information warfare 1
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The most radical gesture of Piero Manzoni - the ninety cans of Artist's shit sold at the then-current price of gold - shows the power of the creative act to regenerate into art also bodily secretions.
An ironic reference to the willingness of the art market to buy everything on condition that it is signed.(link)

1. Art, Money and Power (link)


We had "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum, a gift to Charles Saatchi, whose collection it advertised, and shows at the Whitney of artists (Robert Rauschenberg and Agnes Martin come to mind) virtually packaged by the gallery that represents them. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been renting its Monets to a casino in Las Vegas, while the Guggenheim, which gave us the atrocious "Armani," an even more egregious paid advertisement, is spending resources shopping itself around the globe while canceling shows here at home.

Every year, in one way or another, museums test the public's faith in their integrity. When P.S. 1 unveiled "Greater New York" some weeks back, the exhibition turned out to be a shallow affair in thrall to the booming art market. No one really should have expected otherwise from an event timed to coincide with the city's big contemporary-art fair. Meanwhile, P.S. 1's institutional parent, the Museum of Modern Art, the spanking new headquarters of Modernism Inc., inaugurated its exhibition program with an appalling paean to a corporate sponsor's blue-chip collection. This gave the financial services company, UBS, an excuse to plaster the city with advertisements that made MoMA seem like its tool and minor subsidiary. You can only imagine how that went over with another of the Modern's sponsors, J. P. Morgan, UBS's rival.

Now comes the Met with its current Chanel-sponsored Chanel show, a fawning trifle that resembles a fancy showroom. Sparsely outfitted with white cube display boxes and a bare minimum of meaningful text, this absurdly uncritical exhibition puts Coco's designs alongside work by the current monarch of the House of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld.

A few years ago, a Chanel show was put off by the Met's director, Philippe de Montebello, because Mr. Lagerfeld wanted to interfere. It makes no difference whether he had a direct hand in it this time or, as the museum keeps insisting, was kept at arm's length from the curatorial process: the impression is the same, and impressions count when it comes to the reputation of a museum.

Museums deal in two kinds of currency, after all: the quality of their collections and public trust. Squander one, and the other suffers. People visit MoMA or the Met to see great art; they will even consider art that they don't know or don't like as great because the museum says so. But this delicate cultural ecosystem depends on the public's perception that museums make independent judgments - that they're not just shilling for trustees or politicians or sponsors.

Naturally, the public wonders whose pockets are greased by what a museum shows, because there's so much money involved in art. But this question can be subordinated if the museum proves that it's acting in the public's interest, and not someone else's. In turn, museums can call on the public. The New York Public Library is auctioning some American art, including a couple of Gilbert Stuarts and an Asher B. Durand that has been a civic landmark for many decades. Some New York museum ought to end up with the picture but will have to rally public enthusiasm swiftly - it will have to bank on public trust.

Of course, this is the real world. Museums need trustees to cover the bills. They depend on galleries and collectors and sponsors and artists for help. Last year, the Modigliani retrospective at the Jewish Museum had a ridiculous painting that turned out to belong to a trustee who insisted it be included. No exhibition of a living artist avoids some negotiation (read: compromise) with the artist or the artist's dealer. The artist or the dealer may demand that this picture, not that one, be shown; that new work be stressed; that a certain collector's holdings be favored; or that the show's catalog be written in a certain way. It's the cost of doing business.

But there are degrees of compromise. Some years back, the National Gallery in Washington presented a show of the collection put together by a Swiss industrialist, Emil Bührle, with a catalog overseen by his heirs that celebrated his "inner flame" for art but made no mention of the fact that his fortune came partly from dealing arms to the Nazis, or that his son, who owned many of the works, was convicted of illegal arms sales. Only the most scrupulous reader of the fine print would have noticed that a Renoir once belonged to Hermann Göring.

The show was about Bührle, so the public could expect to learn who he was. The Chanel show avoids mentioning her activities during the war, when she maintained a life in Paris as the lover of an SS officer and, according to her biographer, Janet Wallach, tried to exploit Nazi laws to wrest control of her perfume business from her Jewish partners. No doubt, the Bührle show would never have happened if the National Gallery had emphasized how Bührle sold arms to the Nazis, and I suspect Chanel would not have been very happy about sponsoring this show if the Met had been more forthcoming about its founder's wartime history.

Is such information irrelevant to what's on view? It depends.

The public should decide. The Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery in London makes clear that he was a murderer. His violent personality explains something about his later work. It would have been irresponsible for the exhibition not to mention it.

Trust us, museums say: the rules need to bend, and we know how much bending is enough and how much is too much. In a curious way, commercial galleries are in a better position. We see where they're coming from. Frank Lloyd Wright had a saying. At an early age he made a choice between "honest arrogance and hypocritical humility." He picked arrogance. Galleries are honest about wanting to sell you something. Museums often traffic in moral hypocrisy - and are then exploited for their presumptive lofty independence. Chanel couldn't have bought better publicity.

As for the Met, it says something that it would allow itself to play this role, just as it says something about the Modern that its first big exhibition seemed like a corporate payoff.

At least MoMA gets something. The museum will get art from UBS. Mr. Saatchi made millions recently selling Damien Hirst's shark, whose value was enhanced by the notoriety of "Sensation." All Brooklyn got was grief.

2. The Morality of Idiocy (link)
By James ford

Idiot, idiotic and idiocy are common and widely used terms, but is all idiocy the same? It can be defined as ‘Extreme folly or stupidity. A foolish or stupid utterance or deed’, and in psychological terms, ‘the state or condition of being an idiot; profound mental retardation.’ ( Other descriptive terms include absurdity, foolishness, insanity, silliness, or something that just does not have or make sense. And an idiot is a purveyor of these things/states.

My current area of research concerns the morality of idiocy. It is an area of contemporary art and culture that I am intrigued by and is also present in my artistic critical theory and studio practice. Idiocy can be a cipher for the “real” or truth. Perniola states that ‘it cannot be excluded that the artist idiot, insofar as being an interpreter of social stupidity, is the true organic artist of present society’ (Perniola 2004, p.10), and this is the starting point for my investigation. The morality/power of idiocy: is idiocy redeemable? Can it be intelligent/clever? In my opinion it is if it purveys or exposes the truth about something, brings the person or viewer closer to reality, or raises interesting/pertinent issues. Whereas real idiocy lacks all virtue and redeeming features and can only be what it is. Real idiocy can't be mobilised. The mobilisation of idiocy is a key point in this essay and by “mobilised” I mean made useful, achieves an aim, subverts, satirises, etc. Is clever idiocy morally better than real idiocy? I am more concerned with discussing redeemable idiocy, rather than the multitude of pure stupidity that surrounds us. However, I will be comparing varied examples of idiocy (focusing on art and culture), what value they have, and investigating levels and types of idiocy. When discussing types of idiocy Perniola states:

The connection between art and idiocy has already been pointed out by Robert Musil in the 1930s, who distinguished between two types of stupidity. There is first of all a simple stupidity, honest and naïve, that derives from a certain weakness of reason’ (Perniola 2004, p.9-10)

But in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig 1999), the character/ narrator (Phaedrus) talks about “reason” being the death of quality and creativity. So this “weakness of reason” seems to be beneficial in artistic terms. Idiocy (interchangeable with the term stupidity) can be defined as an act/person/thing without reason. Phaedrus talks a lot about reason as being the thing that stunts quality and creativity. And how the ghost of reason has caused the current problems in contemporary life: apathy, emotional distance, loneliness, fear of technology, dualistic mentality; the split between the romantic and classical, esthetic and theoretical. In his book The Critique of Cynical Reason (1988), the German writer Peter Sloterdijk also focused his writings on the loss of the emotional aspect of life. Sloterdijk believes that, due to postmodern cynicism, anyone can act like an idiot and perform unprincipled actions (and get away with it) as long as their underlying critical dialogue or social commentary is seen as redeemable.

Musil’s second type of stupidity is ‘strictly related to an unstable and unsuccessful use of intelligence… the essence of stupidity consists in a certain inadequacy with respect to the functionality of life’ (Perniola 2004, p.10). This second type of stupidity is therefore dumb, worthless and not redeemable. When considering idiotic and stupid behaviour, the first things that come to mind are clowns. They may look funny (and a bit scary sometimes) but they are here to satirise. They always have to portray themselves at a level ‘lower’ than that of the audience, to make the audience members feel more important, clever and socially more adept than the clown. In this way, the clown is seen as a joke and not to be taken seriously, and therefore he can tell the truth and satirise the audience without being attacked.

One of the most well known clowns, and example of the deceptiveness of the clown guise, is Ronald McDonald. His idiocy and comical appearance makes us think that his products must be safe for children and harmless. We were duped! In the documentary film Super Size Me (Spurlock, 2004) Morgan Spurlock goes on a diet of nothing but McDonalds’ for a month, to see what results this fast food diet will do to his body. Towards the end of the film he says his diet “may be idiotic but it proves a point”. This is very interesting and redeemable idiocy. The premise of the film is certainly ridiculous and he was warned by doctors not to do it, but his childish, stubborn idiocy to see it through the full 28 days (even though his liver was turning to pate) proved that McDonalds (and fast food in general) is extremely bad for the human body, which is contrary to what the fast food chains will tell you. The film was entertaining, insightful and poignant – virtuous folly of large proportions.

People with mental illness and disorders can often behave erratically and appear dumb, crazy and idiotic (no surprise then that many viewers considered Spurlock crazy). As we will see later, this guise of mental retardation was adopted by the characters in the film The Idiots (Von Trier, 1998) – destroying/overturning certain “traditional” values to achieve the goals of their community. This subversion of normalised values is another key issue in this essay.

Idiot Culture

How idiotic is the idiocy in contemporary art and culture? In terms of classical (theoretic) and romantic (esthetical) thinking, is the work of artists such as Cattelan, Manzoni, Friedman and Creed purely juvenile with no depth or if when deconstructed classically, is their work only stupid because it is a reflection of what’s around, and thus is a truer depiction of current reality? These artists use jokes and humour in their work and, as Freud discusses in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, jokes reveal something important that we might not want to consider directly. He saw in these jokes the problem of what determines the truth and how truth is affected by who tells it to whom.

Piero Manzoni, for me, was the original prankster. He canned his own shit, and sold it for its weight in gold, displayed his breath in a balloon, and wrote his signature on parts of people’s bodies, claiming them as living art works (fig.01, p.6). His work and idiocy has virtue in the way he was criticising art and himself by showing that anything is art if the artist says so, and all it needs is the artist’s signature to validate it, thus stimulating debate on authorship and the purpose and value of art.

The latter day Manzoni, Maurizio Cattelan, identifies the vulnerable points of a system in order to highlight them - not in a provocative and obvious way, but though imitating them or availing of their own intrinsic methods. He specialises not in Dadaist aggression but in slight shifts of reality that are a bit pathetic, a bit embarrassing, a bit silly. For instance, in 1994 Cattelan had a party costume, in the form of a huge pink cock, tailored for a French gallery owner who had to wear it during the whole exhibition (fig.02, p.6). Errotin Le Vrai Lapin (Cattelan, 1994) was striking precisely because it was so ludicrous: aggressive anti-art gestures and extreme acts have long since been accommodated into commercial art dealing, but to have a dealer make a fool of himself goes some way beyond the call of duty. In a similar way, in another show, he made a site specific work where the gallery owners/invigilators had to ride a tandem bike to power the gallery lights because he wasn’t happy with his basement exhibition space, where there was no natural light. Another contemporary artist who subverts gallery traditions is Martin Creed. With his minimal use of blue tack, scrunched paper (fig.03, p.6) and lights going on & off, Creed’s work is seen as stupid with no redeeming features, by the majority of public gallery goers.

On the subject of being devoid of redeemable content, take for example the band Goldie Lookin Chain CD track.01. No-one really knows if they are actually idiots or very good at acting like idiots. Goldie Lookin Chain (GLC) are a group of neo 80s throw-back rappers, in the style of the Beastie Boys, but GLC are “chavs” (a Chav is a council estate bred, fake logo wearing, tax dodging lay-about). Their songs are about small town Wales, Chav culture, drugs, and general laddish behaviour. Again, products of their environment, but you are never sure if they are acting like chavs or if they actually ARE chavs, thus real idiocy, not subversive or redeemable apart from cheap laughs. In one song in particular, ‘Self Suicide’ (Goldie Lookin Chain, 2004), they seem to be purely taking the piss out of dead people and musicians that have supposedly committed suicide as a way to make more money. One line says ‘I’m not gonna fall off the roof like the flid Rod Hull’. Very black humour. I can see their point that a lot of dead musicians still manage to put out records after they’re dead (the record label’s doing) and how suicide gets you notoriety and media coverage, but at the same time, the actual person who is dead or who committed suicide isn’t benefiting financially themselves, as he is dead. So the “moral” of their song is actually an idiotic oxymoron, and not really redeemable. Do GLC have any virtue, if they behave like idiots but you are not sure if they're acting? Is that the worst kind of idiocy because you gain nothing from their music and you know that they could actually be intelligent, but choose to be idiotic? That’s like wiping your arse with your hand when there is perfectly good, soft toilet paper nearby to do the job.

The Streets CD track.02 and Eminem CD track.03 are seen as crude and juvenile, but they are products of their environment and their music reflects aspects of present day society/culture. So critics of their music should take a look around. The best art has always mirrored what’s around. The music of Mike Skinner (The Streets) relates to the everyday person on the street, but particularly the average British bloke. Skinner talks about things we can connect with and situations most of us have been in ourselves, which draws us into his lyrics and songs. He’s also a very good story teller; a contemporary poet writing quite obvious songs, but they are a critique on modern youth culture (thus telling the truth about an area of society), simple beautifully told stories that everyone can have some connection with.

The Darkness are idiotic as well, but in a more slap-stick satirical way. Their actual lyrics are great and quite dark sometimes, but because of the camp look and “stadium rock” music, the real content of the songs is masked, so they can be subversive. For example, ‘Givin’ Up’ CD track.04 (The Darkness, 2003) is an up-beat tempo, cheery, Status Quo type song, whose lyrics are actually about the dangers of heroin, what it makes you do, and how hard it is to give up. But unless you listen really hard you’ll miss the point. Stupidity can be an affective guise for subversion.

‘My mamma wants to know

Where I'm spending all my dough

Honey, all she does is nag, nag, nag

But I won't apologise

I'd inject into my eyes

If there was nowhere else to stick my skag

All I want is brown

And I'm going into town

Shooting up as soon as I'm back

My friends have got some good shit

All I want is some of it

Gimme, gimme, gimme that smack

Well I've ruined nearly all of my veins

Sticking that fucking shit into my arms’

(The Darkness, 2003)

Subversive Stupidity

When used as a tactic, idiocy is a great camouflage. The animated TV series South Park exposes the hypocrisy and idiocy of Middle America through the guise of a cartoon. Also from the makers of South Park is the puppet feature film Team America: World Police (Parker, 2004). It is seen as dumb and crass but some points in the film are very satirical and poignant. Feel free to substitute the terms George Bush, Tony Blair and Terrorists into this quote, as you see fit:

‘Well the truth is that Team America fights for the billion-dollar corporations. They are just as bad as the enemies they... fight.

Oh no we aren't! We're dicks! We're reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks! And the Film Actors' Guild! are pussies. And Kim Jong Il!.. is an asshole. Pussies don't like dicks!.. because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes. Assholes who just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way, but the only thing that can fuck an asshole... is a dick... with some balls. The problem with dicks is that sometimes they fuck too much, or fuck when it isn't appropriate,... and it takes a pussy to show 'em that. But sometimes pussies get so full of shit that they become assholes themselves. Because pussies are only an inch and a half away from assholes. I don't know much in this... crazy, crazy world, but I do know that if you don't let us fuck this asshole, we are gonna have our dicks and our pussies!... all covered in shit.’

In the film Constantine (Lawrence (II), 2005), Satan is portrayed as a little bit camp, and in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Parker, 1999), he is full-on queer (see fig.05, p.9). Thus the devil is portrayed as homosexual in an idiotic, juvenile way that belittles Christians’ beliefs of him as a fierce, dangerous enemy. But this comedic campness disguises the fact that they are satirising the idiotic beliefs of Christians that think that gays are evil and in league with the devil. The idiocy and ridiculousness of the notion of Satan being a complete Queen softens the truth that is actually being told; that it is stupid to think of homosexuality as evil and sinful and that the Christian faith should redress their bigoted ideals.

Idiocy by one person or group can expose the truth, idiocy and stupidity in others. By appearing as a harmless idiot, Ali G and Borat (Ali G in da USAiii, Channel 4, 2003) lure their targets into a false sense of security and thus can expose their idiocy. Sacha Baron Cohen is brilliant, in his character guises as Borat and Ali G, for showing people in their true colours. Borat Sagdiyev is ‘Kazakhstan's sixth most famous man, a top journalist for the state TV network in the USA to offer his own unique take on the American dream’


In episode three of the second series of Ali G in da USAiii (2003), Borat ventures to a hick country western bar and gets on stage to sing a song about the hatred of Jews in his home country of Kazakhstan (fig.06, p.12). Ironically, Baron Cohen is Jewish himself. The stupid Americans sung along with it - mob mentality - and mindlessly joined in without realising what they were singing:

‘In my country there is problem

And that problem is the Jew

They take everybody money

And they never give it back

Throw the Jew down the well

So my country can be free

You must grab him by his horns

Then we have a big party’ CD track.05

This notion of the acts/idiocy of someone else exposing the idiocy/stupidity in others leads me to talk about Brass Eye (2001): a satirical news parody series, created by Chris Morris, most famous for the controversy over the paedophile episode (fig.07, p.12).

‘Gerald Howarth, Tory MP for Aldershot, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme … "Paedophilia is a very, very serious issue. To make light of it is simply sick.”

But Matthew Baker, of Channel 4, rejected the criticism, saying: "We believe that fundamentally they are missing the point of the programme. It satirised the way the media covers the issue which we believe is encouraging a dangerous atmosphere." An angry Mr Howarth dismissed this defence as "garbage".’


This episode of Brass Eye clearly hit a nerve, but did it go too far with its idiocy? Its intention was good but was its message lost in the stupidity and crude-ness of the show? It was hilarious in its outrageous portrayal of paedophiles and the paranoia of the public and media on protecting the children. It was actually satirising the paedophile hysteria caused by tabloids, and it worked brilliantly because the tabloids then caused hysteria about that Brass Eye episode, highlighting the tabloids own idiocy! In relation to Brass Eye, the book Stupidity (Ronell 2003) explores the urgency of stupidity, its hiding places as well as its everyday public appearances. It maps areas of thought in which stupidity has been traditionally concealed or repressed and tunes into stupidity in the realms of literature, philosophy and politics:

‘Neither a moral default nor a pathology, stupidity has no duty to truth yet nonetheless bears ethical consequences. At the same time there is something about stupidity - what Musil and Deleuze locate as "transcendental stupidity"- that is untrackable; it evades our cognitive scanners and turns up as the uncanny double of mastery or intelligence.’ (

Idiocy is the best disguise for subversion because idiots are presumed to be stupid and harmless. We’ve all done the old chestnut, at some point, of acting all naïve and innocent (stupidly vacant) if we’ve done something wrong and we want to mislead/deceive the person we’ve done it to. A great example is the villain in The Usual Suspects (Singer, 1995). Sorry to ruin the film but the evil villain is actually the idiot. He is the one character least suspected (by the other characters) of being a big crime lord because he’s seen as weak, harmless and has a limp, but it’s all a deceptive act.

Superman is German

The super hero’s alter ego is always wimpy and a bit simple/idiotic, so no-one will suspect that their secret identity is that of a superhero. Superman, Spiderman and He-Man are examples of heroes with idiot/simpleton, bumbling fool, dork alter egos. There is a great monologue by the character Bill in Kill Bill Volume 2 (Tarantino, 2004) about Clark Kent. The essence of Bill's speech is that - unique to Superman - Clark Kent is the alias, unlike, say, Spider-Man, who's really Peter Parker, or Batman, who's really Bruce Wayne. Kent represents Superman's view of human beings, i.e., that we're all ‘weak, unsure, cowardly.’ Comics and super heroes are seen as childish and the people in the comics/films who can’t figure out that Clark Kent is Superman, when all he does is take his glasses off and slick his hair back, are definitely stupid. The German word Übermensch was incorrectly translated to the English language as “superman” and was what inspired the creation of that comic book character in the first place.

Übermensch was a theory/state of mind written about by Friedrich Nietzsche. The Übermensch lives according to the principles of his “Will to Power” which ends in complete independence. He is already fully aware of his freedoms and knows how to use them. The literal translation is “Overman”, as in a man in control OVER his own world, someone who doesn’t follow social dogma and tradition just because it’s there. We learn from parents and teachers about how to behave and life rules to follow, but an Übermensch makes their own rules and define their own lives.

Referring to Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, ‘For him Quality …. can never really be accepted here [in normal everyday life] because to see it one has to be free from social authority’ (Pirsig 1999, p.392). So he is basically confirming the message of the Übermensch, in that to be able to see quality and the truth (and therefore be more “real” and closer to reality) you have to be free from socio-political slave mentality. The Idiots is Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's 1998 exploration of normality as a social system and the constraints it places on individuals to behave in prescribed ways, even under abnormal circumstances. The film chronicles the escapades of a small group of young middle-class men and women who have formed an organization to upset what they perceive to be bourgeois principles and participants, that is, well-to-do and unscrupulous people. The group attempts to accomplish its goals by acting as if they are mentally challenged, so as to annoy the gentlefolk with their "spazzing" (spastic behaviour), and interacting with each other within the confines of their private commune. Were they spazzing out as a way to truly lose all their inhibitions and to feel more real? And to be free of social tradition/etiquette? The act of stupidity as being a way to freedom. Here they create their own subculture with behaviours very different from those enforced by conventional society, which, of course, allows for extensive comical nudity and poor table manners.

The fools in Jackass (MTV, 2003) and Dirty Sanchez (MTV, 2003) also get naked and behave badly (and hurt each other a lot). I believe that this is what the people in these shows are actually like in real life; therefore the idiocy is irredeemable real stupidity. Jackass has some planning and production values and is sometimes quite clever with its ideas, whereas Dirty Sanchez is always mindless self-harming. Is Dirty Sanchez devoid of sentiment? Worthless apart from in mindless entertainment value?

The French philosopher Clement Rosset introduced the notion of idiocy to point to the accidental and determined character of the real. The term idiocy can mean stupid and without reason, but also ‘simple, particular, unique (from ancient Greek idiôtés). The real, therefore, is idiotic precisely because it only exists for itself and is incapable of appearing in any other way than what it is.’ (Perniola 2004, p.4)

Examples of this “honest stupidity” and portrayal of the idiotic real are the reality TV show The Simple Life (FOX, 2004) starring Paris Hilton & Nicole Ritchie, and the Japanese endurance game show Takeshi’s Castle (Challenge TV, 2004). They are what they are: idiotic, mindless entertainment. Ali G, Borat, and Brass Eye have another agenda and self knowledge about what they're doing whereas Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie and the Japanese contestants are exposing themselves as being actual idiots. This kind of real stupidity isn’t interesting because it has no value. But it is funny and quite entertaining, which makes these programmes engaging in a strange voyeuristic way. Which is better: intellectually interesting or entertaining idiocy? Takeshi’s Castle has the entertainment value, which gives it some redemption, but it’s also interesting to think about what would drive the Japanese contestants to want to take part. Perhaps they do it for the act of public humiliation and foolishness (relating to the “spazzers” in The Idiots) that then releases them from the restraints of polite Japanese society? Probably not.

Foolish Child

Innocence, naivety and vacancy allow you to speak the truth without adverse reaction. Foolishness might be the best way to subvert and tell the truth, without overtly shouting it. The Court Jester is important in King Lear (Shakespeare 1994) because he tells the king the truth. The fool demonstrates to Lear the truths about people around him, and tries to point out what treachery and deceit they wish upon him. The fool also helps Lear by pointing out certain truths about people, as well as flaws in his very own actions.

Idiocy can be a guise for subversion or a way of telling the harsh truth without getting the backlash reaction, because people aren't really listening properly to an "idiot". For example, children and “simple” adults are seen as harmless, innocent, and sometimes idiotic and stupid. Children are honest because they haven’t yet fully learnt manners, subtlety and they haven’t any reason not to speak the truth. Also, they haven’t cottoned on to the “unwritten rules” of social etiquette, something that the Übermensch strives against. But the young can be very perceptive. In The Emperor's New Clothes (Andersen 2000) it was a child who pointed out that the Emperor was actually naked, when all his advisors said he was wearing fabulous new clothes:

’The emperor walked in the procession under his crimson canopy. And all the people of the town, who had lined the streets or were looking down from the windows, said that the emperor's new clothes were beautiful. "What a magnificent robe! And the train! How well the emperor's clothes suit him!"

None of them were willing to admit that they hadn't seen a thing; for if anyone did, then he was either stupid or unfit for the job he held. Never before had the emperor's clothes been such a success.

"But he doesn't have anything on!" cried a little child.

"Listen to the innocent one," said the proud father. And the people whispered among each other and repeated what the child had said.’

(Anderson 2000, p.28)

As we have seen, cartoons can be overtly satirical and cutting, but they can also slip messages past the most observant of us. Early cartoons/shows like Captain Pugwash (BBC, 1957), The Magic Roundabout (Channel 4, 1965) and The Moomins (BBC1, 1983) contained subliminal messages and double entendres which, at first, were over looked by adults because the shows were seen to be harmless, innocent and “for kids”. Therefore it could be very subversive without being noticed. Whereas Captain Pugwash contained juvenile double entendre and The Magic Roundabout conveyed messages about drugs, The Moomins (fig.08, p.18) had a worthwhile subtext, which I only realised after reading the books as an adult. Tales from Moomin Valley (Jansson 1973) is a series of bizarre, short fictional stories about the Moomins and friends, but actually telling the truth and pitfalls of society. Examples of the underlying messages include problems of modern day society - anxiety, depression, obsessiveness, commodity fetish (i.e. your possessions end up owning you, featured in ‘The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters’ p.38), and identity crisis (which Moomin Pappa had in ‘The Secret of the Hattifatteners’ p.120). Tove Janssen was a brilliant author and illustrator. I remember watching The Moomins on TV and reading the books when I young, but the subtext is lost on children, because as a child you perceive it in a completely different way. Which makes me think that Jansson might have included it for the pleasure and consideration of parents reading to their children?

Clowning Crisis

Apart from the crude shock works of the Chapman Brothers, when it comes to manifestation of fun juvenility as art, Tom Friedman sticks out like a clown’s big foot. Friedman makes work that appears quite whimsical and childish, but relentlessly invents intricate objects out of a range of household materials, such as Styrofoam, masking tape, pencils, toilet paper, spaghetti, toothpicks and bubble gum. If you took a big, black trash bag and stuffed it with a bunch of the same bags, how many would fit? If you sharpen a brand-new pencil with a small, single-blade sharpener, continuing carefully all the way down to nothing, what does the resulting spiral shaving look like? These are just a couple of the ways Friedman twists the mundane into the unexpected, curious, and funny (fig.09 and fig.10, p.18).

I find it difficult to work out if this work has any virtue, apart from making us see the obvious, which is similar to what the fool was doing in King Lear, but the things that Friedman shows us are inconsequential and not worth much intellectual value. In fact, some critics talk about a “crisis” in contemporary art, in relation to juvenile and idiotic art work. Michael Archer, however, thinks differently. In his article Crisis, what crisis? Archer says:

‘Could a case not be made for examining the ‘celebration of disorganisation, weak analysis and plain adolescent naughtiness,’ rather than condemning it as inferior to revolutionary politics? … If things strike one as juvenile, if they look like clowning, buffoonery or naughtiness, that, surely, is all the more reason to consider how those appearances figure as meaning. If a work looks to be thoroughly conversant with, and implicated in the operations of the dominant forces in society, that is usually the time at which it pays to be most vigilant and to be wary of dismissing it.

The art world, though, doesn’t make it easy for us. Sometimes juvenilia and buffoonery is just that. And sometimes it’s more pernicious than that.’
(Archer 2003, p.5)

I.e. he is saying that some art exudes irredeemable idiocy.

‘Another way is to talk of what is at stake in art today and to try and see a way out of the current crisis. There is no crisis. What is there is what needs to be looked at. It can’t be pushed away pending the appearance of something more wholesome and palatable. If it fails to meet expectations, there’s an even chance that it’s the expectations that are misplaced. Art writing is not worth much. It’s over and gone as soon as it is finished.’ (Archer 2003, p.6)

Try substituting the noun “it” in this quote for “this essay”. My entire essay could be dismissed by readers as pointless and not relevant to current socio-political concerns, and because the essay’s topic is idiotic, by proxy, the whole essay is idiotic, juvenile and stupid. But then maybe that makes it worth reading…

Art (in its varied forms of visual arts, literature, music, film, etc) reflects life and society that surrounds us. Idiotic art and behaviour can have hidden/masked value so, in regards to interpreting idiocy and stupidity, don’t judge a book by its cover. Read it.

Ha Ha.

I’m a funny clown.




Andersen, Hans Christian 2000: The Emperor's New Clothes, London, Walker Books

Archer, Michael 2003: ‘Crisis, what crisis?’, in Art Monthly, No. 264, p.1-6

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor 1996: The Idiot, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Editions Ltd

Freud, Sigmund 2004: Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, London, Penguin Books Ltd

Godfrey, Tony 1998: Conceptual Art, London, Phaidon Press Limited

Jansson, Tove 1973: Tales from Moomin Valley, Middlesex, Puffin Books

Macrone, Michael 2002: A little Knowledge, London, Ebury Press

Perniola, Mario 2004: Art and It’s Shadow, London, Continuum

Pirsig, Robert 1999: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, London, Vintage

Ronell, Avital 2003: Stupidity, Illinois, University of Illinois Press

Shakespeare, William 1994: King Lear, London, Penguin Books Ltd

Sloterdijk, Peter 1988: Critique of Cynical Reason, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press


Cattelan, Maurizio 1994: Errotin Le Vrai Lapin

Cattelan, Maurizio 1999: La Nona Ora

Creed, Martin 1995: work no. 88, 'a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball’

Friedman, Tom 1994: Untitled (self-portrait carved out of a single aspirin)

Friedman, Tom 1999: Untitled (soap and pubic hair)

Manzoni, Piero 1960: Artist’s Breath

Manzoni, Piero 1961: Artist’s Shit


Eminem 2000: ‘Kill You’ on The Marshall Mathers LP, Interscope

Goldie Lookin Chain 2004: ‘Self Suicide’ on Greatest Hits, Atlantic

The Darkness 2003: ‘Givin’ Up’ on Permission to Land, Must Destroy

The Streets 2004: ‘Could Well Be In’ on A Grand Don’t Come For Free, Vice / 679 recordings


Ali G in da USAiii (Series 2), Episode 3: ‘Borat’s Guide to Country Music’, 2003, TV, Channel 4, United Kingdom

Brass Eye, 2001, TV, Channel 4, United Kingdom

Captain Pugwash, 1957, TV, BBC, United Kingdom

Dirty Sanchez, 2003, TV, MTV, United Kingdom

Jackass, 2003, TV, MTV, United States

South Park, Episode 79: ‘The Butters Show’, 2002, TV, Comedy Central, United States

Takeshi’s Castle, 2004, TV, Challenge TV, Japan

The Magic Roundabout, 1965, TV, Channel 4, United Kingdom

The Moomins, 1983, TV, BBC1, United Kingdom

The Simple Life, 2004, TV, FOX, United States


Lawrence (II), Francis 2005: Constantine, Warner Bros.

Parker, Trey 2004: Team America: World Police, Paramount Studio

Parker, Trey 1999: South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, Paramount Studio

Singer, Bryan 1995: The Usual Suspects, MGM

Spurlock, Morgan 2004: Super Size Me, The Con

Tarantino, Quentin 2004: Kill Bill, Volume 2, Miramax

Von Trier, Lars 1998: The Idiots, Zentropa Entertainment

WEB PAGES, accessed: 15/03/05, accessed: 22/03/05, accessed: 26/03/05, accessed: 02/04/05

3. The Case Against Art (link 1, link 2)
From and The Anthropik Cyclopaedia

"The Case Against Art" is an article by John Zerzan criticizing art and symbolic thought as inherently oppressive.

Art is always about "something hidden." But does it help us connect with that hidden something? I think it moves us away from it.

During the first million or so years as reflective beings, humans seem to have created no art. As Jameson put it, art had no place in that "unfallen social reality" because there was no need for it. Though tools were fashioned with an astonishing economy of effort and perfection of form, the old cliche about the aesthetic impulse as one of the irreducible components of the human mind is invalid.

The oldest enduring works of art are hand-prints, produced by pressure or blown pigment - a dramatic token of direct impress on nature. Later in the Upper Paleolithic era, about 30,000 years ago, commenced the rather sudden appearance of the cave art associated with names like Altamira and Lascaux. These images of animals possess an often breathtaking vibrancy and naturalism, though concurrent sculpture, such as the widely-found "venus" statuettes of women, was quite stylized. Perhaps this indicates that domestication of people was to precede domestication of nature. Significantly, the "sympathetic magic" or hunting theory of earliest art is now waning in the light of evidence that nature was bountiful rather than threatening.

The veritable explosion of art at this time bespeaks an anxiety not felt before: in Worringer's words, "creation in order to subdue the torment of perception." Here is the appearance of the symbolic, as a moment of discontent. It was a social anxiety; people felt something precious slipping away. The rapid development of the earliest ritual or ceremony parallels the birth of art, and we are reminded of the earliest ritual re-enactments of the moment of "the beginning," the primordial paradise of the timeless present. Pictorial representation roused the belief in controlling loss, the belief in coercion itself.

And we see the earliest evidence of symbolic division, as with the half-human, half-beast stone faces at El Juyo. The world is divided into opposing forces, by which binary distinction the contrast of culture and nature begins and a productionist, hierarchical society is perhaps already prefigured.

The perceptual order itself, as a unity, starts to break down in reflection of an increasingly complex social order. A hierarchy of senses, with the visual steadily more separate from the others and seeking its completion in artificial images such as cave paintings, moves to replace the full simultaneity of sensual gratification. Levi-Strauss discovered, to his amazement, a tribal people that had been able to see Venus in daytime; but not only were our faculties once so very acute, they were also not ordered and separate. Part of training sight to appreciate the objects of culture was the accompanying repression of immediacy in an intellectual sense: reality was removed in favor of merely aesthetic experience. Art anesthetizes the sense organs and removes the natural world from their purview. This reproduces culture, which can never compensate for the disability.

Not surprisingly, the first signs of a departure from those egalitarian principles that characterized hunter-gatherer life show up now. The shamanistic origin of visual art and music has been often remarked, the point here being that the artist-shaman was the first specialist. It seems likely that the ideas of surplus and commodity appeared with the shaman, whose orchestration of symbolic activity portended further alienation and stratification.

Art, like language, is a system of symbolic exchange that introduces exchange itself. It is also a necessary device for holding together a community based on the first symptoms of unequal life. Tolstoy's statement that "art is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feeling," elucidates art's contribution to social cohesion at the dawn of culture. Socializing ritual required art; art works originated in the service of ritual; the ritual production of art and the artistic production of ritual are the same. "Music," wrote Seu-ma-tsen, "is what unifies."

As the need for solidarity accelerated, so did the need for ceremony; art also played a role in its mnemonic function. Art, with myth closely following, served as the semblance of real memory. In the recesses of the caves, earliest indoctrination proceeded via the paintings and other symbols, intended to inscribe rules in depersonalized, collective memory. Nietzsche saw the training of memory, especially the memory of obligations, as the beginning of civilized morality. Once the symbolic process of art developed it dominated memory as well as perception, putting its stamp on all mental functions. Cultural memory meant that one person's action could be compared with that of another, including portrayed ancestors, and future behavior anticipated and controlled. Memories became externalized, akin to property but not even the property of the subject.

Art turns the subject into object, into symbol. The shaman's role was to objectify reality; this happened to outer nature and to subjectivity alike because alienated life demanded it. Art provided the medium of conceptual transformation by which the individual was separated from nature and dominated, at the deepest level, socially. Art's ability to symbolize and direct human emotion accomplished both ends. What we were led to accept as necessity, in order to keep ourselves oriented in nature and society, was at base the invention of the symbolic world, the Fall of Man.

The world must be mediated by art (and human communication by language, and being by time) due to division of labor, as seen in the nature of ritual. The real object, its particularity, does not appear in ritual; instead, an abstract one is used, so that the terms of ceremonial expression are open to substitution. The conventions needed in division of labor, with its standardization and loss of the unique, are those of ritual, of symbolization. The process is at base identical, based on equivalence. Production of goods, as the hunter-gatherer mode is gradually liquidated in favor of agriculture (historical production) and religion (full symbolic production), is also ritual production.

The agent, again, is the shaman-artist, enroute to priesthood, leader by reason of mastering his own immediate desires via the symbol. All that is spontaneous, organic and instinctive is to be neutered by art and myth.

Recently the painter Eric Fischl presented at the Whitney Museum a couple in the act of sexual intercourse. A video camera recorded their actions and projected them on a TV monitor before the two. The man's eyes were riveted to the image on the screen, which was clearly more exciting than the act itself. The evocative cave pictures, volatile in the dramatic, lamp-lit depths, began the transfer exemplified in Fischl's tableau, in which even the most primal acts can become secondary to their representation. Conditioned self-distancing from real existence has been a goal of art from the beginning. Similarly, the category of audience, of supervised consumption, is nothing new, as art has striven to make life itself an object of contemplation.

As the Paleolithic Age gave way to the Neolithic arrival of agriculture and civilization - production, private property, written language, government and religion - culture could be seen more fully as spiritual decline via division of labor, though global specialization and a mechanistic technology did not prevail until the late Iron Age.

The vivid representation of late hunter-gatherer art was replaced by a formalistic, geometric style, reducing pictures of animals and humans to symbolic shapes. This narrow stylization reveals the artist shutting himself off from the wealth of empirical reality and creating the symbolic universe. The aridity of linear precision is one of the hallmarks of this turning point, calling to mind the Yoruba, who associate line with civilization: "This country has become civilized," literally means, in Yoruba, "this earth has lines upon its face." The inflexible forms of truly alienated society are everywhere apparent; Gordon Childe, for example, referring to this spirit, points out that the pots of a Neolithic village are all alike. Relatedly, warfare in the form of combat scenes makes its first appearance in art.

The work of art was in no sense autonomous at this time; it served society in a direct sense, an instrument of the needs of the new collectivity. There had been no worship-cults during the Paleolithic, but now religion held sway, and it is worth remembering that for thousands of years art's function will be to depict the gods. Meanwhile, what Gluck stressed about African tribal architecture was true in all other cultures as well: sacred buildings came to life on the model of those of the secular ruler. And though not even the first signed works show up before the late Greek period, it is not inappropriate to turn here to art's realization, some of its general features.

Art not only creates the symbols of and for a society, it is a basic part of the symbolic matrix of estranged social life. Oscar Wilde said that art does not imitate life, but vice versa; which is to say that life follows symbolism, not forgetting that it is (deformed) life that produces symbolism. Every art form, according to T.S. Eliot, is "an attack upon the inarticulate." Upon the unsymbolized, he should have said.

Both painter and poet have always wanted to reach the silence behind and within art and language, leaving the question of whether the individual, in adopting these modes of expression, didn't settle for far too little. Though Bergson tried to approach the goal of thought without symbols, such a breakthrough seems impossible outside our active undoing of all the layers of alienation. In the extremity of revolutionary situations, immediate communication has bloomed, if briefly.

The primary function of art is to objectify feeling, by which one's own motivations and identity are transformed into symbol and metaphor. All art, as symbolization, is rooted in the creation of substitutes, surrogates for something else; by its very nature therefore, it is falsification. Under the guise of "enriching the quality of human experience," we accept vicarious, symbolic descriptions of how we should feel, trained to need such public images of sentiment that ritual art and myth provide for our psychic security.

Life in civilization is lived almost wholly in a medium of symbols. Not only scientific or technological activity but aesthetic form are canons of symbolization, often expressed quite unspiritually. It is widely averred, for example, that a limited number of mathematical figures account for the efficacy of art. There is Cezanne's famous dictum to "treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere and the cone," and Kandinsky's judgment that "the impact of the acute angle of a triangle on a circle produces an effect no less powerful than the finger of God touching the finger of Adam in Michelangelo." The sense of a symbol, as Charles Pierce concluded, is its translation into another symbol, this an endless reproduction, with the real always displaced.

Though art is not fundamentally concerned with beauty, its inability to rival nature sensuously has evoked many unfavorable comparisons. "Moonlight is sculpture," wrote Hawthorne; Shelley praised the "unpremeditated art" of the skylark; Verlaine pronounced the sea more beautiful than all the cathedrals. And so on, with sunsets, snowflakes, flowers, etc., beyond the symbolic products of art. Jean Arp, in fact, termed "the most perfect picture" nothing more than "warty, threadbare approximation, a dry porridge."

Why then would one respond positively to art? As compensation and palliative, because our relationship to nature and life is so deficient and disallows an authentic one. As Motherlant put it, "One gives to one's art what one has not been capable of giving to one's own existence." It is true for artist and audience alike; art, like religion, arises from unsatisfied desire.

Art should be considered a religious activity and category also in the sense of Nietzsche's aphorism, "We have Art in order not to perish of Truth." Its consolation explains the widespread preference for metaphor over a direct relationship to the genuine article. If pleasure were somehow released from every restraint, the result would be the antithesis of art. In dominated life freedom does not exist outside art, however, and so even a tiny, deformed fraction of the riches of being is welcomed. "I create in order not to cry," revealed Klee.

This separate realm of contrived life is both important and in complicity with the actual nightmare that prevails. In its institutionalized separation it corresponds to religion and ideology in general, where its elements are not, and cannot be, actualized; the work of art is a selection of possibilities unrealized except in symbolic terms. Arising from the sense of loss referred to above, it conforms to religion not only by reason of its confinement to an ideal sphere and its absence of any dissenting consequences, but it can hence be no more than thoroughly neutralized critique at best.

Frequently compared to play, art and culture - like religion - have more often worked as generators of guilt and oppression. Perhaps the ludic function of art, as well as its common claim to transcendence, should be estimated as one might reassess the meaning of Versailles: by contemplating the misery of the workers who perished draining its marshes.

Clive Bell pointed to the intention of art to transport us from the plane of daily struggle "to a world of aesthetic exaltation," paralleling the aim of religion. Malraux offered another tribute to the conservative office of art when he wrote that without art works civilization would crumble "within fifty years" ... becoming "enslaved to instincts and to elementary dreams."

Hegel determined that art and religion also have "this in common, namely, having entirely universal matters as content." This feature of generality, of meaning without concrete reference, serves to introduce the notion that ambiguity is a distinctive sign of art.

Usually depicted positively, as a revelation of truth free of the contingencies of time and place, the impossibility of such a formulation only illuminates another moment of falseness about art. Kierkegaard found the defining trait of the aesthetic outlook to be its hospitable reconciliation of all points of view and its evasion of choice. This can be seen in the perpetual compromise that at once valorizes art only to repudiate its intent and contents with "well, after all, it is only art."

Today culture is commodity and art perhaps the star commodity. The situation is understood inadequately as the product of a centralized culture industry, a la Horkheimer and Adorno. We witness, rather, a mass diffusion of culture dependent on participation for its strength, not forgetting that the critique must be of culture itself, not of its alleged control.

Daily life has become aestheticized by a saturation of images and music, largely through the electronic media, the representation of representation. Image and sound, in their ever-presence, have become a void, ever more absent of meaning for the individual. Meanwhile, the distance between artist and spectator has diminished, a narrowing that only highlights the absolute distance between aesthetic experience and what is real. This perfectly duplicates the spectacle at large: separate and manipulating, perpetual aesthetic experience and a demonstration of political power.

Reacting against the increasing mechanization of life, avant-garde movements have not, however, resisted the spectacular nature of art any more than orthodox tendencies have. In fact, one could argue that Aestheticism, or "art for art's sake," is more radical than an attempt to engage alienation with its own devices. The late 19th century art pour l'art development was a self-reflective rejection of the world, as opposed to the avant-garde effort to somehow organize life around art. A valid moment of doubt lies behind Aestheticism, the realization that division of labour has diminished experience and turned art into just another specialisation: art shed its illusory ambitions and became its own content.

The avant-garde has generally staked out wider claims, projecting a leading role denied it by modern capitalism. It is best understood as a social institution peculiar to technological society that so strongly prizes novelty; it is predicated on the progressivist notion that reality must be constantly updated.

But avant-garde culture cannot compete with the modern world's capacity to shock and transgress (and not just symbolically). Its demise is another datum that the myth of progress is itself bankrupt.

Dada was one of the last two major avant-garde movements, its negative image greatly enhanced by the sense of general historical collapse radiated by World War I. Its partisans claimed, at times, to be against all "isms," including the idea of art. But painting cannot negate painting, nor can sculpture invalidate sculpture, keeping in mind that all symbolic culture is the co-opting of perception, expression and communication. [Nor can writing negate writing, nor can typing radical essays onto diskettes to assist in their publication ever be liberating - even if the typer breaks the rules and puts in an uninvited comment.] In fact, Dada was a quest for new artistic modes, its attack on the rigidities and irrelevancies of bourgeois art a factor in the advance of art; Hans Richter's memoirs referred to "the regeneration of visual art that Dada had begun." If World War I almost killed art, the Dadaists reformed it.

Surrealism is the last school to assert the political mission of art. Before trailing off into Trotskyism and/or art-world fame, the Surrealists upheld chance and the primitive as ways to unlock "the Marvellous" which society imprisons in the unconscious. The false judgment that would have re-introduced art into everyday life and thereby transfigured it certainly misunderstood the relationship of art to repressive society. The real barrier is not between art and social reality, which are one, but between desire and the existing world. The Surrealists' aim of inventing a new symbolism and mythology upheld these categories and mistrusted unmediated sensuality. Concerning the latter, Breton held that "enjoyment is a science; the exercise of the senses demands a personal initiation and therefore you need art."

Modernist abstraction resumed the trend begun by Aestheticism, in that it expressed the conviction that only by a drastic restriction of its field of vision could art survive. With the least strain of embellishment possible in a formal language, art became increasingly self-referential in its search for a "purity" that was hostile to narrative. Guaranteed not to represent anything, modern painting is consciously nothing more than a flat surface with paint on it.

But the strategy of trying to empty art of symbolic value, the insistence on the work of art as an object in its own right in a world of objects, proved a virtually self-annihilating method. This "radical physicality," based on aversion to authority though it was, never amounted to more, in its objectiveness, than simple commodity status. The sterile grids of Mondrian and the repeated all-black squares of Reinhardt echo this acquiescence no less than hideous 20th century architecture in general. Modernist self-liquidation was parodied by Rauschenberg's 1953 Erased Drawing, exhibited after his month-long erasure of a de Kooning drawing. The very concept of art, Duchamp's showing of a urinal in a 1917 exhibition notwithstanding, became an open question in the '50s and has grown steadily more undefinable since.

Pop Art demonstrated that the boundaries between art and mass media (e.g. ads and comics) are dissolving. Its perfunctory and mass-produced look is that of the whole society and the detached, blank quality of a Warhol and his products sum it up. Banal, morally weightless, depersonalized images, cynically manipulated by a fashion-conscious marketing stratagem: the nothingness of modern art and its world revealed.

The proliferation of art styles and approaches in the '60s - Conceptual, Minimalist, Performance, etc. - and the accelerated obsolescence of most art brought the "postmodern" era, a displacement of the formal "purism" of modernism by an eclectic mix from past stylistic achievements. This is basically a tired, spiritless recycling of used-up fragments, announcing that the development of art is at an end. Against the global devaluing of the symbolic, moreover, it is incapable of generating new symbols and scarcely even makes an effort to do so.

Occasionally critics, like Thomas Lawson, bemoan art's current inability "to stimulate the growth of a really troubling doubt," little noticing that a quite noticeable movement of doubt threatens to throw over art itself. Such "critics" cannot grasp that art must remain alienation and as such must be superseded, that art is disappearing because the immemorial separation between nature and art is a death sentence for the world that must be voided.

Deconstruction, for its part, announced the project of decoding Literature and indeed the "texts," or systems of signification, throughout all culture. But this attempt to reveal supposedly hidden ideology is stymied by its refusal to consider origins or historical causation, an aversion it inherited from structuralism/poststructuralism. Derrida, Deconstruction's seminal figure, deals with language as a solipsism, consigned to self-interpretation; he engages not in critical activity but in writing about writing. Rather than a de-constructing of impacted reality, this approach is merely a self-contained academicism, in which Literature, like modern painting before it, never departs from concern with its own surface.

Meanwhile, since Piero Manzoni canned his own feces and sold them in a gallery and Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm, and crucified to a Volkswagen, we seen in art ever more fitting parables of its end, such as the self-portraits drawn by Anastasi - with his eyes closed. "Serious" music is long dead and popular music deteriorates; poetry nears collapse and retreats from view; drama, which moved from the Absurd to Silence, is dying; and the novel is eclipsed by non-fiction as the only way to write seriously.

In a jaded, enervated age, where it seems to speak is to say less, art is certainly less. Baudelaire was obliged to claim a poet's dignity in a society which had no more dignity to hand out. A century and more later, how inescapable is the truth of that condition and how much more threadbare the consolation or station of "timeless" art.

Adorno began his book thusly: "Today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying, much less without thinking. Everything about art has become problematic; its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist." But Aesthetic Theory affirms art, just as Marcuse's last work did, testifying to despair and to the difficulty of assailing the hermetically sealed ideology of culture. And although other "radicals," such as Habermas, counsel that the desire to abolish symbolic mediation is irrational, it is becoming clearer that when we really experiment with our hearts and hands the sphere of art is shown to be pitiable. In the transfiguration we must enact, the symbolic will be left behind and art refused in favor of the real. Play, creativity, self-expression and authentic experience will recommence at that moment.

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4. Bill Viola in Melbourne (link)
By Kevin Murray

Saturday evening at RMIT’s Storey Hall. A capacity crowd awaits the revered video artist for his only public appearance in Australia. A late start, and successive introductions of introducers, heightens our expectations.

When Bill Viola finally makes it to the lectern, it takes just one sentence for our high hopes to go into tailspin. ‘Okayee, hello, it’s great to be here!’ Oh, dear. Enthusiasm doesn’t register well with a Melbourne audience. Rather, we prefer a cool, understated approach; it grants us a little more space for thought. Audience participation is our principle phobia.

This is unfortunate, as Viola proceeded to deliver a most generous lecture about the profound concerns that underlie his art. But all I could hear were contradictions—the three most serious of which I list below. Anyone more positively disposed is welcome to read a coherent artistic project between the lines.

The first contradiction concerned technology. Viola’s talk began with the miraculous advance of the camera in our time. Viola’s way of telling this story was to make dramatic comparisons: the first video recorders cost $200,000 and were as big as a fridge, but today…. And thanks to portable video cameras, artists are now able to give expression to their creativity that is relevant to our time. He sounded more like a sales pitch.

At the same time as eulogising technology, Viola pressed home the human dimension. According to Viola, media such as television accelerate time to a point where they leave the orbit of human concerns. Yet the progress that Viola derides is the very same force that provides artists with their means of existence in the modern era.

This contradiction housed a deeper problem in Viola’s argument. Viola’s critique of contemporary culture was based on a fundamentalist belief in the body as the true measure of ‘absolute time and space’. Alluding to authors such as Arnheim, he claimed that architecture was now beginning to recognise that its basic tenets can be derived, not from art history, but from an understanding of the human body. Likewise, Viola could base his own work on an understanding of the universal human experience of time.

The anthropocentricism of this reduction is nothing surprising. Much American popular culture is about uncovering the human presence ‘out there’—reducing the strange to the familiar. Viola boldly undermined his own humanism, however, by claiming the necessity for a ‘dark place’, where secrets can occur. Such a space is where he chooses to situate his installations. Yet to hold with the existence of shadows, it is necessary to believe in something beyond human consciousness. I don’t mean ghosts or ETs. The structures of language that enable consciousness are enough of a mystery. The way video distorts images provides some means of representing that mediation. Yet driven to touch human emotions directly, Viola seems blind to the message of his medium.

The final contradiction dealt with progress. The rising intonation in Viola’s sentences was focused on the great leaps forward in human history. One of the greatest of these was the ascension of the artist, rising out of the ranks of mere ‘craftspeople’ to join the elites of the Renaissance, along with poets and military leaders. However, Viola ended his lecture on a contrary note. His last sentence evoked the Remanence theme of the visual arts program in which his installation is a part: ‘It’s all about what has been left behind’. It’s as though Viola wants to be both master and slave, technocrat and poet, Bill Gates and John Ruskin, American and Australian

Viola appears to be travelling along what Jacques Lacan described as the ‘American way’—the way of promising everything to everyone. Perhaps Melbourne audiences are more elitist. We need to see others fall by the wayside to be sure we are travelling in the right direction.

Still, there was much to celebrate. Our presence in such number acknowledged the captivating series of installations at the Old Magistrate’s Court that formed the Remanence program. The event itself was smoothly organised by the local art temples (CCP, 200GS, ACCA). Viola spoke for nearly two hours, answered questions at length, and showed Christian patience to the one heckler. His videos and aphorisms touched on profound dimensions of human experience. But it was a Reagan-esque world of homespun pathos, far from the today’s ‘hard edge’ culture of South Park, Nike and Viagra. Too sweet.

Sorry Bill. You needed to tell us where you are coming from, because it’s not where we are. At least, not yet.

5. Kindred Spirits: Art And Money (link)

by Jonathan Mandell
May, 2005

What would the lions in front of the New York Public Library fetch at auction? This seems a reasonable question, given that the New York Public Library recently sold off one of the most celebrated paintings in the city, “Kindred Spirits” by Asher Durand -- hanging for decades in the main library, now being shipped, astonishingly, to Bentonville, Arkansas, hometown of Wal-Mart. Will it become Wal-Art? Are the two marble lions next?

The daughter of the founder of Wal-Mart, Alice Walton, bought "Kindred Spirits" this month reportedly for at least $35 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting by an American artist -- though, since it was bought at a "silent auction" at Sotheby's, the parties involved are denying the public even the right to be told what the precise purchase price was, much less have any say in the disposition of what we previously were told was a public treasure.

Art-lovers have reacted with outrage. Francis Morrone in the New York Sun called it "New York's most egregious act of self-desecration since the demolition of Pennsylvania Station,"Michael Thomas in the NY Observer deemed it a "sorry affair," a "scandal", a "dirty deed," and an example of "institutional philistinism"; to the library's explanation that the sale was needed to raise funds for book and manuscript acquisition, he wrote: "I find the arithmetic unpersuasive." New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman condemned the sale in three separate articles (so far), labelling the painting “a civic landmark,” and arguing , with a kind of eloquently restrained anger, that it should at least have been kept in New York. The painting certainly has New York all over it: In it, the (New York) painter Thomas Cole stands on a ledge with the (New York) poet William Cullen Bryant in the (New York) Catskills. “A grand inherent irony” of the sale, CBS correspondent Morley Safer added a few days later, is that “all that Wal-Mart money was gleaned from the systematic destruction of the very American landscape Ms. Walton so expensively celebrates.”

A week after the sale of “Kindred Spirits,” a front-page article in the Times questioned the decision by the New York City Opera to allow “Atsushi Yamada, a one-time Sony salaryman without conservatory training or a single English-language review to his name” to conduct the company in a tour of Japan for which Yamada helped raise nearly $2 million from Japanese businesses.

"Kindred Spirits" by Asher Durand -- from NY Public Library to Wal-Art in Arkansas
Both stories are but the latest incidents to suggest that, public institution or not, money is what matters these days in the arts. Examples abound. Cultural institutions are now much more likely to be named after people with money than people with talent: On Broadway, the Helen Hayes, the Gershwin and the Eugene O’Neill Theaters have been joined by the American Airlines Theater, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, and the Cadillac Winter Garden; this month, Gerald Schoenfeld renamed one of the theaters he owns as chairman of the Shubert Organization after himself. Museums offer exhibitions that are little more than paid advertisements for the corporations that gave money to mount them: "Every year, in one way or another, museums test the public's faith in their integrity," Kimmelman wrote recently, in an article entitled "Art, Money and Power", which laments such cultural commercials as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “current Chanel-sponsored Chanel show, a fawning trifle that resembles a fancy showroom."

Why is this happening?

One can chalk it up to our commercial culture, which finds money more interesting than mere art. Type “art and money” into Google, and get more than 70 million results. Type "art and beauty"? "Art and meaning"? Nowhere near as many. This is why supporters of the arts have learned to sound like economists -- talking about the arts as an “economic engine” etc. -- a book is more likely to make the news if its author gets a big advance, and a movie these days is judged primarily by the money it makes; is there a newspaper in America that doesn't now list weekend movie grosses?

But there is another reason -- the arts are desperate for funds.

The Budget Ballet

It is certainly relevant to point out that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget for the arts this coming fiscal year, about $105 million, is 12 to 15 percent less than last year's budget (depending on whose analysis you read); and the budget for the public libraries of New York, separate from the one for the arts, shows a decrease of about 10 percent from the previous year. (Reading the library budget is complicated by a Byzantine accounting procedure by which a huge chunk of funding from last year has been deemed “prepayment” for the coming year.) But it would be misleading to focus exclusively on the 2006 executive budget.

For one thing, the mayor and the City Council are still in negotiations, and the exact amounts will change by the deadline of June 30th. For another, the budget process is almost a kind of performance art -- a budget ballet, where the mayor cuts, and the City Council restores -- repeated with little variation year after year.

The bottom line is that the bottom line hasn’t changed much in the city, no matter who the mayor is. Just look at the numbers: The supposedly pro-arts Mayor Bloomberg is proposing to spend $105.4 million on the arts in fiscal year 2006, out of a total operating budget of nearly $50 billion. Eleven years ago, under the supposedly anti-arts Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the arts budget was $96 million -- just $10 million less, at a time when the total operating budget was some $18 billion less. In other words, the percentage of the total operating budget dedicated to the arts in fiscal year 1995 was less than a quarter of one percent. The percentage of the total operating budget dedicated to the arts in fiscal year 2006 (even after the inevitable additions negotiated with the City Council) is sure to be even less than that.

What Ever Happened To The Poor, Pure, Starving Artist?

Linda Ferber does not complain about the funding. “The city is a great partner,” she says. Still, she has to acknowledge that money is tight. “All cultural institutions work very, very hard to program within limits.”

Ferber is a museum curator, currently for the Brooklyn Museum, soon to be the director of the museum at the New-York Historical Society. Right now, she is walking in a high-ceilinged gallery on the second floor of the society, where she is serving as the guest curator for "Nature And The American Vision," an exhibition that coincidentally opened the same week as the sale of "Kindred Spirits" and includes, among other exemplary works from the Hudson River School of New York-based landscape painters, some two dozen paintings by Asher Durand.

"This is an early Durand," she says, stopping at a painting from 1844, called "The Solitary Oak." "Look at the light, the luminous glow," she says. "It confers on that tree an almost religious aura."

A century and a half after Durand created it, the painting now has a special aura for a different reason. "The record price for an American painting is considered newsworthy," Ferber says, "and people will become curious about the painter."

For all her savvy and experience, Ferber was shocked when she heard the news about the sale of Durand’s masterwork to the Wal-Mart heiress. She had been planning the first major retrospective of Durand's work in three decades, an exhibition scheduled to open at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. “Before this sale, one could have put together an entire show just from what was available in New York -- that’s how much of a New York artist he was,” Ferber said. “Now, a key work has gone.” The library had promised to lend "Kindred Spirits” for the Brooklyn Museum show. “We hope we’ll still be getting it,” Ferber says.

She cannot remember a time when she didn’t know about “Kindred Spirits.” ”It’s such a famous image that a lot of people who would recognize the painting probably don’t know who painted it.” Durand was commissioned to create “Kindred Spirits” a year after Thomas Cole’s death as a gift for William Cullen Bryant. (It was Bryant’s daughter who eventually gave it to the library.) The title, meant to commemorate the friendship between Cole and Bryant, comes from a phrase in a poem by John Keats, who believed the "highest bliss" is Nature enjoyed by "two kindred spirits."

It is easy to consider all the lofty devotion to art and beauty and Nature that emanates from this one painting, and to wonder -- in this age of artist as entrepreneur -- what has happened to the idea of the poor but pure artist? Where is today’s Vincent van Gogh, who sold only one work of art during his lifetime, but who eventually changed the way we look at art –- and, ok, whose “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” was sold in 1990 for the highest price ever paid for a painting, $82.5 million (a figure surpassed last year by Picasso’s "Boy With A Pipe," which sold for $104 million)? Are the only “kindred spirits” these days art and money?

To art historians like Linda Ferber, the poor, pure artist has always been “a romantic image” -- a polite way of saying fake -- creating a misleading sense of artists as being apart. The truth is, of the four artists connected to the painting “Kindred Spirits,” only John Keats fits the image – broke…exploited…starving…tubercular, dead at 25. (And even he studied to be a surgeon.) Thomas Cole, though he died relatively young at 47 after a sudden illness, was America's most successful landscape painter. William Cullen Bryant, in addition to being a poet, was a lawyer, editor and part owner of The New York Evening Post, who helped in the creation of both Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And Asher Durand?

"He made money," Ferber explains. "Literally."

Durand was an engraver who created the intricate designs for banknotes. Even after he switched careers, he helped found and was president of the National Academy of Design, part of whose purpose was to nurture the marketplace for art. ”Durand was in the best sense of the word an organization man,” Ferber says.“He was a dedicated artist, but he was also a pragmatic businessman.”

His paintings helped inspire people to start touring the countryside, which led to the birth of an entire industry, tourism. But he was such a New Yorker that, while on a grand tour of Europe, he wrote home: “I shall enjoy a sight of the signboards in the streets of New York more than all the pictures of Europe.” There is no evidence that he ever set foot in Arkansas.

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