by Alex Wisser
originally published on 2009-12-27 at Carnivalaskew.com
The other day I got together with some artist friends to discuss the possibility of putting on a show. We met at a pub and drank beers and tossed ideas into the air where they vanished wonderfully in front of our eyes. In the end we left the table with a few words and an image signifying the productive futility of our process. Engineers and economists would have been unconsolable at the outcome, but as artists, we were quite encouraged to have worked so hard and ended up with nothing – it’s a more difficult trick to pull off than people assume. I think the first thing an artist does in preparing a ground for work is to clear it of all conclusions. So, once the conclusions were out of the way, and we were warmly inebriated, we wandered up to a restaurant for some food and argument.
We ate at an Islamic Chinese restaurant at the top of China Town, sharing some amazing food that shall remain unnamed because I was too busy eating it to learn what it was called. Eventually the conversation took a turn toward the ethical as it inevitably does and the arguing began in earnest. I think I must have started it with a story I love to tell about Tracey Moffat, whom I once videoed for the MCA when she had a show on there. It is a story I tell with relish and a certain amount of admiration about how Tracey would walk around the gallery smoking and dropping her butts on the floor. It was great to see Tracey, from her position as the great beloved, show such disdain for the petty tyrannical appurtenances of the institution. For me, it was a delicious transgression not only of the holy holy white gloved hushed toned sacrosanctity of Thou Shalt Not Touch The Art Work, but more a satisfying disregard of the modern prudery that decrees public space sterilized of the dirt and death and hazard of our living in it. It is the kind of prudery that is only possible in the most affluent of contexts and if given its own life, will often continue to that sterile extreme that excludes the contamination of life itself. It’s ideal is perhaps the natural museum tableau (minus the dust and bad lighting)… So it was gratifying to see the great star drop her ashes on the polished hardwood floors and gather in the silent sidelong glances of the gallery staff, pursing their lips in consternation and pretending either that it wasn’t happening or that “it’s cool”. But when I told the story, embellishing it a bit by adding a gallery assistant scurrying around after the great artist, sweeping up the ashes as they fell (they did have someone clean the ashes up, but comfortably after the fact) – my friend’s reaction was simple: “How spoiled”.
I hadn’t considered this position, and surprisingly, found I liked it, if only because it communicated with a certain position I have been trying on like an impossible hat. And its this, I DON’T LIKE PICASSO. I don’t admire his work as much as everyone else seems to, but what I really don’t like is PICASSO. There I said it. One thing I would really like to be able to do is to dislike the man despite the high position of his art, which is something we are permitted to do in private, but which is not a terribly valid public position. “Oh yes, he was very bad to his women, but what a GREAT artist”. And, when I admit it, I want my moral condemnation of the man to damage the reputation of his art. He was a selfish little testicle and I’m willing to leave it at that. I don’t see why I have to gape at his stupid success just simply because so many people agree he was successful. As far as I’m concerned he’s the football star of the art world, and frankly I don’t like football stars.
As I jumped on the bandwagon, another friend bravely stood up for the now maligned class of the art star, and rushing into the breach began firing away at our slightly post modern position by arguing that artists should demand what they’re worth and why should we concern ourselves with defending large, affluent institutions like museums and biennales to which we suggested that he was arguing so because one day he wouldn’t mind being the star. These arguments we have all had, and continue endlessly to have. We won’t give them up and of course they won’t resolve and we know this and somehow we know that this is the nature of the world we live in, an aspect of decline that is somehow more advanced in that neighbourhood we call the art world. The strength of contemporary art is the advanced state of its decadence – the fact that within it all moral and ethical value is immediately unsure of itself, caught up in a constant cyclone of relativity which renders it unstable and incapable of sustaining the singular, determined position from which it can be defended or advanced. I think this is a pretty good description of contemporary existence, except in most other arenas the illusions that make possible our moral or ethical or political stances, are still enough in place to allow us to inhabit them with some kind of security and some sense of potential efficacy (though I think most people would admit they are less in place than they were in the 60’s).
Of course nobody won the argument, though I did observe that the position of post-modern radical ethics was far more unsure of itself than it would have been even five years ago, indicating another erosion, or perhaps a changing of the guard or even just a change in my own perspective, who knows. As the argument dwindled to a kind of teeth picking appreciation for the amazing food we had just eaten (the restaurant was Weegan, a persecuted Islamic minority in China; a fact I mention expressly because it is not ironic), I realized that I had somehow failed to mention that I like the work of Jackson Pollock even though I dislike the man and that my love of his work somehow makes my censure of him far less strident. It’s a contradiction at the heart of my impossible hat that makes wearing it very uncomfortable… but still, com’on: Picasso was crap.