Do you know that Jerry Maguire moment? When you are up late at night and suddenly here it is. Something strikes you inside and you want to scream - that’s enough, I’m out. I feel I have a Jerry Maguire moment every time I go through the Chelsea galleries for the most part. What’s new? Same old commodified shit.
But the problem is that no one promised you anything new in painting for the last five or six decades. So, when you look at paintings of Frank Owen at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, for instance, there is nothing you can expect from these paintings besides decorative configurations that will fit nicely into your living rooms. They function as pure decoration and nothing else, they are simply visual muzak of our age. These paintings are not what was supposed to happen next for painting back in the 70s, and they are not what is going to happen next to painting today. And this raises lots of questions about what is about to happen next for painting. Or will something ever happen again? And finally, why make paintings?
Here, I will refer to one specific type of painting, I would like to call that type “holy shit” painting. The value of this type is that it has been generated out of nothing. These are the paintings you always see in the offices on sixth avenue, museums, private collections, auction houses, and a great number of galleries around the world. These paintings are having an enormous value on the art market, and these are the paintings that regular people cannot afford. The holy shit is the main reason why painting is where it is. “Because inevitably, the painters were co-opted, if they wanted to succeed, into producing work that reinforced these largely exclusionary institutions.” (Danto) Thus the holy shit became the only way to succeed, therefore, the “right” way to make paintings.
Think about who has access to the holy shit, buys it, promotes it, and writes about it. And how they apply value to the holy shit. Clearly, it’s all visual politics. The institutions along with the aristocracy still possess the authority to validate art. The point is - how can something new happen to painting while somebody with enormous power promotes the holy shit? How can something new happen while there are exhibitions that highlight the same group of artists opening every month around the world? What, we don’t have anyone else to show besides Damien Hirst, Christopher Wool, or even Frank Owen for God’s sake? Is it because their art is exclusively good enough? Tell me something new. If it is exclusively good enough, it’s good enough to hang their paintings above your couch or sell it on the market. This is the only reason.
In the 60s, you had to fight for painting. Now, you have to save painting from the holy shit. Ad Reinhardt said once, “Art comes from art. Artists come from artists.” It is true, but the problem is when you look at the holy shit too much you start producing the same holy shit that fits the taste of the people who possess the authority to decide for us what painting is and what art is. Nothing new will ever happen to painting while the holy shit is lauded in this way. In order to have something new - the art market needs to crash and all these paintings must become priceless. Otherwise, painters will aim for the same a la mode paintings.
Rothko did not feel he had to make a living from his paintings in the 40s and 50s, and neither did other painters in the 60s. They had nothing to lose. It is not their fault that their paintings became the holy shit, it was not their intention. But many artists of today have a more commercial outlook than ever. The feeling that you have to make a living out of your art is blowing in the wind. Questions like how much did you sell it for or what is your price list are in the vacuum. Who cares? I never felt that way and neither do people, who are deeply invested in the idea of painting and whom I know feel that way, too. When you start thinking about the price lists too much you are compromising your work to fit the taste. When you start thinking about how to fill the space above people’s couches, your art simply becomes a decoration. So, when you will stop thinking about how to make a living out of your paintings, finally, you will have nothing to lose. You will be boxing in the corner with yourself and eventually will have a breakthrough. Then, Painting will hit a new direction. If you try long enough to break the wall - you break it eventually.
In the 60s, many painters stopped painting. Now, art schools around the world are overwhelmed with the number of students who want to study painting. Yale University admits twenty-one students each year for their MFA program in Painting/Printmaking. On the contrary, in 2008, it was seven students, for instance. I think one of the main reasons is the holy shit. And I am not saying that it is bad to expand our circle and have more people interested in painting. What I am saying is that at some point the painting circle started to be divided into two groups - “painting as a vocation vs. painting as a commodity.” And when the circle “painting as a commodity” will win over “painting as a vocation,” then Painting will be dead forever. We, painters of today, who believe in Painting cannot let that happen. Otherwise, there is no reason for us to make paintings. This is our why of today.
In Hegel’s terms, “art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.” Perhaps painting in our time just became a way to make a living rather than to look for something more. That’s why we do not have anything new, and everything that was new just remains for us a thing of the past. I believe now is the time to finally look and think. Even if something seems to be exhausted, it’s not. We cannot admit defeat, there is still an open field, and anything can enter our studios at any time. And we are not outnumbered. Yet. Therefore, we can still win over the market with their holy shit and commercialized painters with their private jets.
There is no definite answer on how to get rid of the holy shit, other than simply ignore it. The less we talk about it, the faster it will die. But I do know that many of us who are driven to this life, who cannot live without Painting, who think about Painting all the time - we have nothing to lose. For those in search, there will be the meaning in the end. There will be the infinity of silence, of the unknown, where we can grow indefinitely. We must hope and believe. There is no other way. Because this is the current state we are in - What’s new? Same old commodified shit.
Alex Vlasov, I'm Too Philosophical, Sumi ink on paper, 2022
Alex Vlasov, What's New?, Sumi ink on paper, 2022