Lose your edge. Please.

rembrandt and cohen

Steven Cohen and Rembrandt at The Frick

Is anyone as weary of the term “cutting edge” as I’ve always been?  It is possible it will ever be retired? At N+1, you’ll find an essay built around the plight of Steven Cohen, a major art collector and the head of SAC Capital, currently under investigation for insider trading. The author of the piece Gary Sernovitz, draws loose comparisons between the “edge” that traders seek, which can drift into the illegal exchange of non-public information, and the “edge” that artists attempt to ride in their work. It’s more of a poetic play on words than anything else—both edges put you ahead of everyone else, by a little or a lot, but one is illegal and the other simply represents an exhausted idea of what matters in art. Both do represent something that can result in a lucrative advantage over competitors. The essay has a sort of proclamatory, elegiac tone that feels more enthralled by the notion of this elusive “edge” than the essay’s skeptical take on Cohen would seem to warrant. Some fine points are made though, especially these on the notion of edgy “newness”:

A visual artist hits his audience with a visceral punch. The potential responses to a work’s “newness” seems much more binary (than a response to the influence of previous writers in, say, fictional prose). One would continue reading prose that is Bellowish and happily let the author have her influences. One would wonder after seeing a Pollockish drip painting whether the painter was an ironist or a hack.

(Some of use wouldn’t wonder this at all, but a lot would.)

How hard it must be now for an artist when it seems that not only has every material form and format imaginable been tried to express Truth and Beauty but every idea has now also found material form. I watch in awe as artists rise to face that challenge, and even more so when they succeed. But sometimes I feel like I’m witnessing the strain. All artists respond to their inner life and the outer world and other art in some mix. These basic ingredients have not changed. But too often, after leaving a contemporary art exhibition, having hungrily wanted a powerful aesthetic experience, I wonder why I was left cold. . . it feels, sometimes, as if an edge has become the only ante to be exhibited at all. As if the edge has become the whole point.

(I’m not disagreeing, but the edge became the whole point a long time ago.)

Artists—traders—the Art Collector himself—are faced with the efficient market, the weight of precedent, all that has been and is being done. Every day it gets worse. But the best of them, like de Kooning, are mercury, racing to be first to an edge before it disappears.

This is now the template for the career of a successful artist: a few incandescent years, a few decades, and then repetition, self-parody, irrelevance, death. But that’s what we admire about them. Their fight against their condition is our fight against our condition. They are trying to fix a vanishing edge in a material form. And that struggle against the mortality of the edge, which is the mortality of every minute, which is mortality, is affirming and heroic and generous.

Just shoot me now. If “newness” is the game, then all of what Sernovitz says is totally on the money, as it were. If “newness” has ceased to be the point, and it has, then none of what he says really applies to the making of art. A compelling quality of freshness—not some critically-identifiable “newness” that can be extracted from a particular work—finds its way into the picture when the artist remains faithful to whatever compels him or her, individually, to get to work in the first place. That impulse, as with De Kooning, whom he was continuing to celebrate there in that last quote, used to come from an historical struggle with predecessors, a wrestling match with the anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom called it, in another context. But the “new” is new now only in the sense that a particular snowflake or an individual person is “new”. Considered from one perspective, a work of art is just the same old thing, identical with all the rest. But get close enough, emotionally, personally, or just optically, and some work is utterly unique because it’s so utterly the person who made it. The quality and power of that quiddity—yeah, that’s right, I used the word quiddity—depends on qualities of the individual artist’s personality and character, not on where the work fits into any sense of historical “newness.” On the subject of not needing to be at the edge, one more quote from the interview with Ran Ortner I pilfered in my previous quote, about Rembrandt’s last years:

Rembrandt starts his career in Amsterdam . . . where there is lots of new wealth. He becomes extremely successful and buys an expensive home and fills it with antiques: Roman armor, fossils, collectibles. He marries a woman he adores, and they have four children. He has everything. And then three of his four children pass away. His wife dies. His work is no longer fashionable. Amsterdam moves into the second generation of wealth, and the nouveau riche prefer the rococo, the intricate and overdone. Rather than follow trends, Rembrandt becomes more and more direct and brutal, his style rougher, the work more immediate. His paintings don’t sell. He loses everything. But it doesn’t discourage his inner need to be fully who he is . . . when he paints his self-portrait in golden robes, he’s lost his home, is bankrupt, and is living in a poor part of town. Yet he paints himself as a king on a throne because he has his empire of dirt.

His little nod to a Nine Inch Nails lyric baffles me, since it was a song about moral desolation and addiction, not noble poverty, but you get his drift. No cutting edge to be found anywhere in this. No whiff of anything “new” anywhere in that scenario. The new was probably off doing something far less interesting at the time. Whatever’s merely new eventually gets old, and Rembrandt’s work never gets old.


1 Response to “Lose your edge. Please.”

  1. Richard Harrington

    You made me use the dictionary. At least online. Quiddity. I’d never even seen or heard the word before. Can’t see using it in conversation without feeling self conscious. But, a good word, none the less.

    When I got the grant to paddle the river, I was around 40. OK, paddle the river and do a sketchbook. But it was on that trip I finally had time to really think about what I was doing, rather than just scramble. And rivers do that to me anyway. Their liquidity. Ha.

    But I was faced with the realization of what Sernovitz is saying, everything has been done, so why bother. You are not gong to come up with something new. It was crushing, my midlife crisis. I probably would have been better off to fold it up and go do something more promising. But I couldn’t for some reason, and that’s what lead me to where I am now, trying to understand the why for me. Why am I compelled to do this more than anything else? And what do I bring to it that is mine, rather than more of the same.

    On some level, that’s all I’ve got. My approach to exploring ideas with a bag of tools that has a long history and bazzillions of practitioners. The only thing that gives me any uniqueness is whatever idiosyncrasies and life experiences I bring to it. The “it” being my search for my truth.

    To be on a constant search for the new and different seems a less interesting, and even less truthful path, and boredom is my undoing.