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You might argue that the history of contemporary art is a series of avant-garde movements, each new wave outraging the last. – Michael Scott

If contemporary artists had a church of their own, most members would worship as true devotees at the fickle foot of Neolatry.

Love of anything new and improved is the pursuit of Neolatry, or as it’s more commonly known, the “cutting edge.”

“Cutting edge” is not only a ubiquitous term in art criticism, gallery verbiage and hype, but it’s also a lazy publicist’s wonder-word. It can stand for about anything you haven’t yet seen, imagined or considered – or just something really weird.

No surprise it’s been employed so long, especially when contemporary art such as the Chapman brothers’ girl mannequins with penis-noses beggars civil conversation and leaves one speechless with disgust. But the Chapmans’ work can always be explained away as “transgressive,” as the Russians heartily agreed in 2012, causing the Chapmans some real grief.

“Pushing boundaries” is a another helpful description, and there’s the faithful “cutting-edge” if it hasn’t been done yet or no one can think of anything more helpful to say.

Truly “cutting-edge” art can succeed and be stunningly beautiful and effective, however, as was Kohei Nawa’s taxidermied deer encrusted with reflective glass orbs. “PixCell-Red Deer” was her offering to the 2012 Art Basel Miami Beach.

"Pix Cell-Red Deer," by Kohei Nawa, photo: Artobserver

Change for the sake of change is the one unyielding fixture over the last century in the art world. Observing this long trend in the churning cultural hubs may well have inspired Obama’s nifty campaign slogan of vacuous meaning. And purposeless change has gained a fierce momentum, cruising alongside social and media innovations – until very recently.

Perhaps it’s because continuous change and challenge can become so tiring to viewers and art theorists, or maybe art schools and galleries can no longer keep up and are quietly staging a rebellion, but painting and other traditional art forms are quietly creeping back into the scene.

Most likely the trickle toward figurative art and slight ebb of conceptual and putative art comes through one of the possible dead-ends all extreme “cutting-edge” artists eventually encounter. Indian art critic JohnyML bluntly and cleverly deals with this in his “Swan Song of Cutting Edge Art.”

Johny pities the “spiky-haired … punk” cutting-edge artist who is enlisted to live a good 40 years creating works of art at that level “or something more degenerate.” This is after gallerists help fashion the image of the reprobate, transgressive artist and push them to stay in that mode as long as the money dictates.

He notes many who grew out of the scene in real life are painting landscapes in watercolor by 50. Damien Hirst for instance, leaves off pickling animals and pays tribute to portrait painter Francis Bacon. Johny lists top Indian painters Vivan Sundaram and Ranbir Kaleka as returning to painting “after dilly dallying with cutting edge installations.”

Exhausting art lovers with excessive intellectualizing and pedantry is another fault with some conceptual art. If it comes with an 80-page manifesto, it’s probably patronizing and horribly wearisome. Cloying and pretentious exhibits segregate their audience into art insiders and outsiders, and the rarefied atmosphere is a huge turn-off for everyone.

Installation art, “concept” shows and performance art is especially noxious if the artist goes out of his way to snub his audience.

Diego Leclery plays Civilization at Whitney

Last month’s Whitney Biennial, for example, installed French artist Diego Leclery on an outdoor garden for the sole purpose of playing the video game “Civilization” completely alone for the entire run of the show. Who does he know anyway?

Leclery’s video camp could be interpreted as a gentle rib at the hubris in the art scene. Speaking to ArtSpace he claimed a desire to transmute his “love of the interminable strategy game” into art sheerly through his own willpower. Leclery’s actual “real reason” followed, which was to make some “ducats.”

“Because, really, the collapse of art into life is about the ability to make money,” he confessed.

Better to find him a chair in the Stock Exchange and see how he does.

Shock art probably alienates viewers more than anything else, and it’s been a mainstay of the art scene forever. The problem with shock – as Lenny Bruce, Cindy Sherman and a multitude of professional offenders find – is the diminishing returns. Shock-art connoisseurs are visual junkies, requiring ever higher doses of entrails, shrieking or whatever the “artist” is dishing out.

Even the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women) is finite, and at some point it’s impossible to imagine anything worse. Only so many chain-saw cannibals and panegyrics for mass murderers continue to shock, and eventually, there’s nothing left.

It must be exhausting to always pander for negative public reactions. Goals so low and easily attained as offending prevailing morality show a sad type of adolescent and reversed bourgeois obsession.

In other words, “Grow up.”

Commenting on shock, art New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who occasionally says something very insightful and intelligent, didn’t this time. Protecting her job and art associates at all costs, she disingenuously claimed that people only “choose” to be shocked (she means us conservatives) and also that the dazed and offended “use” shock in “divisive, irresponsible, sensationalizing, not to mention politically manipulative ways.”

Or that they still have a conscience, in stark relief to her apparent vacuum.

Smith and other critics make uneven and unfair distinctions between great art that originally “shocked” audiences a century ago merely because of style or taste and the religious and political excrement (literally) that we may find our faces in today. There is no just comparison here.

Maggie Nelson, author of “The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning,” is having none of it. She insists in another Times piece that the ends (of art) can’t always justify the means, even metaphorically. Nelson adds that we should admit that “shocking, violent or cruel behaviors” in art provoke questions “about voyeurism, sadism, masochism and titillation” and that those reactions can’t always remain under the artist’s control.

Perhaps shock art will eventually die as they run out of shockable subjects.

Meanwhile the most prestigious art shows are loaded with more painting, sculpture and drawing as well as a strong literary bent with poets and writers. Last winter’s Tate London featured several painters including traditional, painterly pieces by relative unknowns such as Simon Ling and Catherine Story. Many younger Korean, Japanese and Chinese artists are returning either entirely to traditional art forms or merging them with Western ones. So this may signal a global trend.

Conceptual art we will have with us always, and it isn’t always bad. But Berlin-based American artist David Adamo’s arrangements of a few worn down school erasers in the 2014 Armory show was pretty pathetic. A reviewer in Art Space managed to work up enthusiasm for the “fun new direction” Adamo took in the recreation of “banal overlooked everyday objects.” They are still banal and should have remained overlooked, but things are looking up in the art world … I think.

Sources: Cartanart.com – “Swan Song of Cutting Edge Art”; Jennifer Schuessler – New York Times; Artspace.com; Maggie Nelson – “The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning.”

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