The Bullshit Artists

On Saturday, March 27, Mary Boone premiered a new video by the artist Barbara Kruger in her Chelsea gallery. The work, titled The Globe Shrinks, ran on a loop across four large screens. Clocking in at about 13 minutes, it consisted of about a half-dozen short segments, including one in which a skeptical journalist interviewed a pretentious, unpleasant artist. In this scene, a healthy-looking fellow in a black sweater—a photographer, we learn—sits with his hands folded across his lap and expounds upon his work in terms that made everyone in the gallery that night giggle and wince with recognition.

“I make work about people,” the photographer says. “I make work with people. I’m interested in kindness and brutality. Know what I mean?” The woman he’s addressing says that no, actually, she has no idea what he’s talking about. “What does it mean to be interested in kindness and brutality?” she asks. Unflustered, the artist answers her: “I want to show how [people] love and hate and eat and dance and cry.” When the woman accuses him of opportunism, he readily concedes the point but adds, without missing a beat: “I’m interested in a kind of positive opportunism.”

On the phone with The Observer a few days after the opening, Ms. Kruger said she’d prefer to let The Globe Shrinks speak for itself rather than comment on what that very funny scene was all about or who that self-serious airhead of a photographer was supposed to represent. “I’m not trying to depict anything,” she insisted.

Well, O.K.! Except people like that actually do exist in the art world, and probably everyone at Mary Boone’s was laughing so hard at the nonsense coming out of that guy’s mouth because they all hear it in real life on a regular basis. With the market boom over, in fact, there’s more of it flying around than ever, as artists, dealers and curators find themselves having to do a lot more talking about the work they’re promoting than they used to in order to convince anyone it’s worth their attention.

No matter if the market correction has been real or merely perceived: Money today is seen as an ugly topic of conversation in the art world, and if you want to participate in the discourse, you had better be ready to come with some serious seriousness. The result: more ideas! More theory! But also, more art people who don’t know what they’re talking about suddenly having to talk, a lot.

“Some people think while they’re talking and other people don’t,” said curator Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art. “People who think while they’re talking are interesting to listen to even if you disagree with them and even if they have a weakness for certain kinds of intellectual cliches. But people who are just broadcasting received opinion are not interesting no matter how clever they are.”

Why are they doing it?

“People don’t want to be caught with their pants down, so they’re all playing ‘cover your ass’ now—making sure that they’re out there talking about intellectual discourse and meaning—spiritual meaning, emotional meaning—and the artist’s practice,” said curator Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group. “And so you get these terms that people toss around that are sort of meaningless, but sound good and sound serious and sound like they don’t have anything to do with financial concerns.”

That strategy was on full display back in March during Armory Week, when an alternative art fair known as the Independent was held inside the old Dia building and was framed by its organizers as an intellectually driven project rather than a commercial undertaking. “Independent is really supposed to be a response to the discourse,” said art dealer and fair organizer Elizabeth Dee at the time, adding that Chelsea—where she owns a gallery space—had become “intellectually bankrupt.”

According to Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum curator, the recession has instilled in people a yearning for more serious discussion about ideas and art.

“I think we lack situations in which people can talk a lot and in depth about work,” Mr. Gioni said. “That is changing—it’s a common stereotype about the recession, but I think it’s quite clear that there is an interest in more discursive platforms.”

Mr. Gioni has a theory about why the use of obscure critical terms and jargon may be on the rise, one premised on the notion that art is community-based, and that trafficking in complex ideas makes people feel like they are part of a community. It’s possible, Mr. Gioni said, that during the boom times, money served that function, and that today it no longer does.

“Language often becomes the place where a sense of belonging is expressed,” he explained. “Communities recognize themselves in certain values and certain languages, and in some moments that value might be money and in others it might be something else. This sounds very cynical, but when the boom was still a boom, the prices maybe had taken the place of philosophy. … Now I think prices are less commonly uttered without shame, so people are picking up the philosophers again.”

There is a difference, of course, between “picking up the philosophers” and “picking up the philosophers’ books and actually reading them.” And chances are, many who do the former do not bother with the latter.

For Mr. Storr, the rise in pseudo-intellectual nonsense is the result of a growing art world, not necessarily a function of the art market.

The Bullshit Artists