Taking Art Seriously

The audacity! The irony! The “Up Yours!” to artistic snobbery and pretense, maybe. Or the exact opposite if they’re serious. They being the artists featured in the Museum of Modern Art.

Mitch said, “I could have made that.” About one piece: a trapezoid made out of string with two corners fastened to the wall and two to the floor.

“But you didn’t.” I said. But supposed he did? Maybe Mitch makes various geometric figures during his free time or while watching sporting events. Should his art be submitted to and accepted at the MOMA? Am I marrying a vast artistic talent? Maybe. But maybe he doesn’t get much past octagons. At any rate,

we saw a utility sink without the faucets, a hay bale, and a four-by-four stack of bricks two-bricks deep along with two helicopters, some Pollock and Warhol and Picasso, and Starry Night.

It made me suspicious about the value of art, or at least our definition of it. All the exhibits took creativity, but not all took talent or even time. It could summon the end of taking art seriously.

But maybe that’s the point. Irony, sarcasm, and insincerity show up in art a couple of decades before they infused everything else in American society. That’s my interpretation, of course; these artists could be 100% sincere about their rowboats made entirely out of purple pillows or whatnot. And if they are serious, it seems to be all pretense.

In an episode of Sex and the City, a man in Charlotte’s art gallery asks to buy the fire extinguisher, thinking its a piece of art. He ends up being a douche bag and a moron—not an exceptional fate for the male fare in SATC. But it’s not such a dunderheaded move when around contemporary art.

Andy Warhol said, “If everything’s not beautiful, nothing is.” Including fire extinguishers.

It’s brilliant, actually. For years artists have been looking at things and trying to capture their beauty—more so, they are trying to capture a bit of what those things are. Trying to get a crack at reality. The abstractionists, with their colors and strewn paint and violent shapes, are trying to evoke rather that depict. I mean, for “sadness” you could draw a picture of a girl frowning, but the abstractionists want to make you know sadness, to call it up.

Van Gogh could have painted some excellent hay bales; he might have. But, audaciously, Cildo Meireles takes it further and puts a real hay bale in a ritzy museum on 53rd street. Its presence there dubs it “art.”

Artists try to give viewers the thing itself, not a symbol of it or a description of it, but it. Contemporary artists have done that... here, have a fire extinguisher. And it gives the viewer a choice: to say “bah, art, rubbish” or to become the artist and say, “Hay bales are worth looking at.” or “I could make that.”

For more about the MOMA: New York Times art review

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