May 16, 2004

If art is meant to provoke . . .

One step forward, one step back. Roberta Smith pens a fine plea against overstrict application of copyright; then, this -- as lame as its drippingly condescending title: "Why Attack Art? Its Role Is to Help With Problems, Not Become a Problem" (slightly amended online as, "Why Attack Art? Its Role Is to Be Helpful").

The essay seems to have been prompted by the recent incident in Milan, which Smith, believe it or not, equates with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas:

The outcry isn't nearly as large when one person, acting alone and often on impulse, damages or destroys a new artwork. But in many ways the violation is the same.
The Stockholm incident is also invoked, where the Israeli ambassador attacked an installation that he read as a glorification of suicide bombing. Here I would agree with Smith that the ambassador jumped to conclusions:
. . . the work's title, "Snow White and the Madness of Truth," suggests a suicide bomber as a person driven by fairy-tale simplicity and pathological faith. It implies that such faith and simplicity have caused bloodshed all over the world, not just in Israel.
But this is an aperçu, not the central argument, which goes something like this:
Most surprising is attackers' simple refusal to entertain paradox, to see art as a coalescence of gray areas, ambiguities and multiple interpretations. Art's job is to provoke thought in ways that are difficult to resolve and uncomfortable;
Most surprising is critics' inability to see that not everyone accepts the contemporary art world's self-serving rules, where "art" is a special sphere in which artists get to say and do whatever they want without fear of contradiction or consequences, and the masses are expected to understand as best they can, grateful for the edification. Art's job is to provoke and discomfit? Looking back through history, that sure leaves a lot of art that didn't do its job.
. . . it's a relatively neutral place to experience the unresolvable issues that dominate real life, to practice a kind of abstract flexibility that might move us toward resolution in real life.
Leaving aside the question of what "abstract flexibility" is supposed to mean (some kind of Platonic yoga?), make up your mind: are those "issues that dominate real life" unresolvable, or not? Editor, please. And is it really a "neutral place" where speech is free, but only initiates are allowed to speak?
New York recently missed a chance for a Cattelan-style test of its tolerance for ambiguity and multiple meanings.
Thank you very much, but I don't feel a pressing need to have my tolerance constantly put to the test.
The Whitney Museum of American Art invited Mr. Cattelan, who lives in New York, to take part in this year's Biennial Exhibition but balked when he proposed a piece that would have consisted of a life-size lifelike sculpture hanging from a flagpole in front of the museum.
Fancy that.
Mr. Cattelan's second proposal, which was accepted, was a permanent installation that rendered the art invisible. He buried an early sculpture — one that he had never been quite happy with — beneath the museum's lobby.
Words fail me.
In a sense all artworks aspire to be arguments for argument's sake. They are places to entertain new thoughts and try out opposing viewpoints and to practice tolerance and flexibility. Real life needs all of these things as much as it ever has, if not more.
After reading this, iconoclasm doesn't seem to go far enough.

Posted by David on May 16, 2004 1:04 AM


Are you suggesting that if the artwork shown in Stockholm had or glorified suicide bombers, the Israeli ambassador's action would have been acceptable or even commendable?

Ann Rae Jonas

Posted by: Ann Rae Jonas on May 16, 2004 1:24 PM

Response on the main page, here.

Posted by: David on May 17, 2004 9:32 PM
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