First Presented at the College Art Association Conference, New York, 2007
A Cynic is a spy who aims to discover what things are friendly or hostile to man; after making accurate observations, he then comes back and reports the truth.
-Epictetus (55 – 135 C.E.)
The Surface: Warhol’s Victory
Ladies, Gentlemen. Artists and Academics:
Let me begin by speaking about the wound…
Or, more precisely: the social/aesthetic disease from which the creative wound today originates: Cynical Irony.
You see it in the desperation of the gallery director. You see it in the dissimulation of the museum curator. You see it in the artist’s nervous laugh.
This contagious disease is so widespread, so common and such an obvious part of contemporary art’s character, that it rarely, if ever, is identified, let alone called into question as an impediment to experiencing contemporary art as an enhanced and enlightening phenomenon with any greater political or cultural relevance beyond the academic and the gallery circuits.
We now live in times where the practice of contemporary art making has devolved further and further into a cynical hyper-capitalist production at the service of contemporary art’s gamekeepers: dealers, consumers, and critics for whom art is a quasi-intellectual ego-driven game, a monopoly 2.0: the simulacrum version. This devolution is characterized by a designy aesthetics of decadence, where passively inherited cynical irony is necessarily encoded in the nature, intent, packaging and reception of work by artists who wish to enter into this system of self-negation, of aesthetic, moral, ethical, and political nullity in the hopes of attaining some greater profit or celebrity as a result of their play in the game.
The value of contemporary art is nothing, both in terms of its relevance to other spheres: political, cultural, social, intellectual; and in terms of what lies behind or beneath its operating systems. Indeed, valuelessness characterizes art’s practices because of its distance from the real, the events of our time. Contemporary art’s value is beyond capitalism, to the point that it’s nullity becomes its sole capital. The nullity is exchanged in a zero-sum form of insider trading even though art denies this nullity because to do so would propagate a crash of its entire symbolic-capital economy.
This reduction of art to a zero-sum, or more precisely, a zero-value game results in a decadent intellectual and emotional condition where irony is the safe escape route away from engagement, from meaning, and hence, relevance. Irony becomes the psycho-political language or playing field in which artists, dealers, and critics – the game’s participants – vie. This consensual hallucination of the ironic being taken for the real, this cynical simulacrum is the fundamental rule of the game.
I use the term “cynical” here in its modern sense. I employ it as a colloquial concept far outside the shadow of its origin. The cynicism of the Greeks, of Diogenes and Socrates, for whom cynicism was an uncompromising questioning for a life of virtue, a questioning rooted in an affirmation, an embrace at the service of discovery concerning the essence of human existence, often at the expense of ruling elites and norms. Cynicism as a mode of thinking is a paradigm that has suffered greatly in the evolution of occidental art history. The first cynics were uncompromising un-maskers who pierced the surfaces of power, of hypocrisy, so that they could lead lives of simplicity and independence free of falsehood and its material trappings.
Today, the “cynical” has become synonymous with pessimism, with false consciousness, with escapism and apathy. It is the defining stance of not only contemporary art, but of our new globalist era: crass materialism, shallowness, transparency, economic speculation, extreme self-consciousness, competition-aggression, vacuous celebrity worship, and the paroxystic addiction to perpetually recurring gratification. Cynicism has devolved into its own unique version of nothingness.
Irony has now become the neo-conservatism or implicit philosophical condition of intellectual/aesthetic elites. Witness the knee-jerk responses to artists, film-makers, musicians and other creators who attempt work of drama, emotional weight, angst, joy, or any other experiences outside the realm of the emotionally stunted and intellectually safe zones of the ironic codes. Cries of “sentimental” or “corny” or “romantic” are jettisoned in much the same cowardly and knee-jerk manner that the Republican Party has managed to demonize the term “liberal” and turn it into a dirty word for its own evil perversion of a word rooted in the idea of freedom. Today’s artists, young art students in particular, are simply incapable of expressing or countenancing the human experience, art or otherwise, without some sort of self-referential or self-reflexive pause: to investigate the possible ironic or humorous angle. In other words, all experience is subsumed to its attributed semiotic surroundings, which are, by nature, for the cynical ironist, always meta-narratives filled with either “overly-romantic” sentiments or are simply dismissed as “out of date”, “passé”, or “uncool”. The cynical ironist is nothing, if not, cool. Andy Warhol has won. Feelings, authentic experience, drama, passion, life and death are not cool anymore. There is no place for them in most contemporary art discourses. They are just things, words or ideas that happen to others elsewhere or in the past. The American invasion of Iraq and its resulting chaos, loss of life, and murders of tens of thousands of innocent people barely registers in the imagination of today’s artists. Witness the intellectual bankruptcy and silence of the majority of American artists since the horrific events of September 11, 2001.
Jean Baudrillard’s critique of contemporary art and its relationship to the banal, to the real, in “The Conspiracy of Art” touches on this nullity:
As long as art was making use of its own disappearance and the disappearance of its object, it still was a major enterprise. But art trying to recycle itself indefinitely by storming reality? The majority of contemporary art has attempted to do precisely that by confiscating banality, waste and mediocrity as values and ideologies. These countless installations and performances are merely compromising with the state of things, and with all the past forms of art history. Raising, originality, banality, and nullity to the level of values or even to perverse aesthetic pleasure. Of course, all of this mediocrity claims to transcend itself by moving art to a second, ironic level. But it is just as empty and insignificant on the second as on the first. The passage to the aesthetic level salvages nothing; on the contrary, it is mediocrity squared. It claims to be null—“I am null! I am null!” — and it truly is null.1
This “nothing” (nihil) becomes the grounding value in what appears to be our pluralist art period of divergent narratives and stylistic trends. But this seeming pluralism is largely a superficial one, or more precisely, a pluralism of the superficies, the surface. What underlies the surface of pluralism is the given of irony and its many avatars: “bad painting”, vector painting, the absence of emotional engagement, corporatist design aesthetics, technological/academic fetishism, the erasure of the artist’s hand where all touches are mediated by flat applications of color, and a cynical “fuck you” to the eye of the viewer, – in other words negation negation, negation, or perhaps more precisely: avoidance, avoidance, avoidance.
The work of the Belgian (Flemish) painter Luc Tuymans, arguably the most influential contemporary painter after Gerhard Richter (witness his many imitators, particularly in Europe), while highly inventive and mysteriously sophisticated, negotiates a complex and sometimes compromising relationship between the banal and the sublime, between the elusive and the intricately simple, between history and memory; and is an example of an instrumental and politicized engagement of irony as a tactical method designed to elevate the sublime into a new political light that shines on the banality of evil and the fault lines of the memory of evil.
Tuymans is an extraordinary painter who has discovered a language of painting that combines an economical and swift informalism with an insightful and revelatory investigation of our collective subconscious, all within a seemingly emotionally – detached and cool ironic play of painting styles.
This lucid detachment, reflected in a speedily-executed but often highly disciplined brushwork, a drab (usually gray and very pale) and diluted palette, and an extraordinary ability to bring even the most mundane objects (wrapping paper, pillows, oranges) to resonate with an economy of painterly means, makes Tuymans today’s foremost practitioner of informal formalism.
This loose and weathered “informality”, in contrast to the usual hard-edged and over-wrought commercialized designy painting that characterizes much of today’s “professional” painters, makes Tuymans’s work radical in both a historical and stylistic sense. Tuymans’s soft and almost improvisational play of paint, the vast range of greyish tints, the varied dilution ratios, and textures keeps his work rooted in a direct, seemingly guileless, and uncanny material relationship to painting that dates back to Rembrandt’s ultra-materialist handling of paint, and is the key to his tactical ironic style because it refuses to compete with the gloss and slickness of the department store window display aesthetic that dominates galleries in New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris and other art centers. With his display of modest painterly anti-techniques Tuymans takes risks that few other artists are even aware of.2
The subject matter of the artist’s work exemplify this risk-taking in their variety: an astonishing range of genres and themes: still-lifes, line-dominated abstractions, portraits, landscapes, studies of everyday objects, interior scenes, and more. This refusal to paint the same thing ad infinitum and thereby create a readily-identifiable brand, is another subversive quality in the painter’s oeuvre. Tuymans’s work carries with it many elements of the psycho-political gadfly. See “The Secretary of State”, 2006, a painting that captures the duplicitous visage of Condoleeza Rice, This engagement between the political/ethical tradition of painting that dates back to the likes of Goya, David, and Picasso and the cool pseudo-journalistic detachment of Warhol, in other words, between ethos and pathos, or, between ground and surface, makes Tuymans a unique figure whose paintings float somewhere between the sublime informal, a.k.a. quasi – “bad” painting and tossed off short attention span dross. But Tuymans paints the heavy, the darkness, the intense subjects of the past with a lightness and a distant sensibility, removed from emotional investment. Tuymans’s emotional detachment is a product of his tactical approach at capturing the darkness of existence (e.g.: the gas chambers of the Holocaust, the colonial exploits of Belgium in the Congo, and the architects of Nazi Germany) despite the personal pain and social trauma he experienced as a young man growing up in the shadows of the devastation of World War II. He paints with distance so he, and we, can bear to examine the darkness of history, so we can stand to think back and analyze our roles as complicit agents in events such as World War II, colonialism, and the current conflicts in the Middle East.
For Tuymans, the question of “good” painting vs “bad” painting appears to be a central ethical, stylistic, and historical paradigm. His work is good (i.e. subversive, a true cynicism) in its exceptionally (and seemingly) un-self-conscious applications of paint: a direct brushstroke-rich lexicon that when Tuymans’s began to receive attention in the mid 1980s, was exceptionally rare and that continues to go against many stylistic trends. His work is “bad” in its heightened irreverence or utter disregard for the basics of both historical and contemporary pictorial representation: subject matter, composition, and value, in terms of both investment of energy and time (his paintings rarely take longer than one day, and sometimes are painted in one hour) and light and dark (his paintings lack contrast and indeed embrace gray mid-tones and lack of chromatic intensity – perhaps the artist’s own conflation of the poles of light and dark, good and bad).If we take the good to be the elevation of the sublime into the banal towards a heightened understanding and awareness of the banal, and the bad to be the subversion of painterly preciousness into a ballet, a dance of washed out numbness and awkwardness then perhaps Tuymans is attempting a type of extra-value or extra-moral approach to painting: beyond good painting and bad painting.
But this painterly distance still cannot escape the reach of good and evil proper. Tuymans’s scope is never beyond but rather at the surface of good and evil’s historical remnants. Witness such paintings as “Himmler” (1998), “The Architect” (1997), “Leopard” (2000), and others. It is this deceptively loose and informal depiction of evil’s agents in their banal details that keeps Tuymans’s work from the safe semi-intellectualism of today’s cynical painting and makes it worthy of a detailed study in the history of the banality of evil. Indeed Tuymans’s technical language is the key component to this documentation of evil, Painting almost exclusively from photographs that have often been photocopied or altered into a variety of avatars so that they are many times removed from their original incarnation, the artist takes the photographic record and subverts it by reifying it into a painterly painting that washes out the image even more and turns it into some form of still projection of an over-exposed film. It is as if the artist wishes to revise history by advancing the cause of painting as the next stage of visual documentation, both before and after photography and chooses to attack painting by making film stills that are rich in their material handling of oil while simultaneously detached from chromatic intensity.
For example, “Body”, a work from 1990, captures the simplicity of a child’s torso in densely worked up degrees of white paint and black outlines. It is a small work, approximately 16” x 12”, and seems insignificant, overly informal, barely even a study. A close examination however, reveals an interesting relationship between cool and warm grayish whites. The painting is nearly entirely a monochrome but the supple application of a few yellowish – grey – whites at the figure’s waist area along with the two mysterious dark horizontals on each side of the figure’s mid-section make the eye wander around the painting. It is a work where the violence of the black horizontal marks menaces the simple innocence of the child, indeed of the painting as whole. A child-like rendering of a child, one who is wearing some sort of unitard and who is presumably a dance student resting during a rehearsal, “Body” is an enigmatic painting that speaks of the fragility of youth. The painting is done in a very crude and dense fashion that belies its complexity and this paradox is a central them in the artist’s collective body of work.
Indeed Tuymans’s paint handling has opened up a new avenue for many of today’s painters (e.g.: Rauch, Peyton, Van Plessens, and Doig) who want to recapture the physical and manual nature of the relationship between painter and paint, where the artist actually paints andenvelops the materiality of the painting experience, where painting is again unpredictable, improvisational to a degree and entirely free of self-conscious calculation. This in itself is a radical act that belies the artist’s appearance of cool detachment.3
Tuymans’s symbolic integration of value admixtures and overall contamination of individual chromatic intensities create a lexicon with many symbolic properties that can be isolated in the following equations:
Grey = Absence
Color = Presence
Tuymans’s drab palette is the psychological core of his essentially melancholy work. The melancholy of his palette captures the ephemeral and frustrating aspects of history, of collectively trying to remember evil as we try to forget it, as we try to move away from the effects of its trauma, its violence. . In many ways, Tuymans’s palette is a kind of secret conscience, a gadfly that remains around us as we float from gallery to gallery, from art fair in Basel to biennial in Istanbul. Grey is the color of inertia, of the absence of pathos and ethos and it speaks to the artist’s concern with the relationship between the decay of memory and the decay of the image:
As towards the element of the bleached or the blurred image, I think by close examination you will see that there is a lot of inhabitants of colours in order to come to this situation. Then on a traditional level of course where I come from, the region I come from, painting has a huge tradition and that tradition deals mostly with the idea of depth, and depth deals mostly with the idea of tones and not with full colours, and then there’s also the idea of memorising an image, and every way you can memorise an image your memory itself already is completely inadequate, so in that sense that already unravels one of the things, but most of it is, I think borne out of a
genuine distrust of imagery, distrust in terms of not only comprehending it but also making it. And that probably is new, I mean that could be seen as contemporary, because I work of course with the figurative image, I could be easily seen as a person who works with the representation of representations that already exist, but on the other hand through the mimicry of that there is also the element of reconstructing that imagery, and that is something else, and in terms of history it’s not just history painting, it’s the realising of history which is an important difference.4
The artist’s washed out chromatic greys become a central material in the artist’s reconstruction of memory, of narrative oriented around the relationship between the loss of the real and its reconstruction through looking back. Perhaps we can see Tuymans’s work as a form of historiographical psycho-painterly dictum on the loss of the real in relation to the latent distance of the banal, a form of revaluation of painting’s value from cynical and sanitized clean work to a messy, casual and human-all-too-human embrace of the real. That this enigmatic artist’s work – perhaps the most preposterous and informal paintings since Matisse – has achieved acceptance by the gamekeepers of contemporary art is due almost solely to Tuymans’s employment of “bad painting” as a comouflage technique through which he instigates his meditation on the real and the banal.
In this way Tuymans is ultimately a tactical colorist and ironist who employs the muddy grey-dominant color scheme as a chromatic study of the macro-picture at the expense of the many details of the micro. His are painterly guerilla pictures. They are paintings of our collective postmodern subconscious. While his work risks appearing as fashionably detached informalism, it actually depicts the traces of both the artist’s and our recent historical agony. It asks us to attribute intensity and color to it in the way we might retouch an old faded photograph of our grandmother so that we can present it as a gift to our brother. This re-touching is its own type of chromatic seduction technique, a passive-aggressive tactic of attraction and supports a view of the artist as a strong colorist whose innovation amounts to a form of rebasement of painterly and libidinal economic value from the ironic standard to the grey standard, a rebasement that is ultimately tied to the artist’s devaluation of contemporary painting’s traditions and technical givens.
Perhaps this is Tuymans’s tactic? Perhaps in such preposterous paintings as “Wrapping Paper” and “Orchid” the banal resonates and the absence of passion, of any kind of sentiment or sentience may be viewed through the proper grey-colored glasses as its own form of affirmation, or more precisely, a type of double neutrality that turns irony back on itself and opens up a space for the banal to presence into the sublime.
This may be the fundamental problem of contemporary occidental art: the problem of the relationship between value and the real, between capital and nature/the mediascape. This is a problem where the question of semiotics takes center stage. This question of the relationship between the surface and the ground, the relationship between the massage and the message is one of the fundamental problems facing the interpreters of contemporary art today. If the study of signs is primarily the study of packaging, of the envelopement of meaning, of surface appearance and its symbolic importance in relationship to the real then we have speculated on its value in our relationship to the real and in particular, in how we engage with works of art. We have valued it so highly that the value of semiotics as a cipher of the real’s hermeneutical code is rendered practically meaningless.
To download the complete paper in Microsoft Word format, click HERE.
1. Baudrillard, Jean, “The Conspiracy of Art” in The Conspiracy of Art, Manifestos, Interviews, Essays, pg. 27, Lotringer, Sylvere, editor, Hodges, Ames, translator, Verso, 1996.
2. However, one of the dangers of these risks, is a lack of rigor and self-editing, perhaps a product of the painter’s detachment from the concerns of clean and “finished” painting. He is sometimes too prolific for his own good and one could call question his self-editing abilities, a key ingredient in a prolific artist’s integrity.
3. There are other young painters who are returning to a more human and manual relationship to their materials. Artists such as John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Cecily Brown are three such exemplars, but neither of them comes close to the craftsmanship and complex relationship between technique and subject matter that characterize the work of Luc Tuymans. Neither of these painters approaches Tuymans’s level of chromatic and stylistic invention. Neither of these painters attacks the “objectness” and the value of painting as poignantly, if at all.
4. Interview on BBC Radio with John Tusa, date unknown, excerpted from http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/tuymans_transcript.shtml