HOW BAD DOES MODERN ART STINK? Every two years since 1895 (war and such allowing) the Venice Biennale has gathered new masterpieces from around the world in a place and at a season where the reek of genius can be accurately compared to the warm weather aroma of the Grand Canal. Dr. Johnson defined art as "the power of doing something which is not taught by nature." What's in the canal is something nature teaches us to do from our first hours of infancy. It is as nothing to the power of art.
Like most sensible people, you probably lost interest in modern art about the time that Julian Schnabel was painting broken pieces of the crockery that his wife had thrown at him for painting broken pieces of crockery instead of painting the bathroom and hall. Or maybe you lost interest back when Andy Warhol silk-screened canned lunch for the kiddies and oddments from under the kitchen sink. There's been so much to be so uninterested in. And yet, astonishingly, modern art has gotten less interesting.
I didn't know this. I was more prepared to be irked than bored. The Biennale consists of national pavilions, mostly from Europe or Europe-aping countries. One or more brilliant creative types are selected to fly the flag. Given how Europeans feel about America, I doubted many of the flags flown would be the stars and stripes. There are also two curated shows, the largest in the Arsenale, the former Pentagon of Venice. The city-state projected its great military and commercial might from the Arsenale, which now sits empty between art shows nicely symbolizing progress of the arts, other than the arty ones, in Europe today: arts of manufacture, diplomacy, and war.
But I wander from the irksome subject at hand. The curators of the shows are, for the first time in 51 Biennales, women. Thus I expected to be Hectored, or I should say, Hecuba'd. Rosa Martinez and Maria de Corral are also from Spain, a nation that reacted to terrorism by promptly reverting to socialism at home and poltroonery abroad. Aren't those the preferred artistic policies? I assumed modern artists were all members of the great bohemian turkey flock of ardent individualists, looking up with beaks uniformly agape at identical high ideals of world peace, economic justice, ecological harmony, and government funding for the arts. Before my visit to the Biennale I supposed that all artists thought alike. It never occurred to me that they didn't think at all.
For example, German artist Gregor Schneider wanted to reproduce the Ka'bah of Mecca full scale in the Piazza San Marco. Imagine the delight of Islamic fundamentalists at slews of American cruise ship day trippers and half a million pigeons on hajj. Authorities in Venice demurred, and Schneider was reduced to playing with Photoshop on his Macintosh. (Although computer-generated artificial intelligence eludes us, artificial stupidity has been perfected.)
But most of the Biennale's thoughtlessness did not produce thoughts of potential consequence or (I've checked my notes) any thoughts at all. Mona Hatoum from Lebanon built a 10-foot wide circular sandbox with a pair of motorized blades mounted in the center. One blade raked ridges in the sand while the other smoothed them out--an automatic Zen garden, the lazy way to a perfectly empty mind. And Italy's Bruna Esposito scattered onion skins on marble floor tiles and, remarkably, did not title it "Get the Broom."
Dimbulb was more than a metaphor at the Biennale. It was often too dark in the galleries to read the names of the works and artists. As if I cared. Somebody put a bunch of portable typewriters missing most of their keys on school desks so that the thoughts of art-lovers could be thumb-tacked to the wall. I quote one verbatim: ". . . . ..8888889999993333." Someone else tied a blindfolded teddy bear to a stick in a room full of upholstery with the stuffing yanked out. It's not your-kid-can-do-this art. Your kid does this and you're on the phone to the child psychiatrist emergency help line.
Didacticism was to be found, of course. Argentinean Sergio Vega urged Biennale patrons to have their photograph taken next to a handcuffed mannequin with a burlap bag over its head. Alas for poor Pfc. Lynndie England, if only she'd been an aesthetic type. And the first thing I saw entering the Arsenale was manifestos from some U.S. art collective calling itself Guerrilla Girls. Among these was a parody of a coming-attractions poster: The Birth of Feminism starring Pamela Anderson as Gloria Steinem, Halle Berry as Flo Kennedy, etc. The tag line: "They made women's rights look good. Really good." As the Devil whispered to Rudyard Kipling (but recused himself from whispering to the Guerrilla Girls), "It's clever, but is it art?" Actually it's not clever. The Guerrilla Girls are too young to remember what a babe Gloria Steinem was. She made Pamela Anderson look like, well, Flo Kennedy. And the Guerrilla Girls are too old to realize how beside the point their point is.
Here's Indy driver Danica Patrick interviewed in Newsweek: "Are you the Gloria Steinem of racing?" "The what? I don't even know who that is."
Hanging beside the blather was a chandelier fashioned by Joana Vasconcelos from 14,000 tampons. Maybe this was an indignant statement about drudgery enforced by gender constructs--darn hard to light for dinner parties. Maybe this was an ironic commentary on a visit to Venice where everybody's wife wants to buy a great big incredibly expensive Murano glass chandelier. Or maybe this was just a waste of time.
The modern art of 2005 wastes more time than the modern art of yore did. You could walk right by a Jackson Pollock drip canvas in half a second. Not so with the dominant creative medium of the Biennale, video art, the finger paint of the 21st century. I experienced, as quickly as I could, 36 examples of the form and doubtless missed many others because I would stumble into pitch-black exhibition spaces that smelled strongly of face-pierced video art aficionados and would bolt before anything video transpired. Also there were a number of national pavilions, such as Albania's, that I wasn't able to find.
Herewith, a sampling of Boring Video Downloads, or BVDs: lonely-looking people talking to the camera; lonely-looking people not talking to the camera; people looking lonely; people with light bulbs over their heads, which would indicate ideas if this were a comic strip but since this is video art it doesn't; the Rosetta Stone being dusted; pictures of an empty movie theater; pictures from an empty movie projector; someone's sweaty, hairy back; a city skyline with trash piling up in the foreground in the shape of the skyscrapers (get it?); a fellow who has turned a kitchen table upside-down, attached an outboard motor to it, and is cruising across a bay; a man in a bear suit living in the Berlin Zoo; cardboard cartons rigged with overhead projectors so that viewers look into boxes full of little naked people engaged in mildly prurient activities; a man in a waterfall with real water falling in front of the video screen (get it?); and an imaginary trailer for an imaginary remake of Bob Guccione's all-too-real 1979 smut-flop Caligula featuring--in a successful attempt to capture the alpha of boring and the omega of thoughtlessness--guest appearances by Gore Vidal and Courtney Love.
John Stuart Mill said that the purpose of art is "the employment of the powers of nature for an end." Specifically, the huge, flabby hind end of a transvestite named Leigh Bowery in a video showing spring-loaded clothespins being attached to tender parts of his body. He deserved it. Nearby was Regina José Galindo's video of herself having her hymen surgically restored in extreme close-up. I will forgo description of the luncheon fare available at the Biennale. Fabulous Italian food may be of interest to readers, but not on the way back up. (Memo to video auteurs: There already is a method of turning moving pictures into art. It's been in use since The Birth of a Nation.)
Among the many uninteresting things about the Biennale was the dearth of artworks that you'd like to have or to hold or to look at again as long as you live even if they were done by a beloved (if psychiatrically disturbed) son or daughter. The aptly named Louise Bourgeois had some aluminum sculptures that were blobby and intestinal in a nice kind of way and would look great on my mantle if my mantel were three feet wide. And I was enthralled by Subhoda Gupta's rows and rows of stainless steel shelving carefully stacked with pristine cooking utensils. Gupta, who is Indian, went straight to the point with his title: "Curry." My guess is that he's not an artist at all but is bucking for a green card as a kitchen designer.
In the entire Biennale there was exactly one good new artist, Ricky Swallow, lone exhibitor at the unprepossessing, not to say prefab, Australian pavilion. Swallow created a full-sized tableau of a seafood catch spread ready for the cook with the tablecloth pushed to one side of the table and including lobster, mullet, a bucket of oysters, and a half-peeled lemon all seemingly carved from a single block of maple. Among Swallow's other brilliant whittlings was a medallion of hanging game in the manner of the 18th-century master British woodworker, Grinling Gibbons, but with a couple of wild card Aussie lizards thrown in. And there was a perfectly rendered bike helmet with serpents entwined among the straps and ventilation slots. That's my opinion of the Tour de France, too. The docent at the pavilion, instead of busily looking aloof like his counterparts, said, "G'day, Mate."
The Czech pavilion had a lot of ball bearings on the floor. In the German pavilion people had been hired to yell at you. The Icelandic pavilion was made from twigs and branches. Icelanders respect nature so much they've given their beavers MFAs. The Hungarian pavilion was full of deep sea diving suits dressed in pajamas and wellie boots. The Swiss pavilion had an enormous digital clock ticking off the "5 Billion Year Countdown Until the Explosion of the Sun." Cuckoo. The Austrian pavilion was entirely built over in a shapeless jumble that looked like someone had taken Frank Gehry's titanium away and made him work in two-by-fours and tarpaper. It was an improvement on Gehry Partners' Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The U.S. pavilion featured talentless airbrush artist Ed Ruscha's airbrush renderings of industrial buildings of no note. But the air conditioning was excellent. An Argentinean artist built a room from sheetrock and punched a lot of holes through the walls. Who can blame him? The air conditioning wasn't functioning at all in there. I saw an impressive constructivist work of bolted steel and wire mesh, but it turned out to be the Arsenale's freight elevator. Phone kiosks in the shape of giant fiberglass parrots with receivers and dial pads between their wings seemed better than art until I discovered they were art. Title: "Global Warming."
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla created a beautiful hippopotamus in heroic scale, but they sculpted it from that noble material, that enduring element, mud. Crumpled newspaper was scattered around, I guess so you could wipe the hippo off your feet before going on to the next exhibit. Pascale Marthine Tayou tangled hundreds of plastic shopping bags into a net to create a scene identical to roadside fences all over the Third World. In fairness, Tayou is from Cameroon. And the sophomoric smart ass mouth-breathing medal goes to Daniel Knorr of Romania, who left the Romanian pavilion empty and called it "European Influenza."
Still, I departed the Venice Biennale with joy in my heart. Partly because I was glad to leave, but more so from learning that all the awful people whose oeuvres I had just endured have something to keep them busy. In another era such crackpots would have been excluded by sheer lack of skill and knowledge from any involvement with the fine arts, the way Hitler was. He retreated to grubby beer halls to vent his thwarted ambitions concocting an insane demagoguery. It wouldn't happen today. Hitler painted plenty badly enough to get into the Biennale.
It could be that all awful dictators are frustrated artists--Mao with his poetry and Mussolini with his monuments. Stalin was once a journalistic hack, and I can personally testify to how frustrated they are. Pol Pot left a very edgy photo collection behind. And Osama seems quite interested in video.
Stupid art saps stupid ideology. You could see it in the Chinese pavilion. One installation was a scrap metal and tin foil contraption that a Chinese farmer built believing it could fly him to the moon. The farmer was included in the installation. Then there was a BVD of a crowded city street. Every now and then somebody the crowd couldn't see shouted loudly. Members of the crowd would look around like a crazy person was loose, then go about their business. And China's supposedly most talented young architect, Yung Ho Chang, made a big, long tangle of bamboo poles. This was in no way as impressive, or for that matter as intimidating, as the bamboo scaffolding surrounding each construction site for the topless towers of Shanghai. If national pavilions are anything to go by, the fearsome Communist juggernaut of Asia is headed toward being an Iceland of ideological power.
And what of the demos who fall for demagoguery? Venice is certainly full of these this time of year. Hosts and swarms of them come in a state of idiocy evident in their dress and bodily form--so much so that a certain well-known span to the ducal palace should be renamed the Bridge of Thighs. But the masses were giving the Biennale a good leaving-alone. The few visitors to the pavilions and exhibition halls were people who looked like they make what it looked like they liked, or will make some when the drugs wear off. It is a hopeful sign for worldwide democracy that even the dull, vapid summer tourists of Venice are too smart for art.
P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of Peace Kills.