Suffering As Joke: The Horrors Of The Contemporary Art Press

As regular subscribers know, I read about a dozen or so outlets of the art press every day, so that you don’t have to. Most of the time, I focus on following stories that I like: fascinating discoveries, interesting exhibitions, and so on. For the most part, it’s actually a very difficult and painful task, for this particular corner of the media is primarily focused on the world of Contemporary Art, which the art press worships and makes excuses for in ways that, at times, can be truly sickening.

Take the Chapman Brothers for example. Jake and Dinos Chapman are two middle-aged British brothers who enjoy creating adolescent art in extremely bad taste, in order to shock their viewers. I’ve written about them before, as you can see here. Suffice to say, they create garbage art which they are able to sell for significant amounts of money, largely because the art press is able to persuade major art collectors that they ought to do so.

In their new show at Blain Southern in London, the Chapmans bring together both sculpture and graphic art. We will ignore the unbelievably bad taste that characterizes the former (which are, if you can believe it, bronzes representing terrorist suicide vests), and instead concentrate on the latter. For the Chapmans, you see, are obsessed with “The Disasters of War”: the hugely significant, nightmarish images of atrocities engraved in the early 19th century by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Goya is a monumental figure in art history, whom one might describe – as I did last week to a curator from the Musée d’Orsay, who did not disagree with my assessment – as the Beethoven of Western art. He straddles the world of the Old Masters, from the early part of his career, and the development of what we now call Modern Art, which he helped to usher in. His personal experiences and observations during Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain radically changed what had been the work of a sly, cunning follower of fashion, highly conversant with all of the frippery and mockery of the Rococo era, into a bitter old man who was a brooding, haunted genius, pursued by thoughts and images of evil, suffering, and death.

The Chapmans on the other hand, would be more at home straddling a dirty urinal in the loo of a fast food restaurant. They became famous roughly twenty years ago by deliberately destroying Goya prints in order to make their own art. And that pretty much sums up a good 50% of their output over the past two decades.

Mind you, these Goya works are not the sort of prints you might order from Zazzle at $1.99 a pop, i.e., digital photographs of existing images. Rather, they are printed from the original plates etched by Goya himself, using carefully-chosen inks and papers, and drawn from the printing presses by artisans trained in the skill of producing high-quality, museum-level images. If you wanted to buy one of these prints from an art dealer or at auction, each would cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Apollo Magazine, which used to be a stalwart publication for the promotion of connoisseurship, good taste, and culture for art and antiques enthusiasts. Unfortunately it decided quite some time ago to follow the Tina Brown formula for the revamp of The New Yorker, by cheapening itself for the sake of popularity among the high rollers and hangers-on of the Contemporary Art world. Nowhere is the decline of this particular media outlet more obvious than in its reaction to the latest Chapman expo.

In a piece out yesterday, Apollo described the latest Chapman Brothers show as “superb”, naturally glossing over the fact that Goya’s art is being destroyed in order to create it. It describes as “pleasure” what it terms “the subversion of the horrible to the hilarious.” It observes how, in the Chapmans’ defacing of the etchings, “Goya’s hussars become disco pirates; the dismembered corpses of Grande hazaña! Con Muertos! look like they are wearing leotards or yoga leggings.”

How very “hilarious” it is indeed, to not only destroy great works of art, but to mock the suffering and death of thousands of people. Particularly at a time when Spain is experiencing so much political upheaval and violence, Goya’s prints seem painfully redolent of that country’s bloody past and present. But never mind: in the eyes of Apollo, if the Chapmans can belittle the experience of human suffering, so much the better, because the end result is so amusing.

Unfortunately, the Art Newspaper is no better. In describing the defacing of Goya’s work, the publication explained how the Chapman brothers “have superimposed images of artists such as Jackson Pollock, clowns’ heads and other ghoulish features on to the etchings, which have been reworked in various media (The Disasters of Everyday Life, monochrome collage set; The Disasters of Yoga, glitter set; and The Disasters of War on Terror, watercolour set).” One wonders what Pollock, much as I loathe his work, would think about destroying Goya’s art just so his face could be superimposed upon an etching of a corpse.

While granted, the Art Newspaper’s piece is more of a bland bit of reporting, rather than an exhibition review, like Apollo it fails to question why a reputable gallery, art publication, or the like should even take the time to consider these pieces. In the Chapmans’ empty-headed appropriation of both the hard work and sufferings of others, neither publication appears to hold any qualms. And of course, the greatest irony here is that not only do publications such as the Art Newspaper and Apollo routinely call for the preservation of artists’ rights in their own works, they are the same publications which champion works of Contemporary Art created to draw attention to the suffering of refugees, illegal immigrants, and so on. Perhaps it’s easier for them to overlook the rights of both artists and suffering people who have been dead for quite awhile, since they won’t be posting rejoinders on Instagram or Twitter.

One of the Goya prints defaced by the Chapman Brothers for their latest show is titled “Bárbaros!” (1810), which from the first series of the artists “The Disasters of War” etchings. The original shows a man tied to a tree, facing the trunk, who is about to be shot in the back at very close range. It is one of the many images which Goya created based on what he saw, read, or heard about, during the effort to overthrow Napoleon and his troops. The artist wanted to make certain that the world did not forget what had happened to many innocent people.

Unfortunately it seems that the art media, which gives succor to mental defectives such as the Chapmans in the first place, finds all of this terribly funny: forgive me if I don’t get the joke.

Barbaros

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A Special Voice for the Special Needs Community

If you’ll allow me, I want to make a shameless plug for one of the people I most admire in the world of new media.

Daniel Smrokowski is the founder and host of Special Chronicles, a podcast focusing on those with special needs, and those who care about them. Daniel – or @PodmanDan as he known to those in the media community – has been an online friend for many years now, since back before I was co-hosting the Catholic Weekend show. However we never had the opportunity to meet in person until last weekend, when Dan happened to be in DC for a few days, and invited me to attend a Special Olympics Exhibition Basketball Game.

Having never attended a Special Olympics event before, I was unsure what to expect, but the chance of finally getting to meet Dan in person, even if it was completely on the other side of town, involving an early Saturday morning wake-up and having to attend a sporting event besides, meant that I needed to make the effort.  

Two things struck me about the event, which I was not expecting. The first was the overwhelming amount of enthusiasm of both those with special needs – the cheerleaders, the players, etc. – and those who came to support them. It is hard to describe the enormous amount of love and encouragement that one felt in the school gym that day, at least for someone who has never attended an event like this before. It was probably the most positive sporting event that I have ever attended, one in which there were no egos, no posturings, only people completely enjoying themselves and each other. The sense of community that one could almost palpably feel, even as an outsider, was truly something.

The second thing that I did not expect was the audience reaction to Dan himself. Much as I suspect he would love the opportunity to do so, Dan does not work in media full-time. Like many talented people who express their creativity in new media, Dan has a day job, and spends his free time giving Special Chronicles and Special Olympics as much of his energy as he can. His is truly a labor of love, so that when I got to see him he was deep at work, uploading images to social media, recording interviews for use in future podcasts, coordinating assistants to help him capture video, and so on.

So when anchor Greta Cruz of our local ABC station introduced Dan at the beginning of the game, along with other notables in attendance, noting that he had come all the way from Chicago to cover it, the audience cheered lustily and long. It was a surreal yet humbling experience, to be seated there on the bleachers with hundreds of other people, and hear everyone cheering for Dan and Special Chronicles. One realizes in these moments that the petty things in life – making snide, if totally valid, comments about Lena Dunham on social media, for example – do not really count for much.

The good that Dan is doing, in speaking up for people who are so often marginalized, ignored, hidden away, or directly targeted by our increasingly selfish society, accomplishes far greater good than any wit or acerbity I may endeavor to bring to your inbox with my scribblings. So even though he did not ask me to do so, I encourage you to check out Dan’s work, and if you or someone you know are so inclined as to give this aspiring journalist a break, please seriously consider my recommendation that you do so. He has achieved and will continue to achieve many great things in his career, I have no doubt.

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Podman Dan and The Courtier

If You Think DC Is Snobby, Wait Until You Read This

Did you appreciate that title? Well unless you are one of my subscribers, you had to click on it to get here, so we must suppose the answer is, “Yes.” As you‘ve taken my clickbait, let’s consider the issue of clickbait itself, in light of an article published this morning which is already causing commentary across the country. It’s a perfect example of why clickbait is so effective in achieving its ends, but also so ineffective in fostering higher standards of media creation and content.  

If you haven’t yet read the piece, today’s post from roadsnacks.net purports to list the “snobbiest” cities in the United States. Washington, D.C. turns out to be one of the worst offenders, based on the “science and data” which was reviewed in order to come up with these rankings. DC is the only city on the East Coast to make the top ten, coming in at #7 – just behind Irvine, California, and ahead of Costa Mesa, California.

A quick glance at the Road Snacks site reveals the sort of media content it produces. There are pieces such as “These Are The 10 Most Redneck Cities in Delaware”, which of course will encourage those individuals whom Road Snacks considers to be “rednecks” to read about how the places they live are terrible clichés. The same no doubt holds true for the residents of “The 10 Most Ghetto Cities in Florida”, who apparently also get their time in the sun. Not having taken the bait to click on these, or any of the other similarly titled pieces on the site, let’s return to the “Snobbish Cities” list in question.

In truth, the piece itself is a masterful example of what has come to be known as “clickbait”. By my reading about the controversially-titled piece on a mainstream media site, then clicking through to read the original post, and finally passing that post along to you, the owners of the site have made some dosh through my efforts, without their having to compensate me personally, and without their actually contributing anything whatsoever to a meaningful consideration of the question presented. This is, of course, precisely why these sorts of pieces are written.

The snobbiness or otherwise of Washington, D.C. is something which ought not to concern anyone outside of the D.C. tourism board, which no doubt will be preparing a press statement in response to the piece. True, the author states at the outset that, “[t]his article is an opinion based on facts and is meant as infotainment. Don’t freak out.” While I cannot speak for my fellow Washingtonians, I found little information and no entertainment in reading what, in the end, is little more than a Regina George “Burn Book”.

We may all very well say to ourselves, “Well, I don’t read clickbait,” and perhaps for the most part that may be true. Yet if a significant number of people did not read such pieces, at least on occasion, then they would not continue to be published. If we keep feeding it, we have an insatiable appetite for sensationalism, as evidenced by the media career of the entire Kardashian-Jenner family. And that nadir of media content, gentle reader, is most assuredly not a good thing.

Admittedly, taking the time to write about a piece of clickbait means that I, too, am contributing in some way to the cesspool from which it sprung. Yet perhaps by regularly questioning its value, we can at least try to recall what we are doing to ourselves when we break down and click. We may not be able to fundamentally alter human nature, but without holding up media providers to higher standards, we all end up rolling about in the gutter, however snobbish our zip code may be.

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