May 16, 2004

. . . but what about Stockholm?

In response to the post below, Ann Rae Jonas asks:

Are you suggesting that if the artwork shown in Stockholm had . . . glorified suicide bombers, the Israeli ambassador's action would have been acceptable or even commendable?
Here, let our readers decide for themselves.
Unlike Roberta Smith, I don't believe one can draw a neat dividing line between art and real life -- especially when the artworks are explicitly designed to provoke, and they directly address highly controversial real-world issues.

For all the talk of tolerating ambiguity, few things could be more ambiguous than the status of art whose raison d’ętre is social engineering ("Art's job is . . ."), particularly when that art is imposed upon those who do not seek it out. If artists want to give the world a push, they should not be surprised if the world sometimes pushes back. Cattelan appears to accept this, which I respect; Smith does not.

There is much to be said for setting aside certain spaces as neutral ground, where one can say (or display) anything without fear of molestation. Yet was the Stockholm museum really neutral ground? This was no Speaker's Corner, open to all. Artworks in a gallery are, directly or indirectly, gallery-endorsed. If they have a polemical thrust, that is implicitly endorsed as well -- if not openly embraced, at least deemed acceptable for consideration. This is complex territory, and to pretend otherwise only complicates things further.

ANOTHER thought: When art is no longer for art's sake, but for argument's sake (see Smith below); and when the artwork itself is as much means as end; and when packaging and presentation outweigh content -- is this art in the traditional sense, or is it something more akin to performance?

Few would endorse either vandalizing an artwork or interrupting a performer, but the latter differs in some important regards, not least in that it offers more potential for dialogue -- as indeed happened in Milan after Cattelan's work was taken down. And the "interruption" might be considered a form of performance art in itself. If artists can be lauded for "modifying" billboard advertisements, why should it be any less acceptable to "modify" the work of other artists?

The shorthand accounts of what happened in Stockholm make it sound as if the installation was destroyed or at least seriously damaged. But as I recall, the ambassador only threw a spotlight at the installation -- an act more symbolic than truly destructive. Performance/counterperformance?

Posted by David on May 16, 2004 11:20 PM


David, I really enjoyed reading these two posts, and I have posted some thoughts about this issue, with links to other examples of disgusting art, here at Ionarts. As I write there, I get very tired in the last few weeks of the spring semester, at the end of a year-long medieval to modern survey, repeatedly trying to defend more and more outrageous forms of artistic expression so that my Humanities students will at least take the time to try to understand what this art is about. I like a lot of what I teach, but when I feel about an artwork the way you feel about Cattelan, it's exhausting. My usual response is to give the students a moment to ridicule the piece, which usually makes me feel much better.

Posted by: CTD on May 22, 2004 11:25 AM
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