Ed Driscoll

Modern Art Finally Comes Full Circle

The modern artists of the first half of the twentieth century basically came in two flavors: there were the reasonably serious fellows such as Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Edward Hopper, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe, often trained in the traditional methods, but genuinely looking for new forms and techniques to express the world in the early years of a new century.

Then there were the artists such as Marcel Duchamp, whose idea of art was a urinal, the predecessor to the “art” that would be created later in the 20th century using the mediums that are found within the men’s room. Or as James Lileks wrote eight years ago, “If art contains sh*t, we should take it at its word.”

Instead of being considered “modern”, this latter group of artists can now be better understood as increasingly reactionary examples of the ancien regime of the avantgarde art world, whose motto was “Épater le bourgeoisie,” which Wikipedia defines thusly:

Épater la bourgeoisie or épater le bourgeois is a French phrase that became a rallying cry for the French Decadent poets of the late 19th century including Baudelaire and Rimbaud.[1] It means to shock the middle-classes.[2]

The Decadents, fascinated as they were with hashish, opium, and absinthe found, in Joris-Karl Huysmans‘ novel À Rebours (1884), a sexually perverse hero who secludes himself in his house, basking in life-weariness or ennui, far from the bourgeois society that he despises.

The Aesthetes in England, such as Oscar Wilde, shared these same fascinations. This celebration of “unhealthy” and “unnatural” devotion to life, art, and excess has been a continuing cultural theme.

But after witnessing crucifixes in urine, the Virgin Mary “painted” in dung, and similar examples of artistic finger painting (so to speak), the bourgeoisie have seen this game played so many times that they’re now immune. As early Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts once quipped, “You can only be avant-garde for so long before you become garde.”

Nearly a century after Duchamp’s Urinal, the audience is finally turning the tables on these stodgy old artists and the plutocratic establishment that funds them, as Tim Blair notes:

Interactive art in NYC:

Visitors to the eyebrow-raising new exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art got a little too grabby with the show’s naked performers.

Female performers in Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” complained about groping, while other models said they were pushed, prodded and poked, the New York Post reported …

An unspecified number of patrons were ejected for groping performers after the exhibit opened on March 14 … The exhibit features 38 performers in rotating shifts of eight facing each other at a doorway or lying under a skeleton or posing in other pieces, mostly in the nude.

Performer Amelia reports an onion incident:

She said the oddest thing she experienced since the retrospective of Abramovic’s work began was seeing a man drop a spring onion beside her as she lay under the skeleton.

“He said he wanted to add a little bit of life” to the work, [Amelia] said.

Onion-man was ejected.


But why? After a century of épater le bourgeois, why on earth can’t le bourgeois épater l’artiste primitif? And why is the bourgeois and reactionary management of the Museum of Modern Art stifling the artistic creativity of its customers?