It’s a lot of fun being an artist these days. Only a tiny percentage makes any money, but there is a big consolation prize in the form of attitude. Back in the late 19th century, many aspiring French artists were out to “épater le bourgeois.” The great problem going forward was that almost all artists were themselves part of the much-maligned group, the bourgeoisie. How, then, to amaze and startle oneself?
Early in the last century, Marcel Duchamp pioneered the two main strategies: the boring and the bizarre. To the first category belongs such “ready-mades” as “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” a “work” that consists of an ordinary snow shovel which, because Duchamp had the wit (or was it only the effrontery?) to exhibit it in an art gallery, suddenly achieved the transfiguring nimbus of Art with a capital “A.”
Duchamp’s second innovation aimed not to anesthetize viewers but to shock them. “Fountain,” an ordinary urinal displaced from the bathroom to the exhibition hall, was the founding gesture of that large gift to perpetual adolescents.
We’re much more sophisticated — at least, we’re much coarser — nowadays, so we are no longer shocked by the exhibition of a plumbing fixture. But in its time “Fountain” was every bit as shocking as (e.g.) Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine.
There were plenty of titters, and probably other, less agreeable, sounds when Duchamp pulled his pranks, but what a large opening he created for those coming after him!
So you want to be an artist without, you know, actually mastering any art? No problem. See that Buick? Crush it and call it a work of art (that’s John Chamberlain). You’ll be hailed as a genius. Or hide under a platform in an art gallery while masturbating and broadcasting filthy language to the gallery goers. That’s Vito Acconci, another genius. And on and on. And on. Those two examples go back to the prehistoric age of the 1970s. It would be a simple matter to continue the story up to the present moment with scores, indeed hundreds, of figures who traffic in the banal, the repellent, or some combination of the two.
One thing that unites these various artists — besides, I mean, from their universal lack of any genuinely artistic talent — is the utter uniformity of their political attitudes.
Some are left-wing feminists. Some are left-wing environmentalists. Some are left-wing pacifists. All are proponents of what Frederick Crews, writing about a kindred development in literary criticism, identified as “Left Eclecticism.” In the art world as well as the world of academia, left eclecticism is less the name of a definite position than an attitude and style of (if I may adopt the Heideggerian formula) “being in the world.”
In short, while one proclaims one’s admiration for everything “transgressive,” everything that claims to “challenge” the status quo, one in fact is scrupulously careful to direct one’s transgressive, challenging gestures only to those conventions which are not part of the artistic community’s self-understanding. In challenging conventions, you do not, of course, challenge your own conventions. In celebrating diversity, you do not, of course, celebrate anyone who dissents in any important way from The Narrative. You respect the diversity of all those who agree with you. As for the rest, they are “offensive,” “divisive”; they contribute to “a climate of hate,” or whatever is this week’s favored term of opprobrium. In the name of diversity, they must be silenced.