65. Doing Dumb Things And Calling It Art Is OVER!

65. Doing Dumb Things and Calling It Art is OVER!

The above declaration is one that I announced, when I became the Acting Director of our University Art Museum (now the Berkeley Art Museum) for one ill-fated year, that I would write on a huge sign and hang from the highest balcony in the central space of the museum. It probably started me off badly in the job, giving me a reputation as a conservative art historian. The Assistant Director of the Museum, Brenda Richardson, a distinguished modernist who had a lot to do with provoking the ouster of its first director, Peter Selz, ended up as my adversary in a dispute over whether the UAM should alter its over-emphasis (it seemed to me) on contemporary art toward the inclusion of more "traditional" (taboo word at that time) art in our exhibition program. It was never really resolved, but Brenda's viewpoint probably carried more weight, and proper full-time directors after that have all been modernists. After my unfortunate year, a member of the Practice of Art faculty, Jerry Ballaine? (from memory), took over for a while, and did his best. The Provost in charge of the UAM, Rod Park, liked the idea of giving the job to a regular faculty person to avoid the trouble and cost of hiring a real professional as director; I remember telling him, at an impassioned meeting of the committee overseeing this problem, that if he could imagine (as the committed, fervent yachtsman that he was) turning over his yacht in the middle of a storm to a well-meaning amateur who had never sailed a yacht but was willing to try, then continuing to appoint faculty people as acting directors of the UAM was a good idea. Otherwise it was a terrible one. Brenda Richardson left the UAM soon afterwards for a position at the Baltimore Museum of Art; I have corresponded with her and been with her in recent years—we remain good friends and mutually-admiring colleagues.

One anecdote: short of funds for acquisitions, we earned $5,000 by allowing our dramatic interior space to be used, one evening after closing, by a movie studio filming the climax of a Dean Martin "Matt Helm" film, with a faked exhibition opening party going on in the lowest gallery and the hunted bad-guy meeting his deserved end by falling from our highest balcony after being shot by Dean Martin. Svetlana Alpers suggested that we spend the money for a print by Jasper Johns, a proposal that seemed good to me. But Brenda carried the day, giving the money to a New York artist, name forgotten, who (she said) was in such a strong position that he could control and edit critical writings on him appearing in the standard art publications. (I repeat that from memory without ever having really understood it—was such a thing possible?) He was commissioned to create a work of art within one of our smaller galleries. He painted all the walls and ceiling a flat green, drew a simple tan-gram design on the end wall, and went off with our $5,000. I was angry.

Back to "Doing Dumb Things." I used to irritate my modernist colleagues (or try to) by saying that if, at the proper historic moment, someone had said "Ha ha, a urinal as sculpture! Good joke, M. Duchamp, now let's get back to making art," instead of the grand collective "Oh wow" that was in fact the art world's response to that clever prank, the whole history of art in the 20th century would have been different, and better. And after listening to the lectures given by a series of aspirants to our open Modernist position one year, I proposed at a faculty meeting that anyone arguing that the work of her/his subject was important because it "called into question the concept of art," or "expanded the boundaries of art," etc., should be eliminated from consideration. Not that doing that was completely unimportant, but that it should not be put forth as in itself a sufficient justification for some creative move. And besides, after it had been done repeatedly over some decades, after the bourgeoisie had been épater'd (shocked) so often that doing it again carried no further weight, artists should realize the exhaustion of that trick and turn to doing more interesting things.

The late Princeton musicologist Edward Cone, whom I got to know when he spent a semester on our campus as Ernest Bloch Lecturer, delivering the lectures published as The Composer's Voice, wrote an article later proposing that the art world could be bettered if artists and composers were forced to present their works without having them designated as art, or as serious music—so that they would have to make it on their own, to be received, experienced, and judged as other events and objects might be. John Cage's famous However-long-it-is composition, in which the audience gazes at the pianist doing nothing for a long stretch of silence, would be recognized as a complete bore, as would many performance pieces and uninteresting objects. (Cone's article was published, I think, in The American Scholar for Autumn, 1977, Vol. 46, No. 4.)

I should add that my feelings on this matter (reflecting those of a great many others, who too often have been cowed into silence) extend into my scholarly work. I argued, for instance, in a lecture (the one on "Quickness and Spontaneity," see CLP 67, also the last of my Three Alternative Histories of Chinese Painting) that Chinese painters promoted the xieyi, "drawing the idea" or fast-sketchy style, as superior to xiesheng, "drawing [from] life" the more careful and representational style, in some part because it permitted them to produce saleable works more quickly and demanded less of technical training. That lecture, titled "Xieyi as a Cause of Decline in Later Chnese Painting," given in Shanghai for an audience made up largely of artists, aroused more angry response than any other I can remember giving. My underlying belief behind all these arguments is that an artistic tradition is likely to take turns for the worse when the artists who make it up manage to persuade their audience that art can only be defined as what artists choose to do, a definition the audience is forced to accept out of fear of being labeled philistine if they don't. The truly critical criteria that must underlie a really healthy artistic tradition cannot survive that capitulation.

All this reminiscing and arguing is inspired by an article in today's (3/1/09) NYTimes Arts Section about a Chinese artist from Taiwan named Tehching Hsieh whose works of art included spending a year in a cage, tethering himself by a rope to a female artist, and punching a time-clock every hour for a year. By criteria too widely accepted today, these "dumb things" sufficed to earn him a large coverage in the NYTimes; by Ed Cone's criteria (and mine), they were huge wastes of time. I could name quite a few others. In 1985 our Museum was taken over by a young artist named Jonathan Borovsky, who pasted big, simple drawings on our walls, placed a tall red-painted and animated cast-iron cut-out of a "Hammering Man" in our lower gallery (we bought it, and it's still there, hammering away, having exhausted its interest, for me, after a few minutes), and exhibited a jar in which he had deposited slips of paper on which he had written consecutive numbers, up to several million. I suggested in my lecture that he should have spent the time learning to draw. Other artists cut off bodily parts and otherwise injured themselves. Yves Klein, a more interesting French artist (I went along with Brenda in planning an exhibition of his work that was never realized), nearly killed himself by jumping out of a second-storey window into the street—his work of art.

Occupying a slightly more elevated level, in my estimation, is Pop Art, but even that has sent too many artists in fruitless directions. Any art, it seems to me, that depends on the artist being the first to think of doing whatever-it-is (a "dumb thing" in my definition) is seriously reduced in artistic value and significance by that weak creative origin. I recall reading that Andy Warhol originally intended to paint enlarged comic-strip panels until he learned that Roy Lichtenstein was already doing that. A New York art dealer, a woman, suggested to him that he paint, instead, big copies of popular designs such as the Campbell's soup can and the Brillo box, and he went on to become a major figure by doing those. (Yes, I have read Arthur Danto and others about why these represent major moves in American art.) And I am among the many who are appalled at reading the news about the crazily inflated prices that big-time investors, scarcely to be identified as art lovers, are paying today for the works of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Basquiat and the like who command their attention and their millions. It will be a pleasure to watch the bottom drop out of that market too, as I assume it eventually must.   

Writing all the above obliges me, some will feel, to offer my definition of what a work of art should be, how it differs from objects and events of other kinds. But that is attempted, or at least is implicit, in some of my posted CLPs and Reminiscences, and I won't try it again here. Sorry.

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