The older I get, the more I interrogate my own critique of the new-new thing. Even the quickest retrospective glance reveals cultural history as a kind of ping-pong: the oldsters are appalled by the youngers, and when the youngers grow old, they are briefly surprised at finding their parents’ words emerging from their own mouths. Then they get used to it, and the generations roll on.
So take this with a pinch of trepidation, or at least a grain of salt, but I’m feeling more and more fed up with what seems to me to be a wildly misguided and rapidly emergent impulse in art and commerce, which is to hold nothing sacred, to mount an imitation of realness in which both art and authenticity are left lying on the studio floor.
Take the case of the canned parrots of Telegraph Hill. In San Francisco, that rocky North Beach neighborhood is famous for its wild parrots, tended for many years by musician Mark Bittner. He was profiled in Judy Irving’s lovely 2003 film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and in Bittner’s own book of the same name.
Recently, some young entrepreneurs opening the kind of trendily unspecific shop which seems more and more ubiquitous as San Francisco becomes increasingly unaffordable decided to intrigue passers-by with a display of cans labelled “Boiled Parrot in Gravy.” The display alludes to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, of course, and the contents were carefully chosen to reflect the shop’s aspirational brand as described by the filmmaker/graphic designer who created the installation: “a curated modern general store for the neighborhood, with a creative, craft and art focus … it’ll be sort of a neighborhood clubhouse, with a retail angle.”
But many of the neighbors were horrified, including one who left a note calling it a disgrace and saying the shop is in the wrong neighborhood. The proprietors responded by making a joke out of that, mounting a sign that parodies the conventional commercial statement of rootedness: “In the wrong neighborhood since 2015.”
Indeed, they seem completely tone-deaf in relation to the offense they offered the neighborhood. They evidently hold the belief that art can and should be enjoyed without reference to its meaning, purpose, or context:
”We thought, ‘How funny would it be to create an installation that made it look like we were going to open a hyperlocal, hyper-sustainable business that was using the most hyperlocal food item?’” Baltezore said. “We wouldn’t harm parrots. We love parrots … In this era, there’s a little too much emphasis on what people’s reaction is to art, rather than enjoying it on its own merits.”
All the details can be found at a local news site, which thoroughly documented the controversy. The detail that made me decide to write this blog was a response Mark Bittner offered to the San Francisco Chronicle:
“I understand what it’s supposed to be, but I think it’s just little-boy humor,” Bittner wrote in an email. “It’s not art. Real artists make powerful, mature statements. This is postmodern nonsense, the inability to be sincere about anything. You don’t create ridicule around something that is pure, but weak. Nature is having a hard enough time from human beings.”
Well, I’m also skeptical about claims for “real artists,” as I don’t think “artist” is a spiritual quality so much as a practical one, and there are just as many artists as in any other line of work whose claims to maturity are open to question. But on the total lack of sincerity—what I see as an inability or refusal to recognize the difference between impersonating realness and inhabiting it—and the failure to recognize that a joke at the expense of the endangered is not just a joke, on these points, Bittner has hit it right on the head.
When we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, we kept bumping into a style phenomenon centering on the “lumbersexual.” These are men with long beards, short hair, plaid shirts, lumberjack boots, and the soft hands of those who have never wielded an ax. It’s an amazingly widespread design statement which seems to have a very clear meaning, expressing through imitation the desire for a realness presumably possessed by actual lumberjacks.
I got to see this close-up because my husband is a sculptor (and a former builder) who often works in wood. He has a huge inventory of wood tools and a full set of callouses to match. I’ve watched the young men in lumberjack drag flock around him at his exhibits: the gaze and tone of voice seem completely unambiguous, a kind of a astonishment at being in the presence of the real thing one has set out to imitate.
If the result of all this impersonation were a revival of finely executed work employing the same level of craft and care to produce equally meticulous art, then it would be merely admiration, inspiration for an art movement worth noting. But I see a lot of work that aspires without commensurate investment, resulting in slapdash: a piece of driftwood clumsily tied into a mobile, a rag rug that fails to rise to the level of one made with necessity driving design, a log sliced into sections lacking evidence of an artist’s hand, luxury priced to sell to consumers hungry for realness.
I’m aware of the complexity of these distinctions. In the late eighties, when the Catholic League and others condemned Andres Serrano’s photos of crucifixions immersed in bodily fluids, their outrage was fueled by the conviction that he committed sacrilege, disrespecting the symbols of their own faith. My own view is that they were mistaken, that they failed to see the sacred in the human body which was so central to the artist’s work. I can’t think of Serrano’s “Piss Christ” without also thinking of Allen Ginsburg’s 1955 “Footnote to Howl,” with its ecstatic assertions of holiness in even what some think most profane:
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
I’m aware that when my cohort in the sixties leapt at handiwork as an aspect of collective redemption—we ground the wheat to bake bread, macramed every belt and plant hanger, fashioned our own envelopes out of scraps of rice paper rather than buying the manufactured kind—we were also imitating something, striving for realness in countless attempts to satisfy mundane needs by investing time, ingenuity, and the work of our hands. At the time, it felt like another way of dealing a blow to the machine, something akin to burning one’s draft card.
I don’t much like expressing a view that can (and no doubt will) be dismissed by those who fail to see what’s wrong with a display of canned parrot meat right around the corner from a D-I-Y parrot sanctuary, or who string together a sentence like “there’s a little too much emphasis on what people’s reaction is to art, rather than enjoying it on its own merits.” But I need to express it nonetheless. When we lose our compass this way—whether aesthetic, moral, or political—the remedy that works best is to return to the questions I ask in many of my talks and writings:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to remembered?
Not for dealing another blow to art, authenticity, realness, I hope and pray.
Leonard Cohen, “Bird On The Wire.”