On one of the last days of July at New York’s Harris Lieberman Gallery, the Bruce High Quality Foundation -- a five-year-old art collective of anonymous members, apparently a handful of young men -- presented a lecture and slideshow with the catchy title, "Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull." The lecture was the final event in a show titled "No Bees, No Blueberries," organized at the gallery by Sarina Basta and Tyler Coburn.
The Bruces are known for injecting deadpan humor into typically serious art-world discussions. Thus, the group, and each of its individual members, are purported to be named after Bruce High Quality, a fictional artist who supposedly died in the 9/11 tragedy. The collective’s best known work dates from 2005, when the Bruces used a small motorboat to pull a tiny replica of Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s Gates around Manhattan island.
In the lecture at Harris Lieberman, one Bruce read aloud from a text in front of him, saying "Artists’ financial naiveté didn’t change with the advent of the market for the contemporary." Projected onto the wall behind him was a digital image of a little girl weeping in front of a tombstone inscribed with the name "Santa Claus."
The slideshow, then, addressed the troubled marriage between money and the muse, whose stresses first came to wide attention with the fractious Robert Skull auction of 1973, and which has become ever more problematic with the increasing professionalism of the avant-garde, achieved via burgeoning BFA and MFA programs. The Bruces have first-hand experience with art education, as several are Cooper Union grads. A slide lecture of the sort common to classrooms everywhere, then, was perfect for their subject.
Of course, "Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull" is a travesty of Joseph Beuys’ 1965 performance, "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare," with Beuys’ furry avatar (a symbol of the dead German past, according to Donald Kuspit) replaced here by the dead bull, whose meaning should be clear in our current recession. The Wall Street bull was represented, fittingly enough, with an image of Arturo Di Modico’s bronze Charging Bull, an icon of New York finance, and an eternally popular tourist attraction, located near Wall Street in lower Manhattan.
One of the presentation’s more winning techniques was the matching of a tendentious statement with an irreverent image. "The institutions of art education, by becoming willfully indebted to the art market, have limited art’s agency within the market and, by extension, its potential to educate," read one Bruce. A film still from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, depicting a high priest tearing out the heart of a sacrificial victim, flashed across the slide projection screen.
A rather dreary excerpt from Allan Kaprow’s "Happenings"-era essays on "the blurring of art and life" provided an ahead-of-its-time meditation on art as an avocation and art as a way to make a living. "I must be emphatic: the glaring truth, to anyone who cares to examine it calmly, is that nearly all artists, working in any medium from words to paint, who have made their mark as innovators, as radicals in the best sense of that word, have, once they have been recognized and paid handsomely, capitulated to the interests of good taste." Accompanying this quote was an image of Kaprow himself in front of a chalk-board, looking like an academic pitchman.
The lecture featured a classic scene from the 1980s art-market boom, matching an image of Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge with a picture of the precociously cute Olson twins from the ‘80s TV show Full House. In the Bruce High Quality presentation, the double expressions of shock on the twin faces are responses to a moment of salesroom drama in 1990, when a new highly estimated Julian Schnabel painting failed to sell -- arguably marking the moment that the 1980s art bubble burst.
Also receiving its moment in the limelight was the "dematerialization of the art object," a concept familiar to art students from Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book, a notion that the Bruces illustrated with an image of an incinerated clown, with only his nose and smoking shoes left behind. The audience erupted in laughter at a discussion that is usually confined to art education classrooms, curatorial conferences and critical essays.
At the close of their lecture, the Bruces asked, "What are the ways we could imagine creating a sustainable unprofessional art educational model?" Accompanying the statement was a slide depicting a logo that read "Professional Problems. Amateur Solutions."
Tackling the question head-on, the Bruces plan their own university. According to a promotional video on its website, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University is set to start up on Sept. 11, 2009, the seven-year anniversary of the supposed death Bruce High Quality in the collapse of the World Trade Center. A school devoted, then, the the deconstruction of schooling. Maybe the students will goof off and actually learn something. Clearly, for the Bruce High Quality Foundation, irreverence is key.
MARY RINEBOLD is a curator and writer based in New York.