Lights out in an empty room

Culture | Can the decadent art world be brought back to life?

Issue: "Guns & Poses," April 13, 2002

Artists today, having for the most part given up

on beauty, meaning, and aesthetic standards, are trying instead to be "challenging," or shocking. But this becomes harder and harder to do.

Blasphemy elicits a charge from Christians, but that has become too easy. The excrement motif-immersing Christ on the Cross in urine, followed by pelting the Virgin Mary with fecal matter-has been done to death. Besides, how can blasphemy have much of an effect in a culture for which nothing is sacred?

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The Holocaust is, sort of, sacred, so why not "challenge" viewers by trivializing that?

This seems to be what artists and curators were thinking when New York's Jewish Museum, of all places, put together the show "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art." It features work such as Alan Schechner's "It's the Real Thing: Self-Portrait at Buchenwald," a photograph of emaciated concentration camp inmates, into which the artist has digitally inserted a picture of himself, mugging with a Diet Coke.

Other works in the show include concentration camps made out of Legos and Zyklon B gas canisters done up with the logos of Chanel and Tiffany's. The controversy the show has provoked and the Holocaust survivors protesting outside are doubtless considered part of the art.

Another artistic movement is to sculpt using the medium of dead bodies. Damien Jacques started the fad by posing cut-up cadavers in still lifes. He only exhibited the photographs, though (such as the head of a dead man on a plate, surrounded by vegetables). Later, he exhibited the actual bodies of cut-up animals, displayed in large glass boxes filled with formaldehyde.

Now, in the predictable course of an artistic movement, an artist is displaying actual human corpses that he has mutilated. German artist Gunther von Hagens is exhibiting "Body World" at the Atlantis Gallery in London. The show consists of some 30 corpses that he has skinned, embalmed in plastic, and mounted in various bizarre poses.

Another artistic movement that has spanned the 20th century to our own time is minimalism. Artists began wondering about what is the least line or gesture that can constitute a work of art? Picasso drew pictures, such as the famous Don Quixote print, that consisted of a single line, undertaken without lifting his pen. These and similar drawings were interesting and aesthetically pleasing. But then artists had to see just how minimal they could get.

Before long, they gave us the black canvas. Then, the empty frame. More recently, artists have come up with "conceptual art." This means there is no actual art, just the idea for a work of art. The typed description is put up on the wall of the gallery.

This year, minimalism may have scored its greatest triumph. The Turner Prize is England's most prestigious award for contemporary art, carrying a prize of close to $30,000 and exhibition at the posh Tate Gallery. The winner: Martin Creed's "The Lights Going On and Off."

It consists of an empty room. Viewers go in and after awhile, the lights come on. Then the lights go out. That's all there is to it. The winner of the Turner Prize for the best contemporary work of art is nothing, and the particular nothingness put forth by the artist won him $30,000.

But there are signs that the culture is finally waking up to the irrelevance of its art world, which as Tom Wolfe has pointed out consists of no more people than would populate an American small town. The Turner Prize is inspiring not admiration but ridicule. A genuine artist, Jacqueline Crofton, threw eggs into that empty room, whereupon the Tate Gallery prissily banned her from the premises for life.

At the corpse show, a father named Martin Wynness, saying that the exhibit was disrespectful to the dead, poured paint on the floor and threw a blanket over a display of the body of a pregnant woman, cut open to display the body of her dead baby. He was charged with "vandalism," as if the artist's desecrations were not vandalism of a more monstrous kind.

Art reflects the culture. If so, ours really is a culture of death and, at the same time, a culture of triviality. Have we bottomed out, both culturally and artistically? Have the events of 9/11, with the need to actually defend Western civilization and its values, changed anything? Could life be breathed back into these dead bones?

One New York artist, trying no doubt to bring together minimalism and the aesthetics of shock, proclaimed that the airplane bringing down the World Trade Center was the greatest work of art in the world. He must have been puzzled at the reaction. A retrospective of his works was canceled. Other artists stopped speaking to him. The art world finally found something it could not stomach.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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