You may have noticed that things in the art world are a little, well, off these days.
The artists we hear most about are those like vomit girl, also known as Millie Brown, who drinks colored milk and then makes herself throw up on the canvas. Or Jeff Koons, who gets millions for intentionally-banal objects, such as a porcelain statue of singer Michael Jackson cuddling his beloved chimp Bubbles. And there’s the famous Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy Buggering a Goat. Actually, that’s my made-up name for Paul McCarthy’s very serious Cultural Gothic, which does, in fact, show a young boy buggering a goat while receiving dad’s paternal blessing.
The artists who are nominated for the big prizes are typically those like Tracey Emin, who exhibited her bed, its sheets stained with bodily secretions and strewn about with used condoms and panties worn during her menstrual cycle. Or Chris Ofili, who incorporates elephant dung into his paintings. Or the Chapman brothers, whose Death looks to me a lot like two air-inflated sex dolls performing a lewd act on each other — but here’s the kicker: they’re actually made of bronze and only painted to look like plastic!
But all of that is old news.
Elsewhere I’ve written on “Why Art Became Ugly” — about how a century ago the deep thinkers in the art world signed on to a set of pessimistic and skeptical beliefs about the brutality of human nature, the death of God, and the emptiness of life. Many artists and their critical supporters have been working that territory ever since, expressing in exhaustive detail every possible variation on those themes.
But a century later not much has changed, and for people like artists — whom we all like to think of as original, creative beings — that is sad. There is a sense of tiredness even inside the art world, a sense that all the media hype and dollars are being directed to efforts that just aren’t that different from the same-old, same-old we’ve seen for decades. The art world is in a state of ennui even about its ennui.
That raises a puzzle about its persistence. Why hasn’t the art world moved on, like the teenager (or anyone) who goes through a phase, but who gets bored with it, realizes he’s in a rut, and tries something else? Clothing fashions change rapidly and in many directions. Popular music never stays still, reinventing itself regularly. Automobile features and styles evolve, sometimes dramatically. That’s creativity. But the high-art world is in a static bubble, recycling the same tropes, and for generations now art students have worn the same fashion uniform: black on black.
My answer to the puzzle is that art is always about seriousness, and artistic themes are more serious than fashion, pop music, and cars. Intellectually and emotionally, artists have not moved past the deep pessimism adopted a century ago — they genuinely feel that everything is empty and jaded — so there is nowhere to go and nothing to do but turn their creative energy into reworking and reworking the same themes.
Mischa Badasyan is a strong, recent example. Badasyan is a young gay man who plans to have sex with a different man every day for a year. The encounters will, as often as possible, take place in “non-places,” which are “supermarkets, shopping malls, airports and other largely anonymous spots where people lose a sense of identity and feel like they don’t belong.” “In these places,” he notes, “you don’t have to talk to anyone or feel a sense of belonging. That creates loneliness.” And, he explains, that is what his project is about — the emptiness of modern sexual life, especially in the gay world, with its casual hook-ups and meaningless sex.
This is performance art, with a good media-marketing campaign upfront to generate interest. But with a goal: “Eventually I’ll be like a non-place,” Badasyan hypothesizes, as a result of the project.
Note that he is engaged with truly important human themes: What makes sex meaningful? Is true love really possible? Or are we all deeply and desperately alone and destined to remain that way?
And you have to give Mr. Badasyan originality points — no one has brought promiscuity into the world of high art in quite that way before. Rather than portraying self-immolation in fictional characters or with paint on a canvas, Badasyan himself is the text or canvas, so to speak: His goal is to be the art and become the empty, desolate thing that other artists have only painted or written about.
Two features of art are important here. Art is always a self-expression. And art that is made public is a communication — the artist always wants his or her audience to have a certain kind of experience.
So take Mr. Badasyan’s self-expression seriously. Set aside any suspicion you might have that it’s just a publicity stunt.
Who is Badasyan? He is a human, just like the rest of us. He desires love and sex. He experiences loneliness sometimes. He wonders if he will reach happily-ever-after, just like the rest of us do. He has a whole year ahead of him — and just like everyone else he can choose how to use that time: to try for real meaning in his relationships or to debase himself. Badasyan’s declared choice is self-revelatory, just as the choices we each make are expressive of who we really are.
Also, by making the project public, Badasyan is telling us that he very much wants us to know him for who he is. This is not a private, personal quest he is undertaking. Artists who publicize their work want to get into your mental space. For the next year, he wants you to think of him having sex of a certain sort — gay, impersonal, emotionally empty — in those non-places, maybe even in your airport or shopping mall.
Taking artists at their word does not mean buying into their worldview. Most modern artists recognize the vast gulf between their world and the more benevolent, optimistic worldview of most people. That gulf irritates them intensely. They also know that they carry the prestige of the art world, a prestige that has been built up over centuries, and they know that our default attitude is to look up to artists. So they know they can use that social power effectively against those of us who don’t share their worldview. Art is self-expression — and a shock tactic in the culture wars.
How can the power of that tactic be lessened?
The constant repetition across decades has lessened the impact of the negativity. Diminishing returns, as the economists say. But perhaps a more important is to recognize that the constant repetition with trivial variations is, however authentically felt, a confession of artistic weakness: We have nothing new to say.
An analogy: Consider a child who is verbally abused and undercut by her father. She will never amount to anything, he regularly insinuates with well-chosen words. The father is powerful figure in the child’s mind, and she grows up believing that a father commands respect. But the child becomes a young woman, moves out of the house, and goes on accomplish something with her life. Years later, she revisits her father with an adult perspective, and when her father again begins with the same pattern she realizes that those who undercut everything are weaklings, typically failures who want others to fail in life. She now also knows that not all fathers are like that. Her father then becomes to her a pathetic figure — his words and actions the expression of a self-confessing loser.
The expressive and communicatory power of art truly is awesome. And the great social prestige and power of the art world was justly earned over many generations. That power is what recent generations of artists are cashing in on. We might grant them the benefit of the doubt initially. But for those who continue for decades to play with feces and portray faux child sex and devote themselves to the trivial and flaunt their self-abasement — perhaps it is time for us to take them at their word.
Don’t miss last week’s column: The Revival of Nazism in Europe — It’s Not Just Racism
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Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at ProfessorHicks@EveryJoe.com.