In 1917, iconoclast “artist” Marcel Duchamp submitted one of his works to the Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York City, which claimed to accept any artwork as long as the application fee was paid. Duchamp’s submission, however, was rejected because the board (which Duchamp served on) said that his submission didn’t qualify as art. It was an upside-down urinal, which he called Fountain. That pissotière en porcelaine — which is what he called it in a letter to his sister and is exactly what it sounds like in English — was groundbreaking.
Fountain warped the standards of what formerly made “art” art, and challenged the status quo that for centuries had been conducive to art work that focused nearly entirely on aesthetics. It ushered in the era of conceptual art, which the Dada-movement cognoscenti metastasized. For contemporary artists, the pissotière en poreclaine became the golden calf, and has remained so for the last century. Take it from philosopher Stephen Hicks, a critic of postmodernism:
The artist is a not great creator—Duchamp went shopping at a plumbing store. The artwork is not a special object—it was mass-produced in a factory. The experience of art is not exciting and ennobling—at best it is puzzling and mostly leaves one with a sense of distaste. But over and above that, Duchamp did not select just any ready-made object to display. In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: Art is something you piss on.
Duchamp was the progenitor of the piss-poor exhibitions we see in art museums today, and his work is the not-so-distant ancestor of “art” such as Ivanka Vacuuming — instead of pissing on this exhibit, however, the audience is asked to instead throw crumbs on it.
Ivanka Vacuuming is an exhibition in Washington, D.C., featuring an Ivanka Trump lookalike dressed in a blush-pink dress and wearing stilettos, while vacuuming a hot-pink carpet framed with pink walls. The audience is welcomed to throw crumbs (that are provided to them) at the model. The artist Jennifer Rubell remarks on it: “We enjoy throwing the crumbs for Ivanka to vacuum. That is the icky truth at the center of the work. It’s funny, it’s pleasurable, it makes us feel powerful, and we want to do it more.”
Is this a behavioral-psychology experiment, or art? Is this a form of escrache, or art?
My initial impression of the exhibit is that it’s a political statement reducing the president’s daughter who is also a mother and businesswoman down to a domesticated robot, intended to be humiliated and objectified by its audience. It’s consistent with the artist’s brand, which is often based on commentary about gender and the #MeToo movement. The exhibit is located at an art gallery in D.C., where I don’t imagine many people would be opposed to desecrating anything or anyone symbolic of Trump, and the double standard arises in the reaction that this exhibit has received: If the woman vacuuming was former president Obama’s daughter or wife, would it be more controversial? Would progressives think that the exhibit was reinforcing the public disparagement of successful women if it weren’t Ivanka? Would they find it “funny” or “pleasurable” to throw crumbs at a woman that wasn’t somehow affiliated with Trump, and would Rubell use those words to describe the humiliation of a woman that wasn’t Ivanka?
I don’t personally take much offense to the exhibit’s “message”, whatever that is — it’s akin to the message of Duchamp’s urinal, similarly feigning intellectual rigor. I hope that most of polite society beyond the radicals within it knows that it’s not acceptable to throw crumbs or harass conservative (or liberal) women because their politics are opposed to our own.
I am, however, offended by one thing: that this spectacle was displayed in an art gallery.
Duchamp’s work — again, I hesitate to call it art — was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists in NYC because it did not quality as “art.” That was the right decision. Rubell’s creation may count as art by today’s standard, which is a very low and subjective one. But Robert Florczak, an artist I interviewed about the state of the arts today, defines art as a “visual medium”:
Stretching or corrupting its definition weakens it and ultimately renders it meaningless. Quality in art can be assessed using long-developed standards of aesthetics, centuries-old, to be exact, which transcend history, culture, and passing fashion, and as such, are objective and universal.
. . . The dropping of these standards has led to art becoming more about ideas, and ideas are not art, for when a visual work becomes more about its meaning, message, or theory, and less about its pure visual experience, it has failed its medium. It may be interesting, but it has become something else — journalism, perhaps, but not art.
Rubell and Duchamp’s creations have this in common — they are interested primarily in communicating ideas, not displaying their artistic craft. They were not concerned about an aesthetic visual experience that, for example, a sculpture such as Bernini’s David gives its audience. There is very little (or no) contouring, shading, impasto, or any other techniques that can be appreciated by the sensate world viewing it, and there’s no appeal to our spirituality. If anything, the death of spirituality likely led to these works.
“The real threat to the world of art is from those who support and dictate the aesthetic relativism that has continued to ignore truly great art waiting to be discovered,” Florczak tells me.
I’m more outraged that Ivanka Vacuuming was given the time of day from an art gallery in our capitol, where international tourists are likely visiting — it’s like inviting your in-laws over for dinner and not cleaning the house, and then burning the casserole in the oven. The message of Rubell’s exhibit was its only defining feature, and she is entirely reliant on the shock value of it to mask the lackluster aesthetic qualities.
Art is dead, and modernists killed it.