This is not a table

Rubbish art has always been around. Contemporary artists however seem increasingly tempted to use trash as a medium in itself. The now customary pile of rubbish is on display at the much-hyped «Destroy Athens,» the city’s first contemporary art biennial with the lofty ambition to shatter stereotypes and predetermined concepts about man (in a self-defeating twist the exhibition takes the visitor on a predetermined, tube-like route). Modern art may or may not be trash but trash is definitely modern art. Hoping to shatter urban stereotypes by erecting a mountain of litter is somewhat unfashionable and futile, especially in a city like Athens that has enough rubbish of its own. The critics may love this and other exhibits of the show, but the overwhelming majority of the local audience appears to either yawn at or mock most of them. Sure, ugliness is all around us. But we don’t need to pay a 10-euro admission. Contemporary artists have set themselves a tough task: to shock a near-unshockable public. Artists are going to ever-greater lengths to provoke their audience, but today’s violence-dominated world – the evening news bulletin has definitely done its part – has produced a certain immunity among the viewing public. Yet they try. Heaps of trash, cans filled with excrement and dead animals immersed in formaldehyde are paraded as art these days. But is it? A museum rubbish collector once famously binned a Damien Hirst installation taking it at face value. The emperor is not wearing any clothes, his enemies said. In Kimberly Clark’s «Crusade, Rotterdam,» a female figure – «a profane reference to the female symbol of the French Revolution as depicted in Delacroix’s famous painting» (sic) – stands atop a pile of totally crushed discarded objects. But this is by no means the most provocative exhibit of «Destroy Athens.» After exhibiting a photo of his naked self having sex with a watermelon at «Outlook» three years ago, Thanassis Totsikas is back with a non-stop vomit video starring himself. Never has an artist so aptly pre-empted his audience. What is art? Who decides? Are there any objective criteria? Postmodernist pundits are keen to cite the lack of absolute standards. Something is art, they say, as long as its creator – or the curator – says it is. Somewhat conveniently, contemporary art – especially its conceptual genre – depends heavily on the need for explanation, which suggests a rather elitist, if not dubious, perception of art as something beyond the reach of the uneducated masses. If the audience doesn’t comprehend it, it’s the fault of the audience. If the audience doesn’t like it, well so much the better; after all, art is intended to provoke. If the audience gets offended, then we can expect another pompous broadside against censorship (then again, there’s no such thing as bad publicity for the media-savvy). Again conveniently, conceptual art doesn’t seem to require too much skill. Many artists openly admit they can’t draw. Absurd sculptures, obscure installations and incomprehensible videos are showcased in the biennial alongside extremely prosaic objects: a rag hanging from a bucket or a white table (an IKEA-style rest area may or may not have been part of the show). On the whole, meaning often appears to get lost in a deliberate cloud of vagueness and abstraction. Inaccessibility becomes a disguise for the blatant absence of talent. It’s elitism in reverse. The artistic medium is now accessible to the masses but the meaning is not. This is no longer about art. It’s about the artist. Much like the dot-com bubble, modern art is based on a confidence trick, said Ivan Massow in a public rebuke that led to his expulsion from Britain’s Institute of Contemporary Arts a few years ago. The elite of the art world has invested too much in it to stand outside and criticize it. We need not worry. Even if there are no objective criteria to choose between a Monet and a modern installation, there’s still good reason to believe that most people would pick the Monet for their living room wall. Contemporary art seems to generate more controversy than admiration. And thankfully, a fair dose of humor. As a critic of Marcel Duchamp once told a BBC survey on modern art, «If a urinal with your name written on it qualifies, then this bloke called Armitage Shanks must be one of the most prolific artists ever.»

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