>Is It Art? It Doesn’t Matter.

>Last evening while watching BBC World News – a program I watch for reasons which continue to elude me – a feature was aired regarding the installation of a piece by the British artist Anthony Gormley in the Austrian Alps. The work, entitled “Horizon Field”, features 100 cast-iron humanoid figures by Gormley, which have been placed via helicopter in an area spread over 150km around the Vorarlberg, near Bregenz. Sadly, these are not outdoor figures of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, or the angels and saints, with which the Austrians used to dot their landscapes. Instead, according to the artist these (rather poorly-modeled) robot-like figures are, collectively, asking a question:

Where does the human project fit within the evolution of life on this planet? The works form a field in which living bodies and active minds are involved in measuring the space and distance thought the field of these static iron bodies, and of course both skiers and hikers will be part of this. This installation recognises [sic] the deep connection between social and geological territory, between the landscape and memory.

Quite: I’ll try to work that out over my smoke break later this morning.

At this point some among my readership will no doubt want to thump their chests and denounce “Horizon Field” as not being art at all. As is usually the case with contemporary art, given the unseemly amount of media attention and (usually new) money drawn to it, to do so is simply playing into the hands of those who, in fact, want to make you angry. Thereby, it is established that you, gentle reader, are in fact, a Philistine.

What is needed, rather than questioning whether “Horizon Field” is art, is to raise a completely different question. It is a question that most of us do not have the self-confidence to ask. If “Horizon Field” is art (and admittedly that is rather a large “If”, but bear with me) then the real question is, is it any good?

The answer, in this case, is no. It isn’t any good – but not for the reason which one might assume. The real reason that “Horizon Field” is not good art is because it looks cheap. It is not the sort of cheap, bad taste that can be fun, like an exhibition of Mexican Day of the Dead artwork or a schlocky episode of “The Young and the Restless” while you are home sick in bed. Rather it is an exemplar of what happens when an artist who has congenital bad taste convinces people with money and no taste that they should invest in his art project.

Over the past several decades the West has lost, with ever-increasing speed, the ability to assert what is and what is not in good taste. At the same time as we seem incapable of asserting ourselves on this subject, as a culture we are surprisingly nostalgic for at least the appearance of assertive good taste, as I wrote about yesterday in the example of Mad Men. This impotence to decry the tacky, the tawdry, and the cheap has taken effect not only in art, but in architecture, film, music, apparel, television, etc. Even in liturgy, Catholics over the past thirty years have been subjected to hymns which, apart from their questionable theological standpoints, are simply ghastly songs which no one ought to sing anywhere, let alone at mass.

The reason why most contemporary art succeeds in garnering so much attention and money – for ultimately this is a question of money, though this has always been true about the creation of art – is that those with either no or the worst taste are making unchecked and grossly under-criticized decisions with public funds as to what art is being sponsored. The rest of the public is either too intimidated or too uncertain of its own concept of what good taste means to speak up and say, “That’s awful.” Of course the irony is that those charged with the education of the public, through public institutions, have made modern and contemporary art so inscrutable, simultaneously making the public feel incredibly ignorant, as to make this art ultimately inaccessible to the average taxpayer who funds the museums and national organizations that pay for these art works. However this is a topic for another day.

One thing must be made clear however: in order to express an informed opinion on taste, one needs to educate oneself on the subject at hand. In the art world for example, it is entirely possible to understand a work of modern or contemporary art while simultaneously rejecting it as being cheap and unappealing. You can dislike the work of an artist, or not think much of his creation as a work of art, but still admire the skill that went into its creation. Perhaps this is why so much of modern and contemporary art is lost on the average viewer, for so much of it shows little or no artistic skill whatsoever; rather, more often it merely encapsulates the fulminations of a self-aggrandized mind unable to commit itself to much of anything.

At the same time, rejecting anything modern and contemporary in exclusive favor of some sort of aping of the past is not the path to good taste either. We must live in the age in which we find ourselves, even if we admire the past or anticipate the future. To say that all statues should be carved to look like the work of Praxiteles is, frankly, as silly as saying that because you made 100 vaguely humanoid figures out of cast iron that you are a talented sculptor to begin with.

Sometimes I heartily endorse the embrace of the tacky, the kitsch, and so on; so long as one does not take it seriously, it can do no harm. Personally however, even if you find yourself in the Alps this summer, I do not recommend that you drop by to visit “Horizon Field”. It is, quite simply, irredeemably tacky. And it is okay for you to think so, too.

Vorarlberg Mountains, Austria
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