When it comes to art, everyone’s favorite whipping boy is conceptual modern art. Each of us knows the experience of standing in our local art museum and feeling a bewildered rage at the jerk who nailed bits of string to a wall in the shape of Chairman Mao. Or Benny Goodman? Or maybe the Mona Lisa? Or nothing? We all hate this. It confuses us. It annoys us. It makes us ponder whether or not the National Endowment for the Arts is really a worthwhile use of our tax dollars. It makes us cheer whenever the working class hero of our favorite sitcom accidentally urinates in Marcel Duchamp’s critically acclaimed urinal.
And, frankly, we’re not wrong to think that way. The sad fact of the matter is that much of conceptual art is really terrible. Not in the sense that the artists who make it are incompetent, but in the sense that what they create frequently fails to do what art exists to do—communicate.
A piece of art is a piece of language. We create it in order to say things that cannot be said except through colors or novels or guitar plucks. When we see a truly good work of art, a painting by Van Gogh depicting a farmer in a field for example, it imparts something in us. Maybe that something is a simple idea, maybe it is just the beauty of a moment, maybe it is just an awe of the immense effort and skill it took to create it, but it is always there.
And yet you might wander through the entirety of a museum like the Tate Modern or the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art or Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory and feel like you’ve gained anything from the things you’ve seen. Feel nothing but void and boredom and the soreness of your feet.
That is a failure. Sometimes it is a failure of your own small mind, but more often it is a failure of the artists themselves. A failure of their laziness, their pretension, their stupidity, or their complete misunderstanding of what it is they, as artists, are supposed to be doing when they beg us for a sliver of our short, cluttered, rapidly ending lives.
I recently came across these two entirely unrelated pieces of art displayed in a gallery at one of America’s most respected art museums:
The work of art in the foreground, as you can see, is a piece of yarn strung from a seemingly random point in the middle of the floor up to a seemingly random point in the middle of the window.
Generally, there are 2 reasons a person in an art museum reads the plaque that accompanies a work of art: 1) they really like a piece and want to know more about it or learn the artist’s name so they can remember it, or 2) because they have no idea what it is they’re looking at. So let’s look at the plaque. What it claims is that the artist who strung the yarn really wanted us to think about “pedestrian spaces.” Ah yes, “pedestrian spaces,” those elusive spaces that exist when people aren’t just standing still in space, but also moving in space, just without the help of cars, bicycles, or horses.
In contrast, the painting in the background is an obnoxious modern art classic—the blank canvas. Everyone one of us “painted” that picture in middle school obligatory art class, handed to the art teacher, and then were promptly slapped for being lazy little shits.
This version though has a twist. The upper quarter is slightly shadowed. Look closely.
There are slight shadows up there in a sort of architectural shape, like the kind you might see on a garden trellis. And you thought this painting was just worthless – he actually put effort into it! Some measurable quantity of effort. Doesn’t that redeem everything? Hasn’t that changed your conception of what this artist was about? Don’t you now see that it was all a ploy to bring you in close and make you realize that what appears at a distance may not be the truth in closeness? That maybe you shouldn’t judge until you’ve examined something in its entirety because in some hidden corner there might be a lazily spray-painted hint of a shadow?
Both of these works are catastrophes.
What expansion of the miserable bleakness of existence do either of these works offer us? None. Nothing. Fuck off. They have committed the worst possible sin that any artist can possibly commit—the artistic equivalent of leaving a puppy to die in a hot car—they have wasted their audience’s time. For that, shame should haunt them until the day they die, if they are not already dead, in which case, good! They were boils on the body aesthetic.
But Not Everything is Terrible
A while back I happened to visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The IMA is not one of the most famous art museums in America, but it’s secretly one of the best. Unlike the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Tate Modern, or the unholy monstrosity that is the Louvre, the IMA believes in quality over quantity. Instead of jamming 12 paintings by Van Gogh down your throat, it jams one, but it’s a damn nice one.
But what’s really astounding about the IMA is that its good taste extends beyond marvelous Ghanaian masks or Chinese scroll paintings, and into the miserable, confusing, pretentious waters of the contemporary art. Not every piece that the IMA shows is a winner (the yarn and almost blank canvas come from the IMA) but the overall level of quality—the sheer number of pieces of conceptual art that actually impressed me, delighted me, made me feel that strange tingly sensation between my ears that my doctor tells me is joy—is unparalleled in any art museum I have ever set foot in.
The very first thing I saw—their “opening salvo”—made me stop and say something I’ve never before said in a contemporary art gallery, “Holy shit, that’s some art!”
At which point a security guard glared at me as if I were a peasant.
The first duty of any work of art is to be awesome. It has to hold us transfixed with wonder at how—be it novel, painting, sculpture, film, or video game—it could possibly exist.
The terribleness of all the conceptual art we’ve been talking about comes from the fact it tries to create that awe merely through its concept—through the idea behind the art. The measure of its quality becomes, essentially, its cleverness. Cleverness, however, is a very difficult thing to transmit when all your using is a strand of yarn strung across a room. It requires nuance, reference, a clear grasp of its entire cultural context, and demands those things be transmitted immediately. Conceptual art struggles to do that. It’s too blunt, too slow, too imprecise. Too often no one ever figures out what it’s talking about, or if they do figure it out, it takes so much pondering and plaque reading and Wikipedia searching that whatever happens to be there to “get” can’t possibly come across as anything other than trite.
In contrast, whatever ideas the artist Nick Cave (not to be confused with this Nick Cave) tries to convey with his Soundsuit take a backseat to the suit itself. The wonder of the suit is the focus, its intricacies, its colors; its insane, spewing phonograph of a mouth, its luminous knitted floral pants. Like a marvelous painting by Courbet or Seurat, it’s just really cool to look at it. Instead of wondering what Nick Cave is trying to tell you, you wonder how it was Nick Cave was able to assemble all of these trinkets into one free-standing humanoid structure.
If a work of art is to be successful—if it is to be a true work of art—it can’t lose its audience in a swamp of intellectual abstractions. It has to absorb the audience into itself. It has to make them stand there and ponder the work not out of bewilderment but out of interest and delight.
The Mobius Ship
Once in a while, a piece of art actually is clever. For example Tim Hawkinson’s Mobius Ship. This is an artwork founded on a pun. A PUN! And yet it is phenomenal. Again, because the concept—the pun—is quickly submerged beneath the physical artwork itself.
The Soundsuit is a thing that before you saw it you could have never imagined existing; the Mobius Ship doesn’t quite reach that level. It’s an expansion of something you always knew existed—model ship building—but taken in an unexpected direction. But cleverness alone isn’t what makes something a cool work of art. The Mobius Ship actually took effort to make. It’s cool for the same reason an actual model ship is cool—the craftsmanship, the immensity of work that went into shaping each tiny piece of wood, raising each mast, hanging each sail, and tying each strand of rigging.
Tim Hawkinson worked really hard to make the Mobius Ship. No one worked hard to make that almost blank canvas. No one—other than some Chinese sweat shop laborer—worked hard on that yarn.
3. This Thing That Doesn’t Have a Name
We’ve done a lot of taking about how the concept of an artwork needs to take a “backseat,” about how art should just shut up and be beautiful. That’s a good rule of thumb for any aspiring creative type, but it’s not a universal. There are pieces that place their concept front and center and still manage to be interesting works of art. They do this by making the concept and the art itself a unified whole.
One such piece is the work above (which has no title) by Gabriel Pionkowski. What Pionkowski did is take a “ready-made” canvas—like the kind you would buy at Target depicting the skyline of Paris—and unravel all of its threads, draping them one by one over their old frame. This is deconstructionist art at its purest, but also at its best. Because unlike all those deconstructionist novels you were forced to read in college, what it’s deconstructing is actually clearly present in the work itself—a painting.
Art—especially conceptual art—works like a good joke. You need to set the baseline of reality, of expectation, and then deviate from it in some delightful way. If the baseline is not clear, the joke fails. If the deviation is not clear (or inspired) the joke fails. That could have easily happened to this work. If Pionkowski had dumped all the threads on the floor, this work would have sucked because we wouldn’t have known what it was doing until we stumbled over and read the plaque, by which point Oh, I get it; he tore apart a painting! would have been transformed into, Oh, I get it; the asshole tore apart a panting. But because there is the frame, we know immediately that what’s happening here is some sort of parody of a painting. We know its context. We know its intentions. We can read it.
Yet it’s not just a parody of a painting. Unlike the almost blank canvas above, the unraveled canvas is actually an improvement—a thing that transforms a presumably mundane mass produced piece of “art” into something that’s really visually striking. The threads have all these twisting, blending fragments of color and take on a strange ghost-like translucence as they dangle in front of the wall. Like with all good art, you actually want to look at it.
On their own, the visual aspect of the work would be interesting and the concept clever, but together they create something that’s insightful—that doesn’t just “hope” to challenge our understanding of art, but actually does.
Unlike the other 3 artworks we’ve been praising, which are essentially glorified sculptures, Do-Ho Suh’s “Floor” is a full-on installation. It takes up an entire gallery room. You walk in and you see this roughly six-inch raised platform sticking up off the floor with a wooden base and a Plexiglas top. In between those two layers are thousands and thousands and thousands of tiny plastic people standing with their arms raised up, the Plexiglas floor resting on their hands.
Unlike the Mobius Ship, there isn’t really a great deal of craftsmanship going on here. The floor is just a floor. The wood just wood. The figures have presumably been manufactured by the thousand with an injection mold somewhere. Do-Ho Suh is not someone with astounding skill at making something; instead it’s the assemblage, the vision of how all these things could work together to create something greater than the sum of their parts.
What makes Do-Ho Suh an artist—a good artist—is that when you walk up and stand on the “Floor” and look down, what you see this:
Tens of thousands of tiny plastic hands holding you up. This, of course, conjures up all sorts of ideas about your place in society, about how the lives of billions have gone before you to prepare the world in which you live, where you get to do luxurious things like wearing softly yellow pants to Midwestern art museums instead of dying in salt mines. But, like draped canvas threads, it’s also pretty. More than pretty, it’s like a pointillist supernova spreading out beneath your feet.
Floor does what installation art is meant to do—create an interaction that goes beyond what you can create just by putting some paint on a canvas or setting a thing on a pedestal. What Ho-Do Suh wants to say demands something much more complicated than that, and so he creates the interaction necessary. He builds his floor, and then lures you on top of it so you can see a hundred thousand tiny, plastic hands reaching up towards you like they were plants and you the sun. That is not an experience that can be replicated any other way. Even photographs of the work are pale, clumsy imitations.
Like the best books are books that could only ever be books, the best works of art are the ones that could never be anything but what they are. You can only unravel a painting by unraveling it. You can only transform a ship into a Mobius strip by building a ship in the shape of a Mobius strip. The idea and the form are a cohesive whole—they’re inseparable. If your art could be more effectively and beautifully replaced by a grandmotherly cross stitch spelling out the thesis of your art, than it’s not very good art and you should maybe consider a career in business management.
(Art is confusing. Why are some paintings good and others bad? Why does everyone love the Venus de Milo so much? What the hell is this that thing hanging in my local art museum? Holy Shit, That’s Some Art is a layman’s attempt to figure it all out and return to the art world that sense of wonder and delight that’s been missing now for at least 50 years. For more follow HSTSA on Twitter.)