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State of the Arts

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Some blame the Sixties and Andy Warhol, but art had lost its way long before the laconic albino appeared on the scene, playing the artistic-autistic savant. Even by the 1920s, as Orwell wrote in his essay on Salvador Dali, things had reached the point at which “If you threw dead donkeys at people, they threw money back.”

(It is worth remembering that in such transactions it is not those who throw the donkeys, but those who throw the money whose behavior requires an explanation.)

Leaving aside the prehistory (this is, after all, a column and not a treatise), the problem began when art started to be essentially concerned with ideas and only accidentally – if at all – with the mastery of a particular skill such as painting, sculpture, and so on. As a consequence, the appreciation of art gave way to its interpretation, and the art critic became a sort of cryptographer, decoding the artist’s message for a helpless public.

This wouldn’t have been nearly so bad if the ideas had themselves been more interesting, but in reality they were just whatever pseudo-intellectual clichés happened to be in fashion amongst those anointed to choose which artistic movements represented the avant-garde. The most conspicuous and persistent of all these clichés is a Cliffs Notes Freudianism, which has turned art criticism into a parlor game of Spot the Phallus (a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” for grown-ups with graduate degrees).

The most celebrated contemporary British artist is Damian Hirst, whose oeuvre includes most notoriously “Away From the Flock”, which is a lamb preserved in formaldehyde. Other works include a bisected pig in formaldehyde and a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde. The latter is called “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living” (a bit of a leap to be sure, but it beats “Untitled”). If any of you are having trouble deciding what to buy Damian for Christmas, I’ll give you a clue: It starts with an “F.”

Hirst’s artistic input into these works did not involve any technical accomplishment whatsoever. I don’t know whether he or someone else actually put the sheep in formaldehyde and prepared the display case, and it doesn’t matter. His achievement was purely conceptual; he was the one who came up with the idea of presenting a pickled sheep as a work of art, and he was the one who came up with the title.

Not all, not even most, modern art is purely conceptual in this way. Many artists still paint and sculpt, and some of them do so magnificently, but now these are just options. Long after everyone has forgotten the distinctions between Dadaism and Surrealism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, that is how the twentieth century will be remembered in the history of art; it was the century when skill became optional.

When an artist’s creative work takes place purely in the head it becomes impossible to distinguish an artistic idea from any other idea in any principled way. The result is that the world of fine art now operates according to a principle rather like the policy of the United States government towards Cuban refugees. If only you can get your work into the gallery, then it’s art.

The earliest object to test the limits of this principle was Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a urinal which he had neither made nor modified. Duchamp’s intent was to attack the whole institution of art, the whole idea of dividing the world into art and non-art, but the actual effect of his work was that such attacks became institutionalized themselves.

Now that creativity can be purely something that happens inside the artist’s head, art itself has become secondary to being an artist. The fashionable image of the artist is of one who challenges all bourgeois norms, who transgresses in the name of creativity any and all boundaries that society puts up. The true artist, we are supposed to believe, is the one who cannot see a line without crossing it.

If all that sounds difficult, there are over 30 dedicated art colleges in the United States where you can learn to transgress bourgeois norms under expert supervision, provided, of course, that you can afford to pay over $30,000 a year for the privilege.

But making transgression your goal makes no more sense than devoting your life to annoying your parents. Try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to be outraged by Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, the photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine which was the subject of so much controversy in the 90’s.

I don’t think it’s shocking; I think – given current assumptions about the nature and purpose of art – it’s inevitable.

I don’t think it’s blasphemous, either. As W.H. Auden said, one can only blaspheme if one believes, and I don’t think that it’s God’s anger that Serrano is trying to provoke. Putting a crucifix in urine is just a calculated way for Serrano to get his artistic baptism, by full immersion in public opprobrium. Frankly, I think blasphemy is preferable to that sort of cynicism.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.