Diner Dogma 5: Destroy All Art
This time, sniping malcontents K and L have finally come to Greenwich Village’s historic Waverly Restaurant at 6th Ave. & Waverly Place, a little bit north of their usual stomping grounds. It’s a great old joint with frenzied service and lots of framed 8 x 10’s of no-name actors up on the walls.

K: (Sniffs the air, which is cigarette smoke-free for the first time ever thanks to NYC's draconian new laws, and settles into booth) The idea I want to put forward for discussion today is that art receives far, far too much respect, and that we’d be better off if we destroyed it all. Except for the digital stuff, of course, which gets a pass because it doesn’t really take up any room.

There’s always been this widespread sense in pop culture, which is ruled by sentimental liberal humanists, that art is a transcendent magical thing which somehow ennobles our lives. You’ll always hear this referred to when people talk about why we should support and fund the arts. Which is just superstitious. It ties art up in this idea of the “ineffable”. And this is where the idea that art has to be a valuable object comes from too, this idea of the magic of the human hand. So I’m completely opposed to that. One of the things I enjoy about digital art is that it really erodes the idea of the magic…

L: …of the artist’s hand, imbuing the object with some intangible quality.

K: Yes. Because digitally, things that are quite beautiful and compelling can arise from a few simple commands. Do x, rather than y, and add z to it and suddenly you have a complicated, beautiful process unfolding. And there’s nothing magical about it. It’s eminently repeatable and it’s programmable. And being able to “Undo” things shows us this as well I think. When you’re working in Photoshop you say, oh that was the wrong choice, I’ll go backwards and try again.

All of this kind of strips away the romance and the magic but it still allows beautiful and/or compelling things that can be made - there’s just less and less of this “magic”. Which makes me think that we should stop treating Art with so much respect. We should treat it with much more contempt.

The thought experiment I would propose is this: Suppose someone was holding a gun to the head of an adorable little toddler, and they looked at everyone and said “Take all of the art in the world, put it in a big pile and light it on fire or I’ll kill this kid! I’ll murder this little moppet with a shot through his adorable head!” Now, my question to you L. is, what would you do?

L: Burn the art?

K: Well done. Because, so what? None of that art is worth anything in the final analysis, compared to a human life. And I don’t mean to be a wimpy sentimental humanist, saying that human life is better than anything, but it’s certainly worth more than a bunch of old paintings and sculptures. I think we should ritualistically destroy all the art in the world every hundred years – destroy all art! Get rid of it entirely.

L: Perhaps we could make it an annual event and just destroy a few hundred thousand pieces each year.

K: Sure, as long as it leads to the complete destruction of all pre-existing art. Because I think that what art is, rather than some magical thing (and I’m certainly not alone in this, this is a popular view at the moment among evolutionary biologists and sociologists who think in evolutionary terms) art is much more a sexual display, culture has its roots in the idea of getting sex.

So just as a peacock fluffs up his spectacularly beautiful tail to show that it is strong and healthy and has so much energy and so many resources that it can waste them on a display, so does the artist signify to a potential mate a super-abundance of resources by making some otherwise useless thing to look at.

L: In our culture it’s kind of ironic, only a few artists have achieved wealth from their work, so in most cases there’s no real resources behind the display.

K: I think really where it works more is when your potential boyfriend tells you he doesn’t make art, he collects it.

L: Right.

K: Because art has no “use value”, in the classic Duchampian definition. He can afford to buy these things that have no use value, they’re essentially displays, they’re decoration.

And artists make the work for this same reason, but it’s a pretty misguided undertaking because it usually leads to nothing more than poverty as you suggested. But I think many artists do still get laid because a lot of people just biologically respond to this display. For most of our evolutionary history that made sense because very few people had the option to sit around and make art except for people who had resources. Whereas now, even poor people can still feed themselves because of the general superabundance of food in America, so being an artist is a much easier option.

So I think it’s a natural biologically-driven thing to put on these cultural displays that have no other worth than to demonstrate or cultivate our attractiveness. Nevertheless, people have this idea about the quality of art - which is meaningless outside of context, a piece of art is only good or bad insofar as it achieves the goals laid out for it by its social context - so within its social context we have this idea that certain pieces of art are better and therefore more valuable than other pieces.

L: For example?

K: The Mona Lisa. (long pause, sounds of chewing) There’s a piece of work that’s at the very heart of art, it is the artwork par excellence.

L: You could in fact say that image is synonymous with the word Art.

K: Yes. It’s the ultimate art lexis. So the idea of burning it would make many people upset. It’s also an example of the relativism of the idea of quality because it’s not a particularly great painting, it’s good for what it is but there are many fine Renaissance portraits of women, it’s not head and shoulders above the others by any means. It’s just been written about so much and focused on so much and concentrated on so much that it’s become like this huge black hole that just sucks up all of this attention through its enormous field of cultural gravity.

L: I don’t think people question the arbitrary nature of its selection. Some other painting could have easily ended up with the “ultimate artwork” status instead of the Mona Lisa.

K: And if it was painted today, in today’s social context no one would even like it. They wouldn’t think that it was particularly good. And they would mock the artist that was making it and say that his work was not valid. So what would happen if we destroyed it? Would art never again have its greatest masterpiece?

L: Of course it would.

K: If we destroyed all the art I think a thousand years later the same pattern would have repeated itself. You would have new masterpieces, new objects that people would think were the greatest works of art which could ever be made. They would just ooze out, like a natural excrescence. And yet there are people today who, if they saw you running at the Mona Lisa with an axe, would try to kill you. You know?

L: I know.

K: So for many people these objects are worth more than your life, which is a ridiculous distortion. And there’s so much bad art even by our current lax definition of good art. I think that over the last 30 years it’s become impossible to have art criticism. Criticality doesn’t mean anything compared to 30 years ago or 40 years ago. In order to have criticality you need to have a broadly based understanding and agreement about what constitutes art’s socially determined value.

And when you don’t have a quorum for that the discussion falls apart and what you’re left with is just an attempt to explain the work. This is what you typically see in art magazines, an attempt to put the work into some historical academic context, not to decide whether or not it’s any good. Because you have to have the context first and the critic now sees that as their job, to create the context rather than evaluate the work within the context.

Which is unfortunate because one of the interesting things about all the other arts is criticality, watching people attack things and have these big arguments and controversies. That’s why people read that magazine Coagula, because it actually criticizes art world people - and they should be fair game because they’re mostly awful - but I think they don’t spend enough time criticizing the art itself. Art needs a good spanking. The fact that there’s so little actual criticality contributes to how weak most artwork has become. It’s so cut off from the rest of the culture.

L: May I point out, and this is entirely off topic, that the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever is playing in the background.

K: (To waiter) Can we get some more water please? (Back to L) More Than A Woman by the Bee Gees has been the beneficiary of tremendous critical attack, as well as revisionary thinking in the last decade that has turned that on its head and seen the great strength and beauty of the work. What this tends to show is that thousands of years from now it will be considered a great piece of high culture.

L: More Than A Woman??

K: More Than A Woman, sure. Ultimately the distinction between academic work and popular work is temporary and arbitrary, there’s nothing real about it. It’s all these displays and within certain contexts some of it is better than others - but you have to define that context. More Than A Woman is a terrible rock song but a great pop song. Where is our water?

All of which to say - bringing this back around to the idea of working digitally - that even though a higher percentage of digital art is crappy - higher than any other art form - the one thing you can say in its favor is that it doesn’t take up much space. So you don’t even have to say “let’s destroy it”, you can say “let’s just not open up that file or go to that website”. Its not like we’re all tripping over it, which is the problem when you go over to someone’s house who makes bad work and you can’t even swing a cat because of all their crappy art.

I was recently in a little town in California and there’s just all of this terrible, awful art in everyone’s house because everyone thinks of themselves as a romantic artisan, making pots and doing these paintings that fall all over themselves in their homage to late 19th Century Impressionism. Now imagine how much art is lying around Williamsburg! All of these people making this work which will never get seen, right? And here we are in a city where there’s hardly any room to live. Imagine how many acres and acres of space are taken up by this art which will never be looked at and never even get anyone laid! Why make it if it doesn’t get you laid?

L: Less art, more housing.

K: Or just less art, more sex.

Waiter: More coffee?

L: No thanks.

K: (pause) So I’d like to close this off by quoting that great American punk band the Weirdos, who sang, “And I say, destroy all music, and I say… you just can’t use it.”