Why Art Sucks: 57 Cultures and Nothing On

The local art scene has turned into a refuge for the creatively challenged.

I HATE ART, I've taken to saying to friends lately, and only half jokingly. I'm not talking about pretentious beret-wearers, or obtuse theory masquerading as art, or even just bad art. I'm talking about art that's had vitality and surprise and play and pleasure sucked out of it, art that's only concerned with its rightness and virtue, art that urgently--desperately, one might say--foists its Message on the audience. I'm talking about a particular, not insignificant share of the art that enjoys recognition by major funders these days, and has found a measure of prominence in local galleries, museums, and performance spaces.
I don't need, for instance, to be told by performers that the message of Diva X, a recent and otherwise quite funny show at Patrick's Cabaret, is "self-love for all that you are... without apology, without qualification." Nor do I want to hear that "Women are strong, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful," as a recent film screened at Walker Art Center's Women in the Director's Chair series proclaimed. Simply reading that a dance piece is about the state of U.S. arts funding is enough to make me stay away, and I can only pity the theater critic for this publication, who, along with the audience, was asked to perform a breast self-exam as the finale of For Our Daughters, a play currently running at Illusion Theater. I read the notes for an installation commissioned by Intermedia Arts and the Jerome Foundation, one that purports to criticize images that are "sexist and stereotypical, portraying white male sexism and racism," and--well, it's beyond commentary.

With creative endeavors such as these coming to the fore over the last few years, I've grown to miss the kind of art that buries secrets or struggles, that gives something up without insisting on what the something is. Yet it seems that works without a blunt agenda--those that are more concerned with narrative or aesthetics--have become an elitist indulgence. In the art world as elsewhere, the multiculturalism that appeared so revolutionary 10 years ago has curdled into a fractious politics of identity, resulting in a new and, for the most part, incredibly banal didacticism: work that "explores" this personal issue or "documents" that social problem, that "provokes" the viewer regarding the artist's identity, or "confronts" the artist's traumas (usually of childhood origins). Art has become burdened with the duties of affirming, establishing, or asserting "identity," with healing or otherwise helping a certain "community," or imparting platitudinal messages of social or political import. It's become a therapeutic forum in which everyone insists on having her say before an audience of witnesses, believers, potential converts, or even penitents.

As art gets parsed into a multitude of niches based on Identity, it follows that the standards for judging such work are lowered, eliminated, or qualified into irrelevance. This is because the foundation of identity art isn't aesthetics, but rather its maker's existence: I am, therefore I make art about it. For example, what is artful about a series of enlarged snapshots of a baby boy? Or, for that matter, home videos that show this kid doted on by his parents, squirming through his first haircut, being taken on what is probably his first Hawaiian vacation? Considering that these pieces were shown in Heterogeneous, a recent exhibit "by Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Artists," you can probably guess: He has two mommies, as the well-known children's book puts it, a fact that apparently makes him an artistic subject unto himself. The same question applies to art that vigorously and overtly espouses an Issue, like the For Our Daughters "play," whose larger share consists of women talking about their experience with breast cancer--on videotape.

When art is so literally about this artist or that political agenda, how can anyone pass critical judgment on it? Some proponents of identity art go so far as to say that traditional conceptions of good and bad art no longer apply; so-called "cross-cultural criticism" is debated, questioning whether a critic has anything useful or valid to say about an artwork unless critic and artist are of the same tribe. I've played variations on this argument in my own head, too. I once felt guilty if I didn't pay my respects to every item at a museum or gallery; after all, didn't each artist deserve attention? I likewise used to wonder how I could admire the work of Pablo Picasso, when I pretty much take historians' word on it that he was a cheerful misogynist. Eventually, juicy biographies notwithstanding, I came to see that it was his art and not his person that mattered.

Now, however, it seems as if the artist's identity is not merely a bit of context, part of art's backdrop; the work demands to be read in terms of its maker. In "What Are Masterpieces," Gertrude Stein argued that great art is mostly "about identity and all it does and in being so it must not have any." In other words, of course an artwork can only be utterly specific--of its time and place, of its maker--but it must also transcend those specifics.

If sexuality, for instance, were as big an issue in Rome in the early 1500s as it is in our culture, the Catholic Church wouldn't have dreamed of commissioning a homosexual to paint the Sistine Chapel; for his part, it's likely that Michelangelo--limited either by his culture or by himself to making "queer" art--wouldn't have been able to conceive of such a project. Similarly, if Toulouse-Lautrec were applying for grants in today's artistic climate, he probably wouldn't win one for his bawdy scenes in Parisian cabarets, but he'd stand a good chance if he claimed to be exploring his oppression as a dwarf. Ditto Lord Byron and his clubfoot. And perhaps Flannery O'Connor would have crafted a series of memoirs about the trials and triumphs of being disabled, instead of sublimating her difference--as a crippled woman, as a devout Catholic in a small Georgia town--into exquisitely hard pieces of fiction. She would have been mindful, and could have reminded her readers in turn, that women are strong, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful.

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