On Content (1985)
Arts, March 1985, pp. 84 - 85.
Content! It's all the rage. The word buzzes around the art world like flies in a barnyard. Art without content, so we are told, is like an empty ship adrift without a sail - aimless, vacant, doomed to sink slowly out of sight. Content is the moral imperative of the art of our time. If you don't have it, you better hang up your brushes and slink off into oblivion.
Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to say just what "content" is. Ask any content enthusiast if art really needs content and you will get an emphatic affirmative. Ask what "content" means and vagueness falls like a shroud. It may be subject matter, but only significant subject matter, and maybe it doesn't have to be subject matter at all as long as the work has - how shall we put it? Emotion, that is, real, honest intense emotion, and certainly it can be about the breakdown of values in our materialistic society, and, of course! The Apocalypse! And also...
If you are one of those nasty precise types who doesn't find this kind of answer quite satisfactory, press the question further and you'll end up with some tautological profundity like "content is what art must have." The professionals don't do much better. For their recent "content" show the Hirshhorn Museum defined the word, with pitiless exactitude, as "an area of concern." The show itself was no help, consisting, so it seemed, of anything non-abstract from the Approved Artist List assertively infantile enough to catch the attention of the curators. Even as I write, there is in the Sunday New York Times a long article about the significance of the various permutations of the human figure in recent art. The author lumbers through the thickets of content like a breathless dinosaur, thoroughly beguiled by the arrogant silliness he recounts and celebrates. Not once does he put his own taste on the line. Not once does he venture that some of it just might be pretty lousy as art, or even pretty good as art. But then, why should he? Again, these are the Approved Artists. One needn't make value judgments.
"Content" could be a useful word if it were allowed to mean what it should mean: whatever is there to see. We might then argue about what can be said to be "in" the work, but the word would have stability of meaning. Furthermore, if "content" meant the observable facts about a work, then aesthetic goodness, or quality, or whatever we choose to call it, would be seen as the result of the evaluation of that content, and "content" and "value" would have the conceptual discreteness they must have to be useful terms. Content is quantifiable, visible, localized, and value-neutral. Quality, the aesthetic assessment of content, is unmeasurable, invisible, unlocatable, and purely valuative.
It is very important to understand that content as such, as it stands as specifiable subject matter and material, has no given value, even though, in sum, it presents itself for evaluation. Take, for example, the figure of Christ on the cross. It is a subject full of evocation and meaning and it will suggest much that is interesting and valuable. But the figure as such has nothing to do with the aesthetic value of the painting in which it appears. The demonstration of this principle is quite simple; just look at a great painting of the crucifixion and a poor one. This goes for any particular attribute of a painting, whether it be color, drawing, style, depiction, or narrative.
Unfortunately, the confusion of content with value is endemic, and never more than today. The use of the word as a cover for conferring value on a value-free element of painting is one of the symptoms of the illiteracy and bad faith of the art business, and by "art business" I mean all of it: artists, dealers, collectors, critics, curators, academics. This narrow, specialized community naturally welcomes anything that rationalizes lower standards. History shows us that there never is very much good new art on hand. As public interest in art grows, as it has immensely in the last thirty years, there are more artists, more art, more dealers, more collectors, art journals, art critics, and academic contemporary art departments. There is more of everything, in fact, except good new art, which has diminished to a very small part of the whole. For this overgrown industry to survive, it must convince itself that the other art, the bad and mediocre art which is present in such abundance, really is good art, worthy to be bought, sold, shown and written about, and that the good new art, which is commercially insignificant and implicitly threatens and criticizes the bad art, must be reviled and ignored. The best way to promote bad art is to rationalize bad taste, to accommodate taste that is raw, vulgar, and undeveloped. This is done, in part, by shifting attention away from aesthetic evaluation and toward the acceptance of readily understood style and content which has been established as desirable. Instead of judging the worth of a work we are led to match its parts against approved forms, thereby reducing the function of taste from evaluation to identification. This process is part of the history of art. It is called fashion.
My first experience with prevalued content was back in the '50s, when I first got serious about painting. Abstraction was the coming thing back then; it had all the brash authority of the revolutionary. There were dozens of artists making paintings which were functionally abstract, usually Cubist, but with the abstraction hedged, or tempered, with subject matter and naturalistic reference. Though not expressed quite so crudely, the perception was that such painting offered "more" than realism or abstraction alone - "two for one," "the best of both," and the like. Thus Pollock could be compared unfavorably to Ben Shahn, who was "just as good an abstractionist" but had something "more" than "just decoration." Later on we got Pop Art, which grafted camp illustration onto predigested 10th Street Abstract Expressionism just in time to catch the rising tidal wave of big-time popularity which has since inundated the art world. And now, speaking of waves, we have "new wave," which is turning out "content" faster than an alligator can lay eggs.
It is interesting that the all-out move to aggressively value-laden content had to wait until the art business suffered through the intellectual wilderness of the 1970s: minimalism, conceptualism, earthworks, "documents." Even the first commercially acceptable move back into "real painting" - Pattern Painting - was just as devoid of "content" as the stuff it supplanted. "Content" was pretty scarce for a while, in New York, at least. But it has always been out there in the provinces. I've been jurying all over the country for years, and for years I've seen that "content" lying in wait, heavy-handed, student-level painting, rich in reds and blacks, a great seething gravelly substratum of vaguely ominous, cartoon-derived, funky critters. In fifteen years of jurying, from Worcester to Washington, from Durham to Dallas, I have never, for example, juried a show which did not have at least one image of a menacing dog with long, sharp teeth. Now they are here in packs, in the downtown galleries. Sometime, late in the '70s, all this "content," all this universally shared "personal imagery," gathered itself up, like the Visigoths, and came to Rome.
The Big City was ready. Ready for "new" art which had been playing the road all those fruitless years. Ready for angst, "emotion," contrived tastelessness and adolescent philosophizing. Ready for value-laden, heartlessly obvious "content," full of human and moral "values," the 1980s equivalent of the Cupids and Psyches of a hundred years ago. Ready because this art was ready-made for the kind of collector unearthed by Pop Art, newly rich, uncouth, ravenous for status and personal publicity, caring little for history and less for artistic excellence; people whose vulgarity is so ingrained and intransigent that it cannot be modified but only made more expensive; who justify themselves by pointing to a hyperactive market made up of others just like them, jerking on the same baited line, taking comfort from the not-in-the-know guy from out of town who walks through Soho and has the absolute non-cool to get offended, which means that the art must be good 'cuz it's so far out, a perversion, or a parody, if you will, of the old story of middle-class rejection of great art.
Dealers, who were slow to catch on in the '40s and '50s, have stopped sneering at these people, with their deep pockets and shallow culture. Their taste is in their socks but their checkbooks are in their hands. It only makes sense to go out and scout up something to make them happy and separate them from their money. Because this stuff is so easy to paint, especially in an atmosphere of contempt for craft, it is possible to manufacture prodigious quantities of technically regressive, ferociously academic paintings, carefully made "bad" to capitalize on their painful inadequacies, full of the kind of whacky "content" that has been thoroughly market-tested, "unique visions" so numbingly similar that a show imported from Australia easily could have been yanked right up out of Soho. Critics and curators, once wary and resistant, as they should be, have climbed aboard this Juggernaut of commerce. They'd better, or they'll lose their jobs. There is nothing, as Hollywood has long known, so easily bought and sold as an intellectual. The market tells the curators to talk to each other and get those Approved Artist Lists together and get on with it, and the hired guns at Artforum wax polysyllabically flatulent at any hot new gush of juvenalia. It has become a nasty, competitive business, operating on intimidation and hype, geared to the production and sale of objects of no intrinsic worth and no capacity to generate value of any kind, objects which have nothing but very high-priced currency within a very small, fragile, insular, anarchic system about as much in touch with the real world as Marie Antoinette was in 1780. It's a big, tight bubble. When it bursts it will be catastrophic, but interesting, though more interesting, I think, to the social psychologist than to the art writer.
As an art writer, and artist, as one who loves art and what it has for us, I must, in the face of all this, insist on the neutrality of content. In the long run all art is good or bad or middling not for its particular parts and attributes but for the aesthetic assessment we make on it. Art is good by judgment, not inventory. Any system of expression undertaken by any human being will have "life" to the extent that life is given to it. Abstract, representational, formal, or expressionist is beside the point, and so is "content." And any attempt to portray "formal" values as cold and inhuman, or frivolous, or arcane, probably masks a hypocritical attack on the best in art, on the truest and hardest things, the things that make ordinary taste ache for the ordinary. The "life" in art comes out of the "formal," out of the work as a whole, taken in by eye and brain, estimated aesthetically. If we want easy sentimentality and "meaningful" content, let's go back to Norman Rockwell. At least he knew how to paint.