“More and more,” Nietzsche noted in 1887, “work gets all good conscience on its side.” He was repulsed by the increasingly work-obsessed culture of the late 19th century: “breathless haste in working—the true vice of the new world—is already starting to spread to old Europe, making it savage and covering it with a most odd mindlessness.” Nietzsche was remarkably prescient. But I doubt that even he could have imagined the wacky work-obsessed world of the early 21st century. Work has, it seems, succeeded in getting “all good conscience on its side.” Not even the field of aesthetics has proven immune.
The recently concluded Nuit Blanche art festival is a case in point. Again and again, in one gallery after another, I heard artworks evaluated solely (or largely) on the basis of how much hard work and technical skill went in to them. For instance, one art critic, who’s been a huge Jackson Pollock fan for decades, recently told me that he no longer likes Pollock. Why? Because he saw a retrospective of his work—including earlier works, representational works, works done before he became “Jack the Dripper” (the abstract expressionist). These earlier works make at least one thing clear: Pollock sucked at figurative drawing and painting. This supposedly casts aspersions on all of his subsequent work. Apparently Pollock’s abstract expressionism is somehow fraudulent because he couldn’t paint a house that looks like a house.
Although I’ve never really liked Jackson Pollock, I find this reassessment of his work thoroughly unfair and vaguely perverse. Why would anyone want to base their aesthetic judgment on a bootlegged version of the Protestant Work Ethic? It’s like trying to base a meaningful philosophy of life on a Hallmark card slogan. You invariably end up with banal judgments such as:
1. This is good art because it looks like it took a long time to make it.
2. This is good art because it looks like it required specialized skills to produce it (specialized skills which were, of course, acquired via lots of hard work).
3. This is bad art because it looks like it didn’t take a long time to make it.
4. This is bad art because it looks like something a five-year-old could do.
Am I the only one who finds this Martha-Stewart-worthy aesthetic totally unsatisfying?
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)