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The Hate Aesthetic

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The Hate Aesthetic
"Hate/Love" by Isaac Julien (2006)

It came to me during "The Real Housewives of Orange County." That's right, the inspiration is thanks to the vulgar antics of Vicki, Tamra, Gretchen, Alexis, Heather, and Lydia, the new gal who looks like Timmy Turner in "The Fairly Odd Parents" cartoon. The show is wall-to-wall rich, bitch, and plenty of kitsch.

"What are they talking about? They make so much noise," says my lovely wife, the member of our household who actually tunes into this show. She talks as much as to the TV set as to me: "Look at the lipstick color on this one, can you believe it?" 

She doesn't hate "Real Housewives." She loves to hate "Real Housewives."

The art world has it own version of this hate effect—let's call it "The Hate Aesthetic." Yes, yes, we are all devoted to art that is enlightening and transformative, of course, but truth be told, art discourse has no shortage of haters. Vehement expressions of dislike, unhappiness, and disgust may even be on the increase, as the divide between the art rich and art poor continues to grow.  

Start with serious art critics. For a lot of them it's practically an ethical responsibility to take art-world big shots down a peg every now and then. Some critics even make the Cassandra routine their stock in trade. And for successful artists themselves, a bad review can be a badge of honor, proving they don't have it so easy after all. If nobody hates you, are you somebody?

In the words of the rapper Nas on his album "Life Is Good," "Some seek fame 'cuz they need validation, some say hatin' is confused admiration." (Thanks to artist Andrew Sendor for the citation.)

But it's out in the crowd where the Hate Aesthetic finds its readiest expression. Just the other day I put up a Facebook post of that photograph of Jeff Koons, his wife Justine, and their six kids—all dressed in white—from New York magazine. "Koons is amazing," I wrote. Among the comments left to my post: "cheesy," "moron," "filthy rich mf."  You can see what I'm getting at. 

Walk around and ask your pals, "What art do you hate?" Koons, Hirst, Prince? Minimalism, Photorealism, political art? It might take a little prodding, but any heart that's not made of stone has a little hate in it. 

Clearly, hate-ability has an inverse relationship to success. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, "Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."

When it comes to haters, not all art is created equal. Winners in our turbocharged contemporary auction market are easy to hate, but the male artists are despised much more than women, who are rarely hated no matter how irritating their success. Patriarchy wins out, even in the hate sweepstakes.

Age is probably a variable. Do you revere a pioneering 90-year-old monochrome painter for his three-gallery exhibition, or do you hate him for it? And are the dead immune? Is Warhol hate going up as fast as Warhol prices are?

But there's more to the question than what might be called "vulgar hateism." For one thing, we have the whole "critique-as-iconoclasm" approach, to steal a phrase from J.M.W. Mitchell. After all, strong feelings are the rudimentary emotional motor of art criticism. In other words, those who hate are speaking truth to power—i.e. they're right. Just ask them. 

Wading even deeper into the weeds, we must finally consider the Frankfurt School and its theory of "negative dialectics." Hopelessly pessimistic though it may be, the idea is that art should be unpleasant in order to wake us from our everyday enslavement. The pitch certainly finds takers in the art world, where audiences… well, let's just say that sometimes they seem to have masochistic tendencies.

Way back in the 1970s, the art critic Irving Sandler told me that he had suspected Frank Stella's black paintings had something going for them after he hated them at first sight. I've never forgotten his words, and I've never been able to hate art in quite the same way since.

Walter Robinson is an art critic who was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). He is also a painter whose work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison, and other galleries. Click here to see his previous See Here column on Artspace.

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