Big Planet

Absurd objects

In critique on June 25, 2009 at 12:45 pm

What to make of a film that makes you want to leave the cinema? Or a poem made up of numbers? Would you buy an invisible painting? What is their worth to a viewer or reader who innocently goes to an exhibit, reads a text or watches a film only to become an unwilling witness of the existence of such artifacts as a blank poem, or a motion picture on freeze frame from beginning to end? Of course, we can put all this to the level of theory and academic discourse, no problem.

But if you were to bring only one worthy art object or literary work with you on an island, would that ultra avant-garde piece have any chance of being chosen? The island, of course, is just a rhetorical device, but I suppose there’s always this one object or work in our life sufficient and inexhaustible enough to accompany us to our death.

The island hypothesis removes a work’s “excess baggage” of criticism, commentary and theory, allowing it to operate without the aura of institutional importance. I don’t know what to call it, but whatever is left after you remove all the excess baggage — its essence, core, substance, form, matter, haecceity, quidditas, radiance, ousia, hypokeimenon, etc. — is an index to the personal worth of a piece.

Will you honestly be happy to be stranded with Duchamp’s urinal, for instance? Unless you recognize in the work some cult value or aura (see Perloff on the aura of “Fountain”), then I suppose you’d still be happy to let the urinal accompany you. But let’s say you have a canvas with only a black dot on the center, a work by a famous artist extolled in the most reputable art journals. Its status as art has been defended staunchly by the fiercest and most intelligent critics in the field. Now you have that entire cathedral of theories to support that what is in your possession—a black dot—is a work of genius, because it interrogates the true meaning of art itself, questions the process of creating meanings, unsettles the viewer about what art should be, etc. Then suddenly you’re stranded on an island and a wish-giving mechanism can only grant you one book, poem or object of beauty to marvel at until you die. Are conceptual and theoretical intentions enough for that object to be chosen? Does it stand a chance?

Saying “yes” will not necessarily be a counterpoint, because it will only refute the very framework that made them socially significant in the first place. It seems to me that refusing the work is a more logical decision in the eye of the paradigm that institutionalized it, more in keeping with the object’s assault on meaning, tradition and establishment. Saying no is consistent with the purpose of that object, but saying no is also a kind of confession that the artifact has absolutely no personal worth.

What about the simple reader or viewer? By simple, we mean not giving a damn about that excess baggage of content outside the content—the dialogues, the discourse woven around the piece. These are people who want to confront the work for what it is, because their concern is something else other than being radical or avant-garde. When they confront this bombardment of absurdity, it is perfectly acceptable for them to reject. Rejection is a healthy and legitimate response. And when they do, I hope manufacturers of such artifacts will have the decency to not call the audience stupid.

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