January 1998
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Gregory Alkaitis Carfelli

Where It's At

So Leslie and I were talking in a bar the other day about conceptual art -- the sort of thing that moves beyond mere moral media like canvas and crayons and enters a scary realm inhabited by black turtleneck clad people daintily sipping their cocktails and using the word "juxtapose" far more than necessary. Face it, the fine line between art and pretension is too often crossed and crossed badly in the vague demilitarized zone left to the art world after too many late night acid trips at the Factory and the death of those nice Hudson River School boys. It's gotten so bad that, hey, an "artist" can fence in some trees and grass in the city, slap a brass plaque up, and voila: art. Shh. It's an installation. It takes people to the happy place. Or something.

Conceptual case in point: I saw Walter de Maria's extended dirt installation recently. 3,600 square feet of dirt 22 inches deep. Dirt. In the second floor back room of some prime Soho real estate. It was neatly raked and everything, but maybe I'm just too in touch with my white trash nature; after all I love those cheese flavored twists that mysteriously coat your fingertips with orange goo, and I grab on to hot metal things with my bare hands (it's more manly that way). Because this was just a lot of dirt. It did not offend, or challenge, or even arouse; nothing that good art is supposed to do to me happened, except give me an urge to eat fresh corn for hours afterward.

Leslie was trying to explain it all to me, about how the dirt being in the middle of the city - a place where it usually wouldn't belong - engendered hope or maybe by presenting a contrast of organic materials in an environment of artifice people would stop and think about culture and cities in a whole different way. Something like that. And I realize that the point is all about idea over form and whatnot but I just don't get it. My gut reaction in grand American style is I don't understand it therefore it must be bad let's kill it immediately.

Then of course I think how silly: embrace the challenge, man; grow a little. I tried, I really tried. I was very quiet. I looked intently at the dirt. I explored my feelings about the dirt. I exhaled deeply and regularly, and experienced, no really experienced the dirt. Nothing. In the end it was still just a roomful of dirt, excellently executed but poorly conceived.

So far everyone I've asked about conceptual art (all three people who were awake when I was thinking about this) has either said "huh?" or had a violent negative reaction. Speaking for the closeted art-clueless everywhere, uh, we all just don't get it. It interferes with a healthy enjoyment of cheese twists and cheap, weak beer. We're all just begging for some bitter, yet loving and big-hearted art students to come beat us over the heads with the painstakingly executed miniature models from their failed grant proposals, and then, after we're really, really sorry, take us patiently by the hand and explain it all in clear, earthy language. Then everyone lives happily ever after.

Yeah right. That sort of thing only happens in post-modern installations.

I don't want my art pre-packaged like a happy meal, with a fun little toy and instructions and everything. But I also don't want a pile of dirt, or a toilet seat or a toaster turned upside down: these things are empty. Nothing was put into the creation of this message, so how can I as a viewer get anything out of my interaction with it? At least when something offends, it's getting inside, even if only to rub the wrong way.

Anyway, I guess I'm just not deep enough to hang with the art people: the dirt sculpture was a test. The sign that said "if you understand this, then you are one of us and may come hang out in the special place" was hidden, but I'm sure it was there. Fine. They can have their dirt - I've got cheese curls, and I don't care what anyone says - the goo on the end of my fingers is in no way art.




in the junk drawer:

December 1997
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October 1997
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June 1997
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