June 20, 2006

About that plinth.

Lionel Shriver bemoans an art world occurrence:
In this year's summer show at London's Royal Academy of Arts, "Exhibit 1201" is a large rectangular tablet of slate with a tiny barbell-shaped bit of boxwood on top. Its creator, David Hensel, must be pleased to have been selected from among some 9,000 applicants for the world's largest open-submission exhibit of contemporary art. Nevertheless, he was bemused to discover that in transit his sculpture had gotten separated from its base. Judging the two components as different submissions, the Royal Academy had rejected his artwork proper--a finely wrought laughing head in jesmonite--and selected the plinth.

Moreover, the Royal Academy denies having made an error, for the plinth and hastily carved wooden support were, according to an official statement, "thought to have merit."
That's just classic. It's sort of a reverse of that story from a few years back about the janitor who threw out some art display that looked like a bag of trash.

You know, I can't look at the word "plinth" and not think of the old Dan Aykroyd character, Leonard Pinth-Garnell. Remember him? He'd be all pretentious and tuxedo-clad, he'd introduce "Bad Conceptual Theater," "Bad Playhouse," "Bad Cinema," "Bad Opera," "Bad Ballet," "Bad Red Chinese Ballet," or "Bad Cabaret for Children," and then he'd inform us how terribly bad that was. I can't visualize the sketches well enough to remember why they amused us so much, but I think it was that the art was so blatantly bad that it was ridiculous to have a fancy expert explain the badness. Or were we laughing at the way art critics are so damned narcissistically pleased with their ability to perceive badness and he was showing things that were so bad and so pornographically pleasurable to him?

But about that plinth....

What more is there to say? I saw this news story a while back and thought about doing a blog post, but decided against it. It's too obvious. Yeah, yeah, there's that. That happened. If someone were making up fake stories to get people to blog them, that would have been one. But it really happened. Shouldn't you take note of something that perfectly bad when it happens?

So Lionel Shriver -- a novelist -- has decided to take on the too-easy topic, so let's see how she -- if she -- manages to make the story her own:
For those who despair that artists these days seem to have lost the skill of fashioning meticulously crafted objects, don't blame Mr. Hensel. While the slate base took only four hours to hack from a mortuary slab, and the little boxwood prop less than an hour, he had painstakingly carved and polished that laughing head for two months. But alas, the sculpture itself has--shudder--emotional content. It was originally christened "One Day Closer to Paradise," a far too expressive title; Mr. Hensel would have been better off with the portentously enigmatic "Exhibit 1201." His laughing head is not only fatally well rendered, but exudes a sense of joy and hilarity, and the overtly evocative is declassé. How much more sophisticated, a stoic square of slate that speaks of--well, ask the viewers.
Well described, don't you think?

But why should the amount of time spent making an object be a good test of the value of art? "A finely wrought laughing head in jesmonite" sounds perfectly awful. Oh, oh, but it's jesmonite. And it's finely wrought. I haven't seen this acrylic resin laughing head, but it sounds rather stunningly bad, monumentally ill-advised, and exquisitely awful. I'm guessing the Royal Academy got it right when they rejected that.

But they fell for the plinth. Hey, unlike the oversized noggin, it was made of a traditional material: stone.
[T]he Royal Academy's exaltation of that plinth recalls many a misapprehension in galleries, where visitors are wont to coo over the fire hydrants, ventilation grates and trash cans, all of which are more durably and fastidiously crafted than the works on display. For that matter, one gift that contemporary art seems to have given us viewers is a way of seeing every object in our surround--as I look about my study now, the powerful yet precarious piles of paperbacks, the airy, ephemeral flutter of bank statements--as art. But in that event, we not only don't need commentators; we don't need artists, do we?
Ah, so there's my question. Did we need a novelist to tsk over the Royal Academy's gaffe, or was the story already too complete in itself? Well, go read the whole thing. I think Shriver performed a nice riff -- enough to make me pick up her novel and give it a glance the next time I'm in a bookstore.


And let me just add that I love the internet. Writing this post, I decided to make a very perfunctory attempt to find a link for the old story about the janitor who threw out the art. I googled "janitor throws out art," and the top hit was exactly the story I wanted, in precisely the best form: the BBC.com report of the incident (which took place in London):
The bag filled with discarded paper and cardboard was part of a work by Gustav Metzger, said to demonstrate the "finite existence" of art.

It was thrown away by a cleaner at the London gallery, which subsequently retrieved the damaged bag.

The 78-year-old artist replaced it with a new bag. The gallery would not reveal whether he would be compensated.
Hmmm.... I see that this happened back in August 2004. I was blogging then. So did I blog about it (or did that fall afoul or my too-obvious rule)? I search my blog. No, I skipped it at the time, but I mention it here, after a commenter prompts me, in an update to a post about... a plinth!


Jim H said...

But why should the amount of time spent making an object be a good test of the value of art?

You're correct; that's not far from Marx's Labor Theory of Value. How many lifetimes have been spent creating bad art or drafting unreadable novels?

Still, the good stuff usually takes longer than the five hours spent creating the slab and plinth. Decades of training and months on a project. Even the genius Mozart put more effort into his works than he's given credit for.

Ron said...

Another thing about Leonard Pinth-Garnell: His Bad Theme Music. Whenever I see his image, I recall that discordant piano theme of his, like Ugly Bartok!

Ron said...

Wouldn't you love to hear Yosemite Sam say "plinth?" Wear a raincoat!

Icepick said...

Today on Althouse: Plinth Blogging!

Freeman Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Freeman Hunt said...

Here is a picture of the laughing head.

It's actually much better than I thought it would be.

Troy said...

Ann, thanks for posting those articles (including the one with the janitor/art critic) and starting my day off with a chuckle. I teach a couple of sections of Humanities each year and those are classic.

KCFleming said...

Ah, the sorry state of the arts, where believing is seeing, where paintings and other works exist only to illustrate a text (or an obscure title, or nothing at all). Art is not merely dependent on theory, theory is the preferred product, not some damn actual representation. My friend, a former dean at an art school, says that "the handwavers have won."

This event shows, once again, how we have become incapable of recognizing quality, and are now unable to differentiate good from bad, sculpture from base, art from garbage.

Tom Wolfe:
And there, at last, it was!  No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a "receiver" that may or may not be there at all, no more ego projected, just "the artist", in the third person, who may be anyone or no one at all, not even existence, for that got lost in the subjunctive mode--and in the moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away, Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher until, with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up its own fundamental aperature...and came out the other side as Art Theory!...Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision invisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls.

nowgirl said...

Hey Ann - the Kevin book isn't Lionel Shriver's best. If you're going to read one of hers, I recommend Checker and the Derailleurs - much more fun.

KCFleming said...

Re: "It's actually much better than I thought it would be."

Yeah, sure, the head. But oh man, that plinth. Goosebumps; I mean really.
And the slate? Don't get me started. Breathtaking.

Marghlar said...

Reminds me of the joke papers that get accepted by purpotedly peer review academic conferences, like the preposterously silly physics=lit crit one, or the computer generated computer science paper.

When members of a discipline can't distinguish work within their field from pure noise, it is a good sign that what is going on isn't of much value.

Balfegor said...

Re: jim h:
Still, the good stuff usually takes longer than the five hours spent creating the slab and plinth. Decades of training and months on a project.

Usually, yes, but certainly not always. Years of training are pretty much a given, unless one is a prodigy, of course, but the actual art may go very quickly.

Suppose you're doing an ink-brush painting -- you don't want to work and rework the thing, because it looks messy. Your aim is to get the dynamics of the brushstroke right the first time, and go from there. The entire thing may not take more than an hour or two, and most of that is spent in waiting for successive strokes to dry.

On a similar note, the National Gallery had a collection of sketches and drawings on display recently -- charcoal, ink, some with light inkwashes and even pastel colours added in. Many of them were probably dashed off in under an hour. But they're fantastic drawings. Excellent art, for all that they do not look to have taken a long time.

Not every work of art needs to be an oil painting.

When members of a discipline can't distinguish work within their field from pure noise, it is a good sign that what is going on isn't of much value.

From their perspective, they would probably see it as "found" or "accidental" art -- I think those are terms I've heard for this kind of thing. Where you go out into the world, and see something which, when put into a certain context, becomes "art." Art needn't exist purely by artistic intentionality, after all.

Not to say that I think a quick stand with a little bit of -- what, carved wood? -- is an artistic masterwork.

Marghlar said...

I think that "found art" is something of a contradiction in terms. Art connotes craft, at least to me. And craft connotes intentionality.

To me, a found object can be beautiful or inspiring, but not art.

But I acknowledge that such a view is probably viewed as quaint in much of the contemporary art world.

Randy said...

When in high school, a bunch of us went to the LA County Museum of Art to see a contemporary art exhibition highlighted by works by Bruce Nauman. (This was supposedly a journalism class investigative field trip but we really went because the newspaper adviser wanted to go.)

Anyway, we stumbled across what looked to me like a pile of carpet and mohair carpet pad haphazardly bundled on the floor in one room. A few people were standing around admiring the piece when I, not having been particularly impressed with the banks of old televisions and recycled neon tubing being passed off as modern art, joked to a friend that the custodian probably forgot to remove it. This, of course, generated a number of harsh glances and at least one "shush." Suitably chastened, a couple of us nipped outside around back to have a smoke and there at the service entrance was yet another "pile of carpet and mohair carpet pad haphazardly bundled." Imagine that.

MadisonMan said...

This whole thing reminds me of both Leonard Pinth-Garnell and Gavin Millarrrrrr -- the people who selected the headless plinth are obviously the clever people who talk loudly in restaurants.

Joan said...

Marghlar, I'll have to disagree with you on "found" art. I've never been a visual artist, but in a previous life, I wrote a lot of poetry, some of it good enough to win competitions. Most of the time, a poem required multiple revisions and much gnashing of teeth, but sometimes... not.

If a poem popped up in my brain, fully-formed, I recognized it for the cosmic gift it was. I usually found such a poem to be bullet-proof in workshop, as well. We called these works "found poems". I can easily see how an artist could similary "find" a piece and have it still be art.

Marghlar said...

Joan: I was speaking more to the idea that you literally "find" a piece of art, by the side of the road. You know, pick up a rusted coffee can and put it on a plinth.

Certainly some art can flow quickly from inspiration, but it is still intentional, in a broad sense. You meant it to have artistic qualities, right?

That seems different from the sort of found art we are dealing with here. This guy never meant for his pedestal to be looked at as a piece of art. Any "meaning" that attaches to it is accidental. That can be an object, but I have trouble labelling it as a work of art.

Tibore said...

One of these days, I'm going to submit a blank canvas to an exhibit to see if it gets accepted.

I'll name it "Emptiness".

Think it'll work?

Henry said...

It's been done.


dick said...

So much of what I see in the art of today seems to me to mean almost nothing at all.

The exhibit I would love to see again is one that started out at Ohio Wesleyan when I was a student there. I think it was Life Magazine funded an exhibit of artistic representations of famous or meaningful sayings in Western Civilization. I think there were about 250 of them. I was taking an art class then and our assignment was to pick about 10 of them and write about whether you thought the artist captured the meaning of the expression or not. I found it fascinating to sit there and try to see how the artist represented some of the expressions. A lot of them were really good. I don't know whatever happened to that exhibit but I would love to see it again.

ignacio said...

The British artist Damien Hirst exhibited in 1996 a huge ashtray full of cigarette butts and ashes which was emptied out as garbage by a janitor. Hirst pronounced himself "thrilled" by this development.

Of course none of this is very far from Marcel Duchamp exibiting a urinal.

The most telling moment, I think, was when Iris Clert asked Robert Rauschenberg to do her portrait, in 1948 or thereabouts, and Rauschenberg sent her a telegram which read: "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say it is."

There you have it. The artist has become a shaman. Anything the artist touches (or, rather, signs) takes on his or her magic and is meaningful and valuable.

Andy Warhol simply urinated ("Oxidation Series") on some canvases. Jeff Koons has exhibited and sold new vacuum cleaners and basketballs.

But he chose them, don't you see?

Henry said...

This all reminds me of something.


"Upon arrival at the Louvre, the statue was reassembled but the fragments of the left hand and arm were initially dismissed as being a later restoration due to the rougher workmanship. It is now accepted that the left hand holding the apple and the left arm is in fact original to the statue, but was not as well finished as the rest of the statue since it would have been somewhat above eye level and difficult to see....

The controversial plinth was initially found to fit perfectly as part of the statue, but after it was translated and dated, the embarrassed experts who had publicized the statue as a possible original work by the artist Praxiteles dismissed it as another later addition to the statue."

Marghlar said...

It also reminds me of something -- Ginsberg's poem, "Graffiti 12th Cubicle Men's Room Syracuse Airport." Sorry -- looked but couldn't find it online.

Is just writing down what you see in a mens' room poetry? Is it more so because it is ordered and framed by the line breaks? (Does that make it more like a photograph of the same thing, which I would easily call art?)

The poem itself is underwhelming, on many levels. I liked it more when I was younger.

Sissy Willis said...

The piece was worth it for this observation:

" . . . one gift that contemporary art seems to have given us viewers is a way of seeing every object in our surround -- as I look about my study now, the powerful yet precarious piles of paperbacks, the airy, ephemeral flutter of bank statements--as art."

'Reminds me of what I call an "Althouse moment."

Gonçalo said...

Walter Benjamin used to say: Avangarde art serves two purposes, to gratify bourgeoasie, or to amuse them. So, are you amused, les petit-bourgeois snobs?

By the way, Brancusis plinths where fantastic. They assumed a complimentary, but essential role in the whole of the thing. Think of the non-ending column, for instances, and the anguish in apreending that the never-ending plinth IS the work of art.