“Cockroaches marching into a bowl of spoiled milk to drown!”

Barack Obama, Video Artist

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Some of the best criticism being published nowadays is found in the back pages of The Onion. Few publications beat its literary concision, verve and straight thinking. Popular culture is treated as social touchstone, telling artifact and a brilliant waste of time–or not, if the corresponding movie, CD or book is found lacking in merit. Even the reviews of video games are worth reading and I have zero interest in video games. It’s the quality of the writing that engages. Given that satire is a form of criticism, we can count the front pages of The Onion as a good venue for criticism as well, including art criticism.

The best satire doesn’t merely mock its subject; it inhabits the target, laying bare its follies and (fingers crossed) eviscerating them from the inside out.  The art world, as with any sub-culture, is rife with hypocrisy, delusions and petty grievances. The writers of The Onion have them down pat.

Take, for instance, the June 13, 2001 news item about “art community” protests instigated by “a non-controversial, non-feces-smeared painting that in no way defiles or blasphemes Jesus Christ”. Elsewhere, guest columnist “Keith Dans” writes of how “I Don’t Have Time For Noncontroversial Art Exhibits“:

“No time for . . .  slowly soaking in the dynamic, geometric tension of the upcoming Cézanne retrospective. Not while there’s a guy in the East Village who’s going to vomit Cheerios into a piggy bank and smash it open with his penis.”

The fine strain of sanctimony filtering through Dans’ brief for “boundary pushing art” is beyond perfect and should be familiar to anyone who’s been on the ground when the art scene bubble is burst by contact with the greater world.

A scene from Fire In the Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Like, yeah, the brouhaha surrounding the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s Fire In The Belly (1987) from The National Portrait Gallery. It was, don’t you know, an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians.” The film features a scene of a crucifix crawling with ants.

I don’t have much to add to the conversation–civil liberties, freedom of expression, artistic freedom, yes, yes, blah, blah, blah–and I brook no sympathy for House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who got the ball rolling for political gain and, in doing so, provided patrons of the arts an opportunity to revel in shocked! shocked! self-indignation.

But neither do I have patience for Wojnarowicz, whose slapdash video is typical of his cruel narcissism and stylistic randomness. And pretense; let’s not forget the pretense. The Museum of Modern Art, knowing good PC PR when it comes along, snapped up Fire In The Belly for the permanent collection on the heels of the controversy.

But the video accompanying this Onion article about President Obama “really getting into Nam June Paik” is infinitely more worthy of the attention of our cultural caretakers.

First of all, it’s funny. First of all again, it’s more insightful about its subject (the failings of contemporary art) than Wojnarowicz’s piece was about his subject (the miserableness of existence and/or capitalist societies and/or organized religion, the list goes on–and nowhere). The Onion lampoon is more inventive, crafted with greater care and lasts only about a minute.

Is it museum worthy? Who cares: all I know is that the President’s “message of hope and progress” is better than 99% of the “boundary pushing” videos I’ve twiddled my thumbs through in the name of Art.

Postscript:  Pia Catton’s Wall Street Journal article detailing the posthumous evolution of Fire In The Belly makes for a fascinating read.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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