The Accidental Masterpiece

Art After Marcel Duchamp, and Other Woes
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 4 2005 1:34 PM

The Accidental Masterpiece

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Steve,

I like this political speechwriting format that you've clearly perfected. I could really get used to the suck-up.

Thanks for the kind words. You do need a sense of humor to survive the current art scene, which I suspect is not really so different from the literary scene. Definitely the pitfalls of art criticism are pedantry, humorlessness, and insider arrogance. People outside the art world now simply presume that art writing is not for them. I'm reminded of the scene in a Marx Brothers' movie (I suddenly forget which one) where Chico (or is it Harpo?) untethers a raft with an orchestra on it, and the musicians keep playing, oblivious that they're drifting out to sea.

You've also nailed the Scylla and Charybdis of art writing (pandering either to "a philistine majority culture that 'knows what it likes' " or "a hyper-refined minority culture"), except that I'm more optimistic than you that the world is not divided so strictly between philistines and snobs.

Art, like Washington and Wall Street and old I Love Lucy reruns, has increasingly become the province of wonky specialists and private interest groups. There are many good writers who love art, but it used to be that great writers wrote often about it: Proust, Diderot, Baudelaire, Zola, Balzac, Tolstoy. They wrote in the spirit of the amateur—that is, for the love of it, because art, like other rich social and cultural topics, provided them with the necessary tools: good stories, characters, dramas, philosophy. If surveys are right, more people today visit art museums than go to ballgames, so millions are clearly looking for something from art. But so much art criticism feels exclusive or condescending.

I suppose (forgive me for this bit of pedantry) the problem is a spillover from Marcel Duchamp's urinal. It was a short step from his urinal to the bottle of Paris air that Duchamp called a sculpture, after which Yves Klein invited Parisians to the opening of an exhibition at which there was nothing to see. If there was no difference between Duchamp's urinal and an ordinary urinal (plumbing aside) and an art show could consist of nothing, then art no longer necessarily resided in the thing itself but in those who interpreted the thing. Meaning it resided in what you aptly call the in-group. This by definition created an out-group, a majority, whose alienation greases the exclusionary system. The art market depends on this—the spectacle of rich people paying obscene amounts for somebody else's underpants or similar objects of dubious art providing compensatory dollops of black comedy.

Even so, I've found that good art is, by its nature, generous. It's about opening our eyes—about encouraging people to look more closely at what's around them (this was Klein's point). Art is too important and interesting to be left to the art world. This is why I am frequently attracted, as you are, to serious obsessives, often of a more private temperament, who, if not always divorced from cheap fame and passing fads, are at least legally separated from them. They throw themselves into their work, for its own sake, and are willing to fail. Their routines can speak to us, even if we don't, or can't, do what they do.

You mention, for example, Dr. Hicks, the Baltimore dentist who collected 75,000 light bulbs and opened the erstwhile Museum of Incandescent Lighting in his basement. In that same chapter I recall my late friend Alex. He was an aspiring novelist who lined his tiny, roach-infested studio apartment (in one of those vanilla brick buildings near the United Nations) with bookshelves stuffed to capacity, so that whenever he bought a new book he had to dispose of one of equivalent width. Most of us just make piles. Precarious ones are even now threatening to topple over onto my laptop.

By tending methodically to his books, Alex, I came to realize, was devising a kind of evolving self-portrait, a shifting, surrogate literary identity. He turned something utterly mundane and routine into an artful act. I hadn't thought anybody else noticed what he was up to. Then after he died, I visited his father in London, and as I was leaving his house I spotted Alex's whole dog-eared collection, including his cheap pine bookshelves. His father had shipped everything across the Atlantic and recreated the library as a kind of memorial and a homespun work of installation art.

So, yes, to answer another of your questions, in terms of critical attitude I imagine my job is to find ways to explain what it is that we're all looking for when we go to museums, myself included. I guess I think that means going beyond a thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdict, or delivering a potted art history lesson. Down off my soapbox I can try to seek out old-fashioned stories, even adventures, that, in turn, permit a degree of constructive ambivalence. You say you're glad I express skepticism about Donald Judd and similar macho, misanthropic egomaniacs who built their own Xanadus in the middle of nowhere for millions of other people's dollars. I felt skeptical about them in the beginning. But I came to regard their obsessiveness and egomania as useful counterbalances in an equivocal and cautious cultural age. Acknowledging my own doubt was part of telling the whole story.

Now let me ask you: What do you look for when you go to a museum or a gallery? Is it beauty and cultural instruction, or good air-conditioning and an amusing crowd?  

Michael

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