Scene from, and poster for, Taste of Cherry, by Abbas Kiarostami

The truth, I like to say, is moderately simple, but lies must be elaborate. If you don’t agree with the conclusions of obtuse art theory, than, frankly, you are presumed intellectually and possibly morally inferior. Insults will flock towards you like mosquitoes when your evening walk meanders too close to the swamp. Obviously you know nothing about the lessons Duchamp and his descendants taught us. You will be talked down to, or kicked off of platforms for giving another opinion, especially if you can support it. Years ago, I was banned from a few reddit groups, including “art theory” and “contemporary art”. Why? I defended visual art from anti-art rhetoric, from being controlled by big money, and from being hijacked by militant political movements. But all the rhetoric falls apart as soon as you apply it to anything other than contemporary art. I watched a film last night, and that was all overwhelmingly evident.

Click away to watch the whole film in hi-def.

It’s a slow, Iranian film, where almost nothing happens, and yet you are on the edge of your seat trying to figure out what exactly is going on, and what the people are about. It starts off with a man driving around in a desert in Tehran, in a Range Rover, trying to pick up a worker to do an unspecified high-paid task. This goes on beyond a half hour before you have an inkling of what the job is. The specific film isn’t really the issue, though I recommend it and you can watch it in high quality, with English subtitles, on YouTube. Any number of films would hammer home the same point about art, as would countless songs, or novels.

Only contemporary art is subject to a certain brand of “theory”. In my last video I quoted Sarah Urist Green, of PBS’ The Art Assignment defending Mauricio Cattelan’s banana duct-taped to a wall, and called “Comedian”. She is an authority on art, and was the contemporary art curator for the Indianapolis Museum of Art for more than 5 years. She does a fine job of presenting what are the predominant institutional beliefs about contemporary art, and I would recommend her videos as quality educational material in general. She gives her own twists, does her research, and makes short, information-packed lessons (with perhaps a too whopping dollop of identity politics and social justice for some people’s tastes]. However, unlike her and most others who make art videos, I don’t echo what the authorities think. I have a nonconformist gene in me somewhere, so to speak, and I’m more than willing to dog-paddle against the current if I think it’s going in the wrong direction. Here’s what Green had to say about “Comedian”.

It pokes fun at our desire for art to be unique, original, or something we couldn’t do ourselves.

Sarah Urist Green, The Art Assignment

Got that? These are core beliefs of contemporary art theory. Art isn’t unique. Art isn’t original. Art isn’t something we couldn’t do ourselves.

For why art isn’t unique, we can all hearken back to Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” [which I handily dispatched in a feature article]. Generations of art students have been taught that they are functional idiots if they think they can do anything unique or original.

For why we could do art ourselves, there are the ubiquitous notions that anything and everything is art, in which case if you can do anything at all, you can do art. And so we are mocked for wanting art to rise above what we could do ourselves, or for the arrogance of trying to do something new and different. It’s all so cynical.

But watching the movie clearly it was unique, original, and I couldn’t do it myself. On the most obvious level, I’ve never even been to Iran. But I also don’t have the lived experience of the director and screenwriter (who is also a poet and photographer], Abbas Kiarostami. I can’t write dialogue like that. If I had dedicated my life to film, and had the wherewithal to make movies, I wouldn’t have made that movie, or one like it.

There’s a notion that nobody is unique. That’s backwards and wrong. Everyone is unique, it’s just not unique to be unique. When I was living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I was out on a walk and saw a young girl pushing a snail cart glistening in the blistering sun. OK, yes, the prospect of eating any of those snails disgusted me, especially as I wouldn’t trust their freshness. Just to go on a little farther tangent, I once bravely got myself a bowl of local soup from the street in Saigon, when I was living there. It had cubes of blood in it, and snail. I dutifully ate it, and whether it was psychological or not, I didn’t feel so good after that. But the sizzling snail carcasses aren’t my point. It was obvious to me that whatever that girl’s life consisted of was something very different from how I spent my days. Do you dare say that she is not unique? Does her experience not matter? Is her life not filled with feelings, thoughts, and yearnings at every turn? Does she not make hundreds or thousands of decisions per day?

You don’t have to be Cambodian or Iranian to be unique or original in my eyes. Pulp Fiction was a fresh movie when it came out. It married high realist details with the overwrought cliches of cheap paperback stories. I’m from Los Angeles, and have lived in apartments similar to Butch’s. Tarantino nailed the ambient sound, and mundane elements. Same goes for the Hawthorn diner. Last I checked, he’s some sort of white American male.

Tell me the Beatles didn’t make original music at the time. Can I sing Yesterday. You bet I can’t. It’s all the rage to say all of rock music is a rip-off of blues, and owes everything to black culture, but bands were clearly borrowing from classical music [including contemporary classical], world music [George Harrison played the sitar], local folk traditions, and a host of other sources in addition. Their music was unique, original, and if everyone could do it, they would have.

Our desire for art to be something that requires skill and dedication, insight, sacrifice, and vision is healthy and right. Our desire for visual art to be beautiful is quite natural, and yet beauty is also a bad word in art theory.

If one challenges the notion that the author is dead, painting is dead, or that Duchamp was wrong that all painting after Courbet — including Van Gogh — was merely “retinal”, than one is perceived as an anti-art moron and excommunicated as a pariah and enemy of art. But we easily forget that Duchamp was anti-painting, and his introduction of a urinal into a gallery was intended to suggest, among other things, that art was a thing to be pissed on. He stated that he wanted to end art as religion had been ended, that he sought to discredit art, and his choice of a urinal, snow shovel, bottle rack, and a few other desultory readymades was due to his “indifference” to their appearance. He aimed to put something utterly uninteresting to look at in the art museum. It is precisely the equivalent of playing a sound that is neither appealing nor unappealing in a concert hall, but best if it implies music is something that should be dispelled with, in which case a flushing toilet would probably work perfectly.

Nobody mentions this, but when Duchamp attempted to have a urinal (tilted on its side, mind you] shown in the first exhibit of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, it wasn’t just an innocent and earnest plea to show a new kind of art celebrating the beauty of the mundane. The mundane was chosen because it was patently uninteresting, and being a piss pot, it was a big fuck you to the other artists showing in the same exhibit, and artists in general.

Generally, we look at the “Fountain”, even today, as an aesthetic object, and try to wrestle Duchamp into a champion of art — not an anti-art mercenary — all the while heralding the philosophical underpinnings of Duchamp’s art, while not only missing his stated point, getting it precisely backwards. The Fountain, he said, never needed to be seen. It was only the idea, and the idea was that the game of art was up. It was a stab in the heart of art with a knife smeared with feces. We can, of course, be broadminded enough to see this itself as art, and appreciate the wry humor of it. That’s how I saw it when I was first introduced to it in art history decades ago. Witty, a prop, and a clever note on the margins of art history. Not the crowning achievement of 20th century art.

We will go so far as to say that the decade or so when Duchamp didn’t make any art was itself a significant and ambitious contribution to art. Why, he played chess! In a highly derivative ground-breaking radical artwork, a contemporary artists — I believe it was Maurizio Cattelan — was paid tens of thousands of dollars to not make art for a period (I believe it was around 2 years]. When not making art is making art, or when an empty gallery is legitimately considered an important gallery exhibit [Yves Klein, 1958], then it truly is the Emperor’s New Clothes, and I dare say everyone knows this and has made the same analogy ad nauseam, but it has no effect.

In short, you are the anti-art Philistine minion pariah if you challenge the anti-art rhetoric that began with Duchamp and has taken over academia and the institution of art today. It is considered sacrilegious to attack Duchamp’s urinal, or the ideas backing it, even if he was vocally and explicitly attacking the art of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors. Art proper you can attack and mock indefinitely and mercilessly, but question anti-art, and you are expunged.

There’s this myth that the anti-artists and conceptual artists are fighting up against the institution and the idea that only painting is art. Perhaps before I was born. The reality is that painters and their visual artist ilk are fighting up against the notion that only painting isn’t art. In my higher art education I wasn’t allowed to paint, or at least if I did I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

The good news, folks, is that that’s all rancid bullshit on a platter. Art can be unique, original, beautiful, insightful, meaningful, uplifting, and something we can only do ourselves if we really work at it. We need to make some necessary sacrifices, gain insights, broaden our knowledge, and hone our craft enough to be able to manifest our vision with it. But all those things are also beneficial, and a good way to use our time.

I’ll tell you what we get instead. Imagine kids are building sandcastles on the beach. Well, a bully comes along and says none of them are any good. They are all just castles or houses or garages. He could do better but couldn’t be arsed. He kicks them over and pisses on their remains, and declares it anti-sandcastle-art. He receives the trophy for best sand castle. The other kids are mocked and not allowed to make sand castles anymore. All hail!

As I said, Duchamp is OK for what he is. A minor artist who envied and resented other artists, particularly painters, and probably especially Picasso. His much repeated and praised statement that all painting after Courbet was purely retinal and lacked any intellectual content merely represents his own inability to fathom the art in question. Van Gogh’s self-portraits were merely retinal? All the work of Manet lacked intellect? Even Picasso’s infamous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was painted a decade before Duchamp flipped a urinal on its side. But he did somewhat inadvertently open the door to more things being considered art. Humankind can be creative and intelligent with all manner of materials and processes. That is true. Indifferent props just don’t amount to all that much creativity or intellect.

It is all the rage to mock art and artists, but don’t you dare mock the mockers! I may have picked up the gauntlet, and I may have been banned from art forums for doing so, but no one is convincing me that Duchamp is a better artist than Van Gogh, or Manet, or Monet, or Picasso, or Klimt (whose Kiss also predates the urinal]. And nobody is going to convince me that uniqueness, originality, skill, or beauty are irrelevant to art, or are bad things to be attempted.

~ Ends

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4 replies on “Why Art Theory and the Dominant Narrative are Wrong

  1. Ha – your post today takes me back to the same raging debate I observed between all of my fine art, commercial art, and art history instructors some 40+ years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same, eh?

    As for my own position, I think a lot of art interpretations are complete and utter BS. Sometimes – maybe not all of the time – people just want to create something for their own reason, and completely absent of all the bogus reasons that others come up with. For example, one of my former coworkers described how her mother – a renowned painter from South Korea – loved to paint imagery from her dreams. No political or religious content, just weird stuff from dreams. However, art critics and historians immediately latched onto her imagery and crafted all of these ludicrous interpretations as to what she was saying with her “hidden” symbolism, etc. I suspect a lot of art is like that.

    Another example to offer up is a project I had in my freshman year of art fundamentals, when we were studying “environmental art” – an example of which was “Double Negative” by artist Michael Heizer. For me, digging a trench and calling it art is a complete and total cop out. Even worse are the interpretations by art critics that try to say something high brow and “informed” about such a piece. And if that weren’t bad enough, our instructor asked all of us which of the art movements we’d studied was the one we most hated – then assigned us do to a piece in that style. UGH. Mine – of course – was environmental art. So what I came up with was gathering some 10 giant trash bags of dry leaves, hauling them up to the top floor of an 18-story building, dumping all of the leaves out the window, and photographing them on the way down.

    Yes, I got an “A” for my project. Yes, the instructor made all sorts of bogus interpretations about the “art” that I created. Yes, I still hate myself for having done such a stupid project for college credit.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nice anecdote, Mitch. Very much parallels some of my own experience. And then, since I finished grad school in the 90’s, I see some stunt that was just like an undergrad midterm art assignment – ex., Mauricio Cattelan’s banana – and rather than fawning or being shocked along with the rest of the art world, I simply marvel that anyone could think that was something new to do a quarter century after I got my MFA. Stuff that were were being taught in the institution, and in my case a long time ago, and which was a bit crusty then, is somehow perpetually a radical revolution in art, each time it is regurgitated with this season’s packaging.

      To use your words, the equivalent of “a stupid project for college credit” can still be interntational front page art news.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally agree. I had the same reaction about the banana-on-the-wall exhibit. Seriously? The art world media is going nuts over this? And just as quickly, someone ate the exhibit – probably as a “performance art” piece!

        I imagine that much of the “shock art” that we were exposed to decades ago would still make front page news today, a cycle that could repeat itself every 15-to-20 years or so.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your video, I could not say it better! I think that part of the problem with the ART WORLD is that it refuses to come with a definition of what ART is and what it is not, under the strange argument that it prevents creativity… it is easier to say that ANYTHING can be art! But, if you look at literature, music, architecture, we have a very clear idea of what they are all about… music implies sounds, beat, rhythm, literature is made of words, phrases and architecture means that you have to build something. That being said, only a fool would pretend that all books or songs have ALL been done and there is nothing new to add. You could not put a banana on a wall and say, this is the new sound! But with the VISUAL ARTS it is the norm, as if there was nothing more to create… Unfortunately, when as an artist you believe in beauty and skills, your voice is ignored. I think someday all this will change, the Art Historian of the future will sadly realize that instead of being an amazingly creative period, our times will be regarded as one of a very desolate artistic output.

    Liked by 1 person

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