Looking for Art in Roman Technicolor

I am not a total novice to the world of art. My goal through high school was to become a professional photographer and I studied art theory and history in school alongside composition and photographic techniques. Because of my high school’s location near Boston and its unusual demographics and funding surplus, I took nearly a dozen field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts over three years of school. I have debated the merits of Picasso’s Blue Period and the cultural and aesthetic implications of Serrano’s Piss Christ. It has been my privilege in every sense of the word to view and critique first hand the works of Picasso, Monet, Vermeer, Adams, Stieglitz, Ritts and many other defining figures in the history of visual art.

Then I went to college and discovered that I actually didn’t know shit about art. I washed out of Hampshire’s photography program before I ever really started. My portfolio was disallowed for consideration because of a preponderance of portraiture and nature photography. “Any monkey can push a shutter button and take a picture of a person” the program director told me. Portraits, landscapes, and the like did not require artistic skill from the photographer, although perhaps the model or the gods themselves deserved some credit for the outcomes of portraiture and nature photography respectively.

An easily dejected young man, I put my cameras away and poured myself into my new tracts as an adaptive equipment designer and (in secret) as a student of magic. It would be nearly five years before I resumed taking pictures, by which time my skills were rusty enough to resign me to a career as a gifted amateur. The world of photography had moved on without me, the digital age redefining what it meant to seek truth through a lens while radically increasing the hobby’s accessibility in a way not seen since the invention of the Brownie.

Beyond my own dreams being dashed by rejection though, my time in college largely left me conflicted about the entire modern field of artistic expression. As a photographer I had sought to highlight truth in the world through the distillation of an image. Being at a “special” high school, much of my portrait work had focused on capturing the usually unseen effects of abuse or mental illness of my fellows. My nature and architectural photography had largely tried to distill moments of balanced beauty from chaotic or overlooked surroundings. Little of my work had deeper “meaning” or expressed emotional narratives.

The visual and performance art faculty and students treated art as a medium for meaning in which composition and aesthetics must take a backseat to the artist’s intent and meaning. In years to come I would experience this same clash among practitioners of magic and energy healing modalities. In their world a self portrait of a woman’s back seen through a series of mirrors was a statement on body hatred, even if the artist herself had not sought that meaning. A topless woman lying on a large stuffed animal was making a statement on the sexuality of childhood, rather than making the best use of the limited supplies in a college dorm room. Professors would encourage students to psychoanalyze their classmates through their work, and any disagreement on the part of the artist would be attributed to subconscious expression of inner dialog through artistic medium.

I heard photography students bash the masters such as Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Eisenstaedt because the work “didn’t say anything.” Gods forbid one suggest that perhaps the students just were not listening hard enough.

What prompted this digression from the usual BarkingShaman fare is a video that Evan sent me this evening. I will embed the video at the end of the essay, but let me take a moment to illuminate it for you, the reader. The video is of performance artist Millie Brown’s “Nexus Vomitus” of which there has already been quite a bit written on the web. In the video, Brown appears in head to toe black lycra and tall stiletto heels in an entirely white room. Behind a podium are two lithe opera singers and before it, a row of eight tall glasses of opaque, vibrantly colored liquid. With operatic accompaniment she drinks a glass of yellow liquid, before regurgitating it upon a white canvass placed on the floor. Said regurgitation is accomplished by the simple expedience of shoving her fingers down her own throat, albeit in merciful silence save for the singing. She proceeds through the colors, grotesquely creating a technicolor version of a preschooler’s art project writ large.

I will not say that this is not art.

For one thing, art is in the eye of the beholder, and what has artistic merit to you may seem a waste of time and space to me. For another, I can understand an aesthetic force behind Ms. Brown’s work. The juxtaposition of the grotesque painting medium with the etherial beauty of the operatic singing, mirroring that of the brilliant colors in the colorless environment, is in its own fashion, compelling. Plus there is the word play of literally vomiting up one’s art onto the canvas and the viewer’s senses.

What I will say is this: as art goes, this is profoundly lazy.

Not to say that work and planning didn’t go into its execution. For all I know, Millie Brown even gave some consideration to the composition of her effluvia splash painting. This type of work is the inbred child of the meaning-over-substance school of art. In this piece, the shock of the medium drives its effectiveness in a celebration of garish bad taste. The inevitable outcome of rejecting the work of the masters rather than seeking to understand them in both the context of their creation and that of the modern artist.

There is undeniable value in shocking the viewer of art. However, it is a lackadaisical artist who relies on shock to define their exhibition as “art.” This is what separates John Waters from his many shallow imitators.

The meaning-over-substance thought process has birthed a modern art world in which an artist does not need to define their concepts, structure their work in a way meant to be accessible, or use the established language of their medium. It has become solely the responsibility of the viewer to find meaning, purpose, and yes beauty in art. To fail to do so becomes only a reflection of the viewer’s inadequacies, rather than any lack of craft on the part of the artist. Dissent around meaning can be tolerated, as art speaks to us each differently, but what has been lost is the freedom to say “well this is shite.” To do so is interpreted merely as lack of understanding, as if in understanding art we must inherently like and approve of it.

It has not become any easier these days to be a successful artist, but we have slowly stripped away the option of being a bad one. And without the possibility of failure, we cannot truly have the possibility of brilliance, which cheapens it for all of us, artists and consumers of art alike.

Millie Brown “Nexus Vomitus”

4 thoughts on “Looking for Art in Roman Technicolor

  1. I’m curious as to whether the distinction between “visual art” and “performance art” makes a difference. I was looking up a link to Keith Boadwee’s work to send you (he’s the opposite orifice, shooting paint from his anus) and came across this essay. Considering the fact that the author brings up body mods and pain as performance, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this rationale for using the body for shock value:


    • I do believe in both potential value of well done performance art and the role shock and disgust can play in crafting an artistic narrative.

      However, just as not everyone who takes photographs of Yosemite can have the power and impact of Ansel Adams, I believe that the vast majority of performance art (like every other medium) fail to achieve greatness. It isn’t enough to use shock or disgust or the human body as a tool, an artist has to do those thing with skill. What bothers me in the world of art these days is the concept that if a piece of art fails to touch a viewer, it is inherently a failing in said viewer. The possibility of sub-par execution is not allowed for.

      One of the most powerful artistic moments of my adulthood was a performance piece I saw last summer. A spinning beam performance done at Primal Arts Festival, it spoke to me of grace, beauty and freedom, which may or may not have been the artists’ intention. I have appreciated other pieces of performance art as well over the years, and consider it to be a valuable and valid means of artistic expression, but one that should be held to a standard just as any other medium is.

  2. I definitely agree that there is such a thing as sub-par art.

    I am curious as to how you personally define greatness in terms of art. From what you say here, it seems to be tied to what in literature would be called a “reader-response” model – ie, certain art has value because of how it affects us.

    Along those lines, do you think it’s possible that all art is not meant to speak to or to touch everyone? Is there great art that does not affect you? If so, how do you determine its greatness?

  3. All art is certainly not meant to touch everybody, and there works of great art that say nothing to me personally.

    I don’t know how greatness can be defined in terms of art, but I strongly believe that just because it is hard to quantify does not mean that it doesn’t exist or by extension that all art is great by virtue of being art.

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