2003 Notebook: Weak XVIII
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30 April 2003
No. 1,310 (cartoon)
You’re acting rather cheerful.

Don’t worry, it’s only an act.

1 May 2003
Faux Popcorn Torture
Yesterday’s edition of the San Francisco Telegraph published a sensational exposé of Saddam Hussein’s private torture chamber, with evidence provided by “anonymous sources deep within the U.S. military.” The report detailed how Hussein used to kill his enemies by forcing then to eat half a kilo of popcorn and used motor oil. Some hours later, the evil tyrant would force his victims into a giant microwave oven. According to the story, Hussein would watch his victims explode while he had sex with a goat. Afterward, guards fed the bloody popcorn to the unfortunate goat. The story was illustrated with a grisly photograph of a bloated man covered in wounds as well as a generic shot of a goat.

Today’s edition of the Observer, however, thoroughly pooh-poohed the story as a crude hoax. Deitrich Hemmel, a spokesperson for Amnesty International, noted that the alleged victim suffered from multiple punctures, not the exit wounds that popcorn would have caused. Furthermore, Hemmel revealed that the photograph was plagiarized from a 1961 book, Acupuncture in Action. The image depicted a botched attempt to treat a man suffering from elephantiasis.

There’s no propaganda like war propaganda!

2 May 2003
Art for Thirty-nine Dollars and Twenty-five Cents
Tonight, I went to an opening at the the Plumas County Arts Commission Gallery in Quincy, California.

The work on exhibit was unexceptional, but at least the venue featured an intriguing price structure. Each print was available for the curious price of thirty-six dollars and twenty-six cents .

“Excuse me,” I asked the director, “but how did you decide to sell work for thirty-six dollars and twenty-six cents?”

“With sales tax,” she explained, “the total comes to thirty-nine dollars and twenty-five cents.”

“I guess my next question would be why you chose a net cost of thirty-nine dollars and twenty-five cents.”

“Well,” she said, “that avoids the forty-dollar ouch factor, and it gives the buyer three quarters in change. You’d be surprised how many people want quarters for parking meters and washing machines and so on. It’s a great little marketing device.”

I didn’t think much about this—or any other—art marketing strategy. I’ve always taken Gertrude Stein’s position, “A work of art is either priceless or worthless.”

3 May 2003
Meeting Mark Citret
I met the photographer Mark Citret today. He showed me a handsome volume of photographs, and we enjoyed a pleasant conversation. I told him I liked his work very much, and that I was surprised that he hadn’t included the borders of the Polaroid negatives I’d seen on his previous work.

That’s when Mark Citret cheerfully informed me that I was thinking of Mark Klett.


I apologized for my ignorance, but he didn’t seem taken aback. It wasn’t clear whether he was used to being confused with Mark Klett or unsurprised by my ignorance. I didn’t ask, so I’ll never find out. All I needed to know is that Mark Citret suffers fools gladly.

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4 May 2003
AA View
I was walking along the river in Taylorsville when I saw the marker on the tree by the river. The sign had only two characters, “AA.” I immediately recognized this an indicator placed by The Followers of f64. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, a bizarre group of photo hobbyists has committed itself to identifying “the finest landscapes in the true tradition of the f64 group” by affixing markers “at sites of superlative natural beauty.”

The AA sign I saw indicated that one could make a good “Ansel Adams” photograph at that site. I understand from a friend of mine who works for the U.S. National Park Service that “EW” (Edward Weston) and “IC” (Imogene Cunningham) markers are almost as popular as the ubiquitous “AA” signs.

“Those f64 guys are just whacko,” the ranger said. “They put those damn signs up quicker than we can take them down.”

As cults go, I suppose the f64 disciples are relatively benign. Benign, but nevertheless scary.

5 May 2003
A Missed Weston Collaboration
I just heard that Cole Weston died on 20 April. That’s too bad, although I suppose that living almost eight and a half decades isn’t really too bad at all.

No, the problem is that I never got to work with the last surviving son of Edward Weston. For years, I’d planned on collaborating with Cole on an art project, Edward Weston Tripod Holes. The piece would have simply involved photographing Cole hammering in gold tripod markers at Point Lobos for Weston imitators to use.

I obviously procrastinated too long to do Edward Weston Tripod Holes with Cole. On the other hand, I can still make the piece with one of Edward Weston’s grandchildren, so I continue to procrastinate.

As usual.

6 May 2003
Why You Are Right Not to Like Modern Art
Andreas asked me to write a book review for his magazine, so I did.

I was intrigued by the title, The Eclipse of Art, Tackling the Crisis in Art Today. I thought the book might address the slippery nature of contemporary art that no longer fits into narrow, clearly-defined categories. That turned out to be more or less the theme of the book. Instead of celebrating new freedoms and horizons, the author lamented—at tedious length—that Things Aren’t Nearly as Good as They Used to Be in The Good Old Days.

Since Andreas publishes a classy magazine, I had to write a somewhat professional and objective review. That’s why I like publishing my own writing; I can write in this notebook that The Eclipse of Art, Tackling the Crisis in Art Today is a hilarious diatribe. Any author who titles the introduction to his book “Why you are right not to like modern art” is clearly an exceptional observer.

That was the quick review; I sent the following version to Andreas.

The Eclipse of Art, Tackling the Crisis in Art Today is a timeless book for all the wrong reasons.

Julian Spalding comes from an ancient line of critics; his plaintive laments are as old as art criticism itself. Spalding revisits the eternal argument that these are dark days indeed for art. Hucksters, charlatans, and unscrupulous profiteers are casting a long, dark shadow over the truly worthy art that has been relegated to obscurity.

In the introduction, “Why you are right not to like modern art,” Spalding laments the chasm between “the art being promoted in contemporary galleries and the art people like to hang on their walls at home.” After forty years of observing contemporary art, the author confides that he has “never met anyone who told me they loved modern art.” Spalding concludes his indictment of so-called modern art, “the self-indulgent plaything of a few,” by positing that after the scales are peeled from ignorant eyes, “everywhere art will begin to flower again.”

Spalding uses a specious argument to explain why no one likes contemporary art. “Modern art, by definition, is supposed to offend the public, so, one could argue, people are right to be offended by it. If modern art is really no good, then people are also right to be offended by it. So, whichever way you look at it, the public are right not to like modern art.”

Spalding doesn’t hesitate to assign blame. Jackson Pollock started the eclipse in the language of painting by abandoning the noble brush and pouring paint directly onto canvas, “as if a demented spider.” (Spalding reckons Pollock paid the price for his folly: “... when he had pushed his language as far as it could go, he started to drink again, heavily, and then fatally.”)

In a similar vein, Spalding takes a dim view of Josef Albers’ statement, “I want my art to be as neutral as possible.” The author regards such an approach as nothing less than “the death of art.” Spalding goes on to trace this ignoble lineage to Damien Hirst, a prince of darkness if ever there was one.

“I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it,” Hirst said. “At the moment, if I did certain things, people would look at it, consider it, and then say ‘fuck off.’ But after a while you can get away with things.”

The author doesn’t restrict his malediction to contemporary art. Spalding also revives an old—and almost universally discredited—argument by assuredly pronouncing that photography is not art. “Photography is a mechanical process that need not go through a human mind at all. You do not make a photograph, you take it.” Spalding applauds the example of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who, “for the past quarter of a century ... has given up photography and has taken up drawing ... as a more creative activity.”

Ultimately, Spalding does not make his case. His failure should not be attributed to his bizarre assumptions (“Modern art, by definition, is supposed to offend the public”) or his factual inaccuracies (Cartier-Bresson did not abandon photography twenty-five years ago). The reason The Eclipse of Art will fail to change anyone’s opinion about contemporary art is the author’s demonstrable inability to appreciate any aesthetic less than fifty-years old.

Spalding snubs a nineteenth-century critic for failing to appreciate the new aesthetics of van Gough. “Charles Merki’s review has all the hallmarks of professional jealousy, of someone in the know wanting to cut another down to size. This is not the writing of an outsider who knows nothing of art, but of one whose taste is set in the art that he likes.” The irony will not be lost on twenty-first century readers, who can only marvel that anyone but a bona fide hermit could spend four decades in the art world without meeting anyone who loves modern art.

Art is not dead, nor is it in eclipse, nor is there a crisis. As Marcel Duchamp—dismissed by Spalding as a failed painter—observed, “There is no solution because there is no problem.”

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©2003 David Glenn Rinehart