Post-Mortem and the Neo-Supine
Of all the things that are of which I can be certain, no one thing is more certain than this, quality matters. If you can’t talk about quality when you’re talking about art, you’re not talking about art. You may be talking about life, but that’s not art. You may be talking about politics or ethics or personal history, but that’s not art either. Or at least that’s not quality. Quality is not only the ability to make value judgments of the good and the bad, but the basis on which these judgments are made. We are well beyond the need of any intelligent debate about what is or is not art. After being bludgeoned, in New York, with a plumbing fixture, by Mr. Duchamp and his ilk (Alphonse Allais, for one), that treaty was signed almost a century ago. Let it all be art. That’s proved an empty concession. We are left with the much harder question of good and bad. Bad art should be worth just as much of our time as if it weren’t art at all. But in the case of the non-art object, at least it has something else (its utility if nothing else) to fall back on.
In 1999 I was still living in New York and working at Dia, and this is what I thought:
It’s a melancholy object looking at art some days. Galleries, especially in Chelsea (but also in so many of the look alike galleries Chelsea has spawned all over the world), often resemble morgues. With their white walls, cement floors, and cold clinical light, the only thing missing are drains in the floor. On a good day you can almost smell the formaldehyde, it smells like art. In this environment it’s no wonder that artists, curators, gallerists, and gallery goers seem like morticians sprucing up a corpse for another public viewing. Where are the shaking canes and black eyes that art used to be able to engender? Where is the vitalness? Its loss is the loss of the convictions, the assurances, and the expectations of art. It’s the inevitable running down of the clock. Death of art? No. That would be a relief. Too dramatic. It’s worse than that. It’s simply stagnation.
In the years since, nothing has happened to change my mind.
Nothing affirms the vitalness of art more than its supposed death. Every time an artist has tried to kill it, every piece that is supposed to be the last piece, every declaration that art is dead has only produced one more great piece of art and added another chapter to its history. It’s a distinguished list. Rodchenko and Malevich tried. The Futurists tried. Mondrian tried. Reinhardt tried. All failed. Contemporary artists should give it a whirl. Instead a concerted effort is made to fill art with life, and nothing kills the vitalness of art more surely than the addition of life. Like the nightmarish world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, art continues to be expanded to make room for everyone no matter their ability, and everything no matter its quality; an attempt at inclusiveness that puts a perverse, arty twist on the phrase popularized by Karl Marx. Now that Communism is dead, the contemporary art world has decided to reinvigorate it in an obscene manifestation. After decades of chipping away at the corners, the red flag has finally been turned into the red dot and found its final resting place in museums and galleries.
I’d like to make a modest suggestion, call it a proposal. No, not what you’re thinking. I don’t want to talk about eating at all. If you want to think of Jonathan Swift that’s fine, but don’t think of the cannibal Swift, think rather of the scatological Swift, the swift kick in the ass.
What I’d like to propose is a reinvigoration of… No. I can’t say it. Not yet. Let me say something else first.