Saltz Sums Up the 60 Minutes Debate: "Art is for anyone. It just isn't for everyone."

Reporter Morley Safer speaking to influential art dealer Larry Gagosian in his
piece exploring the continued boom in the contemporary art market.
Image courtesy:
Contemporary art never fails to incite conversation-- and that is its strength. Case in point, last Sunday night's 60 Minutes segment by Morley Safer updating his infamous 1993 editorial "Yes, But Is It Art?". Safer's original piece has since become a kind of touchstone for how some people come to regard contemporary art-- as elitist, difficult, working by its own rules, and quite simply "not art." Since that time, the piece has even found a place in my lectures concerning the need to question and assess what assumptions people make about understanding art simply by looking at it, or "feeling" something in its presence. It also points out the gap in understanding about how critical and overarching the concept and understanding of a broader art history is to the production of much of today's most valued art. I was hoping that the updated segment would recognize and ponder these realities-- the past twenty years have proved that contemporary art, especially the conceptual, performative, and "difficult to understand" kind, is not going anywhere. Safer set the stage for his report at the most recent Art Basel Miami, an annual art exhibition where leading galleries from around the world come to exhibit and sell art works. Two minutes into the report, I knew it was going to be more of the same simple-minded approach. As you will see, the focus of concern is more on the market valuation of contemporary art instead of any consideration of its key features or points of intellectual value (if you cannot see video, see this link):

New York Magazine's senior art critic Jerry Saltz took very little time to respond to the 60 Minutes piece, crafting a  concise and to-the-point essay on what he correctly describes as the "facile screed" of Safer's reportage. That is not to say that I always agree with Saltz (he has become somewhat of a polarizing figure in the contemporary art world-- but for that, I do like him), but in this case he is spot on in his assessment of what lies at the heart of many individual's outright hostility towards contemporary art. It is worth here quoting him in full:

"The reason Safer isn't able to have what he calls "an aesthetic experience" with contemporary art is that he fears it. It’s too bad, because fear is a fantastic portal for such experiences. Fear tells you important things. Instead, Safer is fixated on art that only wants to be loved. Most art wants attention, but there are many ways of doing this — from being taken aback by Andy Warhol's clashing colors and sliding silk-screens to being stopped in your tracks by just a dash in a poem by Emily Dickinson. Art isn't something that only wants love. It’s also new forms of energy, skill, or beauty. It's the ugliness of Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children. Often art is something we cross the street to avoid, something that makes us uncomfortable, that tells us things we don't want to know, that creates space for uncertainty. Safer goes to the most hellish place on Earth to look for "an aesthetic experience," then gets grumpy when he doesn't have one. It's clownish."

I really could not have put it better myself and I am considering quoting this passage in full when I encounter people who roll their eyes or pontificate about the nature of art in terms of its beauty or objecthood. It also shows just how out of touch mainstream media remains about the world of culture that lies beyond their immediate radar and understanding. Yes, the contemporary art market seems crazy to an outsider, but the same could be said about the Vancouver housing market. Some aspects of the economy are simply beyond our comprehension, but that has never seemed to bother a whole lot of people (interesting huh?). But what contemporary art does reveal is something that any first year art history student can tell you-- the meaning and value of art objects/events/performances is entirely contingent and not to be found in some essential quality of its form or aesthetics. Good art demands something more of us and may not always look and behave the way that we like. And maybe the hostility so many people feel about the mysterious mechanisms of the art market could be be projected onto the more abstracted features of the corporate world. Time better spent. Perhaps that could become more the catalyst for conversation than whether "my kid could do that."

Here is the original 1993 piece from 60 Minutes that inspired the recent piece by Morley Safer: