There are a number of topics on which I feel confident, if not competent, enough to be a dick. Art is not one of them. I am a big fan. The first thing I do when I visit a city is go to the art museum(s). If all I had to do was answer trivia questions about artists or explain different movements, styles, periods, and so on, I'd write something and not feel too much like an idiot. But I just don't have the smug confidence of the art critic that would allow me to describe in great detail, "This is shit, and here's why." I can spot said shit from a mile away, but I lack the vocabulary to explain its flaws.

That's why I'm glad someone else wrote a lengthy takedown of the artistic talents of Chinese political dissident/artist Ai Weiwei. In the same way that people tend to be sensitive about criticizing Israel for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, criticism of Ai has been largely verboten lest it be interpreted as criticism of his political activism. His willingness to speak out against the Chinese government is laudable, regardless of how effective it is. He was beaten nearly to death by Chinese police at a political protest in 2009. The guy is not a fake activist or some guy posting "F the System" on Facebook. But art galleries throughout the Western world have tripped over themselves to hold Ai exhibitions, and frankly his work often borders on sophomoric. Two good quotes from the lengthy article:

The Hirshhorn has recently purchased Ai's more than thirteen-foot-high Cube Light, which, with its row upon row of jazzily back-lit gold-toned crystals, suggests the retro-glam décor for an upscale bar or nightclub. While a wall label explains that Cube Light "interrogate[s] conventions of culture, history, politics, and tradition," it seems to me that the only reasonable response to this caramel colored concoction is to order a martini and make it extra dry. I confess that Ai lost me completely with Cube Light, part of what the people at the Hirshhorn refer to as his "celebrated chandelier series." The glitz of Cube Light reflects a side of his sensibility that some progressives will dismiss as high bourgeois kitsch, although at times it is unclear whether Ai is parodying a taste for swank Chinese porcelains and beautifully crafted wood furniture or celebrating it. The truth is that he may not be entirely clear about this himself.

Asked more recently about the project, Ai had this to say: "Because the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is animal heads, I think it's something that everyone can have some understanding of, including children and people who are not in the art world. I think it's more important to show your work to the public. That's what I really care about. When Andy Warhol painted Mao in the 1960s and 1970s, I don't think many people understood Mao, either—it was just this image that people knew, like Marilyn Monroe or somebody. So they might see these zodiac animals like that—like Mickey Mouse. They're just animals." Ai may be a hero when it comes to speaking out for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, but when he talks about his art he is jeeringly manipulative. It is hard to have patience for an artist who justifies his work with references to Mickey Mouse.

I'm sure it's somewhat awkward to explain these concepts in a foreign language, but this sounds like the ramblings of a college sophomore. It points to a larger problem with the art world – Ai has been adopted by the jet-set as a cause célèbre/mascot alongside nonprofit/foundation favorites like the Dalai Lama, Sudanese child-soldiers and Aung San Suu Kyi – but also to a larger problem with all of us, as this is just another symptom of our lost ability to take anything at face value anymore. We live in a world in which any artist who can throw together something banal and sell it with a verbose, pseudo-intellectual cover story is considered Very Serious and Important. Even though it is for a good reason – art is subjective and we often lack the vocabulary to dissect it – it's very rare that anyone calls artists on these things. It amazes me that journalists can listen to statements like the above without saying, "I'm sorry, but what in the hell are you talking about?"

Now that we're willing to accept that anything and everything is art, we're susceptible to every manner of deception whether it's done by others or we do it to ourselves. We tell ourselves that the great political activist must be also a great artist, and that his work is an incisive commentary on the Chinese political system. We're reluctant to confront the possibility that the great political activist is an artist, albeit not an extraordinarily talented one.

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38 thoughts on “THIS IS NOT A PIPE”

  • The off-shoot of this trend is that if someone makes a movie, writes a book, stages a play about something very very serious indeed, said movie, book, or play must be treated as if it is good. Things you will never hear anyone say: "This movie about the Holocaust is a piece of shit."* "This painting depicting the suffering of genital mutilation is laughably awful." "This song about why child molestation is bad is wretched beyond belief." And so real pain becomes the refuge for the talentless and the mediocre.

    In the case of Ai, it may at least be said that we are letting him slide on his considerable and praiseworthy dedication to an unquestionably good cause. (Like if it turned out that Santa Claus was real, and he showed all the poetry he wrote about the one reindeer that died, and it was sub-human–we'd still pretend to like it, right? I mean, we'd kind of have to, yes?) But I equally admire the balls of the critic who can forcefully separate the character of the artist from the quality of the art.

    Mind you, I've been doing that for years, only I've been doing it to rescue great art from total shitheels–Wagner's the one I have to spend the most time divorcing from his art, but as I've told my students on more than one occasion, "If we got rid of the work of every great male writer who was also a total son of a bitch, all we'd be left with is Robert Browning and Walt Whitman."

    *It should be noted that if Jerry Lewis ever releases THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, we may be able to make this declaration. For the sake of human freedom, Jerry, do it.

  • There's just something about the art world, where things are so subjective, that leads to experts praising shit as genius. Quentin Tarantino owes his career to such people.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    When we have Pop singers at the top of the charts who can't sing a lick, and writers on the NY Times best-seller list who can't write an interesting and well-written paragraph, let alone an entire novel, why are we surprised when people glorify a person who's basically a "Performance Artist," who doesn't do the performing part of the "art," a great artist.

    From the great Mel Brooks:
    "Franz: You know, not many people knew it, but the Führer was a terrific dancer.
    Max: Really? I never dreamed that…
    Franz: (now shouting with rage) That is because you were taken in by that verdammte Allied propaganda! Such filthy lies! They told lies! But nobody ever said a bad word about Winston Churchill, did they? No! "Win with Winnie!" Churchill! With his cigars, with his brandy. And his ROTTEN painting! Rotten! Hitler, THERE was a painter! He count paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! TWO COATS! Churchill. He couldn't even say "Nazi". He would say "Nooooozeeehz, Nooooozeeehz!" It wasn't NOSES, it was NAZIS! Churchill!
    Max: Exactly why…
    Franz: Let me tell you THIS! And you're hearing this straight from the horse – Hitler was better looking than Churchill. He was a better dresser than Churchill. He had more hair! He told funnier jokes! And he could dance the PANTS off of Churchill!"

    "Hitler, THERE was a painter! He count paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! TWO COATS!"

    Now, substitute George W. Bush for Churchill, and instead of the great Mel Brooks, you have the right's propagandistic 'Frei Bacon:'

    Art is in the eye of the beholder.
    And when people laud the mediocre as great, that says more about the beholders, than the artist.

  • Much as I hate to agree with Jed Perl (the Charles Krauthammer of art critics), on Ai Weiwei he's probably the clock striking the correct hour for once. I can't stomach reading too much art criticism, since as an old-fart New York artist, I'm not the target audience anyway and they try to tell me what I already know, but Perl may be saying what has long needed saying, if no doubt slightly off-target. Ai's major weakness is not that he challenges the boundaries of anything but that he's derivative of Duchamp and Warhol and Koons and every other provocateur who set out to épater le bourgeois for the past 100 years. It's old stuff, rebottled for those who don't know any better or who patronize the non-West with points for trying. (Isn't he cute? He's doing just what DaDa did") Such is often the case with art and literature in what's called the "developing world." It's ground-breaking only because the hero is wearing a loincloth instead of Beckett's rags. I happen to agree with Clement Greenberg (one of the few who dare invoke his unfashionable name) who said that Duchamp and DaDa can happen only once in history; after that they're just redundant. But God and the Market know they're good box office.

  • Dunno about the genuine quality of Weiwei's art, although I really enjoyed the zodiac animal heads when they installed them outside the Plaza Hotel in Grand Army Plaza. However, one argument of the article you rely on is full of shitte in a very deeply fundamental way. Whether an artist can articulately discuss her own work or not is 100% totally irrelevant to whether that work is of value or not.

  • This is exactly how I feel about Solzhenitsyn. Although in his case, the West grossly misinterpreted the significance of his opposition to the Soviet rule, too.

  • Art writing varies wildly in quality. Some of it is great, mindblowing stuff, and sometimes you get an honest to god professor of art history writing the intro for an exhibition catalogue or something and that shit reads like he had a pretentious freshman slap it together in 10 minutes. Some of the stuff reads like they generated it with a markoff chain, just freeform association and art theory mad libs.

    I had some friends of friends at an art academy here and the art was insane, just awesome in how it made you feel stuff that you hadn't felt before, just a prolonged braingasm, and then they'd start talking about it and it'd be just deflating and sad. I think we gotta get to a point where you can just say "this shit looks awesome and it probably doesn't 'mean' a fucking thing".

    I've done some small town-newspaper "art criticism" myself and it admittedly is fun to just stream-of-consciousness it up, but I don't think the text added that much value above the pretty pictures. It's kinda hard to criticise these phenomena and not sound like "my five-year-old could draw this".

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Have opinions on Israel and Weiwei.

    You can criticize Israel for a ton of things, almost as you can any country, without being labeled. For instance, you can oppose Israel's settlement policy. You cannot, however, reside on the land of Chief Potomac and claim that settlement is not a universal activity practiced especially by us in the US. (North America is one big settlement.) Claiming that Israel is beyond the pale smells to high hell.

    When I get to a foreign city I first visit the markets and then go to the art museums. Weiwei, in my opinion, has several excellent pieces and a lot of junk.

  • Behold, Ed, the world's most valuable photograph:

    Not a terrible photo per se (and the real thing is like 12 feet wide), but it's a powerful example of how the high end of the art market is set by people who have exponentially more money than brains. The poor (extremely rich) saps actually see this kind of thing as an "investment".

  • One small upside: if it was bought by the Hirshhorn, at least we can count on it being incompetently exhibited in an uncomfortable space where few people will see it. Third-worst museum on the National Mall, or maybe second-worst depending on your feelings about Air n' Space.

  • My hipster, mid-20's brain is telling me to mention that Banksy has a scathing docu/mockumentary "Exit through the Gift Shop" about this same phenomenon. Not so much the political, but this Ai Weiwei seems to have a similar approach Mr. Brainwash.

    I don't even know what to believe anymore, if Thierry Guetta is an actor and Banksy's greatest work of art/prank or if the art community really is that toxic.

    Ai Weiwei is not an artist, he's a performer and he's using his art to justify the stage he's creating to perform (political dissidence, etc.).

  • I know someone who lives in Israel. I consider her a friend, but she goes utterly /nuts/ when someone criticizes her country. She's never accused me of being a Nazi, but she'll get pretty close. She claims my disagreements with Israel would evaporate instantly if I just experienced a near-hit with a missile. It's a bullshit argument and she's got to know it, but that doesn't stop her.

  • Art, Schmart. I don't know Art, but I know what I like. OK, what I like is largely really filthy and disgusting porn, but that's neither here nor there. I still don't know Art. Once again, after trekking through the Modern Art wing of our local museum, it was borne on me again that Art is simply what somebody, somewhere called "Art". Why are ancient, fairly clumsy mosaic representations of animals and plants Art? What makes landscapes Art, and Warhol's images? Why should I care? I like what I like, and I'm willing to let the Serious and Thoughtful Analysizers of Art enjoy analyzing the stuff that leaves me a bit repulsed. No skin off my nose what somebody else sees in something that looks to me like rotting, stitched-up fruit skins. Big of me, I know, but no need to thank me. As for Ai, if he can manage to get people to pay attention to what he does, let alone get people to see what he sees, more power to him. If he can make a buck at the same time, he's way ahead of the game.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    Exactly. I know what art I like, I know what art I don't like, and I can tell you why, but I don't know the art industry buzzwords. In other words, I'm not an art intellectual. I went to the Guggenheim in the early 80s and saw a room with two pink fluorescent tubes bathing the entire room in pink light. That was it! That's not art. I knew that as a teenager, and I know it now.

  • When cultures were more uniform, an artist could reflect society's joys and fears back to it in a way that was easier to appreciate, on however basic a level. Even if the average museum visitor didn't understand the genius of mass and proportion in classic sculpture, he or she could still be affected by it. Technical excellence made this even easier.

    As societies became more open to a variety of ideas, and as wars and disappointments and malaise and depression made our feelings uncertain and chaotic, art trends reflected that indeterminacy. Now we have instant communications and nothing to say. I think Ai is just using public expression to fight the power. But can art be art and still suck?

    Whether it's art at all depends on the viewer, right? If you're a person who believes art exists wherever someone transforms something as an expression of feeling, then sure. If no particular skill or talent is needed, in your opinion, then call mudpies art. If Burning Man is art, then Ai Weiwei is art.

    All I can add is that different cultures sometimes approach the same idea in very different ways. Fashion is a good thing to watch, since it changes with high frequency and trends both follow society and lead it. Asian fashion seems so disjointed to westerners, so unconnected to the cycle of transitions we use as references to understand and enjoy the art and craft of design. Perhaps it has a genius that will only be understood in the fullness of time. But honestly, I don't care for it at all.

  • Not that I disagree with your sentiment, Ed, but… you've just linked approvingly to The New Republic. That's what you've done.

  • I happen to agree with Clement Greenberg (one of the few who dare invoke his unfashionable name) who said that Duchamp and DaDa can happen only once in history;

    Marcel Duchamp said that himself. Said that the "shock" could only happen once.

  • Meh. Critiquing famous artists for being famous these days is like critiquing Marco Rubio for being a senator or Michael Savage for having a highly-rated radio show. It's hating the player, not the game. I remember being crammed into the Brooklyn Museum with everybody and their uncle fifteen years ago to see … dissected sharks and a "painting" of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung. That was the last time I gave two shits (pun intended) about contemporary art. It's a bunch of grifting self-promoters running cons on credulous Goldman Sachs traders.

  • People cannot accept duality, it almost short circuits their brains. It is a shame, because life and people are so very complex, that they end up missing a lot.

  • Art falls into two categories for me:

    Art I like, and I know why I like it. It may be as simple as a photograph of an intersection in Detroit at midnight from a particular angle, or one of Tom Thomson's paintings.

    Art I don't like. And sometimes I know why I don't like it, and sometimes I don't know why I don't like it.

    Art is entirely a personal experience based on personal preferences. Criticism and the evaluation of it by others is therefore irrelevant.

  • Here is my definition of art.

    It is the product of human endeavor, produced for the purpose of stimulating one or more of the senses in a way that engages both the intellect and the emotions.

    Art can fail be being too intellectual and non-emotional – serial music, abstract painting, frex; or by being too emotional and intellectually vacant – most pop music, and country in particular.

    Art can piss you off or thrill you, whether it's good or bad. That's not a reliable way to judge.

    Then there is sham art, put forth by con men: pink lights in a bare room, a pianist sitting silently at the keyboard for 3 minutes, hanging sheets around a walkway.

    Somebody who knows what the hell he's talking about said that truly terrible writing has more in common with truly great writing then either has in common with mediocre writing. Not sure that I go along with that completely, but I can't reject it out of hand, and it does give you an idea of how difficult and subjective these evaluations can be.


  • c u n d gulag says:

    But thank you for reminding me. ;-)

    Most times, people on the internet tell me I'm a feckin' idjit.

  • This is a problem all over Western (and apparently non-Western) art… most people don't have anything interesting to say because we've taken the intellectualism out of society. When the best news comes from comedy shows, you know intellectualism is dead. But we have 5000 kids with bands in Brooklyn that have nothing new to add to that art form either. And most people aren't educated enough (even college graduates) to have anything important to say any way. It's all just shit for mill of capitalism at this point.

  • "The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively — because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.

    "You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, What is that shit on the wall?

    "If John Cage, for instance, says, 'I'm putting a contact microphone on my throat, and I'm going to drink carrot juice, and that's my composition,' then his gurgling qualifies as his composition because he put a frame around it and said so . . . after that, it's a matter of taste."

    — Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book.

    On a related note, I would argue that a significant degree of conceptual creativity integral to the definition of 'art' is absent from much of what is presented as art, meaning, it is really mere craft, however adeptly or poorly executed. Especially in the realm of 'pop music,' the term "recording artist" is frequently inaccurate and misleading.

  • "Art is entirely a personal experience based on personal preferences. Criticism and the evaluation of it by others is therefore irrelevant."

    Nothing could be more naive.

  • greennotGreen says:

    I have a friend who used to be a sculptor who actually sold his work. He and his partner had to write these bs descriptions of the "meaning" of their geometric forms because that's the only reason some people buy art: they have to be told what it "means."

    I make art for myself. I'll probably never sell anything (and my house is getting quite crowded) because I'll never write any bs descriptions. If you have to be told what my art "means", then it doesn't mean anything to you. Keep your money.

  • No offense, but the article you link to is the sort of elitist but simultaneously anti-elitist drivel that is as easy to come up with as it is derivative. I personally enjoyed checking out "Zodiac/Animal Heads" in New York. It's immediately obvious to anyone with half a brain that most people in the West who support Ai do so mostly for his politics and dissidence. But that doesn't make him a terrible artist, and I've liked the little I've seen so far. Plenty of people think of Brecht as "that marxist playright," or know Dickens for his humanism, but that doesn't mean they weren't also damn fine artists.

    What is Perl's reason for his takedown? Really, he spends much of the article valorizing Ai's "courage," speaking snidely of Ai's dissidence as though it's simply a form of self-aggrandizement. He knocks Ai's art for being political, even if there is plenty of art that is enriched by a knowledge of the politics involved: Kara Walker comes to mind as someone whose art becomes better if you understand the stories behind the silhouettes, and Guernica is probably the most famous example of political art.

    Does Ai Weiwei really deserve to be one of the best-known artists in China? Does international art focus too much on superstars, or on concept pieces seemingly made for exhibition? Is there something ridiculous about the DC crowd gazing at Ai's work, smugly lambasting the lack of artistic freedom in China? You could write an interesting article on those questions. But disliking a single exhibit and deciding he's not elitist enough in talking about his work are not reasons to claim that Ai Weiwei is a terrible artist.

  • Oh lord, more tiresome bollocks about art.

    Art takes many forms. Some are interesting to me, some less so. Nobody is in a position to go around putting these forms in ordinal hierarchies, and anybody who does is a bigger charlatan than the artists they criticize.

  • Travesties, by Stoppard, has a scene in which tzara is explaining dada to a non-artist. It sounded fishy to me when I read it in college, and it wasn't until I realized the tremendous social, political and cultural dislocation that wwi caused in Europe that I started to get it.

  • Oh lord…. The last time I got into a dust-up over art I got kicked off a message board.

    With that in mind, it is my OPINION that appreciation of art (–as opposed to craft, which has a more functional element–) is highly subjective; and I personally don't believe that some snot with a paintbrush and a Ph.D. has superior knowledge in this area. HOWEVER, art should appeal to a broader class than grifter/dealers, bipolar individuals with misplaced political or scholarly affectations, and people with more money than brains. If there is no universality of appeal, is it really art? Or is it merely another way of keeping the cultural "riff-raff" at arm's length?


    Thomas Kinkade prints are not art;
    Most of Jackson Pollock's later work reminds me of painting drop cloths, but his earlier stuff is interesting–which gives lie to the adage that alcohol and drugs stimulate the creative process; and
    I still can't look at one installation in the NY MOMA, consisting of two oversized canvases hung side-by-side–one painted solid yellow, and the other solid black–without subconsciously thinking that my 5 year old niece could have done the same thing–and for much less than the (circa 2000) price of $50,000.

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