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Roger Kimball

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May 20, 2013 - 9:30 am

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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.

millie-brown-vomit-painting

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.

*****

Cross-posted from Roger’s Rules 

images via tumblr, odd culture 

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
argh! thinking Facebook, I hit the like button thinking it would show who had "liked" my comment.... not trying to inflate my stats. mea culpa,

One thing Thane36425 said, about insecure people, got me thinking. Read an article maybe a year ago where someone traced the proliferation of weird art theory back to its origins around the beginning of the 20th century. The writer theorized that before Einstein, a reasonably educated (upper class) person could expect to grasp most of world knowledge, at least enough to say "uh-huh" in any conversation and not sound like a right twit. (The ideal of the renaissance man) After Science took the leap into Relativity, artists and philosophers were no longer able to fake intellectual parity with the hard sciences, and so began to create art theory (and philosophy) with big dense inscrutable words to separate themselves from the masses, retain their status, and make themselves as "intellectually superior" as their (assumed) peers in the sciences. Vanity and insecurity all wrapped up in a ball.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
My two favorite quotes about art and artists are;

“Almost everybody is an artist these days. Rock and Roll singers are artists. So are movie directors, performance artists, make-up artists, tattoo artists, con artists and rap artists. Movie stars are artists. Madonna is an artist, because she explores her own sexuality. Snoop Doggy Dogg is an artist because he explores other people’s sexuality. Victims who express their pain are artists. So are guys in prison who express themselves on shirt cardboard. Even consumers are artists when they express themselves in their selection of commodities. The only people left in America who seem not to be artists are illustrators.” Brad Holland , illustrator

and;

(During an interview, when asked if she was proud of being a combat artist,) "Artists are a dime a dozen; not everyone can be a Marine." Marine Combat Artist Cpl. Annette Kyriakides Spurgeon

Having not served in the armed forces, but having always had pretensions as an artist and painter, I especially like the last one. As for myself it puts things into perspective rather well.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (20)
All Comments   (20)
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I'm going to quote my favorite art critic:

"If that's art, I'm a Hottentot."
Harry Truman
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
What a terrible offensive term. You are obviously a racist, sir, for remembering history!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Art is what you hang over your couch - which explains why crucifixion's by great masters don't really fare well at auction.

Assuming one has a couch that doesn't clash or perhaps does so in a way that brings the room together without er... regardless, I say it's art and no less offensive than the "Painter of Light" guy.

It's easier to call Millie out on her lack of originality than to see her as a symptom of a larger disease. After all, people once invested money in Pets.com and in the end that was a far more disturbing trend than this minor footnote in bad taste.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
On the surface Roger is quite right, as are all of us commentators on this thread. We each have our little or should I say cornucopia of vignettes which balls and all indicate the idiocy of these idiots.

But, there is an overlooked possibility. I have read that the avante garde is a capitulation to free market's ascendance; the cornucopia (luv dat word:-) of goods and advertising being thrust upon us.

It validates and fosters the extreme "individualism" necessary for the market to continue growing; the market needs us to keep buying their garbage, dying our hair green or wanting a red coffee cup with "Sexy Beast" printed across it.

In other words for us to keep being superficial and gross requires an art form which promotes it. This is as much A as it is B. I don't think most people realise the odd collusion between left and right.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Clearly, the meaning of "avant-garde" has devolved to mean "no discernible talent."
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
My two favorite quotes about art and artists are;

“Almost everybody is an artist these days. Rock and Roll singers are artists. So are movie directors, performance artists, make-up artists, tattoo artists, con artists and rap artists. Movie stars are artists. Madonna is an artist, because she explores her own sexuality. Snoop Doggy Dogg is an artist because he explores other people’s sexuality. Victims who express their pain are artists. So are guys in prison who express themselves on shirt cardboard. Even consumers are artists when they express themselves in their selection of commodities. The only people left in America who seem not to be artists are illustrators.” Brad Holland , illustrator

and;

(During an interview, when asked if she was proud of being a combat artist,) "Artists are a dime a dozen; not everyone can be a Marine." Marine Combat Artist Cpl. Annette Kyriakides Spurgeon

Having not served in the armed forces, but having always had pretensions as an artist and painter, I especially like the last one. As for myself it puts things into perspective rather well.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
argh! thinking Facebook, I hit the like button thinking it would show who had "liked" my comment.... not trying to inflate my stats. mea culpa,

One thing Thane36425 said, about insecure people, got me thinking. Read an article maybe a year ago where someone traced the proliferation of weird art theory back to its origins around the beginning of the 20th century. The writer theorized that before Einstein, a reasonably educated (upper class) person could expect to grasp most of world knowledge, at least enough to say "uh-huh" in any conversation and not sound like a right twit. (The ideal of the renaissance man) After Science took the leap into Relativity, artists and philosophers were no longer able to fake intellectual parity with the hard sciences, and so began to create art theory (and philosophy) with big dense inscrutable words to separate themselves from the masses, retain their status, and make themselves as "intellectually superior" as their (assumed) peers in the sciences. Vanity and insecurity all wrapped up in a ball.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks, that's an interesting concept you mention there. It plays in with something I've been thinking about since reading Hannah Arendt (Totalitarianism: Part 3 of the Origins of Totalitarianism), "Quiet" and some other things.

What happened about the same time frame mentioned in your article was the maturation of the Industrial Revolution. For one thing the middle class was rapidly expanding, drawing from the "uncultured" ranks of the working class. That means they had money and bigger houses but no class yet were looking to imitate what they thought was the life of the upper class. To them that meant art, music, fancy clothes (and behind the scenes increasing sexual depravity).

In the workplace, the old characteristics of honor, integrity, a good reputation, etc., falling out of favor. The new disciples of Barnum and Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) believed that superficial flash, charm, and razzle dazzle glossing over the backstabbing and incompetence, were far more important. Salesmanship, selling yourself, was the ticket and if you had to lie and cheat, that was fine. At the same time, you could have no friends, just competitors in and out of work.

The result was a people who were atomized. Individuals even within families with no real connection with others. One aspect of this was the people joining up with political groups for a sense of belonging and/or purpose in their lives. They might not agree with the party's policies or even know what they were, but what mattered was that the people around them were joining and they wanted to belong to something, anything.

Long story short, extrapolate this to art. People with no class or taste but a desperate desire to belong to what they see as a cultured society will go along with anything the leaders say for fear of being kicked out of the group. There are probably even factions and increasingly elite cadres the more ambitious can aspire to just as there are in politics. Of course with art they also tend to pick up the politics of the leaders.

I hope that makes sense, I tried (not overly successfully) to keep it short whilst making my point.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I remember art students doing this same thing 25 years ago, and it was viewed by everyone as a joke, including the artists themselves.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
The big point in art nowadays is not to create works of beauty, philosophical depth, or even entertainment, but to "challenge" and "subvert." The result has been a crowd of hacks putting out the most freakish or amateurish creations of their untalented minds. The goal is pure cultural nihilism. You can see this trend not only in visual art, but in music, fiction, and poetry.

Think about it:

Then, you had Bach and Dvorak. Now, you have Phillip Glass and Deicide.

Then, you had Dostoevksy and Mark Twain. Now, you have Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje.

Then, you had Milton and Wordsworth. Now, you have Allen Ginsburg and Maya Angelou.

Anybody see the trend?

Its pathetic.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a professional artist with 2 degrees, which means exactly zero, I have to say this sort of nonsense is embarrassing and I have had to deal with such upside down thinking my entire carreer. I am grateful for understanding this sort of insanity early on because it drove me screaming from Liberalism. This head shaking desire to call crap, ART, comes from the twisted and sick minds of Liberals. The reason there are no new Monets, Cezannes, Da Vincis ,etc. is because THOSE WHO CANNOT, TEACH. Rewarding mediocrity culls out the exceptional.

Its a terrible curse to love art so deeply and have no talent. But with a bit of time, you can worm your way into an Art teaching slot the same as History or Women's Studies. You really don't have to know anything about the subject. Just major in BS talking. Most art teachers are fools and can't sell a piece outside their lame in-house exhibitions. Preferring the security of tenure and a new batch of willing co-eds each year to making it in the real world ON YOUR OWN MERIT. Why do you think there is a NAIA? Its to get money for the right minded folk. These guys would starve left to there talent.

Like much of this country's downward spiral, this vein of no-thought has continued from the flea infested 60's to present day. Todays absurdities are but magnifications from the ridiculous POP ART movement where lowly Cambell soup cans, silk screened by the millions, were hung next to a priceless Renoir in museums. The equivalence of the two being homogonized to BE FAIR !....... THE VERY CORE OF LIBERALISM...... YOU SEE ITS THE VERBAL HYPE SURROUNDING THE ARTWORK THAT MAKES IT ART, BLANCHE.

Like most Liberal agendas, the art work itself is so lame , you have to have a written bit of gerbishish to go with it. To a wanna-be-artist-Liberal ; the pretentious garbage of wrapping tiny islands in pink plastic is ground breaking or having Tilda Swinton asleep in a glass box at MoMA is worthy to be called ART. These side shows are called art only because they use cool fonts in the brochures. Like most empty Liberal thoughts there is no there....there.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Wanna read a groovy book about this? It's called "The Umbrella Of The Gardener's Aunt Is In The House," and it's about an avant-garde artist who plans to defile a Nativity scene in a tiny Montana town. It's a fun little cultural satire by... oh, what's that guy's name? I think it's Rushton Howard. Yeah, that's it.

Sorry for the shameless plug, but an independent author's gotta survive, y'know!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
It is because Art Culture is merely another progressive/Big City Status Signifier. much like having a college degree, or belonging to an exclusive Club. It is all pretentious BS with a an excess of cash to blow on crap.

As long as the "artiste" can justify his BS art with a long flowery explanation that pleases the vanity of the purchasers, it will always have a market in the Big Cities full of clueless, moneyed liberals.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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