I've been thinking about the nature of art. Specifically, I've been wondering what makes an object an objet d'art.
When we were in Amsterdam, going on six years ago now, we saw many great works of art. We also saw many, many mediocre pieces hung on walls, propped against pedestals, and projected on screens. Our biggest blunder was wandering into the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art. Maybe it was the depressive effects of the illicit muffin I'd had for breakfast, or maybe it was just an off day, but the Stedelijk saddened and angered me. I don't say this casually. I became profoundly depressed and enraged, and I was completely unable to externalize those feelings. Gallery after gallery, my rage and disgust grew as I trailed silently along after Accountant Boy.
Standing in the gift shop, I composed the following soliloquy. Skip the rest of this post if you're offended by cursing or profanity, you are a practicing artist, or you are Dutch.
"It's all a joke. A joke being played on us. We paid to get in here, so we've fallen for it. God, I hate artists. Twenty-six contrasty, poorly focused pictures of scaffolding hanging at waist height in a gallery with unpainted, cracked walls ISN'T ART! It's f&$king LAZY and I'm pissed off because, obviously, it's also F&$KING WORKING, since people, including us, have paid to see it."
I saw A.B. across the gift shop, browsing through a magazine. "Why doesn't he SEE MY SEETHING RAGE? If I go over and tell him, I'm just going to look like one of those tourists who 'just don't get it'. F&$K! How long is he going to look at that goddamn magazine? HONEY! It's NOT ART! It's SHIT! Wait, didn't some guy throw his own feces at a canvas and build a whole show around it? He was probably Dutch, too. I hate the Dutch. I hate modern art. I hate...Donatella? Donatella's a practicing artist. I bet she's in on it. They all are. They must sign a contract when they get their degrees. 'I promise to keep our secret - that we are really duping the public so that we don't have to get real jobs and contribute to a PRODUCTIVE SOCIETY - and never produce anything that takes more than ten minutes to slop on a canvas or print at the Costco photo lab.' Next time I see her, I'm going to tell her exactly what I think of her."
I turned my gaze to the book on which my hand was resting. The cover of this book consisted of four photographs and the artist's name, which I refuse to remember. The four photgraphs were - clockwise from upper left - three coils of wire on a sidewalk, a woman's naked breast, a leafless stick, and a dead bird. "Oh, holy F&$K ME RUNNING! I can't take it! How much longer can I stand here before I start overturning tables and screaming? Would that in itself be art? Performance art? THE STUPIDEST OF ALL ART FORMS? What the Hell is this place doing to me? Why does the music in here sound like a recording of a man pissing in a urinal? Oh, Christ. That's EXACTLY what it is! I HATE EVERYONE! WHAT WAS IN THAT MUFFIN?!?"
At that point, I lost the ability to think in words and became flooded with images of myself destroying the gift shop, a diminutive redheaded berserker in an Eddie Bauer cardigan. It was a fantastic short film - grainy and jumpy, complete with a soundtrack consisting entirely of a single note being played repeatedly on the cello - screening only in my own mind. When A.B. finally ambled over to me and saw my face, he dragged me out to the street.
The picture above was taken approximately twenty minutes before my breakdown.
I did tell Donatella what happened in the gift shop that day, and we laughed about it. I don't have the heart to ask her if she really believes that what she produces is art. I don't really want to know the answer.
I've been thinking about it since last weekend, when A.B. and I went to SFMOMA to see the Friedlander show. I love his work, and I wanted A.B. to see it and maybe get inspired to pick up a camera again. It was a great retrospective show, really showed the continuing evolution of his artistic style, and...see? Was it all of that? Or was it just several hundred photographs hung on a gallery wall? If you or I took thousands of pictures over the course of fifty years, would it be possible for someone to find several hundred of them good enough to hang in a gallery somewhere? Why is Friedlander more of an artist than you or I? If Belligero and I sit in front of a big, colorful canvas of painted soap boxes and A.B. takes our picture, does that become a new, distinct work, or are we simply adding a layer to the original piece? I've always loved that picture of us, but is it art?
I pondered this as A.B. and I walked away from the Friedlander exhibit. He went through the next gallery door before me, turned immediately and pushed me toward the stairs. "You don't want to go in there," he said. "We don't want another Stedelijk incident."