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Roger’s Rules

Annals of the art world: everything old is new again

May 19th, 2013 - 8:15 am


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.


Cross-posted at PJ Lifestyle 

images via tumblr, odd culture 

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I recently met some graduates from my alma mater. Having kept up on such things, I had a good idea what they studied, and, indeed, they excitedly told me they were acolytes of Judith Butler and had collectively determined that, all sexuality being determined socially, they considered themselves genderless. This was, to them, proof of their open-mindedness and moral superiority.

Gay is so 2003.

The sole male among them indeed had stripped himself of all demarcations of maleness, while the females reveled in the "edgy" contrast between their body-revealing (and of course flattering, girls being girls) dresses and their masculine tattoos.

I challenged them on the actual "liberation" they were articulating, given that a central tenet of their belief system is that anyone who does not agree that their own sexuality is fluid is not choosing one of the acceptable new panoply of sexual choices. Heterosexuality, for example, is not an acceptable choice but evidence of a delusion of normativity now labelled "cissexuality," or the presumption that one's comfort with one's natural gender is proactive discrimination against the enlightened pansexuality they embodied.

This is all a mouthful, and I apologize for foisting it on folks here. But it is important to understand precisely what all this means: "destabilizing" or "denaturing" heterosexuality is now de rigueur in much of elite higher education. This is the natural evolution of gender studies that must always seek new definitions to topple.

Most of these youths also defined themselves as anarchists, though they eagerly told us that they were going into jobs in the government, the Peace Corps, and major non-profits. None were pursuing anything outside those fields. When I pointed out to them that anarchists were supposed to be anti-government and that non-profits were corporate entities, they became very angry. They were not stupid but entirely brainwashed and militantly hive-minded. They also weren't used to being challenged.

The consequence of all of this is profound narcissism and profound self-loathing, depending on whether you can be sexually transitory enough or whether you cling to some definition of who you are, gender-wise. In recent years, in my encounters with students I have perceived (just anecdotally, but I can name many examples) a rise in anorexia among young males who espouse these beliefs. Forget emasculation: these boys are literally starving themselves to atone for the sin of maleness, just as many (overwhelmingly white) females of a certain political and social mindset embarked on such self-flagellation a few decades ago.

Don't be fooled into thinking that such profound narcissism and infantilism (one might say they were majoring in their own genitalia and where they chose to put it/them) means that these youths are unemployable or will in a few years grow up and abandon such beliefs. As with the arts world, there is a tremendous and ever-more-exclusionary reward system built into allegiance to this intellectual gender fascism.

I don't use the f-word casually. These people would put us in re-education camps in the blink of an eye. They truly believe we are evil. Unlike earlier generations, there is a critical mass of institutions they can enter in order to influence society at large -- and the steadying imperative to support one's young has of course been wiped out.
1 year ago
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Some people spend their real money for such objects. That is the genuinely most terrible aspect of this decadence. They believe this is a 'good investment.'
1 year ago
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“First come inspiration and the exaltation of breaking false barriers: at the end comes the mere flabbiness of having no barriers left to break and no talent except for breaking them.”

This is from the classicist Gilbert Murray, writing in 1940 about ancient sophistic Athens. I suspect he knew he was also describing his own century (and now ours).

A lengthier quotation can be found at
1 year ago
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It's indeed sad, because it reflects the abject capitulation to the scam of meaninglessness promulgated by Jean Paul Sartre and his brethren, for which the best corrective I've found is J. Donald Walters's excellent book, Art as a Hidden Message.

Influenced by the school of Walters, I had a bit of fun with a post-post-modernist exegesis of a work of art that stands behind Green Library on the Stanford campus: see
1 year ago
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