Contemporary Art is Bad

According to close and sympathetic observers, there’s a lot wrong
with contemporary art. In 1993 the Whitney Biennial — the
definitive showcase of American art — was so dominated by
unadorned literal references to well-known social and political
dilemmas (a film of the Rodney King beating, for example) that some
commentators, notably in a special issue of Chicago’s New
Art Examiner
(April 1994), actually wondered whether
beauty and craftsmanship ought to make a comeback.

This year avant-garde icon Marcel Duchamp is the lightning rod
for discontent. In Adbusters (Summer 1995),
Australian art critic John McDonald lets fly: ‘Never in history has
so much contemporary art been spiritless and materialistic, never
has it been more shallow and cynical.’ For McDonald, it’s
Duchamp–the onetime Dadaist who submitted a urinal to an
exhibition; drew a little mustache on a cheap reproduction of the
Mona Lisa and exhibited it; and in general promoted an ironic
intellectualization of the art-making process — whose example has
been most dispiriting. The Duchamp deadpan lies behind today’s
self-consciously ambitionless ‘loser art’ as well as the antics of
Jeff Koons, who has his kitschy works made for him. Even today’s
‘political’ art, in McDonald’s reckoning, is addicted to
intellectual cleverness of a (debased) Duchampian kind. ‘The
Duchampian prefers civilized subversion to full-scale
confrontation,’ writes McDonald; i.e., semiotic head games instead
of passionate commitment to craftand to social transformation.

Donald Kuspit, writing in the March issue of NEW ART EXAMINER,
sees Duchamp as an insecure artist whose ‘readymades’ (those
ordinary objects he simply bought and signed) were part of a sad
mind-game he played with the viewer: ‘Because the spectator
emotionally invests in the inert matter of the readymade it becomes
art, and because the artist emotionally depends on the spectator’s
investment he is convinced that he is a real artist.’ For Kuspit,
what such a neurotic-psychotic involvement leaves out, fatally, is
the best quality of art: ‘The making of fine art is a kind of model
of healing, in that it shows that it is possible to transform raw,
seemingly inert subjective matter into a sophisticated, strong,
spirited self.’

For More Information

Donald Kuspit, ‘Marcel Duchamp, Imposter Artist.’ NEW ART EXAMINER
(March 1995), pp. 17-21. Subscriptions: $35/yr (12 issues)
available from 314 West Institute Place, Chicago, IL 60610;

Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, Art Issues
Press, 1993 ($15)

(Gopher site for art and artist advocacy; fights stereotyping of

World Wide Web
(a ringing defense of no standards in art)

Marcel Duchamp
(bio and images of the artist)

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