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dave barry gets it right about the art world, again

Post #194 • January 19, 2004, 9:27 AM • 13 Comments

Dave Barry in yesterday's Miami Herald:

But no matter what the art is, a Serious Art Person will view it with the somber expression of a radiologist examining X-rays of a tumor.

Whereas an amateur will eventually give himself away by laughing; or saying "Huh?"; or (this is the most embarrassing) asking an art-gallery person: "Is this wastebasket a piece of art? Or can I put my gum wrapper in it?"

But back to Art Basel: I didn't go to the main show. I went to an officially sanctioned satellite show called "Art Positions," which was a group of large, walk-in shipping containers set up on the beach, serving as mini art galleries. Serious Art People drifted blackly from container to container, solemnly examining the tumors.

I nominate Dave Barry for a regular column in ArtForum.



Rv. Agnos

January 19, 2004, 5:39 PM

That happens to me all the time with Furniture exhibits.

I never know what I can sit on and what's art.


Cinque Hicks

January 19, 2004, 5:53 PM

I read this in the Denver Post. Amen, amen, amen. And another pet peeve: artists who think they can redeem their crappy art by including some jargonistic, MFA-inspired drivel on a wall plaque.

I wrote Barry to let him know that even as a Serious Art Person myself, I still thought he hit the nail right on the head.


A. R. Menne

January 19, 2004, 7:48 PM

I've been a fan of Dave Barry since I was about ten, and I've never read a truer commentary on any given subject. This article reminded me of a recent exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum that I visited: "Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art". The "high" point was stopping in front of a conceptual piece featuring a khaki backpack drizzling neon-orange mac and cheese powder down the wall and into a little puddle on the floor. My companion and I did our best to grasp the artist's explanation mounted on the wall, but good God, we read the placard three times apiece and couldn't make heads or tail of it. I wanted my money refunded after wending my way through that exhibit.



January 19, 2004, 8:51 PM

I visited my sister in Boston for Christmas, and took her to the MFA there. She has a love-hate relationship with art. She likes looking at pretty things, but when it comes to contemporary art, she's afraid she doesn't "get it." I figured I'd escort her to a museum and "hold her hand" a bit.

The Boston MFA is really quite a stodgy institution. I almost choked on all the mummy dust. (Cough!) I didn't find too much by way of their contemporary selection, and what they had didn't quite ring with me. They had a Botero sculpture and two Murakami pieces, both prominently displayed in the front lobby, obviously there for marketing (and popularity) purposes.

They had a nice large Chuck Close painting, but I thought it was one of his less interesting pieces. They had a temporary exhibition of works curated by John Currin, which I found uninspirational, and an entire gallery of late-twentieth-century works donated by a semi-rich person who was obviously not rich enough to purchase the better pieces. There was one room of some excellent newer pieces, however, and a fantastic site installation from Sarah Sze, both of which brightened the experience for me, and enlivened the conversation.

Long story short, I took the opportunity as we looked at all these pieces to see what my sister thought of them all. I think she began to appreciate the fact that a piece of art is something that either looks interesting, or doesn't, something which provokes thought, or doesn't, but which should never be taken too seriously. I even laughed at seeing some of the pieces, just to show her some art was intentionally whimsical, and to show her laughing was actually allowed in these Holy Places. She even managed to laugh just a little bit when I told her with an evil grin how Warhol made the "oxidation" painting hanging there (and told her the hilarious story of when the paintings were first shown, when Warhol said he didn't have the heart to explain to a couple of older ladies how it was made, after seeing them inspect the work so closely...).

As we looked through one of the galleries, she stopped at one abstract work and said, "I like this one." I asked why. She didn't know. "The colors? The shapes? The nails driven into the canvas?" (I don't remember the artist. His name was obscure to me.) She said she wasn't sure why she liked it, but she figured it was some combination of what I suggested.

Maybe this is not all that relevant to the Dave Barry column above, in which case please forgive me, but my point is, I tried to show my sister that a gallery is not a church, and I think she picked up on that attitude rather quickly, and enjoyed the experience.

She even traveled to NYC last week, to attend the Whitney Museum's exhibit of Arshille Gorky works. (As Armenians, sometimes we do things for silly reasons, like seeing an Armenian artist even if we don't really like them). She had two reactions. First, to the John Currin exhibit also running there, she joked, "I just saw Bea Arthur naked, and I think I'm scared."

Of the Gorky exhibit, she asked, "Why does he have a red circle or rectangle in every work?" It's probably a serious question which deserved a serious answer, but who knows. I answered that Gorky was celebrating the fact that Roger Clemens just joined Andy Pettitte here in Houston. As a Yankees fan living in Boston (we grew up in Albany), and with a brother that talks about his new home perhaps a little too much, she wept at receiving Gorky's devastating insight into the human condition.

Or something.



January 20, 2004, 2:53 AM

This is like shooting fish in a barrel, but some fish deserve that. Dave Barry has a good nose for useful material--the Containers section was probably the worst Basel-related offering, not least because of its supposedly strict selection criteria. Barry was actually generous; I found it a nearly complete wasteland, even worse than the 2002 version (which is saying something). The NADA fair was much better.

I confess I overlooked the infamous chair, no doubt because I took it for what it was: a piece of junk (and no, I definitely don't Duchamp). Despite the painful clarity of such a fraud, the art establishment is blithely and imperturbably oblivious to it. That means we're dealing with brazen charlatans or blithering idiots, or both (not to mention extremely dubious "artists" who know how to work a debased system).



January 23, 2004, 5:08 PM

Dave Barry can be funny, but his Herald column of Sunday January 18,
"Clearly not for the faint of art", is all too typical, and rehashes material
presented thirty years ago by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word. It is an
Emperor's New Clothes reaction from a "sensible", middle class,
middle-aged, middle-of-the-road voice of reason, even to the extent of
bringing in his daughter to say "yuck" and "tushy". That's right, only the kids
"dare" to tell the truth about the sham of contemporary art, because they
have an "honest" response untempered by embarrassment.

Not Dave Barry though. He pretends to be fully intimidated by the black
clothed art insiders, spouting jargon, because it supports his thesis: that
while he might be clueless, "they" are effete grotesqueries. The wall
between him and the art world is of his own creation. Gallerists and
dealers, especially at art fairs, are generally more than happy to discuss
the work on display with serious spectators. Barry undoubtedly signalled
his skepticism from the outset by feigning mediocrity and incredulity with
remarks like the one about the wastebasket and the gum wrapper, because
he knew what he wanted to find, what he wanted to write on, and the
response that he wished to elicit from the art world. If you are a self-styled
Everyman, a voice of the people, you will undoubtedly find ridiculous
pretensions and a lack of common sense exactly where you expect to find it.
Quelle surprise! Which is what us black clad art types say when WE feign



January 23, 2004, 7:53 PM

Barry's metier has been to skewer the self-evidently ridiculous, and he found a target-rich environment at Art Positions. His lack of a basis for dealing with a work of art like Chair is real, not a literary pose. I know, because its stated basis is this from the artcritical site: "[The artist] doesn't deconstruct the idea of absence and then rebuild it as a dialectical opposition which posits that what's not seen, felt, experienced is as significant, perhaps moreso, as that which is. ... As a repository and sum of former posteriors that have dented its cushions, of previous elbows that have grazed the armrests, the chair offers not a weedy patina of desuetude but an apotheosis of its former occupant." With pretentions running this high, Barry's response is welcome and appropriate.



January 24, 2004, 5:40 AM

Spoke with Susanne Vielmetter, the LA gallerist who had a container at Art Positions and showed Chair by Rodney McMillian. She recalls Barry pleasantly, but also remembers that "he was set to write the review like this, no matter what response he got from the gallery person". In other words, Barry was looking for a story. He had his axe sharpened, and was looking for the first easy target.

Barry expanded his discussion from Chair to other art on exhibit in the containers, and found all to be equally pretentious and nonsensical, if not mildly obscene ("yuck", "tushy"). He did make a broad disavowal -- that there was also "nice looking art on display" -- which is disingenuous, because he only mentioned those pieces he could ridicule, implying that this was the only real opinion. His gleeful but somewhat proud assumption of the personna of "clueless idiot" is equally disingenuous, in that it hopes to end debate: "So you Serious Art People don't need to write letters ..."

Barry's critique was ultimately directed against the Serious Art People, dressed in black, who examine all art as if looking at a tumor. In other words, the entire exercise of contemporary art is humorless, unhealthy, fraught with internal disease, and perpetuated by a class of frauds. If they "get it" and he doesn't, there must be something wrong with them. How many steps are there between broad based ridicule and exaggeration, on the one hand, and bookburning?



January 24, 2004, 6:27 PM

How many steps are there between broad based ridicule and exaggeration, and bookburning? Several billion, if I had to pick a number. Barry is a satirist, not a critic; his aim is to pop balloons of excessive seriousness. You seem to think that his conclusions were foregone. I think he found a pile of self-important absurdities because they were strewn all over Art Positions. I saw some myself. Are the people foisting this stuff frauds? In many cases, they have at least defrauded themselves. Bring on the satire.



February 2, 2004, 7:15 PM

The cover of the February 2004 Artforum: a detail from a Simon Starling piece. It is a chair. The chair has an aluminum pedestal and frame. The green upholstery is torn and hanging limp. There is an accompanying text by Daniel Birnbaum starting on page 105. Dave Barry (and his acolytes) will undoubtedly find the text effete and full of pretentious jargon. What they will make of Starling's use of a deconstructed (and possibly found) object is anybody's guess.



February 2, 2004, 10:40 PM

The Birnbaum text is commendably light on jargon. It is, however, boring, as is the work.



February 2, 2004, 11:52 PM



February 9, 2004, 6:58 AM

The selfsame Simon Starling has now been selected as one of the six Hugo Boss Prize finalists. The film work of another finalist, Yang Fudong, may be viewed at the Moore Space, 4040 NE 2 Av, through April 3. And you may all join in a concurrent audience participation award at Even you, Dave Barry.



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