But is it Art? (The Old Refrain)

In the midst of a vacation week several summers ago, I visited a Chicago art museum. On the lower floors were collected those pieces most people would consider art: large, masterful paintings and sculpture; masterpieces of subtlety and purpose. To these I showed proper reverence: Virtually flawless floor-to-ceiling portraits of some old monarch are something to behold as labors of patience and dedication most of the human theatre will never understand.

It was on the upper floors we stumbled upon nonsense called art, including a pile of wrapped hard candies sitting in a corner. A sign helpfully explained that the collected weight of the candies was exactly that of the artist’s lover when he died from AIDS. Patrons were further invited to help themselves to a piece, as the “art” was replenished to the exact same weight, each day. (You cannot know the look of horror that crossed my date’s face when I grabbed a piece, unwrapped it, popped it into my mouth and proclaimed, “Mmmmm – AIDS-y!”)

Elsewhere in (what we can only assume was) the modern art wing, scribbling on walls and a collection of hangers strategically, um, hanging from the ceiling. Though she seemed more open than I to the idea of these being actual art, we could not beat a hasty enough retreat, as my irritation would have only made the excursion worse. Since then I’ve only visited two museums that didn’t have either a Lincoln or Civil War exhibit, neither of them an art museum.

William F. Buckley, Jr. and Morley Safer spent an entire December 1998 episode of Firing Line discussing modern art. Among the highlights, Jeff Koons’s piece “Pristine Vacuum Cleaner,” which amounted to a new Shop-Vac on a Plexiglas pedestal. The significance, as Safer explained it, was that the Shop-Vac had never been used. Selling price? Safer was unsure, but thought it went for “$500,000 or $600,000.” And what, exactly, made this a piece of art? “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all other than that it has been declared a piece of art by Mr. Koons, and certainly by Mr. Koons’s dealers, and, more remarkably, by some of the most distinguished critics.”

This gets us to a larger question, namely, Can something really be art if anyone can do it? A thing is uniquely artistic because it is impossible for the vast population to accomplish. Said another way, if I can think of it and do it, it’s not art. Grabbing a can of paint and flinging its contents against a large canvas is not, in fact, art. It’s barely a seizure. It is, though, an act of desperation – how badly do you need to be noticed when you’re willing to stand in front of a 20’ by 20’ Sherwin Williams Rorschach test and call yourself an artist, even in the face of ridicule? The whole endeavor practically screams, “Please notice me!”

As part of a larger career retrospective (which I didn’t have the interest or patience to investigate), someone called Marina Abramovic has opened a piece of “performance art” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, featuring nude “performers” in various poses. They remain still throughout the duration of their appearances. (Because they’re art, get it?) To the surprise of absolutely no one, according to UPI, “Some participants … have complained to The New York Times that they were surprised to find patrons occasionally touching them, photographing them, making fun of the exhibition and commenting on their bodies.” You don’t say.

If we know one thing about New York City, it’s the same thing we know about California. If something dumb is going to get a foothold somewhere, it’s likely to get it in NYC. But on this one, New Yorkers are right on the money. If you are so emotionally damaged, so innately insecure that you feel the need to go this far to be noticed by strangers, then you ought not be surprised when they notice you. We are living, after all, in an age of supreme informality.

Art is becoming pornography, in the sense that too many people are content to say they know it when they see it, and end the debate there. I’m no expert, but any municipality with a collection of nude people strewn about its museum should be defunded if they call it art … unless its putting on a production of Hair, which is equally as tedious, but at least featues music and dancing.

Author Bio:

Brian S. Wise used to be the lead columnist at IntellectualConservative.com and a fairly well known pundit; now he’s just some dude. He has cool ideas for books and columns, but hardly ever stays out of bed long enough to get started on any of them. He is available via email at brianwisedotcom@gmail.com and via The Twitter at @BrianSWise