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The modern art of outrageousness (but also of other things)

I have started reading The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by economist Don Thompson, and it mentions (on page 11 of my 2008 hardback edition) an episode I vaguely remember:

In 2003 a 25-year-old student named Clinton Boisvert at the School of Visual Arts in New York was asked to produce a sculpture project showing how the emotion elicited by art could impact on life. Boisvert created three dozen black boxes each stenciled with the word “Fear.” He had just finished hiding the last of these in New York City subway stations when he was arrested. A dozen stations were shut down for several hours while police squads retrieved the sculptures. Boisvert was convicted of reckless endangerment, but received an “A” for the project.

I googled this Boisvert character, but found nothing else except this one episode. I guess there is bourgeois respectability, in the form of lots of things that the imaginary bourgeoisie are imagined still to take seriously and to get outraged about, which art has traded on by treading on for over a century. And then there is actual respectability, the outraging of which causes the actual bourgeoisie – the sort that likes, exhibits in galleries, and buys contemporary art rather than being outraged by it – to want nothing to do with you on account of you being just too much trouble.

More generally, I am reading the book quoted above because I find myself wanting to know more about the phenomenon of Modern Art/Contemporary Art (Thompson says Modern is before 1970 and Contemporary is after 1970). My first thought is that what caused and causes Modern Art etc. – what is Modern art – is complicated, and that there is no one thing that can explain it or describe it properly. See my cascade of self-commenting here, which was where I first blogged about Thompson’s book. The rise of photography and then of the cinema and television, the rise of and nature of the modern news media, the demoralisation afflicting European culture as a result of the World Wars, WW1 in particular, the Baby Boom and its serial obsessions, lots of new money, etc. etc. etc. … there are many reasons why the visual arts in the twentieth century and since have turned out the way they have. The temptation to reduce Modern Art and all its works to one particular sort of annoyingness – modern art is nothing but … !! – is, well, very tempting. But such temptation should be resisted, because whichever single cause you choose is just not going to be the whole story.

It would not be true, for instance, to say that Contemporary Art, or Modern Art, is only about winding people up and getting lots of outraged publicity, although of course that definitely is part of the story. But, all comments on the above ruminations will be most welcome to me, even foolishly reductive single cause comments, but citing single causes which I had not thought about before.

Just now, my personal favourite contributory cause of Modern/Contemporary Art (because so often neglected in amongst all the complaints about dead sharks) is the demand for quiet spaces which one may visit without being bombarded with multiple advertising messages and reminders of one’s disappointing place in the rat race, and where one may consort with other rats who likewise don’t like to be reminded of their insufficiently ratlike ratness all the time, for example by portraits of self-important rat race winners of the past. But all this without having to doff one’s cap to a religion that one does not believe in. If that’s your problem, an art gallery adorned with blank canvasses, or canvasses consisting of big coloured rectangular blobs, could be just what you want. Which means that the very same art objects which outrage some with their meaninglessness can simultaneously soothe others, with that very same meaninglessness.

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12 comments to The modern art of outrageousness (but also of other things)

  • Dale Amon

    I hope Clinton went far because that was an absolutely brilliant piece of art as performance. Some modern artists are the 20th and 21st century equivalent of the court jester.

    I am going to be chuckling at random moments all day long, every time I think of those little black fear boxes!

  • For art that inspires without saying what a turkey’s neck you are, how about art that depicts nature? A gorgeous landscape, a painting of wolves or elk or elephants, that can be soothing and good for the soul without grating on the senses.(Link)

  • Jerome Thomas

    Landscapes? Animal Pictures? Art featuring things that are pretty to look at? What a banal and provincial idea. Those motifs are entirely lacking in the proper transgressive attitude! Most damning of all, they are utterly bereft of the essential ironic detachment that is the hall mark of the true modern artist.

    No, no no.
    Art must reflect the edginess and sophistication of both its producers and its audience. Their willingness to transgress bourgeois social conventions, their willingness to defy the prudishness of conventional attitudes.

    Animal pictures? Really Mary… why would any serious artist waste their time on such trivia when Art can be used for the promotion of challenging messages that cut against the grain of our complacent society… Messages that challenge our assumptions, stretch our thinking in new ways, take us out of our comfort zone and force us to reexamine our most cherished convictions and attitudes.
    Messages such as


    Now THATS really pushing the envelope.

  • RAB

    Imagine the Antiques Roadshow 2050 edition.

    Heavens what have you brought us!
    It looks like a fishtank.

    We found it in my grandmas loft after she died.

    Any idea what it is?

    Well granny used to keep banging on about a great treasure, and Daimons being in the attic.
    But we thought she was just mad.

    She was sir.
    What you have here is a genuine Daimion Hurst.

    The Impossibility of the idea of Death in the mind of one still living.
    If I’m not mistaken.

    Or half a shark in formaldihide to you squire!
    It is authentically wiffy though.

    Yeah we have been wondering about the smell for years.
    So what’s it worth?

    Absoloutely nothing !
    In fact, seeing as you broke the seal getting it in here, and it’s leaked all over my shoes, I’m afraid we will have to charge you £150 to take it down the Dump.

  • First off, I think modern and contemporary art are very different things.

    Actually I don’t like the label “contemporary” at all. It’s misleading. It could refer to one of Brian’s photos or one of my brother’s prints or a water colour of a pensioner’s cat. But it also inevitably gets conflated with conceptual art which is bunk.

    I am not wearing my old fogey hat here. Conceptual stuff is the stock in trade since (roughly 1970) of the contemporary art scene. Art has gone south before (I can’t stick baroque stuff – fat birds, rolling eyes, general histrionics and gauze landing in exactly the right place) and will rally and then go backwards again sometime.

    Modern Art is from an earlier era. I like a lot of it. I love Mondrian for example and Graham Sutherland’s crucifiction (Tate, I think) is pretty much the most powerful rendering of that sunject I have ever seen but… like anything else some is good and some is dross.

    But the point with MA is that in some sense it exists as an object in itself with an intrinsic value. In that sense it is no different from earlier works. Contemporary (I prefer the term “post modern”) art isn’t like that. It is entirely contextualised. It utter lacks the timelessness of true art. It utterly lacks the timeless appeal of, say, the arse on the Rokeby Venus.

    That’s quite an arse.

  • Kevin B

    Nick M

    I have to disagree with your choice of cruxifiction paintings. For me it is Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross which I was lucky enough to see in Glasgow. Perhaps it is the sheer scale of the painting as well as the almost godlike point of view which got me.

    As for what you call contempory or conceptual art, I call it ‘taking the piss’.

  • Brian writes, “…without having to doff one’s cap to a religion that one does not believe in” As opposed to getting your quiet time in cathedrals, I take it. But I’m not sure you do escape having to do something very like doffing. It takes nerve to walk straight through a gallery without either pausing in front of the pictures to look at them in an attitude of respectful silence or pausing in front of the pictures to mutter “bollocks” in a carrying voice. Both forms of worship are acceptable.

    More seriously, I think you’ve already covered nearly all the causes for the phenomenon. The best I can do is add a gloss on one of them you already know. One of the purposes of art in most periods is to show that the possessor is so rich that he can afford to spend a fortune on a mere pretty object. With modern art you go one step further: the object isn’t even pretty.

  • Laird

    I think the principal Contributory Cause is money, specifically tax money. Tax-funded groups like the National Endowment for the Arts are merely ATMs for “artists” who could never support themselves if they actually had to sell something to a real buyer. (Is it even possible to buy “performance art”?) It’s a scam, aided and abetted by (1) knowing accomplices who sit on those boards and commissions, and use their influence to feather the nests of their friends, and (2) their fellow board members who won’t try to block such grants because they are terrified of being labelled as “ignorant” (or worse, as “discriminatory”). Eliminate tax funding and this “art” would largely disappear.

  • Blacksmith


    For sale of performance art, you might try the local newspaper – specifically, the police blotter. Dozens of lonely men who try to buy “performance art” appear in those pages. Excellent point about the pay from tax money producing such rubbish though – most of what my friends and I consider the best art of the last several decades has come from advertising and “artist’s concept” pieces done for major companies. Though it did take me aback somewhat to see a framed magazine painting of a 1960s Pontiac Bonneville at a friend’s the first time, I would much rather have that on my wall than any recent Po-Mo tripe.

  • buwaya

    Tom Wolfe, “The Painted Word”

    Well, its one theory, but he did do a nice piece of detective work, tracing the thread of evidence straight back to a few of the responsible parties, art critics who had an unusual influence, and turned art into literature, or rather ideology.

  • Mart

    Here’s a reference to his second piece (near the end) :


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