When we look around the contemporary art world, especially at those precincts that are hailed as “cutting-edge” by the Art Establishment, we are often reminded of two passages from Robert Musil’s great novel The Man Without Qualities, set in the months before the outbreak of World War I. The first is the passage where Musil describes how his hero, Ulrich, becomes a man “ohne Eigenschaften.” It happened when he read somewhere about “a race horse of genius.” If a horse can be a genius, what’s left for a clever homo sapiens? The second passage describes the decadent cultural situation that gave rise to this bumpercrop of “genius.”

Sharp borderlines everywhere became blurred, and some new, indescribable capacity for entering into hitherto unheard-of relationships threw up new people and new ideas… . [T]he good was adulterated with a little too much of the bad, the truth with error, and the meaning with a little too much of the spirit of accommodation. There positively seemed to be certain proportions in which these elements had to be blended for maximum success in the world. A little admixture of ersatz was all that was wanted …


On a recent visit to Santa Fe, we stopped by that mountain community’s “alternative” art center, SITE Santa Fe, and Musil was never far from our mind. We happened to be there soon after “Disparities & Deformations: Our Grotesque,” the museum’s fifth biennial exhibition, opened. Now, whenever the word “biennial” comes into contact with art these days, the result is invariably fatuous. Think of the Whitney’s biennials; think of the biennials in São Paulo, in Venice: for as long as anyone can remember, they’ve been tired recycling centers where yesterday’s trendy clichés are loudly celebrated by the Art Establishment in an orgy of self-congratulation.

Poor Santa Fe! They tried so desperately hard to be “with it.” They even engaged Robert Storr, sometime curator at the Museum of Modern Art, to organize the exhibition: how’s that for big-city credentials? But SITE Santa Fe hopped on the pseudo-avant-garde band wagon too late. “Disparities & Deformations” has all the old-timers: Sigmar Polke, Louise Bourgeois, Francesco Clemente, and Cindy Sherman. There are mildly pornographic cartoons by R. Crumb, a couple of truly icky pieces in beeswax and pubic hair by Robert Gober, and a video by Bruce Nauman called “S--- in Your Hat—Head on a Chair,” which depicts a mime pretending to enact what the title suggests. Paul McCarthy weighs in with “Penis Hat,” a very large, very juvenile object.

A couple of decades ago, exhibitions devoted to such stuff were irritating—all that scatological or politically rebarbative stuff crowding out the real art. The flaks in the press office and media kept telling us how “challenging,” “transgressive,” and “cutting-edge” it was, when in fact it had all been done a thousand times and the only thing it challenged was one’s credulity that someone somewhere actually paid good money for this rubbish. How many times can you re-do Dalí or Duchamp before dulling the cutting-edge? The distinction between the “transgressive” and the “merely repellent” somehow got lost on the way to the bank.

It’s been some years since exhibitions like “Disparities & Deformations” have ceased to inspire indignation. Now they inspire a mixture of boredom, pity, and contempt. Charles Stainback, the gallery’s Executive Director, insists that “Disparities & Deformations” brings together “some of the most innovative art of our time.” Maybe he really believes it, poor fellow. After all, the air in Santa Fe, at 7000 feet above sea level, is pretty thin. And Mr. Stainback has had plenty of encouragement. Consider the article by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, puffing the exhibition in our Paper of Record on August 6. Mr. Kimmelman, remember, is the man who called Matthew Barney—the “performance artist” best known for his profligate use of Vaseline—“the most important American artist of his generation.” So it is the work of a moment for him to praise this “unusually cogent selection” and “exceptionally tasteful” installation of works “by so many good artists.”

Take the “site specific” installation by Kim Jones, for example, which consisted of a few hundred rubber rats hanging from a 113-foot lattice in front of the museum. In the few feet between the lattice and the façade of the building were lined up five or six red-topped charcoal grills. They just had to be art. And sure enough: the cheerful young woman at the ticket counter informed us that at the opening gala, hundreds of hotdogs were thrown on the hot grills to “simulate the smell of burning rats.” So many good artists, such exceptional taste.

The Times wouldn’t be the Times without a dollop of political correctness, which Mr. Kimmelman duly supplies when he speaks of Robert Storr’s “deeper purpose” in “this convention season,” i.e., to exhibit the “grotesque as a metaphor for constructive social change.” Right. Your compost heap might as well be regarded as “a metaphor for constructive social change” (meaning, of course, an anti-Republican, anti-Bush crusade). Perhaps the lowest point of Mr. Kimmelman’s valentine comes when he quotes a comment by John Ruskin about the grotesque—the implication being that Ruskin might somehow endorse what Mr. Storr has put over on the unsuspecting citizens of Santa Fe. It is pathetic, really, though the element of cynicism keeps anger at war with pity.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 1, on page 1
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