“Quality,” primarily defined as formal skill, is back in vogue, part and parcel of a conservative, some would say retrogressive, painting and drawing revival. And it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song.
Damien Hirst’s “Golden Calf” sold for $18.6 million last year, but the art climate has changed.
Students who entered art school a few years ago will probably have to emerge with drastically altered expectations. They will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.
(...)It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.
At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.
Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art, so critics will need to go back to school, miss a few parties and hit the books and the Internet. Debate about a “crisis in criticism” gets batted around the art world periodically, suggesting nostalgia for old-style traffic-cop tastemakers like Clement Greenberg who invented movements and managed careers. But if there is a crisis, it is not a crisis of power; it’s a crisis of knowledge. Simply put, we don’t know enough, about the past or about any cultures other than our own.
(...)I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable — impossible to buy or sell — is the primary enterprise. Crazy! says anyone with an ounce of business sense. Right. Exactly. Crazy.