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.