By James Kalm
Be forewarned: those of you with delicate sensibilities please forego this essay; those choosing to read on, please step lightly and roll up your pant cuffs.
As the new art season opens, led by the charge of the market bulls, we’re confronted once again with the latest, the hottest, the chicest. For this somewhat jaded spectator, who’s experienced our culture's willing desensitization via a plethora of evermore “shocking” gestures, I find myself wondering about its relationship to that most base of all materials: shit, crap, doodoo, poop. “Inter faeces et urinam nascimur”—“Between shit and piss we are born” to quote St. Augustine: one could say quite literally that for the New York avant-garde (if that designation has any relevance these days) this proctological association of art with excrement is in fact profound.
A Brief History of Crap
There’s a rich history of scatological imagery reaching back across the millennia. But for a brief glance at its relationship to Modernism, Post-Modernism, and the avant-garde, we can start with James Ensor, a seminal artist who extended the grand Northern European tradition of feces and urine as elements of satire by not merely depicting them in his paintings, but by also cultivating a palette and texture that has been long compared to dung. Other radical Expressionists followed, but, ironically, it is the cerebral Marcel Duchamp and his “Fountain” to which much of the “Crap Art” of the Twentieth Century owes a debt. Whether it’s Jackson Pollock (who was quoted as saying that his dribble style evolved from observations of piss holes in the snow) urinating in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace, or canned feces cleverly marketed as “Artist’s Shit” (1961) by Piero Manzoni for the price of its weight in gold, we can’t seem to get enough. To list contemporary examples of piss, poop, bodily fluids and/or functions would take the rest of this essay, but here are a few notables: Wim Delvoy’s “Cloaca” (2000), a contraption exhibited at the New Museum in 2002 that processes gourmet food over a period of days and converts it into synthetic shit, which, like Manzoni’s canned crap, is then packaged and sold to expectant collectors; Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1987), a photo of a crucifix submerged in what is billed as urine (would it have attained the same notoriety if it were beer, apple juice or water with amber food-coloring?); Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), a depiction of the Holy Mother festooned with porn clippings of female genitalia and standing on lumps of varnished elephant dung, which created a succès de scandale at the Saatchi-sponsored Sensations exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 and hyped Rudy Giuliani’s reputation among the Christian Right; and Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings”, in which Andy and an assistant, Victor Hugo, pissed on canvases covered in metallic pigment, then marveled at the coloristic incidents generated by the subsequent chemical reactions. In one of the more odiferous projects of recent years, artists Jan Northoff and Benne Ender spent time running around Kassel during Documenta XI in 2002, collecting fecal matter from public toilets and restrooms. They delivered their pungent harvest to Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades, who incorporated the poop into “Shit Plug,” a self-descriptive sculptural form that McCarthy recycled into a twenty-foot-tall commission from the city of Amsterdam titled “Santa with Butt Plug” (2002), which the artist presented at this year’s Basel Art Fair. Kim Jones, in an in-depth interview with Stephen Maine that appeared in the November 2006 edition of The Brooklyn Rail, rhapsodizes about his breakthrough performances as the “Mudman,” in which he smeared his body with mud and his own shit and asked stunned audience members for a hug. And let’s not forget Dash Snow, who “excreted” last season’s very popular cum-stained newspapers to critical acclaim.
The Avant-Garde Crap-Shoot
In an essay titled “The Trouble With Youth” that appeared August 20th on artnet, Donald Kuspit lays out a thesis that in part draws a correlation between the mentality of the avant-garde and society’s obsession with youth-culture and the desire to remain forever young, hot and audacious. This overriding desire for innovation and novelty, rather than hard-won mastery, which has dominated the art market for much of the last century, is one of the most blatant symptoms of the syndrome. Predictably, this Peter Pan impulse has devolved to a ridiculous degree, so that we’ve now gone from mere youthfulness to a state of infancy. “Progressive” art has prized untainted childlike perception for decades, and for babies, little Duchamps in diapers, feces is the first readymade medium. It’s warm and friendly, smelly and tactile, and admittedly there’s nothing like the straight-ahead unselfconscious urgency of slapping shit on a wall. With today’s trend toward narcissistic self-documentation, what could be a more personal material for expression than a medium that’s produced by our own bodies? Another hallmark of the avant-garde—subversion and transgression—is facilitated by using crap, the all too obvious highpoint of low matter. Advanced artists employ it not only to undermine our notions of aesthetic beauty, but also to seize the opportunity to grab society by the ears and rub its nose in it, to shatter the viewers’ sensibilities and maybe shock them into a rethinking of standards and conventions.
The Marketing of Merde
Beyond the physical nature of caca there’s the symbolic condition of its very commonness, its abject worthlessness, which, when tied to economics, raises a more troubling set of questions. The market is controlled not by piss and shit, but by fear and greed. For cultural mavens, it’s fear of being out of step with the dictates of avant-tastemakers, and a practical desire to possess critically touted baubles that will reap a financial bonanza as well as a social one. But can über-hipsters actually sell irrational ideas to their devotees as au courant, goading them into behaviors that strain common sense? Consider the urine-drinking craze noted by Simon Doonan a few years ago, a health-and-beauty campaign complete with celebrity endorsements. Is this a wickedly cynical joke on trend-followers or a disturbing example of bandwagon jumping that strains notions not only of basic hygiene but “good taste”?
When modern architects began designing mass-produced housing for their utopian cities of the future, their modular designs (whose standardized proportions are still in use today) and elimination of decoration were based on prisons and workers’ housing. We all admire efficiency and functionality, and from a production standpoint, reducing construction costs may override aesthetics when it comes to the bottom line. But how to convince the upwardly mobile middle-class of the glamour of living in a prison cubicle? Easy. The critics and tastemakers of the day simply told a malleable public that living in a cell is fantastic and modern. Who needs a ceiling higher than seven feet nine inches or a door wider than seventy-five centimeters?
In several recent articles and lectures Jerry Saltz has lamented the fact that “we have no economic theory for the art market”. Not to pick on poor Andy, but despite his relative merits as an artist, he’s Exhibit A of the “Bizarro World” nature of monetary value in the art world. In early May this year, Warhol’s “Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I)” (1963) achieved a new auction record for the artist: 71.7 million bucks (what about versions II-XXXV?). There’s a clear disconnect between Warhol’s claim that he “wanted to be a machine”—his use of commercial art technology (silkscreen) and assistants to maximize production while removing virtually any trace of the artist’s hand—and the basic economic principle that rarity and scarceness increase a product’s value. The mind-boggling amounts of product cranked out at the “Factory” (which continues to cause endless authentication problems for the Warhol Foundation) seem to dehumanize it. This reduces the collector from risky cultural connoisseur to mass-market consumer, or worse yet, hedge-fund commodity speculator, hoping to peddle hyped goods at grossly inflated prices to the next unsuspecting rube before the ceiling falls in. To the unconvinced, this looks an awful lot like a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid scam built from turds.
The Measure of Merde
Once we’ve accepted the nature of crap, its ubiquity and banality, we then have the tricky assignment of deciding on its relative merits. Shit is shit. That’s a wonderfully egalitarian statement, but how and why is some crap beloved—praised by critics, purchased for outrageous sums, and ultimately winding up in museums—while other shit is just shit? Like every other extreme or experimental concern, whether pornography, kitsch or the grotesque, it’s only a brief matter of time before crap is assimilated by the academy, deodorized, homogenized and glamorized, becoming unrecognizable—alas a pathetic end for anything. Middle-class society as a whole may still be shocked by poop, but for highfalutin art world mucky-mucks, its historical credentials and cynical connotations make it just another option to consider. Perhaps it’s less about the poop and more about the asshole. Keep all this in mind the next time someone tries to sell you a diamond-studded $100-million load of it. Now if you’ve had enough scat, wipe that grin off your face and get back to work.