Hooters played a mean trick on a waitress more than a decade ago. It told her that, as the winner of a beer-selling contest, she would get a new Toyota. She was led blindfolded to the parking lot—where she was given a new toy Yoda doll from the "Star Wars" franchise.
This was not very nice, and her subsequent lawsuit produced a settlement and a new car. But there are worse things than perpetrating an adolescent prank on one unsuspecting victim. Such as perpetrating an adolescent prank on millions of them.
In a few days the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan will unveil a new work of art, or rather a new work of "art": a functioning, solid gold toilet, which will be installed in one of the bathrooms. It is by Maurizio Cattelan, whom The New York Times describes as "one of the most expensive living artists," and is titled "Maurizio Cattelan: 'America'." That is tiresomely predictable, and about as clever as Internet trolls referring to Barack Obama as "Obummer." But like "Obummer," it flatters the dogmas of its intended audience.
The political angle matters less than the aesthetic one, though. A gold toilet is to real art what a toy Yoda is to a new automobile. But there is a sad difference between these two cases: Everyone at Hooters knew the toy Yoda was not an actual car. Nobody pretended the stuffed doll and the Japanese automobile belonged to the same taxonomic or ontological category.
Too much contemporary art tries, with a great deal of seriousness and self-regard, to claim just that.
There is, for instance, the celebrated "My Bed" by Tracy Emin, which sold for more than $3 million a couple of years ago. It consists of a messy bed with stained sheets surrounded by cigarette butts, empty bottles, dirty underwear, and so on. Put it in a cheap apartment and it's grounds for eviction. Put it in a museum and it gets short-listed for the prestigious Turner Prize, because it is brilliant art that delivers profound social commentary.
Except that it isn't, and doesn't. And the same holds true for a great deal of contemporary art—the "installations" and the "conceptual art" pieces and the piles of bricks and leftover party trash presented as if they were something inspired, which they are not—despite what smart people might say to the contrary.
And that is part of the problem. Smart people can make intelligent and even profound observations about nearly anything, including things that are quite shallow themselves. The other day the Wall Street Journal presented part of an abstract from a linguistics paper published in a prestigious journal that includes these two sentences:
"The use of stereotypical diacritics of white-collar and blue-collar social identities in the ads circulates a representation of class identities as consumer categories, even as the ads' portrayals of class difference reproduce hegemonic relationships of markedness between 'middle-class' consumers and other social categories. Examining representations of different phases of commodity formulation and social voices loosely associated with these phases, I show how various social identities are subjugated to the commercial ends of the advertising encounter, and how the advertisements both induce consumer behavior as well as reshape hegemonic understandings of social difference and inequality."
The subject of this pompous gibberish was TV ads for F-150 pickup trucks. The author is trying to say that truck ads use class stereotypes to sell trucks and, in doing so, they affect how people think about economic and social class.
Now, you can tease out a lot of interesting observations about society from motor-vehicle ads, and James Twitchell did some of that a few years ago in Branded Nation"—without a lot of obscurantist jargon and with, perhaps, even more insight.
But making sharp observations about truck ads does not turn truck ads into works of art. Yet we are supposed to think otherwise if someone puts a truck ad on a screen in a gallery. We are supposed to think this because we have been told that anything can be art, if it is made or repurposed by an artist. And an artist is, tautologically, someone who makes art—so anybody can be one.
But a category that excludes nothing ceases to be a category; a word that can mean anything actually means nothing. Hence art without standards is a contradiction in terms.
This doesn't mean that everything we call art has to be Renoir and Rodin and Bartolomeo and Bierstadt. We live in a rich, complex, gloriously diverse world, with room for lots of different ideas and lots of different tastes. There is a place for the strange and disturbing and impenetrable. And hey, it's a free country. So if you would like to have a small can of the artist Piero Manzoni's very own feces (available for the low, low price of $263,000!) on your mantle, knock yourself out. Just don't try to convince the rest of the world it's actually a shiny new Toyota.
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.