Monday, May 7, 2012

Yes… But is it Art?

[I know this is old. It comes from my overflowing collection of articles I've read and wanted to post during my recent blogging hiatus. Better late than never!]

While preparing for my lecture on 20th century modern art (delivered last month), I came across Morley Safer's 1993 60 Minutes story in my "blog ideas" file. In his exposé, Safer poked some fun at the state of contemporary art (at least, "contemporary" as folks back then defined the term).


• An auctioneer trying to figure out whether one painting - a majestic sheet of flat color - is actually horizontal or vertical.

• An interview with former commodities broker-turned-art-phenom Jeff Koons explaining the difference between his off-the-shelf vacuum cleaner and one bought at the local Sears: "This work would be a signed work by myself, or would have a letter of authenticity."

• An art collector explaining the value of monochrome painter Robert Ryman's white canvas: "He's a 'minimal artist.'" Safer's droll reply: "I would say so."

According to 60 Minutes, "Yes… But is it Art?" is one of their most controversial stories. Why? Well, because Safer so clearly identifies with the clucks of American philistines. He makes no effort to understand the trajectory of ideas that led to some of these pieces. Not even a hat-tip to Duchamp during the "urinals" portion of the story. Moreover, his interviews with "I-don't-get-it" museum-goers have all the insight of a Campbell's soup label ("I could have done that!" "I don't understand it all!" etc.). Really? Are we so surprised? And, of course, one can exclaim that the emperor is wearing no clothes only so many times, not that Safer has any problem repeating himself to make his point. Still… it's hard not to grasp his larger thesis, that contemporary art - having little to do with "modern art," one might add - is less about aesthetics and mostly about commerce.

Check it out: Morley Safer's infamous 1993 art story: Yes… But is it Art?

Want more Safer cynicism? Morley Safer's 2012 return to the scene of the crime: Art Market

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