Monday, July 7, 2008

But Is It Art?

Among the dogmas of modern intellectual life we find this one: reality is socially constructed. If you are out of touch with reality, this idea is a godsend.

Applied to gender, it sounds like this: "man" and "woman" only bear the most tenuous relationship to biological differences. They have been constructed by the male power elite in order to oppress women.

If mothering, for example, is a social construct, then the behaviors that constitute it do not derive from any biological functions. Most of them could as easily be provided by non-females. Biology may provide the trigger, but the institution has developed according to an entirely different logic. It might really be a way to express power relationships.

It all resembles Freud's theory of dreams. Even if a dream is triggered by an alarm clock, its meaning has nothing to do with the external stimulus. For Freud dreams have a mind of their own. For social constructionists institutions do too.

Apply the same thought to a work of art. Is an object a work of art because everyone thinks and says it is or is it art because it shares an essential quality with other works of art?

Social constructionists will tell you that the discourse makes the work into art. In principle, and, nowadays, in practice, anything can be a work of art if it satisfies certain predicates:

1. It is hanging or standing (or has hung or stood) in a gallery or a museum.
2. It was signed or produced by someone who is considered to be an artist.
3. It evokes a specific emotional response, one that calms us, questions us, and induces contemplation, but does not incite us to act.
4. It provokes a certain amount of critical writing about what it means, what it does, and what it wants us to think.
5. If it is fine art, its status is greatly enhanced when someone spends a great deal of money to possess it.
6. It has no real use in the world.
7. It is not made to be consumed; thus, it is thought to be eternal.

Apply this to a dead fish. Say an artist takes a dead fish and suspends it in a vat of formaldehyde. He gives it a fancy metaphysical title: "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." A very important collector buys it from another very important collector for a large sum of money. The new owner lends it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, thus allowing the museum to consecrate it, to give it an imprimatur. Then the critics pop up to explain the meaning of the dead fish.

As you know, I am not talking about just any dead fish. This one is a tiger shark. It was placed in its vat by Damien Hirst. Hedge fund tycoon Steven Cohen, the head of SAC Capital, bought it from Charles Saatchi for $8,000,000.

Before the transaction was finalized, Hirst was obliged to replace the original tiger shark. The laws of biochemistry had taken out after the fish and were turning it into a pile of mush on the floor of its new aquarium. Reality bites ... even dead sharks.

Doesn't this sound like the Hans Christian Anderson story: "The Emperor's New Clothes?" And isn't that story the definitive refutation of social deconstructionism: the fact that everyone says the emperor is clothed in the finest finery does not make him less naked.

So, was a master of the universe ripped off by a mountebank? Did Steven Cohen exchange part of his vast fortune for a dead fish? Or else, has his action added a new meaning to the artwork?

Does the work not represent a rough justice where ill-gotten gains, amassed in finance and commerce, are redistributed to those who have access to a higher truth.

As a social activity Cohen's purchase resembles contributing a tithe to a church or even buying indulgences. Perhaps it allowed a big fish like Cohen to contemplate the error of his hedging. Perhaps it tells us that hedge fund operators are predators. What could be a better example of the ultimate predator than a tiger shark: this notorious man-eater doubles down on predation: it is both a tiger and a shark. Give Hirst credit for being clever. Give him credit for being brilliant. But is it art?

In the investment world, the question would be: is it a trade or an investment?

In other words, is there an intrinsic difference between a child's doodles and a Cy Twombly, between the Goldberg Variations and Mary Had a Little Lamb? Or does the only real difference lie in the way people have been induced to discuss the one or the other.

Collecting an object that has intrinsic value is surely a good thing. Otherwise, it is all just a trade.

No comments: