I was disappointed by the “Made in LA” show at the Hammer. I’m sorry to say I found it arrogant, pretentious, and jejune. Let me explain.
Much of the work we found uninteresting as stand-alone aesthetic artifacts, but was made somewhat comprehensible by the accompanying explanations. Almost all the explanatory material about the artists pointed out that the artists’ intentions were to “confound expectations.” They all made the assumption that the viewer had come to the exhibition with an inappropriate set of expectations and that it was their job to set the viewer right. Who appointed these artists the confounders-in-chief? What right do they have to make any assumptions about the viewer, especially that the viewer is a poor benighted soul who needs to be jolted out of his commonplace expectations? This is arrogance.
Art that intends to confound expectations ends up being about those expectations and cannot point in a genuinely new direction. Great art is made out of a sense of humility and from a genuine search for meaning and significance. These artists proceed from a sense of superiority and certainty, which can only lead to an irony that they do not intend. Post-Modernist theorizing has a way of turning on itself with ironic consequences. The expectations that most need confounding are the artists’ expectations about the viewers’ expectations and perhaps the whole set of expectations that form the milieu from which these artists create. Most of this work does not arise from a sense of introspection and self-doubt.
I found the art in this show pretentious because of the heightened importance of intentionality. Many of the wall explanations quoted the artists talking about their intentions and their methods in a way that assumes that the intentions and methods are visible in the work, which is seldom the case, and that the methods and intentions justify the work, which is never the case. Some of the work is overtly political in a way that reinforces commonplace political assumptions about the moral superiority of victimhood and claims justification by sentiment. Claiming the superiority of intentions, the artists attempt to justify themselves instead of the work, and that is self-indulgence, perhaps the greatest of artistic sins.
The Hammer asks the viewers to vote for their favorite artist, and the winner would receive $25,000. Naturally, we voted for Harsh in the hopes that he would get the money, but the fact is, despite the wall explanation’s obligatory remarks about “confounding expectations,” his work probably had more raw aesthetic content than most of what we saw there.
I found the show jejune because of the adolescent posturing. Many of the artists complained that the expectations they wanted to confound were placed in the viewer by the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists and had to be destroyed if art were to progress. They expressed a kind of rage at Abstract Expressionism and an eagerness to define themselves as not that. This resentment of the supposed power of the elders seems rather silly and adolescent. Ironically, the Modernists, too, railed against their forebears and developed new aesthetic criteria to justify themselves. In their resentment, these LA artists seemed more like their Modernist predecessors than otherwise.
These comments raise the question of what justifies an artistic statement. The answer is that the work is justified by its aesthetic content. I do not want to oversimplify this idea. We can argue over the meaning of aesthetic content, and that could be a fruitful and significant discussion. These artists, however, seem to claim that the work is justified by intentions, methods, and sentiment. They seem to deny the importance of aesthetic content altogether, and that can only lead to the diminishing of these works and these artists.
If we were to go back in time and ask someone from 1815 Vienna who is the greatest living composer, he would give us a funny look for asking such a silly question and answer, “Why, everybody knows that! It’s Luigi Cherubini! Beethoven? I’ve heard of him, but he’s no Cherubini. Cherubini’s wonderful, and his music will last forever.” Is the “Made in LA” show at the Hammer making the case for Cherubini?