The Emperor's New Art
A prestigious New York museum (its name rhymes with “shmuggenheim”) recently exhibited the work of a so-called artist whose pieces included several found cardboard Budweiser boxes that had been stenciled over in gold leaf by a friend of his who does gold leafing. He also exhibited two chairs from the Kennedy White House that he’d bought at an auction and taken apart, leaving the empty wood frames as one “art piece” and fragments of the leather upholstery—nailed to the museum wall—as another. There was an enormous antique chandelier (another auction purchase), unaltered, and some more chandeliers that he'd disassembled. There was the text of a letter from a French saint, written out by the artist’s father, who has really nice handwriting, and some words stenciled on the wall by a calligrapher friend. There were remnants of ancient Roman statues—just sitting there on the floor, as well as fourteen letters and envelopes from a correspondence between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and New York Post theatre critic Leonard Lyons. (That one, the artist creatively titled “Untitled.”) Oh yes, and there was a medieval carving of Saint Joseph that he’d cut up to fit an airline’s carry-on luggage size requirements, displayed in those selfsame carry-on bags. None of this is made up. Would that it were.
As long as there has been modern art, people have pondered the question, “Yes . . . but is it art?” As my entire raison d'être is to provide helpful information to my readers, I will now solve this age-old mystery.
No. No it’s not.
If you haven’t created anything, you haven’t made art. If you just got some things and put them up on walls or placed them on floors, you’re a collector, not a visual artist. “Hey, Dad, could you write out this letter with your nice penmanship?” does not make you an artist. Neither does “Look at this neat chandelier I found.” The fact that I should have to explain this is galling.
But even more galling is the lengths to which art critics, commentators, and curators go to attribute meaning to these offerings. Of this particular artist’s work, it was said:
“His projects narrate a squalid form of Americana, wherein art object and artifact mirror the misuses of geopolitical power and channel the bureaucratic transactions of wealth and labor that fuel transatlantic colonialism, war, and commerce.”
“He presents these items untouched, allowing their internal contradictions to quietly unravel through a simple act of recontextualization.”
“It elucidates latent meaning embedded in objects and texts as well as the malleable nature of identity, melding private narratives with global political histories.”
“What emerges is a picture of how a great, corrupted empire, projecting its force and its hollow idealism around the world, can shape the lives of people even on its farthest peripheries.”
“Rarely has so little tried to express so much.”
“Absence, it suggests, can be more powerful than presence.”
Now, the folks I’m quoting . . . these folks are the real artists. They can weave bullshit like nobody’s business. Give them an empty room, they’ll say it’s “a scathing commentary on man’s relationship with space and its spacial forms, confronting the ultimate meaninglessness of meaning.” Leave your lunch on a bench in the museum, they’ll call it “a witty nod to rampant consumerism embedded in a narrative consisting of seemingly disparate and commonplace items evoking themes of priviledge.” Stand still too long in one place and even you may be labeled as a work of art, one that, no doubt, “challenges the observer's archaic views of personhood in the context of a lost—even post-human—society.”
This sort of double-speak finds its way into various art forms. You see it in high-falutin discussions of theatre, dance, film, and especially performance art, where anything can be justified by pasting a meaning onto it, even if it’s just stupid.
I’m approximately 99% certain this is no more than a deeply woven dysfunction within the arts world. Once an acknowledged “expert” dubs someone an “artist,” the other “experts” fall in line for fear of being percieved as someone who doesn’t get it. And the more marginalized the artist, the more critics will fall all over themselves to declare the work “important.” If you’re an orphaned Laotian/Dutch transgender refugee priest with ADD and terminal dandruff and you’re not making art, you’re missing a rare opportunity, as I can promise you that anything you make will be hailed as “revelatory.”
Sadly, this all just supports the inane idea that if we don’t understand the “art,” it’s because we’re unenlightened and unable to grasp what the artist is saying. I much prefer to apply a version of Ockham's razor: if it seems like crap, it’s probably because it’s crap.