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Brain Fever and Bourgeois

I recently saw the Louise Bourgeois exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York. While they couldn’t stuff her largest spiders into the confines of the Guggenheim, it was still a great show. Walking up the spiral, you could trace her Surrealist-inspired period into the more mature – and quirky – sculptures for which she is famous.

I was never much of a Bourgeois fan. The few works I saw didn’t appeal to me, and I was never impressed with the mythology about how her work was formed by a traumatized childhood. And while the myth-making still doesn’t work for me - (there’s a nice article about it in the September Art in America) – I changed my mind about her sculpture.

Bourgeois sculptures are perplexing, seldom resolving into a single image or a single interpretation. They are poetic, irrational. The best of her work is powerful and absolutely unforgettable. A few made me stand stock still, arrested in the middle of that strange tilted floor, marveling at what was before me.

There was one hanging sculpture, not large, maybe 20 inches. It’s shaped like a big old penis, but it’s wrinkly and aged and almost disgusting. As a detached phallus, it’s almost comical, but it’s also a creepy. Such an obvious image, but there was nothing obvious about the thing itself.

My companion was drawn to another sculpture, the well-known pink marble torso of a dog with multiple breasts. (“Nature Study,”1984-1994) She couldn’t take her eyes off it. For her it called up associations of motherhood, femininity, wildness and much more. We looked at it for quite a while going up the ramp, and almost as much going down.

There used to be a phrase that summarized this business of finding art compelling and wondrous: the aesthetic experience. But “aesthetic” is a loaded word, having to do with centuries of theorizing about what properly belongs to Art and what does not. At first, the aesthetic experience was linked to beauty. But in the end, the aesthetic was limited to what could be experienced through the eye only, and what had to do with art and nothing else. Free associations, like my friend’s thoughts of motherhood, were declared off limits. For that matter, so were thoughts of politics, religion, or philosophy. All out of bounds. So was utility, by the way, which is why craft was excluded from the realm of the aesthetic for so long.

In 2008, we are long past those days when theory took precedence over experience. It’s widely accepted that good art is the stuff that moves you, that makes you think, that arrests you before it in wonder and perplexity. The experience itself has no rules. What matters is that it’s vivid and strong and perhaps that it makes you think. That’s just what the Bourgeois show did for me.

The implication for the crafts is profound. If the old rules are obsolete, then crafts that offer a similarly intense experience will be regarded as art. Simple, no?

If that’s true, the old art-craft debate is defunct. Dead and buried. The question of an object’s stature as craft, design or art is largely irrelevant. We can stand before the compelling object, go “Wow,” and all is settled.

That would be nice, but two huge questions remain. The first is about context. Nobody would declare that photography does not constitute a field: a particular enterprise with its own technical means, history, and discourse. The field of photography often acts as a center from which artists can create hybrid forms. Those hybrids use photography as a context that provides structure and meaning. Thus Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still series were about questions of identity and falsification that barely concerned the center of photography, but the works’ meaning drew upon the fact that everybody knew what a “film still” was.

Similarly, the crafts constitute a field, albeit one with multiple centers. (We call them “ceramics,” “glass,” “furniture” and the like.) Each center has its own technical means, history and discourse. And like photography, these centers provide contexts for hybrid forms – contexts that would not be available if the centers were erased. (The centers also provide space for people who want to make vessels, chairs, earrings, and so on.) In the postmodern era, a crucial question remains: is the craft context a mere body of information, like an entry in the vast encyclopedia of history? In other words, are the crafts dead? Or are the crafts living practices that remain relevant and vital in the 21st century?

The second question boils down to matters of taste. Who gets to decide whether or not the work in question is compelling or not? Is it the elite – the experts and professionals – or ordinary people? Is this a democracy here, or not?

Tough questions. Because if you think it’s not about the elite, you have to admit that “tabletop kitsch” (John Perreault’s incisive phrase) is good art. Are you ready to go that far? And if you’re not, how do you justify giving authority to an elite?

I used to hate the art elite, with their pronouncements from on high that this thing was good and that thing was bad. I hated the imperial “we” that high-toned critics once used. What you mean, “we,” white man? (That’s the punch line to an old Lone Ranger joke.) I particularly hated the art elite because they declared most of the art that turned me on to be second-rate. Symbolist painting. The Hairy Who. California Funk. Crafts.

So what am I doing now? Coming down on the side of the elite after all? Shit! I think my head’s going to explode!

Well, clearly I think too much. These are the thoughts that pass through my fevered brain while I’m trying to pay attention to Louise Bourgeois. But that’s part of the experience, you know? And it was a great show.

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