Meet the New Clothes, Same as the No Clothes.
Two museum goers contemplate the work of artist Jeff Koons in the Tate Modern*
James Fallows, writing about Tasmania in the July/August issue of The Atlantic on the Museum of Old and New Art:
Tasmania’s most celebrated attraction now is MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, outside Hobart. Everyone in the antipodes knows its titillating backstory: David Walsh, a bad-boy millionaire who made his fortune with computerized systems to beat the odds at casinos and on horse races and other gambling schemes, created a museum designed to outrage. You turn one way and see Roman or Egyptian antiquities; you turn the other and see a piece of kitsch, or an endless row of porcelain casts of genitalia. The major shock of visiting the museum is that nothing is labeled, forcing visitors to realize how much of our response depends on cues about what is “art” or “serious. We fell back on the crutch of an iPod audio guide that senses your location in the museum and tells you what you are looking at.”
Tony Comstock in 2008, after a series of frustrating encounters with the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification, writing on L’Affair de Henson, a case involving an Australian artist who’s habit was to photograph barely pubescent children without their clothes on:
As a young art student it was clear to me that nudity and sexuality in contemporary art followed a set of rules that was as easily understood as pornography’s rubric. This is especially easy to observe in “art films”; sexuality must only be present in an explicit way if it is commentary on the ambiguities, or better yet, deficiencies of the human conditions. A recent example is the movie SHORTBUS wherein unsatisfying , failed, or unhealthy sex is presented in explicit detail, pleasurable sex is presented in passing, and transformative sex goes unseen…
In my films there is no ennui, no cynicism, no boredom or brutality, no disenfranchisement, disconnection, or disaffection. These are the proven cinematic devices used to signal “But this is art,” – devices I intentionally banish from my films. I want to create a sexual and cinematic environment devoid of the familiar landmarks found in art,and scrubbed clean of the familiar hiding places that allow people to watch lovemaking with clinical detachment.
What Tony never quite got, but what I am generally coming to terms with is that these “cues” are actually a hugely important part of how society functions; that decernment, on the basis of these cues of what is appropriate is a vital human skill. So while I may find it annoying that you make sure within minutes of our introduction that I know not only where you went to college (Harvard), but also where you went to high school (Stuyvesant), I realize I am also doing the same thing, in my own way, nearly all of the time. (“So what do you do in the winter?” “This and that, some writing.” “Really? What do you write?” “Well I guess the the most impressive thing I could tell you is I’ve done some writing for The Atlantic.” Guest relaxes now that they have apprehended the social placement of their host.)
The rules governing these sort of cues (I believe the currently fashionable word is “signaling”) are fluid and contextual. They do not conform well to modern notions of fairness or justice, and indeed, power and privilege are a part of the mix. Potter Stewart, revised: I can’t define it, so please inform me of the credentials of the person who created it and I’ll tell you whether or not I feel uncomfortable.
*Is this image NSFW or not? I really don’t know. The Guardian ran it with no such warning, and Koons’ photos are pushed far enough into the background that no actual sexually explicit detail is discernible. Yet we know exactly what we’re looking at, don’t we? I expect The Guardian knew exactly what they were doing. I expect I do too.