Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

A couple of months ago in this space, we said farewell to Arthur Danto, the philosopher and art critic, who died last fall at eighty-nine. Professor Danto had interests in philosophy that were distinct from his interest in art, but there was one area of overlap. It revolved around the question “What is art?” Professor Danto had many clever things to say about this question, particularly in his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981). Why is it, he wondered, that one red square is just a red square while another, visually indistinguishable from the first, is Number 34, a contemporary abstract masterpiece in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art? Or imagine two additional red squares, both indistinguishable from each other and the first two red squares. One of this second pair is a storm advisory issued by the weather service: you can see on the internet whenever a storm approaches. The other let us call Kierkegaard’s Anguish, an audacious and brooding piece of artistic appropriation on view at a trendy Chelsea gallery.


You might be tempted to say that a red square is a red square by any other name, and leave it at that. But Professor Danto was quite right, we believe, in pointing out that the four red squares he asks us to imagine have very different semantic structures. The first really is just a red square. It does not signify anything beyond itself. The second, however, does point beyond itself. The heir to work by Mondrian, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Robert Ryman, and other abstract artists, Number 34 occupies an interesting place in the history of abstract art, and is intelligible only within that context. Had it been just a red square, MOMA would not have paid $1 million to acquire it. The third square, the one issued by the weather service, also points beyond itself, but in a different way from Number 34. It means “a storm is coming”: a useful advisory, but not something that would interest MOMA’s acquisition committee. The fourth square, by an as-yet-unknown artist eking by in a shabby one-room apartment, is an ironic commentary on the entire artistic tradition in which Number 34 stands. Kierkegaard’s Anguish is visually indistinguishable from Number 34, but it has a very different artistic “temperature” and occupies a very different place in recent art history.

There are those who believe that such Dantoesque thought experiments are too ingenious to take seriously. We understand the impatience. But we also believe that they pose interesting semantic questions. Where we dissent from Professor Danto is on the question of whether such speculations tell us much about art. As a piece of philosophical lucubration, Professor Danto’s thought experiment is both ingenious and unsettling. We are doubtful that it has much, if anything, to do with the metabolism of artistic practice.

That said, there is no doubt that the art world is a strange place. “If anything can be a work of art, how then can you define what art is?” To “define” means to make definite, to draw a border around something: This sort of thing here is art, but that sort of thing over there isn’t. These were the sort of reflections that kept Arthur Danto scribbling away. His trip to Damascus involved a stop at the Stable Gallery in the early 1960s, where he saw Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. If such objects could be taken seriously as works of art, he asked himself, what couldn’t?

It was a good question, though whether it makes Warhol the “nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced,” as Professor Danto wrote, is another matter. In essentials, the semantic drama Professor Danto found in Andy Warhol had its debut half a century before in the work of Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, Duchamp helped to inaugurate the two chief currents of artistic nullity which still, even now, dominate the art world. With his “readymades”—ordinary objects torn from everyday life and presented as works of art—he ushered in the great tradition of artistic banality that occupies so many rooms of so many galleries and museums to this day. Duchamp impishly dusted off an ordinary bottle rack, put it in an art gallery, and said: How about it? How many thousands of artists have followed suit, parroting Duchamp’s nihilistic gestures ad nauseam?

Duchamp also popularized the tradition of the transgressive that has made so much “advanced” contemporary art a tired exercise in dreary but predictable histrionics. In 1917, Duchamp shocked the more decorous precincts of the art world with Fountain, a urinal signed “R. Mutt” and presented as a sculpture. It takes a lot more than a plumbing fixture to shock the jaded palettes of today’s beautiful people. But behind every beaker of bodily fluid you see in an art museum, behind all the pathetic outré exhibitionism of anti-bourgeois bourgeois animus masquerading as art, you can discern the sinister rictus of Marcel Duchamp.

To a large extent, the art world today represents the institutionalization of Duchamp’s early-twentieth-century pranks. The great irony is that Duchamp intended not to extend the boundaries of art but to short-circuit the entire project of aesthetic delectation. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into to their faces as a challenge,” he noted contemptuously, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” Duchamp had the courage of his contempt. He gave up on art entirely and devoted himself to chess.

The world of art is not coterminous with today’s Duchamp-inspired art world. There are plenty of artists uninfected by the nihilism of Duchampian banality and the new Salon of pseudo-avant-garde outrage he helped to found. But the art world, as distinct from the world of art, is largely a rancid compact of Duchampian decadence, cynically milking the prestige of art for an enterprise that is more about the exhibition of politicized snobbery, celebrity, and the incontinent expenditure of money than artistic afflatus or aesthetic excellence. The result is a cultural situation that is aesthetically exiguous but sociologically complex, not to say inadvertently comic. We were reminded of this—the aesthetic nullity and the rich, sociological comedy—by a recent story involving the Chinese celebrity artist-activist Ai Weiwei and the non-celebrity Florida painter Maximo Caminero.

We doubt there is a more trendy contemporary artist than Ai Weiwei. The fifty-six-year-old artist has managed to combine the gestures of avant-garde knowingness and single-minded cultural entrepreneurship in a way that makes even stars of the genre like Damien Hirst look like amateurs. Ai has also garnered an unassailable aura of authenticity through his courageous criticism of the oppressive Chinese state. But if Ai has been a thorn in the side of the establishment, the establishment has more than reciprocated, harassing and jailing the artist, who was beaten so severely by the police in 2009 that he required emergency brain surgery.

But what about the work? It’s difficult to offer a generalization, because much of it is more activity than art. Ai’s photographs are part of his artistic oeuvre, but what about his activities as a blogger? It is hard to say. But this encyclopedia description of Disposition, Ai’s contribution to the fifty-fifth Venice Biennale, provides a good sense of the feel and sensibility of his work:

Disposition . . . is composed of two major projects, Straight and S.A.C.R.E.D. The first work is an installation made of steel rebars salvaged from collapsed school campuses during the Sichuan earthquake on 12 May 2008, which are straightened by hand after they were bent by the force of the earthquake. The second project, S.A.C.R.E.D., is composed of six metal containers, each depicting a scene during Ai’s eighty-one-day secret detention. The title is an acronym for the six episodes illustrated in the work, standing for “Supper” (eating), “Accusers” (interrogation), “Cleansing” (shower), “Ritual” (walking), “Entropy” (sleep), and “Doubt” (toilet).

In some ways, perhaps, Ai is a sort of Honoré Daumier for the postmodern world—full of biting satire and specializing in acerb parody—but without the stupendous graphic command that made Daumier a great artist as well as a social critic.

Video via The Guardian

We suspect that Ai’s celebrity reign will be brief. He is an artist in whom attitude vastly outstrips accomplishment. For the time being, however, he occupies a summit position in the art world. Which brings us to Maximo Caminero. As we write, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. (James Panero has some appropriately tart things to say about that monument to a collector’s vanity and civic irresponsibility in our January issue.) The show includes large photographs of Ai smashing a neolithic vase and a table on which stand sixteen Han Dynasty vases dappled with brightly colored paint. Well, there were sixteen. Thanks to Mr. Caminero, there are only fifteen now. He did to one of the pots on the table what Ai did in the photograph. He picked it up and smashed it. “I did it,” he said, “for all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums here.” According to some reports, the pot was worth $1 million (though Ai calls the figure “exaggerated”). This saddened Mr. Caminero, who has been charged with criminal mischief. “It was a spontaneous protest,” he said. “I was at PAMM and saw Ai Weiwei’s photos behind the vases where he drops an ancient Chinese vase and breaks it. And I saw it as a provocation by Weiwei to join him in an act of performance protest. . . . I had no idea the vase had any value.”

Nice try. Mr. Caminero erred in acting like a celebrity artist without first making himself a celebrity. Big mistake. Ai Weiwei destroys or vandalizes ancient treasures and it is a “metaphor for the conflict between East and West, a conflict between culture and commercialism.” Local Florida artist tries something similar and it is the pokey. You see what a muddle it all is. Back in the 1980s, a juror in the trial over Robert Mapplethorpe’s rebarbative photographs of the homosexual S&M underground acknowledged that he hated the pictures. But he nonetheless concluded that “if people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.” There’s a moral here somewhere. But where is the new Aesop with sufficient eloquence and authority to draw it for us?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 7, on page 1
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