Rubbish as art

Why do museum and gallery directors give space to rubbish masquerading as art? Because it suits the establishment

I remember an occasion during the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in 1968 (which I attended) when a leader of the Yippies—a sort of off-shoot of the hippie movement, hippies with attitude they would have been called in the 1990s I imagine—announced that he and his colleagues intended to napalm a pig in Grant Park.

Grant Park, the location of Mr. Obama’s remarkable victory speech on the night of his election to the Presidency of the United States last November, was, in late August 1968, the gathering place for supporters of Senator Eugene McCarthy and the anti-Vietnam War movement, and as a consequence much targeted by the then Mayor Daley’s police force for direct action of their own robust variety.
The yippies’ intention was to draw public notice, at a sensitive time, to the military methods being employed by the United States in Vietnam.

The consequence of the announcement was a storm of protest in newspapers, and on radio and television stations, at the barbarism of the intended act. To this extent the yippies—who of course never had any intention of napalming anything—had achieved their objective: to expose to public scrutiny the hypocrisy of those who could tolerate the napalming of people a long way away, but were squeamish (to say the least) of doing it to a pig in a public park at home.

There had been other manifestations of the yippies’ penchant for public statements of a surprising kind. Earlier that summer they had dropped dollar bills from the public gallery onto the floor of the New York stock exchange, thereby provoking some public amusement at the television news coverage of the jobbers and brokers scrabbling to collect them. The yippies were pretty good at public relations. Some of them, on the advice of the neighbour by the swimming pool in The Graduate, also probably went on to careers in plastics.

I doubt that anybody much remembers it now, but nearly 20 years ago, at an exhibition at a now defunct gallery in Wellington, one of the exhibits was a photograph of a rather poorly made model of an imaginary submarine with the words “the first time I ever felt an erect male penis” inscribed across the bottom. As a set of ideas about the loss of innocence, the discovery of sexual experience, the hardware of defence arrangements, the dangers of the contemporary world, and the connections (much postulated but poorly defined) between war (or warlike posturing) and male sexual gratification, the image offered nothing that was new, and much that was banal not to say tatty. Looking back, it is hard to see why anyone should have thought it was worth taking seriously as political statement, psychological insight or work of art.

I doubt that the yippies would have given it house room. Their performance politics were of an altogether higher order. For one thing they knew that what they were doing was a part of the political world: propaganda, statement, argument. Their objectives were to expose and, if not to persuade, then to ridicule. For another, though they certainly dressed down by the standards of the day, and were much associated with the then fashionable drugs, they were without political pretensions or illusions. What they were doing was, for the most part, what they were doing, with no veneer of pseudo-sociological or art nouveau posturing. I remember hearing at the time anxious comments among politer reaches of society that some way had to be found to deal with this sort of destabilising politics. If not to defeat it then to neuter it. Make it harmless.

There is an ancient cliché of public life that if you criticise the establishment hard enough for long enough it will make you a member. And this is, I think, more or less what has happened. What used to be the creative propaganda end of political dissent has become the harmless adjunct to a certain kind of progressive art gallery, and the more general kind of public modern art gallery and museum. The world of politics has been made safe by opening the doors of the art world to conceptual and performance art, and by keeping it corralled there, as often as not under the patronage of the very people—like the Saatchis in London, but you may identify the local equivalents at will—whose very way of life, if not existence, ought to be if not menaced, then certainly criticised, by the works being shown. Eventually, the artist becomes another wage earner—rent seeker is the nastier though I’m afraid more accurate economist’s term for the breed—in the wide world of contemporary public art.

In this way, having had its teeth pulled, most of this art is soon forgotten. This is one reason why you never hear much from the establishment about the waste of public money involved in supporting and encouraging conceptual art, which generally speaking is pretty low on concepts and hardly contains much artifice, even though its politics may be quite robust. In the gallery it is safely out of their way. In Art New Zealand, the critic who reviewed that model submarine photograph with its pathetic caption, wrote that the artist’s use of models “questions the very power structures of photography’s representational forms.” Opaque is too weak a word to describe the obscurity of such remarks.

About half way between the yippies in Grant Park and the model submarine photograph, a book appeared called Rubbish Theory. Written by Michael Thomson and published by Oxford University Press, it came out in 1979, and is the most persuasive account I have read of the way in which made things acquire value. The book was never widely read, never to the best of my knowledge made its way onto university reading lists for art history courses, or professional instruction in what is now called museology. Nevertheless its presence is felt from time to time. It’s a sleeper of a theory about art and value. I noticed it crop up recently in the correspondence columns of the Times Literary Supplement and I believe that in about the year 2080 whole institutes of learning will have come into being, complete with M.A. courses and doctoral candidates, based on the insights that this brilliant book advances.

It is a serious contribution to art theory, the operation of markets, social anthropology, and the processes of social interaction and cultural memory. It helps to explain the disappearance of the once popular, and the way in which things once thought worthless become valuable. It helps to explain why gallery and museum directors, generally sensitive and cultivated people, give space to rubbish masquerading as art. And it helps to explain why the people with the purse strings like them to do so. And it even helps those of us who despair at the nonsense that we have sometimes to endure, at least to understand some of why it happens.