Fake Art—the Rauschenberg Phenomenon

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram (1955-59). Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Image from Rauschenberg Foundation, Creative Commons.

The phenomenon of fake news is on everyone’s lips in the realm of politics these days, but the equivalent of fake art in the contemporary artworld has yet to be adequately reckoned with. Google the term and you’ll find ample news of forgeries—work imitating that by famous artists and passed off as actually by them. What I’m referring to is far more insidious. It is the creation and promotion of original work that passes for art in the eyes of the cultural establishment but is not art by any meaningful standard, much less by the purported artists’ own statements about it.1

To witness this phenomenon in full swing, you could find no more telling instances than the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends (which opened this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or the exhibition catalogue by co-curators Leah Dickerman of MoMA and Achim Borchardt-Hume of Tate Modern (where the exhibition originated). They demonstrate—in spades—both the creation and the promotion of fake art.

Collaboration to Produce Anti-Art

The theme of the show—the first major retrospective since Rauschenberg’s death in 2008—is his lifelong penchant for collaboration, not only with others in the avant-garde artworld but also with scientists, engineers, and technicians. That aspect of his work appealed to Dickerman because—as she stated at a press preview on May 17—it dispels the “myth of a genius working in solitude” and substitutes the “creative power” of collaboration.

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

So let’s take a look at some of the products of such “creative” collaboration by this alleged “genius.” A notorious early example is Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing. His “collaborators” were Willem de Kooning, who gave him the original drawing, and Jasper Johns—who persuaded him to exhibit the erased result in a gilt frame, labeled with the foregoing title. The piece was inspired, the MoMA wall text informs us, by Rauschenberg’s just “wanting to know whether a drawing could be made out of erasing.” He might have saved himself the month’s effort and forty erasers he later said he had devoted to it had he simply consulted dictionary definitions of drawing and erasure. In a sophistic gloss on this absurdity, however, Dickerman observes: “Rauschenberg set out to liberate the negative term, the unmaking from the making.”2

Like other work by Rauschenberg (with or without collaborators), Erased de Kooning Drawing is, in fact, a piece of anti-art. In the spirit of the Dadaists who inspired him, his primary aim was to challenge prior art, not to create something new in its place. Tellingly, the section of Dickerman’s essay in which that piece is discussed is entitled “The Destruction of Painting.” At later stages of his career, Rauschenberg was similarly involved in the destruction of sculpture, dance, and drama as coherent forms of expression. In Dickerman’s view, such activities were “creative.”

Can destruction be creative? True, many economists recognize the phenomenon of “creative destruction” in the economic sphere. In it, the new economic order displacing the old is itself seen to be of value. Thus it is truly “creative,” having produced a new economic value. But can any sane person not besotted by artworld sophistry honestly say that Rauschenberg’s erased drawing—or his Tire Print (a collaboration with John Cage)—has artistic value in itself? Only by ignoring or denying that art has a definable identity. Which is of course what Rauschenberg and his defenders have done.

Ignoring Essential Distinctions

Like many observers, Dickerman rightly stresses that what Rauschenberg was engaged in was an “assault on Abstract Expressionism.” What she misses, however, is that the utterly daffy forms his assault took negated not just the overrated and misguided work of the acclaimed abstract painters he hung out with at the Cedar Tavern but also the genuine art that had been produced since time immemorial and that was still being created by painters such as Andrew Wyeth. While Abstract Expressionism’s “claims of . . . psychic and existential significance” were indeed insupportable, those of traditional art were not.

Much is made in the MoMA exhibition materials of Rauschenberg’s famous claim that he aimed to work in the “gap” between art and life. Has anyone located that “gap” apart from Rauschenberg’s reference to it? I think not. Because there is no such gap. There is, however, a distinction. It consists in this: art is about life—a fact that implies it is different from (though profoundly related to) life itself. Failing to grasp that principle, Rauschenberg consistently flouted it. As Dickerman uncritically observes, he not only “admitt[ed] ordinary things into the domain of art,” he also “imagin[ed] . . . an art that did not separate itself from lived experience.” She regards that as “welcom[ing] the quotidian.” I see it as obliterating art.

Rauschenberg once explained: “I was working either with devices that would let the work compose itself, or stepping back enough to let the accidents take over.” On another occasion, he declared: “I don’t want to be in full control.” Like numerous other statements made by him, those declarations are tacit admissions that what he was doing was something other than art, since the concept of art, at root, implies control by the maker. Nor did Rauschenberg intend to convey meaning or “express a message,” though works of art had always done so.

At the press preview, I asked Dickerman whether, in view of such statements, one might be making a big mistake in treating Rauschenberg’s work as if it were art. A long, awkward pause followed. She then responded: “For me, that doesn’t resonate.” Rauschenberg’s approach to art was “very egalitarian,” she explained (echoing a notion prominent in her catalogue essay). He thought that “all things should be admitted [in art],” she added.

Rauschenberg’s “Combines”

The works that most fully exhibit Rauschenberg’s “egalitarian” approach are his so-called Combines—a term he coined to characterize the bizarre pieces for which he is probably best known. Neither paintings nor sculptures (nor art), they incorporate a motley assortment of two- and three-dimensional objects. Combines displayed at MoMA include Monogram (featuring a stuffed goat girded with a tire3), Black Market (comprising, among other things, a street sign, four clipboards, and an old suitcase), Pantomime (containing two electric fans), and Gold Standard (a gilt folding screen cluttered with diverse objects and tethered to a ceramic dog on a bicycle seat). To my mind, they suggested what might be produced in the occupational-therapy ward of a mental asylum that could only afford to supply its inmates with materials collected from the town dump.

Many MoMA visitors I observed smiled at the sight of the Combines—as one might smile at the antics of a dotty uncle. But shouldn’t we expect more from the work of a “defining figure of contemporary art” (to quote the MoMA press release)? Such idiotic fake art, like other examples by Rauschenberg, is far more insidious than forgeries, because it undermines the very idea of art.

One should not blame the dotty uncle, however. He could not help it if he was slightly daft.4 The principal blame for such a travesty of art belongs to the curators, institutions, and sponsors (from the Terra Foundation for American Art to Bank of America and Bloomberg Philanthropies) who elevate the dotty uncle’s antics to the status of art—not to mention the critics who help legitimize it, such as Holland Cotter of the New York Times.5

Notes

  1. The philosopher and cultural critic Roger Scruton has aptly excoriated such “fake art” in several articles, but this sense of the term has, regrettably, not yet gained wide currency.
  2. For insights like this, Dickerman has won numerous awards—most notably for her Inventing Abstraction catalogue. For my own views on that exhibition and her catalogue essay, see “Has the Artworld Been Kidding Itself about Abstract Art?” (Aristos, December 2013).
  3. On critics’ attempts to read meaning into this work (despite Rauschenberg’s repeated denials of coherent intention), see Who Says That’s Art?, pp. 131-133.
  4. Though Rauschenberg is only mentioned in passing in clinical psychologist Louis Sass’s illuminating study Madness and Modernism, his Combines and other work surely exhibit many of the characteristics Sass associates with schizoid personality disorders, as do his often kooky statements about his work.
  5. See Cotter’s “Robert Rauschenberg: It Takes a Village to Raise a Genius,” May 18, 2017.