• Controversy As Canvas: Critiquing A Dead Horse

Art is anything you can get away with.
—Marshal McLuhan

I love to be manipulated which is why I look at art. But consensual manipulation is always preferable and we seem to be in an era where that isn’t always a given.

Can we talk?

As I tell my students, don’t get married to an art crisis. They’re like buses, there’s always another one coming. I also tell studio classes, pointing towards the door, that “if it’s illegal out there it’s illegal in here”. No artist immunity. As a veteran of the culture wars (I was working in New York during the Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley, Frank Moore et al., vs. the NEA epoch), I can’t imagine anyone wanting to go through that. But I learned some twenty years ago that there are plenty of people who thrive on crisis. The codependence between an art martyr and the likes of Jessie Helms and Dana Rohrabacher was painfully conspicuous.

Codependency is a tricky thing. It’s not just a clinical term describing addictive behavior, it can also be an agreed upon or tacit contract. Britney and the paparazzi, Democrats and Republicans, the wildebeest and the lioness. Me and everyone I know.

And it keeps on happening. The banality of it all makes me want to scream. But instead, let’s sit quietly and ask some long overdue questions.

As I write this, the conveyor belts’ latest model (enabled by another codependence - between the artist and the media) is Aliza Shvarts’ piece. For her graduate show at Yale, Shvarts inseminated herself and then ”...periodically took abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages”. I read this on the Drudge Report. The Drudge Report. Subsequently, Ms Shvarts was either intimidated or had planned to announce that it was a HOAX, capital everything. The damage (or success?) will define her future.

I don’t know the exact school year where graduate shows went from being a party for the students and their parents to being the object of reviews by major art publications looking for the next hot tamale. Maybe that’s art school’s exit lesson: The lust for fame is a necessary vulgarity in any artist’s career. God knows more than a few auteurs have incorporated that process into their work. But desperation has a certain scent that can make the sweetest flower rancid and needs to be rationed out with a delicate intentionality. I love shock for shock’s sake. The same goes for gratuitous weirdness - The Residents, Matthew Barney, Marie Osmond. “Insolitus gratia insolitus”, that’s what I say! Even more so when an artist recognizes the imperative responsibly of a well thought out world view, a good press agent and a solid insurance policy. But we’re seeing that sense of consequence less and less.

The penultimate art world scandal was SFAI’s Adel Abdessemed’s Don’t Trust Me exhibition that recently streaked across the radar in late March. The piece featured footage of six edible animals being slaughtered with a hammer. Was it any good? I don’t know because I didn’t see it. Nobody did. Ewwwwew. Yes, gross. Gross and boring. The show and any public forums were swiftly canceled because of blood curdling, credible terrorist threats. The school considers it a dead issue. I don’t think so though, and feel we’re compelled to learn something, anything from the calamity.

Slaughterhouse films (Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, Chamber’s The Heart Of London, Wiseman’s Slaughterhouse) are pretty much a genre unto themselves, and graduated to cliché in the 60’s with the Mondo movie fad. All seem to include a token animal sacrifice, including the mother of all shockumentaries, Mondo Cane* with its decapitation of a bull that subsequently was appropriated by no less than Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now’s coda.

But as McLuhan also points out, today’s cliché is tomorrow’s archetype and the controversy canvas probably isn’t going away. If it’s slouching toward being an -ism, shouldn’t we demand a common, formal, critical vocabulary? Nam June Paik observed, “There is good boring art, and there is bad boring art”. Should we make such a distinction for those who’ve chosen the mantle of “scaring the horses”?

Talk amongst yourselves and have a report on my desk next Monday. Oh, and remember, we always have the option of not giving a damn.

* For further study, I recommend The Godfathers of Mondo by David Gregory, a thorough and astonishing documentary about Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the directors of the first two Mondo Cane’s and Africa Addio. Jacopetti and Prosperi were eventually so successful, they became internationally wanted criminals for simulating(?) carnage a little too well. Food for thought for those who are so urgently demanding our attention.


— Natalie Welch is a retired writer living in Carmel, CA and was a frequent contributor to Video '80, Send and Video Networks magazines in the previous two decades. During that time she was also a tenured driving instructor at UC Santa Cruz. She has come out retirement to present this piece for Stretcher.