"Art that hates you."
If this is not said, it’s felt in response to much Contemporary Art. And if not by you then by me. The slogan is funny because it rings true. The slogan is not mine. It was conceived in Robert Clark’s essay, Downriver. This beautiful reflection on Clark’s visit to Tate Modern can be read on the Image Journal webiste. That’s where I found it today, after Googling ‘art that hates you”.
I’d first heard the phrase at a Glen Workshop keynote from Greg Wolfe. He tossed it out as a somewhat provocative joke to the room full of artists. Not exactly preaching to the choir. But we laughed. We get the sad sense it makes.
I’ve seen the art Robert Clark refers to as "walled off behind theory, interpretation, and educated taste.” My taste is uneducated. I don’t know much about art theory. I’m striving towards interpretation. But it is with Contemporary Art as it is with Holy Scripture; perverse to hide the best bits behind years of study for the privilidged few.
Personally, I’m a fan of much comtempory art. Even public art. Even the Talus Dome. But this work jeeringly dubbed the Talus Balls brings our public ire to a head. When people get their hackles up about $600,000 of public money spent on a pile of giant steel marbles, why do we expect otherwise? When they get angry again because we want to pay $5000 to repair them, why the surprise? What have we given them to love about this cold and alien world called Contemporary Art? Or, more to the point, what love has that Art given them?
Two weekends ago contemporary art gave our city plenty and we ate it up. Our first Nuit Blanche put a smile on my face and perhaps there is no better way to tell you why than to say that this art didn’t hate me.
This was art that loved us. Or at least liked us. Or engaged us.
Perhaps the most remarkable effect of Nuit Blanche, the downtown late-night art takeover of late September, was the link between art and joy. Happiness, love and sincerity are not often tied to our ideas of contemporary art, but here they were on display big and bold and bright.
It was hard to spot cynisim between bouncy castles stacked seven stories tall. Christmas elves were granting wishes. More serious wishes hung upon a forest at the center of Churchill Square. Reverence and awe were offered at the movement of sand to sound in City Hall. Monolithic cranes moved to music. A massive banner asked us all to IMAGINE PEACE. Impromptu DJ dance parties attempted to break out. Maybe some succeeded.
Then there was that balloon-stuffed pedway.
Even though I couldn’t wait long enough to get inside, I was happy to see hundreds who were waiting, as if Justin Beiber were signing autographs. He wasn’t. Edmonton was waiting to run through a hallway of balloons. Childlike joy let loose.
Art broke free from the galleries for a night and it was glorious. We could do with it what we wanted–make of it as we pleased. Like it, or not like it and say we didn’t like it and not feel stupid. We were free to experiment. To play.
We played in potholes. I walked by pothole after pothole decorated by artists–each a tiny diorama. One a hockey rink. One a prehistoric tar pit. Who but artists could help us celebrate pot holes while we await their repair?
I watched a steamroller crush things in an installation called Make it Flat. I’m not sure if it was about anything more than the sheer joy of watching what happens when a steamroller crushes things. I felt primal, chanting ‘Make it Flat’ as an electric guitar screamed its last tones. A drunk man nearby, maybe a guest, maybe one of the local homeless population, shouted ‘THIS IS ARRRRTT!’ through slurred laughter.
It was art this man could love, and maybe even art that loved him back.
I’m well aware that my reading of the night is surface level. That every installation had some grander purpose. If not in reality then at least in the Statement required to get the grant funding to pull it off. Make it Flat could be a meditation on consumerism and waste. A meditation on the flattening and reforming of our downtown. A questioning of what gets destroyed before new things take shape. About loss. About the violence and brutality of the mob who cries for item after item to be crushed. It could be about those things, but I don’t buy it. For me, and for the majority of that crowd, it was about watching things get flat. About allowing ourselves to be five years old again, only with bigger, more expensive toys. It was simply fun. Pure, sincere, fun without pretense.
After abandoning the long balloon line, I descended the escalators of City Centre Mall feeling proud of my city. Happy to see art than can be enjoyed and my fellow man enjoying it. Happy to see art my kids could love as much as I did. I felt much different than Robert Clark felt in his essay. "I went to the escalators,” Clark recalls, "feeling dejected and stupid because I so obviously failed to understand this art. As I descended I thought I knew how the complete-with-colon identity/motto of the Tate Modern ought to read: “Tate Modern: Art That Hates You.”
You can criticize and question Clark’s point of view. You may cast him aside as outdated curmudgeon, but he’s ready for that. Besides, it’s not that Robert Clark is asking a great deal from Contemporary Art in the end.
"I don’t expect art to supply the eternal verities any more, to be a portal to the transcendent. I’d just like something to look at, something definitively and emphatically itself, something to make me see beyond reference and interpretation and through the Perspex shield of dislocation. Something that manifests the fact of itself and the fact of me, and if it were lovely or moving or unexpected, that would be nice too. I would settle for that."
At Nuit Blanche this year I saw plenty that was definitively and emphatically itself. There were even things that were lovely and some that were moving. For those with eyes to see, there was something transcendent hovering, too.
Art that takes itself seriously enough to be something and ask something and meet us where we are at is the art Bleeding Heart is interested in. Not art that hates you, but art that wants your presence. Art that engages. Maybe even, sometimes, art that flows from some intangible Heart of Love.