The Spectacles, the absurd and helplessness in contemporary art
By Luiz Camillo Osorio
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently opened its doors to the public. Inevitably, given that it is a modern art museum in the capital of the new technologies, the scale, ambition and figures involved are astonishing. The architectural design by the Norwegian firm Snohetta encompasses no less than 10 exhibition floors, allowing the museum to present 19 simultaneous inaugural exhibitions.
Nothing, however, attracted more attention during the museum’s opening period than the unexpected “performance” by two young, unknown (until then) boys from the neighbouring city of San Jose, who were visiting one day during the first weeks. One of them took off his spectacles, cap and jacket, and positioned them in various places around the galleries, as if they were “works of art”. The first item, the spectacles, caused a frisson. People gathered round to observe them close up, to discuss and photograph them. The trap had been set. This is art, art is this… We’re all fools, capable of being taken in a by a childish prank! In parentheses, it’s worth noting that the cap and jacket did not attract any interest. No one stopped or even photographed them.
Peter Schjeldahl, a critic at the New Yorker magazine (an endangered species, particularly considering the profundity, clarity and sensitivity of his writing), was unable to resist and gave the matter some critical attention in a short, courageous text that sought to explain the unexplainable. After all, isn’t that one of the tasks of criticism: to explain the unexplainable?! The import thing is that it does not seek to justify anything, or to judge our complete and unadulterated helplessness when it comes to art, or rather, contemporary art.
Dealing with this sense of helplessness, acknowledging it and confronting it, makes criticism more complex than mediation or interpretation. It is not that criticism does not seek to interpret what happens when we are introduced to art. Interpretation, however, is a displacement, a desire for meaning in search of a language that can translate the untranslatable. Critical interpretation is, thus, a translation without the original text – a construction that displaces and recreates that which moves it: the work. Both criticism and the work itself belong to each other and are empowered by this exchange. So, the criticism responds to the work, but without this response the work remains unborn and in a state of pure potentiality. There are no parents until their children are born.
The sense of helplessness is part of the search for meaning that derives from contact with works, which have no guarantee of existence beyond the stimulation of the senses – precarious and potent as they are. It was this sense of helplessness that Peter Schjeldahl identified in the encounter between the public and those spectacles: “an object manufactured to enhance seeing, presented as something to see. By being underfoot, the glasses were divorced from their function and protected only by the don’t-touch protocol of museums.
They might have seemed, to a suggestible audience, to be about being-in-a-museum—and that audience could have included me. Suggestibility, undaunted by fear of proving foolish, is essential to art love.” This art love, however, goes hand in hand, for better or worse, with notions of appropriate behaviour associated, in museums, with a fear of intellectual and social exclusion. You have to pretend to understand in order not to be left out of the club of the included in the art world. This pose, however, does not allow for genuflexion or the surrender to shock, or the expression of delight in the face of strangeness. The initiated is no fool; he is cool. Surprise can make fools of us allThat’s what makes those glasses interesting. The photo that circulated showed surprise – and this is good and rare, independently of the prank. If this is the case, then it was worth it. Perhaps those boys’ 15 minutes of fame served to show that it is still possible to genuflect in a museum, to be absurd, to be enchanted in a world of total, sophisticated disenchantment. And that art can be everywhere and nowhere. I prefer to side with those who are still able to be surprised, even if they make fools of themselves, and want to justify the unjustifiable.Continuing with the New Yorker critic, “Many sane citizens will deem the spectacle of the spectacles ridiculous. They won’t be wrong. A risk of absurdity always attends the willingness to surrender oneself to the spell of any mere object: the dirtied swatch of cloth that is a painting, for example. It’s a game, whatever else it is, which makes sense only with knowledge of the rules and customs that are in play. Museums edit, for our convenience, the universe of existing things. What they let in and what they keep out shape culture. How far in the way of inclusion is too far? How much in the way of discrimination is just crabby? Have we witnessed the entire art career, now, of the San Jose Two? You go, boys.”
This is not the first time that museums have been confronted with the absurd, whether it be the exclusion of the parangolés, or exhibiting works that are no more than jokes. In this showdown, they re-evaluate themselves, art re-evaluates itself, and we discover what we want and imagine possible in the light of what is called, if only for fifteen minutes, art. These fifteen minutes can be as valuable as the bids at auctions which, while of a different value, are perhaps just as absurd and surprising.
About the author
Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.