Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer [Art]ificial Respiration

Attention aspirant critics: Your Number: is up.

By Chris Davis

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Let me begin with the ending. Debora Gordon, managing editor of Number:, Memphis' virtually unfunded and woefully understaffed arts journal, gets up to speak. She tells the hodgepodge of exhausted Caucasians assembled in this bright, desk-cluttered classroom that they are not only invited, but enthusiastically encouraged (perhaps even expected) to pen articles for an upcoming issue of her (lately alleged) quarterly. The exact date of publication is, of course, left unannounced, but virtually any type of story it seems is acceptable: reviews, features, artist profiles, you name it, Number: wants it. We had just completed a two-day seminar (co-sponsored by Number:) on art criticism, or so we thought. In retrospect, I'm sure that the whole thing was nothing more than an elaborate set-up for the big Shanghai.

We were now highly trained art critics, you see, having (at the request of our moderator, the noted visual artist and esteemed critic Buzz Spector) filled out no less than three index cards describing three different works of art -- and our criticisms had been duly criticized. We were primed, by god, and ready to evaluate any piece of art that came our way. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Spector is a witty and insightful gentleman, to be sure, but the focus of his 15-hour seminar was not so much geared toward writing as it was to reading and more accurately being "read to" by the moderator.

Class had just gotten underway when I realized I wasn't going to get along with a fellow classmate, who pursed her lips, not with the wicked joy of a provocateur, but with an over-abundance of seriousness. Before the day was through she would obnoxiously recount some lettered jerk's call for, "The death of modernism and the rebirth of 'New Old-Masterism.'" I caught the heebie-jeebies the moment she began to reference Dorothy Parker while describing to dismal death an artwork that listed genuine human ashes among the materials used in its creation. She was obviously touched by this morbid undertaking which ultimately functions as a sick gimmick even if it was wholeheartedly intended to be a noble tribute. It calls to mind Shakespeare's enduring commentary on inquiring minds, "When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian."

"Can we criticize this kind of art?" our learned moderator asks, passing on his firm belief that this peculiar brand of verity presents even the craftiest critic with an uncrackable nut. He relates the cautionary tale of a fellow who caught heat for criticizing an art show that incorporated interviews with AIDS victims. "These were real words, by real people," Spector says, explaining why this kind of "victim-art" defies critical analysis.

My bullshit-meter goes wild. After all, once a piece is put on display in a public space the "real words" of "real people" become the artful replication and arrangement of a set of circumstances from which the viewer is (at least by one generation) removed. It is the newest take on trompe l'oeil, and the painted, sculpted, taped, danced, or spoken word becomes nothing more than an extension of realism. And isn't realism still out of fashion among hard-core critics due to its distinct lack of, and obstinate refusal to acquire, a solid theory? Answer: How could it not be?

I became entangled in my own thoughts, drifted out of the dialogue for a time, and was only sucked back in when I heard Spector say, quite dryly, "We can't call the Columbine Massacre performance art, can we?" For my inappropriate response to a rhetorical question I must apologize in advance. It was intended only to spark debate.

"It was signed," I blurt out, without really considering the implication of my distasteful words. Icy stares and silence fall like any number of dangerous falling items. Spector clears his throat, says something to the effect of, "Well" and moves the conversation right along to the next subject.

Over the course of the weekend we would learn what writers thought about artists: what Bell Hooks thought of Lucien Freud, and what Jerry Salz said of Julien Schnabel etc., but none of it made much sense to me -- not really -- not after the Columbine comment. We live in a time when men, quite literally, blow paint from their asses and call it art. We have seen art (and, believe me, I stand by it) arise from self-mutilation, and from the insertion of various vegetables into uncountable orifices. Spit, poo-poo, pee-pee, Christ, and human ashes have all been turned into art-supplies. Why not blood? Why not Columbine? It began with a manifesto. It was scripted. It spawned imitators. The materials used to construct the grisly masterpiece were so taboo that every social class was outraged. Columbine affected an entire nation both emotionally and intellectually, and effectively changed the way we look at the world. If we can't exactly call it art, we certainly should examine it as such. Don't misunderstand, this is by no means an endorsement of behavior which can only be described as evil. It is, however, an indictment of a contemporary artworld that has somehow truly come to believe that much good is done in the world by stroking the egos of the elite while alternately confounding and offending the sensibilities of the bourgeois.

It is a challenge to take the big words and brilliant ideas out of the bright, desk-cluttered classrooms and into the town and country. It is a challenge to simply pay attention. You see, Spector told us all that art criticism is not only art in and of itself, but that it is perhaps the most cutting edge art being practiced in the world today. Maybe this is so, but if, as our moderator implies, realism (even social realism) can no longer be evaluated and disaster may only be viewed in a singular context that reveals only its most obvious truths, then the cutting edge has become dull indeed. I am thankful to Number: for continuing to fight the good fight, but feel in the end that my time would have been better spent learning CPR.


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