Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Crabby about art

Every morning I get an email from Hyperallergic, a newsletter that covers the art scene (I recommend it to anybody who's interested in the wider world of mainstream art).  Today's included a story about a woman who stole a rock from a Yoko Ono exhibit at a museum in Toronto.

The exhibit consisted of a whole lot of river stones that were apparently arranged artfully on the floor.  Some of the stones were inscribed with messages such as "love yourself", written by Yoko herself.  The shtick of the exhibit, which the museum describes as "collaborative," is that viewers are supposed to pick up a stone while "concentrating on the word and letting go of their anger or fear."

Then, presumably after the anger and fear are gone, they're supposed  to put the stone back with the others.  But a woman picked one up and failed to put it back.  It's all on surveillance footage, and Toronto police are looking for the perp.

But I have mixed feelings about this story.

First off, you know I have a jaundiced view of these "collaborative" or "relational" art projects, having devoted too much of my own time to participating in one a couple of years ago.  The plan is to make people feel all warm and fuzzy by picking up the rock and thinking about loving themselves, or helping to mend a broken teacup (another part of the Ono show in Toronto).  According to Hyperallergic, this approach is "encouraging viewers to engage intimately with artworks."

Sometimes, I guess, such exhibits can make you think deeply or feel great emotion, but mostly I find them manipulative and cynical.  Geez, "love yourself" is kinda shallow, not to mention unoriginal, don't you think?

Second, if a show is all about encouraging people to engage intimately with the art, isn't it a bit hypocritical to call the cops if they engage a little bit too intimately?  What if in all sincerity this woman picked up the stone, tried hard to love herself, concentrated on it, concentrated on it, concentrated some more, but could never quite let go of her anger or fear?  And since it was almost closing time, thought she could take it home and keep concentrating?

But third, here's what really got me crabby about this story: the stone was described with a straight face as "valued at $17,500."  Hmmm.  Are they selling individual rocks in the gift shop for $17,500?  That would make that whole big pile on the floor (who knows how far it extends beyond the photo) worth -- what? -- millions?  In the next room was a setup where viewers were invited to use hammers and nails to stretch pieces of string to make "lines in space."  I wonder what a piece of string or a nail would be "valued at" if some viewer, in the spirit of collaboration and intimate engagement with art, decided to take one home?

I don't recommend that museums allow people to take home the art -- although there have been lots of "relational" projects in museums that do exactly that -- but for heaven's sake, if somebody takes home a rock, and you think it leaves a terrible gap in the pile on the floor, go get another rock.  It won't cost you anywhere near $17,500.

This sort of pretentiousness is what gives art a bad name among ordinary people.  What do you think?


  1. I agree. I'm attending a local 4 session seminar on the jazz of Thelonious Monk. I know he is supposed to have been a genius but some of his work doesn't even sound like music to me. If I look at videos of him playing, he pounds the piano, no softness, just jamming his fingers in.

    However if I dare to venture my opinion, I would be I'll be soundly condemned for a lack of appreciation.

    I like and enjoy jazz but I like to be able to hear some sort of melody. Most of his I don't hear any melody unless he is playing an old standard.

    1. Yeah, well, try hating Nirvana. That's where I'm at. Same deal. ;)

  2. I attended a similar exhibit. Once we commune d with the rock we could take it.Its been done. How original is this $$$$ concept?

  3. There's a Thing, round here (maybe elsewhere) of painting slogans on stones and leaving them lying around to be picked up. Mostly, as you say, pretty trite and of the "Love Yourself" kind. It seems to be on a par with yarn-bombing, which I also see as a waste of good string.. Hmmm

  4. Rock Love. Yoko's still p***ing people off after all these years!

  5. Damn. I've got a sharpie and about 2 tons of rocks exactly like that! Seriously! Exactly like that. Someone in my neighborhood is drawing little hearts, birds and leaves on small rocks and leaving them around the neighborhood for people to find while out walking the dog. People can leave them, take them, move them, whatever. I think it's kindof neat, but as we usually end up walking the dogs after dark, rarely see them. But my 'hood must me worth a fortune as an art exhibit.

  6. Kathleen I roared with laughter when I read this.
    It reminded me of an art exhibition held
    in the UK. One of the exhibits was a heap
    of rubbish thrown in the middle of the floor. People were walking around pretending to understand the message the
    "artist" was conveying.
    Suddenly a 7 year old girl piped up in a
    loud voice "Daddy whose been bold
    and left all the rubbish on the floor"