[Beliefnet, January 10, 2000]
Some people say that art—make that Art—has become the secular substitute for religion. It sure acts like a religion: it’s produced by high priests revered as conduits of a mystical power—in this case, creativity; it’s tended and interpreted by initiates trained in its hidden wisdom; and it’s mostly incomprehensible to folks on the outside. I’ve been a big fan of visual arts ever since I was an eight-year-old with my parents’ big book of Salvador Dali on my lap. But the fact is, more people don’t get Art in our generation than in any one before. Art responds to this by ridiculing them.
If a religion did this we’d call it bigoted and exclusive.
Because of trickle-down attitude, you don’t have to go to a fancy-pants museum to get insulted. The same tone is available even in popular art and entertainment. Let’s take three examples: last summer’s “South Park” movie, the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s “Sensation” exhibit, which caused a huge battle with its intentionally repulsive images, and the performance art of Andy Kaufman.
All these are examples of what I call “insider art.” You may have heard the term “outsider art,” which means art produced by marginalized people—the mentally ill, the visually disabled, people who are consigned to the outskirts of the Art establishment for one reason or another.
“Insider art” is not quite the opposite. It is art that, rather than making a straightforward presentation from artist to audience, tries for a bank shot: offend some people so that their distress can titillate others. These beneficiaries get to feel like “insiders”—people who are sophisticated enough to laugh at outsiders.
The stated theory is that people benefit from art that upsets them—it’s a kind of “shock therapy.” But, paradoxically, the only winners at the “insider art” game are those who resist being shocked. They’re too evolved to need the therapy, perhaps. Toward bizarre or hostile art they cultivate instead an attitude of reverence.
This is partly self-preservation. After all, when the game begins the artist has already declared himself superior to the masses and qualified to administer the therapeutic whack they need. Which end of that stick do you want to be on?
This brilliant tactic means that the artwork is pre-insured against criticism. To criticize it is to “not get it,” which equals being a loser. The only winning stance is adoration. It’s the same dynamic used by a bully in a schoolyard: pick a victim, ridicule him, and watch the nervous kids in the middle sidle over to you. A great deal of the intentionally shocking is overstuffed with hostility. I was struck by this while watching “South Park,” an adult comedy stuffed with sex, violence and obscenity, It wasn’t that the movie was “dirty”—even Bible passages can be earthy, and Chaucer and Shakespeare are among the great artists who could use bawdy material in a good-natured way. But “South Park” wasn’t good-natured. It was gleefully cruel.
Four-letter words have their legitimate place. (In my opinion: “Way over there, thanks!”). But this film, which used them abundantly, didn’t use them in any literal or barnyard sense. They were solely expressions of pinwheeling hatred. Either you joined in this headlong manic contempt, or you were its target.
Likewise, the individual pieces in the “Sensation” exhibit are neither very offensive nor interesting. Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and pornographic cutouts just reminds me that Jesus came to earth to be spat on and abused. Damien Hirst’s rotting carcasses are no different in intent (though much less accomplished) than the “memento mori” works of European religious art from centuries ago.
But the packaging of the exhibit as a whole, from the title to the stagey “warning” labels outside, are designed to appeal to a museum-goer mentality that is 14 years old, male, and thinks vomit is funny.
See stuff that, we hope, will make other people sick! See stuff that, we hope, will offend and hurt them! Laugh at people who disagree with you! Maybe you’ll get lucky, and you can make a working-class Catholic grandma cry!
When did this attitude get started? Most establishment Art types would point proudly to a urinal, which Marcel Duchamp offered as artwork nearly a century ago. To Duchamp’s great dismay, this object he “hurled in their faces” was eventually received with delight. Hungry for new stimulation, the Art establishment swallowed it whole and looked around for similar fare. It just looked like Duchamp was having so much fun, I guess. This century’s progress could be summed up by this snapshot: a thousand artists, art critics and art consumers, all crouched behind the Duchamp masterwork giggling, “Shh! Here comes another one!”
Now, decades later, the art of the shocking has run out of things to say—all it ever could say, anyway, is “Boo!”—and is circling the drain, repeating itself.
What does all this have to do with Andy Kaufman? First, the movie “Man on the Moon” must be carefully separated from Kaufman’s own art. The movie is conventional and genial, sugarcoating and streamlining an essentially tragic tale.
It makes Kaufman so appealing that after the show a young fan catalogued his virtues for me, concluding with “and he loved children.” I didn’t see any evidence for love of children in the film or outside it, except perhaps in the Shel Silverstein sense: “Do I love children? Yes I do! Boiled, baked, or in a stew!”
But the performance art produced by Kaufman himself was not so affable; it was of an insider type so extreme that much was accessible to only two people, Kaufman and his friend Bob Zmuda. I watched the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live,” the one in which Kaufman stood next to a child’s record player and lip-synched the “Mighty Mouse” theme. Only in retrospect is that performance marvelous and highly enjoyable. At the time it was just puzzling and somewhat enjoyable; it was intriguing, but appeared to be a private joke.
Andy as Latka Gravas on “Taxi” was sitcom boilerplate , and though it paid the bills he resented it. He longed to do edgy performance pieces that would confuse and offend the audience. His late-career “wrestling period” is a good example: he spouted sexist cliches to outrage women, challenged them to wrestle, then pulverized ‘em. This is the kind of thing my local paper describes as evidence of Kaufman’s “shamanic genius.” At the time it was just increasingly unpleasant.
The quintessential “insider artist,” Kaufman couldn’t be happy unless his entire audience was on the outside, uncomfortable and wary. Ultimately this backfired, as he forgot that there were other sources of humor in the world, and people could live without his. . The audience voted him off “Saturday Night Live,” and if he wasn’t welcome on that hippest of venues, he wasn’t welcome anywhere. Is there an alternative to “insider” art? Is it possible to create without smugness, superiority, and hostility? Maybe so. Call it “inclusive art,” art that treats its audience with good faith, that invites everyone in.
Whether dealing with the bright or dark material of life, it aims to speaks with beauty. It is patient and willing to work hard for this end. It treats the viewer as a partner, not a stooge. It is compassionate. It is sincere. And when it makes us laugh, everyone can join in.