Perhaps the most risible — or is it the saddest? — part of this whole charade is the pretense that there is something novel about what Millie Brown has on offer. “I have an inherent desire to push my own boundaries within my art,” says this pathetic creature. But we’ve been there, we’ve done that. In 1961, Piero Manzoni produced 90 tin cans of his own excrement. Examples of this limited edition work — called Artist’s Shit —occupy a proud place in several museums, including the Tate. (One tin sold for £124,000 at auction in 2007.) And then there was the student at the Ontario College of Art and Design who in 1997 pushed his own boundaries with an “art work” that consisted of him vomiting on paintings by others, a Piet Mondrian in New York and a Raoul Dufy at a museum in Ontario.
The truth is that, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, there is nothing new or “challenging” about the freaks and charlatans who populate the trendy precincts of contemporary art. All their “shocking” moves were long ago pioneered by Marcel Duchamp and his fellow Dadaists. What these latter-day Dadaists have accomplished is simply the domestication and routinization of the avant-garde. They preserve the gestures but lack the spirit. They pretend to be “challenging” or “transgressing” conventional boundaries, but all such boundaries were long ago erased. Millie Brown and her peers are today’s conventional taste. The only thing these “artists” challenge is our patience.
It is a melancholy, not to say a tiresome, spectacle. What it says about our culture is partly depressing, partly anger-inducing. The really breath-taking feature of the thing is that “artists” like Millie Brown — and their name is legion — actually seem to believe they are brave aesthetic and existential pioneers. That fact that they are pathetic hacks with more credulousness than talent never seems to intrude upon their consciousness. It’s contemptible, yes, but also quite sad.