Cash Rules The Conceptual Art World

by Jonathan Blaustein

Conceptual Art gets a bad rap in the photo world. It’s easy to understand why. A colleague of mine in graduate
school once made an 8 ft white pedestal that she called “My ideas are above you,” and I think that about sums it up. Many photographers equate the art world with inane video installations backed by dense press releases packed with large words that bludgeon the average viewer.

I must say, I find the whole divide a bit tedious. I once had a respected photo professional comment that he liked my photographs, but had no use for them because he didn’t like conceptual photography. And look no further than the recent E-debate about the brilliant photographic-artist Thomas Demand. “Is he a photographer?” Does it even matter? For the record, I’ll call anyone who clicks the shutter a photographer. And that includes my mom, who can’t seem to figure out the auto-focus on her $100 Nikon.

The art world plays by a different set of rules, and I think that can boil photographers’ blood. Artists view everything as fair game. The rules are there are no rules. And this can often lead to sophomoric bullshit, like Vito Acconci jerking off beneath the floorboards. Or Richard Prince so blatantly ripping off some Jamaican portraits, slapping them on canvas, and marking the images up 10,000%. Then he had the gall to claim it was his right, as the source material wasn’t creative or original enough to merit copyright protection. Seriously? That’s like the school bully stealing your bologna sandwich and then taking a crap on it in front of the whole school.

Conversely, I think his thievery of Sam Abell’s Marlboro Man was pretty excellent. Those photographs, at least Prince’s, had the stones to criticize the Cigarette industry, and corporate America writ large. They critiqued America as nothing more than a facade of the Wild West propped in front of a bunch of fat cats drinking single malt scotch and lighting their cigars with dollar bills. And while I’m sure Mr. Abell was upset, and many people continue to bitch about said appropriation, let’s face it, even Don Draper figured out that dealing with Big Tobacco leads to bad karma.

Speaking of dollar bills, I’m very curious about the new show opening up at the Guggenheim Museum in New York later this month. (May 20 to November 2, to be exact). Hans-Peter Feldmann was awarded the Hugo Boss prize last year, which bestowed upon him this show, and a cash prize as well. A $100,000 cash prize to be exact. Mr. Feldmann is a German multi-media artist who sometimes uses photography. Is he a photographer? Well, he once did a photo project called “Pictures of car radios while good music was playing, ” and another called “All the clothes of a woman,” which was a series of photos about…take a guess. He also showed “100 Years,” at MOMA/PS1 a few years back,  a series of 101 photographic portraits of people, aged 8 months to 100 years.

For the Guggenheim exhibition, Mr. Feldmann is exhibiting his booty for all the world to see. 100,000 used $1 bills, pinned vertically to the wall. Boo-yah. I wish I had the time to photograph the line of ticket buyers who’ll plunk down $18 to go stare at 100 Grand. To be honest, I’d love to go  see it for myself. It’s an audacious, elegant idea, certain to offend. But it’s also so gosh-darn honest. The art world reeks of money and power. I think this sense of exclusivity is what pisses so many people off. So Mr. Feldmann is really just documenting his life, like when Nan Goldin started shooting photos of fancy, pretty people galavanting around Europe. No more, no less.

There Are 32 Comments On This Article.

  1. Rob, I take your point in this article and by and large, I agree with your perceptions. However, I would just comment that artists tend to think of themselves first and foremost as artists, regardless of the medium they use, and this includes photography. Photographers however, are in most cases exactly that, “photographers”, who sometime are successful in producing an image that is defined as art.

    Photographic art is often conceptual or representational (or both) and very often reaches beyond the visual image itself, a factor which is often not apparent to a “photographer”, who perhaps does not perceive “art” in the same way. The work of Hans-Peter Feldman is an excellent example of this.

    I recently wrote a brief article on this subject which you will find here: http://photoconception.com/blog/?p=754 as also posted in the PurePhoto blog: http://blog.purephoto.com/?p=2647.

  2. Rob,

    It’s been awhile since I have visited. In your last few articles I feel like you are getting a bit salty. I like it! Thanks for a great, helpful and fun blog.

  3. These are just some thoughts and aren’t necessarily directed at all towards the original poster of the article:

    Do people want photographic art that is accessible to everyone? If so, then photography will be judged by it’s vernacular qualities (out of focus, motion blurs, flares, blown highlights etc) because all aspiring photographers are capable of producing work according to those standards. Vernacular qualities become the criteria for assessing craftsmanship in a democratic art world devoid of elitism. Love it or leave it.

    Do people want high standards of technical craftsmanship in the photographic arts? Are they growing tired of looking at photos in galleries and portfolios that appear as if produced by children? If so, then that means high technical standards must be applied to the judgment of craftsmanship and this makes photography inaccessible to large portions of the population that do not possess the required skills or tools. High technical standards create stratification and elitism which works against democracy and accessibility.

    There are two sets of possible standards for assessing photographic craftsmanship but it’s only possible to apply one when judging a photograph. This means that people have to make a choice because either they can demand high technical standards and elitism or they can accept vernacular qualities and maintain democracy.

    Some people confuse fine art with avant garde. Avant garde serves as a Marxist criticism of Western civilization and is a reaction to popular culture dominated by corporate produced consumer advertising. Photographs and installations that mock and attack Western Civilization and/or mass popular culture might be avant garde but they can NEVER be fine art in the classical sense. Avant garde is not fine art and was never intended to be fine art.

    I’m still not certain what people mean when they describe a work as “conceptual.” Maybe what they mean to say is that the work has no actual meaning or purpose besides the pleasure of it’s creator. Or maybe it’s a description intended to remain intentionally vague so that viewers are free to project whatever their own random feelings or thoughts are onto the work ( like a Rorschach test)

    • @Mike M,
      I understand that you were not responding directly to the article, and appreciate that you’re trying to push a debate along. Thanks.

      That said, I must disagree with you completely as to whether artwork critical of society can be called art. I’ve already written that many terms seem arbitrary in 2011, but almost all great contemporary art critiques or expounds upon culture and/or civilization. If you feel that “fine art” means something other than “art,” well that’s a distinction with which I am unfamiliar.

      And as to what people mean by conceptual art… the term refers to art with an idea structure inherent in the process of creation. Meaning is a necessity. So your definition “that the work has no actual meaning or purpose besides the pleasure of it’s creator” is not one that is generally accepted. If I call a banana an apple, that doesn’t make it so.

      Marcel Duchamp is typically credited with being the first conceptual artist. Look up his R Mutt urinal piece…

    • @Mike M, I am obliged to endorse fully the comment of Jonathan. Conceptual art is clearly defined and as such cannot be confused.

      As regard the technical aspects of a photograph, I would go as far to say, that this is secondary in the art world. What is important is the message that the artist is endeavouring to communicate to the viewing public. This does not mean that the technical skills are not important, but what a photographer might deem as poor, an artist may well deem as outstanding.

      An interesting fact that I have observed many times, is when works being exhibited are observed by a photographer, and are frequently analysed as regard their technical merit, how was the image captured, with what, under what conditions, etc. On the other hand, a true collector of photographic art will rarely have an interest in the technical aspects of a photograph (myself included), instead seeking to look beyond this aspect, in an effort to observe the message that the artist is seeking to communicate.

  4. whatever…..

    RE: For the Guggenheim exhibition, Mr. Feldmann is exhibiting his booty for all the world to see. 100,000 used $1 bills, pinned vertically to the wall

    I thought Abbie Hoffman did something like that, once dropping a few hundred one dollar bills onto the floor of a stock exchange and watching the brokers jump all over trying to grab one dollar bills, while they were probably losing thousands of dollars per second they weren’t watching the market in front of them….

  5. I like this art and I dont like this other art – Subjectivity is wonderful. Imagine if all photographers interpreted each brief identically! wouldn’t life be boring!

    • ResoL101

      @Stephanie Albanese, You should come to school with me sometime and see some of the “installments*

  6. Intriguing thoughts JB. I do believe the definition of art has changed thus the disparity in what is considered art.

    When we put photography into the realm of art, the image created has to go beyond a multitude of technical abilities a photography may be capable of of using. I think what a photographer creates as art should partially fit with in certain confines as a norm.

  7. Couldn’t be stupider. What did cariou do but invade the lives of some jungle hillbillies and appropriate their images? prince at least took this vouyeur’s copies and used them in something witty and artistic.

    • @Quasi,
      Jungle hillbillies? Well that takes the cake for offensive quote of the week. Not a bad time to hide behind anonymity.

      If you want to critique the Western impulse to glorify 3rd world poverty, you might want to back away from the blatantly racist language. You’d be more persuasive.

      • Donnor Party

        @Jonathan Blaustein, I don’t think the phrase “Jungle Hillbillies” is racist at all. Poor Mountian people in an equitorial forest = Hillbillies in the jungle. Its reductive but far from racist.

        • @Donnor Party,
          Jungle Hillbillies is a few letters away from one of the more offensive racist terms one can use to describe people of African descent. As such, it’s incredibly and obviously suggestive, not to mention elitist and condescending. But feel free to use the term next time you’re hanging out in an equitorial forest. Just make sure to let me know how that works out for you.

            • @Donnor Party, I think Jonathan perhaps had every reason to be “snide”, although personally, I don’t perceive that he has been. Such comments as that from “Quasi” simply display ignorance, and begs the question who is the true “Hillbilly”!

  8. The Photographer her ripped off was Payrick Cariou, a well established travel Photographer who has made some great books of portraiture. He also shoots catalogs for Bloomingdale’s, Banana Republic, & many others. He’s shot Fashion Editorials for Marie Claire, etc.

    I’m Pointing this out to show that he actually ripped off a Professional Photographer without changing nor adding any of his own thought(s) to the images.

    I am a fan of contemporary art, rephotography, conceptual fashion photography, reconstruction art or whatever you want to label these mediums. However, I do believe the artist/photographer should inject their own belief, personality, point of view otherwise it’s just a rip off.

    I’m a Professional Fashion Photographer and a Conceptual Artist. I love Photo History, Film History, Art History, Graffiti, Street Art, Contemporary Art, etc. I don’t believe in censorship. I do believe in Responsibility. I love the Internet because there’s so much information & access to New Artists & new Ideas.
    But the Internet is annoying because there’s also alot of noise or people who think over retouching crappy pictures is Art.

    I do believe that everyone should have access to Art and that Art is not Only for the Elite. and I also believe there are standards and rules and point of view and that Conceptual Contemporary Art is different from pictures. We have seen party pictures as Art, porno as Art, wedding Photos as Art, Fashion Images as Art, any medium can be Art.

    I believe that the difference is the incorporation of the elements of Art, or breaking the rules but only if you know the rules.

    It is annoying to see Sooooooooooooooooooo much rip off nonsense passing as Art.

    • @Piper Carter,
      “I do believe that everyone should have access to Art and that Art is not Only for the Elite.”

      Thanks, Piper. A friend expressed the exact same sentiment in a FB discussion this weekend. I’m hoping that by demystifying and challenging some of the tired notions about Contemporary Art, perhaps we can open it up to a larger, more potent audience.

  9. Great post Jonathan some of the bull that comes out of the art world today is only surpassed by a political speech.

  10. Thanks for writing an article which had me nodding my head in agreement throughout. I always have thought of the work of Thomas Demand as an artist with a camera. Perhaps that too sounds more like marketing than reality. I started out in the world of painting, but never had the networking to make my effort something more. There are a ton of talented people out there, but only a few with the right connections to make it in the art world. Definitely a shame to see the lazy and inept at the upper echelons, but like any business they meet a need. Meanwhile I will stick with the commercial world, and savor the one item of mine that made it into a museum.