OPINION: Art is dead, and we killed it

A photo of Duchamp's "Fountain," a urinal with "R. Mutt 1917" written on it.
“Fountain,” made by Marcel Duchamp in 1917, introduced the idea of art as a concept, rather than an aesthetically pleasing object. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Call me a philistine if you wish, but much of the art produced over the last century is too self-referential, unoriginal and aesthetically bankrupt to elicit genuine appreciation. To be sure, art and aesthetics are matters of taste.

Be that as it may, modern and contemporary art museums house artwork for its supposed theoretical merits. And because of that, art is dead.

And we killed it.

Art, like God, has ceased to be relevant — except in theory. The majority of art praised by the establishment is valuable only as self-referential artifacts about concept.

Take, for example, Robert Rauschenberg’s self-explanatory 1953 “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” The piece, a nearly blank sheet of paper, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, considered scandalous.

That Rauschenberg’s 1951 predecessor series “White Paintings” — seemingly all-white, unpainted canvases dubbed “the monochrome no-image” — did little to offer any future reprieve.

Martin Creed’s “Work No.227: The lights going on and off” is another bemusing illustration. The trite installation is an empty room that features lights turning on and off every five seconds.

Given these precedents, visual excellence seems antiquated. Art crafted to inspire, deepen and awaken to something transcendent is unfashionable.

While I grant that artistic virtue cannot be reduced to mere beauty, obscurantist discourse about abstractions fare no better.

The art world is dictated by elitist chit-chat. Worse still, their rhetoric goes on about nothing.

“Meaning and dream collide hypnotically in his art. His vertical line, full of portent (but not ‘portentous’, as sceptics might claim) speaks of creation, God — and the human urge to draw a line,” wrote Jonathan Jones, an art critic for The Guardian, about Barnett Newman’s painting “Primeval.” “Yet this primeval mark slices through entrancing colour that draws you in at a deep psychic level, irrationally, like falling into deep water.”

Mind you, Newman’s painting, which sold for $43.8 million, could double as a ping pong table (net not included). Still, Jones pens extravagantly about an ivory mark.

“A single white line divides a flat expanse of blue: it seems to rip open the universe, a crack in space and time … like mappings of energy pulses or avant garde musical notation.”

Newman has an affinity for lines. His 1946 painting “Moment” is more of the same — a lonely, pale stroke that divides the canvas. Truth be told, I enjoy a couple Newman paintings for their appeal. But there’s hardly anything grandiose about a white line.

Sometimes, there’s nothing beyond superficial depth. In this regard, I’m reminded of Billy Collins’ admonitive poem “Introduction to Poetry.

“I want them to waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author’s name on the shore. / But all they want to do/ is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”

Terse verse and well-written acclaim aside, Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” fundamentally altered art history. After the horrors of World War I shattered society’s hope in progress, Duchamp’s gag, an autographed urinal bearing the name R.Mutt, issued a damning provocation: what is art, if not something to piss on?

The infamous artist incited intense inquiry about art’s purpose, but a century later artists continue unabated in their urination (and defecation, I may add).

Paying homage to Duchamp, Sherrie Levine elevated urinals as art objects with her 1991 gold “Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)” and again in 1996 with her cast bronze “Fountain (Buddha).”

In both cases, Levine upgraded from a plain porcelain to a metallic, chestnut finish.

When a lowly white line is revered as a portent of creation, one is inclined to wonder about the ink and breath wasted on these copycat plumbing fixtures.

For the average art-goer, references between Duchamp and Levine are bereft of any significance, because the redeeming value of these works lay not in their aesthetic value, inspiration or difficulty but, instead, in their deference to Duchamp’s jest.

Sure, inquiries about art’s value are worthwhile. But frankly, controversy has an expiration date.

One should consider the following works of art as rancid debris: Piero Manzoni’s “Artist Shit,” a literal can of Manzoni’s excrement; Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a crucifix submerged in Serrano’s urine; Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” made of acrylic, oil, paper collage and elephant dung; and Paul McCarthy’s “Tree,” a green butt plug inflatable that measured 79 feet.

If Duchamp’s message was to be taken literally, that art is to be pissed on, more of the same says little else, except that artists are lame.

Ironically, they’re repetitious, and taboo is no longer taboo. Redundancy, it should be said, is the art world’s currency.

As beneficiaries of a resuscitated parody, artists enjoy immense creative license. The laxity is, however, portentous. Because if works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari have been mistaken for, and discarded as trash, my case proves itself.

Christopher Salazar PZ ’20 is a philosophy major from La Verne, California. He’s not one to proselytize, but he considers whiskey on the rocks sacrilege.

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