Wednesday night I stopped in to see Spartacus Chetwynd’s The Lion Tamer at the New Museum’s 231 Studio space. It was the second show I’ve seen so far in this year’s performance art biennial, Performa 11. For outsiders, it lived up to just about every performance art cliché.
There was a ragamuffin group of young people dressed in cheaply constructed but extravagant costumes, some of whom were nearly nude at times. They danced around in a messy space, evoking opaque rituals and meanings. There was an enormous fabric construction with a vagina-like opening into which audience members were encouraged to stick their heads. If they dared to do so they were met with a scruffy-faced young man sitting cross-legged and proffering kisses, should you care to accept them. Well-heeled guests, most of whom didn’t dare subject themselves to this unknown ritual and likely indignity, stood around smiling, laughing, and looking as though they earnestly understood whatever it was they were witnessing.
When it was all over an acquaintance I brought with me to see the show dismissed out of hand all of “modern” art, experimental jazz (which had nothing to do with Chetwynd’s show) and performance art. She said it wasn’t worth her time. This despite the fact that she admitted to liking many kinds of art and performance.
I could have engaged in a lengthy Socratic dialogue with her, trying to encourage her to explore the art and ideas that she did enjoy and find worthy of her time, attempting to help her see the enormous spectrum of output that constitutes art. And then, if I was good at such things, I might have been able to transition into a further discussion probing the false divisions that terms like “modern” or “contemporary” place on a creative practice that is interested in challenging categories more than fitting into them.
But I was tired. And I also didn’t have a lot to say about the work we’d just seen. And I’d been a little disappointed by the insularity and pandering tone of the other Performa show I’d seen the night before (Elmgreen & Dragset’s Happy Days in the Art World). So, I started to talk to her about the fact that it was important to give herself permission to take what she wants from art, and that in order to do that, she had to open herself up to the work, that sometimes it’s just about having a good time or seeing things from a different perspective. I emphasized that trying to figure out if it was good or bad was beside the point most of the time, because there are no right answers to art—the whole point is that it’s asking questions rather than answering them.
She was in a contrary mood and wanted to disagree with everything. I didn’t have the will to argue with her about it, so I left it alone and tried to change the subject. The last thing I said on the matter was that it was best to start with what you like or respond to and experiment from there, as we all do with most things in life—music, movies, food, clothing, relationships.
For me, I like rigorous artistic work that asks questions about the world and in which you can see the artist honing their craft, trying to use the form to enhance the content. I care about this stuff because I know that it matters, that art has the potential to transform people and societies. I also know that it’s through creative practice that some of the biggest questions we’re facing in the world today will find people willing to try out new solutions that others are often too hemmed in to consider.
Is there bad art? I could speak on that for awhile, and bring up debates about subjectivity, as well as post-modern and post-post-modern debates about value and judgment being the result of norms and structures in society that limit our willingness to accept things that don’t fit familiar patterns. But of course there’s bad art, just like there are bad teachers, and bad food, and bad shoes. Without rigor, time, and energy invested in the process, the outcome is often poorly constructed and low on content. This is true for all of life’s endeavors. Art is no different in that respect. There are also artists who have mixed motives and who like the idea of being an artist more than the day-to-day reality of putting in the work. There are people in every profession who try to skate around the hard work, c’est la vie.
It’s also true that not all art will appeal to all people, whether it be music or literature or dance or performance or sculpture or painting or film or whatever other medium. I would never assume or argue otherwise.
But, you don’t stop eating Mexican food because of one bad burrito. You don’t stop wearing clothes because of a horribly ugly sweater. And you don’t stop listening to music because of one bad song.
Obviously I felt a little put off by this woman’s attitude. But the thing that made me want to mention it here is that I know that thousands, if not millions, of people feel similarly. That, for them, it’s okay to simply dismiss a huge swath of cultural output because it feels foreign and strange and difficult. They feel that much of abstract and conceptual art, or art that isn’t easy to decipher, is inaccessible to them. They have the impression that they need to learn what amounts to a foreign language to “get” the work. Then, there’s the further complication that people are (rightly) put off by the blowhards and assholes who take up a good portion of the space in the art world, particularly the visual art world, where money and celebrity hold so much sway. There are people like that whenever money and celebrity are involved, and the art world is no less susceptible to those individuals than any other industry.
The reality—and the thing I wanted to communicate to that acquaintance of mine—is that there is nothing to “get” in art. It’s not a riddle to be solved. It’s not a moral lesson to be learned. It’s not an answer to a question. The best art opens up new questions about yourself and the world around you, gets you to look at something differently, or evokes feelings so personal and strong that you can’t help but be sucked into the work.
There will be art you don’t like. That’s kind of the point. Figure out what you like and what you don’t. But don’t close yourself off. As with everything in life, you stand to gain by opening yourself up to new possibilities. Because the world keeps changing, and a fair portion of those changes are not going to be pleasant, so you might as well get used to change in small ways so you’re better prepared for the big ones.
So, take a freakin’ risk already. Go see something. Performa’s got a ton to offer this year (Ed. And we’ll be blogging about a bunch of it!). The program is embracing an even wider definition of performance than in years past, blurring more into the dance, theater, film, and music worlds than ever before. Richard Pryor is even going to be part of it—via a screening of his comedy concert at Anthology Film Archives. There’s tons of very cheap and free stuff to see and do, including a class on speechifying, and exhibitions on the Fluxus artists (one paying; and one basically free).
There’s even free food on offer. And as with Creative Time’s recent exhibition on performance as protest, there’s a decidedly political bent to a good portion of the work being included, from a survey and talk with Brazilian artist Antonio Manuel to Nicoline Van Harskamp’s Any Other Business — A Scripted Conference.
I am willing to bet good money that you will not love everything you see, that you might even hate it. But welcome to life. Get some guts. You live in New York freakin’ City. If you’re afraid of new experiences, why are you here? Great artists have a wide perspective and are keen for you to see their work, and many of them have big things to say about the world, you just have to be willing to engage with them.
Or so I would have liked to have said to my acquaintance.