Sara Jane Soliah

Modern Art

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The Follies of Modern Art: a bilious harangue

Introduction

There’s an art exhibit at Capio, a Napa Valley museum; it contains a figurine of the Pope in full squat. Let’s just say that unlike the Bear, he is in the woods but not of it. Catholics protested - silly prickly Rome-besotted Philistines! - but they were quicky rebuked by the Capiophiliacs: defecating figurines, it seems, are a Catalonian native-arts tradition, symbols of fertility rites. (You can say the same thing about an issue of Hustler, I suppose, but don’t try posting a pictorial in your cubicle and claiming it’s your cultural heritage.) The controversy was short-lived, but it’s instructive, and like many things today it winds its way back to Ground Zero, back to 9/11, back to the cultural forces that continue to chew each other with rapacious contempt.

1. Modern Art

Nowadays, art that prompts “controversy” usually has one thing in common: it’s bad. Bad in conception or bad in execution, and frequently bad in both. Many in the arts world believe it is necessary to defend bad art , just like it is necessary to defend unpopular speech. On the contrary: it is necessary to attack bad art in the interests of raising the general level of quality in art. These, of course, are nasty code words - “bad” and “quality” are subjective judgments, and cannot be uniformly defined. Well, let me make a start:

a. If art contains shit, we should take it at its word.

b. Whatever point you’re trying to make, you can generally make it without shit. In fact, that’s practically the motto of the entire post-Giotto oeuvre: over six centuries of beauty without a lot of shit in it. (Providing you don’t take a jewler’s loupe to the dimmer recesses of a Bosch.) There was a “controversy” at the Brooklyn Museum over a painting that bedecked the Virgin Mary with clumps of elephant offal, and the artist explained that African tradition frequently incorporates elephant dung. (Well, when you lack access to oils and watercolors, yes, shit happens.) This was supposed to mute criticism of the work, since it represented an authentic native tradition, and that fact kills critical discussion on contact. It would have been interesting to see the reaction had the artist drawn Muhammad - a no-no in the Islamic tradition - and decorated with culturally-approved elephant crap; in the current climate, he would have been accused of cultural profiling. Likewise, if the only defecating statuettes (and there’s a phrase that was absent from art criticism for far too long) had been Castro, Malcolm X, Harold Washington, O. J. Simpson, Hillary Clinton, and FDR excreting through a hole in his wheelchair seat (minus the evil cigarette, natch) the protests would have stretched into the next county. So don’t give me this “Catalonian Tradition” line. There’s not a tradition on earth that counts for anything once the professionally aggravated people sniff thoughtcrime in the wind.

I’ve used this example many times, but I’ll never forget an exhibit at the Whitney Biennial, a famous art affair housed in that criminally brutal Bruer building. There was some art protesting Western notions of body images, and how pictures of thin people create self-loathing. It’s an interesting idea, although it seems to suggest that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus should be redone with Venus’ head just clearing the waves because she’s sunk the damn shell. There have actually been hundreds of art works on this theme, from photography to painting to computer illustration, and everyone of them was commissioned to accompany a magazine article. But you don’t see those in museums, because the average person can look at them and figure them out. Real art has to be explained, patiently, like the dangers of a hot stove to a small child.

Anyway, one of the Biennial pieces of art was a giant block of faux chocolate engraved with the artist’s teeth marks; you looked at it and thought your problem isn’t bad body image, it’s the fact that you buy candy in blocks the size of a dorm-room fridge. But it had a certain conceptual elan, what with the teeth marks indicating longing and desire, or the presence of a pet ferret with a sweet tooth. Next to it on the floor was a puddle of laminated vomit, which symbolized vomit. Since body image problems caused some to become bulemic, the artist had created an amazingly lifelike splash of chunky gut-spew to remind us that Kate Moss walks the earth a free woman.

It was so realistic that it made you want to puke - and wouldn’t that have been a moment of high delight? The janitor comes over to wash the vomit off the vomit. Or perhaps the curator comes over, pours shellac on your contribution and calls it a companion piece. I don’t know. I do know that people who make art like this don’t deserve tax payer money. It’s not the job of government to extract a buck from a dog-tired Duane Reede cashier who spends all day on her feet so someone who eschews the grind of daily labor can lovingly craft life-like gout of the ol’ heave-ho.

It’s Excretion Chic, the idea that art that involves the body somehow has a claim to honesty and authenticity, that it bypasses the smothering artifice imposed on us by dead while male tradition. (That these DWMs were German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish - i.e., distinct cultures that would seem to cohabitate nicely in the definition of “multiculturalism” - is never addressed. Europe is the root of all evil, except when it comes to land-mine treaties and protests against clown-fronted burger chains.) Andre Serrano is a prime example; his work consists of religious icons plunged into his personal fluids. They’re actually quite good - there’s a high degree of craft and care in his oeuvre. But when he titles his work “Piss Christ,” he’s just asking for trouble; it sounds like a muttered oath. Jesus Phlegm! Jism Mary! Piss Christ! Please.

I’m not saying these works should be supressed - God no. There’s just no reason to subsidize them.

2. Why this stuff is bad: the short answer

Previous artistic squabbles always had to do with a shocking new style that confronted the status quo, and it usually led to something good.
Eventually, however, the status quo consists solely of confrontation, and you end up with a group of artists all pointing accusing fingers at a status quo that no longer exists. The bourgeoise is no longer shocked; they don’t care, and they’re not paying much attention until you splatter pachyderm patties at religious icons. Even then they don’t care too much, because they’ve written off High Art as an incomprehensible realm of gobblegook theory, carved sheep, sculpture that has the beauty of a rusty nail in your foot, and masturbatory self-absorbtion that cannot inform, cannot enlighten, cannot inspire, and cannot possibly have anything to do with life as we live it. When High Art is no longer interested in beauty, people looking for beauty will find it elsewhere. And they’ll find it.

Which is just fine with the acadamies. It gives them an enemy. The academies are devoted to change, to revolution and deconstruction, to tearing down the ossified Olympian concept of (sneer) Beauty, to ripping up old standards that use code words like “ability” and “talent” and “competance” to hold down the dynamic spirit of the artist. You’d think it was still 1940, and Abstract Expressionists were being shot in the street. Truth is, the only revolutionaries in art are the ones who paint representational art - that is, things you can identify. The avant-garde is the establishment, but like the Rolling Stones, they still get up and insist that they can get grands but not satisfaction, and that they’re an Atelier-fighting man. (Sorry: person.)

Which brings us to the World Trade Center. There have been submissions for a memorial; the Wall Street Journal ran a few, and they were uniformly horrid. Two of the submissions were gigantic writhing columns with holes in them, fever-dream nightmares that would make New York look like it had been taken over by a German Expressionist set designer. It makes me fear that whatever gets built will lack American bravura - it’ll be some monstrous abstraction of timid sentimentality and impotent grief. In another era they would have built something tall and decked it with stern stone eagles. There’s a watertower in my neighborhood surrounded with giant glowering men holding swords, topped by vigilant eagles, and I’m certain such a design today would be turned down by Mothers Against Violent Water Towers, because it would teach children that water pressure can be achieved by force.

There are few architects who understand the skyscraper anymore; Cesar Pelli is one of them. He is perhaps the only man in the world who could craft the perfect New York monument for that spot, the only one who would actually look around at the surrounding architecture and design a synthesis of Manhattan structures that spoke the lessons of 400 years of inhabitation in a voice projected towards the next four centuries. I’m not hopeful he’ll get the job; I’m not hopeful that anything worth the site will be built. The job requires Confidence and Beauty, and few have the courage to advocate on their behalf. Which brings us to:

3. The statue.

As you’ve probably heard by now, a sculpture has been commissioned to commemorate the firefighters who perished on 9/11. It’s based on a picture of three ordinary guys raising a flag in the ruins of the World Trade Center. But since the firefighters in this image are all white, this would send an exclusionary message. Never mind that this moment in time actually happened; the race of the participants will be changed to reflect what should have happened.

If all three firefighters had been black, would anyone dared to change their ethnicity?

Hmm.

Probably not. And for good reason. I’d be just as peeved if they did - given the underrepresentation of minorities in the NYFD, memoralizing that picture would have a pungent and powerful message. But in the arts world today, reality defers to theory, and the theory always has a political tone. This isn’t to say that art has lived in a nice sealed non-political environment until 1967. Of course not. I once had an argument with a friend that ALL art is political, inasmuch as it does - or does not! - reflect the tastes of the ruling class. In a sense she was right, but you can also say that because the rich tend to have air conditioning more than the poor, and hence do not leave their windows open for cool air, mosquito bites are political. Everything’s political, if you’re interested in seeing the world through those dreary lens.

The point is simply this: High Art’s practitioners have become so obsessed with staking their claim to the atomized culture of identity politics that they have lost all connection with larger culture in which they live. They have made themselves irrelevant. Insisting there is more truth in ugliness than beauty, they have forsaken the ennobling quality of imagination; exhalting division over unity, they have lost the ability to speak for the common human experience. It is a remarkably stupid thing to do at this point in our culture, given the competition of photography, movies, music and the brilliant abstractions of computer-generated art.
All they have to offer are clangorous lies, tendentious lectures, unbuildable buildings and shitting Popes. And all they ask in return is public subsidy.

It’s a fair trade. They spend all their time despising you. At least you could say thanks.

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