Did Susan Sontag write an essay with this very same title? I think it was something I was supposed to read in college but didn't, and a horrendous grade on some little essay that's now crumpled up in my closet will certainly clear me of any plagiarism charges that could arise from this.
Two weeks ago, a friend and I went to the POOL Art Fair, an event designed to showcase the work of artists without representation. It took place inside the legendary Hotel Chelsea, one of my favorite storied New York buildings, a place that I frequent for the most unjustified and varying of reasons (if it were a person, it would have long ago accused me of stalking it.) The Hotel gave a room to every one or two artists, which was perfect because the insertion of these art installations in each room only served to make it more of a twisted funhouse, the incarnation of it I enjoy the most.
We received a piece of paper that detailed the room assignments of each artist and the much-maligned "suggested donation" stare of the girl that manned the ticket booth in the lobby. With our little guides clutched in our hands, we set off through the dimly-lit labyrinth of mediocrity, armed with only our uneducated criticisms and meager knowledge of what "good" art really is.
Oftentimes I wonder whether or not that "meager knowledge" is actually beneficial when it comes to firsthand evaluation. If I had taken ten courses on Art History in college, would I be more inclined to marvel at the latest and greatest in scandalous, the statue of Jesus made out of chocolate that's recently hit the New York art scene? Would I step away from a painting and, in a voice slightly more nasal than my own, beg my companion to "look at his use of lines there"? I think my personal way of analyzing a piece of art as good or bad is a similar process to the one I used to employ for poetry in high school. I wasn't so sure when a poem was good (surely not just because I liked it?) but I definitely knew when it was bad, namely when my boyfriend used to make me listen to tapes of Jim Morrison's poetry set to the background of ambient music complete with the sound of tides and blowing winds.
Eats its own skin
In the desert"
Not a direct quote.
The show at the Chelsea helped me to hone my art appraisal skills even further by helping me to really recognize the difference between what was bad, what was good and what was so bad it was good (now THIS I know is Sontag's.)
Consider, for example, the comparison between the first two rooms I entered. The first one focused mainly on a number of films, my favorite of which was called, "Man with no Hands Trying to Masturbate." The three artists sat on the bed staring unabashedly at the observers as we walked around, and I proved to them that I had the strongest stomach they'd EVER seen by watching the video of an animal slaughter in Palestine without flinching once. When they cut the cow's throat there was only about an inch left of skin left, about the amount needed to cover the spine. My friend kind of lurked in the corner, returned to the armless man desperately trying to get off (there was a light socket involved at one point), but me, no, I stayed strong.
I saw the value in this piece, in some ways. I don't think it's particularly difficult to make if you have the means to procure a plane ticket to a Middle Eastern country and find out when the next cow slaughtering is. Once you have that down, though, you get yourself a camcorder and you're done. Still, though, there was a comment on cultural relativism there, and it made me think, if only for a few minutes.
In the next room, however, the video was far less engaging, though one would imagine that because it was of a woman's entirely hairless clit, this would not be the case. I entered to a blond woman, whom I recognized as being the owner of the face that flickered across the five television sets stacked on the dresser. She was standing by the door, eagerly discussing her "work" with a visitor. Next to the bed was a small mountain of wrapped condoms; neatly stacked, empty pill bottles filled the open dresser drawers. A scruffy man who sat behind me spoke. He pointed to the headphones sticking out from the television.
"Each video has a different soundtrack. You can listen."
Wonderful. Now I can watch a close-up of said hairless clit while listening to the Ramones' "Wart Hog", or see her inserting a small, unidentifiable object into her anus to the tune of "Banned in D.C", or, best of all, watch her finger herself in a manner entirely devoid of enthusiasm while humming along to "You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)."
On the little table was small scrap of paper, upon which was written an abbreviated Brechtian quote, which I imagine she couldn't finish because she just had to get back to filming herself squeezing her breast in front of the mirror. "Art is not a mirror, it is a hammer." Unfortunately you can't really smash anyone's cultural chains if they won't stick around.
And on we went, passed the portraits of just shoes, those of just eyes, an empty room covered entirely in plastic wrapping (maybe just being renovated, upon second thought). We were serenaded by a woman half-submerged in a bathtub surrounded by fake plant life who called herself "the Love Artist" while her attractive, tattooed, fedora-wearing sidekick played guitar. We even bought tiny metal replicas of iconic foodstuffs: pretzels, saltines, fortune cookies, and ice cream sandwiches.
I realized that the entire thing made me feel as if I were in living inside a mockumentary, which is actually a pretty happy thing, if you think about it. What better band to tour with than Spinal Tap? But all that was about to change.
My friend and I entered a room where all the furniture was completely draped in white sheets. A dead-ringer for Kevin Arnold's older sister on The Wonder Years stood nearby manning a projector and watching over a table full of opened but full wine and uneaten cheese. We reclined on the white bed and watched the video being played on the wall. The story was nearly indiscernible but featured a drunk guy sitting at a table being served by three stock female characters: a black girl dressed as a slave, a white supermodel, complete with jutting collarbone and sunken eyes, and a bowing Asian wearing a full kimono. The guy spurted and rolled his head as the women took turns pouring him water and serving him food.
"Wait, that guy looks...really familiar," my friend said.
"Oh, yeah, that's Dominic," Olivia d'Abo said. "He's like a downtown fixture, always around. You've probably seen him around, like, out or something."
"He's always like this, too, it isn't acted."
And all of a sudden, the meta-theater aspect of the episode becomes clearer as we realize...
"Oh wait, I know!"
Our drug dealer. The oddly quiet little skateboarding dude who sells my friend and I bags of "This is some really good shit" weed is the subject of a flimsy art film clearly trying to make some commentary about the role of women in society. And so we bolt, both knowing that you know you're in grave danger when you see a little piece of your own life reflected back at you in some bad art.