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by Gorgon
Speaking of confused art values (the ugly truth about our art times), here’s a little item that should make your conceptual hairs stand on end.

A top art gallery in Britain displayed a block of slate topped by a small piece of wood as a work of art, unaware that it was merely the plinth for a missing sculpture. The Royal Academy in London later admitted that it was confused because the plinth and sculpture -- a human head by artist David Hensel -- were sent to the museum separately. ‘Given their separate submission, the two parts were judged independently,’ museum officials said. ‘The head was rejected. The base was thought to have merit and accepted’.

-- The Week, June 30, 2006.

What a wonderful farce! Or is it a tragedy? Did the artist protest, or did he just smugly smile to himself, grateful for the chance to be exhibited in such a prestigious institution? Why did the museum officials think the base had merit? Why didn’t the human head have merit? They ought to be forced to spell out their reasons. Is the non-human preferable to the human these days? Is there a prejudice against the representation of a human being? Is there a prejudice against representation, a preference for anything that can be labeled "abstract?"

Did the museum officials remove the base from the exhibition when they realized their confusion? Or put the human head back on it? Or didn’t they care about the integrity of the work, having gotten the work they wanted? Slate is much more durable that a human head, even more lasting than the skull inside it. Did the museum officials think they were showing something eternal, which is what art is supposed to be, especially when it is placed in a museum (the base was clearly more "museum-worthy" than the human head)?

How ripe for interpretation! Another guillotine job: off with the head! But didn’t they used to put the enemy’s head on a spike and exhibit it for the edification of the masses? Now we don’t even show the dead body, but rather the platform on which the poor victim was placed to meet his maker. It’s the new Puritanism, of which Conceptualism -- especially the lame duck Conceptual Art that is the exhibited plinth -- is a pathetic version. If "anything goes" in these postmodern times, why doesn’t the human head "go"?

Whatever happened to pluralism, or at least the display of difference? Materiality with a twitch -- the small piece of wood is the twitch -- is now regarded as "authentic" art: let us all go home and cry for all the great art -- part of its greatness was that it showed the greatness of human beings, even when they were sinners and killers -- that once was.

Or simply not visit the Royal Academy, the preserve of trendy curator Norman Rosenthal, an entrenched hack who passes himself off as a mind (he’s not even much of a talking head). Wasn’t he once accused of attempting to push the previous director down a staircase, because she wanted to cut his budget? She had a good idea. Better yet, fire the fool! Where is Joshua Reynolds when we need him?

A human head is a traditional theme. Human heads are rather commonplace. We see them every day, beginning with our own head when we look at ourselves in the morning mirror. The base that traditionally supported the head (or figure) was secondary to its presence. But in modernity the base came to have a presence of its own. Brancusi gave the base phallic grandeur, sometimes fusing it with the head or figure it supported, so that it became hard to say where one ended and the other began. At the other end of the modernist scale, Carl Andre collapsed the base into flatness, presenting it -- apparently without irony -- as an art object in its own right, indeed, a deluxe found object.

Was the traditional difference between head and base making a come-back in Hensel’s bust? Is that why the Royal Academy fools rejected it -- because they didn’t want anything traditional? They accepted its modernist/conceptual part, rejected its traditional/human part. The base became a kind of floor piece and found object, the human head was discarded as trite and obsolete. But isn’t it daring to restore the traditional hierarchical placement of human head and base, the latter elevating the former rather than conceptually elevated into "significant" art? Isn’t it original -- certainly novel -- to be traditional today, when modernism in general and conceptualism in particular are no longer original (even if no one knows exactly what it means to be original)? This is the basic, overridding issue of contemporary art.

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Nowhere is the controversial issue -- the conflict and debate between the traditional and the modernist (both now equally clichéd) -- more directly and urgently addressed than in architecture. Traditional-type architecture has become a threat to modernist-type architecture. The battle between them is being played out right now in the Hurricane Katrina-stricken South. Sounding like an endangered species, modernist architects have deplored the plans to rebuild the ruined cities of Louisiana and Mississippi in traditional style.

"The arrival of ‘new urbanists’ on the U.S. Gulf coast has caused alarm among other architects," Andre Ward reports in the June 24, 2006, issue of the Financial Times -- modernist architects.

Ward writes: "Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, the U.S. Gulf coast remained in a state of shock. . . . But, while most people were still coming to terms with the scale of destruction, one group was already planning for the future. About 200 architects and planners from across the U.S. and beyond had gathered in the shell of a battered seafront hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, to draw up a blueprint for rebuilding. . . . To those unschooled in the factional world of architecture, the sight of these skilled professionals applying their formidable brain power and creative energy to such a worthy cause was inspiring. But not everybody was enthusiastic. Many architects not in Biloxi were horrified by the identity of those involved and suspicious of their motives."

Ward continues: "The chief organizer was Andres Duany, a Cuban-born architect known as the father of the New Urbanism, a U.S. design movement that emerged in the 1980s as a reaction against urban sprawl and traffic congestion. He and his followers advocate a return to compact, walkable communities, reminiscent of the days when American towns revolved around picturesque Main Streets, squares and parks rather than the suburban strip malls and atomized housing developments of recent decades. It sounds like an appealing vision, but New Urbanism has become a bitterly divisive concept. Critics, especially modernist architects, deride the movement for pandering to nostalgia with a backward-looking pastiche of 19th-century planning. ‘It is the most pessimistic and unimaginative form of architecture because it does not allow for the possibility that something new could be better than what went before,’ says Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. ‘These people do not believe in the natural evolution of cities’."

Moss, and other modernist architects, clearly feel threatened -- panicked? -- by the "New Urbanism." Certainly its an economic threat; it will take business away from modernist architects. But apart from that inevitability, show me a city that has naturally evolved. Was Robert Moses part of the "natural evolution" of New York City? Are the highways he built, at the expense of what Duany calls the "cohesive, pedestrian-friendly [neighborhood] communities" they destroyed, "natural?" Was Haussman’s "modernization" of Paris a "natural evolution" of the city?

It was forced upon the city for political reasons: it was harder to build barricades across broad boulevards than narrow streets -- harder to establish a Commune, in which people were united in common cause, and easier to create a Society in which people are atomized, as Duany says, and anonymousized, if I may coin a word, and make common cause only for contractual and economic reasons. When Rome’s old St. Peter’s was replaced by the new St. Peter’s, was that a "natural evolution?" Was it a "natural evolution" when a pagan temple was replaced by old St. Peter’s, a Christian temple? Does Moss mean to say that no social coercion and vested interests were involved in the construction of cities? That no power group decided what buildings should be built and in what style they should be built?

And is everything new automatically better than everything old? Is New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Morningside Heights better than Chartres Cathedral? Is New York City’s Riverside Church Cathedral better than Amiens Cathedral? Is Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillon better than Gaudi’s Casa Milà? Is Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye better than Palladio’s Villa Rotonda? Prove it.

Will the New Urban communities -- and the postmodern (and universally human) search for community, or for structures that symbolize community, is the key to the success of the New Urbanism (even if it is a deliberately planned community, which suggests how hard it is to come by community these days, even a simulated community) -- really tap "into an ‘anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South’" (and presumably for its racism)? I don’t think so, if only because New Urban homes (putting down roots in a home is another key New Urban idea) are too expensive to appeal to cottonpickers, and there aren’t any cottonpickers left in Mississippi. And racism seems to be more an individual than collective matter these days. Property alone typically sells for $1 million per lot in New Urban towns, indicating that they are part of the general trend to gentrification, as Ward suggests.

He writes: "Reed Kroloff, dean of the architecture school at Tulane University [in New Orleans], . . . fears the result would be a ‘Disneyfied, cartoon version’ of the city. ‘New Urbanism’s biggest flaw is its belief that simulation can be as good as the real thing,’ he says. ‘You cannot create authentic neighborhoods by trying to recreate the past’."

Yes, you can, because the present hasn’t created any authentic neighborhoods. Chelsea and Greenwich Village, supposedly authentic neighborhoods in New York (where I live with my gay pals), were created in the 19th century. These days they’re little pseudo-villages that are out of place in skyscraper city, however welcome for the intimacy conveyed by their (generally) human-scale buildings and quaint inhabitants. But property values have soared in them, and they’re being taken over by corporate and Hollywood types, who are more impersonal and grandiose than the usual New Yorker -- denizens of the self-proclaimed greatest city in the world (ha!) -- even though they often have more false politesse, when they’re not too self-protective and snobbish to show it.

And anyway what is authenticity these days? What is the real thing? Isn’t it all a social construction? Isn’t it naive to think that there’s something authentic about organic food compared to junk food, considering that they’re both socially produced? In Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling writes: "The belief that the organic is the chief criterion of what is authentic in art and life continues, it need hardly be said, to have great force with us, the more as we become alarmed by the deterioration of the organic environment." The neighborhood is presumably one, and it has deteriorated into quaintness or become a ghetto -- whether for wealthy types who want to live in stylish "gated communities" or the poor who can’t live anywhere else -- suggesting that it was always subject to "inorganic" social forces beyond its control, and as such as much a social construction as any other man-made environment. And rich or poor, it is often a closed society, as Chinatown and Little Italy suggest -- although it is open for business to tourists.  

The debate goes on, but the New Urbanists are here to stay, and with them a return to traditional values in art and life, however tragicomic and obscure they are, and what they mean, in modern mass society. But then they add to its incoherence and self-contradictoriness.

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By the way, have you heard that "the red and green Ampelmänchen, or ‘little traffic light men’, figures who appearing as pedestrian ‘walk on’ or ‘stop’ symbols on Berlin street crossings, are among the few communist inventions that survived reunification in 1990"? (Financial Times, June 16, 2006.) Do you think Larry Gagosian will want to show them in his Berlin gallery? Aren’t they wonderful Pop art kitsch? Or better yet bring them to his New York gallery to start a new trend!

Since they outlasted the German Democratic Republic, and their use continues to spread in the German Federal Republic, suggesting they will be around for a long time, they might achieve more than 15 minutes of fame. That would certainly give them critical traction in an art world in which there is faster and faster turnover of new products. But art products can never satisfy the demand for the new -- keep the old and the death it implies at bay -- as well as new high tech gadgets. They are more exciting and useful.

GORGON occasionally writes about art and culture from New York.