Years ago I read an amusing piece in the London Telegraph about an exhibition of Damien Hirst’s, er, art work at some glitzy Cork Street gallery. The man with the formaldehyde sharks had lots of exciting new bijoux to offer his public. One immortal opus consisted of a tray full of dirty coffee cups, overflowing ash trays, and the like. After the opening party, a diligent janitor, who I hope has gone on to a post as an art critic, tidied up the tray.
Yep, out went the master’s work, all those carefully arranged cigarette butts and lipstick-smeared napkins, valued, reported a melancholy gallery director, at more than £100,000.
He cheered up, however, when informed that the wok could be “recreated.” What a boon for posterity.
£100,000 for Damien Hirst’s detritus. It’s not quite as risible, perhaps, as “Artist’s Shit,” the 90 tin cans of human excrement that Piero Manzoni produced (though not, I think, in a single sitting) in 1961. As I recall, the Tate Gallery paid £65,000 for a can or two, though it’s not clear that they are still part of the collection since they had an unpleasant tendency to burst.
I thought of these and similar episodes when my friend Michael Lewis, a professor of art history at Williams College, sent me the following memo which had been circulated by a diligent colleague:
Dear Studio Faculty,
Security came to my office this morning and said that they found a bucket with what appears to be medical waste in it in Driscoll Dining Hall. They thought it might an art project. It has been turned over to Health Services for testing to see if it’s real.
Does anyone know of any such art project?
When you stop chuckling, think about this: Michael’s colleague was being perfectly rational in sending around that memo. In the age of charlatans like Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer, the Chapman Brothers, and, oh many more practitioners of mind-numbing psycho-pathology, who can say whether a bucket of medical waste is or is not an art project? If Tracey Emin can win the Turner Prize for “My Bed”— “her own bed, in all its embarrassing glory. Empty booze bottles, fag butts, stained sheets, worn panties: the bloody aftermath of a nervous breakdown”—why could a bucket of medical waste not be an art project at the “art” department of an over-priced private college in Massachusetts? (Tuition, room & board at Williams this year $56,770: what a steal!)
No, the art world, like so much of academia, is beyond satire, though not, I think, beyond ridicule. They’re both gaseous, over-inflated bubbles, straining, straining, and just about to burst. Laugh now while you still can.