Like a Stroll Through Chelsea: A Guide to Art-Scene Flummery

Let me begin this review of Art Now , Taschen’s “all-you-need guide to contemporary art,” with a practical question: Who buys this kind of thing? I say “thing” and not “book” because I can’t imagine anyone sitting down to read it. While this compendium of “137 artists at the Rise of the New Millennium” does include a brief essay with each entry, that doesn’t mean it’s meant to be read. Indeed, the essays can’t be read: They’re written in the kind of obtusely grandiose prose that gives art-writing a bad name. The words are offered as intellectual ballast-which the art itself is incapable of supplying.

Nor is Art Now a coffee-table decoration to be looked at. True, there are photographs included; the bulk of the book is devoted to photographs. Yet they’re mostly images of art that traces its origin to Dadaism and Conceptualism, which means that visual engagement doesn’t count for much. This makes Art Now doubly pointless. Why should anyone look at photos of art that isn’t meant to be looked at in the first place?

So what is Art Now ? Editors and essayists Uta Grosenick and Burkhard Riemschneider tout it as an “up to date work of reference … aimed at professionals and art lovers alike.” Each of the artists included has four pages devoted to his or her work: In addition to full-color photographs, there is for each a brief essay, a briefer bio and a pull quote (“If I die in a car crash, it was meant to be a sculpture”; “For certainty there is certainly no certainty”) that’s meant to illuminate the art.

Ms. Grosenick and Mr. Riemschneider are aiming for world-historical significance with their “New Millennium” hype, but the end result is strictly commercial. The back section of the book, which has been organized by The Art Newspaper , underscores this fact: It provides the price range, auction sales, collections and gallery representation of each featured artist. Art Now is as much of a reference book as the Lillian Vernon catalog, except that it runs to 640 pages and costs $40.

Why anyone would want to shop from this particular catalog is a question that boggles the imagination and, for many of us, the pocketbook. Most of the art included in the pages of Art Now is stuff I try to avoid: Corporate Dadaism isn’t my cup of tea. Still, the book does help to clarify the distinction between wasting time and disposable income. It takes only a few seconds to scope out the meticulous obsessions of Tom Friedman, yet it may cost up to $100,000 to buy one of them. That’s a lot of money to shell out for a piece of shit-to cite but one representative and literal example of Mr. Friedman’s oeuvre . (A painter friend recently observed that the Enron scandal has nothing on the flummeries of the contemporary art scene; one can’t help but nod in agreement.)

Art Now does serve a sociological purpose. A hundred years from now, cultural historians will dust off this tome to get a pretty good idea of what mainstream artistic practice was in the early 21st century. (Skimming through the book is a lot like strolling through Chelsea, minus the footwork.) Those same historians might also puzzle over how the meager seeds sown by one man, Marcel Duchamp, could have sprouted into such a dense thicket of nonsense. What they won’t get is an idea of how truly various the art scene is; they’ll miss the nooks and crannies that offer greater riches than the status quo.

And don’t fool yourself: Glib post-conceptualists like Damien Hirst, Pipilotti Rist and Chris Ofili-all of whom are featured in Art Now – are the status quo. Though they maintain a front of avant-garde disrespectability, their easy entry into the institutions that constitute the art world only demonstrates how respectable disrespectability has become. Meanwhile, the artists who tend to their work with a quiet integrity-painters like Thomas Nozkowski and Shirley Jaffe, or sculptors like Anne Truitt and Michael Steiner-occupy the margins of the contemporary scene. You won’t find them featured in Art Now because making news is less important to them than making art. If that sounds like an obvious distinction, take a gander at the overinflated reputations highlighted in the pages of Art Now and ask yourself how so much can be made of so little.

Not all of the artists included are without merit: Luc Tuymans, Neo Rauch, Jorge Pardo, Sarah Morris, Andreas Gursky, Ellen Gallagher and John Currin make art that catches the eye, though the way they set about catching it can be annoying. In the end, Art Now succeeds only as evidence of the depressing homogeneity of the contemporary scene. Nothing thrives in its airless realm of grand schemes, tiny conceits and inflated budgets. The most damning indictment one could make of the book is to note how its publication points to the fleeting nature of so much contemporary art. It may be hot off the presses, but Art Now already feels like Art Then .