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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

One Day Closer to Paradise

Exhibit 1201

Among the assorted notes and debris in my box this morning, I found an Opinion Journal (WSJ) article by Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin (HarperPerennial, 2004) and winner of The Orange Prize. It is an interesting little commentary on the state of art, rather like the tales of janitors sweeping up an exhibit or mistaking an artwork for trash left by a visitor at the Tate Modern.

It seems a hastily-prepared plinth was separated from the sculpture it was intended to support. The head, a work demanding two months of careful attention from sculptor David Hensel, was rejected by the Royal Academy. The plinth and the head's little boxwood prop were accepted as "Exhibit 1201."

Here's the good and the bad news, as Lionel Shriver sees it: "For those who despair that artists these days seem to have lost the skill of fashioning meticulously crafted objects, don't blame Mr. Hensel. While the slate base took only four hours to hack from a mortuary slab, and the little boxwood prop less than an hour, he had painstakingly carved and polished that laughing head for two months. But alas, the sculpture itself has--shudder--emotional content. It was originally christened 'One Day Closer to Paradise,' a far too expressive title; Mr. Hensel would have been better off with the portentously enigmatic 'Exhibit 1201.' His laughing head is not only fatally well rendered, but exudes a sense of joy and hilarity, and the overtly evocative is declassé."

We are not amused! We are not amused!

As has been pointed out before, all parody dies in this constricted, airless view of art. Shriver offers an example: "Me, I just put a brick on my desk. I gaze in wonderment at the contrast in textures--the smooth, unyielding sides of the brick, the rough, almost sexual crumble on its chipped corner, the humbler, more submissive sensuality of the scarred plywood desktop. I marvel at the fierce, affirmative perpendicular of the brick, in firm opposition to the languid, taciturn serenity of the lateral . . . But that's not even funny, is it? Joseph Beuys has piled bricks on a floor of the Guggenheim and called it art. How exasperating, a field so far out in la-la-land that it is impervious to parody. You see what I mean about being out of a job." She ends by pointing out that artists are out of a job as well, in this context--and likewise the R. A.

Who ain't?

As Twain said, "Who ain't an artist?" Well, almost. Those famous words were, "Who ain't a slave?" But I think either line will work in this setting.

Déjà Vu all over again

If only David Hensel had intended "Exhibit 1201," the "work" would be no different from one of Marcel Duchamps' "readymades" (they seem not to have been entirely "found" objects but often slightly-different duplications of found things, thus adding a slightly odd and interesting note to the whole enterprise.) And that would suggest that in 2006 some of us are stuck in 1913, the year of "Bicycle Wheel"--or perhaps 1913, the year of "Bottle Rack." Or perhaps some of us are abiding in 1917, when a urinal titled "Fountain" shocked its day, almost a century ago.

The Most Official Work of Art in the history of the Royal Academy,
and, perhaps, the world

The plinth-with-boxwood-support was seen by the Royal Academy as a work of art. Therefore it is a work of art. Therefore, it is titled by the Academy. Therefore, "Exhibit 1201" is actually a Duchampsian readymade created by the Royal Academy!

Sadly, "Exhibit 1201" offers neither humor or playfulness, shock or surprise. We feel only weariness that once again the art world of 2006 should befool itself with faded shadows of Modernism.

More on that little matter of surprise...

Indeed, we in 2006 cannot be shocked by anything much in the way of art--except, perhaps, by an unexpected and masterful incursion of the beautiful.

Daddy Duchamps at the chess board

What would Duchamps think? Duchamps turned his back on many modes (post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism) and on groups of artists in the course of his progress. It certainly made him an interesting figure. Perhaps he would refuse to reply, turning his back on art--as he did in life--and sit down at the chess board. As he said, chess "has all the beauty of art - and much more. It cannot be commercialized."

Or, words & the wrong worldview

While Shriver is dead right that the well-rendered and the emotional is still far out of fashion (in academic and intellectual circles and often elsewhere), another element surely came into play. Think of Duchamps and his titles--The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (commonly called The Large Glass), Prelude to a Broken Arm (a "readymade" snow shovel), or Fountain. Many were whimsical or included rude puns intended to upset the bourgeousie. Now think about the title of Hensel's piece.

Words are things of power, and David Hensel used them in a way clearly forbidden by the art world--indeed, by a whole segment of the powerful and educated in Western society. Whether he 'meant' them, I don't know, but I do know where he made his fatal error. "One Day Closer to Paradise" emphasizes the joy of the sculpture, but the title also makes clear reference to a wholly unacceptable world view in the realm of the arts--a religious world view that affirms space for joy and that calls on the artist to fulfill his call not with detritus and evidence of the meaningless but with well-made things of truth and beauty.

What was the poor man about? In our era, this sort of thing is patently a thought crime!

This view reads the world as a place of trial, defeat, redemption, and victory--as a region bursting with complex and dramatic story, where joy is still alive. It is a view that proclaims that men and women--even artists--have souls, and that they can damage them by perverting their gifts. To borrow from Keats, it still affirms that a thing of a beauty is a joy forever.

And to point with a scattering of words at that out-of-fashion vision of the world and art and the role of the artist is, quite possibly, the source of David Hensel's downfall.

There is a picture of the sculpture here. I'd borrow it, but Blogger is feeling whimsical and will not post images!


Postscript: Laura's comment made me think that I should have pointed out that there is a great lively jumble of sites and organizations devoted to the return of beauty and the renewal of art--and just as surely, there are other sites accusing the "renewal" sites of squelching the "wildness" in art. Here are a few disparate examples: the Art Renewal Center is "committed to reviving standards of craftsmanship and excellence," and has sited itself firmly in the frying pan; Terry Teachout's article, "The Return of Beauty," deals with the subject--and even talks about the little Yankee snowdrift where I now reside (look for Glimmerglass Opera!) The sidebar of this blog contains links to Makoto Fujimura’s International Arts Movement, web site, and blog, with reflections on “a 500-year art,” suffering and beauty, the resurgence of beauty, and many other topics.


  1. First of all, that was a very lively telling of the sculpture story. Love the green subtitles! And secondly, thank heavens, there IS a growing re-interest in well-made art. Narrative art has even been back in fashion for several years now. Check out recent issues of ARTnews and Art in America. Art schools are now teaching method!! (Too bad that wasn't true when I was in school.)You know what Style is, that pendulum-swinging phenomenon. There was good reason to jettison academic art and there still is, but the well-made and illusionistic piece of art, not stale or cliched, lives (and even kind of) thrives.

  2. You were here while I was there, I see...

    And I know you're right--and I'm fond of certain makers of very well-made art--but I still find episodes like this utterly mind-boggling and perversely entertaining!

    I see all that change in writing as well. That is, students sometimes write in forms now. I suppose that's a return, though I see a lot more lines thrown through the lawn mower than I see lines that come from somebody who loves sound and rhythm.

  3. What a thought provoking post, Marly. And, how odd--when I clicked the link and viewed the pictures I was astonished to find myself admiring the wooden support on its vast base. So nice and rounded, so wood against stone.
    It makes me fear for my artistic discernment.
    Or possibly I am settling into a potentially fun latter part of life, in which I will be looking at everything and going "oooh!" Kind of an aesthetic second childhood.

    Though I don't know if I'll ever read bad poetry and think "how nice, words on a page, cool!"

  4. But you do like the look and sound of, say, two wonderful words. And you like how they chink together when juxtaposed! You do find that satisfying, right? That's the counterpart, I think.

    Yes, I think that is evidence of "discernment." But it doesn't mean that you have to call the two words a poem.

  5. I spent last summer at an artists colony where there was so little interest in writing that the one other writer there finally succumbed to pressure and became a visual / video artist….since writing is thinking, it made me wonder.

    It may be because many of the artists and gallery shows I saw were attempting to take the role of ‘social commentarians” if there is such a word. But what they did was a lot like the “major sculptures” I did in high school – I created a piece of art that was a trash can rigged with a mobile of beer cans, so that when you vandalized it by setting it on fire, the lid crashed down and the beer cans went in the trash. HOW IRONIC! FUNNY AND LOUD TOO. Then I made a huge papier mache hamburger and put it in the school lunch room. Junk food! In your face! HOW IRONIC!!!!!

    Some of the art I saw in this mythic arty place was wholesale call to advocacy, which I admire, philistine that I am, and some of it was a hamburger in the lunch room. . . I must tell you, my pickle on the burger was finely crafted….

  6. Hmm. Perhaps you should talk to Laura!

    They are still making the papier mâchè objects in schools. R. made a bowl of giant cheerios this year.
    Not quite an Oldenburg-van Bruggen "Dropped Bowl with Scattered Slices and Peels"...

    To go to an arts colony in order to be stripped of your calling is a very bizarre idea. On the other hand, O'Connor says that more writers need to be stifled. But here all that has happened via stifling is the creation of another monster--a visual artist!

  7. You posted this at exactly 2:00 a.m. -- freaky. How'd you do that? Perhaps it's just the bloggerlords tweaking time.

    I'm never shocked by art, just by violence, man's inhumanity to man. I do, howerver, remember a controversy back in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (right across Eastern Parkway where I spent loads of time) regarding British artist Chris Ofili's paintings that depicted the Virgin Mary with African features and dark skin, and those odd shellacked clumps of elephant dung and cutouts of naked buttocks. Ofili contended that Elephant dung is both a reverential and "beautiful" object in some cultures. Pardon me, Ganesh, may I borrow your poopie? Whatever.

    Ah, the Dadaists! In college some friends and I started our own fraternity: Mu Alpha Epsilon, the Misinterpreted Abstract Expressionists. We thought the "Bicycle Wheel" was so cool. All the found art seems so quaint and tame now. Still, Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" film still amazes me -- those living walls and animated lanterns continue to haunt me. If you haven't seen this silent film, seek it out.

  8. Jim, in the palace it is always 2:00 a.m.! (In other people's palaces, it is another time--as in Giacometti's Palace, where it's always 3:00 a.m.)

    When your name is Ofili, perhaps you are drawn to offal. You didn't mention his brilliantly-colored, glittery "The Upper Room," with paintings of the disciples and a gold Christ in the form of rhesus macaques resting on balls of elephant kaka--all installed in David Adjaye's special walnut-panelled entrance and room made to suggest a chapel. In pictures, it seems that they have a stained-glass affect; the lighting actually throws color onto the floor, as in a church. There was an explosive reaction--but mostly about the fact that he was a trustee of the museum, so the Tate Modern purchase was a conflict of interest.

    There's a Guardian article with a lot of quotes from Ofili about religion: The hardest things to talk about with Ofili are ultimately the most important. "It's definitely not mocking of the Last Supper," he says. "But it's trying to paint it in a different way." His painting of The Holy Virgin Mary was taken as a deliberate insult, when, on the contrary, it was a serious attempt to come to terms with the polarities of existence and the nature of the beliefs with which Ofili grew up. "Religion is - I'm interested in it," he says. "I was brought up thinking about religion to a degree, and went to Catholic schools and college and went to church, like many other people. If I go to the National Gallery or to some older museums, I'll see a lot of religious painting. And so I'm looking at the content as well as how beautifully the face has been drawn in profile. So it's one of my subjects, along with other stuff." "Paradise Reclaimed," Guardian Unlimited

    Ofili has been a little reluctant to say exactly what he thinks about that little matter of religion. One thing I find interesting is that former Christians and non-Christians who use Christian materials in art pick up power, though it's often rather undirected and remains unclear in meaning.

    Yes, I like Cocteau. Steve Cieslawski, who did the jacket of one of my books, is a very interesting contemporary surrealist painter--CFM Gallery online has a lot of his pictures.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.