September 29th: My friend Anastasia (not her real name) hits town. She’s staying with some friends in Brooklyn and invites me to meet her at the Participant Gallery, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Anastasia’s old friend Clytemnestra (not her real name) is going to perform what is described to me as a “cat dance.” I arrive on time to find the place quickly filling up with the most appalling collection of artsy-fartsy New York hipsters and self-conscious “individualists” that I have yet seen.
Anastasia and I sit on the floor alongside the stage. She used to be part of this whole scene. Her parents were both artists and she grew up in Manhattan. But she has a healthy critical distance from it all. The show is supposed to begin at 7, but the appointed hour arrives and the stage still stands empty. Time creeps by and my empty stomach is rumbling. 7:30 and still no cat dance. All I can think about is getting out of there and finding something to eat. Anastasia is a few feet away from me talking to another old friend, this one of indeterminate sex. She keeps glancing at me and smiling, aware that I’m acutely uncomfortable.
At last around 7:45 there’s a bit of a hubbub around the door to the gallery, then some gasps and a good deal of laughter. I can’t see anything through the crowd, but I hear a human voice crying “Meow! Meow!” And then Clytemnestra appears: stark naked and covered in gray body paint, with pasteboard cat ears, whiskers, and tail affixed to her body. She slinks and claws the air in a sort of Julie Newmar fashion. “Meow! Meow!” She is then followed by two other identically-clad (and unclad), buxom young catwomen, all meowing and menacing the audience with their glued-on plastic claws.
Everyone is tittering and videoing the whole thing with their IPhones. Predictably, I can’t get the camera on mine to work. Stagehands in the inevitable black turtlenecks and leotards bring out a huge litter box. The catwomen get in it and begin scratching imaginary litter. “Please don’t . . . Please don’t, umm . . . go,” I think. My friend John Morgan of Arktos Publishing told me that he saw some performance art in Sweden in which a naked women peed on stage and a man tasted it and said “Ummm. Tastes like art.” But contrary to its reputation, this New York stuff is pretty tame and the litter box segment is, thankfully, pure pantomime.
The box is removed and then a giant cat toy is produced from backstage and held out before the catwomen: a long pole with some strands of fabric dangling from it. The catwomen circle it frenetically, clawing at the strands, cat boobs jiggling. Then the toy is whisked away by some po-faced stage hands, and our performers begin banging drums with cat faces painted on them. They chant something or other, but I can’t remember what it was. No matter. It made no sense anyway. And then the performance is suddenly over – ending just as enigmatically as it had begun. The question on everyone’s lips: “Why?”
Much applause, followed by a short intermission which is then to be followed by someone doing a monologue about being a hermit. But I have had enough. And blessedly so has Anastasia. We step outside so that she can talk to some of her old chums. Inevitably, I am asked what I thought of the performance. “I’ve lived with a cat for thirteen years,” I say. “I was not convinced by that.” One of Anastasia’s friends raises an eyebrow. “I doooooon’t think that was the point,” she responds, her voice dripping with condescension.
Anastasia is an attractive and charming woman. One of those people who seem to be able to fit in just about anywhere, and to charm any crowd. But she is so high-energy that at times it’s exhausting, especially when she’s around others. I desperately want to ditch these artsy people and go off with Anastasia and have some dinner. Miraculously, I succeed. And a few minutes later the two of us are sipping drinks at a Thai restaurant on 1st Avenue. “People think it’s supposed to be funny,” Anastasia says to me of Clytemnestra’s performance. “But to her it’s all about the fact that she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s here. It’s an expression of existential angst.”
And I just thought she was expressing hairballs.
Flash forward to October 15th: I am bumming around San Francisco with the artist Charles Krafft and the aforementioned John Morgan of Arktos. We take a bus to North Beach with the intention of visiting City Lights Books and pouring scorn upon their inventory. But first Charlie wants to have lunch at the San Francisco Art Institute. Their food isn’t very good, but the café has a great view of the bay. I tell Charlie and John about my introduction to cat dancing two weeks earlier. The tale makes us all hunger to experience more contemporary art, and fortunately the San Francisco Art Institute is positively bloated with it.
This place is a school, in case you don’t know. Filled with young, wan, entitled brats with “raised consciousness,” sipping fair trade coffee and debating which local sushi joint serves the most ethical tuna, rolled-up yoga mats protruding from their North Face backpacks, lovingly assembled by barefoot Guatemalan peasants for pennies an hour. “Trustafarians,” Herr Krafft declares. Grungy stoners with trust funds. Trust funds and no talent, as we soon discover.
The Diego Rivera gallery contains an interesting mural by Rivera, but its purpose is not to house the mural but to serve as a space for the petite larcenies that these kids call art. In the center of the room is a small group of mechanical plastic daisies, their stems swaying back and forth to battery power. In order to better understand the artist’s intention we lie flat on the floor and study the daisies up close, as another friend (who must remain nameless) snaps a picture of us. Other visitors come and go, perhaps thinking we’re just part of the art.
On one of the walls someone has taped a small square of human hair. “What’s that?” one of us asks. “It’s Hitler’s moustache!” I proclaim, feeling suddenly inspired. And we are photographed with this exhibit as well. We visit other galleries at the Institute, and they are no better. It’s all bollocks. Only one instance where I looked at a piece and thought, “It’s crap, but I can see that the guy does have some talent . . .” I told Charlie that I have one hard and fast rule in judging art: if I look at it and think “I could do that,” then it can’t be any good. My being unable to do what the artist has done is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition of the piece being any good. And a five-year-old could do most of this.
But he would have to be a pretty malevolent five-year-old; a bad seed. Because this stuff is just a sneering fraud. A revenge against beauty and talent by a group I’d like to label “envious mediocrities” – but that would be paying them an undeserved compliment. Pardon me if I’m sounding like Ayn Rand. But for all her faults Rand had much of modern art nailed:
“Something made by an artist” is not a definition of art. . . .
“Something in a frame hung on a wall” is not a definition of painting. . . .
“Something piled together” is not a definition of sculpture. . . . (“Art and Cognition,” in The Romantic Manifesto, 2nd paperback ed.)
And so on.
Most reactionaries dismiss modern art as bullshit. I don’t think that is necessarily so. Attacking “modern art” is kind of like attacking “modern medicine.” These categories comprise quite a lot – both good and bad. And there are modern artists I appreciate – like Paul Klee, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and, of course, Charles Krafft. But what we think of when the term “modern art” is invoked is “non-representational art” and “conceptual art.” Some spots flung on a canvas; some stuff piled together; some human hair glued to a wall; some plastic mechanical daisies lined up.
But, ironically, a lot of modern artists seem to agree with the reactionaries, which is why most of today’s “serious art” is just a cynical bullshit industry. There are no “concepts” behind “conceptual art.” There are no “meanings” here for pretentious critics to expatiate upon. It means nothing. These narcissistic hipsters admitted to places like the San Francisco Art Institute might actually have some latent talent, but they quickly get the message: their job is simply to come up with something – anything – that’s less meaningful than what the last guy did. Maybe this is all they really can do, because there’s just no meaning inside them to come out.
The real, sorry truth is that the Nietzschean-Randian analysis – according to which the “modern” artist is moved by envy – probably gives most of these people too much credit. It’s not that they want to spit at great art: they really just don’t want to do anything of significance at all.
As we walked up Columbus Avenue, headed for City Lights, I thought: “Take heart, one day every last bit of it will wind up in our new exhibit of Entartete Kunst.” Cat dance and all. But the Germans were too generous: they actually sold off all the stuff once the exhibit was over. Let’s demolish it, and redirect these “artists” to their true calling: waiting tables.
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