Conservative Tastes

Legislating the Art World

What passes for artistic work these days.

By From the November 2010 issue

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In art news this month, a Brazilian artist named Gil Vicente has rocketed to international fame by exhibiting, as part of the Sao Paulo Art Biennial, a series of drawings depicting himself in the act of assassinating various world leaders and ex-world leaders, including the pope, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, and (inevitably, I suppose) former president George W. Bush. According to the London Daily Telegraph, "The series, called Inimigos (Enemies), is meant to highlight alleged crimes for which the leaders have been directly or indirectly responsible by imagining that they are being made to pay the price." Or, as Mr. Vicente himself puts it, "Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favor to kill them, understand? Why don't people in power and in the elite die?" The answer, if we pretend for a moment that he really wants an answer, is of course that Mr. Vicente is not an actual assassin but only an artist, which is to say (these days) a fantasist whose job it is to produce the sort of fantasy which will resonate sufficiently with the world's media culture to win him fame and fortune. With the carefully calculated shock of his assassination drawings he has clearly found such a fantasy -- though Nicholson Baker beat him to it by six years in the case of President Bush, with his novel Checkpoint.

Ho hum. There is a manufactured quality to the "outrage" of such essentially conceptual art -- increasingly the only art we have. Like Martin Kippenberger's crucified frog in Zuerst die Fuesse (Feet First) or Jesus receiving oral sex in "Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals" by Enrique Chagoya (no relation to Francisco Goya) which, together with similar rubbish, I keep up with through the regular bulletins of Bill Donohue's Catholic League -- an organization almost Christ-like in its willingness to take upon itself a perpetual state of outrage on our behalf -- this is so obviously created only to provoke that you've got to wonder at the gullibility (if that's what it is) of those who continue to enrich both the provokers and the media's messengers of their provocation by insisting on being provoked by it. It's almost enough to make you sympathize with the Muslims whose violent ways -- for all the tragic harm they cause to the innocent and artists like Molly Norris, the cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly whose bright idea for an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" has ended with her disappearance (she has "gone ghost") for security reasons -- at least must prevent a great many talentless and pipsqueak "artists" from making a living out of becoming professional blasphemers.

One interesting thing about Mr. Vicente's assassination art is its residual connection, however tenuous, to reality. It would not exist at all if the figures of the fantasy assassin's victims were not recognizable as real people, and people whose actual assassination would be even more sensational news than that of an otherwise obscure Brazilian artist's simply fantasizing about it. The recognizable part of the drawings must also stand in for such reality as their political fantasy can claim. We know that there are such people as the queen and the pope and President Bush -- Mr. Vicente's other imaginary victims include President Lula da Silva of Brazil and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan -- even though the idea of them as mass murderers is ridiculous to anyone with an even slightly firmer tether to reality. So to characterize them, however, identifies the artist as a worker in two different kinds of fantasy simultaneously: both the artistic kind and the political kind. The two depend on one another. Without pundits who have already found their own path to a mostly limited sort of fame through calling, or coming close to calling, the former president a murderer, the artist who did so would merely be a lunatic of no news value to the media.

When Shelley (following Dr. Samuel Johnson) called his fellow poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" he was pointing to what we would call, in present-day terms, the phenomenon of high culture leading low culture. It was the poets, artists, and philosophers of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement who were pointing the way -- and a narrow and difficult way it often was -- for the progressives of their day engaged in the humbler arts of journalism and political propaganda. Nowadays, the relationship between politicians and publicists on the one hand and the more prestigious kind of arts on the other has been reversed. It is not the high end of artistic production that gets converted into politics but the low end of politics that gets converted into such artistic production as we still have. Crude as the leftism of the Nation or the New York Review of Books often is, it has so far stopped short of assassination fantasies and other such monkeyshines, so far as I know. That kind of thing is left to the artists, like Mr. Vicente, or novelists, like Nicholson Baker, or filmmakers like Michael Moore, who have hoovered up the leavings of their thought along with other pop cultural odds and ends and so found a great way to recycle them as allegedly artistic gestures to titillate, frighten, or shock their more sober fellow citizens.

We must have known this was happening, I guess, when "outrageous," "insane," "sick," and (of course) "bad" became synonyms for "good." But such shocking reversals couldn't have happened if art had not already been reduced to gestures that nobody expected to express anything but raw feeling, if that. A few spoke out against Mr. Baker's assassination fantasy back in 2004, but I doubt that many will bother protesting against Mr. Vicente's -- except maybe in Brazil, where the outgoing President Lula is still said to be immensely popular. For the same reason, Tipper Gore's now long-ago crusade against raunchy pop and rap lyrics seems like a quaint relic of the 1980s -- even to most conservatives, I imagine. The lyrics are no less raunchy, but people have grown used to them and now take them seriously only as art, insofar as art can be taken seriously anymore, and not as outrage.

SPEAKING OF TAKING THEM seriously as art, a year or so ago I wrote -- following some protests from readers about my censure of the New York Times for treating the video game Grand Theft Auto as a work of art (see "Grand Larceny" in The American Spectator of June 2008) -- asking if anyone could show me a case for treating rap or hip hop "poetry" on a level with, well, real poetry. I was reacting to a negative and typically unhelpful review in the New York Times Book Review of a book by an English professor called Adam Bradley titled Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, and none other than Professor Bradley himself wrote to me, sending me a copy of his book. As he is obviously a charming and intelligent as well as a generous man, I wish I could say I had been persuaded by him that the rappers he admires -- including Rakim, Jay-Z, and Tupac Shakur, for instance, who (he says) "deserve consideration alongside the giants of American poetry" -- were the unacknowledged legislators of our own era. Or even that they were as witty, profound, or linguistically inventive as your average giant of American poetry. But although the professor makes an interesting if not inarguable case that the rhythms, rhymes, and other formal features of the hip hoppers' verse are not utterly discontinuous with the traditions of English poetry, he has hardly a word to say about its content which, judging from his own examples, is never anything other than boastful accounts of the rappers' own auto-inebriation or intoxication, their sexual exploits, their (mostly fanciful) violent acts, their cars, and their jewelry.

That's good enough for artistic work these days, I guess. Andy Warhol was in this, as in so many other ways, the pioneer, the first to see how art could become parasitic on the publicity industry and the trashiest sort of popular culture to the benefit of both. Art continued to enjoy the cachet it had retained from the days when it actually had something of importance to say while shedding some of its own derivative glory upon the Campbell's soup tins and the repeated silk-screen images of Marilyn or Liz. Without Warhol, there would never have been a Mad Men to enliven our Sunday evenings with the conceit, which even he might have found shocking, of advertising (N.B., not rap) as the great American art form. Now it's the spin doctors and publicists and their media offshoots who are the unofficial, though hardly unacknowledged, legislators of the world. They lead the way that both the titular legislators -- and magistrates -- and artists like Matthew Weiner, inventor of Mad Men, are content to follow, ever in awe of their monkey-tricks. Well, why not? These are the nearest things we have to contemporaneously produced artistic beauty anymore. 

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.