Peter Bagge takes on the art world in his online comic for Reason, in terms that will make even the most resilient reader check for the traces of spittle flecked across their face:
95% of what they're hyping is pure crap, yet if you dare to say as much out loud you'll be looked upon as a clueless philistine!
And perhaps you should be, if you can't say it any better than this petulant swipe at an easy yet poorly-observed target.
I have to say at the outset, I should be a much easier sell for this sort of thing. I typically don't care for minimalists or conceptualists or most of the more famous performance and installation artists (to overgeneralize terribly). I find nothing more depressing than that inevitable moment when, upon visiting one of those great museums organized along the old and increasingly rare chronological model, my tour leads me from gallery upon gallery of astonishing Dadaists and Vorticists and cubists and surrealists and pop artists into a room full of dull beige slabs or a few knotted metal cables.
I'm more than willing to entertain criticisms that conceptualism is a vacant or overvalued or even suffocating direction in contemporary art. But I'd rather that critique be a little more incisive than Bagge's frothing about "pure crap" and "nonsense" and "rackets," impotent stabs that work only if you presume your audience already agrees with you. Bagge's own subtitle acknowledges that he's belaboring the obvious, but when he criticizes the "eye-roll inducing self-indulgence" of performance art he seems not to be aware that these old chestnuts roll about as many eyes. His is the sort of piece in which art critics are bitter, elbow-patched hunchbacks, in which the art-world cognoscenti are at least a little queer ("Clay, you have a flair for decorating..."). I was amazed not to see a pair of bongos anywhere.
If the piece were only cliched I would have nodded to Johanna Draper Carlson's concise reactions and left it at that, but the criticisms go beyond Bagge's usual formless misanthropy. They're also deeply confused. At one point, Bagge restates Marcel Duchamp's critique of the aestheticizing effect of the art museum while also dismissing his "Fountain" as a "stupid thing" - and invoking the ghost of Duchamp himself to do it. (Isn't it just possible that the swooning onlookers understand the piece, that they're as in on the joke as Duchamp and Bagge? Why would they fawn if they didn't get it? Do they think it's that great a urinal?)
Bagge also ignores an important element of Duchamp's readymades, their attack on the notion of "taste" as the constituent element that separates art from not-art. That attack, of course, refutes many of Bagge's shrill claims; doesn't this artifact, purely conceptual and deliberately tasteless, say something far more significant than do the technically proficient, aesthetically vapid works of the old salons?
But, conversely, once Duchamp said it it had already been said, and little of the conceptually-driven art to emerge in his wake has been as witty or as deep. There is a serious question here about how we should evaluate this mode of art and its hold on the art world, but Bagge doesn't ask or answer it. (Neither, so far, has Brian K. Vaughan, who raises the same issue in less histrionic but not especially more nuanced terms over in current issues of Ex Machina.) A more effective dismissal, it seems to me, would engage this kind of art as art, challenge and dismantle it on its own terms.
Bagge also picks some puzzling targets. It's one thing to suggest that peformance artists, installation artists, and everybody's favorite piss-boy Andres Serrano are willfully obtuse, but by the third page his litany of "unintelligible" artists includes William Shakespeare. Apparently being produced by the NEA is reason enough to declare him the Yoko Ono of Avon.
Similarly, in one of Bagge's most bizarre digressions he takes PBS to task for airing fundraiser-month specials on Fleetwood Mac and the Bee Gees. Obviously he isn't railing against unintelligibility in the arts anymore (nor is it clear why appearing on PBS automatically confers upon Les Freres Gibb the status of high art; I suppose we'll be seeing "Are You Being Served?" at the next video installation, then) - he's casting about, looking for reasons why anything that public art agencies do is bad. If they focus on ideas, they're obscurantist; if they tackle political or social subject matter, they're dogmatic and elistist; if they offer the popular art for which Bagge has been clamoring, then they're panderers to boot. (Naturally, Bagge doesn't consider that public television stations might not have to pander to their audience if they received adequate funding in the first place.)
If the public sector can't get it right, who then can? Since Bagge's piece appears on Reason's website, it's unsurprising that his answer inevitably boils down to the free market. While he makes some feints towards quality as the ideal arbiter of art, that's one of the grounds on which he persistently refuses to engage the artworks he mentions. He does say, though, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs were not simply excellent (in his view, I should add) but "commercially successful," as if the two always go hand in hand. He reminds us that Steven Spielberg and Madonna are artists, too, as if their wealth proves that no artist needs support. As Johanna says, "I'm surprised that a cartoonist whose recent bids for mainstream success (Yeah, Sweatshop) were so roundly rejected would make an argument that popularity says something important about art."
But even the artistic vision of Kabbalah-worshipping cone-wearers pales before the awesome vistas of the commercial landscape. In his last two panels, Bagge gushes over "the industrial designs on display in Sony's Tokyo showroom," the "beautiful new cars out on the streets these days" - a P.T. Cruiser and an Audi coupe - and, just for good measure, a Japanese candy wrapper. I won't disagree that consumer products can be stunningly designed, although even his own examples require the necessary and shallow intercession of hipster irony; I love the corn-syrup surrealism of the "Furuta" package that's still sitting somewhere in my belongings, but it won't be displacing Max Ernst anytime soon.
Instead of educating people about art, Bagge says, "we should instead be marveling at the countless inspired man-made objects that literally surround us, both inside and outside our own homes." It's a free-marketeer's wet dream - all the art you need, in the things you and your neighbors are buying anyway!
It's a world aswim in art, but also a world utterly devoid of it. Bagge's gallery of cars and candy wrappers contains no place for content, theme, tone, narrative, emotional affect or social context, no suggestion of humanity's place in relation to itself or the universe save behind a wheel or a wallet. It's a fantasyland without public art; it's also a dystopia with no private access to intellectual stimulation, emotional reach, or aesthetic transport.
Bagge rightly berates contemporary artists and art lovers who undervalue craft and design. But in his zeal he reduces art only to those things, becoming just another variation on the tunnel-visioned critics he despises.