Logan’s play Red, currently playing at the Golden Theater, New York, centers around a perennial ethical conundrum many successful artists face: whether or not to “sell out” to corporate interests. In the play, Mark Rothko, played by Alfred Molina (you can’t help but wonder if Pollock would have been a more appropriate choice, given his multi-limbed turn as Dr. Octopus in Spider Man 2) battles through the ethics of accepting the Four Seasons commission for the Seagram building in 1959 for a series of mural-sized paintings. Rothko’s quandary, played out through combative and discursive dialogues with his young assistant, has become a modernist parable and yardstick of art’s relationship to the wider society. In the end (spoiler alert!), Rothko turned down the commission after having dinner in the restaurant with his wife (“Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine,” he growled famously, making sure his assistant got the words down right), perhaps having assumed that his works would be visible to office workers rather than the upper echelons of Manhattan society. This seems unlikely, given his apparent intention to create a nightmarish, claustrophobic atmosphere in the paintings, inspired by the unsettling vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence. It’s more probable that his airless, funereal canvases were made as an act of spectacularly ungrateful hand-biting.

Whatever the reason, Rothko did ultimately refuse the commission, offering the majority of his paintings instead to the Tate in London, where nine of them now hang. Their belated redemption – in a public, free museum, where their low-lit installation implicitly evokes a hermetic, sacred space – has secured the artist as a kind of latterday spiritualist, committed entirely to the production of art and not the swelling of his bank balance. With one beady eye on posterity (Rothko was obsessed with his own place in art history, as were many of his fellow Abstract Expressionists), Rothko sought to save himself from accusations of craven commercialism. By refusing the commission, he bought himself a place in a Romantic pantheon alongside Courbet, Michelangelo, and Pollock. Even his death – by his own hand, in a bath, in 1970 – seemed calculated to resonate with art-historical tradition: a bit Marat, a bit Van Gogh.

The relationship between culture and commercialism is an implicit and ongoing subject in our contemporary society of late Romantic yearning for significance. Rock music – the last real bastion of Romanticism, after Warhol made commercialism a fit artistic subject in itself – has been obsessed since its inception with its own authenticity. Popular music’s fixation with authenticity – from hip hop’s disingenuous rallying-cry to “keep it real” while bathed in spangly bling, to Kurt Cobain’s willful rejection of his band’s own popularity and that eternal riposte to populism, “the difficult second album” – is part of its self-definition, whatever it sounds like. So if rock music had, by the late 60s, siphoned off the residue of the 19th century Romantic tradition, where does that leave art now?

Kurt Cobain with daughter Frances Bean

The fact is that the conjoining of art and corporate interests apparently ushered in by Warhol has been (like almost anything ostensibly ushered in by Warhol) greatly exaggerated. Even in his time, contemporaries like Judd and, latterly, Smithson and Heizer – always white and nearly always male – perpetuated a cartoonishly Romantic mistrust of commerce by making works of art that couldn’t be sold – ephemeral, site-specific, geographically isolated large-scale interventions into a landscape. There were, however, always ways to make money on the side, through various kinds of documentation associated with the project. Land art’s apparent anti-commercial bias did what any cultural movement away from the commercial mainstream did – it drove more buyers to it (we’re all 15-year old boys at heart). Much to Cobain’s chagrin, In Utero sold as well as Nevermind. What’s tied up in this is a 19th-century notion of an artist’s ethical purity, that artists are a society’s conscience. Rothko’s conundrum is axiomatic but not isolated.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Self-Portrait," 1639. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The retention of the notion that artists should be against society rather than for it draws the line more definitively between art of our time and that of the past. Whatever superficial connections we’re encouraged to draw between contemporary and historical art, they rarely have much in common. Rothko’s brow-clutching angst would have been laughable to, say, Rubens, who quite happily made aggrandizing portraits of the very wealthy at the same time as producing impassioned visual pleas against war. Corporate sponsorship simply wasn’t a matter for concern before Romanticism made it an issue. Artists in the Renaissance had their works funded by bankers whose portraits they agreed to wedge into religious scenes, even letting them play the Magi if the price was right. This sort of self-aggrandizing patronage was necessary and wasn’t a choice for artists in the 15th century, given the paucity of patronal options. And yet it’s not at all the same thing as corporate patronage now, which leads us on to a very contemporary kerfuffle over contemporary art’s relationship with unethical fiscal power.

Julie Mehretu’s 80-foot-long painting for the lobby of the Goldman Sachs office in New York provides an apt lesson in the ethics of corporate patronage in 2010. Revelations of the investment bank’s misleading mortage investments (which lead Gordon Brown to describe the firm as “morally bankrupt”) had not appeared by the time Mehretu accepted the commission. Interviewed by Calvin Tompkins in The New Yorker recently, the artist made her motives quite clear: this would be her largest commission to date, and would be visible to the public through the glass-fronted lobby (with more than a shade of Rothko’s quasi-socialist aspirations for the Seagram murals). The huge canvas, made in Mehretu’s signature exploded-diagram style, hasn’t been entirely popular with staff (see Courtney Comstock’s blog post here, which berates the painting because it doesn’t even have a title!), but what’s more interesting is Tompkins and Mehretu’s awkward justifications for its existence.

At one point, the author asks the painter if she’d have accepted the commission if the revelations of corporate wrongdoing had been made available to her. “Without hesitation,” she replies. “I don’t see it as an evil institution, but part of the larger system we all participate in.” The virtue of Mehretu’s own work aside, isn’t the point of the unfolding Goldman Sachs scandal that it was operating outside of “the larger system” of corporate ethical responsibility? In reference to artist’s acceptance of commissions from ethically dubious patrons, Tompkins whimsically concludes: “Fair enough, I guess. If art were judged by the company it keeps, much of the High Renaissance would go down the drain.” Which isn’t an honest comparison, given the limited range of available patrons during the Renaissance due to a more or less feudal economic system. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to artists such as Raphael or Titian that the conditions of their practice had ethical repercussions. That’s what artmaking was then.

Julie Mehretu

Is it reasonable to berate Mehretu for her acceptance of the commission? On the one hand, it’s a bit adolescent to take a finger-wagging position on “sell-outs.” It’s not as though corporate interests don’t dominate both public and private institutions, from UBS’s extensive funding of the rehang of Tate Modern to the Letrasetted lists of corporate funders on every museum wall in the world. On the other, residual Romantic reservations about the overt capitulation to corporate interests generate a queasy aftertaste, especially given Goldman Sachs’ unspooling ethical wrongdoings. It’s hard not to see Mehretu’s mural as backdrop to and symbol of the unraveling of unchecked greed, as it became last week on a Huffington Post page accompanying further revelations – those whirling, dismantling blocks and curves are almost embarrassingly prescient and metaphorical. Maybe it’s inappropriate to look back at Rothko’s “bodacious kernels of windbaggery,” as Stephanie Zacharek brilliantly put it, but there’s something about the artist’s genuine anxiety over his art’s function in the world – however pompously or portentously put – that provides an historical corrective to the sometimes ethically confused world of contemporary art.


  1. Ross Selavy says:

    Golly, it’s tough to make a living as an artist these days. Not only is it hard to make a sale in the contemporary art market, where collectors, museums, and galleries determine what good art is. Now you have to do background checks on your buyers.

    Julie Mehretu is being criticized for accepting a commission in 2007 to paint a mural for corporate patron, Goldman Sachs. In hindsight it is too easy to see Ms. Mehretu as making a deal with the devil. Is an artist required to vet his/her patrons before accepting a commission? Before making an individual sale? (I bet Bernard Madoff bought a few tshatshkes.) Is it inherently unethical to sell art to companies? There is an important difference between the ethics of patronage and the ethics of patrons. He that is without sin among you, would you please buy the first painting?

    What, then, IS the lesson in the ethics of corporate patronage (as distinct from the ethics of corporations) provided by Mehretu’s painting for Goldman Sachs’ lobby? What IS the difference between corporate patronage in the 15th century and corporate patronage now? Frankly, I don’t see here an overt capitulation to corporate interests or a need for the artist to apologize.

    In fact, wasn’t systemic corruption one of the most important revelations of the global financial collapse? Goldman Sachs was not a rogue bank – it had plenty of cohorts around the world. Ms. Mehretu said about post-collapse Goldman, “I don’t see it as an evil institution, but as part of the larger system we all participate in. We’re all part of it.” That self-indictment strikes me as a fairly anti-social, post-Romantic statement. If her mural, which purportedly contains markings that refer to the history of finance, can now also be seen as a symbol of the unraveling of unchecked greed in a historic financial disaster, doesn’t that make it an interesting and ironic, perhaps even insidious, work of art?

    And as for that queasy aftertaste brought on by residual Romantic reservations about capitulation to corporate interests, the cure shouldn’t have to be anxiety on the part of the artist over his/her art’s function in the world. Try Rolaids.

    Reply

  2. Ross Selavy says:

    Golly, it’s tough to make a living as an artist these days. Not only is it hard to make a sale in the contemporary art market, where collectors, museums, and galleries determine what good art is. Now you have to do background checks on your buyers.

    Julie Mehretu is being criticized for accepting a commission in 2007 to paint a mural for corporate patron, Goldman Sachs. In hindsight it is too easy to see Ms. Mehretu as making a deal with the devil. Is an artist required to vet his/her patrons before accepting a commission? Before making an individual sale? (I bet Bernard Madoff bought a few tshatshkes.) Is it inherently unethical to sell art to corporations? There is an important difference between the ethics of patronage and the ethics of patrons. He that is without sin among you, would you please buy the first painting?

    What, then, IS the lesson in the ethics of corporate patronage (as distinct from the ethics of corporations) provided by Mehretu’s painting for Goldman Sachs’ lobby? What IS the difference between corporate patronage in the 15th century and corporate patronage now? Frankly, I don’t see here an overt capitulation to corporate interests or a need for the artist to apologize.

    In fact, wasn’t systemic corruption one of the most important revelations of the global financial collapse? Goldman Sachs was not a rogue bank – it had plenty of cohorts around the world. Ms. Mehretu said about post-collapse Goldman, “I don’t see it as an evil institution, but as part of the larger system we all participate in. We’re all part of it.” That self-indictment strikes me as a fairly anti-social, post-Romantic statement. If her mural, which purportedly contains markings that refer to the history of finance, can now also be seen as a symbol of the unraveling of unchecked greed in a historic financial disaster, doesn’t that make it an interesting and ironic, perhaps even insidious, work of art?

    And as for that queasy aftertaste brought on by residual Romantic reservations about capitulation to corporate interests, the cure shouldn’t have to be anxiety on the part of the artist over his/her art’s function in the world. Try Rolaids.

    Reply

  3. I think that your premise may be that good art is good regardless of the commercial success, or even thecommercial aspirations of the artist. I can’t say that I agree with this. In a pop and post pop art context commercialization doesn’t seem to me simply another means of making a living as an artist, but rather a kind of cynical commentary on art. The anti-establishment sub text of a Judd, or of a Rothco, or the patron based art of the past may have been playing to a paying audience of sorts, but the art remained more pure in my view. It dealt with existential, or emotional issues, not with its place in the world of commerce.

    Reply

  4. Ross Selavy says:

    Dear Mr. Putman,

    If you’re responding to my post, then yes, I believe that good art is good regardless of the commercial success or even the commercial aspirations of the artist. (Likewise good art is good regardless of the commercial failure of the artist.)

    However, I’m intrigued by your suggestion that, in a pop and post-pop context, commercialization is a kind of cynical commentary on art. Would you care to expand? For example, I think that Judd enjoyed some commercial success during his lifetime. (I could be wrong.) Nevertheless, you state that Judd’s art remained more pure than contemporary art that deals with its place in the world of commerce. I’m not sure what you mean by art that is pure, or what you mean by art that deals with its place in the world of commerce.

    I don’t mean to be argumentative. I’d just like to have a better understanding. Thank you.

    Reply

    Matthew Putman Reply:

    Absolutely I am happy if artists receive commercial success. They are providing something of great importance to society. If bankers are rewarded, which is often unfair, artists deserve to be.Judd deserved commercial success. That success, in my very subjective view, remained pure. I should also be careful to not judge the intention of artists. Instead I am judging the collector perceptive on those intentions. The market created by Satchi, for instance, for Demien Hirst, which eventually lead to enormous speculation amongst hedge fund managers, strikes me as cynical. Whether Hirst himself is as jaded as this seems is not so sure. I do think that when I look at a Hirst I see the commentary on society, more than I see the the personal vision, which in the case of his success leaves the work empty.

    Reply

    Ross Selavy Reply:

    I think we’re on the same page. I still insist that a work of art is intrinsically amoral, even if the artist created it solely for financial gain. It may be good art or bad art, but it is not immoral or unethical art.

    On the other hand, I agree that there is something cynical about the high-end contemporary art market. I’m not as magnanimous as you are to exonerate artists from the cynicism of the market from which they profit. I doubt that Jeff Koons, for example, is unaware of, or indifferent to, the prices that his works command. And unfortunately, it’s not just the Saatchis and other collectors who create the buzz and drive the prices. In March, Wesley Miller, Art21 Associate Curator, wrote:

    “Jeff Koons plucks images and objects from popular culture, framing questions about taste and pleasure. His contextual sleight-of-hand, which transforms banal items into sumptuous icons, takes on a psychological dimension through dramatic shifts in scale, spectacularly engineered surfaces, and subliminal allegories of animals, humans, and anthropomorphized objects.”

    It’s as if the 1960’s had never happened.

    Koons has created a brand. If the hedge fund managers, investment bankers, etc., want to buy his works, so be it. They can buy a Koons or they can buy another pair of Manolo Blahniks, a Rolex, a Porsche.

    What I regret is there are countless inspired, creative, talented artists who will never have their own American Idol moments.

    Reply

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