Culture Or Trash? A Provocative View of Contemporary Painting, Sculpture, and other Costly Commodities

James Gardner
New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993
227 pp., $19.95 hc

Scott W. Dorsey

As an art critic regularly published in a variety of serious national publications, James Gardner stands in a position both to evaluate works of art in-and-of themselves, and to shed the unflinching light of critical scrutiny on that singular environment known as the "Art World." In his book, Culture or Trash? A Provocative View of Contemporary Painting, Sculpture, and other Costly Commodities, Gardner not only exposes the inanity of the art being produced today and the accompanying insanity of the "market" that surrounds (and generates) such art, but he dares to challenge the dogma of political correctness currently driving all of the arts and, sad to say, academia. In essence, he has chosen to "speak the un-speakable" in his honest appraisal of multiculturalism's decidedly negative impact on the arts.

Gardner demonstrates a remarkable degree of personal courage in the third chapter, "The Chattering Class." In this extraordinary section, he lays bare the critic's real role in the art world--simply that, "artists surely create art, but critics, increasingly, create artists" (52). Laying aside for a moment the inherent arrogance of that statement, Gardner then goes on to question the validity of (if not to actually debase) his entire profession, saying that "criticism of the fine arts has become a disheartening spectacle of cant and humbug" (58), and demonstrates both the simplicity of the field of art criticism and the aesthetic weakness of present-day art, saying, "it is not especially difficult to be an art critic these days. Formally speaking, in terms of mastery of color, line, and composition, most of this art is an easy call" (56).

Of course, this very thought occurred long ago to a great many of us existing beyond SoHo and the East Village. The real power (and for one the joy) of these statements is not that they issued from the pursed lips of Jesse Helms or Rush Limbaugh, but rather were uttered by someone from within the fortress of the art world.

Having thus exposed the true colors of his profession, Gardner quite literally blows the whistle on the symbiotic corruption that exists between critics, galleries, and art publications. In his words:

Though there are more art periodicals today than ever before, the critic exists to fill the spaces between their illustrations, which themselves exist to fill the gaps between the ads. The articles themselves are little more than copy for the galleries, which indirectly pay for them through a tacit understanding that the purchase of ads will increase their chances of being written up. In turn the authors of these articles are often the same critics who write the largely unreadable and entirely unread catalogue essays for the same galleries' exhibitions, a conflict of interest that seems to bother no one. (51)

One assumes that Gardner is either independently wealthy or is ready for a career change. For certainly he has tainted himself in the eyes of his critic-colleagues, and the publications for which he writes.

But the real beauty of Gardner's work is his frank assessment of the current nature of Art itself. He theorizes that "perhaps the main problem with contemporary art is the absurdly inflated claim that is constantly being made for the sort of goofy, well-intentioned trash that might look good in someone's dorm-room" (62). Citing the "bizarre reverence in which we have come to hold the visual arts" (3), Gardner states, perhaps half-hopefully, that "there is a growing sense of the falseness of it all, a desire to return to some sanctum in which sincerity, if not excellence, can be found" (45).

To support his case, Gardner offers detailed descriptions of the "art" being produced today. Witness the present state of sculpture as practice by its foremost proponent Jeff Koons: a porcelain representation of the artist having anal sex with his porn-star wife (212), or a work featuring three basketballs floating in a tub of water--which sold for over $100,000 (40)! Current painting includes Lawrence Weiner, who scrawled the words BREAD CAST UPON THE WATERS on the walls of the Marian Goodman Gallery, for which he was paid $40,000 (31). Gardner discusses various purveyors of staged "performance art" such as Orlan, an artist who undergoes repeated cosmetic surgeries with theatrical trappings (171); or Chris Burden, who will roll naked in broken glass (86), or have himself shot with a hunting rifle (6); or Vito Acconci who hides under special floorboards of a gallery, shouting out fantasies about the art patrons while he masturbates (173). Then we have the photographic arts, which includes Robert Maplethorp's self portrait of a bullwhip entering his rectum (188); or Gilbert and George, who photograph themselves and young boys in provocative poses (183); then finally, the inconceivably grotesque works of Joel-Peter Wilkin, which feature bestiality, amputees, and decapitated corpses.

Gardner refers to such works, and a great many more like them, "as a roguish prank which, though it inspires laughter, is ultimately bound for oblivion," and to the artists themselves as "swollen mediocrities" (208). Again, bear in mind that this man is not a fanatic conservative nay-sayer, but a member of the art world elite.

Where this reviewer feels that Gardner does his most important writing is not in his public career suicide, nor the depiction of the artistic atrocities discussed above, but in calling to task the damage visited upon the arts by the doctrines of political correctness, multiculturalism, and affirmative action. He states, "That standards have been replaced by quotas is proved by how easily it was to label each artist [at the 1993 Whitney Biennial] according to his or her political identity: Janni Antoni--Feminist; Sadie Benning--Lesbian; Robert Gober--Gay; Christine Chang--Asian American; Jimmy Durham--Native American; Miguel Gandert--Latino; Glenn Ligon--Black. The Whitney Biennial was a country club from which only straight white males were excluded" (150). These people, Gardner claims, are far less artists than "self-appointed spokespersons for a special-interest group, one might almost say a political action committee" (148). In addition, while in any other context the art works by these individuals would hardly be noticed, "because they are homosexual [or monitory, or feminist] we are required, I suppose, to see everything they do as daring and intelligent." (183)

He also discusses the art world's maniacal fascination with message over form:

The absolute degree of meaning's ascendancy over form was reached in AIDS Timeline, an installation at the 1991 Whitney Biennial by Group Material, the artists collective. Using charts, graphics, and television monitors with doctors chattering learnedly in white coats, not to mention a few appropriated and pretty forgettable paintings on the walls, the piece communicated to us that AIDS is bad and not good. But suppose that precisely the same setup had been mounted to advocate, not AIDS awareness, but safety on the highways (Buckle up, America!) or heaven forbid, an anti-abortion creed. Though its aesthetics would be identical to AIDS Timeline we can rest assured that the installation would never even have been considered by the curators, and that its very status as art would have been vigorously contested. (149)

It is here Gardner speaks the un-speakable, but which needs to be spoken loud and clear: that art's "spiritual and political essence can be summed up in an us-them equation pitting white people with penises against everyone else" (161). Is Gardner charging the art world with being blatantly racist and sexist? Yes, to both counts. "Yet the point needs to be made that many an art world player is prepared to act upon these and similarly racist and sexist impulses, so long as he or she can appear, in the process, to be attacking racism or sexism" (153).

James Gardner's work will offend the sensitivities of many readers, particularly art mavens and P.C. devotees. But I feel that it has merit and is long over due--as well as over long. One has the impression that this book could have been considerably more concise. Of the book's ten chapters, four of these read like little more than a series of painfully lengthy art reviews, though they are clearly intended as a courteous overview of the history of art in the Twentieth Century. One even suspects that their content was simply an elongated version of Gardner's previous writings. Moreover, these four chapters are awash in "art-speak"--that ubiquitous slime of art terminology that cannot, for all its flowery prose, adequately describe what is by nature a visual medium. A prime example: "The over-all riot of clashing colors and forms is physically perplexing and occasionally inconceivable" (183). As such, these chapters do stand as a metaphor for art world lunacy, though they do little to support Gardner's hypothesis, and their dense obsequiousness may actually prevent the reader from reaching the author's "Provocative View."

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