why modernism ( & its criticism) pretty much makes me want to barf

February 26, 2010

I’ve been slogging through back issues of the New Yorker while on the treadmill lately, and couldn’t help feeling the chunks rise in my throat when I read this quote from Peter Schjeldahl about Gabriel Orozco:

“I vividly remember being outraged in the proverbial manner of a philistine exposed to modern art when, for his first solo gallery show in New York, in 1994, Orozco displayed, on the walls of the main room at Marian Goodman, nothing but four Dannon yogurt lids. I recovered, by and by, to take the artist’s point, which amounted to disappointment as aesthetic therapy. The transparent, blue-rimmed, date-stamped, price-labelled little items were—and are, at MOMA—rather lovely, when contemplated without prejudice. Are they art? No. They are Dannon yogurt lids. The art part is a triggered awareness that the world teems with vernacular loveliness. If you overlook that, it’s sad for you.”

The “artist’s point” may be well-intentioned, but implies that expectant gallery visitors are dum-dums. To find the time, make arrangements, get dressed up, make your way down to the gallery, and therein expect something inspired or inspiring from the artist — something crafted, something loved, something that demonstrates that he has reciprocally invested his own time in exchange for your time and energy getting and being there — is an assumption that precludes you from noticing all the while that the vinyl on the back of the cab seat was the most wonderful shade of green, or that the babysitter you will pay $100 at the end of the night had the most interesting Marilyn Monroe piercing, or that the wind cries Mary or whatever other little vernacular lovelinesses you might have missed in your mad consumption-driven dash to devour his art. How sad for you.

Maybe I just don’t cotton much to being schooled, but if I want aesthetic therapy I’ma call my therapist (and my aesthetician).

Howzabout this analogy: if you spent $75 on Rolling Stones tickets and they came out and played dannon lids like juice harps to show you that you had inordinately limited your consciousness by expecting Brown Sugar would there maybe be a riot?

Or this: if you asked an architect to design you a new building and after a month he brought you a model made out of four dannon lids would you not maybe break them in half and try to slice him with the jagged pieces?

Or if you went to see David Blaine (like I do every other night) and he surprised you with a magic act comprised entirely of making four dannon lids stay exactly where they were, would you not want to dress him in a pink sequined jumpsuit and run him up and down the strip until he cried for his mama?

Or how about you give your money manager $100,000 and he invests it in credit default swaps and then, when you’re bankrupt, tells you that this has all been an elaborate reminder, compliments of him, that you ought not be attached to the value of things, that life is not a commodity. Actually this sounds pretty familar.

Speaking of money, here’s the best part: the lids actually sold. The four lids in the MOMA are stand-ins.

There are ways to manipulate form in order to manipulate consciousness, but it would be far easier to trust in the good faith of the artist if it took him longer than five minutes to think of and execute his point. Expectations cloud our experience of events it’s no secret, but where else or with whom else would we put up with such profligate claim on our finite resources? Our time and energy has value and the artist thinks it’s cute to get us to come down to a gallery so that he can remind us that valuing time and energy robs us of the value of time and energy.

Here’s an idea I find infinitely less offensive: why doesn’t he just hand out tabs of LSD at the door, and we can all stare at those dannon lids for eight or ten amazingly unplugged decommodified transcendental hours. Why do we let artists (and no one else) get away with this fatuous game of made you look?

Actually, architects do it too, just less so because they have to find someone to build their buildings.

John Seabrook’s article in the New Yorker on Zaha Hadid talks of the fire station she designed in Germany:  “the interior layout mixed rooms and passageways in such a way that it was difficult to tell where one ended and another began.” Zaha Hadid’s disorienting buildings are “forward-thinking” and she’s hailed as a genius. Try that at home and it’s homicide.

But just so that you know that I’m not a total fuddy-duddy, contrast all this crankiness with an example of modernism succeeding. Here’s Paul Goldberger’s appraisal of Jeanne Gang’s new Aqua tower in Chicago: “For all its visual power, Aqua is mostly free of conceit. In an age in which so much architectural form—even, sometimes, the best architectural form—has no real rationale beyond the fact that it is what the architect felt like doing, there is something admirable about the tower’s lack of arbitrariness. It reclaims the notion that thrilling and beautiful form can still emerge out of the realm of the practical.”

It’s true, Aqua is an amazing looking (and functioning) example of modernism gone right. It is gorgeous, and it’s design elements serve purposes that make it in many ways a better building than other towers in its class. Goldberger then goes on to say “In this sense, Gang could not be more different from Zaha Hadid, who is the most famous female architect around. Hadid is a brilliant shaper of form, but her buildings are nothing if not arbitrary”

So how and why do artists and architects get away with all this arbitrariness? I have to fight the feeling is that it is for nothing more than the sheer sake of keeping the pace of the treadmill of the art of the industry rapidly turning, though that seems both trite a paranoia and too simple an explanation for such a complicated machine that captures so many imaginations and stimulates so much pleasure.

After all, someone loved those Dannon lids enough to buy them. And while the outrage at Orozco’s cockiness was loud enough,  the majority of critics trusted that he wasn’t just sitting in his studio counting his money laughing with contempt at our gullibility.

I’m not that trusting. Or maybe I miss the point entirely.

I never said I wasn’t a philistine.

How sad for me.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Susan September 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm

I find Hadids work, visually incongruent, almost dizzying. So, while impressive, her buildings are not for general consumption. I also wonder as to her clearly obvious and impractical choice of form over function. Really, her objects and buildings are so discordant in their flow that they are essentially disturbing. When we went to her show at the Perlman Gallery, Philagelphia, 1 of the woman I went with had to leave as she physically felt the disorientation and thought she might fall.

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