(This is an old essay.)

by Zak Smith

The Problem Is…

(among other things) this painting…

The problem with this painting starts with the fact that it is, as you may have guessed already, a magnificent painting. It is great art. It will, unfortunately, never be Great Art. And that’s what I’m on about here.

(Taste being taste and all, you might disagree that it is great. Contrary to Contemporary Art dogma, you are entitled to your opinion. But this isn’t about whether it’s great art or not, but it’s about whether it’s Great Art or not. Stay tuned…)

What Do You Mean, Exactly?

What I mean is that despite the fact that this painting (by the artist Nicholas DiGenova) is wonderful and beautiful and inventive and innovative and original and striking and not-quite-like-anything-else, it will probably never be considered Contemporary Art by the people who write the big essays for the cutting-edge art magazines and decide who gets to be in the museums and who write the art history books.

I hasten to say this is not Nicholas’ problem—he will be fine. There is an entire commercial universe of illustrators, designers, graffiti-guys, underground galleries, animators, and magazines like Juxtapoz that know a good monster painting when they see it and can be relied upon to act accordingly.

So Whose Problem Is It?

It’s a problem for the Contemporary Art world-the world that pays my bills and is responsible for things like the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Bienniale and which fights with the National Endowment for the Arts and gets excited about the Bilbao Museum and gets profiled on PBS and claims to represent the leading edge of culture and which resoundingly ignores people like Nicholas on a regular basis.

It will come as no surprise that a painting like this gets ignored by this world but I’ll try to lay out the arguments the gatekeepers might make as best I can:

"It’s not relevant" "It doesn’t participate in the art-historical dialogue" "It’s unsophisticated" and my favorite: "It lacks a critical voice"

A Game

Here is a game we can play—let’s find ways to alter this painting so that it will be acceptable to the Contemporary Art World. This painting would be acceptable if:

*Instead of a monster-face, the monster had a Condoleeza Rice-face


*It was created using precisely the same techniques, only it was abstract.


*Instead of being painted with precision and sharply-delineated lines, it were basically the same but painted with smeary wet-on-wet paint (a la Basquiat)


*Instead of being done in an innovative style, the same picture were done in a retro- illustration style like say side-of-van-airbrush which would then allow it to be considered a comment on the culture of the era whose style it was biting


*It was revealed to be an unimaginative adaptation of a historical work of art from some ancient culture which produced a lot of monster art like, for example, the Tibetans


*Instead of all the figures being organized along a recognizable ground-plane and being fully-rendered, they were kind of floating all over the place at different angles and only half-drawn in with quotes about AIDS statistics and diary entries scrawled all over it


*All of the characters in it were, instead of original creations, taken from some well-known other source like Walt Disney Cartoons or Pokemon Cartoons or Catholic Mythology and thus was cutting-edge not only because of the aforementioned cultural-comment reasons but also by virtue of it risking some sort of legal challenge from Disney, Pokemon or the Catholic Church


*It were reorganized so that, despite being done in the same style it is now, it obviously also illustrated some well-known work from recent art history such as Christo’s “Gates”


*It was done by a schizophrenic in a mental institution and was made entirely of toothpicks

In Other Words…

The only way to make this painting acceptable to the Contemporary Art World would be to make it look more like pre-existing images (art images or otherwise images). That is, to make it lessvisually innovative.

So here we have an image that is arguably beautiful, original, visually innovative, and (if one cares about such things) does quite a bit to express the kinds of images and ideas that float around in the heads of contemporary video-game-damaged human beings. Apparently this is not enough for it to be Contemporary Art—or rather, none of this has anything to do with making it Contemporary Art.

(Some rotting old painters will say this painting simply “looks like cartoons” or “comic books” which statement simply reveals their vast ignorance and obvious lack of interest in these forms of art. No cartoon or comic artist under the deadline and storytelling pressures of those media would ordinarily produce this kind of image—it is far too detailed and ambiguous. Any afficianado will realize that it grows from illustrators of the past but is distinct from all of them.)

If an image can be beautiful, original, visually innovative, and do quite a bit to express the kinds of images and ideas that float around in the heads of contemporary human beings and still not be acceptable as Contemporary Art then we must ask ourselves what exactly Contemporary Art is for.

What Is Contemporary Art For?

Since this image could be made to fit into Contemporary Art by adding an appropriate political referent or a cultural referent or an art historical referent or by making it totally abstract or totally incompetent or by making it ironic, one would have to agree that there is no single purpose Contemporary Art has. Rather, one can gain access to the world of Contemporary Art through several different doors as long as one of them has already been marked as acceptable. Writers will eagerly discuss the gorgeous, insectile quality of Nicholas’ line and the “muted future” atmosphere of his color choices once he finds a way to make people who don’t care about these things recognize this as contemporary art


Thus, the definition of Contemporary Art is: “Stuff that looks like stuff that already is called Contemporary Art”. This is dangerous—it means that this world can only crawl forward by baby steps, if indeed it crawls forward at all.

Needless to say, many of these criteria for changing this picture would not have worked years ago. Making it abstract wouldn’t have gotten it in to the contemporary art world in 1875, the side-of-van-art thing wouldn’t have worked twenty years ago. The reason these areas of art have been opened up is because various artists came along and, by baby steps, built bridges for the timid little crawler of Contemporary Art to cross into new areas of experience.

And Why Should The Contemporary Art World Care About All This?

Perhaps “the world is not yet ready for Nicholas DiGenova” and will be after a few other artists have built a bridge—the way the Pop artists made it possible to go back and see Mel Ramos as a real artist.

The problem for Contemporary Art, however, is that the real world IS ready for Nicholas DiGenova—the real world is ready for all kinds of visual innovation which the Contemporary Art world studiously avoids. There are going to be Nicholas DiGenova toys soon and there are underground stores like Giant Robot which would die to put out a Nicholas DiGenova book and in general people who like to look at things for fun are eager to see new things even if they happen to be paintings of monsters.

Nicholas’ work is very much alive and, in the future, young artists will be inspired by him and these artists will in turn make more art and the world will continue to change and look different while the Contemporary Art world stands off in a corner and waits for a graffiti/comic book/cartoon-influenced artist to come along who takes the time to throw a bone to one of its involuted preoccupations.

The ironic thing is, the “cutting-edge” Contemporary Art World is no longer the primary site of visual innovation in our culture. The cartoonists and fashion designers and illustrators and filmmakers who sat right next to the fine artists in art school and went to the exact same foundation and art history courses are not waiting to rip off the next big development in the New York galleries—they are talking to each other and creating new things entirely on their own.

In Limbo

And yet here is Nicholas…making images that need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated, whose detail would have to be eliminated if they were animated, whose subtleties would be left unappreciated if they always appeared shackled to an album cover or a graphic novel text and who will inspire future artists to make new things.

In other words, we have an artist who needs to be seen and discussed as one and we have a Contemporary Art World which doesn’t have the language to discuss him.

I would say that this puts the Contemporary Art world in danger of becoming completely irrelevant if it weren’t for the fact that it’s been obvious to everyone outside of it that the Contemporary Art world has been irrelevant for years.

People in all walks of life still listen to new and innovative musicians, people who are not filmmakers or critics will still go see “Being John Malkovich” and people who are not writers or publishers will still read Salman Rushdie. But where is the non-art-world-insider who still believes in Contemporary Art?

Why do people claim that you need a college-level art education to appreciate art while not demanding a film education, a music education or a literary education?

(Artist Peter Halley argues that we need an art education but not a film one because we are all subject to a film education via television, but this analogy falls apart—everyone also looks at different kinds of pictures their whole lives.)

How Did This Happen?

Why is Contemporary Art an oligarchic “dialogue” between competing Andy Warhol fans rather than a place where anyone who has a new idea about the way the world could look throws their hat in the ring and then fans come and see if the hat fits their head?

Like all the best and worst things in life, it begins with the Twentieth Century. Specifically with machines, capitalism, and democracy.

Mechanical reproduction changed all of the arts. Media that could become mass media—that is media that were intended to be experienced in recorded form—flourished. Musicians got to make records (and began to make music that specifically responded to the recorded format), film (which was, by definition, recorded) was invented, and writers (who had always been working in a recorded format) got published like never before. On the other hand, art forms which could not be entirely faithfully recorded became less and less popular. Theatre, dance—the lively arts became a specialist’s taste as the twentieth century stretched on.

Paintings and sculptures and their ilk had it even worse—mechanical reproduction meant musicians could live by selling records, writers by selling books, and even the dance and theatre people could try to sell tickets—artists were the only ones left trying to sell something expensive. Thus, in a democratic age, art people, because of the very nature of their medium, were stuck with a basically medieval distribution system—you make your money, and thus can afford to keep working, only by convincing a small group of extremely wealthy and important people with a specialist’s taste that your work is worth buying.

The effect on the various media was predictable—while there were backers and businesspeople in every other medium who, at one time or another, were willing to throw support behind just about anything on the grounds that it could easily find a new audience somewhere in the mass market, dealers knew that they could only back an artist that they could sell to a known collector.

And the collectors themselves, while not necessarily bad or even closed-minded, are a self-perpetuating system—a wealthy person becomes a collector because they become interested in art—that is, the kind of art that had already existed when they launched on their collecting career—therefore their taste tends to lean toward the way things were before. Thus the chance of a dealer taking on an artist whose work would appeal to an audience who was not already interested in the current art scene (the way the Ramones appealed to people who were completely disgusted with the entire music scene or the way Star Wars appealed to people who had never even seen a movie before) is slight.

A work in a mass medium can try to find a brand new audience, the fine arts dealer must always aim to please a pre-existing one.

(By the way, you can watch this happen all the time—dealers take on a new young artist provisionally, show their work to some collectors they know, and if the collectors bite then they give the artist a show.)


…it’s the Twentieth Century and, for various reasons I don’t need to go into here, artists in all media are being avante-garde and experimenting with “Challenging The Audience’s Expectations”. (i.e. surprising people.)

James Joyce wrote a book called “Ulysses” where he gave people far more than they expected. It was difficult and full of literary and cultural and religious allusions and even though it required an education to get the allusions it didn’t require one to enjoy the book since it was full of sensual descriptive sentences like the part where he’s talking about a guy putting mustard on his sandwich and says “He studded under each lifted strip yellow blobs”. Other writers liked this idea of giving people more than they asked for and started writing great books full of stuff and people read them.

Meanwhile again other writers like Hemingway and Beckett were busy giving people wayless than they expected and were also making new and interesting things and some people liked them and wrote new books like that. And some people liked both and, in general, tons of writers got tons of great ideas.

Meanwhile yet again, over in the fine arts, Marcel Duchamp was giving the audiencewayyyyyy less than they expected by sticking ordinary objects on pedestals and while most people thought this was pretty boring a few people thought this was a great idea and kept doing it.

He also talked a lot. This is because, in the fine arts, no matter what anyone made nobody would ever see it unless some important rich person could be convinced to buy one and therefore it’d be considered culturally valuable enough to get into a museum or another show at a bigger gallery and so there arose a very powerful class of people whose job it was to explain to the rich people which things to buy and they were called critics.

Now, many will argue that there are music critics and film critics and literary critics and so art critics are nothing special but I’d disagree. Because music, film and (to some degree) literature are mass media, even if the tastemakers hate something it can still shift a lot of units and get past these gatekeepers. The critics hated Black Sabbath and it mattered not a bit and they went on to be one of the most influential bands in history.

But the fine arts are not a mass medium and thus the artists’ careers live or die at the whim of those who decide who gets to be in a given magazine in a given month. If you are never in Artforum you are never going to be a Contemporary Artist. Period. Without some sympathetic critic, whatever paying audience an artist could find will simply be unaware that they exist at all


The most serious consequence of this is that because critics use words their reviews are heavily skewed toward work that is easy to explain with words. This is not necessarily true of all of them, but if you take a random sample of critics (and this pretty much what we’ve got), what they write about will be heavily skewed toward whatever it is easy to describe and make seem unique in words.

It requires real powers of description to describe what makes one Hans Bellmer doll photograph so creepy and uncanny and the one he made the next day just a pedestrian picture of some weird doll. It takes actual prose writing and maybe even poetry to justify the claim that one giant abstract painting with purple and red blobs is infinitely superior to another giant abstract painting with purple and red blobs. I takes an intimate knowledge of the visual world and a keen descriptive vocabulary to explain what makes a Nicholas DiGenova so much more powerful than the kids’ stuff it grows out of. However, any jackass with a keyboard and an encyclopedia can explain how a urinal on a pedestal is kind of different from, say, a Rodin.

That is, any pseudo-intellectual can translate for a piece of art that says something. It takes an artist or a poet or a real writer to talk about why looking at a given thing is a pleasurable experience.

So the artists that dealers selected as fit to get past the critics in order to enter the arena of Contemporary Art, rather predictably, became easier and easier to describe and harder and harder to look at.

And So…

…in the fine arts, the avante-garde that gave people less than they expected completely triumphed over the avante garde that was trying to give people more than they expected.

We got conceptual art and minimal art and it was really easy to explain how it was unexpected (I bet you didn’t expect a big white cube! Haha!) but it was impossible to make people actually cross town to go look at stuff that looked exactly like you’d imagine it’d look from its verbal description.

And so Contemporary Art became a self-perpetuating system—the only people who wanted to get involved in it were people who were so unimaginative that when they actually saw a big white cube it seemed to be different than the way they had imagined it.

And there were people like Andy Warhol who gave people pictures that were kind of like all the psychedelic posters being made outside of Contemporary Art at the same time only they were of less interesting things (like a really simple photo of Jackie O you’d already seen instead of like Janis Joplin with her hair on fire in a bi-plane) and repeated over and over and this gave the critics a great challenge to sink their teeth into where they could explain that, against all evidence, this was not boring but actually interesting even though everybody knew that people only bought them so that collectors could have some bright colors over their bed without anybody thinking they liked some hairy rock band.

Meanwhile people who wanted to give people more than they expected drifted off into other fields because they couldn’t make any money in art because the only collectors were people who started collecting because they couldn’t imagine a big white cube without a visual aid.

And this went on for so long that, after a while, only the people who read wall text instead of looking would go anywhere near a museum, thus creating the illusion that everyone in the world actually agreed with the critics’ consensus.

And all the artists who got famous and critics who were considered very wise and dealers who got rich and collectors who got praised as being “prescient” dug this situation and didn’t WANT to bring all the disgusted people back to the museum because as Dave Hickey always says “It is gratifying to see your opinion prevail” or, as they say in politics, low voter turnout favors the incumbents.

And so art became a “dialogue” instead of a smorgasbord.

And soon people would say that art needed “the critic in order to complete it” and nobody would think this was insane the way they would’ve if you’d told them “Psycho” or “Like A Rolling Stone” needed a critic to complete it and the critics were extremely chuffed of course and people who liked to look at things were off somewhere else looking at things which were contemporary and art but not Contemporary Art and occasionally developments would occur which “shook the art world” which meant “shook the narrow assumptions of a bunch people who all agreed about nearly everything and assumed nearly all the same things”.

So What Is To Be Done?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It is clear that, at least under for a while longer, there will be intellectual banter surrounding art. But it doesn’t have to suck.

A fine example is the way people talk about books. Literary theorists talk alot about the death of the author and of originality and the impossibility of communication but they also realize that people go on writing great books, getting them reviewed, and revealing, in the process, important things about what human beings can reveal about the human condition from their own unique patch of ground.

Books full of blank pages or the same letter over and over may exist but they are not lit world sensations and everybody knows that, for example, “Lolita” is a hell of a lot more intelligent and bold and worthwhile than proving you can write a book using moss instead of paper.

This is perhaps because the intellectual life of contemporary literature is influenced by a bunch of extremely articulate people who are fully capable of describing, for instance, why “Other People” or “Last Night of the Earth Poems” is way more fun for everybody involved than rewriting “Sense and Sensibility” word-for-word with all the genders reversed. These people are called novelists.

The intellectual life of literature has been aided immeasurably by the fact that when writers talk about writing, people listen at least as hard as they do when critics talk.

We don’t have that luxury—most artists don’t write and making these arguments via images alone is a vague and dubious business which may distract the artist from making the art they actually want to look at. But those of us who can talk should. We should say that there’s more to life than this airless high-altitude game where only people who shout soundbites from the top of a stack of corpses are heard.

I’m not pretending I think this will work—it would require too much. It would require Contemporary Art admitting that Roy Lichtenstein’s career was nothing more than a long and tedious insult to Jack Kirby’s, that Warhol was duller and lazier than Victor Moscoso, that I-don’t-know-much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, that the quality of a work of art depends on how long you can look at it rather than how long you can talk about it, that art that appropriates or references (i.e.”looks like”) stuff you’ve seen before is actually not radical but the very definition of conservative, and it would, in short, require one of those periodic revolts against prejudice and snobbery and the tyranny of some meaning-imparting entity (a church, a state, a cabal of wealthy people) that opens up the world of art to new influences and marks the beginning of a new era. And that could never happen.

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