Notes on Art and Culture #5

by Darby Bannard

Some who have read my essay on Jeff Koons think that I changed my mind about the quality of his work. I didn't. I changed my attitude toward it. I decided not to look at it as art because as art it isn't so good. However, It is perfectly OK as "fun objects", or whatever you may want to call it, so I figured why not see it that way? Why look at it as art and get all hot and bothered? That's all I meant to say.

Bad art is forever; it will always be with us. There's not much can be done about it. But in all honesty it is not the bad art itself that bothers us so much, it is that so many people insist that bad art is really good art and go for it in such a big way.

When truly bad art, art that, unlike what Koons does, is really assertively awful ("inhuman" is not too strong a word sometimes) began to edge into permanent vogue back in the 60s and 70s in an art world which had become pathetically prone to delusion I became alarmed, and in the 80s I commenced writing diatribes about it in magazines such as Artforum and Arts Magazine. (If you are interested check out Walter Darby Bannard Archive)

People complimented me on the writing, and the magazine editors seemed to eat it up, but I began to notice that the general reaction was not to take exception to what I wrote, which I had expected, but to shy away from it. Instead of provoking opposition it seemed to generate an odd kind of cold fear. Artists I had written positively about dropped my essays from their CVs. Curators somehow forgot to cite the writing or include it in the bibliographies of the catalogs of survey shows. It was not cited or reprinted in books specifically designed to be critical of the art business. I was no longer asked to lecture at colleges. I am told that a recent book of Artforum writing of the time omits any mention.

Gradually it dawned on me that calling out bad art, particularly with my brand of acidulous vituperation, was just stupid. It didn't do me any good. It didn't do art any good. It didn't change anything. It simply made people uncomfortable. It was a waste of time.

So I stopped writing, got a job as chair of an art department, painted and occasionally sold paintings at my leisure, and watched, with relative equanimity, as art went from bad to worse, fatally infecting academia (or vice-versa) as it became a world-wide billion dollar business selling preposterous objects for huge amounts of money.

I stopped reading art magazines and stayed away from art on the internet. I only looked at art that seemed visually interesting. When I felt crotchety I crossed swords with postmodernist bloggers on Franklin Einspruch's excellent, and recently, when that changed, John and I started Life was good and still is.

Well, something has disturbed that pondered tranquility. Something has me pissed, something I cannot write about with the casual irony of the detatched observer. It is not inane videos, jargon-ridden critics, misguided political ranting, inept painters, religious desecration, blood and gore, feces-smearing, self mutilation or freaky sex. That sort of desperation is long since commonplace in contemporary art. No, none of that.

It is a man in China who breaks beautiful things.

I had heard of Ai Wei Wei (pronounced "aye way way", I believe) but my habit of avoiding the larger art world whenever possible kept me from knowing much about him until a colleague sent me pictures of him dropping and smashing an ancient and beautiful Han Dynasty urn. This act of vandalism, carried out in 1995, apparently helped bring him fame, and he followed up by dipping 5000 year old Neolithic jars in bright industrial paint, grinding classic Chinese ceramic vessels into dust, cutting up and rejoining elegant Ming Dynasty tables and much else.

The art world, in its craven obsequiousness to any brazen stunt taken in the name of art, met this cultural execration with the usual hackneyed art-cult gibberish: "Interrogations of Chinese culture", " ... engaged in a deep dialog with art history, ceramics and craft.", "In the ceramic tradition but satisfying on visceral and theoretical levels ...", " ... oblique but biting commentary", " ... blurring the boundries" and so forth.

He is now an industry of sorts, like Koons in that respect, so he can afford to smash precious things and do whatever else he feels like. The results are not original or much to look at. He employs the by now exhausted postmodern devices of gigantism (100 million ceramic "seeds" in a 5-ton pile) and repetition (hundreds of identical vessels lined up in regular rows), and the like. The work is imposing, theatrical and dull, and not at all, to draw the comparison again, wacky, cheerful and playful like Koons'.

Wei Wei keeps himself in hot water as a kind of calculated exercise, by periodically defying Chinese bureaucracy, poking them in the eye and getting punished for it in various non-fatal ways. It is all carefully publicized and plays naturally into the anti-establishment martyr role beloved by liberal westerners. He is by now a valuable property for China, bringing lots of money into the country, so I suspect that as a practical matter he and Chinese officialdom will continue to maintain a careful balance with these profitable public displays of dissidence.

The pots Wei Wei destroys are among the marvels of human civilization, evolved by countless generations of devoted craftsmen of astonishing skill over thousands of years, magically changing common earth into objects of wonder, things that delight the soul, things that show us at our best. I love them. If I had endless money my house would be full of them, and if one broke I would cry.

I am a libertarian, and I am as committed to human rights as anyone, and I know it's not cool to be not cool, to be "outraged". But I am. As far as I am concerned they should put the man in jail and throw away the key.

Ai Weiwei

Dropping Han
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, triptych of gelatin silver prints, each print 49 5/8 x 39 1/4 cm, courtesy private collection, USA

Tang Dynasty
Coca Cola Vase, 1997, vase from Tang Dynasty (618-907) and paint, 24 x 18 cm, courtesy Tsai Colletion, New York

neolithic pots
Colored Vases, 2006, neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) and paint, installation size: 50 x 200 cm, in different sizes, height ranges from 9-31 cm

neolithic pots
Colored Vases, 2006, vases from the Neolithic age (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint, between 10" x diameter 9" and 14 1/2" x diameter 9 1/2", courtesy AW Asia collection, New York

Ming Table
Table with Three Legs, 2006, table from the late Ming or Early Qing Dynasty (1368-1911), 116 x 115.5 x 115.5 cm, collection Mr. Qiao Zhibing

Qing Table
Table with Two Legs on the Wall, 1997, table from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 90.5 x 118 x 122 cm

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