Art lovers are heartened by New York's decision not to prosecute the fellow who put what the police called a bomb atop the Brooklyn Bridge. The fellow, who calls himself an "environmental artist," says the bucket full of fireworks was a "kinetic sculpture." Well, it would have been if the "sculpture" had not had a defective fuse.
A British gallery has a new work, "Room Temperature," featuring two dead flies and a bucket of water, in which float four apples and six uninflated balloons. A gallery official says the work left him "amazed by its completeness, its oneness, its apparent obviousness. Yet it had the ability to tease, to make me wonder, and question, to lead me in other directions. Why? This is air and this is water. Have you looked at them, have you actually seen these elements before? Here they are."
Matisse said he hoped his art would have the pleasing effect of an armchair on a tired businessman. Matisse, alas, is not around to meet the artist who fired a revolver at an airplane taking off from Los Angeles, and called his act a work of art. In 1929, Walter Lippmann said art had "ceased not only to depict any theory of destiny but has ceased to express any important human mood in the presence of desitny." But pistol-packing "artists" express a mood: anything goes.
In 1977, one of Joseph Beuys' masterpieces -- a child's bathtub flecked with sticking plaster -- was mistakenly used to cool beer during a party at the museum that owns it. But, then, a conscientious janitor would have cleared away the pile of bricks that was a display at London's Tate Gallery. The bourgeoisie of Hartford, Conn., questions the wisdom of spending $87,000 for 36 boulders that an artist-entrepreneur placed in some green space and called "stone field sculpture."
But an American foundation paid $300,000 to finance "Vertical Kilometer," a brass rod one kilometer long, buried in a hole one kilomter deep. The same artist also perpetrated "Lightning Field," a patch of New Mexico made into a pin cushion by metal rods. Ah, wilderness: consider "Spiral Jetty," a curling path of rocks bulldozed into Utah's Great Salt Lake.
Claes Oldenburg, who makes large toothbrushes and other banalities (Philadelphia has a giant clothespin) once said: "I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum." His masterpiece, "Two Cheeseburgers with Everythin" (a burlap-and-plaster model of just what the title says), sits in the possession of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Roy Lichtenstein (he paints large snippets from comics books) once said his aim was to paint a picture so ugly nobody would buy it. The harder he tried, the hotter became his sales. The avant-garde was a 19th century idea of revolutionary daring in the face of stultifying elite standards of acceptable taste. Pity the poor artist today: where there are no standards, there can be no avant-garde.
Robert Hughes, Time magazine's art critic and author of "The Shock of the New," says that every five years America's art schools graduate more people than lived in Florence in the last quarter of the 15th century, and that there probably are more galleries than bakeries in New York. But college credit in "art" has been given for photographing 650 San Diego garages, and for spending a week in a gym locker (a work -- or act -- of art called "a duration-confinement body-piece").
The broadened definition of art to include doing anything, as well as making anything, is a triumph of democracy: everyone can be -- indeed, cannot help but be -- an artist. Hughes notes that Richard Tuttle "was chosen to represent America at the 1976 Venice Biennale with a stick rather longer than a pencil and three-quarters of an inch thick, cut from a length of standard 1-inch lumber, unpainted, and placed in solitary magnificence on the wall of the U.S. Pavilion." Your tax dollars were at work in that display of purely democratic art: having no content, Tuttle's "art" was immune to the charge of "elitism."
New York City, which evidently has cash to spare, is considering requiring that works of art be purchased for all new or renovated municipal buildings. In an age when sticks count as art, the supply of art is sure to expand to satisfy the economic demand.
In 1915, Paul Klee said: "The more fearful the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract." What can be inferred about the world when art becomes absurd?