Ideas Don't Matter

by John Link

Art world inhabitants donít agree much. But almost all will take exception to the title of this short essay, many with contempt and disdain. "Fuck that guy," they will say.

The dirty little secret of our "anything goes" art scene is that "everything" must emulate literature. The connection between visual art and the literal can be obvious or it can be contrived or it can be plain silly, just as long as it is "there."

The literal need not be creative. Witness the great success of Cloaca, tied not to poetry or other lofty forms of verbiage, but to the lowly documentary, though it purports to document the rather intellectual question of "bioethics."

Cloaca was exhibited last spring at the New Museum in NYC. The museum described it as a performative event "for bringing art and science closer together, by inviting us to examine the ways in which we think of our bodies as machines, at the same moment in our cultural evolution where the separation between real and virtual has grown tenuous ... a metaphor for a society that privileges the cerebral over the corporeal, exulting in the latter only when it can be packaged into a kind of perfection."

What form did this perfectly packaged idea take? "Cloaca is an elaborate installation of laboratory glassware, electric pumps, gauges, and plastic tubing, which must be kept running at all hours of the day and night in order to function properly ... requiring regular infusions of chemicals and enzymes to keep the digestive system functioning, as well as a constant internal temperature regulated by computer."

Not too clear about what all this bioethical stuff means? Now that everyone is obssesed with outcomes, wonder what good this thing does? It shits, that's what. About 5 inches at a time. Like a potty trained baby, it delivered the expected product every day at the designated hour, from a spigot that vaguely resembled those found at the Dairy Queen, to the applause of the gathered crowd if the delivery took place during exhibition hours. The ceremony was terminated when a museum employee removed the artistic outcome from the exhibition area. Look at the poop on Cloaca's conveyer belt and read the museum's full explanation of the signficance of this project for yourself. In monetary terms, the turds sold for $1,000 each.

With all due respect to the New Museum, an alien from Mars might say Cloaca looks like an elaborate high school science project worshiped as a new artistic revelation. Is the New Museum too young to remember that Experiments in Art and Technology claimed this territory for "advanced" art in the middle of the last century?

More to the point, what if Cloaca had been displayed as an untitled and unexplained abstract contraption?

On the other hand, we will soon be assaulted with god knows how many pieces of nonsense tied to the one year anniversary of 9-11. Sophisticated verbal gnashing of teeth will wrap itself around every one of these monstrosities. To say this art does not matter will be to say the high mindedness does not matter - heresy, both artistic and social. To wonder why some are written up in the art mags and most are not will be regarded as naïve. Only a perverse Greenberg junior would ask why all the equally bad works of art donít get equal treatment from the validation system.

But the main literary form that permeates our visual junkyard is the diary. It is the foundation for the artist as the priest of the enlightened class. Unlike Cassandra, everyone pays attention to these prophets if the system validates their work. The more sophomoric their pronouncements, the better. Diary based art has been around for decades and will persist even after the 9-11 instance of it goes stale. If itís personal, itís competitive and current. Add some aggressive tooth-like forms here and there or a controversial performative aspect and you could have a winner. Everyoneís pissed off and will relate to your deeply felt personal disturbance if everyone approves. The enlightened class may be enchanted with ideas, but they still can't think for themselves.

The malice of art is this: Emerging art makes fools out of the greatest possible number of art experts. Its natural prey is found in those who form large and complacent groups secure in the belief they know whatís what.

In the late 19th century the French Academy turned out to be the vulgarians because they were finally destroyed by the best art. Their domination of the art system of that day did not protect them from artís malice. Todayís vulgarians hold high positions in our museums, galleries and publications, not at all unlike the members of the discredited Academy. Curiously, these powerful "taste makers" celebrate the same avant-gardism the Academy hated, as if that will protect them from the Academyís fate. But like their Academy predecessors, they have developed a high degree of comfort with mutually held ideas and avoid the difficulties of looking for real innovation.

Genuine innovation evolves slowly and painfully, without leaving footprints that measure up to commonly accepted standards, and therefore remains invisible to those who embrace the conventional wisdom. It exists to be seen, felt, and absorbed, not ruminated upon. It is tied to materials, not ideas, and looks retro to those who assume (wrongly) that ideas drove the avant-garde when it was still a living force in the evolution of ambitious art.

Posted August 3, 2002

© John Link, 2002

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