NYC Trip: Bad and Ugly at the Met

Having done a whirlwind and somewhat disappointing swing through the Museum of Natural History, I strolled across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to get me some culture. I guessed correctly that it was less likely to be choked with middle-school kids, and I never fail to find something interesting to look at.

Of course, art being art, I always find some crap, too, so let's get that out of the way first. Also, it's easier to blog snidely about art I didn't care for than to explain the wonders of the stuff I did like.

We'll start off easy, though, with the Gustave Courbet exhibit now showing. I feel a little bad about throwing this in here, because the paintings on display were mostly unobjectionable, and the Portrait of the Artist as a Deranged Johnny Depp is quite striking.

The problem was with the history.

Courbet was apparently known for his scandals as much as his painting, and appears to have gone to some lengths to make sure he was as notorious as possible. His chief accomplishment seems to have been shocking the French art world by painting giant pictures of ordinary people doing ordinary things, on a scale that had previously been reserved for history paintings. When some of his paintings were refused by an art exposition in Paris, he responded by setting up his own "Pavilion of Realism" within sight of the official pavilion, to thumb his nose at the establishment by exhibiting a bunch of his own stuff.

Really, nobody in this story comes off well-- it's one big group of People Who Need to Get Over Themselves. Courbet comes off as an arrogant ass, while the art establishment of the day sound hopelessly stuffy-- I mean, seriously, an eight-foot-high painting of a sheep is a giant scandal? Grow the hell up.

This might not seem all that objectionable, but for context, just prior to wandering into the Courbet exhibit, I had gone to the roof garden, because it was a glorious spring day in New York. Up on the roof, they were exhibiting sculpture by Jeff Koons, which was dominated by a ten-foot high yellow chrome sculpture of a balloon dog.

This was, honestly, the second stupidest thing I saw all day. I mean, it's sort of funny in a "Holy shit, somebody got cheated out of a lot of money when they bought that" kind of way (though it doesn't come close to Rothko in that regard), but really, on a gorgeous day, I don't want to go up to the roof to look out over Central Park and see a gigantic shiny balloon dog in the middle of my view.

And this is really the problem I have with Courbet, because this sort of giant-scale raspberry at the art world is the spiritual heir of his manufactured scandals-- when art starts to be as much about making obscure philosophical or academic points as about making attractive objects that speak to people, it loses me. I mean, yes, I understand that the monumental scale of Koons's sculpture and the whimsy of the subject call into question the very notion of what it means for a piece of sculpture to be Art, and blah, blah, blah, but if you listen really closely, you can hear the faint sound of the art world crawling up its own ass. It sounds a lot like a clown twisting a balloon into the shape of a dog.

The Koons sculptures were the second stupidest thing I saw at the Met, though. The very stupidest, bar none, was the exhibit on Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. This consisted of a zig-zagging hall lined with mirrors and display cases containing mannequins decked out in "movie costumes, avant-garde haute couture, and high-performance sportswear." For example, they had the Batman suit worn by Christian Bale in The Dark Knight, surrounded by vaguely Batman-themed "fashion" designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and others of his ilk.

Modern sculpture mostly leaves me cold, but if you want to see a totally bankrupt enterprise, you really can't get any better than the world of "avant-garde haute couture," which as near as I can tell is some sort of decades-long sadistic joke being played out on rich people and women. What an astonishing waste of time this exhibit was-- no amount of high-minded catalogue copy about body image can make a mannequin wearing an outfit that looks like the costume for a rejected character from The Tick seem worthwhile to me.

Frankly, I'd be tempted to call it the most worthless thing I've seen in a museum, were it not the likely inspiration for the fancy ball described in this Go Fug Yourself category, which is almost hilarious enough to justify the superhero fashion show. Almost.

Happily, though, the Met is a huge museum, and contains some spectacularly good stuff as well. I'll talk about that in the next post.

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Dear Chad, don't be flabbergasted by balloon dogs and couture. Don't even be disgusted: be *bored.* It's the best slap-down to avant-garde hype.

I hear you on the "art" meant only to make some kind of statement. When I look at art I want to see amazing skill and beauty, not "Okay, what weird subject can I pass off as art next?"

I hear you on the "art" meant only to make some kind of statement. When I look at art I want to see amazing skill and beauty, not "Okay, what weird subject can I pass off as art next?"

That's certainly one way to approach art, and everyone is welcome to their own preference, but art is bigger than that.

By Mike Bruce (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

So, I looked at pictures of the balloon dog and it's pretty funny, and very cool to look at. It isn't deep or anything, but the idea of a gigantic chrome balloon dog makes me smile, so I approve.

By Mike Bruce (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

...and blah, blah, blah, but if you listen really closely, you can hear the faint sound of the art world crawling up its own ass. It sounds a lot like a clown twisting a balloon into the shape of a dog.

As an academician and scientist, I think the statement makes just as much sense if you substitute "the art world" with "academic science". The art world has certainly not cornered the market on toadpuffed self-important bloviating, nor on sycophantic devotion to the latest fads.

Remember the Cell parody, Cool? It was only funny because it rang true.

The trouble is that Flaubert called on artists "épater les bourgeois" in 1858, and it's getting old. Les bourgeois have been épaté into submission ever since, and they no longer care, in fact they spend large sums of money on wannabe épatant art for their own amusement.

Maybe it would be fun to think of a new game.

Come on, Chad, why not post about the materials physics of that balloon dog? Is it really corrosion free?

I think the Koons sculpture is a rather clever idea, and making it would require serious talent. Perhaps you're just channeling Emmy's jealousy. "Why is everyone going to see that dog and not me?"

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink