Rubbish? Art? But perhaps I repeat myself

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Wed, 2009-09-09 05:52

When I read that a pile of rubbish by “artist” Dane Mitchell was awarded Waikato’s biggest art prize, my mind went back several years ago when I was at architecture school (and I can tell you now that those weren’t the days).  The students were always gathered together on the first day back for the new year to receive news, advice and the usual karakia.  And they were warned: don’t leave your work out in the studio overnight unlabelled, because the cleaners will think it’s rubbish and throw it out.

So even back then in the mists of time, rubbish was being confused for art.

Fact is, it goes back to Marcel Duchamp, who around ninety years ago dragged a urinal out of a demolition yard and into a gallery and invited viewers to (metaphorically) piss on art.  Profound don’t you think? 

Duchamp’s pissoir (pictured right) certainly changed art permanently, but not for the good.

What Duchamp and the frauds who followed him had done was to leap into the intellectual vacuum of the age to redefine what their profession thought they were doing, and the intellectuals of the time and since have been too vacuous to properly challenge them.

The definition of art used by the nihilists (a nihilism about which Duchamp and his colleagues were explicit) was that “art” is simply whatever an artist elects to call “art.”  And if you ask what makes an artist then, you’ll find that you’ve already started playing the artist’s game – because at the moment Duchamp installed his pissoir, the purpose of art had changed from producing something of beauty or a depiction of the world as the artist saw it, but to challenging the viewer. Épater le bourgeoisie!

So you see, the minute you react, they’ve got you (you disgusting bourgeois!).  And you have reacted, which is what they were after (quel success!).  So while Mr Mitchell will be pissing himself at how he’s put one over on everyone, Ms Huddleston and her fellow judges will be made up by the astonished reaction around the country to an art prize being given to a pile of rubbish.

But, I still hear you asking, how the hell can an artist get away with declaring his pile of rubbish to be “Art.”  Enter here the manifesto.  As Tom Wolfe pointed out in The Painted Word, the reality of “modern” and “post-modern” art is not in the actual object or work itself: it’s in the manifesto and in the reaction to it.  Let me say that again: the art is not the junk on the ground; it’s in the “theorising” that accompanies it, without which the pile of junk would be just that.

In recent years prize-winning local and international art works have included semen-stained blankets, an empty room with a  light bulb and a switch, piles of bricks, a toilet that brays like a donkey, and a man with hot dogs up his arse.  All of these have won prizes and accolades (the stained blankets were, I kid you not, described by NBR’s art editor John Daly-Peoples as “haunting, powerful and provocative.” And the man with hot dogs in his rectum, viewers were told, “tapped into both public metaphors and personal history.” True stories.)  But the real art, as Tom Wolfe’s point makes plain, was not in the bricks or the and the artistic experience for the viewer was not in their contemplation:  It consisted of the bullshit used by the artist to con the gallery into installing it, the manifesto, and your reaction to the bullshit when you stumbled across it.

But this really is just rubbish, isn’t it. Art isn’t just “what an artist does” – and it’s certainly not what any old bullshit artist defines it to be.  Art, real art,  is the technology of the soul – it’s a shortcut to our deepest values.  We respond to it because is resonates with (or betrays) our own emotional assessment of the world. By that standard then, our values -- and those of real artists -- are being desperately betrayed every day in every public gallery in the country. 

And so are the sponsors, ratepayers and taxpayers who pay for it all.

UPDATE 1:  Sayeth the competition organisers:

"There will always be people who love things and those who hate them. The bottom line is we always insure [sic] the judge we select has an excellent reputation."

Respondeth in a nutshell Jeff Perren:

“That says it all. Subjectivism, moral relativism, backed by an argument from authority.”

UPDATE 2The Opinionated Mummy has a new fairy tale you need to read, based on a true story:  The Emperor’s Artist’s New Rubbish.

Thanks for posting this,

Lanza Morio's picture

Thanks for posting this, Peter. It's a fine concretization of where Western Culture is today. Wow.

I really shouldn't be surprised. Nearly every museum in every city has many heaps of trash on display as mindless as this.


sharon's picture

I came across an artist who seems to integrate abstract expressionism with representational elements. Perhaps this is a “border line” case.

"Abstract" art?

Peter Cresswell's picture

Short answer: that it's an oxymoron.

Longer answer: There's insufficient scope, depth or integration possible in abstract art to make it art. Qua art, "abstract art" contains elements of art - colour, rhythm, proportion, composition -- but nothing that integrates them into an artwork.

That's why the near-abstracts of Turner or Whistler are still art, and canvases by Mondrian or Kandinsky are not. They're not art -- they're just decoration. Tthey're just an exercise for an art student before she gets on with the real thing.

Abstract art

Ross Elliot's picture

Well, I've always differentiated between design and art. Mondrian's cute color rectangles are pleasing to my eye, but it ain't art. I think a lot of people that have trouble calling pleasing combinations of shapes and colors art should just appreciate them as design. But be careful: a Warhol paint-vomit, to me, is neither art nor design.

"I can't understand why I slipped like that . . ."

Peter Cresswell's picture

Oops. Couldn't quite remember the Keating quote correctly:

KEATING: "I can't understand why I slipped like that... from the top... without any reason at all..."
TOOHEY: "Well, Peter, that could be terrifying to contemplate. The inexplicable is always terrifying. But it wouldn't be so frightening if you stopped to ask yourself whether there's ever been any reason why you should have been at the top...."


sharon's picture

Postmodernist art aside, what is the Objectivist view of abstract art?

"But most pathetic was the

Peter Cresswell's picture

"But most pathetic was the "artist" who seemed miffed that the winning piece of crap was judged more worthy than her own piece of crap."

Yes, well spotted.

She maybe hadn't realised that was the game she was in.

A bit like Peter Keating as he watched his career fall. "You wouldn't be so astonished at the reasons for your fall if there were any reasons for your rise."

As long as rubbish is art then it doesn't matter who, this week, gets the prize, just as long as any real artists are excluded. Toohey understood that, and explained it to Peter Keating when he was on the skids:

"I don't believe that any one man is any one thing which everybody else can't be. I believe we're all equal and interchangeable. A position you hold today can be held by anybody and everybody tomorrow. Equalitarian rotation. Haven't I always preached that to you? Why do you suppose I chose you [? Why did I put you where you were? To protect the field from men who would become irreplaceable. To leave a chance for the Gus Webbs of this world. Why do you suppose I fought against for instance—Howard Roark?"

The best thing to to to fight against today' bullshit artists is to support real artists whenever and wherever they occur. Every single Stephen Mallory of them will appreciate it.

That's right, PC

Ross Elliot's picture

The words "controversial" and "provocative" kept coming up in the video.

That semi-developed adolescent desire to get a rise out of the grown-ups is what it's about. To provoke a reaction, and then to pretend that it was not your intention to provoke a reaction; to act as if your intentions were innocent, but secretly reveling in the "reactionary" response of your meta-parents, the establishment.

The judge and the curator were your typical humorless PC types. How can these people find *anything* funny? When rubbish--literally--is art, and art, rubbish, the world to them is bereft of any irony, and therefore a sense of the ridiculousness of their opinions and actions.

But most pathetic was the "artist" who seemed miffed that the winning piece of crap was judged more worthy than her own piece of crap. Perhaps for a microsecond she glimpsed the cesspool she had lowered herself into, arguing for standards in a genre where standards can never be admitted. But probably not.

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