That we live in wondrous times is no longer news, of course. Technological miracles abound, behavior once thought esoteric, outrageous, or illegal is now acclaimed as virtuous, liberating, and chic, and the frontiers of creative expression have been expanded beyond the wildest dreams of the avant-gardes of yesteryear. The expansion of those frontiers is nowadays, indeed, a subject of instruction in the classroom, the art school, and the university seminar. Foundations support it, the media applaud it, and our institutions of high culture hasten to bask in the glory of serving its most outré interests.
That we may also be living in barbarous times—right there, in those very same classrooms, foundations, and institutions of high culture—is a matter that upright, enlightened, liberal-minded folk would mostly rather not think about, especially in relation to what is now said to constitute artistic endeavor. In the name of art, after all, everything is now permitted. Nothing can any longer be disapproved of or disavowed. How can such absolute freedom—the freedom we have fought so hard for in the schools, in the media, and in the courts to achieve—be thought to have produced barbarous results? Surely it is all simply a problem of improving public perception, increasing comprehension, and diminishing ignorance and prejudice—a problem in the never-ending task of keeping up with the latest advances in creative thought. Or so, at least, we have repeatedly been told.
But then, every so often, there occurs an event—it doesn’t have to be world-shaking, either—that concentrates the mind and disabuses even the most steadfast liberal complacency: an act that so utterly violates the norms of decent society that even the most hardened advocates of unfettered creative expression fall silent and appalled at its implications. The case of the Toronto “vomit artist”—as we suppose he must be called—is an event of this remarkable sort.
It seems that a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, having mastered the latest lessons in the dialectic of transgressive artistic expression, has conceived of yet a further means of advancing the cause of aesthetic innovation by combining the activist impulses of performance art with the cynical methods of appropriation art. What this audacious newcomer to the ranks of advanced art appropriates are actual paintings hanging on the walls of our museums—his record so far includes a canvas by Piet Mondrian at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and one by Raoul Dufy at the Art Gallery of Ontario—and what his performance consists of is the self-induced act of vomiting upon them. We are not talking about the soiling of reproductions of these paintings; our Toronto vomit artist upchucks on the pictures themselves.
In response to this unconscionable and possibly criminal vandalism, neither the museums nor the art school in which the vomit artist is enrolled has responded with anything but expressions of shock. And since he claims for his upchucking performances the status of art, on what grounds can these institutions take punitive action? What goes by the name of transgressive art is now very much in vogue, and if the matter should become the subject of a legal action, we will no doubt be told that vomiting of this sort must be considered a form of “speech” and therefore legally protected. The question is whether this episode represents a parody of art or a parody of the law or something worse: a sign of the debased values that produce acts and aspirations of this kind in the name of high art.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 5, on page 3
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