Atlas – 98th – Ben Lerner and the vandals
Sometimes I find an article so compelling its the only thing I want to talk about. This is that. Author Ben Lerner’s argument in Damage Control, a Harpers article from Dec 2013 is ostensibly about the modern art world’s tyranny of price. This is just one of the pegs he hangs his hat on in the provocative article that includes the the acts slashing, kissing and pissing on art. This article, like much of the authors writing, offers all the bread crumbs to lead us down his path of reasoning.
Lerner is the author of several books of poetry and now two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. I enjoyed and recommend Leaving the Atocha Station, a short novel about a poet abroad doubting his art, his status as a foreigner and his capacity to remain properly medicated. I am devouring his new novel 10:04, which has so far included Back To The Future, Christa McAuliffe, Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Occupy Wall Street. In the Harper’s article Damage Control, we hear his notion of the vandal, the obsessive and art free of value, though not without value. The vandal is personified in several examples, the most prevalent being the tagging of a Rothko at the Tate Modern. These paintings, which I hold so dear, were scribbled on by a man claiming some anti-art leanings (which Lerner and most journalists see through as shallow propaganda). The author argues both sides allowing that Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning may have once been radical but no longer. These current acts of vandalism are performance, if often misguided, but still a performance that has before and will again be embraced by the art community.
From here Lerner guides us to the land of obsessives experiencing hyperkulturemia; a psychosomatic condition that leads to an overwhelming of senses or panic. A favorite anecdote of mine that gets brief mention is about the second man to slash a Barnett Newman. Gerard Jan van Bladeren took a knife to Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III in Amsterdam in 1986. He went to jail for 5 months. 11 years later he walked into the same museum and slashed Newman’s Cathedra. Many have pissed on Duchamp’s Fountain and one woman smooched a Cy Twombly with bright red lipstick. Some of these cases certainly seem to be about attention getting and other seem so pathological that they are beyond rationalization.
In the end Lerner investigates the Salvage Art Institute, the project of Elka Krajewska who has exhibited work that was written off as a total loss by AXA insurance. The 2012 exhibition had paintings, sculpture and photographs that viewers could handle (are they still designated as “viewers”?). The art is here, damaged maybe, but still a much loved object These works, to Lerner, are now saved and freed from their market life and can transcend market value.
The arguments and open-ended resolutions branch out in many directions, away from art as valuable object and towards art as valuable principle. Though I do not agree with the defense of attention seeking vandalism as a defense of performance, I think Lerner tackles a tough subject with a unyielding personal insight.
-Jeff Bergman October 2014
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