When I read that a pile of rubbish by “artist” Dane Mitchell was awarded Waikato’s biggest art prize, my mind went back several years ago when I was at architecture school (and I can tell you now that those weren’t the days). The students were always gathered together on the first day back for the new year to receive news, advice and the usual karakia. And they were warned: don’t leave your work out in the studio overnight unlabelled, because the cleaners will think it’s rubbish and throw it out.
So even back then in the mists of time, rubbish was being confused for art.
Fact is, it goes back to Marcel Duchamp, who around ninety years ago dragged a urinal out of a demolition yard and into a gallery and invited viewers to (metaphorically) piss on art. Profound don’t you think?
What Duchamp and the frauds who followed him had done was to leap into the intellectual vacuum of the age to redefine what their profession thought they were doing, and the intellectuals of the time and since have been too vacuous to properly challenge them.
The definition of art used by the nihilists (a nihilism about which Duchamp and his colleagues were explicit) was that “art” is simply whatever an artist elects to call “art.” And if you ask what makes an artist then, you’ll find that you’ve already started playing the artist’s game – because at the moment Duchamp installed his pissoir, the purpose of art had changed from producing something of beauty or a depiction of the world as the artist saw it, but to challenging the viewer. Épater le bourgeoisie!
So you see, the minute you react, they’ve got you (you disgusting bourgeois!). And you have reacted, which is what they were after (quel success!). So while Mr Mitchell will be pissing himself at how he’s put one over on everyone, Ms Huddleston and her fellow judges will be made up by the astonished reaction around the country to an art prize being given to a pile of rubbish.
But, I still hear you asking, how the hell can an artist get away with declaring his pile of rubbish to be “Art.” Enter here the manifesto. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in The Painted Word, the reality of “modern” and “post-modern” art is not in the actual object or work itself: it’s in the manifesto and in the reaction to it. Let me say that again: the art is not the junk on the ground; it’s in the “theorising” that accompanies it, without which the pile of junk would be just that.
In recent years prize-winning local and international art works have included semen-stained blankets, an empty room with a light bulb and a switch, piles of bricks, a toilet that brays like a donkey, and a man with hot dogs up his arse. All of these have won prizes and accolades (the stained blankets were, I kid you not, described by NBR’s art editor John Daly-Peoples as “haunting, powerful and provocative.” And the man with hot dogs in his rectum, viewers were told, “tapped into both public metaphors and personal history.” True stories.) But the real art, as Tom Wolfe’s point makes plain, was not in the bricks or the and the artistic experience for the viewer was not in their contemplation: It consisted of the bullshit used by the artist to con the gallery into installing it, the manifesto, and your reaction to the bullshit when you stumbled across it.
But this really is just rubbish, isn’t it. Art isn’t just “what an artist does” – and it’s certainly not what any old bullshit artist defines it to be. Art, real art, is the technology of the soul – it’s a shortcut to our deepest values. We respond to it because is resonates with (or betrays) our own emotional assessment of the world. By that standard then, our values -- and those of real artists -- are being desperately betrayed every day in every public gallery in the country.
And so are the sponsors, ratepayers and taxpayers who pay for it all.
UPDATE 1: Sayeth the competition organisers:
"There will always be people who love things and those who hate them. The bottom line is we always insure [sic] the judge we select has an excellent reputation."
Respondeth in a nutshell Jeff Perren:
“That says it all. Subjectivism, moral relativism, backed by an argument from authority.”