“One of the most audacious exhibitions in the Guggenheim’s half-century”—so reads the subway advertisement for “Maurizio Cattelan: All,” an exhibition organized by Nancy Spector, the museum’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator, along with the Associate Curator Katherine Brinson. The quote is from a New York Times profile of the artist by Randy Kennedy. We shouldn’t necessarily expect critical insights from a puff piece, but even an arts journalist like Kennedy must know the bad faith he’s peddling. The most striking thing about the Cattelan exhibition is, after all, its lack of audacity. Nothing daring can be generated by an artist whose sole and defining impetus is playing to the audience.

By “audience” I don’t refer only to that vexing creature known as the “art world”—the denizens of which are...

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