Help Desk

HELP DESK: Are You Trying to Wind Me Up?

Welcome to HELP DESK, where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to–contemporary art. Together, we’ll sort through some of art’s thornier issues. Email helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions. All submissions remain strictly anonymous and become the property of Daily Serving. HELP DESK is co-sponsored by KQED.org.

Your counselor, hard at work.

Do you think that contemporary art pieces that are controversial or seem to have required little effort contribute to the opposition of government funding of the arts?

The way your question is phrased makes me think you already had an answer in mind when you wrote, but I’m going to play the naïf and take it at face value (to begin with, at least) and simply answer no.

What does contribute to the opposition to government funding of the arts? Historically, it’s been individuals and groups not directly involved in the arts who, for various religious, political and ideological reasons, feel that they are entitled to dictate to us all what art is and should be. Others seem to be opposed to government funding of pretty much anything strictly on the basis of their desire not to pay any taxes. So there’s your query answered, right?

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ,1987. Cibachrome print mounted on Plexiglas, 23.5 x 16 in

But underneath my innocent demeanor is a deep concern that you’re blaming the victim. “It’s controversial, so it was asking for funding cuts,” sounds to me like grossly flawed reasoning. Do you really think that poor old Piss Christ should take the blame for the funding cuts to the NEA? Or should we blame the politicians like Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato who worked tirelessly on a campaign of misinformation and propaganda to create a culture war in order to promulgate wedge issues that to this day keep an emotionally unstable populace distracted from issues like racism, sexism, the economy and war? The artworks cited in the struggle to limit funding for the arts are red herrings used to conceal what are, in fact, simple political agendas.

Further, you cite a nebulous group of works that “seem to have required little effort” and I wonder what effort has to do with any of this. How would we even begin to decide how much effort went into a work of art before it could receive government funding? Should there be a Department of Homeland Artistic Effort? Remember that Marcel Duchamp signed a name to a urinal and exhibited it as a sculpture, an act that was so pivotal that we’re still talking, writing, and arguing about it nearly a hundred years later. Sometimes the simplest ideas turn out to be the most potent.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, original destroyed. Porcelain, dimensions unconfirmed, approx. 360 x 480 x 610 mm

Right now I am taking a course that introduces students to the images and works that artists in the “contemporary art” sphere are producing. I realize I may be alone in this opinion, but I can’t help but feel discouraged watching piece after piece flash onto the overhead-screen. When I produce a painting, drawing, photograph, or even a poem, it is often a painful process and the final product is always emotionally charged. Placing something so personal and painstakingly meaningful in a gallery of chocolate Jesus sculptures, diamond skulls, dot paintings, Piss Christs, and dead animal tanks just doesn’t seem appropriate. This class makes me regret the decision to major in studio art (a seemingly meaningless and ridiculous discipline) and has ruined all positive connotations the title “artist” used to carry. So my question is: Am I the only person who thinks pieces of the contemporary art world are demeaning and deprive art of any credibility? Where’s the challenge and talent in art if all you have to do is make use of repulsive, explicit, and/or offensive media?

Oh, those teenage years. Here you are, driven by hormones and angst, searching your soul deeply in order to artistically express your vital emotional states which no doubt ping-pong between the pit of despair and the mountain’s peak of elation.

I am sorry to hear that you find your coursework disheartening, but I’m sure we can all agree that it’s better for you to find out sooner rather than later that contemporary art is not your cup of tea. Really, that’s what the undergraduate experience is all about  and you’re always free to change your major to a subject you find less painful, like kinesiology or microeconomics.

Piero Manzoni, Merda d'artista, 1961. Mixed media, edition of 90.

Obviously you are not the only person to have these sad thoughts about contemporary art (c.f. Jesse Helms, above), so I’m going to assume your first actual question is hyperbolic for effect and not because you are a simpleton. However, your second and final question warrants some deliberation: if “all you have to do” indeed is make repulsive, explicit, and offensive art, why don’t you try it? Certainly art created in this manner carries an emotional charge that you might find cathartic. Also, I would love for you to explore the process of making this kind of art and attempting to have it funded and exhibited. You might find the answer to your entreaty for challenge and talent.

Luckily for you, you will never ever be asked to place your emotionally charged and painstakingly meaningful work in the same venue with the diamond skulls, dot paintings, or dead animals in tanks that you deplore. I guarantee it! And good luck with the rest of your adolescence.

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