By Mat Gleason
From Coagula Issue #45
Are you going to see the Matthew Barney film? Well I only got asked it about a hundred times. Each time the answer was “no.” Held firm on it as well. Even had the chance on a Sunday night, but opted for the revival of Hitchcock’s Rear Window at the Rialto in Pasadena. A real movie. Stinky carpets and Jimmy Stewart have their appeal.
Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2? came to Hollywood, or more exactly, Santa Monica’s Nuart Theater. All of my sources indicate it was a solid art world crowd. No Hollywood honchos, no actors, no “industry people.” Just the future payers-back of student loans, tenure track pigment peddlers and Paul Schimmel’s tush. Sold out, each showing. Full house to see what a lot of people I trust actually liked, although an equal or greater number hated.
Why boycott the buzz? Politics of course.
NOT the petty kind played on art world stages the world over. The politics of Matthew Barney is known as Production. Let’s call it Productionism. This is an art form that values an expensive mold in which to cast a unique trinket. Productionism was invented by Jeff Koons during the Reagan administration. History now shows that Koons was in a fierce battle with artist Mark Kostabi over who got more publicity for hiring other people to do their art work. Koons could not defeat Kostabi by making “better” artwork (critical criteria was dissolved years earlier) nor by getting more articles in People Magazine (although the porn star wife helped a bit, until he had to actually take her home). Koons became a more “famous” and “important” artist than Kostabi by lowering the volume of his art output and raising the cost to produce each item. So, while Kostabi was selling 500 paintings for $7,000 each, Koons would sell a few giant “productions” for $3,500,000. While their net was the same, the implication was that Koons was the more “serious” artist.
Why? Here is art world logic for you: Since not every yuppie who had five figures with which to shop could afford a Koons, the fact that he had exactly the same theoretical approach to artmaking as Kostabi (that the production of the aesthetic object could and should replace authorship) no longer mattered.
Fast forward to February, 2000. You have a $1.7 million independent film running at the “independent film” theater. No movie critics review it. But this movie is “art.” It is special. It is Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2. But do not be fooled. This movie is Productionism, it is not art. It is the expensive mold that produces and legitimizes brand-name tchotchkes. It goes beyond any notion of whether Matthew Barney is or is not a genius. Productionism insidiously requires artists to engage in very expensive endeavors before they are taken seriously. You and Matthew Barney armed with the same affordable video cameras would yield different results, but you might be a better, more talented and clever artist. But your video is already so crushed under the weight of all his cream, you don’t bother making the video, or the painting, or the art. You end up hating art and the elite are happy you are now leaving their art world, could you please leave the door open a smidge so that we may laugh at you some more as you walk away.
Why do the elite love Productionism? Because they have yet to ever defeat the old saw “anybody can do that.” They can snicker, and pontificate, but the backwoods logic that art should have some measurable specialness in its makeup looms in every collector’s house like Dorian Gray. But Productionism comes close to defeating it. The results might be kitschy (Koons), inane (Mariko Mori) or boring (Barney), but not just anybody can spend a million bucks making an “artwork,” therefore, rather than justifying an artwork’s legitimacy based on how much it has sold for (Van Gogh’s at auction), the collecting elite now can simply rattle off how much it cost to make.
Matthew Barney has cleverly “improved” on the Koons Productionist model. He has added a touch of the uncriticizable Josef Beuys into the Productionist canon. By having his gallery sell the props from his movies as “artworks,” Barney gets to have relics which are legitimized by their pedigree?£they’re part of art historical moments. They are what is left over from those “important” Cremaster movies, er, films, er, artworks, yeah, that’s it, they are artworks that just happened to have been displayed in movie theaters that sell popcorn and six-dollar Diet Cokes.
Forget the aesthetics of Cremaster and consider the ramifications. Productionism is not forward progress. Because of the inevitability of a patron in the Production process, Productionism mimics the High Renaissance (and can we ever be certain that patrons do not influence the content, aesthetics and appearance of these high budget artworks?). The few artists who managed to get the big buck “commissions” ended up illustrating the glory of God in an era of a corrupt unbending church five centuries ago. Today we get the glory of the price tag in an era of the global security state.
Like art in feudal societies, Productionism demands patronage or death. Only this time, the Pope is some I.P.O. king who bought the line that the detritus from a Matthew Barney film is art. And anyone in Hollywood will tell you what it really is: Barney’s “artworks” are the Happy Meal movie tie-in. All collectors really end up with is a boring movie and Matthew Barney’s rubble.