The anonymous sign read “Pretty Pictures Never Solved a Problem,” and it would be fair to suppose it was intended as some kind of critique of esthetics in the name of ethics. But to that sign, I still wanted to add “they never pretended to do so, either,” so that I could make the point that a disinterest in ethics is still ethically superior to pretending to be concerned about ethics in the name of personal or interest-group self-aggrandizement. During the past decade of political and financial tumult, we have seen a lot of art engaged in such pretenses, be it labeled “institutional critique,” “social-practices,” or the ever-popular “relational esthetics,” all of which in their own way tried to feel the world’s pain as a prelude to exaggerating their own claims of importance in the greater scheme of things. Good thing the Wall Street protesters didn’t get bogged down in any of these art world conceits, lest they, too, fall victim to being programmatically ineffectual.
Mark Van Proyen is Chair of the Painting Department of the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his critical writings have appeared in many publications, including Art Criticism, Artweek and Art Issues. He is currently working on a novel titled Theda’s Island, the story of which is set in the art world.