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It’s a topic about which I often think: what is art, and more specifically, what is good art? I spend time on this because I teach high school English, and feel an obligation to expose kids, who do far too little reading as it is (for many, none), to the most consequential literature I can find.  By this, I don’t mean boring literature.  Good art is enormously entertaining and fulfilling—if one can recognize it.  It goes far beyond mere entertainment, which certainly has its place.

One characteristic of good art-–in literature and other genres—is one can return to it through the years and always discover things impossible to see earlier.  We can do this because of the depth of the works, and because each time we return, we are new.  We have new experiences and insights that allow us to see with fresh eyes.

In teaching about good art, I ask kids to define it, and inevitably, many think art is in the eye of the beholder.  If they think it good, it’s good.  Announcing I am an accomplished artist, I ask for a volunteer who would like their portrait done.  As they stand forth and pose, I draw, on the chalkboard, a stick figure with a few outlandishly identifiable features and ask the kids if it’s good art.  They laugh and proclaim it is not.  “But I think it’s good art!”  I exclaim in mock disappointment.  “If all that matters is what the viewer thinks, why shouldn’t this hang in the Louvre?”  They get the point—after I explain what the Louvre is.

Then we construct a list of characteristics necessary for the actual artist, the producer of good art.  Such things as:

1) Actual talent

2) Experience

3) Artistic vision

4) Skill

5) Taste

And the list goes on.

Let us now, gentle readers, explore the state of the world of art in this, our postmodern world, where art no longer must appeal to the highest aspirations of man, where it no longer must be an example of the best human beings can do in a given genre.  On the way to the ultimate subject of this article, let’s visit several articles by the invaluable Dave Barry.  The first, from 2002, about the Turner Prize for art—in England–of some $30,000 dollars:

The 2001 Turner Prize went to an artist named Martin Creed, whose entry was entitled: ‘The Lights Going On and Off.’ It consists, as the title suggests, of lights going on and off in a vacant room. They go on for five seconds, then off for five seconds. That’s it. In other words, this guy got 20,000 pounds for demonstrating the same artistic talent as a defective circuit breaker.

Normal Americans, unappreciative of the glories of post-modern art, walking into such an empty room would likely think “what’s wrong with the lights?” and “where’s the art?”

Here’s the scary part: He deserved to win. I say this because, according to BBC News, his strongest competition was an artist whose entry consisted of a dusty room ‘filled with an array of disparate objects, including a plastic cactus, mirrors, doors and old tabloid newspapers.’ Some gallery visitors mistook this for an actual storeroom, before realizing that it was art.

So Martin Creed’s blinking lights probably looked pretty darned artistic to the Turner Prize jurors. The prize was formally presented by Madonna, who said: ‘Art is always at its best when there is no money, because it is nothing to do with money and everything to do with love.’ That Madonna! Always joking!

Who doesn’t love empty rooms and malfunctioning lights?  Barry wrote again on art in 2007:

But my point (end of digression alert) is that Miami tends to have these interesting incidents, and one of them occurred a little while ago when Dade County purchased an office building from the City of Miami. The problem was that, squatting in an area that the county wanted to convert into office space, there was a large ugly wad of metal, set into the concrete. So the county sent construction workers with heavy equipment to rip out the wad, which was then going to be destroyed.

But guess what? Correct! It turns out that this was not an ugly wad. It was art! Specifically, it was Public Art, defined as ‘art that is purchased by experts who are not spending their own personal money.’ The money, of course, comes from the taxpayers, who are not allowed to spend this money themselves because 1) they probably wouldn’t buy art, and 2) if they did, there is no way they would buy the crashed-spaceship style of art that the experts usually select for them.

The Miami wad is in fact a sculpture by the famous Italian sculptor Pomodoro. (Like most famous artists, he is not referred to by his first name, although I like to think it’s ‘Bud.’ ) This sculpture cost the taxpayers $80,000, which makes it an important work of art. In dollar terms, it is 3,200 times as important as a painting of dogs playing poker, and more than 5,000 times as important as a velveteen Elvis.

Fortunately, before the sculpture was destroyed, the error was discovered, and the Pomodoro was moved to another city office building, where it sits next to the parking garage, providing great pleasure to the many taxpayers who come to admire it.

I am kidding, of course. On the day I went to see it, the sculpture was, like so many pieces of modern taxpayer-purchased public art, being totally ignored by the actual taxpaying public, possibly because it looks — and I say this with all due artistic respect for Bud — like an abandoned air compressor.

So here’s what I think: I think there should be a law requiring that all public art be marked with a large sign stating something like: ”Notice! This is a piece of art! The public should enjoy it the tune of 80,000 clams!’

An important point: art should be recognizable as art.  If not, there should be identifying signs, which run the risk of being mistaken for the art.  Finally, Barry contributed this from 2009:

Whenever I write about art, I get mail from the Serious Art Community informing me that I am a clueless idiot. So let me begin by stipulating that I am a clueless idiot. This is probably why I was unable to appreciate a work of art I viewed recently, titled: `Chair.’

I suspect I too will be accused of being a clueless idiot for this article, but I’m not stipulating to anything  Let ’em prove it!

I saw ‘Chair’’ at Art Basel, a big art show held recently on Miami Beach. It attracted thousands of Serious Art People, who wear mostly black outfits and can maintain serious expressions no matter what work of art they are viewing. This is hard, because a lot of Serious Art consists of bizarre or startlingly unattractive objects, or ‘performances,’ wherein artists do something Conceptual, such as squirt Cheez Whiz into an orifice that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for snack toppings.

But no matter what the art is, a Serious Art Person will view it with the somber expression of a radiologist examining X-rays of a tumor. Whereas an amateur will eventually give himself away by laughing; or saying ‘Huh?’; or (this is the most embarrassing) asking an art-gallery person: ‘Is this wastebasket a piece of art? Or can I put my gum wrapper in it?’

As I said, when normal people have to ask “where’s the art?” that might be a clue that the artist is lacking all the characteristics my Texan teenagers, as devoid of instruction in the intricacies of post-modern art as Barry, have been able to identify.

But back to Art Basel: I didn’t go to the main show. I went to an officially sanctioned satellite show called ‘Art Positions,’ which was a group of large, walk-in shipping containers set up on the beach, serving as mini art galleries. Serious Art People drifted blackly from container to container, solemnly examining the tumors.

I managed not to say anything stupid until I encountered a slide projector sitting on the floor, projecting a rectangle of white light with twitching lens dust onto the wall. I asked the gallery person if there was supposed to be a slide in the projector; he patiently explained that, no, this was a work of art titled ‘Autofocus Slide Projector Dust.

In another container there was a work of art consisting of a video, repeated over and over, showing a man — not in peak physical condition, I might add — rollerblading around a vast empty space, stark naked. I’m proud to say I betrayed no emotion while viewing this work, although my daughter, who is 3, said, quite loudly: ‘You can see his tushy! Yuck!’

She is young, and has no art training.

With this enlightening background information, let us, gentle readers, appreciate the common sense of Barry’s then 3-year-old daughter, and examine the finest the post-modern European art world has to offer: shit.  Remodern Review explains:

I get so tired of covering the art world’s pathological fixations on our biological secretions. But I also believe it’s important to expose what these sickos are up to.

I’m sure, gentle readers, most of you wouldn’t want to know, but in the service of criticism, let us carry on:

The museum actually commissioned the Vienna-based art collective Gelatin to make this. They spent 6 months on it. Seriously.

‘The shit as we present it is a sculptural subject, it’s not a joke,’ Wolfgang Gantner, one of the four artists making up the collective, told Euronews.

That this is not a joke is itself a joke.

For an extra level of insanity, patrons are expected to wear nudist costumes while they look over the leavings…

Let’s review:

1) Actual talent

2) Experience

3) Artistic vision

4) Skill

5) Taste

credit: galeriadellaccademia (please excuse the naughty bits–this is actually art, and naughty bits are OK)

One wonders how much artistic vision is involved in reproducing piles of shit?  Michaelangelo saw a huge block of marble and envisioned David.  David was always there, he just released him.  One assumes this “art collective” “released” their final product as well.  One wonders, did they model their piles of excrement on their own droppings, did they hire professional models, or did they rely on their imaginations?  Which is worse?

What sort of talent is involved?  What sort of skill involving the use of artistic instruments (and how does one clean them afterward)? Does the collective consider their anuses on a par with brushes, paint, marble, etc. (and we don’t want to know how they clean those)?

One can assume the collective members of the collective have had long experience in defecating, and apparently, in admiring—in the interests of art, of course—the results, but is that art?  And as to taste?  One might feel fortunate they didn’t choose to depict other bodily excretions.  One can find that in porn, which come to think of it, is probably more artistic and expressive in general.

Perhaps university art departments are to blame.  Are there shit studies?  A major in shitty art?  Shitty art appreciation?  Do they grant doctorates in excrement and/or excretions?

The horror of it all is this may be the best many contemporary “artists” are capable of creating.  In which case, with any visit to the bathroom, we are all artists of the first rank.  I’ll mention only in passing, a fascination with excrement is not a sign of mental health, nor of a new enlightenment.  This sort of “art” issues from the opposite end.