Contemporary art as a billion dollar joke

If you believe that, back in the day, Duchamp exhibited his urinal as an great art joke, then you might conclude that contemporary art superstars are continuing the joke, and making their fortunes doing so. Are Jeff Koons blow-ups gigantic jokes? If so, are they ironic? In an interview with Charley Rose, Jeff Koons explains that his art is enlightening. How? “I made “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” I made all these works that tried to communicate very clearly to people that their own cultural history was perfect…..There’s a point where you take on a moral responsibility to your community. I mean, I’ve already learned how to feel sensation myself, and feel transcendence in my life. And automatically then you want to share that.”

Koons sees as his responsibility to make “people” happy. What the “people” want from contemporary art is to believe their culture – the culture murdering each other all over the globe, the culture exploiting animals for amusement, drugging themselves, ruining the climate, reducing itself to poverty exploited by the rich, ad infinum – is perfect. So, if the work is a “joke” it’s one without it’s internal irony. Those of us unimpressed, even disgusted, need to provide our own.

Going back to the old Morley Safer interview at Basil art fair: Safer concludes that contemporary art, as exhibited and traded in the international art fairs, is 95% rubbish, enormous art jokes, one-liners providing the latest toys to keep the billionaires happy, for they are also the “people” whom Koons wishes to enlighten, buying his work for millions.

So, according to Koons, the “people”, including the international billionaire buyers, want art to provide sensation and the assurance that their culture is perfect: and that is happiness.

And this is the purpose of art, according to Jeff Koons.

participatory art

In the video, this piece, “Houston Penetrable” by Jesús Rafael Soto at the Houston Museum is meant to experience the world in a new way. What new way is that? It’s a moment of exhilaration, of joyfulness, of being in the “now”, the “immediate”. Without question, it’s beautiful and formidable, in the sense that it took the artist, in collaboration with the museum, a decade to complete. In the sense that it fills a space, invites us in, and our presence changes that space, or the space changes us. Or does it? It brings to mind another massive participatory piece, Ann Hamilton’s “Event of a Thread” that I saw (experienced) at the Park Avenue armory in NYC. Our swinging through the fabric effected the elements, while at the same time, the fabric, in motion, brought us a sense of what? Freedom, exhilaration, joyousness. Will it change our lives? Or is this a mood, like the afterglow of any entertainment, that fades in time. And would that make the piece any less wonderous?


Mary Mattingly: Triple Islands, New York City

In Feb. 2014 Eleanor Heartney wrote an piece for Art in America called “Art for the Anthropocene Era”, four artists’ response to “imminent eco-doom.”

  • Mary Mattingly is one who suggests that a proactive approach to climate and economic disasters could generate new beginnings for us humans, rather than the end of the species. Mattingly’s vision is apocalyptic, but this doesn’t mean that human’s shouldn’t survive. To explore this, she erected a house (Flock House), a greenhouse and community garden, and invited people not only to visit, but to live sustainably there for a period of time. The site was Pier 42, between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges that Hurricane Sandy had turned into a dump for ruined automobiles. By focusing on a community generating its own electricity (solar), water (collection) and food (gardens) and by opening it to the public, she suggests that humans can, as one resident put it, create “a very slow life in a fast city.”

    Of course you will ask, is it art? In the Anthropocene, is this even a relevant question? Is there really a viable art world, except as commodity for the rich, that is indistinguishable from our culture?

  • How Wolves Change Rivers: a “trophic cascade” in Yellowstone

       As David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) says,
    “This world contains just one masterpiece and that is itself.”

    When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable “trophic cascade” occurred. What is a trophic cascade and how exactly do wolves change rivers?

    Listening to Other

    by Sally Linder

    “The Wave of Whispers: Barnacles, those crusted critters clustered on intertidal rocks, are, at first listen, not the most vocal of species. But pass the shadow of your body over a low-tide boulder on a still morning and you’ll hear a wave of whispers, all those little lives drawing tight the fortress of their shells to keep the looming monster at bay.”
    Hank Lentfer (from Enumeration, Orion Magazine, Jan/Feb 2014)

    Symbiotic, 2011, tar, oil, oil stick, pastel, colored pencil on drafting film, 58 x 39 inches

    Symbiotic, 2011, tar, oil, oil stick, pastel, colored pencil on drafting film, 58 x 39 inches

    Listening to a critter can also arise through mutual gaze, when no words are spoken because we do not remember the others’ language, only our own. So we rely on the gaze and listen attentively. Sparks of imagination fly. The silent hearing of the other’s voice is channeled and from this I paint.

    I am chosen to hear not because of any specialness or talent on my part but simply because my empathy drives me to paint with compassion. I’ve recognized that painting from this place of deep anguish and caring is a power place for me and by actively painting I heal to the extent that the pain is moved onto the canvas and perhaps the plight of this ‘other’ is considered by the painting’s audience. Paralysis would overcome me if I could not paint; painting becomes an active response to Earth’s troubling future.

    Behind animal-proof plexiglas Ursus maritimus paces, eats a thrown fish, resumes his pacing. Children scream and bang on the glass in frenzied absorption of their power to do so. Zoos reinforce our dominion over Nature. Is their role education or entertainment? They’ll post their mission is education but they’ll largely provide entertainment for us. Continue reading

    Parade installation

    Here’s a slide show of the installation called Parade at the Living and Learning Center, University of Vermont, Jan – Feb, 2014. In the small, white cube Janet Van Fleet’s strong wooden creatures were set up in relation to the ephemeral paper-skinned creatures of Riki Moss in a Parade of life forms moving through time and space. The three forms emerging at the head of the procession suggest that the Parade extends beyond the walls of the gallery.

    Van Fleet thinks of her materials as recycled from the planetary dumping ground, while Moss thinks of paper as recycled from plants, eventually to disappear back into the earth. and

    Home Sweet Birdsong

    “When we speak of the birds as artists, the first thing we think of is their singing.  The scientists tell us that when a bird sings, he has one chief aim in view: to establish a home.”  from Art and Human Values, Rader and Jessup

    Purple Finch

    Purple Finch

    Most of us leave our natal homes as we grow and explore the world beyond.  It is then that we seek another kind of home; one where we will feel a belonging, a family beyond our birth family, our tribe.  We recognize this when our daemons or core beings are in sync with our environment. I suspect that our natural environment plays a big part in this feeling at home.  For me, my natural environment is key to the notion of home.  The mountains, streams, native plants and animals all contribute to my sense of home.  I have chosen this place in the hills of Vermont to make my home.  I have sung myself here.

    What does it mean to be home?

    Janet Fredericks anthill

    Janet Fredericks anthill

    To be home means to belong, to be among others, family, one’s people, tribe and that which sustains us. It suggests the familiar, those sounds, smells, tastes and sites and beings we live with. They are constants but not static.  Comforting in their familiarity.  I make my home in the hills of Vermont and have become particularly intimate with its weather, animals, insects, and plants on the outside.  In Winter, I go inside and am intimate with keeping a fire in the wood stove, cooking, watering the plants, and working indoors.  I imagine bringing into a gallery space a personal take on home through the medium of video and drawing; sounds and visuals of home in a video/drawing installation.

    Anthills, Cities and Other Angles of Repose

    The next step in this project would be to address the removal of home, homelessness, homesickness, refugees and the loss of identity.

    by Janet Fredericks

    Antihill drawing, 2013,

    What happens to humans, animals or other beings when they have been separated from or forced from their homes?  There are over twenty million externally displaced “refugees” in the world, plus more internally displaced, those who are living within their own country and who knows how many species have been displaced from their habitats.  Again, I see this as a video/drawing installation. Domiciles, constructed and deconstructed….possibly a stop-action drawing, maybe Riki’s parade.

    animals are the new non-human persons

    From Andrew Sullivan at The Dish

    “…….neuroscience and research in general is slowly breaking down the absolute boundaries between the human animal and our cohabitants on this planet, and as our manic compulsion toward greater material comfort leads to the transformation of our climate and seals the fate of so many species. I have to say I don’t regard this as some kind of side-issue in politics and culture. I think it’s in the vanguard of our moral evolution as a species.”

    Go Andrew! Continue reading