In my high school art class, we were tasked by our substitute teacher with creating a piece of artwork in any medium on whatever subject we wanted. Like most things in life, if someone is given complete freedom to create something without any framework or guidelines, inspiration fails. If I had been told to paint the sunset, or a tree, or even the school’s outdated gym uniforms, I would at least have had something to work with. But, as it was, I had nothing but my…the cliché here is to say “imagination,” but the truth is that even my imagination was an empty resource. I had nothing to work with because I had everything to work with. Should I paint the tree outside the artroom window? What about the flower pot over in the corner? A self-portrait? A chimp? I was a blank slate, inspired by everything, but creating nothing.
We had a week to complete the project. By the deadline, I still had nothing. Oh, sure, I worked on several different things just to look busy and keep the teacher happy. But I had nothing that was really going to work. I simply had too much freedom.
So, in a scramble, I decided freedom would be the theme of the week. I took a blank matte, painted it over with white primer, and stenciled in the word “Freedom” in very small letters in the bottom right corner of the matte. Nothing else. I then turned it in.
The teacher thought I was playing a joke (which, of course, I was). But I explained my problem, and how the lack of guidelines (freedom) inspired nothing but a void in my mind, the total blank slate, which I represented in my “painting.” The teacher, of course, being the true artist she was, accepted the work on the spot.
For years, this experience taught me everything I needed to know about Modern art. The formula was simple: take any bunch of materials (but extra points if you used traditional cultural symbols in a subversive way), throw them together, come up with a nonsense explanation, and presto! you have art. The point was to stretch boundaries, be avant garde, do something different. The composition didn’t have to be pretty or beautiful to be considered art; you simply had to have an unorthodox message behind the medium.
For a long, long time, I had little respect for those who wrapped their messages in such artistic nonsense. And it went beyond the Modern artists; all artists who fancied themselves cultural commentators — those who believed they were holding the proverbial mirror up to society through their avant garde-edness — were held up for my special scorn. My biggest eye-roll came around the time I first heard of the “Piss Christ” fiasco, where Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix in a jar of urine. That was art? Subversion was the name of the game; a game of more absurdities than profundities.
But, like coffee, beer, or fine wine, my appreciation of Modern art’s beauty developed with age. Over the years, with more experience under my belt, I saw there was a real difference between the smart-alec art I produced in high school and the work of a Picasso, Dali, or Matisse. Besides the fact that they could actually paint, they were able to achieve a remarkable synthesis between their message and the medium. Even though some of their content was bizarre, the Modernists had something to say about the vices of their age, at least as they saw it, and they were quite willing to throw monkey dung at them to make their point. Whereas I simply produced snark or nonsense that reflected more about me than anything else, the Modernists captured the spirit of their age within a few brushstrokes.
To put it another way, there is a presence in Modernism’s art that communicates the passing of an era and the beginning of a new; the creation of a culture different from the one that went before, at least according to the technical definition of culture in which a people construct an identifiable cult of practices, beliefs, and symbols that can be named and observed. Modernism’s cult was based, among many other things of which I’m likely ignorant, on the reaction to Realism, the horror of trench warfare, and a compulsion to experiment with anything and everything under the sun. Modernists were the vanguard of a new era, an era that embraced innovation over tradition, compassion over rigidity, authenticity over etiquette. No matter how you feel about their values, witnessing this movement expressed within a few brushstrokes of paint is undeniably exhilarating — how did the artist squeeze all those principles and feelings within a 5×7 foot frame? How did they manage to represent a culture so well? My work achieved a passable grade; their work defined an age.
This seems to be one purpose of art — to express, create, or even herald the characteristics of the new culture in the next age. Good art does this well; it captures our attention and directs our energies towards the realization of the artists vision (or, in the case of dystopic art, away from the fulfillment of the artist’s vision). Beyond the ugliness and sheer blasphemy of Piss Christ, I think one of the reasons the photograph struck such a nerve is that people (especially those in the church) were worried the vision just may herald a defining mark of a new age: one in which God was not only ignored, but pissed on.
I bring all this up so that you, dear reader, can empathize with my startled reaction to the “Modern Lab,” a small gallery within the Modernist exhibit in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., where I got to pretend I was sophisticated and cultured on a recent visit. The gallery specializes in cutting-edge work from top-flight artists around the world. The title of the current exhibit was “Nothing to see here” and presented the viewer with various riffs on “nothingness.” When entering the gallery, I was struck first by an 8-foot tall black monolith leaning against a white wall. My interest was piqued in so far as the monolith recalled 2001: A Space Odyssey. I kept expecting those monkeys who discovered tools for the first time to appear and start throwing their….well, you know. No monkeys materialized, much to my disappointment.
To the right of the no-monkey-monolith was a piece entitled “North Pacific Ocean, Stinson Beach,” by Hiroshi Sugimoto, using something called “gelatin silver print” for his medium. OK, I thought, time for a beach scene. I like beach scenes! But instead of rolling blues waves stretching across a horizon all the way to never-never land, I was confronted with a framed piece of glossy, utterly black photograph paper. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but as far I my unrefined eyes could tell, there was no texture, no variation in color, no nothing. Just blackness.
All the works in the exhibit were much the same. “Nothing to see here,” indeed. The introductory placard on the gallery wall told me that many of the works evoked “invisibility or immateriality,” and required “extraordinary patience to view.” Some poor teenager in the exhibit with me spent several long minutes staring at the “Beach,” obviously desperate the “art” in the artwork would make itself visible. No such luck, though.
The gallery reminded me of my pseudo-edginess in high school art class. Sugimoto’s “Beach,” in particular, struck me as one of those provocative art pieces whose only real quality is that it provoked. Looking at it was like watching a music video from Lady Gaga. It was art only in the sense that it was pushing boundaries.
But what boundaries was it pushing? With the original Modernists like Picasso, you could point to tangible artistic tastes, political issues, or traditions which marked off the boundaries they subverted. They were breaking the dominant aesthetic sensibilities of their various cultural traditions, often using those sensibilities against themselves, in order to make a point about something they believed in. But what cultural traditions was Sugimoto flaunting?
Truth is, I’m not sure Sugimoto has any boundaries to flaunt or rules to break. There is a part of me that believes Sugimoto tried to pass off “Beach” to the artworld like I tried to pass off “Freedom” in my art class. After the Modernist revolution, after “Piss Christ,” after Lady Gaga, there aren’t many rules left to flaunt or boundaries to push. Like me, Sugimoto simply had too much freedom to do as he pleased, supported by a society that said “Do what thou wilt; we’ll support it!” So when Sugimoto held up the proverbial mirror to society, I wonder if he became cramped with artist’s block. After all, if an artist’s job is to stir the pot and disturb the peace (as the popular bumper sticker says), what does an artist create when the pot has been stirred enough?
There is something disturbing about a professional artist who creates nothing. It says something about us, I think, that the most current art displayed in our nation’s capital is about nothing. And it goes beyond the possibility that artists have already pushed our civilization’s norms and mores well past the breaking point; rather, it points to something about us, as a society, as a people who should be producing a culture with identifiable rituals, beliefs, and symbols. An artist who holds up the proverbial mirror to our culture and portrays nothing raises the possibility that there is nothing about our culture worth portraying.
As many of us have come to realize, we’re living in the Age of Relativism in which the prime objective of the media-academic-political complex is to strip away all powers and authorities so power and authority can’t be abused. Virtue and vice have been done away with, because the virtuous offend the vicious. No, that’s not true. Irony is still celebrated as virtue, since it mocks all rules and authorities and contributes to the building of the ironic utopia where John Stewart and Steven Colbert rule as kings.
And so I wonder if Hiroshi Sugimoto tried to pass off “Beach” to the artworld like I tried to pass off “Freedom.” Left to create in an ironic world with no boundaries, no rules, indeed no culture to respond to, Sugimoto had no boundaries to push nor no traditions to provoke or offend. He was left with quite nothing, and so he portrayed just that with his “Beach.” If this was his intention, then it is a rather brilliant statement on our times.
In our world, this pseudo-culture, we’re given more or less total freedom to create and express ourselves. And yet the most current art the museum in America’s capital decides to feature is based on nothingness. With total freedom, to do just as we see fit, we create nothing.
It is all reminiscent of those fickle people in ancient Israel who had no king or priest or prophets to point them in right direction. Rudderless, without signs or guideposts, every man did only what was right in his own eyes, just as he or she saw fit. They were free; they did what they wanted. But rather than producing an admirable culture to remember for the ages, they went tribal and became known more for stories like the one about the religious leader who lends his mistress out to violent rapists and then, disgusted, has her chopped up into a dozen pieces just to make a point.
Without any representatives to guide Israel into a recognition of truth, goodness, and beauty, she had no reference point to fuel her productive or creative energies. She had no arbiter, no judge, indeed no god who set the boundaries for her people to explore. Instead, they fashioned crude make-your-own gods out of clay and mud, and ordained leaders who slept with whores and started wars. These are not the things that produce good culture.
And so I wonder what it means when current artists band together to create a gallery dedicated to nothing. What does it say about us that, after they hold up the proverbial mirror, the only thing our artists have to say is: Nothing to see here?
I imagine the answers to this question are legion. But, if I were to hazard my own, I would say:
Without God, there is no art.