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A CRITICAL HISTORY
OF 20TH-CENTURY ART

by Donald Kuspit
 
Chapter 10, Part 1: The Decadence Of Advanced Art And The Return Of Tradition and Beauty: The New as Tower of Conceptual Babel: The Tenth Decade

Satire is the last flicker of originality in a passing epoch as it faces the onroad of†staleness and boredom. Freshness has gone: bitterness remains. The prolongation of outworn forms of life means a slow decadence in which there is repetition without any fruit in the reaping of value. There may be high survival power. For decadence, undisturbed by originality or by external forces, is a slow process. But the values of life are slowly ebbing. There remains the show of civilization, without any of its realities.
Alfred North Whitehead(1)

"decadence". . . has always broadly meant a backward movement or sterile arrest, the mulling over and taking to the self materials and actions that have been surpassed or left behind by society, a dwelling on values that are thought infertile and a consequent refusal to 'advance'. . . .

Richard Gilman(2)

Perhaps somewhere right now there are obscure artists, preoccupied with intellectual research and picturesque wonders, willingly shut up in miserable studios. . . who ponder emptily, unhappily, the universal thought in order to express it in a language intelligible to all. Fiat lux! Because what is important now is. . . to leave the Babel of confused tongues and to create, by virtue of a common thought, a common language, a common form disengaged from all the shadows cast on human nature by all the high borders of absolute systems, by local prejudices, by all sorts of errors which still divide the family of nations.

Théophile Thoré(3)

1
"The boundaries between the artistic and the non-artistic have been blurred," the Marxist esthetician Stefan Morawski wrote in 1972,(4) without realizing that this was the cause of artistic decadence. How could he, considering that it was the enlistment of art in the service of social revolution -- there is nothing more non-artistic than social revolution, unless it is popular culture -- that led to its decadence in modernity.

The question that haunts Marxist esthetics is, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, another Marxist: "[W]hy has the biological and existential content of 'esthetic' been sublimated in the unreal, illusory realm of art rather than in the transformation of reality?"(5) If the esthetic "belongs to art as art" rather than being "brought to bear on art 'from the outside'," then bringing the esthetic to bear on reality outside art desublimates the esthetic so that it no longer belongs to art. Marcuse erroneously thinks that art is an unreal, illusory realm rather than a realm with a reality of its own: a unique "meta-real" realm in which the reality of the esthetic -- which Marcuse admits is biologically and existentially real -- becomes transparently clear, with whatever degree of epiphanic visibility, expressive force and transcendental self-containment. "Art as art" brings the esthetic into focus, the sharper the focus, the more authentic the art. The desublimation of the esthetic, which results from the use of art as an instrument of "fundamental social change" and a "guide [to] the construction of the new society" - "the realization of art as a principle of social reconstruction"(6) -- seems to reconstruct art itself, but in doing so it undermines art as art, that is, art that is esthetically relevant, and with that, organically and existentially influential.

The tearing down of the esthetic wall between non-artistic and artistic reality -- between social life and artistic reflection, or, more basically, between blind attachment to everyday life and insightful detachment from it -- seems to inaugurate an advanced new esthetics. But this supposedly unfamiliar, radical esthetics is the familiar quasi-esthetics of everyday life in artistic disguise -- a sort of artistic Emperor's New Clothing on ironically naked banal objects and materials. They are asserted for themselves even as they are superficially transformed by being "considered" as art, suggesting the artist's double identification, and perhaps above all, the impossibility of complete artistic transformation in modernity, with its all-encompassing secular everydayness, that is, its resecularization of reality, which is its real revolution: the banalization of perception. Instead of imaginatively distilling the esthetic juice of the ordinary so that its inner extraordinariness becomes evident, its ordinariness comes to matter more than its esthetic revelation through sanctified sensation, which is all but meaningless in a secular world.

This exciting new avant-garde esthetic, however associated with Duchamp, began with Picasso's invention of collage and Braque's invention of papiers collés. These incorporate -- ironically, but also with esthetic seriousness -- pedestrian materials, e.g., newspaper clippings, into art works, as though in rebellion against their traditional, tired refinement. Supposedly, these familiar materials are esthetically transformed into unfamiliar -- innovative -- art, ironically rejuvenating art with their crass, unesthetic reality, made quasi-esthetic by being incorporated into art. But the incorporation is always ambiguous: A newspaper clipping may be as flat as a canvas, and the artist may establish a formal reciprocity between them while maintaining their difference, but the moment one reads the newspaper clipping, as one is invariably tempted to do, it is removed from the realm of art it seems to "conceptualize." But the unwitting main point is that the fragment of everyday life signals its power over art, which submits to it by unequivocally identifying with it. This emotional unequivocality is signaled by the fragment's own unequivocal assertion of its everyday identity and presence. It is, after all, only superficially or relatively transformed: Recontextualization in the art work is only nominally a transformation -- a transformation depending on a willing suspension of disbelief. Lightly veiled by formal treatment in the collage and papier collé, the evidence of the everyday remains intact, however much it may be a small indexical trace of it -- a synechdochic stand-in for its power of totalization.

Thus the interaction of high art and low life, the low supposedly giving the high new life, the high supposedly showing the inner subliminity -- esthetic uniqueness -- of the low, remains peculiarly unresolved and artistically abortive, however creatively innovative it may look. This failure of artistic transformation becomes increasingly evident in the junk art, assemblage and installation art that developed from collage. It is especially clear in the environments of everyday life, usually casually (not to say chaotically) organized, that have multiplied in the '90s, perhaps most obviously in Pippilotti Rist's installations. The esthetic has been mutilated in these works, however ironically esthetic they sometimes seem, by reason of their garish color and bombastic theatricality. There may be moments of esthetic perception in everyday life, but they flash by inconsequentially, as though beside the point of life, but then everyday life is blind to the biological and existential subtleties of life, which become seriously evident in the artistic mode of reflection.

'90s installation art precludes esthetic perception by dogmatically validating the everyday environment, giving it an aura of inevitability that makes it seem beyond analysis and criticism. The everyday mode of perception is absolutized and apotheosized, and everyday perception becomes the unquestionable truth: Reconceived and reproduced as art, the everyday becomes fate. It becomes convincing rather than naively the case. That the everyday may be more of an illusory, unreal realm than art -- that it may obscure reality more than art, because it is more ideological than art -- never occurs to the installation environmentalists. (Indeed, art imaginatively deconstructs the ideological stereotypes that everyday perception dogmatically constructs, indicating that the everyday is a house of cards, a Babel of incommensurate beliefs unintelligible to one another. In the process, it reveals the subjective underpinnings that the supposed objectivity of everydayness denies. Marcuse and other Marxists regard art as an illusory, unreal realm because they regard the subjective as illusory and unreal -- a kind of shadow of the objective, rather than a substance with its own reality. For them, it is a false oasis in the harsh desert of social reality. More generally, it is the useless byproduct of productive understanding of the real, resembling the phantom-like gas burned off when oil is successfully extracted from the solid earth.)

There has been a slow but steady erosion of the esthetic in art -- its organic element, the factor that brings it alive as art -- climaxing in the devaluation and finally destruction of the esthetic itself. Ironically, this destruction occurs in the name of artistic progress -- the myth of artistic advance, which has dominated the 20th-century idea of artistic value. It has been reified in late avant-gardism, becoming a hollow cliché, however much it inspired the early avant-garde, when it seemed a liberating truth. It is the decadent, self-destructive aspect of avant-gardism, the hidden canker in its creative blossoming, the worm ironically lurking in its fruit from its beginning. In stripping art of the esthetic, the so-called left wing of avant-garde art, represented by Duchamp and Kosuth, undoes art's inner connection to the organic and existential. "Leftist" art argues that it is "advancing" art by purging it of the esthetic, presumably making it a strictly "intellectual expression," to use Duchamp's term, but this "conceptualization" of art puts it in the hands of the everyday, as Duchamp's readymades and the many so-called conceptual works that follow in its wake indicate. If art's whole point -- to the extent that it is art -- is to imaginatively transcend the everyday (non-artistic), esthetically disclosing the organic and existential horizons that subsume it, then the regression to the everyday is decadent and dehumanizing. There is a "right wing" of avant-garde art, represented by Monet and Matisse -- all those whom Duchamp dismissed as "sensual" painters guilty of "animal expression" ("the more sensual appeal a painting provided. . . the more animal it became") -- who advocate and refine the esthetic to a perceptual extreme, but they have increasingly lost ground to facile Duchampianism, with its pretensions to intellectual superiority. They have been labeled decadent by the Duchampians because of their unremitting sensuousness, but it is just that organic sensuousness that is the core of art as art, and as such more existentially purposeful than the conceptual pseudo-art that trivializes it as the "physical side of painting."

From Dadaism on, as Morawski demonstrates -- and one may recall that Duchamp said that "Dada was very serviceable as a purgative," "a sort of nihilism"(7) -- art was subliminally concerned with changing the existing social order by undermining its presuppositions about itself as well as art. Subversion became a nihilistic end in itself, with the "new society" a distant vision that never comes into clear focus: Avant-garde leftism was always more negative than positive -- more destructive than reconstructive. Marcuse regards "'political art'" as a "monstrous concept," and asserts that "art by itself could never achieve [social] transformation, but it could free the perception and sensibility necessary for the transformation."(8) But the moment art leaves the realm of transcendental illusion -- illusion that transcends social reality by esthetically transforming it -- it loses power and becomes decadent. Slaves of politics, perception and sensibility become blunted.

Esthetic perception by definition deviates from social perception, and is ultimately incommensurate with it, not to say radically different in kind: To compel it to conform to social perception, or to reduce it to an instrument of social perception, is to deny its creative non-compliance, and with that, to falsify and de-transcendentalize it, rendering it decadent and impotent. Marcuse is as naive about esthetic perception and sensibility as he is about the new society -- which is not to deny the less-than-utopian character of existing (capitalist) society. Like Morawski, he does not seem to realize that esthetic consciousness is a radical mode of critical consciousness -- consciousness critical of whatever tends to de-organicize and de-existentialize the lifeworld, which is to devitalize and dehumanize it: "decadentize" it, as it were. Like Duchamp, the Marxists attack the esthetic gains of sensual painting -- as though it was possible to undo art history (and the abstract painting that is the grand climax of sensual painting) -- without realizing their import.

Thus, when Marcuse treats "art as technology and technique," so that it serves "the emergence of a new rationality in the construction of a free society, that is, the emergence of new modes and goals of technical progress itself,"(9) he subsumes it in instrumental reason, which as Adorno has said is the symbol of dominance. Not only does this deny its esthetic autonomy and the critical and evocative power of the esthetic, but the dialectical character of sensibility -- a serious error for a dialectical materialist. Marcuse has a clichéd idea of sensibility as passively and neutrally receiving sensations rather than actively transforming and evaluating them in the course of receiving them. Genuine sensibility is concerned with the quality and value of sensations, however few or many it focuses on: They garner value through the esthetic intuition of their organic and existential quality. Everyday sensibility is unconscious of these qualities, an unconsciousness masked by and taking the form of indifference. Using art as an instrument of social transformation -- also the implicit goal of Duchamp's Dadaistic use of it in the service of what he misrepresents as mind (the clever construction of ironies) -- is another expression of this decadent, self-defeating indifference, for it involves the "everydayification" of art.

It was its revolution in esthetics that was the significant avant-garde achievement, for it added meaning and value to perception, not avant-garde sniping away at the social status quo by way of its nihilistic attack on the artistic status quo, whatever that might currently be. Indeed, I would argue that conceptual nihilism is counterrevolutionary to the extent that it viciously degrades -- as Duchamp does -- the esthetic revolution initiated by the 19th-century sensual painting of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism by attacking it as "animal expression," as though animals were seriously capable of it. Some anti-painting Duchampians have suggested as much by ironically exhibiting paintings made by chimpanzees as though they were Abstract Expressionist, which is not only to sell the visual complexities and subtleties of Abstract Expressionism short but to degrade art as such. (Duchamp's distinction between the "animal" and the "intellectual" echoes, in clichéd form, the obsolete Cartesian distinction between body and mind, more particularly, between feeling and thinking. The latter is assumed to be inherently superior to the former, and able to expunge it -- or at least deny feeling, which Descartes did by regarding it mechanistically, so that it no longer seemed inherently organic. Duchamp's enlistment of art in the service of his version of mind carries Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" to its logical conclusion. Both absurdly imply that one's being is reducible to one's thinking, and that thinking -- and with it being -- has nothing bodily and animal about it. Art is also reduced to thinking, implying that it has little or nothing to do with feeling.)

The esthetic revolution was the only psychosocially constructive avant-garde revolution, for it undoes the numbing effect on sensibility and existential stultification of secularizing technological society, thus preserving a place for organic individuality and the creation of humanness in increasingly inorganic and humanly indifferent society. Pop art, which Morawski suggests "absolutely" wipes out the boundaries between art and non-art,(10) reifies and endorses the indifferent, inorganic character of technological society, manufacturing an art which is as indifferent, inorganic (mechanical) and existentially shallow and superficial as it is -- a socially rather than esthetically "sensational" art. Pop art is the decadent climax of the artistic decadence that began with Dadaism and Duchamp. The touch of irony that supposedly gives Pop art intellectual cachet does nothing to disturb its look of facile efficiency (the equivalent of Duchamp's facile intellectualism), which is a long way from the esthetic intricacies, intensities and revelatory concreteness of sensation in abstract art. The moment the esthetic loses its transcendental position, which it does when the boundaries between art and non-art blur -- abstract art defiantly re-asserts and sharpens those boundaries, carrying the esthetic to a new extreme in which perception becomes more incisive, intense and fresh than ever -- art as a whole becomes decadent, not to say perverse. Indeed, the everyday's ironical takeover of art, which began as an impingement and ends as an invasion, is a suicidal inversion of art's transcendental purpose. It doesn't require as much "mind" to carry out the takeover as Duchamp thought -- certainly not as much as the esthetic transformation of reality does. And the quality of mind is different: Instead of intellectualizing irony downplaying feeling -- mind split against itself -- true esthetic consciousness offers the integration of feeling and thinking in a consummate moment of consciousness; Instead of the depreciation of subjective reality, the integration of subject and object in a singular act of "real-izing" perception.

If one way art becomes decadent is by capitulating to the everyday, another way is by making a spectacle of itself. If Tracey Emin's exhibition of her unmade bed is a trendy example of the former, then Ann Hamilton's Venice Biennale conceptual installation Myein (1999) is a trendy example of the latter. The former is somewhat cluttered, the latter ironically empty. In both cases, art satirizes itself, however unwittingly, that is, it theatrically repeats once timely ideas -- the ironical readymade in Emin's case, the ironical dematerialization of art in Hamilton's case -- until they seem self-ridiculing and senseless. What once seemed cogent and transformative (if not for the best, in my opinion) is fetishized as rhetorical performance. In modernity, the direct incorporation of irony into art made it unintelligible, intellectually intriguing if emotionally sterile. In the postmodern works by Emin and Hamilton, art has become too ironical and unintelligible for its own communicative good: It only speaks to those in the esoteric know -- those willing to play the art game. Narcissistically fetishized, advanced art loses relational purpose. Caught up in itself, it forgets the audience, which is expected to accept it on its own terms, uncritically: Whatever common ground existed between advanced art and the audience collapses. Holding up a mirror to itself rather than to the audience -- as art has done since Aristotle noted the cathartic effect of the insight it afforded -- art loses its audience. Thus, advanced art loses its foundation in human experience.

The fairer it seems to itself, the more unfair the audience seems: Why doesn't the audience understand its reason for being? But it itself no longer knows why it exists: hence its exaggerated, overly defensive narcissism. Advanced art exists only to be itself. That should be reason enough to be. The audience is expected to idealize it, not to question it -- even though it has made a question of itself. In short, failing to make inner contact with the audience -- except perhaps after an elaborate explanatory rigmarole -- which therefore becomes estranged, advanced art becomes defensively involuted. It becomes a minor epistemological problem rather than the major horizon of understanding it once claimed to be. It becomes meaningless except to those who find meaning in puzzles, however much the "advanced" point is to be puzzling: Solving the puzzle -- and the conceptual puzzle, which reduces art to readymade status (as Kosuth's Secession installation did), is meant to be unsolvable -- one learns nothing new. The eureka moment of consciousness -- what Winnicott calls an "ego orgasm" -- is slow in coming, and when it comes it is more of a whimper than a bang.

Advanced art, then, has less and less to say for itself because it has less and less to say to the audience. Indeed, advanced art is unable to "advance" its audience -- to make the unconscious conscious and to catalyze transcendental consciousness. Losing connection with the audience's unconscious, it dead-ends in self-consciousness. Thus, every new breakthrough becomes a communicative and relational breakdown. The audience no longer trusts it, and is unwilling to become intimate with it. The so-called "advance" of art turns out to be a narcissistic mirage, that is, an expression of advanced art's self-satisfaction. No longer doubting itself -- and it was its self-doubt that made it creative -- it becomes complacent and self-congratulatory, and disregards the audience's complaints and doubts about it. The self-critical self-absorption that Greenberg thought was necessary for the survival of avant-garde art has become narcissistic indifference to the humanity of the audience. Climbing out of the abyss of self-doubt by transforming it into self-criticality, avant-garde art lapses into intellectual arrogance -- the exaggerated pride that is a prelude to decadence, indeed, already a form of decadence and uncreative indifference.

This decadent indifference may have been latent in avant-garde art from the beginning, as its audience's initial resistance suggests, but it was soon able to reach and deeply engage the audience. It wanted an audience, and the audience had a need for it. Today, it is not clear that it wants an audience, and that the audience has a serious need for it -- that it gives the audience something it doesn't have, even makes up for deficits in its experience and consciousness. Indeed, people can live without it. As the Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck wrote, "the dada protest was based on a false premise, i.e., the assumption that mankind would not be able to survive without the artist. Yet it can get along without art as easily as without religion despite all assertions to the contrary."(11) Indeed, "mass man proves that without the slightest contact with [creative] quality one can not only live an excellent life but also attain a much greater age than our forebears."

Advanced art slowly but surely loses significance; It no longer becomes the "significant other" it once was for many socially disillusioned people in search of their lost individuality. No longer having any significant transformative effect on the audience -- all the more so because the terms of advanced art have come to be understood (critics and scholars are able and ready to interpret it instantly), so that there is no chance for it to work its magic, sink in deeply enough to change the psyche, however temporarily (but lacking depth, advanced art floats on the surface of consciousness these postmodern days) -- it becomes clever entertainment. It is not only that "the ruling mass man. . . persistently confuses entertainment. . . with art," as Huelsenbeck writes,(12) but art is eager to be entertaining. If entertainment demands no psychic work, as Hanna Segal says, then advanced art has become existentially undemanding, and thus betrayed itself. "The most brilliant of all revolutions is about to dissolve in thin air because, by being cheerfully accepted by all the world," it has been "integrated in the mass life of our time," Huelsenbeck notes.(13) '90s postmodern art is the final ironical act of this dissolution and integration, that is, the final stage of advanced art's transformation of itself into advanced entertainment, in hope of reclaiming an audience -- even a not particularly serious audience.

Matthew Barney's Cremaster series is perhaps the best illustration of this self-defeating transformation -- it certainly shows that spectacle has become a substitute for intimate communication -- but Hamilton's Venice installation is the clearest illustration of the hyper-irony that informs advanced entertainment art. It is also the climactic demonstration of the complete loss of "interactional synchrony" with the audience (the psychoanalyst Victoria Hamilton's term) that occurs in postmodernity. The artist may be attuned to the audience's conscious expectations, as Barney is -- its wish to be entertained (distracted from its own existence), indeed "awed and shocked" by a spectacle (to refer to the effect of the American blitzkrieg on Iraq) -- but that is not the same as being attuned to its inner life. What Hamilton's installation shows is that there is no bridge of intelligibility linking art and audience. Indeed, she strongly suggests that advanced art cannot build such a bridge -- construct an intelligibility which allows for mutuality -- and that it is perhaps impossible to do so in the postmodern world. Her installation demonstrates the stand-off that has developed between artist and audience -- a willful stand-off on the artist's part, resulting in the audience's baffled disengagement -- in self-styled advanced art.

Hamilton lets the audience know the conceptual point of her installation, but that hardly makes it a living experience. It may be intellectually cunning and politically correct -- intellectually labored and politically simplistic, I would say -- but that hardly makes it emotionally and existentially uncanny. Ironically uncommunicative, it signals the relational failure that has plagued advanced art from the start: As it "advances," it seems to leave its audience behind -- until it becomes entertaining enough to gain a mass audience. Hamilton doesn't want one: Her installation is meant for intellectuals -- it is an ironic construction of unintelligibility -- but that makes it intellectual entertainment rather than an imaginative achievement. She hides her politics behind an esthetic veneer, indicating that her installation is meant to appeal to the esthetically indifferent as well as politically disaffected. For her, esthetics is deceptive. In fact, she is anti-esthetic, however ironically esthetic. Her visual thinking is puritanical (and dubiously visual), as her trivialization of the sensuous -- it literally seems to turn to dust in her installation -- and the barren state of her space imply. Thus, she is indifferent to art as art, however much she exploits the esthetic for conceptual purposes, using irony to rationalize its use.

I would like to analyze Hamilton's Myein in detail -- the title comes from a Greek word that means "to shut the eyes," which Hamilton connects to "myosis," an abnormal contraction of the pupil of the eye -- for in my opinion it is the decadent theatrical climax of conceptual irony. It is hard to imagine an installation that could be more intellectually pretentious and less interactive -- and more anti-visual and forced in its esotericism. I will argue that the irony with which Hamilton surrounds her idea -- the cliché that America is blind to its own violence and imperialism -- is overblown, as though to distract us from the shortsightedness and one-sidedness, indeed, simple-mindedness of her idea. It is hardly the original insight into America it claims to be, and in fact, it is a facile generalization about it, not to say a one-dimensional stereotype.

This suggests that Hamilton's mind -- the conceptualist's mind, which the arch-conceptualist Duchamp thought had the poet's intelligence rather than the "stupidity of the painter"(14) -- is, after all, conventional and average. "The artist," Breton wrote, "ceases to be an average human being. . . he himself is caught up in the drama being enacted" by his art.(15) It begins an "unpredictable adventure" from which he can never return to the safety of averageness. Breton's example is Rimbaud, who wrote that "terror came" while "analyzing his own experience in Alchemie du verbe." It was a terror which was uncovered by art, and which could be explored by it, but which it could not expunge. Hamilton's Myein is not an imprudent adventure the average human being dare not risk -- and is unlikely to conceive -- but a rather average view of America, indeed, the typical view of the average intellectual, or rather the pseudo-critical view of the pseudo-intellectual quasi-leftist artist. Its simplistic condemnation sweeps all complexity aside, which is why it lacks analytic credibility.

Nor is Hamilton the seer or visionary that Rimbaud thought the artist could become by disordering her senses, as the sensuous irony of her installation suggests she is. Esthetic trickiness -- red dust pours down the white walls, casually accumulating on the floor -- is not the same as sensuous terror: The terror one feels in one's senses as one stretches them to the perceptual limits. The sensuous superficiality of Hamilton's installation confirms the superficiality of her concept of America. Unlike Rimbaud, she does not expand and deepen sense experience, but narrows and trivializes it, and with it, the world that as its object. Hamilton's dust is a mote in the eye, rather than the catalyst of visionary insight. Her simple-minded generalization about America shows a certain blindness towards it. Indeed, the whole installation is an exercise in self-blinding, all the more ironical because it claims to be about America's blindness to itself. Where Rimbaud offered "illuminations" -- perceptual and conceptual epiphanies -- Hamilton offers blindness, her own more than ours. Her installation lacks the psychological depth and intensity of Rimbaud's visionary poetry, indicating that art can be quite prosaic underneath its visionary appearance. This is no doubt another example of conceptual irony, however unintended. In short, Hamilton's sensuousness is as inadequate as her concept of America.

Myein occupied the four rooms of the American pavilion, which were kept empty, except for the red dust. At first sight the installation seems neo-esthetic -- a kind of revival of decadent estheticism, as though Hamilton, sensitive to her site, was trying to distill the seductive colors and atmosphere of Venice. That atmosphere, which constantly changes, depending on the restless luminosities of sky and sea mingling in it, made Venice an Impressionist delight, as in Whistler's The Riva, Sunset. Red and Gold (1879-80), Renoir's Fog in Venice (1881) and Monet's The Grand Canal, Venice (1908-12). These painters materialized the Venetian atmosphere in a material that seems as fluid as it is. Perhaps Hamilton's drifting red dust was meant to be an ironical materialization of the seemingly immaterial free-floating color of pure abstract painting. Was she exploiting the mystique of Venice to offer an appreciative reprise of modernist colorism? Was her installation a "spectacular" attempt to revive Lyrical Expressionism, an optimistic offshoot of tormented Abstract Expressionism?

Nothing so art historically subtle was involved, however much there was a certain amount of postmodern appropriation of modernist colorism. It was all ironical facade, adumbrating the conceptual and politically correct point. As Hamilton stated, and had to state if she wanted the audience to get the critical point of her spectacle rather than swoon away in the delirium of its color - "I wanted to make something big and yet something almost humble and empty, to comment on American domination. . . . There is so much in our history that we cannot look at, that we refuse to see."(16) The only people who can "see" Hamilton's "comment" are blind people, or at least the few who can read Braille (ten to fifteen percent), for the pavilion's white walls were covered with a Braille translation of Charles Reznikoff's Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915: Recitative, a book of poems addressing American violence. Associated with this was a recording of Hamilton's voice whispering Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, which called for healing during the Civil War. Like Reznikoff's poems, Lincoln's speech is presented ironically in the phonetic alphabet used by pilots ("Alpha" for a, "Bravo" for b) -- an esoteric language unfamiliar to most people -- making it all but impossible to understand.(17) (Pilots are probably purveyors of violence for Hamilton.)

We now get the point -- or think we do -- of the dust falling from tanks hidden in the ceilings: It supposedly symbolizes pollution, yet another American crime, against the environment, as well as humanity. The powder, presumably toxic, also symbolizes America's insidious power, as Hamilton suggests: "My materials are beautiful, and I do want you to look at it. . . . But part of the piece is about American culture insidiously filtering out into everyplace, like the powder."(18) Perhaps the red dust also symbols the blood America as shed -- its own and other nations. It's an old story: The ugly American who superficially looks good. Hamilton's materials are contaminated and contaminating, their beauty is poisonous rather than sublime, fatal rather than vital: deceptive in their seductiveness, ironical in their innocence. Hamilton's dust has more in common with the dust that once covered Duchamp's Large Glass, as though entombing it, rather than with Venetian sensuality. Accumulating in empty space, the dust signals the spiritual desert that America is for Hamilton. "Dust to dust" is Hamilton's seemingly tragic point.

Coyly ironical, Myein is a deceptive pastiche of allusions and quotations. The Braille is impossible for even the most open-eyed viewer -- willing to suspend disbelief to fathom the meaning of the work -- to comprehend. The blind people who can read it are unlikely to come to the exhibition, which is, after all, supposed to be visual art: Nobody can "read" the piece, which makes it obscure and frustrating indeed. Indeed, even if a blind person who knew Braille did visit the exhibition, she would not be allowed to touch the walls in order to read the text, for they have become consecrated by becoming art. No one is allowed to touch the art in a museum, which is what the pavilion became the moment Hamilton's work was installed in it. Similarly, since the text is whispered in an obscure language, very few people will understand it, or for that matter, hear it clearly. One might as well be deaf, dumb and blind -- which is what Hamilton tells the public it is, in effect heaping contempt on it. The installation is memorable for the ignorance and stupidity it bestows on the audience, not for its sociopolitical meaning or artistic means.

Supposedly, Hamilton is deconstructing "seeing," that is, showing the blindness within it, but she is also deconstructing reading, showing the unreadableness in it, and listening, showing the silence within sound. Thus, the dead-end is compounded: Hamilton's work can neither be seen nor read nor heard, leaving it a nihilistic limbo. Claiming profound meaning, it becomes meaninglessness because it doesn't communicate. Left hanging, the viewer can only relate to the assumption that it's "art" -- a minimalist performance: But of what and so what? -- until Hamilton's explanation comes to the rescue. But one doesn't have to accept her word -- it's just her interpretation, presumably privileged because she's the artist. But then, the artist doesn't necessarily have the last word and know what her work is about. Indeed, it will change meaning with the times and audience: No reception of any work is the guaranteed truth about it. The viewer is forced back on the peculiar emptiness of the work, leaving her feeling empty: The installation is, after all, only "art" -- only has an art meaning, whatever that is. It has no other experienced meaning: It is its lack of meaning -- the sense that it has been emptied of meaning -- that is experienced. In fact, Hamilton ironically undermines her own critical intention -- subverts the sociopolitical meaning her work is supposed to have -- by hiding it so well behind her "art." Her installation has a secret we never actually know, and when Hamilton reveals it, we realize that it is a secret everybody knows. There's something anti-climactic about her explanation that the installation is about America's domination. Explained, the work loses mystery and becomes a wasteland, and a not especially artistic one. Hamilton is too clever for her own good.

Supposing one is blind and knows Braille and is allowed to read the wall-written text: One still misses the color. One always misses something. One may see the color, but not hear the whispered spoken word very well, or, hearing it, one may not understand the language in which it is spoken. The installation is about fooling the viewer, which may be appealing if one likes to be made a fool of. The treacherous irony begins as one approaches the American pavilion, which one sees through a glass wall that distorts and blurs its appearance, so that it seems abnormal -- like America. Thus, Hamilton's installation is not about healing "myosis" -- however much her explanation finally let's us "see" properly -- but creating it. Perhaps the most significant irony is that the installation attacks and damns Hamilton's sponsor, the American government. Hamilton bites the hand that feeds her, supposedly showing her dissent. America, which has always been susceptible to guilt and mea culpa, because of its utopian aspirations, is no doubt grateful for the artistic opportunity to learn the violent truth about itself, which presumably it didn't know until the artist came along to state it, however obscurely. But once we get beyond the artist's process of obfuscation -- and it is the process of obfuscation that is the art -- the truth she tells is banal and familiar. Americans know about America's violence, and deplore it, and want to remedy it, even if they disagree how to do so. But the artistic point is that it is ironically hard to be enlightened by Hamilton's installation -- to read the text, to get the ulterior motive of the red dust (adding an aura of profound import), without the help of her explanation, that is, her superficially topical concept. Without the concept, the installation is boring, and with the concept, it's simply a text that has been made superficially exciting by being written in a language most people can't read. The installation is really about her own estrangement from America, not about American violence.

Hamilton's installation has a certain sociological significance: It takes place on foreign soil. It wouldn't have the same critical carrying power in America, whatever the radical chic of its anti-Americanism. It caters to European prejudice against and envy of American power. Europeans are more likely than Americans to visit the Venice Biennale -- a major stop on the cultural tour. Europeans like to blame their problems on "Americanization," as though they were forced to watch American movies and listen to American popular music, two of America's biggest "cultural" exports. Isn't Hamilton's installation another such cultural export -- a high culture rather than popular culture export -- and as such yet another example of American cultural imperialism? Isn't it a carpetbagging American art looking for European credentials to confirm its sophistication? The European audience has an American artist who agrees with its worst fears about America -- who sees corrupting American influence everywhere and condemns the violence that seems endemic to America. What ironical luck to have such a self-critical artist in the American pavilion! All the more so because she's so self-righteous.

The opposition between the body's eye and the mind's eye -- between seeing and knowing -- is the ironical substance of Myein. Within this grand governing irony there are many subsidiary ironies, all variations on the primary irony: The opposition between seeing and blindness, seeing and touching, seeing and reading, color and whiteness, the physical and conceptual, matter and idea, the visible and invisible, English and Braille, English and a phonetic language, the minority who can read Braille and the majority who cannot, the specialized few who can understand a phonetic language and the great majority who cannot, exclusivity and spectacle, the idea and its implementation (that is, the mechanics who installed the 24 electric motors that generated the dust), Europe as the site of the installation and America as its subject matter, the American pavilion's classical facade and its stark modernist interior, the in-the-know artist and the ignorant public. . . and so on. The ironies cynically proliferate, as though to hammer home the installation's nihilism, and the raw hatred of America it implies, however intellectually sophisticated it may be. Hamilton subtly annihilates the violent country she regards as the major threat to world peace.

The cynicism -- about art as well as society -- implicit in Hamilton's installation is vividly explicit in Emin's bed and the tent inscribed with the names of everyone she ever slept with, as well as in the work of the Young British Artists of the so-called Sensation and Neurotic Realism movements. These '90s artists are all too knowing about what the public wants, whether that be intellectual entertainment, in the form of a conceptual Babel, or more obviously sensational entertainment, such as Marcus Harvey's Myra (1995), an enlarged mugshot of Myra Hindley, the notorious serial killer of children. Both Hamilton and Harvey exploit the newsworthy -- the currently hot social issue, usually having to do with crime, war, dysfunctional families, perverse sex, etc. Harvey may be more straightforward and blatant (he seems to have a tabloid mentality) and Hamilton more intellectually cunning (Myein is not exactly a one-liner, like Harvey's picture), but both ironically manipulate public perception -- like the media. A good part of their cynicism -- conscious in Harvey's case, unconscious in Hamilton's case -- also has to do with the Duchampian ease with which they get the public to believe that what they exhibit is art (if not esthetically adequate art), all the more so because so much of it is explicitly amateurish. Indeed, the de-professionalization of artmaking -- in part a consequence of the indifference to craft cultivated by Conceptual Art -- is a byproduct of postmodernism, with its "anything goes" attitude.

So long as there is explicit violence and explicit sex -- as in the works of Dinos and Jake Chapman and Sarah Lucas, respectively (Marc Quinn's self-portrait, a frozen head made from his own blood, and Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary accompanied by elephant dung and female genitals cut out of pornographic images, are even more ingeniously voyeuristic) -- the work satisfies the mass public's preconception of art. Entertaining low art, perhaps, with a certain affinity to wax works, horror films, and pornographic movies, among other modes of public entertainment, but nonetheless art. The art the mass public wants must afford a momentary thrill, offsetting everyday dullness, however much it derives from everyday life. It must show something exceptional -- a serial murder, for example, or the mutilation of bodies -- however much such exceptions are the everyday rule. The Young British Artists traffic in everyday grotesqueness and suffering.† †

The attempt to fuse entertainment and art -- to create an entertaining avant-garde art that will appeal to the masses -- by putting an artistic veneer on everyday entertainment imagery, and/or theatrically exhibiting it in an art context, suggests that to be a postmodern artist is to be an ironical poseur. Lynn Somers calls Barney an "international poseur," observing that he is "obtusely ironic" and describing his sexual and narcissistic hipness.(19) "His recurring use of the satyr or Pan figure evokes both homosexuality, sadomasochism, aggression, bacchanalia, as well as Nietzsche's all-powerful ‹bermensch." Barney is an implicit role model for artists as different as Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades, Charles Long and Tony Oursler, among many others, whatever their medium (often video and kitsch materials) and concerns (usually psychosocial, like the tabloids).

All these artists cynically mix a media journalistic manner and dadaistic shock tactics in an obsolete épater le bourgeois offensiveness. They are all satirists, wittingly or unwittingly. They satirize and exploit the public's fascination with sensationalized information, entertaining spectacle, and its art gullibility. The willing suspension of disbelief that has led to the acceptance of anything as art -- democracy in ironic and moronic action -- is one small detail of the self-deception capitalism depends on. Its function is to distract the individual from the world's indifference to her existence, more particularly, from the feeling that she has no effect on and value in the world. Nothing can be changed, which means there is nothing to change: Certainly not art, which is, after all, only another ostrich hole of entertainment in which one can hide one's feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness -- one's narcissistic suffering. Entertainment is the opium of the emotionally downtrodden masses, and art is the most expensive opium. Thus, the public is mindlessly accommodating -- and the entertaining artists are cleverly obliging: There's no business like art show business.

Perhaps the biggest poseur -- con artist? -- in the art entertainment business is Damien Hirst. The following episode epitomizes his cynicism and irony. It is an exemplary case of the artist pulling the public's leg, and the public's eagerness to have its leg pulled. Taken in by the farce -- satire at its most nihilistic -- the public has only itself to blame for allowing itself to be defrauded. Hirst once said "Integrity is bullshit. . . I'm not anything at heart. I'm too greedy."(20) So is his public. The familiar advice "buyer beware" seems to have been suspended when it comes to capitalist-inspired art -- art with no integrity:

An installation that the popular and pricey British artist Damien Hirst assembled in the window of a Mayfair gallery on Tuesday was dismantled and discarded the same night by a cleaning man who said he thought it was garbage. The work -- a collection of half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a paint-smeared palette, an easel, a ladder, paintbrushes, candy wrappers and newspaper pages strewn about the floor -- was the centerpiece of an exhibition of limited-edition art that the Eyestorm Gallery showed off at a V.I.P. preopening party. . . . Mr. Hirst, 35, the best known member of a generation of conceptual artists known as the Young British Artists, had put it together and signed off on it, and Heidi Reitmaier, head of special projects for the gallery, put its sales value at "six figures" or hundreds of thousands of dollars. "It's an original Damien Hirst," she explained. . . The cleaning man, Emmanuel Asare, 54, told The Evening Standard: "As soon as I clapped eyes on it, I sighed because there was so much mess. It didn't look much like art to me. So I cleared it all in bin bags, and I dumped it. . . Far from being upset by the mix-up, Mr. Hirst greeted the news as "hysterically††† funny," Ms. Reitmaier said. . . . "since his art is all about the relationship between art and the everyday, he laughed harder than anyone else."(21)

Thus, the viewer completes the work, as Duchamp said he did, showing that he is just is capable of what Duchamp called a "creative act" as the artist -- even more, as Duchamp implied. What he doesn't say is that the ironical completion of the work by the viewer plays into the artist's cynical hands, making his work look more original and significant than it is, and making him seem profoundly creative. But he is neither fanciful nor imaginative (to use Coleridge's distinction between the two kinds of organic creativity), only manipulative and matter-of-fact. Hirst's work is another triumph of media hype, and the media cater to it. It is a species of fun and games for the idle rich -- conspicuous consumption carried to reductio ad absurdum. It is amateur Dadaism -- Dadaism without its critical cutting edge, Dadaist nihilism as ironically high style -- and a demonstration of capitalist cynicism, and of its debilitating effect on art. Profitable for the artist and his investors, it is yet another case of diminishing existential returns for the viewer. It is a demonstration of the fashionable farce that so much art has tragically become.

Notes
† (1) Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, Mentor Books, 1955), p. 277
† (2) Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), p. 137
† (3) Théophile Thoré, "New Tendencies in Art" (1868), in Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-1873: The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 155
† (4) Stefan Morawski, "What Is a Work of Art?," in Lee Baxandall, ed., Radical Perspectives in the Arts (Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 329
† (5) Quoted in ibid., p. 60
† (6) Ibid., p. 61
† (7) Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 394
† (8) Morawski, pp. 60-61
† (9) Ibid., p. 61
† (10) Morawski, p. 348
† (11) Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer (New York: Viking, 1974), p. 178
† (12) Ibid., p. 177
† (13) Ibid., p. 179
† (14) Quoted in Ursula Meyer, ed., Conceptual Art (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. x
† (15) André Breton, Surrealism and Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 77
† (16) Quoted in Steven Henry Madoff, "Codes and Whispers," Time, July 12,
1999, p. 75.
† (17) Madoff, ibid., writes that Hamilton's "recondite Braille and phonetic whispers work too well perhaps: she leaves viewers with little to grasp easily. When a visual work rests so heavily on literary means, its impact is inevitably blunted."
† (18) Quoted in Peter Plagens, "A Visionary Hits Venice," Newsweek, July 12, 1999, p. 65
† (19) Lynn Somers with Bluewater Avery and Jason Paradis, "From Corporeal Bodies to Mechanical Machines: Navigating the Spectacle of American Installation in the '90s," Art Criticism, 14/2 (1999): 68
† (20) Quoted in Rita Hatton and John A. Walker, Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi, 2nd ed. (London: Institute of Artology, 2003), p. 37
† (21) Warren Hoge, "Art Imitates Life, Perhaps Too Closely," New York Times, October 20, 2001


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here