Tuesday, August 8, 2006


The Museum of Modern Art, which, I should reiterate, I fucking hate, is showing an exhibition on Dadaism that does very, very little to redeem them in my eyes. Dadaism is an "anti-art" art movement, if that makes any sense; it theoretically satirizes or challenges the conventional nature of art, but placed into a modern context, in a museum that actually paid for a container of poo, and Dadaist pieces like Duchamp's Ball of Twine or 3/4 Ounces of Paris Air in a Glass Vial (picture not available — it's an empty vial, so use your imagination) delve into self-parody even before the target of that parody exists. Anne and I went to visit the exhibit yesterday — she has friends who work there and we got in for free, so I consider that a blow stricken for the egalitarianism of great culture — and we were duly confused by Duchamp's Comb, which is an ordinary plastic comb that the Museum enclosed in an alarmed, bulletproof glass case. I pointed out how that's cheating: Duchamp didn't even do anything to the comb. Anne correctly pointed out that Duchamp found the comb, and apparently he had magic fingers because as soon as Duchamp touches a prosaic object and declares it "art," a miracle happens and it becomes art.

The Dadaist movement got its start, according to the MoMA, with the Society of Independent Artists, which was a group of art salon rejects so disillusioned with their jury peers they vowed to show anything submitted to them. Duchamp, fucking with them, submitted a urinal to the Society's exhibition, which naturally rejected it maybe because, I don't know, it's a piece of plumbing, it's the precursor to Ashton Kutcher and O.J.'s reality show and college students with too much time on their hands punking the rest of us with jobs to do, or it's just not art. An infuriated Duchamp — "Come on, you guys, you did say you'd exhibit anything..." — published an asinine defense of Fountain in his snooty literati magazine The Blind Man, the gist of which is that anything can be art and Robert Mutt (Duchamp, under a pseudonym), made his artistic contribution to the pee container when he chose it, among all the other objects in the world, to submit to the Society.

Anne then had to remind me not to take Dadaism as a personal affront.

Except that the logic of the argument and how it plays out among the museum curators, the gallery owners, and the modern artists making millions of dollars auctioning off pretentious crap at Sotheby's have really, literally, turned it into a personal affront. Despite this post-modern questioning of the fundamental nature of art and the interplay between artist, art, and viewer, there's a fundamental Objectivism (shudder!) in the modern art world serving to maintain both the status quo and the cult of personality leeching off it. Maybe there's "art" and then there's "marketable art", but saying that anything can be art, or anything can be music, or anything can be anything, in addition to being facile, devalues what really is art. If this chair, or this tree branch, or my spit can be art, then why pay $135 million for Klimt's The Kiss when I have a perfectly good picture of some hairy dude eating out this chick that I found online and I'll sell you for twenty bucks? Who cares if you smash Michelangelo's Pietá with a hammer because the crushed rocks and dust are just as valuable artistically as the sculpture itself?

The trend Duchamp started was to marry the content of the art to the artist himself, which was, in a way, ahead of his time. The argument isn't that anything can be art; it's that the artist can call anything art. It's arrogance and egotism — it's my declaration that this piece is art that makes it so, and your thoughts are irrelevant, you knuckle-dragging philistine. Now give us your twenty dollars for admission!

No, I don't see any parallels at all to our nation's current cultural and political state. At least the MoMA doesn't question your patriotism and call you a terrorist if you prefer Chagall to Cassatt.