Death by Meta: Art Ed.

There is a subset of contemporary art that is primarily concerned with self-examination and asks “what is art?” And then asks it again. And again. It’s a legitimate question — Tolstoy has a treatise on the subject — but I don’t see what the visual arts really add to the discussion.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a whole show dedicated to this kind of meta-art. Shattered or subverted classical statues. Photographic illustration of the Fibonacci sequence. A sphere in the wall plane that spins so fast its motion is imperceptible. Adam and Eve, nude and garish, frolicking in the hedges. A pure black rectangle. A fragile glass crib. Manikins who play the drums from the roof or catch fire every 60 seconds. And, of course, a pile of candy for the taking (or not).

Half of the pieces seem self-effacing and come off amusing, the rest, self-important and masturbatory. But none come close to establishing a definition of art; all just rephrase the question in the manner of a toddler: “What about this?” “Or this?” “Ok, how about this?” Apparently, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data,’ but it is ‘ground-breaking art.’

In actuality the definitional question, supposed inspiration of this genre, has become irrelevant. More than anything else, meta-artists resemble shock-comics. One artist passes out hardboiled eggs. The next reproduces soup cans. Another puts a urinal on a wall. Then a balloon animal is blown up to gargantuan proportions.  Finally Chris Burden shows up and shoots himself.  Isn’t this the high-brow equivalent of The Aristocrats? Competition over who can be the most edgy; the most over the top — a total arms race.  And, consequently, not particularly new or interesting.

It’s not that there’s no value in this kind of pursuit — I mean, Sarah Silverman is occasionally funny and I do have a serving spoon hanging from my wall in Duchamp-tribute.  But I wish most meta-artists would do art (whatever that is) that was merely self-aware, rather than self-obsessed.

3 comments to Death by Meta: Art Ed.

  • […] House: a modernist bachelor pad turned private art gallery (site of the previously mentioned Death-by-Meta […]

  • the mrs.

    well, methinks duchamp (and his pals) wins because a) he was first and b) it was all in fun. he was actually reacting against this stringent, harsh “definition” of art that prevented those who weren’t classically trained (e.g. “folk” or “self-taught” artists) and basically tried to prescribe what people could do as “their” art, or at least was the remnants of that system (e.g. the impressionists at first having to have their own shows and not getting in to the big french national show). but, now that r. mutt signed the old toilet, why are we still doing similar? different incarnations, e.g. the fellah who thumbprinted the eggs and then handed them out, forcing people to decide whether to keep/sell them (making it “art”) or eat them (“food”) or throw them away (“trash”). but nowadays…maybe that territory is a little overexplored. if it makes you feel more confident, my brother hates art like this too, and he is a smart kid and a great artist, and is definitely up for heavy questions and philosophical wanderings, so it’s not just that we’re cultureless rubes who don’t “get it”. there’s big debates in the art community too (as much “community” as there is, like saying the “gay community” as if they all have biweekly meetings).

    but the real question is why i hate chris burden’s work so much when i am amused by jackass…

  • You really gotta choose another handle; this whole “the mrs.” thing is freakin’ me out.

    But anyway, I think you hit upon the bright line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ meta-art: seriousness. Art that takes itself very seriously comes across as arrogant and stupid to me (and, if I may generalize, to my generational cohorts) — how could someone really think their work was so deep and important? Obviously they’re full of it.

    Rather, one must build self-critique into a piece to show that you’re aware of your work’s (and your own) failings in order to gain legitimacy to talk about whatever it is you’re actually talking about.

    I guess requiring self-deprecation from art is probably a little excessively demanding, but I don’t really care. I’m not an artist.

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