Count on a lover of words to mangle them artistically. Of course, “art” doesn’t mean what it once did, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
“Transgressive” is one of those words: the sort that appear only in very specific contexts. Such words are often used to defy some near-universal understanding, or to introduce confusion into conversations about a simple subject. The context for “transgressive” is “art” as practiced by Philistines.
My stimulus for today is this subtly hilarious essay by the great Roger Kimball:
“The most delicious news to emerge from the art world this year,” I wrote at the time, “came in October, courtesy of the BBC.”
Under the gratifying headline “Cleaner Dumps Hirst Installation,” the world read that “A cleaner at a London gallery cleared away an installation by artist Damien Hirst having mistaken it for rubbish. Emmanuel Asare came across a pile of beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays and cleared them away at the Eyestorm Gallery on Wednesday morning.”
I went on to express the hope that Asare would be immediately given a large raise. “Someone who can make mistakes like that,” I noted, “is an immensely useful chap to have about.”
I also daydreamed about this paragon of the cleaning industry being taken on by some large metropolitan paper, the Daily Telegraph, for example, since he clearly demonstrated sounder aesthetic judgment than most of the fellows calling themselves art critics.
Alas, Asare’s good work was soon undone.
Please, please read the whole thing! You’ll laugh your slats off.
It put me in mind of a tongue-in-cheek movie from some years back, The Runestone, which (among other things) shows us a gallery filled with “transgressive” “artworks” (yes, my sneer-quote key is in for a workout) being perused by the sort of aesthetes that have come to infest the art world. One of them, a young man viewing a piece of purely ridiculous “performance art,” utters a line that had me in stitches:
“It’s art…but do I like it?”
You might need to think that one over for a moment to get full value for it.
I have no idea whether Kimball ever saw that movie, though it seems unlikely.
The demise of art as we know it was made possible by the dismantling of standards. The “art world” didn’t even know it had standards until the “transgressive” “artists” arrived to demolish them. It didn’t start with “performance art,” but with the “abstract” “artists,” for whom depiction was a vulgar excrescence on their chosen “art form.” You know some of the famous names, whatever you might think of them.
Kimball adroitly denounces such parodies of genuine art by comparison to a display of brilliance by one of the great Renaissance artists: Raphael. No one would ever question Raphael’s talent or artistic vision. Could anyone say the same for Daniel Hirst’s garbage?
Robert A. Heinlein sounded a harmonious note in Stranger in a Strange Land:
“Shucks,” Duke told them, “didn’t you know? The boss likes statues.”
“Really?” Jill answered. “I don’t see any sculpture around.”
“The stuff he likes mostly isn’t for sale. He says the crud they make nowadays looks like disaster in a junk yard and any idiot with a blow torch and astigmatism calls himself a sculptor.”
As Heinlein wrote that in 1962, there’s a considerable amount of heft to it.
J. Neil Schulman sounded a similar note:
“What killed the symphony orchestra was not competing with their own recordings,” [Jaeger] replied, “but not having any new symphonic compositions to use to compete with. And this was due to a sort of Gresham’s law–counterfeit music driving out real music–that you would unleash upon lasegraphy.” Ingrams drew back.
“Why, I’d never–”
“Listen, Ingrams,” said Jaeger. “What you do with your career is your affair. I just want to see things sold with the proper label. You want to use an achromatic form, it’s not a new idea. In music they called it ‘atonality’: compositions made up of sounds without harmonic tonality, without melody or chords – chaos without letup, tension without release. But music is defined by its harmonic tonality–just as lasegraphy is defined by its concordant chromatics–and music without harmony was, in effect, music without music, just as lasegraphy without chromatics is lasegraphy without lasegraphy. And when two generations of symphonic composers, performers, and critics labeled musical tonality as a relic of the past, force-feeding their ever-dwindling audiences with noise sold as ‘modern’ music–while, simultaneously, definitive performances of past tonal masterpieces accumulated on recordings–the audiences withdrew from the concert hall to their living rooms, and a great art form was dead. Every composer, performer, and critic who backed this counterfeit music with his or her reputation was a party to the murder of classical music–no, scratch that–to its genocide.“
It cannot be put better.
But artistic freedom! The need to transcend the boundaries! The imperative of exploring new forms of self-expression! This is the cant of the transgressives and the critics who strive to legitimize their demolitions of art. Could they express, in simple language, what the boundaries are? Or would they merely sneer at the question, take a fresh champagne flute from a nearby waiter, and pass on?
I haven’t had the following conversation, but I hope someone will. The curtain rises on a gallery filled with “modern art:”
Visitor 1: (standing before a pile of garbage presented as an “artwork”) Why didn’t the night janitor clean this up?
Visitor 2: What? How dare you say such a thing! This is the latest masterpiece from [insert your dispreferred “modern artist” here].
Visitor 1: Well, I hope he gets help soon. And hires a cleaning lady, too. He obviously needs one.