“Is it a hoax?” Why is it that some variation of this anxious question accompanies so much of our experience of contemporary art? Why is it, to speak bluntly, that so much of what we are called upon to admire as art has the smirking, rebarbative quality of a bad joke?

These are not, alas, new questions. They are an integral part of cultural life in the aftermath of the avant-garde. From one point of view, such questions are a sign of decadence, for they underscore the extent to which we have lost our bearings in the cultural landscape. How odd, after all, that we must frequently ask ourselves: Is it art? Is it a hoax? Is it both art and a hoax?

From another point of view, however, the prevalence of such confusion is a sign of health, for it suggests that we are still alive to essential distinctions between art and non-art. In this sense, the nagging questions that insinuate themselves into much of our experience of contemporary art are signs of vitality: they speak of an immune system robust enough to recognize and challenge nonsense. At a moment when the violation of the boundary between art and life figures so prominently in the practice of art, any hesitation, any qualm, any pause or rejoinder provides a welcome opportunity for reappraisal. As long as one can meet absurdity with the tonic skepticism of disbelief—“Is this some sort of hoax?”—all is not lost.

It was with such modified consolation that we greeted the December 5 headline from Reuters: “Suicide Mistaken for Art Performance.” So much for violating the boundary between art and life, we thought: someone has gone further and decided to violate the boundary between art and death.

Well, not exactly. As the wire story explained, visitors to an “off-beat Berlin arts center”—it would be a German establishment—mistook a dead woman on the ground for a performance art act. It transpired that a twenty-four-year-old woman who had discussed suicide on videotape with a group of artists at the gallery decided to underscore her words with action: she returned later that day and leapt from a window to her death.

The ultimate transgressive gesture? Or a horrible, pathetic waste of human life? The grotesque side of this episode cannot efface its farcical aspects. Nor can its farcical elements redeem the obscene fact that a suicide might be mistaken for an instance of “performance art.” In one sense, of course, the issue is old hat, a relic of Dada, Surrealism, and the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. Think of Chris Burden, who, in 1974, had himself nailed to a Volkswagen. Think of the many contemporary “body artists” whose performances consist of ritual scarification, body piercing, and mutilation. Remember Ron Athey? Back in 1994, this poor fellow made headlines with an act at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. As the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune reported at the time, an HIV-positive man “sliced an abstract design into the flesh of another man, mopped up his blood with towels and sent them winging above the audience on revolving clotheslines.” How’s that for a cutting-edge performance?

A line can be drawn from Duchamp and Dali through figures like Chris Burden and Ron Athey to news stories reminding us that we’ve come to a pass where suicide might be mistaken for a work of art. It was about a year ago that we ran an essay reporting on this headline from the BBC: “Cleaner Dumps Hirst Installation.” Under that promising rubric was the delicious story of the enterprising janitor at a London gallery who had “cleared away an installation by artist Damien Hirst having mistaken it for rubbish. Emmanuel Asare came across a pile of beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays and cleared them away at the Eyestorm Gallery.” Stout work! We are in general adamantly opposed to the practice of cloning, but we might be willing to make an exception in the case of Mr. Asare. A few hundred critics of his thoroughness could help prevent headlines like “Suicide Mistaken for Art Performance” from occurring with such dismaying frequency.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 5, on page 1
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