Museum pieces, as it were

“California tumbles into the sea / That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.” Steely Dan wasn’t talking about this, but they could have been. The scene is Bard College, Annandale, New York:

I picked my way through the galleries at the Hessel Museum. A “video installation” by Bruce Nauman in which a man and a woman endlessly repeat a litany of nonsense, tinctured here and there with scatological phrases. Been there. Photographs (in four or five different places) by Robert Mapplethorpe of his S&M pals. Very 1980s. Histrionic photographs by Cindy Sherman of herself looking victimized. Been there, too. Nam June Paik and his video installations. Done that. A big pile of red, white, and blue lollipops dumped in the corner by — well, it doesn’t much matter, does it? Any more than it matters who was responsible for the room featuring images of floating genitalia or the room with the video of ritualistic homosexual bondage. Ditto the catalogue: its assault on the English language is something you can find in scores, no, hundreds of art publications today: “For Valie Export, the female Body is covered with the stigmata of codes that shape and hamper it.” Well, bully for her. “As usual with Gober, the installation is a broken allegory that both elicits and resists our interpretation; that materially nothing is quite as it seems adds to our anxious curiosity.” As usual, indeed, though whether such pathetic verbiage adds to or smothers our curiosity is another matter altogether.

About as outré as I get — in several senses of the word — is Louise Nevelson, who boxed up the detritus of everyday life and repurposed it as sculpture. I think I understood some of what she was doing: certainly she provided context for her boxes, even for her non-boxes, and at no time (and I’ve been to two different Nevelson exhibitions, one of which was concurrent with actual study) did I feel that she had assembled a broken allegory that resisted my interpretation.

Still, if Nevelson, who has since passed from the scene, was close to the edge, where is the current state of the Art? Out trying to preempt criticism, I suspect:

[A]rt is increasingly the creature of its explication. It’s not quite what Tom Wolfe predicted in The Painted Word, where in the gallery-of-the-future a postcard-sized photograph of a painting would be used to illustrate a passage of criticism blown up to the size of its inflated sense of self-worth. The difference is that the new verbiage doesn’t even pretend to be art criticism. It occupies a curious no man’s land between criticism, political activism, and pseudo-philosophical speculation: less an intellectual than a linguistic phenomenon, speaking more to the failure or decay of ideas than to their elaboration. Increasingly, the “art” is indistinguishable from the verbal noise that accompanies it.

While this particular phenomenon may have escaped Becker and Fagen’s notice, it didn’t get past Orwell:

The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word “Art,” and everything is O.K. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them are O.K.; kicking little girls in the head is O.K.; even a film like [Buñuel’s] L’âge d’or [which shows among other things detailed shots of a woman defecating] is O.K.

There are times when I think that defecation is the whole point.

(Suggested by Mark Alger.)


  1. Mark Alger »

    4 June 2007 · 10:32 am

    Yeah. That line from “My Old School” did occur to me. But then, it occurs to me every time I hear or read mention of Bard.


  2. McGehee »

    4 June 2007 · 12:36 pm

    A “video installation” by Bruce Nauman in which a man and a woman endlessly repeat a litany of nonsense

    Dude, that’s called CNN.

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