Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Rubbish? Art? But I repeat myself! [update 2]

PoseurLooksAtCrap 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? 

Duchamp’s pissoir (pictured right) certainly changed art permanently, but not for the good.

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.”

UPDATE 2The Opinionated Mummy has a new fairy tale you need to read, based on a true story:  The Emperor’s Artist’s New Rubbish.


  1. Jonathan Yegge is a personal favourite:

    Jonathan Yegge was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2000, he presented a performance art piece that caused a lot of controversy. Yegge asked for a volunteer from his art class and had him sign a contract stating that he was agreeing to participate in a performance piece containing acts "including and up to a sexual or violent nature.Yegge then led the volunteer out into a public area on campus, where he was tied up, blindfolded and gagged. The two men then took turns giving one another oral sex. The volunteer then received an enema, after which both men took turns defecating on one another.

    It's amazing what two consenting adults can do with each other's bodies isn't it ?

    Ha Ha Ha

  2. Good piece, you can replace the word 'art' throughout for 'politics' and it remains similarly valid.

  3. A Great piece, Peter.

    I would emphasise, further, that the 'value' of a piece of art (and music etc) surely depends to a large degree on the amount of tecnique and skill that goes into its creation.

    If any old fuckwit could replicate it without any appreciable practice or technique (like silent or dischordant random sounds as "music" and random colour slashes across a canvas etc) then this in my view discounts it as serious or valuable art; it is nothing more than an insult to the intelligence of the viewer.

  4. I think michael newberry's work is "not very good porn". At least Duchamp stretched my ideas.

  5. Of what import is an "I think" when the "I" is unnamed, and clearly can't.

  6. I think michael newberry's work is "not very good porn". At least Duchamp stretched my ideas. (and questioned the notion of authorship)

  7. Nice. He clearly can think.

  8. This is the sort of issues that Sue Bradford should concentrate on opposing, in wasting taxpayer dollar in funding artwork and competition based on rubbish like this. This $15,000 waste of taxpayer dollar hurts the citizens of the country more than telling parents how to raise their kids.

  9. I saw this nonsense on 'Close Up' last night (much prefer Paul Henry to Sainsbury)..and was appalled!

    This monstrous fraudster, Dane Mitchell, has relieved some incredibly gullible people of $15,000 in a way that chap from Blue Chip would be proud of.

    Delighted, Peter, you quoted Tom Wolfe, he has a finely tuned 'Bulls**t antenna'! ha ha!

  10. The Venus de Milo was a piece of rubbish, smashed and buried until it's discovery and re-cognised value.

  11. Venus
    - wasn't intended as rubbish from the start
    - was actually created by the "artist" rather than by following written instructions
    - required effort to create
    - couldn't be done by just anyone
    - was meant to represent something in the real world
    - was intended to be aesthetically pleasing
    - presumably wasn't created by a lazy pretentious git who only did it to show how much advantage he could take of gullible morons.

    The pile o' crap in Hamilton was none of these.

    BTW, FF: I'm not sure it was public money.

  12. The Venus de Milo was collateral damage in an ancient war, but was never "rubbish". Even when broken in pieces the work exudes beauty, grace, proportion, and emotional content - qualities fundamentally missing from rubbish, and certainly missing from the pile of discarded parcel wrappings that started this discussion!

    The Wiki on Venus underscores the point: The twisting stance and strong projection of the knee, as well as the rich, three-dimensional quality of the drapery, are typical of Hellenistic art of the third century BC and later. Moreover, the sensuous juxtaposition of flesh with the texture of drapery, which seems about to slip off the figure, adds an insistent note of erotic tension that is thoroughly Hellenistic in concept and intent.

  13. A plastic bag is not rubbish, it's a designed object. It becomes rubbish when you no longer value it. Dane Mitchell has recycled it and re-evaluated it.
    Art is Rubbish (sense of humour).
    Rubbish is Art (provocative).
    Maybe we can all re-evaluate.

  14. I guess you hit the nail on the head when you say Mitchell has "re-evaluated" it. In my opinion, you need to do more to something than "re-evaluate" it to turn it into art. It was discarded by the other artist, therefore it was rubbish. Mitchell has added nothing to it since then, so it's still rubbish, despite what went on in his mind regarding it.

    He produced a lesser "work" than Duchamp in at least these ways:
    - Duchamp at least was personally involved in preparing his toilet
    - Duchamp added to it (albeit minimally) with his R Mutt tag
    - Duchamp chose something that to some minds may possibly have its own aesthetic appeal. Some might consider the shape of the urinal to be attractive, perhaps when placed a certain way and viewed from certain angles.

    The fact that Mitchell wasn't even there and wasn't involved in arranging the "piece" into its final state, added nothing to it in the way of arrangement, paint, words, styling, etc, and started with something with no aesthetic value to anyone other than pretentious art freaks trying to show off to their mates makes this item much less artistic than Duchamp's bog, incredible as that is to believe.


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