Sunday, October 10, 1999

If that's art, I'm Picasso

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Here's a quiz you should NOT take with your scrambled eggs and jelly donut. It's a game I call “Find the Con Artist.”

        Can you tell which of the following are actual, gen-yoo-wine works of art?

        • Dead fish: “A shark in an enormous tank of formaldehyde, a symbol of the coming art invasion.”

        • D-composition: “Maggots, flies and a cow's head put a life-and-death spin on minimalism.”

        • Landfill: “A colorful collage of coffee-grounds, broccoli and spaghetti makes a statement about our materialist dialectic.”

        If you answered, “All of the above,” you qualify to be an art critic for the New York Times and write pretentious descriptions like the ones above.

        If you said, “That's not art,” you qualify to be mayor of New York and be labeled an “ignorant philistine” by art critics who get hives from looking at a picture of Jesse Helms, but think grotesque photos by Robert Mapplethorpe are “erotic.”

        If you think it's all a bad joke, you're right. But the first two jokes are in art museums. The third is inside a Hefty bag at the bottom of a trash can in my garage. I keep it there because it reeks — just like some of the garbage that gullible critics defend as “art.”

        In the New York Times Magazine (Sept. 26), art critic Deborah Solomon reviewed a collection of contemporary art owned by Charles Saatchi, called “Sensation.” She wrote that “it is easy to admire his adventurous eye, even when you're thinking, This piece makes we want to throw up.”

        She was probably thinking about something called “A Thousand Years,” which she describes as “a seven-foot-tall glass box stocked with the decomposing head of a cow and a large supply of maggots and buzzing flies.”

        Or maybe she was thinking about the flattering photos of a notorious child-murderer. Or the sculpture in human blood. Or the sliced pig in a jar. Or the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung.

        There's so much to make a critic gag. But that would be unsophisticated. It might reveal that critics don't know art from a toaster in the bath tub. Truth and beauty are out of style. It's not real art unless it delivers another shock treatment to our catatonic culture.

        So the critics nod and smile as if they know the right price of the Brooklyn Bridge — or the artistic value of a cow's head in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

        “In Brooklyn, the show will no doubt be less controversial” than it was in England, Ms. Solomon predicted. Wrong again. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to fire the entire Brooklyn Museum of Art Board, and yank city funding. “Anything I can do isn't art,” he said. “You know, if you want to throw dung at something, I could figure out how to do it.”

        Exactly. But the ACLU is trying to make a First Amendment issue out of it. The arts crowd calls it “censorship.”

        It's the same old, lame old argument that intentionally misses the point: There is no First Amendment “right” to public funding for art of any kind, much less the stuff that grosses out the people who pay for it. Artists can perpetrate any hoax they please — on their own dime.

        But the “Sensation” has already served its purpose. It made headlines for the museum, the artists and the collector, who crave attention almost as much as they crave heads of dead presidents on green paper. The museum has been accused by the mayor of conspiring with Mr. Saatchi in a scam to inflate prices for an auction after the show.

        It figures. Mr. Saatchi is an advertising executive. It doesn't matter if it's art. As long as it makes news and stirs up trouble, somebody will bid high for a chance to own a famous decaying cow's head, or to posture as a heroic defender of government-subsidized “free expression.”

        If all this sounds vaguely familiar, we've been here before. But this time there's a twist. Nobody is calling the whole city of New York backward and prudish, the way art critics labeled Cincinnati during the Mapplethorpe battle. Maybe that's because most of the art critics live in New York.

        But some things never change.

        Some con artist on a government grant sweeps out a zoo cage, spatters it on a Madonna — and the critics “Ohhhh” and “Ahhh” as they find deep meanings in what the rest of us call “crap.”

        I'm no artist. I thought Yoko Ono's “painting” in Cincinnati was better after it was vandalized. But I'm working on my own gen-yoo-wine work of art: A colorful collage of lollipops in a frame, named for all the scrambled eggheads who mistake jelly donuts for art. I call it, “Suckers.”

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.


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