Here are the sounds you probably imagine hearing in an art gallery: The hum of an air conditioner; discreet voices discussing auction sales; maybe, on a wild opening night, the slurp of chardonnay.
And here's what I heard on a recent visit to one of Berlin's leading dealers: The crash of a skateboard, as its owner practiced his jumps and skids and grinds; the roar of drunken slacker kids as they tore up a room.
Contemporary art has a reputation for being remote stuff, off in its own world, breathing its own rarefied air. Recently, however, there's been an effort to give it some street cred. There is no doubt that this has given certain works a new appeal to youth. The risk is that they're courting kids by going juvenile.
Sober, carefully considered work with brush or fine charcoal has given way to goofy drawings dashed off with a ballpoint pen. They look like the R. Crumb-inspired doodles of a bored high schooler -- and they've been everywhere over the past few years, selling fiercely. (As the genre's great progenitor, the 61-year-old Crumb -- the man who gave us "Keep On Truckin' " -- has himself been featured in a raft of recent surveys of contemporary art.)
Installation art, invented to work through arcane concepts and political conceits, can morph today into something from a squatter commune's spaced-out party room. At a recent Whitney Biennial, a collective from Rhode Island called Forcefield -- it's also a band -- presented an assemblage made of rescued junk, old monster suits and cheap-and-cheerful colored lights.
Even sound art, whose bizarre noises used to sit at the esoteric edge of esoteric edges, has embraced the street. That same Whitney Biennial presented work by Gregor Asch, who's taken hip-hop's turntable tricks and crossed them with the bleeps and burps of musical modernism.
This "downward" trend in art -- involving art that's coming down to earth, crashing to the pavement, or jumping onto iPods -- is on display in an exhibition called "Beautiful Losers," which just opened at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. For the last year, it's been touring museums across the country, giving a full survey of street-smart art from the United States. (Because it has a small exhibition space, the Contemporary had to cut the single show into three installments: First a month of paintings and installations, then a month of videos and photographs and finally two weeks of graphic design.)
But unlike some other presentations of this kind of material -- the Whitney Biennial and countless other surveys like it -- this exhibition is not about high art inspired by pop culture, or about the kind of fertile crossing of high and low that's been around for centuries (Caravaggio's back-alley toughs, for example, or Toulouse-Lautrec's Montmartre hustlers). "Beautiful Losers" takes its title seriously. The art it celebrates comes directly from the bottom end of the urban scene. Its images started life on the backs of skateboards, on spray-painted overpasses and on the posters and album covers of punk and hip-hop bands.
The art in "Beautiful Losers" wears its simplicity, even simple-mindedness, on its sleeve. It's more than just the standard rebel-artist rejection of the status quo in art -- the kind you get when a Monet decides to break a landscape into dots or a Picasso puts angles and edges everywhere. At first, the brash gestures of Monet and Picasso were seen as superficial and simple-minded, but before long people recognized the full weight of their innovations. Slacker art, on the other hand, represents an all-out rejection of artistic heft and seriousness.
If it seems ignorant of other art that's being made today and of the art that's come before, that's because it revels in its rebellious ignorance.
"Beautiful Losers" includes work from San Francisco's so-called "Mission School," a group of graffiti artists and self-taught kids who, in the 1990s, developed a trademark style of cartoonish figure painting. Margaret Kilgallen, who died of cancer in 2001, is represented by a wall-filling suite of paintings on paper and fabric. It looks like accumulated outtakes from folk signage, with lettering that dates back to the turn of the last century and goofy images of shoppers and storekeepers. This is folk art as counterculture -- not exactly a revolutionary move.
There's also a roomful of paintings by Thomas Campbell, an itinerant surfer-dude who is a hot commodity in the world of skateboard art and album covers. (Like most of the "loser" artists in this show, he's had plenty of commercial contracts and art sales.) Campbell's pictures look like slightly funky versions of 1960s cartoon art: Imagine the rough drafts for "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" and you'll be very nearly there. This art's defiance is summed up in its lightheartedness.
At the tougher end of things, the exhibition presents works by Chris Johanson, another artist from San Francisco. He renders simple allegories of urban existence by way of childlike line drawings. Sometimes they're filled in, coloring-book style, with flat patches of paint. In one painting, two rough figures, barely rendered in outline, drag crosses on their backs; another, titled "If It Feels Right Do It," shows six people having sex. Johanson's work comes very close to certain rebel pictures of the early 1980s, when some artists pushed back against the slick abstraction they'd been told to emulate.
The beautiful losers in this show have come up against an unpleasant truth that wannabe avant-gardes always confront: In visual art, there's a big difference between wanting to rebel and actually making art that's new and dangerous. More often than not, rebellion just leads to cliches of rebelliousness. That must be why so much of the art that has recently come in off the street and into our museums has such clear precedents, to the point of seeming awfully derivative.
The painters who started out working on urban walls -- including Kilgallen and her husband, Barry McGee, as well as New Yorker Phil Frost -- don't seem to realize that their styles often channel the better kids' books of their parents' generation. When their art has faint echoes in it of Picasso and his peers, or even Jackson Pollock, they come care of postwar illustrators, who filtered older forms of avant-garde expression down into the culture at large.
Instead of struggling to find something truly new to say and new ways to say it, most of these artists are content to forge a superficial style of rebelliousness. They craft a "look," mostly borrowed from the past, that lets them identify themselves as officially, certifiably subversive.
This interest in rebel style may also explain why so much of this art looks pretty much the same. Sometimes the work of several artists can be close to indistinguishable. It's about making a gesture of rebellion, communicated in a style shared with fellow mavericks, rather than rejecting all such easy uniformities. (Ask any dozen college art instructors, and they'll tell you that for at least the last 10 years, every freshman has arrived with almost the same pile of doodled naughtiness. The worst insist on doodling right to graduation day.)
At this summer's Venice Biennale of contemporary art, one of the most surprising visions wasn't put there by the curators. It was kids' stuff: In just the last two years, graffiti has been sprayed all over the lagoon city. And that "rebellious" graffiti is a perfect, carefully crafted facsimile of the spray-painting seen in New York 30 years ago. The nonconformists among Venetian youth walk in lock step with sanctioned defiance from elsewhere.
The slacker artists' claims to nonconformism seem particularly strange, seeing that their style is so firmly anchored in the mainstream of youth culture. The "Beautiful Losers" catalogue says its artists are "beyond the recognition of mainstream culture," out on "the edges of society" where they can breed "new ideas and forms of expression" and a "rogue outsider creative spirit" -- and yet you'd never know it from a visit to your local record store or T-shirt shop, likely to be overflowing with their product.
The so-called "establishment" of advanced contemporary art -- the one the slackers say they're up against -- has never managed such massive public infiltration. In 2002, when a major New York gallery showcased skateboard culture in an exhibition called "Session the Bowl," the opening drew crowds vastly bigger than the gallery had ever seen.
Maybe the oddest thing about this current crop of rebels is how eager they seem to become the very thing they're supposed to be running from. They're happy to get the social status that comes with making high art and showing in museums, even though their work takes pride in not knowing what serious museum art is all about. This status-seeking is doubly peculiar given that, when you really think about it, the subcultures these artists move in have their own, independent forms of creativity that rival anything in the fine arts.
Skateboarding itself is an impressive blend of sport and dance and urban exploration. As anthropologist and curator Alex Baker argues in the "Beautiful Losers" catalogue, skateboarding crafts a kind of moving commentary on the failed urban design of 1960s downtown redevelopment. It's a poetry of urban space, with empty concrete plazas as its blank page. Rolling motion is this subculture's novel medium; the kids who invent its moves are its Old Masters. Who cares about the banal illustrations that they like to see on their skateboards or album covers?
I've had a look at some of the works on video due to be shown in the Baltimore exhibition's second installment: The videos themselves are mostly either standard documentaries or slick commercial fare, but the skateboard acrobatics that they show are something else again.
The musical innovations of hip-hop, which skateboarders came to late and then eventually adopted (they'd started out with links to hard-core punk), are equally far-reaching and important. Scratching, sampling and rapping are all infinitely more inventive moves, in musical terms, than any of the visual conceits graffiti artists have come up with -- especially among today's third-generation crop of spray painters.
Even graffiti itself started out being less about what it looked like than about where it was: By marking up an off-limits public space, people without much power to affect the world at large could make themselves known and felt. That act of marking was almost a kind of illicit performance art. Its central subject was the risk involved in making it take place; the "wildstyle" writing that it left behind was barely more than a fancy way to document the forbidden act. It was a formula for showing off the time and care you spent defying the authorities -- a formula so portable, so repeatable, so reliable that it's made its way to canal walls in Venice.
Hang such performance "documents" on a high-end museum wall, however, and they lose most of their meaning and force.
Sophisticated contemporary artists realize how much energy there is in the subcultures of the street. That's why they go fishing in them for their subject matter.
Those slacker sounds I heard in Berlin weren't live. They came from videos by Vancouver artist Alex Morrison, whose art is all about the culture of slackerdom, and the structures that govern it.
In one video, he showed a skateboarder practicing the kinds of tricks we're used to witnessing on office-building plazas -- leaps from high to low, yawning gaps overcome, slides along a banister or ledge. Except in this case, the kid was doing his moves inside a suburban kitchen. He leaped from floor to counter, ground his board along the counter's edge, skimmed on his back wheels across the smooth linoleum. It was a kind of skateboarder's dream: Instead of struggling to escape the confines of suburbia, Morrison's subject got to bring his rebellion home to roost.
Another video showed teenagers at play, letting loose in an abandoned house which they proceed to wreck. Their misbehaving was such classic acting-out the artist might as well have scripted it. What came across most clearly in the video was that there are strict rules for how a "loser" breaks the rules.
Morrison looks at youth culture, naive and cliched in its efforts to rebel, and has the distance to make interesting art about it. True "loser" artists simply give it to us raw.
For information on the "Beautiful Losers" show, call 410-783-5720 or visit www.contemporary.org.