How should one begin when writing about George Zimmerman painting? It might be a good idea to put Zimmerman in a context by which we can judge what he is in fact doing and why is it that this is either accepted or not. George W Bush as we know is painting also, and when he was alive, John Wayne Gacy was painting as well. As much as we would like to dismiss their art as hacky, or worse, let us not forget that it has been decades of unrelenting deskilling of artists, pluralism and appropriation of art for the sake of money and consumerism among other things that have resulted in non-artists claiming the status of artist and non-art elevated to high art. Can we at all imagine a time fifty years ago, when critics like Harold Rosenberg or Clement Greenberg were writing about art and producing actual criticism, which meant that artists had to be somewhat accountable to a de facto higher authority than themselves? Regardless of how wrong or conservative these critics were, in their approach to critique, one thing is certain, and that is that criticism ought to serve as the art world’s peer review, its zero level coordinate, rather than a one way ticket to celebrity status. The lack of real criticism in contemporary art, supplanted with descriptive methods of writing and a lack of interest in the periphery of art making by fringe avant-garde and emerging artists created just such a situation in which criticism’s only function is to create status without judgement. One can argue that such a situation is more democratic, because it allows members of the public to engage in what was once reserved only for those skilled or educated in art and art making. The counter argument is that it is precisely this democratization that destroys the function of what it is trying to democratize. In a recent article in the Guardian (Friday, 13, 2013) the author looked at the impact that smartphones and particularly the iPhone have on photography. While we drown in endless streams of images and while we supplement images for real experiences (people taking pictures of paintings in museums rather than looking at them and so on), photography as an experience is on the rise, but professional photography is suffering. “Kodak used to employ 40,000 people in good jobs. What have they been replaced by? Twelve people at Instagram.” On the one hand we do not have to pay a professional photographer thousands of dollars for a few snapshots of a wedding, we can do it ourselves, but on the other we are more and more giving our power over to technology, which as we well know tends to be (mis)used by governments and corporations looking to protect their bottom lines.
We could also say that perhaps it is payback time, because at the beginning of the twentieth century it was photography that put many painters out of business of painting family portraits. We could argue that photography did not actually destroy painting as a practice as we could say that the iPhone and Instagram will not truly destroy photography as a professional practice, because no matter how many millions of people can readily take a snapshot, most will not go out of their way to stage photo shoots, or create photographic panoramas in miniature. One might say that photography’s salvation can only lie in increasingly obscure methods of shooting or avant-garde methods, pictures might therefore attempt to resist their commodification but also resist the appropriation and democratization process itself, and perhaps the only way to accomplish this is through criticism, which brings us back to George Zimmerman.
Taking the example of Gacy, let us look at the social and psychological context of Zimmerman’s work. Gacy’s works have been sold for thousands of dollars and the implications are that a work of art by a serial murderer, without any art training, credentials, skill or artistic passion, must rely on the status of celebrity, notoriety and fascination with the shadow side of human nature to create value in a work of art. Zimmerman in this case is a weak example of jus t such a fascination. He did not murder dozens of victims and bury them under his house like Gacy, he was not responsible for the deaths, displacement and ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern citizens like Bush. Yet he did set a precedent with this particular type of work. In the art world, much like in Hollywood, when celebrity no longer has to rely on a particular skill, just celebrity itself, status given over by celebrity is enough to sell work. How much different is the case of Jeff Koons, whose career as an artist was preceded by one as commodities broker? Though he studied art in college, his insider contacts from trading were what really got him started on a career of super stardom since he could use those contacts to peddle his own mediocre art. Is not Zimmerman’s just another case of an individual (ab)using a particular system, in place such as it is, for his own benefit? It would be silly to simply dismiss his work as hacky (it is) or as the worst kind of kitsch (which it is also), anyone with a minimum amount of knowledge knows this. The point is much more radical. In the wake of the Beuysian truism “everyone is an artist”, Zimmerman is doing exactly what many of us would do should the opportunity present itself, by this is meant the unflinching self-merchandising and crass (mis)use of the term. In a typical class of thirty kids, it is usually the biggest idiot who takes the rest of the class down with him, if he is the one disrupting class and does not own up to his own idiocy. The teacher will usually punish the entire class rather than look for the culprit. Does this not seem like the obverse of the situation with contemporary art, where a handful of hacks are able to undermine generations of honest work in a matter of hours on the auction house floor?
Predictably, Zimmerman’s painting sold for $100,000 and Zimmerman himself became an “artist” after painting only a single piece. It is hard to say whether it is time to laugh or to cry.