"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Art That Bites

Artists in the twentieth-century increasingly operated on the insight that it is vain, stupid, and boring to paint a beautiful and emotionally moving portrait of a landscape or person or pieces of fruit or a scene from the Bible or a war fight or a group of local burghers gathered for their nightly guarding of the town, and that those who did so were captives of bourgeois values whose work spread false consciousness and destroyed souls (and by the way, there is no such thing as a soul).

An example of repugnantm, soul-destroying, false consciousness, painted by Dutch artist Vermeer

This phenomenon has been well documented over the past couple of decades in books such as Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word and in the excellent culture magazine The New Criterion.

Of course, for most people the best response to such things is to ignore them and, when they cannot be avoided, ridicule them.

A Los Angeles art show this weekend shows that the anti-art, anti-bourgeois, anti-social art movement is still strong.

The show, called Barely Legal, is put on by Banksy, a British prankster and graffiti artist, whose work pushes what passes for serious art today into open absurdity. It is the reductio ad absurdum of modern art, which is not much of a reduction at all.

http://www.textanalyse.dk/Billeder/Vermeer%20Kontrast%201.jpg

Unfortunately, the show is not meant to satirize the contemporary art world but is in fact simply a cheesy and self-consciously ludicrous manifestation of it.

Banko's installations have a clear "anti-capitalist" (in the words of the Reuters article quoted below), anti-bourgeois message. Too bad, for he really does seem to have an ability to create mildly amusing if decidely unimaginative faux contemporary art scenarios.

Reuters reports:

A live Asian elephant, painted in pink and gold, stands in a makeshift living room.

Giant cockroaches swarm over copies of Paris Hilton's pop CD. A dummy angel wearing a gas mask and a white parachute flaps in the blue skies.

Even in free-wheeling Los Angeles, they'd never seen anything quite like this.

British graffiti artist and prankster Banksy opened his first Los Angeles show on Friday in an obscure warehouse in industrial Downtown, bringing his subversive humor and anti-capitalist message to a city better known for wealth and self-obsession.

"Barely Legal," a free three-day event billed as a "vandalized warehouse extravaganza," opened with the excitement and puzzlement that has come to be the hallmark of the elusive "guerrilla artist."

Banksy keeps his identity secret but has built up a cult following in Europe over the last four years, placing his work in top museums, zoos or on the streets.

"It is really amazing. I think he is hilarious," said Los Angeles graphic designer Manny Skiles, 30, who has spent two years following Banksy's work mostly through the Internet.

Banksy's works show about the usual level of imagination evident in these contemporary art scenarios, which is to say, very little:

On one wall, a stencil art picture shows bush hunters in loincloths raising their spears at empty supermarket shopping carts. On another, a masked street anarchist with a thrown back arm prepares to hurl -- a bunch of flowers.

But the placid pink elephant takes pride of place. Tai, 38, looms large in a room decked out with a sofa, a television, rugs on the floor and a man and woman sitting reading obliviously on the couch. It is titled "Home Sweet Home."

"We are sitting on the couch not seeing her. From what I understand, the elephant is a symbol of all the world's problems being ignored," said Kari Johnson, Tai's caretaker. Johnson said Tai lives on a private southern California elephant ranch and has appeared in several commercials.

This is all highly reminiscent of much 1960s hippie "art." And the "artist's" politics are just as nuanced and deeply informed as those of his '60s prankster predecessors:

Banksy, as is his custom, was not around to discuss his show, which followed a prank at Disneyland this month in which he placed a blow-up figure dressed in orange Guantanamo Bay prison overalls beside a roller-coaster ride.

Last month, Banksy placed remixed copies of Paris Hilton's debut CD in stores across England. He gave them titles such as "Why Am I Famous?" and "What Am I For?"

In the "Barely Legal" show, the fake Hilton CDs are displayed in a plexiglass case alongside photo-shopped pictures of the hotel heiress and live cockroaches.

What this world needs is an installation that makes appropriate fun of all this nonsense. Banko could be just the one to do it, if he could only get past his own idological complacency. That, however, is one thing that he, like his contemporaries, appears unlikely to challenge.

For extensive coverage of this topic and others, go to Karnick on Culture.

3 comments:

Akaky said...

Doesnt the elephant's presence in such a precious show qualify as cruelty to animals? Instead of annoying pachyderms like this, let's dress the guys held in Guantanamo Bay up in pink and gold and put them in the Museum of Modern Art,or is this a violation of the Geneva Conventions?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hehe. Great title, ST.

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks, Tom.

Akaky: the caretaker in the exhibit, Kari Johnson, said, as quoted in the above-mentioned Reuters story, "There is nothing in the world I would ever do to harm an elephant. The paint is nontoxic and washable and does not hurt a bit." These people are nothing if not sensitive to what is politically fashionable among their patrons.