November 2009 Archives



In the comments following one of her typically pointless space-filling blog posts at Art Fag City -- something about movies, music videos, and posters for movies which borrow their imagery from supposedly fine art pieces -- Paddy Johnson loses her patience with what she considers nitpicking: "Comments that serve no other purpose than to demoralize the writers of this blog will no longer be published."

Oh, Paddy, if only we could demoralize you. If only.

Small Window


Steve LaRose, Relativity, 2009, oil on wood, 7.5x7 inches

Steve LaRose, Relativity, 2009, oil on wood, 7.5x7 inches

People sometimes wonder why I get angry and upset when I see lousy art being displayed in the high end galleries of New York. "Who cares?" they ask. "What difference does it make?" they say. "There are always going to be people making money off the gullibility of others with more money than sense." Or "why should it matter to you? Do your own thing. They're not hurting anyone."

There are probably many stupid places to have an epiphany, a moment when suddenly you realize something about life you hadn't quite realized before. I imagine there are an infinite number of stupid places that can happen, but one of the stupidest is almost certainly while reading about Star Trek. And yet that's where I had mine.

I had just finished watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It's one of my favorite movies. I can't honestly say it's a Great Film but damn I love it just the same. I've seen it many times and just about have the whole thing memorized. I still cry when Spock dies.

I was inspired to read about the movie after seeing it for the umpteenth time. And what I read was that the second Trek movie almost didn't get made. The studio gave it a small budget -- so small the filmmakers had to re-use props, sets, and even sequences of film left over from the first movie. In fact the bridge of Khan's ship and the bridge of the Enterprise are the same set redressed because they didn't have the money to build a second set.

What I realized was this: All of the principals involved in making the Star Trek universe -- the creators, the producers, the actors -- weren't going to be around forever. There was, really, only a very small window of time for them to make their TV shows and movies, before people would retire or die. And within that very small window, the movie studio had decided not to finance the production to its fullest. At the fleeting moment when this ensemble could have done its best work they were given no support and a bucket of scraps. They managed somehow to do their best work anyway, but it almost didn't happen.

Now, Star Trek is a small thing. It's not great art or anything. It's an entertainment, and if Trek never got made, or never returned after being cancelled by NBC -- and let's admit the third season deserved getting canned -- I'm sure the world would be fine. I can imagine life without Wrath of Khan. We'd all survive somehow.

But it's not just Star Trek, is it? No it isn't. It's a lot of things. Time is passing and we've all got just that small window in which we can do our best. And what if, when that time comes, all we're getting is a bucket of scraps? Or less?

This was brought home to me most strongly today when Steve LaRose -- one of my favorite people, even though I only know him online -- announced that he has cancer.

And while Steve has cancer, Paul McCarthy has a show. Mike Kelley has a show. Jeff Koons is fucking up the New Museum with crap from Dakis Joannou's collection. Damien Hirst is filling the Wallace Collection with his stink.

This is why I get angry. While the blue chip dealers and their artists are jerking off into little plastic cups and passing them out, great artists are dying. The window is closing on how many of them? Who knows? It's fine and dandy to sit back and chuckle and say it's a game and it's only art and what can you do but goddamn it we only get one shot!

Steve's cancer may not be that bad. I mean, cancer's never good but it's got shades of bad, and maybe -- I hope -- he'll be fine and we'll get many many more years out of him. Which could be that many more years for the art world to ignore him and artists like him; or it could give them some time to change and realize what they're -- what we're -- in danger of losing.

Paul McCarthy's White Snow


Last Wednesday I saw Paul McCarthy's show, White Snow, at Hauser & Wirth (until December 24, 2009). It's horrible. It's bad. No, it's worse than bad: This show is actively evil. Anyone involved with this show, any person who in some way profited from its mounting -- the gallery, art handlers, moving companies, caterers, press release writers, public relations firms, everyone -- is an accessory to an evil act.

McCarthy's show is evil because it is in every possible way a waste of resources. Each innocent molecule involved, each erg of energy, could have been better used in almost any way. It's a crime against humanity that Hauser & Wirth would expend any effort at all on such a show. So many better things could have been done with these resources; there are thousands upon thousands -- no, there are millions -- of artists -- of humans -- who could have done something more worthwhile. All the paper in the works on the walls, all the charcoal and oilstick, even the scraps of dirty old pornographic magazine are wasted. The diesel in the trucks in which the work was shipped was wasted. The electricity used to light the rooms in which the work is displayed is wasted. The poor pig, cow, or chicken, the grains of wheat or corn that died to power my body as I walked around the rooms of the show, all wasted.

A number of us walked through the rooms of Hauser & Wirth that morning. I looked at my fellow viewers and wondered that they weren't screaming, tearing out their hair, and fleeing. And then I realized that I wasn't screaming, tearing out my hair, and fleeing. It's just not something you do, even when it's the only appropriate reaction. And I realized that the artist and dealers rely on that to make what they do seem legitimate. By my very presence I was implicitly approving the show and the work in it. I suddenly no longer wished to be complicit in that approval, and I nearly ran from the building.

I'd been there ten minutes.

Paul McCarthy's work is not just an example of everything that's wrong with the art world, it's an example of everything that's wrong period. It's cancer and AIDS, it's Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, it's cholera and dysentery, it's earthquakes and floods, it's death and dying, it's shit, piss and corruption. No, not even: Shit, piss and corruption have their purposes. Not so Paul McCarthy. McCarthy is an argument for the repeal of the Bill of Rights; if this is what we're going to do with free speech, maybe we shouldn't be allowed to exercise it. McCarthy should be placed in permanent solitary confinement and given nothing with which he might make a mark on a surface; even his bodily waste should be quickly removed, just in case.

And whoever brought him to Hauser & Wirth should be housed in the cell next door. And then the building containing Hauser & Wirth should be demolished, the remains buried under Yucca Mountain, and the earth salted.

And even that's too good for them.

Here ends the review.

* * *

As I began this review I found myself in the midst of yet another dilemma. This seems to happen to me on this blog a lot lately. Note that I, unlike so many other writers, choose to work out this problem in public, in discussions with you, dear reader, instead of coming to my conclusions from the unassailable heights of my Olympian grandeur and then padding down in my grand robes to reveal them to you. No, I'm not like that: I'd rather show you my real self, conflicted, confused, ignorant, but at least and at last open and honest. It's who I am.

Once again I was invited to an exclusive, invitation-only preview of an upcoming art show. And once again I sort of skimmed the invite without really absorbing it; it didn't catch my eye. Then I received a personal invitation from the head of the public relations firm throwing the preview. She asked if I'd be attending. "The show is fantastic," she crooned, although she would say that, wouldn't she.

The personal invitation is what interested me. I prefer a personal invite to a mass mailing. Who doesn't? Andy Warhol, maybe. Anyway, the personal invite is what led me to throw the artist's name into Google and see what popped, to see if I wanted to go. Then I realized the work looked familiar, and further I'd already written a brief review of this artist's work, a short comment on someone else's blog.

What I'd written was this: "I do not think anyone should let this man near a video camera or other recording device ever again. In fact, I think he should be sentenced to house arrest for life and given no electronic objects at all. He should be allowed to read. He should be allowed to write on the walls with his own bodily fluids. And everything else should be forbidden to him, just in case."

Well, that pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? No way I was going to like this show. Not worth going to, obviously. But I was invited. As I saw it, I had three options:

  • Go and say what I think at the show itself.
  • Go and keep my mouth shut at the show and write a scathing review later.
  • Pass on the whole thing.

I was leaning towards the last option. Life's too short to punish oneself, isn't it? Unsure of what to do, I wrote to Stephanie about it, because she's one of the more level-headed people I know. She replied, "I think you should go, and honestly do your best to find something of interest. That way the scathing review will be well-informed and sincere."

I should at this point add that the invitation also mentioned light refreshments. At the very least, I thought, I could get free food. I like free food. It is, after all, free.

Bright and early on Wednesday morning I went to the show. You've now read what I thought about it. It was so bad I actually couldn't eat or drink the promised light refreshments.

Which brought me to my dilemma. Do I write about the show? It is so truly horrible, so utterly without merit, so completely abominable, part of me would rather ignore it. Would rather pretend it never even happened. Because to give the show the benefit of a review is to pretend the show is worthy of being reviewed, and that's far more than it or its creator deserves. You know how they say any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right? I don't want to be any part of that. Even to shred the artwork on display is to give it too much credit.

And let's be honest with each other here: My review, no matter how negative, won't change anything. The dealer won't read my review and say, "I should reconsider my support of this artist in light of this penetrating essay." The artist won't read what I have to say and weep, and maybe quit art and give himself over to digging wells in African villages or something, devote his life to performing some small penance for his sins. No collector will see my thoughts and think, "I'll allocate my limited funds differently now that I've read that!"

Not at all. If anything, my review will be a badge of honor for those people. Proof that they're avant garde, that they're at the bleeding edge of contemporary art, that they've got the mojo, the magic, the breeding, the eye, above all the power, while envious little crawling maggots like me can do nothing but worm through their excremental scraps looking up and dreaming of their dizzying awesomeness.

On the other hand, someone should speak up. Evil prevails when good men do nothing. Or, to accurately quote Edmund Burke, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." We good must indeed associate, and how better to affirm that association than by sharing the tales of the combines of bad men, so we might shun them?

As for contemptible, Hauser & Wirth are certainly that, as is anyone who took money from them in the mounting of this show. They can say they're just professionals doing a job, that H&W's money is as good as anyone's, but that's an excuse: When something like this show comes along, it's a moral requirement for any thinking human to turn the money down, to say, simply, I'm sorry, there are some acts that shouldn't be performed regardless of the pay scale. Better to be an auditor for the IRS or the public relations firm for a dogfighting ring.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955, ink wash

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955, ink wash

So, yes, even though it's tilting at windmills, even though it's giving the execrable McCarthy free publicity, even though ultimately it'll have no effect at all, I decided to write the review.


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