Commodification of the Avant-Garde


The brochure for the Francesco Clemente exhibit in the Guggenheim Museum, which closed about a month ago, stated that the neo-expressionist artist was a product of the turbulent 1960s and 70s in Italy. But as I began walking down the ramp of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright designed building, a sense of consternation began to mount. In the entire exhibit, there was not a single work that addressed social themes. Not only was the primary focus on bodily functions, either sexual or digestive, the imagery was intensely private.


His 1987 "Semen" is fairly typical ( Unlike the German expressionist paintings of the 1920s that depicted the moral and social rot of the Weimar Republic, Clemente's work is a rather solipsistic affair that shows a naked man swimming in--you guessed it--seminal fluid. So as I passed by painting after painting in a similar vein, I felt challenged to understand how the Museum decided to link the artist with the political rebellions that shaped me and artists like the kind shown in the Marxism web-page gallery.


Turning to a recent interview with Clemente, we discover that despite the semen-swimming iconography, the artist did identify with the '60s. He says, "In 1968, all of a sudden, there was a great hope for change-all the things you didn't like might change into something else, and the artists seemed to be the people doing it, not the politicians."


However, like many radicals from that era, the artist turned away from perceived excesses. After moving to Rome in 1970, Clemente encounters the terrorist Red Brigades, whom he labels as embodying a "Third International sort of point of view." Leaving aside Clemente's rather fuzzy notion of what the Third International stood for, he recoils from the Red Brigades and begins to embrace a "post-1968 skepticism."


Although converted to a fashionable skepticism, he does not allow himself to abandon radical politics entirely. He turns to a blend of Marxism and postmodernism that became de rigeur for high-flying journalists and academics in the 1970s and '80s. His mentor turns out to be another artist, Aleghiero Boetti, who was ten years his senior and evidently had an innate ability to pick up on trendy ideas and personalities. Clemente relates his tutelage underneath Boetti: "I had endless discussions of ideas and of his work with him and his wife. The imagery, the iconography of his work was eclectic, covering ground from people as far apart as Jasper Johns and Bruce Nauman, and in terms of ideas, from the French philosophers, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze, ideas of order, ideas of autonomy, and again, a critique of politics."


One supposes that the "critique of politics" he refers to would predispose against painting pictures of unfashionable subjects like workers or peasants. It is doubtful that the investment bankers gobbling up canvases in this period would have wanted something so gauche on their living-room wall as a Nicaraguan picking coffee.


Another key influence on Clemente was the controversial German artist Joseph Beuys, whom the interviewer holds in contempt, while others regard as the most influential artist since WWII. He asks, "Do you see the quality of a dilettante in Joseph Beuy's work?" Clemente replies, "No, Joseph Beuys seems the archetype of the grown-up artist." Beuys' work, leaning toward the cryptic, is a clear stylistic influence on Clemente. For example, the "Rose for Democracy" ( is defiantly apolitical despite its title and shows a flower in a beaker, allowing the spectator to invest his or her own meaning into this Rorschach-like work.


Leaving aside the merits of his work, Beuys is one of the biggest art world phonies of recent years. Most notably, he claimed to be a Stuka dive bomber pilot who after being shot down in 1943 over the Crimea, was kept alive by nomadic Tartars who swaddled him in fat and felt to keep him warm. A close associate Caroline Tisdall describes this as "a mythologised event," a polite term for bullshit.


After becoming a professor of sculpture in Dusseldorf in the early 60s, Beuys hooked up with the Fluxus movement, whose neo-Dadaism was nominally associated with protesting bourgeois society. One of his closest collaborators was Yoko Ono, another founding figure of Fluxus. In 1963 Beuys and the local Fluxus-ites performed an "action," titled Siberian Symphony. The action climaxed with Beuys placing lumps of clay and twigs on a piano keyboard, tying a length of piano wire to a dead hare, then ripping out its heart. In another action, Beuys sprinkled washing powder and the contents of a rubbish bin under a piano's lid in order to "improve" the sound, before attacking it with an electric drill.


Despite all this posturing, Beuys believed in a rather old-fashioned, if not authoritarian, vision of "social sculpture," which involved molding people's consciousness as it was a piece of clay. To this end, he said it was more important that his students became good parents than great artists.


The Fluxus movement had a big impact on the contemporary art world, not least of which was on the career of Andy Warhol, the subject of a previous article in this series. The combination of the desire to shock, to remain apolitical, and to explore sexually taboo subjects was the Fluxus movement's main legacy to Warhol's own experimental efforts in the 1960s. Of course, after he is shot by Valerie Solanas, he turns away from this scene entirely and becomes a society figure painting mostly banal portraits of fellow jet-setters.


>From the Fluxus movement and Warhol's career, Clemente learns how to position himself in the marketplace. He discovers that it is good business to be a bit iconoclastic as long as you stay off the hot buttons of class struggle or radical politics. He also learns that the art world, the investment and real estate worlds have overlapping concerns, which is how to circulate hot commodities.


Warhol and Clemente got along famously. Warhol biographer and inner-circle member Rene Ricard details their relationship in the catalog for the Guggenheim show. Captioned "1982," the section from Ricard's piece titled "Chronology" notes that:


"In January, Warhol paints a three-panel portrait of Clemente wearing a suit and tie. Clemente exchanges three geometrically shaped canvases with stitched-in padding for the portrait. These have never been exhibited.


"In February, Warhol's INTERVIEW publishes an interview with Clemente. DeAk is the interlocutor. The photograph accompanying the article is by Robert Mapplethorpe. Clemente's appearance is striking. He patronizes the Astor Place barbershop, where for $5 they machine-clip his hair and beard, leaving a short stubble. This 'three-day growth' will be extensively copied by fashionable men."


I suppose all this became inevitable after Jackson Pollock agreed to allow his drip paintings to be used as a backdrop for a Vogue Magazine fashion model spread in the last years of his life.


Through Warhol, Clemente came into contact and developed close bonds with Jean-Michel Basquiat, the young artist of Haitian descent whose career began as a graffiti artist. He signed his cryptic messages SAMO, which stood for same old shit. These messages consisted of somewhat challenging, but unfocused, words like, "Playing art with daddy's money." From the world of the streets, he began showing in galleries with other "taggers." One of the works that gained him fame and fortune was the raw and powerful untitled 1982 work which is commonly known as "Skull." (


Unlike Warhol and Clemente, Basquiat never learned to float above the surface of the glamorous world they moved in. He was consumed by it. Easy access to drugs and cash-bloated customers could never satisfy him. Like John Belushi and many rock stars, he was killed by hedonism. His biographer Phoebe Hoban writes, "Place him in a pressure-cooker art world where quantity matters more than quality, aggressive art dealers push prices through the roof, avaricious new collectors speculate wildly, auction houses create instant inflation, and the media magnifies the entire circus through a hyperbolic lens. Add the race card, drugs, and promiscuity at every level. Then call it the burnout of an art star."


Basquiat's work is closely related to Clemente's thematically. Nominally taking racism, materialism, capitalism, pop culture and mortality as its theme, it tends to deal with them in only the most allusive fashion. To satisfy the demand from art-collecting junk bond dealers, Basquiat was forced to paint on demand. At his best, Basquiat improvised slashing, cartoon-like images with powerful themes; at his worst, he foundered in what Hoban calls, "flaccid name-dropping doodles and fashionably wild-looking pastiches."


Basquiat probably could have had a more productive career if he had detached himself from the human riff-raff gathered around Studio 54, downtown galleries and Park Avenue penthouses. But that would be like saying he would have been better off if capitalism did not exist. Capitalism tarnishes everything it comes in contact with, ironically the world of avant-garde art in the 1980s most of all.


The other artist closely associated with Warhol was Keith Haring (, another highly successful artist who got started as a graffiti "tagger." Basquiat, Haring and Clemente all were friends and respected each others work. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that Haring received inspiration from the same muse. Haring, like the others, painted cryptic images that suggested something was wrong with the world, but somehow never developed either the insight, nor the appetite, to develop the kind of work that characterized an earlier generation that knew how to name the enemy of humanity with consumate clarity.


As should be well-known by now, Haring was gay and died of AIDS. To his credit, much of his work was devoted to raising awareness about AIDS and funds as well. Haring was deeply indebted to Warhol, another gay artist. In a diary he kept on a European trip, Haring explored the problematic of Warhol's relationship to bourgeois society:


"Andy was probably the only real Pop artist. One thing that I was most impressed by in a recent show at the Foundation Of The Disaster series was a paragraph in an accompanying pamphlet about the paintings. It was a quote from Lawrence Alloway about Pop art, saying how in the beginning of Pop there was a breakdown and fusion of life and art (a celebration of popular culture) that was first embraced by Pop artists. Then, little by little, the painters withdrew from this area and took their ideas back into the form and arena of the art 'establishment'. This, it said, is the point where Andy separated from the rest of the group and remained true to the original ideas of Pop art.


"Andy remained a Pop artist. He reinvented the idea of the life of the artist being art itself. He challenged the whole notion of the 'sacred' definition of art. He blurred the boundaries between art and life so much that they were practically indistinguishable.


"He challenged the whole commodity-oriented direction of the art world by beating it at its own game. He became a teacher for a generation of artists now - and in the future - who grew up on Pop, who watched television since they were born, who understand digital knowledge. I honestly think he was the most important artist since Picasso, whether people like it or not, and a lot of them don't. The museum and auction worlds didn't know how to deal with him."


There is, shall we say, a certain generosity of spirit that is evident here which owes much to the student-teacher relationship. However, there is little doubt but that Haring was subject to the same ineluctable market forces that characterized Warhol in his later years.


In the end, Haring became a one-man industry just like Warhol. He sold millions of dollars in kitschy items turned out by his underlings who operated in factory-like assembly lines just like in Warhol's studio. In the end, whatever message he had about challenging either the art 'establishment' or the 'establishment' in general were lost in a blizzard of promotions at department stores or charity balls. Swatch wristwatches, just one example, designed by Keith Haring, that cost $50 when they first appeared might be worth as much as $5,000 today.


Even the dedication to fighting AIDS can be challenged in some respects. After all, the charitable efforts mounted by Haring and others simply reflected the refusal of the government to fund health-care in the 1980s. If Haring and Warhol had focused more efforts on political organizing than in schmoozing with ruling class figures, including Nancy Reagan, then perhaps the death toll would have been less. Alexander Cockburn comments:


"Typical is Under One Roof, a gift store in San Francisco. This boutique carries an expensive selection of merchandise on the cutting edge of the epidemic: Keith Haring tote bags, T-shirts with the words 'We're cookin' up love for people with AIDS,' 'Awareness Watches' and teddy bears sporting red ribbons.


"AIDS has become a veritable sanctuary for kitsch, from the panel in the AIDS quilt featuring an envelope addressed to 'A Better Place' to Andre Durand's painting 'Votive Offering,' depicting, in Harris' words, 'an ethereal Princess Di surrounded by saints, placing her hands on an emaciated PWA person with AIDS while dying men in the hospital beds around her strain at their dripping IVs like lurid scarecrows pleading to touch the hem of her skirt.' From Di to Whoopi Goldberg, the epidemic has offered celebs a marvelous way to advertise their generosity.


"There's a decent reason for the role show business has played: Washington wasn't doling out money. Desperate for private contributions during the Reagan-Bush years, activists turned the disease into a commodity, into what might be called the AIDS 'product,' introduced through a blitz of kitschy public appeals." (LA Times, June 19, 1997)


Clemente, Basquiat and Haring are the final products of a capitalist society that has not only exhausted efforts not only to criticize itself, but that has cut off all possibilities for allowing the "Other" to criticize it. The co-optation of avant-garde artists is simply the logical conclusion of a systematic commodification of everything, including subversion itself. If and when a new radicalization starts up, one can assume that the iconography of such new movements will look a lot different than they did in the 1980s and '90s, when capitalism not only disoriented the political left, but the cultural left as well.