There is a scene in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, 1999, when Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) says to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) ‘do you want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?’ From the standpoint of an aesthetics of contemporary art this is actually quite a significant scene.
Who knows perhaps it has even influenced the newest generation of fine artists, if exhibitions such as Documenta 12 and the 5th Berlin Biennial are anything to go by. Anyhow, here is the actual scene, I can’t embed it so click here:
Here is another variation from an insensitive unbeliever with the philistine title “the most beautiful thing I have ever filmed … not”
video by allending
But the next YouTube contribution preserves some of the original poetry:
video by cjbuttgen06
But is not it blasphemous to refer to these YouTube videos—which really must be absolute nadir of artistic endeavour, made by anyone for anyone—as in any sense Art? Because we all know that Art, even writing the word makes my heart pound, is something that transcends; something that ordinary people simply do not have the sensitivity to experience, or knowledge to understand. Those great critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried taught us that Art is something that exists on another plane. Well, actually, the art gallery seems to be the main place that Art exists in. Maybe the art gallery is on another plane, it certainly has enough security guards.
In spite of the fact that American Beauty is only a film, or more exactly a “movie” (ugh!)— and all true fine art aesthetes know that movies can never be truly art—the particular sequence in American Beauty that I am alluding to does have subtantial significance in terms of the aesthetics of contemporary art. For example, one might say that the following example of putative High Culture or Fine Art might be ‘the most beautiful thing one has ever heard’:
This instance of contemporary art recently showcased at the 5th Berlin Biennial is an homage to the genius of the High Cultural guru John Cage’s famous “composition” 4’33”, 1952. As I pointed out in an earlier post on this work Manon De Boer homage to 4’33” was treated by the exhibition’s curators like a religious icon. But all this person is doing is replicating what went before. Of course classical musicians do this all the time, but in De Boer’s case it is being framed as fine art. Proof of this came at the end of the performance of Cage’s 4’33” when De Boer ingeniously—or better, ingenuously—transposes 4’33” into video art by panning her video camera outside the window for 4 minutes 33 seconds. Sheer genius you might say.
The difference between the paper bag blowing around in American Beautyand 4 minutes 33 seconds of boring video is principally that one is in an art gallery which is, culturally, a much more upmarket environment than the cinema. Or so we are led to believe, by the institutional power wrought by the fine art system. There is certainly some urgent need for a Foucauldian analysis of the art world.
But from a philosophical point of view what is most interesting about the intersection of American Beauty and 4’33” is the notion that anything can be called art. And of course the person who invented this notion was Marcel Duchamp. Now it would be too easy just to dismiss the phenomenological implications of 4’33” because there is no doubt that we can have significant aesthetic experiences in everyday life. The problem is that such experiences eventually might become more fulfilling than the ones one has in an art gallery. And confronted with exhibitions such as Documenta 12 and the 5th Berlin Biennial this appears to be increasingly the case.
One might as well save one’s money by not forking out for that airfare and hotel in Berlin and looking instead at paper bags dancing around in the street. Even better take a video of them and you will be an artist as good as a significant portion of those in exhibitions such as the 5th Berlin Biennial or Documenta 12. But of course you would not be in one of those prestigious exhibitions, and until you are you are not an artist. To be an artist in the current generation (preferably born after 1975) you have to be in the scene and make it into a significant commercial gallery or exhibition. In the “anything goes” scenario it is not what you make that is important but how you can present your practice as cool within the newest art scene. Best thing would be to move to Berlin, London, New York or Los Angeles.
Thea Djordjadze (right) and Andreas Rheise (left) at Studio Voltaire, London, on the occasion of La Chambré de Voltaire, 3 June 2005. Organised by Markus Vater and Studio Voltaire.
So, yes, anything can be beautiful: one can just fold a piece of white paper into quarters, unfold it and stare at its beauty. I mean that sincerely. But as Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) proved, it is not art until it is acknowledged as such within the institutional confines of the fine art scene. And so it is succeeding in that scene that becomes the real proof of talent. This is the new skill set that aspiring artists require. You don’t need to be able to paint, draw, sculpt, photograph or video with any extraordinary skill, you just need to want to be in that scene, and be socially and politically adept enough (cool enough) to pull it off.
And another aspect of the institutional theory of art which I am pursuing here is that—as I observed in a previous post—the viewer, the gallery visitor, is utterly insignificant in terms of the politics of the artworld because the viewer not only has no role as consumer, as in the other arts (music, literature, theatre etc.) but also has no voice. The exhibition reviews we read in trade magazines such as Frieze and Artforum are written from within the confines of the art system. I have been co-editor of an art magazine (Eyeline) in Australia and I know how difficult it is for such a magazine to survive. Magazines such as Frieze and Artforum depend upon advertising, to the point were 50% of their content is advertising. Frieze also ensures its continued existence by organising the major London art fair. One can hardly expect genuinely critical writing in the context of such economic imperatives. Only the newspaper critics, in the UK at least (e.g. Adrian Searle of the Guardian, Richard Dorment of the Telegraph), seem to have the independence to give a response that is both informed and critical. Newspaper critics in the USA seem less critical, and one wonders why this is the case.
Thank God for blogs.