The Accidental Masterpiece

The In-Group Mentality of Contemporary Art
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 5 2005 8:02 AM

The Accidental Masterpiece



Yours is such a good question, I'm temporarily stumped. I once found myself wandering through an art museum in Moscow. A nerveless traveler to begin with—I get disoriented leaving my kitchen to go to my living room—in Moscow I felt beyond stranded: alien, mute, stupid, and marked for petty crime. Killing time in this museum, I wandered through an assembly of old-master oils, none of which I could distinguish from any other. And then a face was looking out at me, so strange and yet so recognizably human in all its weariness, I suddenly felt less alien and stupid (though no less marked for petty crime). I leaned forward to see that the painting was, indeed, a Rembrandt.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

A second, related anecdote: A friend of mine is a talented up-and-coming artist (you've probably run across his stuff—Benjamin Edwards) whose work I genuinely admire. Every few weeks or so, he comes to New York to trawl the various Chelsea galleries, and every now and then I tag along. At the end of a typically dispiriting circuit, in which the usual exhibitionistic tropes were on display, we stood lingering on a street corner. An older man, who, if I had to guess, was not homeless but a remnant of the old SRO days of Chelsea, walked up to us and said, "Disneyland for rich people. It's just Disneyland for rich people."

I can't deny the power of either one of these experiences. If I still go to museums or galleries, it's to be reminded that life is a series of unhappenings, and that this is the good news. If I avoid galleries and museums, it's because the cunning of bad art only redoubles our own boredom with ourselves back on ourselves, while making us feel excluded. No amount of air-conditioning and people-watching can make up for that.

Now back to your superb book. (And I write that last in reviewer mode, not speechwriter mode.) I was intrigued to see you date a certain tendency in art back to Duchamp, who famously signed the urinal "R. Mutt," converting it into Fountain, or a work of art. In your book, you write, "[Duchamp] challenged the prestige of the handmade." But he also inaugurated the total prestige of the gesture, the signature, as you very effectively argue. (Does this mean that Fountain is the very opposite of an accidental masterpiece?) If I follow you, you trace to Duchamp's founding gesture the origin of the in-group mentality, which implies the philistinism of the majority, the out-group. The basis of this mentality is, "I get it, because I get that everyone else will be getting it too." It acts like any pricing mechanism—you calibrate your own estimation of a thing based on the value you anticipate others will assign it. (The literary critic René Girard calls this "mediated desire.") I don't think what I felt when I saw the Rembrandt was "mediated desire." What I felt when I saw the signature was: "Huh, this whole art thing—maybe it's not such a fraud." To an even greater extent, your friend Alex's book collection so lacked a signature that its dignity as a private memorial act was total. When you discovered that Alex's father had preserved it, the discovery didn't enter you into a market relation with Alex's father, or with the memory of Alex; no "value" was assigned, no desire excited or extinguished; it was something closer to a communion, if I hear you right.

Which is why I like your book so much. Is this maybe the dialectic of the "accidental masterpiece"? Without something like a self-conscious gesture to heighten it, life recedes back into its old banal self. The bland surface of things (Updike) closes back upon itself; the ax never strikes the frozen sea within (Kafka). (Pick your own high literary cliché, though I still find both of these quite moving.) Heighten the gesture too much, though, and what do you get? A circle-jerk of the wealthy and hyper-educated. Where you draw the line is "taste," about which only the most provisional consensus is ever possible. So "good taste" is an open argument, not a laundry list of acceptable items. (A friend has already e-mailed to excoriate me for my idiotic dismissal of Donald Judd.)

I wonder, can we take this a step further? Has pride in despising philistinism itself become a mass luxury item, like the BMW 5 Series and the Sub-Zero fridge? So many people now know that Van Gogh died unvalued, and that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was mistaken for rebarbative junk, that the need to push frontiers has itself become habitual? The bourgeoisie can't get enough of placing its own thumb in its eye. No limit can be placed on the tendency; in fact, it constantly needs to refresh itself with new outrages. Thus an art district can indeed become a Disneyland for rich people. To employ life itself to chasten this tendency—to bring life to bear on our experience of sculptures and paintings, or poems and novels and plays—isn't philistinism; it's the opposite of philistinism.

Of the many great excerpts and quotes you include in The Accidental Masterpiece, maybe my favorite comes from Heinrich Heine: "Ach! I can't write any more. How can I write when there's no longer any censorship? How should a man who has always lived with censorship suddenly be able to write without it? All style will cease, the whole grammar, the good habits!"

Many thanks, Michael, for a delightful book, and a delightful exchange. I look forward to hearing from you this afternoon!




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