CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews



I've been meaning to make some sort of comment on the two posts by David Nishimura at Cronaca (If Art Is Meant to Provoke... and ...But What about Stockholm?) on May 16, an invective against certain types of controversial modern art:

Most surprising is critics' inability to see that not everyone accepts the contemporary art world's self-serving rules, where "art" is a special sphere in which artists get to say and do whatever they want without fear of contradiction or consequences, and the masses are expected to understand as best they can, grateful for the edification. Art's job is to provoke and discomfit? Looking back through history, that sure leaves a lot of art that didn't do its job.
David's bugbear is Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan and his sculptural installations that realistically depict bodies of adults or children hanging from trees (he would probably have a similar negative reaction to this outrageous sculpture erected in and subsequently removed from a public square in Salzburg, after protests related to its vulgarity, which I wrote about here back on August 14, 2003). About this time of year, I am mentally exhausted from having spent several weeks trying to convince my students why they should care enough to learn something about modern art. It's difficult enough with Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp, but it only gets worse by the time I am lecturing on Judy Chicago or Damien Hirst. Needless to say, I could not show a slide of or even mention something like the Salzburg sculpture.

By way of a response to David's remarks (with which I find myself alternately agreeing and disagreeing), I offer this translation of an article (Trop trash l'art contemporain? [Contemporary art too trashy?], May 17) by Annick Colonna-Césari in L'Express, which offers views from two experts, pro and con (with links I have added):
Depiction of mutilated bodies, fascination with death, sordid dramatization of daily life... Certain directions followed by contemporary artists shock critics and viewers. Provocation disguised as nonexistent artistic alibi or revealing evidence of a civilization that has come unmoored?

IN FAVOR [i.e., Yes, contemporary art is too trashy]
Jean Clair, Director of the Musée Picasso (Paris)
"A cynical aesthetic, without a moral compass"

For thousands of years, art had a civilizing mission: to instruct the spirit and delight the senses. Contemporary art, on the other hand, sees its triumph in the impure (immonde), meaning according to etymology (immundus) vileness, trashiness. It's all good: nudity, mutilation, fascination with blood, fluids, even excrement. Robert Gober uses beeswax and human hairs, Andres Serrano uses blood and sperm. As for David Nebreda, he covers his face with his own excrement and takes photos of it, which he sells as artworks. One could certainly say that the search for the sublime in the horrible has a long history in art generally (for example, Rembrandt's Woman Pissing [image of that and many other interesting examples in this issue of Chimères]) and in modern art, in particular, in the work of [Salvador] Dalí [for example, Young Virgin Autosodomized by Her Own Chastity, from 1954] or [Hans] Bellmer, for example. However, today we go to the next level. There is a distinction between the act of representing these things, no matter how disgusting, through a work that can be seen as admirable, and simply committing the act itself without any elaboration. Georges Bataille imagined bloody ceremonies but they remained a fantasy, which was not the case with the Vienna Actionists. In the 1960s, they appeared in public actions, such as self-flagellation or flagellation of others, drinking urine and blood, eating excrement, celebrating Black Masses with animal sacrifices while in religious habits, taking part in orgies that involved minors.

This fascination with horror also derives from a theological basis. Georges Bataille gave voice to eroticism and human sacrifice as the idea of an ambivalent sacred rite, dirtyness and holiness at the same time. For the Actionists, as for the artists cited above, there is no notion of sacrilege or blasphemy. Things happen in the absence of any reference to morality or social cohesion, under the umbrella of an artistic alibi. One of the heroes of this cynical aesthetic is Gunther [von] Hagens. The German has recently organized across Europe an exhibit in which he displayed corpses he has "plastinized." This was neither beautiful or scientific, but 14 million spectators went to see it. All of this is a sign of Western society's disintegration.

AGAINST [i.e., No, contemporary art is just fine]
Guy Boyer, directeur de Connaissance des arts
"To focus solely on the sordid part is simplistic"

Like cinema and theater, contemporary art deals with notions of the everyday, images of blood and death, but certainly no more than in any other time. This fascination for horror and the sordid is present throughout art history. We have only to look at the transis of the Middle Ages, these sculptures of the dead represented as cadavers, with worms coming out of the chest cavity. There is a longue litany of such art, from the gallow trees engraved in the 17th century by Jacques Callot to the very violent war scenes of Otto Dix.

To focus only on the trashiness of today's art is simplistic, because this tends to single out only the most shocking images from an overall body of work that is nevertheless quite diverse in its form and content. Above all, to condemn the whole after considering only one aspect is dishonest. For example, can we say that the abstract paintings of Helmut Federle or Gottfried Honegger, the videos of Michal Rovner or Anri Sala, the luminous installations of Claude Lévêque or Ann Veronica Janssens focus on dirtiness? Furthermore, to consider the work of some artists according to these notions alone seems like blindness or a lie. To see in the work of Andres Serrano only photographs of blood and sperm is to overlook other horrifying works, like those of costumed Ku Klux Klan members, which are in effect a critique of American society. It would make more sense to put these works back into the context of an artistic process. To read Robert Gober's sculptures as simply an exhibition of a body and mutilation is erroneous. Gober's intent—in fact, in a line of tradition from Duchamp and Pop Art—is not to show naked legs with hairs in a very realistic way. His works reproduce objects of daily life (which explains the use of sinks and beds) or display body parts in a dramatic or surreal setting, à la Magritte, because he is obsessed with death. In fact, these artists are wrapped up in life and are expressing their despair or their fears. If they do not hesitate to underscore the problems of today's world, it is because they are its prophets.
If you want to be further outraged or you just like to wallow in the grotesque excesses of modern art, check out Art Crimes. Just remember that you were warned.


Mark Barry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mark Barry said...

It's near impossible to edit an artist (though nothing really is). But editing isn't necessary, the work will stand or fall on it's own. There is so much screaming media to compete against these days it's only natural that many artists are compelled to attempt the same or to go further. I personally prefer measured discourse but in these times a little screaming, a little feces, a little blood frozen in the shape of a human head may be appropriate.

Todd said...

Mark's comment on the media sorting through the myriad of art as it's own form of censorship is a powerful notion...especially for myself being in the heart of media here in L.A. So many films, trashy or well-meaning, are made every year and there is only so much room in the multiplexes for them all. So what gets attention? My film, 'Day Without A Mexican' is getting attention simply for it's premise. There is a sorting process in Hollywood (if it may be put on the table of an 'art' forum) but it's oddly based on perception of public interest rather than an intuitive of a public nourishment or enlightenment. Provocation in film is more marginalized than satiation. Audacious car crashes, explosions and murder are accepted in the realm of the absurd...but rarely seen or accepted in their true form. The dollar takes the lead in cinematic art these days (maybe always has)but it is a rare find for those who take the lead based on intuition and personal need for telling a story. Art and who it's serving and why seems to have shifted with the new delegates of taste...the media. Or perhaps it's always been the same and Van Gogh just thought, "This will be hot right now."

Anonymous said...

David Nishimura, of Cronaca, was unable to post a comment to this post because he is not registered with Blogger. I am annoyed about this, because the blog's settings are supposed to allow ANYONE to post a comment, registered or not, and I am right now trying to figure out why that isn't working. In the meantime, I am attaching David's comment below, which I received by e-mail. If anyone else has trouble posting comments, please e-mail me.


Actually, I really don't have strong feelings one way or the other about Cattelan's work, or about shock art in general. Rather, my particular bugbear would be criticism that declares that shock is an essential component of art, and being an artist should give unlimited license to do unto others without being done unto in return. Might also note Bill Allison's comments here.Best regards,

David Nishimura