What is it about the word “art”? Pronounce it, and the IQ of susceptible folk is instantly halved. (I’ve seen cases where it is diminished by 87 percent.) Normally sensible people who do not, as a rule, appreciate being being made fools of stand idly by as someone tells them that a video of some charlatan climbing naked up a scaffolding while applying vaseline to sensitive parts of his body is “the most important American artist of his generation.” Instead of throwing something soft and rotting at such mountebanks, they nod solemnly and reach for their wallets. They are only too eager, when a stiffy arrives from the Museum of Modern Art or some similar establishment, to don the soup and fish and buzz round to the super exclusive evening event where scores of beautiful people line up to sip the shampoo and admire a tank full of formaldehyde and a dead tiger shark.
What is it about the word “art” that endows it with this mind-and-character-wrecking property? Why does it induce incontinent gibbering, not to mention mind-boggling extravagance, among normally hard-headed souls? A full answer would take us deep into the pathology of our time. It has something to do with what I’ve called elsewhere the institutionalization of the avant-garde, the contradictory project whereby the tics and outré attitudes of the avant-garde go mainstream. The half-comic, half-contemptible result is that ordinary bourgeois adults find themselves in the embarrassing position of celebrating the juvenile, anti-bourgeois antics of people who detest them.
Our misuse of the word “art” also has something to do with our age’s tendency to look to art for spiritual satisfactions traditionally afforded by religion. “In the absence of a belief in God,” Wallace Stevens observed, “poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”
That, anyway, is the idea, though exactly what sort of “redemption” may be had from much that goes by the name of “art” today is another question. Consider, to take an example I read about just a couple of days ago, Millie Brown. This 26-year-old deep thinker drinks tinted milk and then regurgitates it over a canvas. That’s her claim to immortality. And good news! The Daily Mail reports that Brown’s “unique vomit-art canvases will be available for purchase.” Act quickly! “Many maintain that now is a great time to invest in this hotly tipped artist.” Who knows? The Mail also reports that one of Millie’s most avid fans is the pop singer Lady Gaga, “who personally chose the artist to feature in her own performance video,” in which “Millie can be seen vomiting shimmering turquoise liquid over the singer.” The paper compares Millie Brown to Jackson Pollock. People — not art people — used to say contemptuously that their child of five could paint something indiscernible from a Jackson Pollock painting. Perhaps so. Millie has gone a step further: her creations are indiscernible from the “creations” of one year olds, whose canvases are the products not of their hands but of other organs.
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.