Dada was an extreme protest against the physical side of painting.… It was a sort of nihilism to which I am still very sympathetic.
—Marcel Duchamp, 1946
INANE adj.Lacking sense or substance; empty.
—The American Heritage Dictionary
The most delicious news to emerge from the art world this year came in October, courtesy of the BBC. Under the gratifying headline “Cleaner Dumps Hirst Installation,” the world read that
I hope that Mr. Asare was immediately given a large raise. Someone who can make mistakes like that is an immensely useful chap to have about. In fact, I would hereby like to suggest that he be taken on by some eminent London newspaper—The Times, say, or The Daily Telegraph—as an art critic. The military has special and covert forces, why not the world of criticism? As a model of concision and effectiveness, Mr. Asare’s brisk critical intervention is hard to beat.
Unfortunately, his good work was soon undone. Mr. Hirst reportedly found the episode “hysterically funny.” And why not? The gallery owners—spurred, possibly, by the “six-figure-sum” that the work was expected to fetch—instantly set about putting his opus back together. Thank goodness they had “records of how it had looked.” Imagine the loss to world culture otherwise! Actually, I suspect that the task of reconstruction was not all that arduous. This is not Humpty Dumpty we are talking about. The BBC report carried a photograph of the work. (The original? Or the reconstruction? Perhaps we will never know.) It looked exactly like what it was: a tray of “beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays.” That description cannot be improved upon. Let us pause to recall the phrase “six-figure-sum”: that means at least £100,000—$150,000, more or less. For a tray of “beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays.” I for one do not blame Mr. Hirst for finding the whole thing “hysterically funny.” Doubtless his banker did, too.
A “spokesperson” for the gallery suggested that Mr. Asare’s salutary sense of order might have “a positive outcome, by encouraging ‘debate about what is art and what isn’t, which is always healthy.’” Here is my second suggestion: that an immediate moratorium be called on the “debate about what is art and what isn’t.” Far from being healthy, it is one of the great intellectual debilities of our day. It isn’t a debate, it is a dead end. When critics catch the what-is-art-and-what-isn’t bug, you know they are utterly bored by art. When artists catch that bug, you can see clearly why the critics are bored.
The great thing about the Damien Hirst/ take-out-the-trash episode—apart from its entertainment value—is that it vividly demonstrates one of the major wrong turns art took in the twentieth century. Damien Hirst didn’t originate that wrong turn. Far from it. He is merely one of the many casualties—or, depending on one’s point of view, beneficiaries—of that detour.
Damien Hirst didn’t originate that wrong turn. He is merely one of the many casualties.
Almost all of the artistic wrong turns with which we are now living had their origins in the early decades of the twentieth century. But what began as an elite indulgence with the appearance of Dada, Surrealism, and figures like Marcel Duchamp became a national pastime in the 1960s. It was then that the wrong turn became a superhighway, when (to alter the metaphor) a rare affliction became epidemic.
The most important culprit in this story is undoubtedly Andy Warhol. It was Warhol—aided and abetted by such figures as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns— who injected the streak of sinister levity that made Pop Art and its offshoots such a creepy, Janus-faced phenomenon: one face all smiles and Campbell Soup cans, the other a grim underworld of drug abuse, sexual predation, and nihilistic self-absorption. Pop Art enjoyed such enormous success largely because its practitioners managed to hold those opposing elements together in their art: sugar coating around a poison pill. For susceptible souls—and their number was legion—it was an addictive combination.
Artists like Damien Hirst and the other professional transgressors who populate the art world today are the heirs of Warhol’s sinister levity. No serious contender for the Turner Prize can be without it. The Whitney Biennial exhibitions are full of it. And virtually all of the big-name star artists of the last few decades have been heavily endowed with that corrosive pathos. It is more a psychological than an artistic endowment, but the deliberate fusion or confusion of those faculties has been one of the distinguishing features of most trendy precincts of the contemporary art world.
Anyone interested in observing the crystallization of the sensibility that made artists like Damien Hirst possible should stop by the Whitney Museum of American Art and walk through the exhibition “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964–1977.” 1 Few people, I think, will find it a pleasant experience. Film and video installations are almost by definition monuments of pretentious tedium. And even by the stringent standards of the field “Into the Light” excels in creating an atmosphere of irritating nullity.
The Whitney’s press information describes “Into the Light” as “a major exhibition of works that had a transforming impact on art.” That is partly right. The works from the 1960s and 1970s on view in the exhibition did have a transforming impact on art. But it was not an aesthetic impact. The Whitney speaks of that period as “‘a golden age’ that produced some of the most significant moving image installations ever made.” In fact, it was a time of decadence and collapse, as will be immediately evident to anyone who revisits that slice of history. There are nineteen installations in the exhibition. None is of even minimal artistic interest. But taken as a case study, “Into the Light” is, well, an illuminating event. Its value is educational, not aesthetic. Like a trip to a madhouse or hospital ward, it helps us become better epidemiologists, furnishing examples—some brutal, some merely pathetic —of something gone dreadfully wrong.
It might seem odd to link artists like Damien Hirst to an exhibition devoted to film and video. As far as I know, Hirst has never trespassed into those genres. But although “Into the Light” consists entirely of film and video works, its significance lies in the attitude toward art and culture it embodies. It is an attitude that Hirst and his peers have deeply imbibed.
The best way to understand that attitude is to ponder some of the catalogue descriptions of the works on view. Bruce Nauman’s Spinning Spheres (1970), for example, is described as an attempt “to destabilize the viewer’s perception of physical space.” The summary comes in two parts: exposition, which is admirably accurate, and interpretation, which is preposterous.
Is it necessary to point out that Nauman’s work has nothing whatsoever to do with sculpture or “sculptural language”? That simply being repetitious is not the same as having “an interest in” (or insight into) the phenomenon of repetition? That filming a spinning ball does not count as “exploring” optical perception?
Exasperation is an emotion that gets a heavy workout in this exhibition. Here’s what the catalogue has to say about Yoko Ono’s SkyTV (1966):
Again, one has to admire the clinical accuracy of the exposition—Ono’s piece really is just a film of the sky—followed by the interpretive nonsense.
Most of the descriptions follow this pattern. They start deadpan and then wax fanciful. We know where we are when we read that William Anastasi’s Free Will (1968) is
A video of a corner. Great. I am sure you can imagine it. It supports the curator’s talk about exploring “The conceptual implications of autism.” But then what about this grammatically challenged flight: “This self-reflexivity evokes the Buddhist admonition of the individual’s search for external answers, and the importance of looking into our own internal selves.”
Complete rubbish, of course, and not even accurate about Buddhism. But you can still admire the effort to cloak aggressive banality with a scaffold of higher significance. That, in fact, is a procedure one must master to thrive in the world of art film and video. Consider Peter Campus’s aen (1977). You walk into a darkened room. There is nothing to see until you turn around and come face-to-face with a television monitor on which is displayed an image of yourself upside down. Probably you’ve seen something similar a hundred times when walking by an electronics store with a camera trained on the passersby. But in that case you are merely being filmed. In the recesses of the Whitney you find that aen “belongs to a group of seminal closed-circuit video installations.… Campus’s shadowy projection operates on the one hand as a formal enquiry into space, surface, and scale, and on the other as a ghostly nocturnal reflection, which brings us into an existential confrontation with our own inner selves.”
Most of the installations on view in “Into the Light” have the look of a grade-school science project. But instead of making sense of and illustrating some natural phenomenon, they glory in breakdown, futility, or simple inanity. In Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973),
Which is about as gripping as watching grass grow. We are told that in Shutter Interface (1975) Paul Sharits “explored his rigorous analysis of the material properties of film and of the mechanics of cinema in spatial terms.” What we actually see, however, are three colored rectangles pulsing and flickering on a wall while some unintelligible noise (“an abstract soundtrack”) is piped in. Viewers are warned that the “strobing effect may be harmful for those with an epileptic condition.” But what about people allergic to overbearing pseudo-artistic doodling dressed up in half-digested fragments of scientific jargon? Where is the health warning about that obvious danger?
Many of the installations have a political component. In Vito Acconci’s Other Voices for a Second Sight (1974), for example, one hears the artist broadcasting “a pastiche of communiqués from twentieth-century left-wing revolutionaries, such as Che Guevara, Franz Fanon, and Abbie Hoffman, articulating the loss of direction and integrity that he and other artists felt had taken place during the Vietnam era.” Of course, there was a loss of direction and integrity at that time, but it was a loss not detected but exemplified by artists like Vito Acconci.
While the political undercurrent is never far from the surface in exhibitions like “Into the Light,” even more prominent is the pretense that the boundaries or conventions or languages of artistic practice are being “redefined,” “interrogated,” “transgressed,” or “challenged.” We have seen how Bruce Nauman’s silly film was said “to create a new sculptural language.” It is the same with every second work in this exhibition. Joan Jonas’s Mirage (1976/2001) supposedly “redefine[s] the parameters of both sculpture and film.” Simone Forti is credited with creating “iconic works that defined a new language of movement.” Robert Morris “and others” are said to have created “a new language of art, in which our perception of the work became a central aspect of its meaning.” Andy Warhol’s double-screen films purportedly “dismantle… linear cinematic time.” And so on. You would think, from the vast number of artists credited with redefining the conventions of their art, that it was the work of a moment to accomplish such transformation. In fact, redefining or creating a new language of art is something accomplished once in a century, if that.
“Into the Light” is hardly unique in broadcasting such pretentious nonsense. On the contrary, it is wholly typical of the contemporary art world. The idea that so much art succeeds in questioning its own conventions is partly a function of confusing word and deed. It is one thing to say “I am redefining the language of my art and creating a new sculptural vocabulary.” It is something else to do that in fact. Nature abhors a vacuum. Confronted with work of striking nullity, human ingenuity populates the void with alibis of significance. It is a good rule of thumb in the contemporary art world that the level of pretension is inversely proportional to the level of artistic achievement. Accordingly, one expects the pretension level of “Into the Light” to be high. Nor is one disappointed. In the catalogue for the exhibition, Thomas Zummer (“a scholar, writer, curator, and artist”) winds up an essay called “Projection and Dis/embodiment: Genealogies of the Virtual” with the observation that
Duchamp did not attempt to revolutionize art, he attempted to destroy it.
Prose like Mr. Zummer’s is an unmistakable warning sign that something has gone dreadfully wrong. Like a shooting pain down one’s arm, it should prompt us to seek emergency relief. That is where stalwart fellows like Emmanuel Asare might be invaluable, if only there were enough of them. The works commemorated in “Into the Light” helped codify an attitude toward art and culture that finds its contemporary redaction in artists like Damien Hirst and all the many other partisans of sinister levity. Andy Warhol did as much as anyone to popularize that wrong turn. But the origin of the catastrophe lies earlier. In her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Chrissie Iles mentions Marcel Duchamp many more times than any other artist. This is entirely appropriate. For if Warhol is the father of sinister levity in the art world, Duchamp is the grandfather, the real paterfamilias. The spirit of Duchamp is such an abiding influence in the art world that we are tempted to forget that Duchamp did not attempt to revolutionize art, he attempted to destroy it. No one was more surprised by the absorption of Dada into the canon of art than Duchamp himself. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge,” he noted contemptuously, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” I used to think that Duchamp’s many heirs had fundamentally misinterpreted him, that they were perpetuating, albeit in a grotesque and perverted form, precisely the kind of artistic activity that Duchamp had set out to explode. Artists like Damien Hirst and exhibitions like “Into the Light” make me wonder, though. There are many ways to destroy an institution. Duchamp opted for savage parody followed up with abandonment. (Why make art when one can play chess?) His heirs are less scrupulous. But perhaps they are no less effective. Inanity, leavened by unremitting pretentiousness, has certainly taken its toll.
When I finished picking my way through the dark corridors of “Into the Light,” I decided to take the stairs rather than the elevator down from the fourth floor. On the landing of the third floor is a long bench, and on this bench—curled up and apparently fast asleep—was a young woman. She seemed so carefully poised that I stopped short: was it… could it be… a work of art? A performance piece, perhaps, illustrating the crushing effects of the capitalist-patriarchal juggernaut on female sexuality? Although sorely tempted, I refrained from rousing the sleeper to ask and continued downstairs. Imagine my surprise when I got to the landing of the second floor and discovered, curled up and fast asleep on the bench, the virtual twin of Sleeping Beauty on the third floor. This must be “an installation,” I thought, and far more fetching than anything I had encountered on the fourth floor. It even occurred to me that it might be an ironical commentary on “Into the Light,” underscoring the fact that it was an exhibition calculated to drive one into the arms of Morpheus. I hurried downstairs and asked a guard whether the sleepers were part of an exhibition. He gave me a blank look. Then I asked a passing administrator. She produced a worried look and went to consult the guard. Together they started upstairs to investigate. I made my way outside. I was sorry to have interrupted so much slumber. But at least, I reflected, the Whitney does not employ Emmanuel Asare: who knows what he might have tidied up?
1 “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964–1977” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on October 18, 2001 and remains on view until January 6, 2002. A catalogue for the exhibition, edited by Chrissie Iles, has been published by the Whitney Museum of American Art (184 pages, $45).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 4, on page 22
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