Thursday, April 23, 2009


Dear friend,

I've been tinkering with this for about two weeks and I think I've finally closed the lid on it, more or less. I feel to be a better doodler than drawer, as it were, so your
opinions are most welcome, whether they address the technical, or the arguement itself.

"I will contend, and you can try to disprove it, that the most important thing on this planet, as we know it, is in fact money"

——Gene Simmons


Thus the aging rock star spake on Terry Gross' Fresh Air sometime in the early 2000s. Gross, clearly disgusted by Mr. Simmons, could only hope that his assertion that money trumps love was simply fanning the winds of controversy for the sake of entertainment. For him, basic survival can be distilled into this equation: money=air. Air is necessary biologically speaking and money is not. However, money buys food, housing, and all the amenities for basic survival, making it somewhat a biological accoutrement. It is the stuff that allows multiple producers, buyers, and investors to transact assets, goods, and promises. In a nutshell, the decision to reject money, at least in a grand single gesture, is not unlike choosing to swerve into oncoming traffic.

One could do this and possibly survive, but the intended result is not guaranteed. One could self-asphyxiate to see how long the brain can survive without air, but one would be dead by the time the data came in. Yet the reasons for rejecting societal rules are plentiful, at least when the rewards are ideological or spiritual. The gesture can survive, if not the person, and mutate into a more powerful form later. Even still, it seems people are sooner to take radical risks by jumping motorcycles over yawning canyons or scaling the peaks of Mount Everest. They know they flirt with oblivion, but perhaps fame, reputation, and financial incentive serve as the true dangling carrot. Maybe even a little nookie could be around the corner.

Money = Air is surely a nasty proposition no matter how you spin it, yet we try to make the best of our hallucinations. We have methods to cheat the system temporarily and symbolically; but like PAC-MAN, one has to keep munching units (money!) to prevent the ghosts from closing in. It's the burden of being a part of any financial system—and the art world is no exception. Taking this into account, it is disturbing to see the painter Richard Phillips moralize institutions for having to be PAC-MEN. He's imagining himself as a monk hailing "truth" from the belfry, when in fact it is from the mother ship of all galleries, Gagosian. In the press release, Mr. Phillips states his intention:

"At its core, this show is the conflict between capitalism, fascism, and communism. It looks into the nature of representation, propaganda, and misinformation, and how they redirect the ideologies of institutions."

The essential moral conflict, according to Mr. Phillips, is between critical and cultural institutions, (e.g. Frieze and The Kitchen), and their relationships to money. For these institutions to appoint themselves to enact the greater good for culture is an act of duplicity. The subtext of these paintings frame these institutions as greedy hypocrites with their fingers in the mouths of speculators, who suck on them as if they were straws. In one painting a Frieze magazine literally becomes a straw and is inserted into the vagina of a cooing harlot. In another, a woman is bending over with her vag exposed in front of multiple logos advertising The Kitchen; and in another a sexy woman is looking seductive in fascist military garb. Meanwhile, these bad-boy paintings (bad boy=extra hot air!) will sell for the price of a Cadillac Escalade and Mr. Phillips will buy a new house with the proceeds.


To momentarily forget Phillips' own hypocrisy would not make these paintings less appalling. Using the female tushy to sell things is nothing new in culture; as problematic as that is, Phillips takes this stereotype a bit further by reinforcing that prostitution is a grand symbol of immorality, and that the institutions are whores for flashing their 'goods', as it were. It is especially odd when an artist, setting out to question the socio-economic assumptions of art, takes perhaps the OLDEST stereotype regarding women, which so happens to be a very sensitive one, and goes to town on that without question.

The sloppy forethought that went into this show—–which is generous to assume—–pales in comparison to the greater charge: political and artistic hubris. To quote an old idiom: now that's the escort calling the prostitute a slut!

1 comment:

jennifersullivan said...

This is really good Max! You have a very incisive critique. My one question, about it all, is - does the whole money=air thing only hold true in Western cultures? What about more communal communities that exist in other places? It may be nearly unavoidable in our culture, but not so for the world as a whole, I would argue. Also, I'd like to say kudos on working the word "tushy" into the mix!