Thursday, 27 March 2014

That's not art - that's sick. Yes, it is

'Nexus Vomitus', Millie Brown
It seems that someone has finally worked out how to spew up onto paper and then call it Art.

Now admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Millie Brown until spotting a Guardian story online earlier this week, but since we’ve had piss and shit labelled as Art previously, plus assorted other bodily fluids, it was inevitable.

Brown, who has collaborated with Lady Gaga, gives performances where she drinks milk coloured with food additives – and then vomits it up onto paper to make ‘a rainbow’. Well, splodges of colour.

It was the sort of article that provoked a sizable response – not least for it having taken Brown’s claims that she makes Art quite so seriously.

On the other hand, responding to someone saying that it wasn’t ‘art’, another poster noted: “One of the values of art is to broaden the possibilities of thought – you seem to have skipped this altogether.”

Well, I can’t speak for the person that they responded to, but saying that this is, err, shit doesn’t mean that you’ve lost the ability to be broad-minded about art.

Refusing to make a critical judgment on something – while all the while condemning those who make a negative one – shows a lack of personal responsibility on an intellectual level. Nobody has to make a judgment, but if they choose not to, they shouldn’t condemn others who do and whine that it’s just because critics don’t ‘understand’ it.

What Brown does doesn’t ‘offend’ me, but it strikes me that this is yet another example of the infantilising impact of commercialisation, the cult of the celebrity, the Warhollian search for those 15 minutes and the dumbing-down of our culture as a whole.

To be fair, the quoted poster was not altogether alone: after all, this was the Guardian, where some people do tend rather to get off their dreadfully right-on lack of any discernment or taste: or relativism, as it’s known.

Brown’s oeuvre has been condemned as celebrating bulimia, which begs the question of what you’re supposed to be opened minded about if her performances are about that particular eating disorder: does the idea that it can create ‘rainbows’ make it somehow beautiful?

Perhaps the best that can be said about it is just how good it makes Jackson Pollock’s works look.

Brown – and others – seem set on provoking shock and sensation. One might say ‘good luck’ to her if the gullible give her money for it (although what such performances do to your health remains to be seen).

'Departure' by Max Beckmann, 1932-35 – 'degenerate'
But attempts to manufacture sensation in art seem particularly facile when considered alongside news of an exhibition currently on in New York.

The Neue Galerie near FifthAvenue is playing host to Degenerate Art, an exhibition of some of the works that featured in the Nazis’ infamous Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937.

It’s been curated to include examples of the Nazi-acceptable art that were shown in an opposing exhibition, and which only serve to show just how good so much of what was considered ‘degenerate’ really was.

Yet however much senior Nazis officially abided by Hitler’s hatred of the modern, many took the opportunity to grab for themselves pieces of this art.

And the crowds throughout Nazi Germany gazed in their millions on that which had been declared degenerate, while pretty much leaving alone an exhibition of the F├╝hrer-sanctioned variety.

'The Four Elements' by Adolf Ziegler, 1937 – approved
It was art that, when you think of it in its historic context, reflected the extraordinary changes that were taking place in Western life in the early decades of the 20th century – psychoanalysis, the decline in religious belief, growth of technology, the increasing emancipation of women and the moves by increasing numbers beyond the narrow confines of the home, and so much more that had the power to unsettle.

Little wonder that it disturbed.

And indeed, the Nazi-sanctioned art was, in part, an attempt to hold back the tide of change.

Perhaps my response to Brown’s attempts to shock reveal only a jaded palate – although I think not.

It does all beg the old question of the role of art: is it simply to shock?

You can provoke without shocking – it does require a tad more subtlety, though.

British artist Dave White has a new exhibition on that actually manages to be modern, reflect rather more traditional artistic skill than Brown, and are actually worth looking at.

'Great White Shark II' by Dave White
His series of paintings of sharks and other creatures are in watercolour, but are a departure from what some might see as the conventionally ‘twee’ nature of that medium, as he himself points out.

He uses the paint in a very free way and allows dripping and splashing to add a feel of movement and energy to his works.

Yet these are completely figurative and the effect actually works intriguingly well by giving the paintings a sense of having been executed at incredible pace.

White is indicative of an artistic world well beyond installations in galleries that survive on a diet of shock; of painting that is both traditional but not.

He isn’t collaborating with Lady Gaga, but his work has much more to say, and does so in a way that provokes attention and thought more interestingly than a stream of vomited milk.

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