The old saw is that modern art is as absurd as it is easy. It’s a “racket” as your bitter and often intoxicated Uncle Lloyd might say, if not a certain president. The system is rigged, it seems, if random bottles dangling from a string or a blank white canvas is considered fine art.
“I’ll paint me a circle like that and make a million dollars.”
Of course, embedded in that statement of ignorance is the larger absurdity, the notion that artists make millions of dollars. Some of them may, but most teach or work dull gigs for health insurance.
Such anti-intellectualism, to an extent, is instinctual. I’ll admit to being skeptical about modern art, which is probably why I don’t recall ever visiting a modern art museum before now. This despite having a fine arts degree myself, fashioning myself as a person who reads Thoreau and Joyce for pleasure, and being a filmmaker and aficionado of foreign cinema. Under the hood I’m only a hair less reactionary than old Uncle Lloyd.
On a recent trip to Chicago, though, I was granted my first modern art museum experience. We went there with the family. It was a the brain child of my daughter, whose primary ambition (at fourteen) wasn’t to revel in the mind and vision of artists striving to understand the meaning of being human in our age, but rather to take “artsy” photos for her Instagram and Snapchat accounts. And perhaps this is evidence that social media isn’t entirely rotten, despite the president’s, pornographers’, alt-right trolls’ and marketers’ efforts to make it so.
So we made a family trip downtown. Fortunately, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is an amazing place, something that was made evident as soon as we entered to find Maurizio Cattelan’s fanciful skeleton of a cat rendered in dinosaur proportions. I snapped a poorly composed photo that has the cat creature positioned to devour my niece Emma’s head.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play. But there were on exhibit some of the oft-ridiculed blank white canvases and also a collection of drinking glasses nailed to the wall, plus some bottles hanging from strings looking like some half-finished bird feeder project dangling in a tree behind Uncle Lloyd’s place. Too, there were Andy Warhol’s soup cans. Most of the pieces required the context provided by written descriptions on cards next to the works for me to be able to grasp the profundity of what I was seeing. But overall the impression I left with with was that of art that is current, alive, relevant and more vibrant than anything I’d viewed in a museum before.
As a writer, I’ve used the word ‘museum’ plenty of times as a metaphor for something dead, old and perhaps no longer relevant. Museum can pejoratively seen as warehouses for things, cultures and civilizations whose time has passed. But the MCA in Chicago was filled with works that shimmered, electric with the issues that are central to our time.
Most impactful for me was an exhibition called “Backstroke of the West” by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. Central to the exhibit was a series of recreations of Mesopotamian artwork lost to looters of the Iraqi National Museum during the Iraq War. These recreations were fashioned out of food packaging materials, gaudy bits of paper and cardboard covered in Arabic script. Again the context cards were essential: each description contained a quote from a curator of the museum who witnessed the looting, things like, “I feel like my soul is being ripped away.”
I’ve heard the story of the looting of Baghdad’s historic treasures a number of times, but nothing I’ve experienced has made me actually feel what it might have been like for those involved. And this the key difference between information and art. As a video producer and a writer, I’ve written articles and shot interviews. But I’ve also dabbled in filmmaking and fiction writing. And I believe the true difference is in how the story is told. As a filmmaker, you try to make something that extracts an emotion from the viewer. It’s beyond facts. It’s more than well-crafted scenes and beautiful imagery.
And here is where Rakowitz’s exhibition hit home. He had used art as a vehicle that allows me to slip through time and experience a fraction of what the Iraqi curators must have felt at seeing their life’s work dismantled before their very eyes.
It was alive, suddenly, and happening before my eyes as well. Another part of the exhibit featured stone recreations of ancient books that had been lost in wars: some were Jewish texts burned by Nazis and others were German works destroyed by British firebombing. And what was most fascinating, perhaps, was that these stone replicas were fashioned out of rock quarried from where the Taliban destroyed sixth-century statues of the Buddha in 2001. The mind-bending beauty of that notion, of one lost culture memorialized out of the detritus of another, was breathtaking.
I learned that, like literature and film, great visual art is alive. A notion that was no less revelatory for me than it also is banal. I once again managed to wrangle the obvious into novelty, if only in my own mind. Contemporary art is a powerful conductor of emotion. It makes us relive history. It allows us to experience loss in a way we never imagined possible. And I was immediately able to connect this dramatic sense of cultural loss to another ongoing obliteration that we’re living through right now.
For many, museums are sacred. They house the things most valued by a culture. That’s certainly true for those Iraqi curators, who, despite living under the iron fist of a hideous despot and then surviving an onslaught and ham-fisted invasion by a reckless foreign empire, could look with pride upon their heritage and history as the most ancient of cradles of human civilization. The evidence had been alive for them right there, in their museum. It was what helped them to endure. And our culture facilitated its obliteration.
For me, my museum (as well as my church and refuge) has been the natural world, whether a remote alpine lake or a copse in a city park, I’ve always looked to the natural world for inspiration or comfort. And like the looted antiquities of Iraq, that natural heritage has been steadily pillaged throughout history. I’ve recently completed a film, Saving Atlantis, which I co-directed with Justin Smith, about the loss of the world’s coral reefs. We are losing these reefs as a careless byproduct of the human hunger for fossil fuels. Just as if you were to ask George W. Bush if he intended for his invasion to dismantle the cultural heritage assembled in Baghdad’s museum, he certainly would have denied it. He may have even expressed dismay. Cheney and Rumsfeld may have shrugged it off as an unfortunate byproduct of a necessary action. But I don’t think any GOP (or Democratic) supporter of the war would have sought that outcome.
And too, I don’t think there is a single GOP voter or politician who actually, deep in his (and less often her) heart, wants to destroy the world’s coral reefs. But through their thumb-in-the eye politics, where they simply define themselves as being against whatever cause those who lean left find pressing, they are pushing mightily to destroy what remains of these fragile ecosystems. Indeed, we are all culpable, by our carelessness. Our reckless use of carbon. Any solution requires us each to act. To do what we can. Travel less. Take the bike. Choose chicken over beef or leave the chicken out altogether. Pay the extra ten bucks a month for clean energy. Put up solar panels. &c, &c. But solutions mostly require the might of nations to move entire populations, and our nation and its current regime, not so different from the one that destroyed Baghdad’s museums, is the only one in the world to proudly wear the antagonistic cloak of denial.
And so, my museum. My church. The glaciers. The keystone predators. The bees and insects. They’re being dismantled. Willfully. Our environmental legacy, so hard-won after the enlightenment of Sand County Almanac, Silent Spring, The Sixth Extinction, the films of Jacques Cousteau and the revolution in thought that produced, as if almost by accident, the Endangered Species Act, first of its kind in the world, the National Park System, first of its kind in the world, the ideas that arose out of Thoreau and Muir and Man and Nature, American ideas championed largely by Republicans…and now look at where we are today. The world’s greatest power has smashed the gates and now stands back as the vultures circle. Our Mesopotamia is being looted. And we mostly watch with a shrug.
So this is what I felt as I drifted through the Rakowitz exhibit. And that sickening feeling, that seed of despair that I carry with me everywhere, was identified through the art. The art made me look at it, understand it. Deal with it.
On its surface, contemporary art can still seem absurd. A controlled form of insanity. Bottles hanging from strings. Looted Mesopotamian artifacts reconstructed out of trash that make you think of the ongoing dismantling of the natural world. Does it make sense at any level?
To me it does. Now. After a lifetime of not really getting it. And I hope that it won’t take me another forty-seven years to revisit it.