Contemporary Art: from Duchamp's urinal to Manzoni's sh*t in the box to... what next?

Almost a century ago (in 1917), Marcel Duchamp made Art History with his urinal, of which there are five copies today in the most important museums around the world (the original is lost).

Almost fifty years ago (in 1961), Piero Manzoni put shit in a box and pretended to be paid its weight in gold (he was - and got even more...)

Almost fifteen years ago (in 1996), Chris Ofili, a YBA painter of Nigerian descent, "painted" a black Virgin Mary with an exposed breast made of elephant dung.  People were shocked when it was shown in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, and some said (for example Jerry Saltz, the art critic of the Village Voice) that it was because people were used to seeing white virgins. That overlooks the fact there were some famous black virgins in the Middle Ages. No, what was shocking was the dung - and the collage of genitals around her face - not the colour.

A couple of days ago, I received an email message from a supposed art critic who presented the work of two Czech video artists whose name I've forgotten (and I won't look it up for you, their names don't matter). And what work! These two guys (who call themselves "performance artists") had pulled down their pants, crouched and defecated on the gallery floor in tandem. Must take some training to do that in tandem. Of course there's more to their work, like pornographic videos of other minor sins such as (literally) licking an art curator's ass. The message in all this? Presumably that the art establishment stinks and should be sh*t upon.Get it? This is deep stuff. We are dealing here with conceptual art - Duchamp's brainchild - and therefore we are asked to reflect. This is not for the distracted or the faint of heart.

No matter. The point is that we've come from a urinal to a  mound of filthy, stinking sh*t - a mound that is growing and who knows where it will stop. Because every contemporary artist worth his salt has to outdo the others. What next, an Everest of sh*t? And they call this Art, with a capital A.

Are you shocked?

I am not. I am well passed being shocked. I am simply bored. This is not art. This is nothing.

You know what the real problem with conceptual art is? That it's a CONCEPT! And concepts originate in the rational mind. A concept is an analytical piece of reasoning. One looks at something out there in the world - could be anything, say medical pills or butterfly wings. Then the "artist" mulls over it and spews out an opinion about it. Whatever is spewed out is considered art because the spewer says so. The medical pills don't need to be sculpted in marble nor the butterfly wings painted. Ask Damien Hirst - he's a master at this sort of thing. He uses the real world objects - the pills, the butterfies -  and has a bunch of assistants put it all together for him in pre-ordained installations, arrangements, collages, whatever. No need for him to either paint or sculpt. Brilliant.

The trouble is that it works as a concept, but not as art.

Art is about emotions, not concepts. To appreciate art takes time. One has to finetune one's emotions. This can only be achieved through education. The more you learn about art, the more you broaden your capacity to appreciate it. You have to spend hours in museums looking at the masterpieces of the past to understand what painting is all about. To be able to distinguish the good from the bad, the original from the banal. If you don't invest in yourself, you'll never build up the necessary knowledge - and I don't mean to achieve the status of an art connoisseur but simply to enjoy art to its fullest possible measure.

Culture must be nurtured - or else there is none.

Do you think the new rich who buy all those preposterous things from contemporary artists that pass for works of art have ever had the time to build up their knowledge? Of course not, they were busy making money - they had no time to learn anything about art and culture!

Do you think that now that they've made money, they care about art?  Of course not, for them art is an investment, full stop. They look at prices in art auctions. So they go straight to the priciest lots. A safe bet. The more they vie for the same lots, the higher the prices. And the higher the value of what they have already collected.

The art world is a little like real estate where, as everyone knows, there are three rules to make a good investment: location, location and location. To invest in art, there are also three rules: price, price, and price. That may cause a bubble someday (like in real estate) but that's another story. In any case, judging from what happened in the real estate segment for the ultra rich during our current Great Recession, a price inflection is not likely to be long-lasting - provided the art investment is restricted to the two or three dozen artists whose works are already in the collections of the very rich and who are managed by top art merchants such as Saachi or Gagosian and sustained by major museum art curators.  In France, another player should be added: the Ministry of Culture, but, as always, this public interference is part of the "French exception". It doesn't change anything to the fact that the game is played between a few billionaire players and that it has nothing to do with art.

Is there a way out? Will Art (the real variety) ever make a comeback?

Difficult to say. What is missing in our affluent society is a GUIDE. A model to emulate. We have become a society without culture. This is a point very ably made by  Jean-Louis Harouel, a respected French sociologist and professor at the University of Paris II  in his latest book, La Grande Falsification (ed.Jean-Cyrille Godefroy 2009) - a must read. I highly recommend it.  He is also the author of Culture et Contre-cultures, PUF, 3rd ed. 2002, another fascinating book.

As he points out, in the past, when people made money like the Paris brothers who were the offspring of an innkeeper at the time of Louis XV, there was a model to follow:  the aristocracy living off rents. Not having to work, aristocrats had all the time on hand to cultivate their "art de vivre" and their taste for Art. So the Paris brothers when they decided to invest in Art  had no hesitation: they knew what to do and bought Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher for their collection. Nowadays, where is the model? The aristocracy is gone for the most part, and, as Harouel put it, if there is any Duke's son remaining, he is busy making money like everybody else.

In short, a leisure elite that can cultivate its free time to develop an understanding of art and a real support for it, is gone. Completely gone. So what can the new rich buy? The new rich in Russia, China, India or elsewhere come to the world of art with what culture? Indeed, throughout the 20th century, with what culture did the American new rich come with, the likes of Peggy Guggenheim and Nelson Rockefeller?

Who was and is the model?

The answer: Duchamp and his followers.

In America, during the Cold War (in the 1940s and 50s), there was a patriotic movement which imposed Rothko, Pollock and abstract expressionists over the likes of figurative artists such as Hopper (later followed by Pop Art). All this "modern" art, defined as "the art of democracy", was meant as a reaction against Communism and Social Realism in art. Abstract expressionism is "the painting of free enterprise", as Alfred Barr, the great art expert of MoMA, wrote in 1949 in a letter to Henry Luce, the Time-Life boss (and apparently convincing him to move away from his love of the Old Masters - taking his papers along with him). But of course who could ever support Social realism in Art? It is obviously another ghastly distortion of Art, forcing the artist into a figurative art at the service of communist propaganda.

Bottomline, any type of political propaganda is guaranteed to hurt artistic inspiration and ensure bad art. If you don't believe it, just look at the statue the President of Senegal unveiled in April 2010 in the ceremonies to celebrate the 50 years of independance of his country. He thought it was a hymn to "African Renaissance". It cost something like €27 million - a sum that would have been much more useful to modernize Dakar or help the rural poor. It is a 53 meter high monster scultpure of a victorious young man with family, looking up at the sky - the worst possible art, the likes of which we hadn't seen since Soviet days...

I guess what I'm saying is this: what really hurts Art is its politicization and monetizing...

Are we ever going to be able to reclaim Art for artists and for the lovers of Art? What do you think?
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