Art News Roundup: Poverty Chic Edition

In popular culture, there’s inevitably a tipping point beyond which something that was once considered to be edgy and subversive – body piercings twenty years ago, tattoos now – becomes banal. The more commonly accepted something becomes, the less it costs those who obtain it, whether monetarily or socially. In the art market however, the opposite is true. The more popular a type of art becomes among the collecting cognoscenti, the more it falls outside the reach of the average person.

The popular street artist known as Banksy has been heading in the direction of bougie-fication for quite awhile, fetching ever-greater sums for his work and pulling along other graffiti scrawlers in his wake. In fact, such art has become so socially acceptable that it’s currently used to market things such as loft conversions in gentrifying neighborhoods. Yet now, I believe that we may have finally reached the precise moment at which Banksy’s insider-outsider art has finally jumped the shark.

The Palms in Las Vegas boasts some of the most expensive hotel suites in the world, along with a residential tower where apartments can go for tens of millions of dollars. As part of a massive $620 million renovation, the casino resort is opening a new theme restaurant, described as a kind of “speakeasy” that will take diners back to the New York underground art scene of the 1980’s. On display will be works by Banksy and other street artists, some of which were specially commissioned for the space. Of course, Banksy is a Contemporary Artist from the UK, and was not working in New York in the 1980’s, so the idea of trying to recapture a particular era in the history of an American city by displaying current, foreign art seems a bit off, but there you are.

Having visited New York several times during the ‘80’s, I don’t quite see the appeal of this particular dining concept. Even the more heavily-touristed parts of the city were often dirty, dilapidated, and dangerous back then. Personally, I rather doubt that I’d care to dine on duck confit in surroundings designed to evoke an Ed Koch-era crack house in Alphabet City, but de gustibus non disputandum est.

There’s also something terribly Ancien Régime about this entire concept, and not in a good way. One is vaguely reminded of Marie Antoinette dressing up as a shepherdess to go milk immaculately groomed and perfumed cows at the Hameau de la Reine, the faux country village which she had built on the grounds of Versailles. Creating a restaurant experience where diners can imagine that they are associating with unseen members of the marginalized and downtrodden classes, without having to step over used needles, detect whiffs of urine, or scare off marauding rats, seems rather disturbingly exploitative – indeed, much like Banksy’s art itself. If we had to allow the import of Banksy’s garbage art from the UK, did we also have to import the garbage concept of poverty chic in dining, as well?

In any case, since Banksy’s work is now considered acceptable wall décor for hotel restaurants aimed at groups of tourists attending annual sales conferences, it’s entirely possible that we’ve finally reached the point at which tastemakers begin to view such art as no longer being fashionable. Of course, some of us have always thought that the entire street art movement was nothing more than the deification of those who practice anti-social, criminal activities in the first place. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, let’s move on (with greater brevity) to some other art stories.


Hudson Yawns

Ben Davis’ review of Hudson Yards, the massive new redevelopment project on the west side of Manhattan that opened to the public this week, is worth reading, even though he doesn’t address the controversial issue of image licensing at the site. I don’t agree with all of Mr. Davis’ assessments of the art on display, but a number of his observations about the project as a whole are spot-on. Case in point: “[W]hat Hudson Yards in fact is, at its heart, is absolutely the most boring, uninteresting thing that you could realize with all that investment: It is an engorged complex of high-end office space and retail. It is no one’s idea of cool except to the kind of people who think that Eataly is an edgy destination.”


Painted Peering

The Painted Hall at the former Royal Hospital in Greenwich, England, is an overwrought but interesting work of art propaganda by the British artist James Thornhill (1675-1734), designed to celebrate and legitimize the reigns of the later Stuart monarchs, and their connection to the subsequent Hanoverian dynasty. The murals had been undergoing cleaning and restoration for some time, but the Hall has now reopened to the public complete with a suite of day beds, which will allow visitors to lie down and look up at the ceilings without having to crane their necks. As Maev Kennedy comments in the Art Newspaper, “it takes a leap of faith to accept the regular description of the hall as ‘England’s Sistine Chapel’,” an observation which is borne out by comparison to what I would consider England’s true equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, albeit one just as secular and propagandist as the Painted Hall: Peter Paul Rubens’ glorious 17th century ceiling for the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. You be the judge, gentle reader.


San Diego Surprise

I recently watched the video of a talk that I want to highly recommend to my readers, which was given by art historian Nigel McGilchrist at the San Diego Museum of Art a few weeks ago. Titled “The Road from Giorgione and Caravaggio to the Greatness of Spanish Painting”, the lecture is a non-linear exploration of some of the interesting connections between Italian and Spanish art, and even for someone who knows a fair amount about both subjects, I learnt a great deal from the presentation. For example, at one point the historian notes the admiration of many artists over the centuries for the “Belvedere Torso”, a roughly 2,000-year-old fragment of Hellenistic sculpture on display at the Vatican Museums. To my great surprise, Mr. McGilchrist was able to connect the sculpture, a visit to Rome by the young Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) in the 1760’s, and one of Goya’s most famous and haunting engravings, “The Colossus”, created sometime between 1800-1818. The menacing figure in Goya’s graphic art masterpiece which, like the “Belvedere Torso” itself, has had a huge impact on subsequent generations of artists, corresponds almost exactly with a sketch Goya made of the back of this Ancient Greek sculpture during his sojourn in the Eternal City.