But Is It Art?

With NFTs, Creatives Can Finally be Destructive
Execution of Savonarola, Florence, 23 May 1498

According to Betteridge’s law, any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered no. So, I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

I was shocked to see that the climate change desecrators had been at it again, this time in Madrid. Their latest victim was Goya’s Maja, both the vestida and the desnuda versions. It quickly became clear these were not the kind of iconoclasts who, after blowing up a Buddha, blithely declare “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I don’t like!” The worry for me is that the latter kind are getting ever closer, as the cause grows more hopeless. Hearing about the attacks on Van Gogh and Vermeer was bad enough, but I’ve always kept a special place in my heart for Goya’s rare venture into burlesque. It felt like an escalation. And yet, I really shouldn’t have got so upset. The two girls had stuck their hands to one frame each and then stood slightly to one side, showing the good taste not to interpose themselves between the paintings and the public. They may have struggled to explain their choice of image, but they were careful to leave Goya’s paintings unscathed. Only the frames sustained slight damage.

If I’m honest, I don’t even like picture frames, particularly not the over-elaborate kind, the Rococo style of which is so often at odds with what they frame. In an exhibition of Bonnard some years back, the pictures that lacked frames had an immediate appeal, almost regardless of their quality as works of art, as if they’d burst out of their corsets like Maja herself, assuming she was indeed wearing a corset. The less fortunate works that surrounded them seemed condemned to play ‘before’ to their ‘after’. Actually, though, from a framing point of view, the ‘after’ were definitely ‘before’.

I have no desire to cavil, but I found the same difficulty with the frames in the Cézanne exhibition currently at Tate Modern. Cézanne is a fine artist, I think we can say this with some certainty, but many of his finest works are encumbered by absurdly complicated and oversized frames. In some cases, you wonder if whoever designed these frames was trying to outdo the painting. Here, for instance, is a particularly florid example:

 

Frame one

 

This is a frame that shouts “Look at me!” We can see the framer’s thinking here, whereby the corners of the frame take on an explosive, centrifugal quality, leading the eye out in four directions, as if to give the viewer some kind of excitement to counterbalance the self-evident dullness and aesthetic clumsiness of the actual painting, with its congealed foreground, unconvincing mountain and poorly articulated sky. Sometimes the framer is left with the unenviable task of saving a daub like this from its self-evident artlessness. Or here:

 

Frame two

 

Notice the poorly defined figure with its childlike lack of naturalism, the bench it sits on a mere plank, the surroundings a confusion of unconvincing colours slapped on with no flair or skill whatsoever… all this had to be rescued by the framer from its own shoddiness, with a frame fit for a masterpiece, fashioned and tooled in exquisite detail, a worthy subject for contemplation by the true aesthete.

It’s not impossible that, to this day, framers attend Cézanne exhibitions purely for the thrill of seeing the artist’s frames. If so, how sorely they would have been disappointed by this one:

 

Frame three

 

A half decent frame could have rescued the situation here. Instead, we see a jumble of inconsequential kitchenware, several apples rendered with barely plausible realism, and the entire effect ruined by a badly drawn green jar that defies the basic laws of perspective and anticipates the flatness of Matisse and the Cubist experiments of Braque and Picasso. I need hardly stress that this whole situation could have been saved by a beautiful frame, and yet the crudity of the one we see here is laughable, mere straight lines and not a filigree to be seen. What a missed opportunity!

And it gets worse. One painting, near the end of the show, has so niggardly a frame that it threatens to bring the reputation of the whole craft into disrepute. It came as such a shock, I actually lost my balance, hence the wonkiness of the picture:

 

Frame four

 

Again, the artist has attempted to portray the same mountain, though to no avail. Judging by the similarity to the first picture, this was a sketch, and the point at which he ought, by rights, to have abandoned the attempt altogether.  

But just look at the frame! I found several elderly men tutting around this exhibit. At first, I assumed they were old-fashioned enough to consider Cézanne’s work scandalously inept. On enquiry, however, it turned out they were a visiting delegation of guild-certified framers.      

For years now, horrified framers such as these have been forced to witness the steady decline in art. They have felt increasingly impotent in the face of installations, graffiti and performances, none of which can conceivably be framed, thus nullifying their natural, beneficent instinct to save bad art from itself. The glory days of picture framing ended with the advent of conceptual art: now, most serious artists are the illegitimate sons and daughters of R. Mutt, aka Marcel Duchamp, who ceased to produce art altogether in favour of playing chess with Eve Babitz. The match, incidentally, was won by the glamorous Los Angeles culture vulture, after she played a surprise variation of Bird’s Opening by removing all her clothes.

 

Ceci n’est pas un artiste

 

Of course, I am not suggesting that modern artists are any good at chess. For the same reason as Duchamp, they are unlikely to overcome the distractions of the flesh long enough to become grand masters. What they have inherited from him is a refusal to do art the way artists used to do it.

This may have contributed to the decline of the very word ‘artist’. Now, instead, there is a more inclusive and far more irritating term for people involved in creative activities. They are known as ‘creatives’. We might want to apply this word retrospectively to Cézanne, though perhaps not wholeheartedly. Traditionally, creatives of his day still painted landscapes that included people, or nature morte with an attention to detail that went back to the apples painted by Apelles, so convincing that birds came to peck at them. Cézanne had begun the rejection of such values. No vase was truly safe in his hands.

It was this destructive potential, subtle as it might appear to us now, that made him a hero for the Cubists, who were outright ‘destructives’. Over the preceding centuries, painters had developed a symbiotic relationship with framers, the beauty of one craft complementing the beauty of the other, like a happy band of Platonists. Frames had a way of controlling the painting. They were a kind of furniture, after all, halfway to the status of a dado or one of the upholstered couches found in a gallery. By the time Cézanne comes along, we can sense the strain in this relationship, hence the over-compensation by the framers, as if part of a rearguard action as they see their influence wane.

It isn’t simply that artists were creating stuff that welched on their side of the beauty partnership. They were beginning to lose interest in creating per se. This can be seen in the readymade, for example, which only required the creative to pick it up and plonk it in the gallery. Mutt was to blame for this particular abdication of the artist’s responsibility. It can also be seen in the destructive tendencies of an artist like Lucio Fontana, who had a habit of destroying his exhibits at the end of his shows. Having moved back to his native Argentina at the start of the Second World War, Fontana returned to Milan to find his studio and all his work had been destroyed by the Allied bombing campaign. This amounted to an enforced tabula rasa. Rather than repeat what had been lost, Fontana preferred to start all over again. He began by making holes in his canvases, which he called ‘buchi’:

 

Fontana’s buchi’

 

Later, in the Fifties, he began plunging knives into his canvases. He called these pictures his ‘tagli’ or slashes and it’s true, they bore an uncanny resemblance to the modifications the Suffragette Mary ‘Slasher’ Richardson had once made to Velázquez, using a meat cleaver:

 

Fontana slashes

 

Even this type of destruction was never likely to satisfy Fontana. The plane of the picture was still dominant. He only managed to escape the frame and the formalities of the gallery altogether with Ambiente Spaziale a Luce Nera (1948-49), which was first displayed at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan in 1949. The show only lasted six days and involved a dark room illuminated by a UV light, otherwise known as a ‘black light’. An abstract, colossal amoeba-like sculpture painted with fluorescent colours hung in the middle the space. Further use of light followed, presaging the neon writing of Tracey Emin over forty years later, as in this structure from 1951.

 

Lucio Fontana

 

With works like this, Fontana demonstrated how far the removal of the restrictive furniture surrounding the artwork could go. Art could do more than merely seep out into the gallery space when the wooden constraints were cleared away. It could actually envelop the viewer and consume an entire room:

 

Art could actually envelop the viewer and consume an entire room

 

These are still works, however. What other descendants of Duchamp have brought to art history is more cerebral. So much so, it very often works better as an idea than a physical manifestation. An example of this would be Michael Landy’s 2002 solo show entitled Nourishment. This is how his Wikipedia entry describes the works:

‘The exhibition consisted of a series of detailed etchings of weeds, rendered in the traditional style of botanical draughtsmanship. The intricate detailing is reported to have resulted in lasting eye damage for Landy.’

I missed this at the time, but what a brilliant idea, I thought; I’ve seen so many of these intricate studies in water colour of various plants and their flowers – what a brilliant idea to apply the same attention to detail, but devote it to the plants a gardener seeks to extirpate from their borders. Well, here is one such weed:

 

Michael Landy’s weed

 

This one is called feverfew, apparently, a flowering plant in the daisy family which may not rank as one of most spectacular adornments to a garden, but it has a pretty enough bloom.

 

Feverfew

 

Was I justified in experiencing a twinge of disappointment? Landy’s version has no colour. The only thing I really like is that he shows us the roots, which give his weeds the pathos of every unwanted, self-seeding plant tugged out of the ground. Nonetheless, if he’d pressed some feverfew between the pages of an encyclopaedia, he could have preserved its colours, its roots and his eyesight.

It was in the previous year that Landy had confirmed his credentials as a destructive. In fact, as a self-destructive. Break Down, again according to Wikipedia, was the work that ‘put him in the public eye.’ It was staged in an empty clothes store on Oxford Street and was attended by roughly 45,000 people:

‘Landy gathered together all his possessions, ranging from postage stamps to his car, and including all his clothes and works of art by himself and others, painstakingly catalogued all 7,227 of them in detail, and then destroyed all in public. The process of destruction was done on something resembling an assembly line in a mass production factory, with ten workers reducing each item to its basic materials and then shredding them.’

The entry points out that Landy made no money directly out of the event and that following it, he had no possessions at all. It neglects to mention whether he went on to join the Franciscan order.

The urge to destroy one’s possessions, and by implication one’s wealth, is atypical of the destructives. It derives from an ascetic impulse and is reminiscent of the story behind Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals. Rothko, having long before renounced both picture titles and picture frames, produced his ‘murals’ to fulfil a lucrative commission from the Four Seasons Restaurant, situated in New York’s Seagram Building. Except, they were never installed, and Rothko never received the lucre. Some of the pictures are now on display at Tate Modern in London, others in Japan and Washington, D.C.

 

Seagram mural

 

It is unclear precisely why Rothko withdrew from the commission when he did, not just because he needed the money, but because it must have been obvious all along that the context for the paintings was an affluent one. He was no great fan of the rich, and from the comments he made on his way across the Atlantic, it would appear he had been painting in a state of rage against them. In conversation with John Fischer, editor of Harper’s Magazine, he confessed to a desire to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-b***h who ever eats in that room.” He added that he wanted the restaurant’s patrons to “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.” Rothko found further inspiration for the murals in Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries and in Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, the vestibule of which “had exactly the feeling that I wanted... it gives the visitor the feeling of being caught in a room with the doors and windows walled-in shut.”

In short, the aim seems to have been to create, in the denizens of wealthy New York society, a mixture of dyspepsia and claustrophobia. On his return from Europe, however, he revisited the restaurant with his wife and decided its atmosphere was pretentious and inappropriate for his work. He broke his contract and placed his stomach-churning murals in storage.

A couple of years later, Rothko’s vision would be realised in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, in which the pampered guests are unable to leave a party, owing to an unexplained lack of volition. They get to the threshold and find themselves incapable of leaving.

 

Not going anywhere: Silvia Pinal tucking in. (The Exterminating Angel)

 

Silvia Pinal, the lead actress, has said she would ask Buñuel what the film meant, but he would never give a straight answer. When she asked why people entered the house twice, for instance, he replied “Haven’t you ever had breakfast twice or bathed twice in one day?” These Surrealist film directors can be infuriating. She has also claimed that Buñuel invented reality shows, because the people in them cannot leave the room. These actresses in Surrealist films can be even more infuriating than the directors. I hesitate to presume to read Buñuel’s mind, but could it be the rich are unwilling to leave their environment? We see this incapacity in today’s billionaires, with their parties on private islands, or their luxury yachts that never dock for longer than is strictly necessary. Living in a world devoid of poor people is a large part of what being rich is about.

Rothko was an anomaly. Artists have usually sought out the company of the rich in order to earn their crust. When they were still creatives, they would serve up portions of beauty to their rich patrons as a matter of course. They went to a lot of trouble to capture likenesses of the obscenely rich, as beautiful people. Destructives, on the other hand, capture the likeness of their obscenity. It’s possible that this is a result of a decline in the taste of artists, but it is far more likely that it bespeaks a decline in their customers. Once, the consumers of art were called Medici and could boast nicknames like Il Magnifico. Now, since the Lehman Brothers, they are no longer considered ‘masters of the universe’ and there’s nothing magnificent about them. Their aesthetic needs, like the animal spirits of the market, are attuned exclusively to profit.

This monetising of taste among the rich meant artists could abandon the idea of beauty as old-fashioned, a little bit fey, and completely played out. Creatives were left without a market and from now on the destructives would win the commissions. No longer required to flatter the appearance of their patrons, they were called upon to flatter their minds, and to do this they reflected the cynicism of the rich back at them, in all its venal splendour.

We can see this in the career of Banksy, who began by putting his pictures on the sides of buildings, unbidden, and leaving them to their fate, which was very often to be obliterated by the outraged occupants or local councils. His left-wing views might seem at first to put him on the side of the angels, if Buñuel or Rothko are your preferred archetypes. More recently, however, Banksy has taken to behaving self-destructively in the auction houses, most notoriously in 2018, when his ‘Balloon Girl’ shredded itself after being sold for well over a million pounds at Sotheby’s. The frame of the picture was supposed to destroy the image altogether, to the infinite gratification of the world’s unappreciated (and chronically under-employed) framers, but for some reason the mechanism failed, and the girl with a heart-shaped balloon was only partially shredded. As the Evening Standard rightly speculated, the damage would only serve to increase the object’s value. It is now known as ‘Love is in the Bin’.

Banksy had already been at pains to dissociate himself from two of the world’s most celebrated creatives. When speaking about his 2005 work ‘Show me the Monet’ – which was very beautifully, though I would suggest sarcastically, framed – he muttered, darkly:

“We don't live in a world like Constable's Haywain anymore and, if you do, there is probably a travellers' camp on the other side of the hill. The real damage done to our environment is not done by graffiti writers and drunken teenagers, but by big business... exactly the people who put gold-framed pictures of landscapes on their walls and try to tell the rest of us how to behave” [my italics].

The inclusion of a traffic cone and discarded supermarket trolleys was an unambiguous disavowal of the beauties of the French impressionist:

 

Terrible waste of a good frame. Banksy’s ‘Show me the Monet’

 

Yet Monet was surely not the only target here. Who, after looking at this work, can deny the contempt of the graffiti artist for framers? It’s in his blood. The art-devouring frame would in fact be just another cruel twist in the inexorable breakdown of the old symbiosis between artist and framer. The latter had been co-opted by a destructive. There was no going back.

As for the rich, the sarcasm of both title and frame was of no consequence. The picture ultimately sold for £6.4 million ($8.2 million).

The world moved on. By February 2021, the bourgeoisie had become accustomed, as they do, to carnage at the auction house. What Banksy had done was ingenious, but of a piece with the Chapman Brothers defacing Goya prints, say, or Ai Weiwei destroying a two-thousand-year-old vessel.

 

Ai Weiwei destroying Han Dynasty Urn in 1995. Karmically, in 2013 a vase of his own making was destroyed by a protester

 

Determined to move Banksy on from such routine destruction that no longer made a point, some masked men got to work in an undisclosed location somewhere in Brooklyn. The men were from a company called Injective Protocol and they had bought a print of Banksy’s Morons (White) for $95,000. The print shows an auction taking place. To the right of the auctioneer, prominently displayed, stands a big ‘picture,’ though there is no image as such, just the words I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS S**T. It is mounted on an easel and, as one might expect, has a very heavy gold frame.

So far, so boringly antagonistic towards the art market. But the men in Brooklyn were more dedicated destructives than Banksy has ever been. Coolly and calculatedly, they set about burning the expensive print, thus adding an extra layer of outrage, and in the process replacing the physical work with an NFT. Their crypto art had the effect of more than quadrupling the original print’s value. Not only were the ‘morons’ prepared to buy this s**t, they were ready to pay more for a digital version.

The burning of Morons (White) is thought to have been one of the first times a physical artwork had been replaced by a unique digital asset. “We view this burning event as an expression of art itself,” Injective Protocol executive, Mirza Uddin, told the Guardian (9 March 2021). It was a nice try at sounding intelligent about a gesture so dumb that Jimmy Carr could have done it on Channel Four. Soon, others would join in, keen to exploit the mysteries of the blockchain to achieve the semblance of gravitas and extract serious money out of the kind of people who make comedians look clever. This was the case in Miami when a businessman called Martin Mobarak, fresh from making a fortune out of bitcoin, took a martini glass filled with rubbing alcohol, held a Frieda Kahlo illustration entitled “Sinister Ghosts” over it and set light to the artist’s work. He then attempted to flog an NFT of the picture on the basis that it had been ‘transformed to live eternally in the digital realm’, claiming a fraction of the earnings would go to charity. The authorities in Mexico, who consider all Kahlo’s works to be national monuments, objected to this behaviour and began an investigation. Mobarak’s conscience was clear, however. “If Frieda Kahlo were alive today, I would bet my life that if I asked to burn a small piece of her diary to bring some smiles and better quality of life to children, she would say ‘Go ahead and do it. I’ll light the fire.’” The opinion of the deceased artificer was sought before the destruction of this artefact. Similarly, in ancient Egypt it was basic good manners to ask the pharaoh’s permission before plundering their tomb.

Which brings us, with grim inevitability, to Damien Hirst. What, I hear you ask, could possibly have drawn the preeminent Young British Artist’s attention to this shamelessly profiteering stunt? It has to be said, despite dying his hair blue, Damien has looked about as comfortable with his YBA label lately as Martin Amis has looked for the past thirty years with the role of enfant terrible.

 

Blue-haired Hirst

 

An obscene pursuit of dosh was needed to give renewed credibility to his role of reflecting the obscenity of the rich back to themselves. The Currency was the answer: he would burn some of his coloured dots, ten thousand versions of them, or else as many as people preferred to keep in the form of NFTs. The Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe (2 October 2022) seemed barely able to contain her excitement: 

‘…an actual bonfire is promised. Hirst is to set light to artworks from his first NFT collection worth £10m. For his critics, the expensive stunt will mark the low water mark in a career built on headlines and brass neck. For admirers, it is a chance to look back at the impact of a master.’

Low water mark? This was more like a fulfilment of the logic behind his entire career. Damien Hirst, as must be obvious by now, has always been a preeminent destructive. In fact, in his old age the most famous Young British Artist has even begun to take his destructive role more literally.

As for NFTs themselves, they are the logical culmination of R. Mutt’s legacy, the equivalent of taking up chess, but without Eve Babitz to distract one from winning. Fungibility is so passé. The non-fungible is as close as the digital age comes to the glamour of the original artwork and, better still, it makes the original artwork redundant. Thus, the artists of the future get to annihilate their own fame. A future Lord Byron can protect public morals by torching his own memoirs. Samuel Palmer can burn all his sketches before his idiot son gets his hands on them. Turner can destroy his erotic pictures before his supposed admirer, Ruskin, has a chance to save Victorian blushes. Kafka can forestall Max Brod and sets light to his own manuscripts. And a future Bulgakov can burn the ‘Master and Margarita’ a second time over. All of them – not just for kicks, but for the sake of life eternal in the digital realm – will be free to reduce their works to ashes and make money the way rich people have always done – since an entrepreneurial caveman first learnt how to make fire – by setting light to the world. As I write, they are raking over the ashes in Sharm el-Sheikh.   

For a hundred years and counting, art has become progressively more complicit in its own destruction. But when Chaucer asserted that there was nothing new under the sun, he was quoting. The destructives have actually been there all along, masquerading as creatives. The tendency was present even in one of art’s foremost creatives, Sandro Botticelli, who saw the error of his ways and committed some of his own pictures to the purifying flames. Thankfully, not all of them; the works we see today, hanging from the walls of the Uffizi, were probably out of his reach in the collections of wealthy Florentines, or they too might have ended up on the pyre.

This was only able to happen because the Renaissance master’s career coincided with the rule of perhaps the pioneer destructive, a Dominican friar whose name should be synonymous with iconoclasm as his contemporary, Machiavelli’s, is with realpolitik: Girolamo Savonarola.

 

Not your arty type. Girolamo Savonarola.

 

The Dominicans were a preaching order, and it was through his sermons that Savonarola swung the Florentine population against the Medici and their patronage of the arts, establishing theocratic rule in the city in preference to that of a banking family. This led eventually to the notorious Bonfire of the Vanities, when Savonarola’s zealous followers burned as many of the trinkets and paintings as they could find.

On this occasion, however, the creatives were destined to conquer the destructives, and the man who had chosen the cradle of the Renaissance as a backdrop for setting light to stuff, ended up being cremated himself. It was a further irony that he should have his death recorded by an artist, albeit an anonymous and not very accomplished one. Also present at the scene were members of the entourage from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. High above the main square of the city, those same vernal winds that had blown her ashore at Cyprus now puffed with all their might to stir the flames under Savonarola: 

 

Winds

 

The goddess of love (here reduced to an arm and a leg) watched the triumph of art play out, while her blind son, Cupid, pointed his toy bellows in the direction of the crackling blaze:

 

Cupid

 

They all hovered overhead as the preacher and two of his closest followers were hanged by the neck before being incinerated. Later, under cover of darkness, the executioners dumped the men’s ashes in the river Arno, to frustrate the relic hunters. Sadly, for fans of the great iconoclast, no one had the bright idea of turning him into a non-fungible token. 

 

The frames, and pictures, of Paul Cézanne can be seen in the EY exhibition at Tate Modern till 12 March 2023.


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