Anti-Art On The Docket

 Damien Hirst, Dead Head

Damien Hirst, Dead Head (1999), photograph, 8″ x 10″; courtesy Christie’s

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On the front cover of the Sotheby’s catalog accompanying part one of its upcoming auction of contemporary art you’ll find Marcel Duchamp’sFountain (1917), his renowned and, as some would have it, revolutionary ready-made:  a urinal signed “R. Mutt”.  (The lost original was replaced by an edition of eight replicas made in 1964.)  On the back cover is Robert Gober’s Drain (1989), which is, well, a drain.  These bracketing images make for a cute visual pun on plumbing, but they also serve as a devastating jest on the course of contemporary art.

I mean, do the folks at Sotheby’s really want to suggest that “the enduring influence of Marcel Duchamp”–the title of a symposium to be held at the auction house–has led twentieth century art down the drain?  This punch line may be unwitting, but it shouldn’t dissuade us from recognizing the truth:  The legacy of the Duchampian aesthetic has been catastrophic.

Admirers of the Dadaist master claim that his anti-art doctrine speaks to contemporary sensibilities in a way that, say, Picasso and Matisse are no longer capable of doing.  But that says more about the glamour of nihilism than it does about high art.

Thanks to the mainstreaming of Duchampian theory, the term “high art” has all but earned permanent scare quotes and connotes, for some anyway, an elitist slander.  Lot No. 1 at the auction is Mike Kelley’s Untwisted Cross (1995).  To call the work execrable isn’t to denunciate it as art; rather, it’s to give Mr. Kelley a pat on the back for an abject job well done.

Of the two auction houses holding sales of contemporary art this November, it is Christie’s who has embraced the verities of the momentarily hip.  The contents of its auction are so achingly “now” that it is nothing less than a proclamation of artistic–and, of course, financial–purpose.  Viewers entering Christie’s lobby are given an indication as to what this proclamation entails when they’re greeted by Winter Bears(1988). a sculpture by the Cheshire cat of kitsch culture, Jeff Koons.  The Christie’s sale might accurately reflect the bric-a-brac that nowadays passes for “avant garde”–now there’s term that’s earned its scare quotes–but this makes it an indicator of art world pathology and little more.

There are a few objects on the Christie’s docket that are of artistic worth.  However, I was told by an attendant that two of them–a plywood sculpture by Charles and Ray Eames and a piece of furniture designed by Isamu Noguchi–weren’t part of the auction, but had been left lying around “because they looked good”.  A stroll through the inventory did provide additional moments of comedy.  Hearing a Christie’s functionary pitching a line about “beauty” to a group of potential clients while standing adjacent to Damien Hirst’s Dead Head (1981-91) was an example of farce that doesn’t know its own name.

Though there was good art to be cherry-picked from the auction–pieces by Dubuffet, Howard Hodgkin, Ilya Bolotowsky and Romare Bearden–it will be the Duchamps and Hirsts garnering media attention and, if the prayers of the auction houses come true, record sales.  All of which has little to do with the day-in, day-out realities of most artists and the durability of art itself.  The spectacle that is the contemporary art scene has a habit of blurring important, bedrock distinctions.  The auctions tell us more about fashion and the insecurities it breeds.  It tells us precious little about the life of art, which goes on its way with or without the blessings of commerce.

(c) 1999 Mario Naves

A version of the article was originally published in the November 22, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.

POSTSCRIPT:  The following letter from the painter Charles Seliger was published in a subsequent edition of the Observer:

“Mario Naves’s review of the Christie’s auction was not only courageous but also refreshing.  Mr. Naves has clearly seen the sad fiasco of today’s art scene.  The auction is clearly a symptom of how bizarre has become, so many scrambling to spend their money (with little perception of quality or meaning) on the now-very-dull ‘cutting edge’ of non-art.  For a long time, I have thought it was Duchamp with his enigmatic, smiling, polite manner, who spawned the vast repetitious overload of ‘nothingness’ in what some seem to think is meaningful art.”

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