A few – a very few – of the big names in this book don’t belong here. Dalí and Magritte, for example. They don’t belong because they had skill, imagination and a sense of humour. And nobody is going to suggest that a five-year-old could match their art. This is not true of almost all the other big names. They have no skill, imagination or sense of humour, but compensate for that by having lots and lots of pretension. And despite the title of the book, Susie Hodge can’t live up to it. Again and again, confronted with yet another crudely daubed canvas or hastily assembled heap on a gallery floor, she has to admit the truth: “Well, yes, your five-year-old could have done that – but not to interrogate key issues around notions of being a talentless charlatan. And thereby make lots of money!”
Me, I don’t so much mind modern art being a racket. I mind it being a boring, repetitive racket slathered with pretentious jargon:
A large canvas, painted black with pin-width parallel lines of the canvas showing through in a geometrical pattern, may seem simple enough to create. Even though a five-year-old would have trouble keeping the fine lines regular, this piece could be replicated by a child. However, Stella was making a topical and philosophical statement, challenging Abstract Expressionism’s gestural domination and rejecting metaphorical associations, symbolism or suggestions of spirituality that so many other artists sought to express. He wanted viewers to appreciate the canvas as an object in itself. As he said, he wanted to “eliminate illusionistic space”. (ch. 2, “Expressions/Scribbles”, pg. 75)
That was Hodge on Frank Stella and his Marriage of Reason and Squalor II (1959), which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I won’t elaborate any theories about that particular city and the way its critics and art-dealers have worked together to make junk worth much more than its weight in gold. But I will say this for Stella: his art, while worthless, isn’t actively, obtrusively ugly or jeeringly, sneeringly slapdash. He might have been a pickpocket, but he didn’t blow Bronx cheers while he was at work. I can’t say the same of Willem de Kooning and Keith Haring, who were both also active in New York. Haring was a bit too active, in fact. He was homosexual and died of AIDS, because he applied the same thinking to his sex-life as he did to his art: “I make the rules!” and “If it feels good, do it!” Unlike art critics, Mother Nature wasn’t taken in.
Also active in New York, also gay and also dead of AIDS, there’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was “featured posthumously as the United States’ chosen artist at the 52nd Venice Biennale”. Hispanic, homosexual and inhumed – what better representative of America’s future could there be? His “Untitled” (USA Today) (1990) consists of “sweets [candies], individually wrapped in red, silver and blue cellophane, 136 kg (300 lb) ideal weight” and is piled in one corner of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Keeping a perfectly straight face, Hodge interrogates its gesturalities like this:
Although the work comprises items traditionally loved by children, there is nothing childish about the ideas behind “Untitled” (USA Today). Focusing on personal and political beliefs, Gonzalez-Torres was expressing his feelings about gay rights and AIDS, as well as highlighting political volatility. Children could collect and pile up sweets, but they would not be questioning viewers’ acceptance of them as art objects nor creating metaphors for sharing, the spread of a virus, instability and inequality. (ch. 1, “Objects/Toys”, pg. 37)
Agreed, children wouldn’t, but adolescents might. They have the required self-righteous and simplistic ideas about the world. However, slashing a canvas and calling it art, as Lucio Fontana did with Spatial Concept “Waiting” (1960), might be beyond an adolescent, because it’s a more mature and considered act of pretension than piling up candy in a corner. Hodge’s face is as straight as ever as she interrogates issues around the work:
The slash of a knife across a canvas looks easily achievable, and Fontana never said it was a difficult technique. However, a child would not do it for the same reasons as Fontana. With one decisive slash, he aimed to explore underlying notions of space and infinity, as well as the limitations of art and its ultimately perishable nature. (“Provocations/Tantrums”, pg. 115)
Overleaf, the bottom doesn’t so much drop out of modern art as modern art drop out of a bottom. Allegedly. Yes, it’s Piero Manzoni’s infamous Merda d’artista (1961), the ninety cans he filled with his own excrement, labelled in four languages, then sold for their own weight in gold. It’s a disarming work, I have to say. The comment applicable almost everywhere else suddenly becomes superfluous or acquires a new resonance. For once, Hodge is talking shit about real shit:
No technical skill was necessary to produce this work – any five-year-old could have deposited their own excrement in a tin, or pretended to. Manzoni was, however, making several points that few children would be able to appreciate. The work parodies inflated values of art and also exploits consumerism, particularly the developing preoccupation with packaging and posessions. Meanwhile, the contents of the tin represent the ultimate use of waste as an art material. (ch. 3, “Provocations/Tantrums”, pg. 116)
That last line is a good way of summing up modern art, modern art criticism and almost everything in this book.