Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against "cool"; or, the trouble with Tara

It's hard to argue with pleasure in the arts, particularly when so much contemporary art gives, well, so little of it. That's what makes the strange case of artist Tara Donovan so difficult to crack: it's almost impossible to persuade people that she's empty and superficial when she's just so much fun. People have been bringing their kids in droves to her retrospective at the ICA - which, after the Anish Kapoor show, has clearly found its niche as an adjunct of the Children's Museum - and you can hear little voices piping up with "Wow!" over and over again as tiny art-lovers encounter Donovan's clouds of styrofoam cups (above) and stalagmites of buttons and fog-banks of zillions of straws. And you can't blame them; Donovan's pieces are indeed "cool," and "cool," as they say, is king, as well as kid-friendly. I love cool stuff, you love cool stuff, we all love cool stuff. But can we stop pretending it's art?

Before you say it, I know the answer is "no." This would be asking a lot from the typical baby boomer (and actually even more from Gens X & Y). Just try explaining to one that the music and art they thought was cool when they were eleven or twelve was probably not, actually, all that deep or interesting (it was probably powerful, yes, but that's hardly the same thing). Most simply refuse to listen, even though their position is pretty ridiculous (imagine if literature were governed by the same model - we'd all still be talking about The Outsiders). Hey, if it rocks you, then it's deep - because otherwise, of course, you're not particularly deep, but are instead stuck in a very extended adolescence, and that obviously cannot be! It sometimes seems the idea that one should deepen as an adult - indeed, that it's your responsibility to deepen as an adult - has become about as attractive a position to my generation as racism. And why? Because if you've deepened as an adult, then you've become old. Hence the importance of having your taste ratified by your ten-year-old.

It's equally pointless to mention that most great art, in fact, is not particularly "cool." Indeed, great art is often impacted, thorny, strange, or opaque at first blush. It is usually difficult - only not merely difficult for its own sake, like so much second-rate modernism, but rather difficult because difficulty is often necessary to convey complex meaning. Which is practically the opposite of coolness. Cool things are sleek, controlled, and both self-sufficient and efficient; they offer instant gratification, instant elegance, and unexpected solutions; they must be immediately graspable, both in terms of their goals and their success. What's more, they are all about utility; they lift you up, give you wings, in general defy the gravity of the physical and emotional world. They don't leave you pondering your mortality, or perceiving your own limits; they don't make you humble or wise; instead, they "empower" you, which, of course leaves the "you" at the center of that new power basically unchanged.

Those are plastic cups! Can you believe it? It's like a digital network!

So I know it's pointless, really, shaking my graying locks over Tara Donovan; she's here to stay, and I'll be hearing about her at cocktail parties for a long time. Can you believe how many straws were stuck on that wall? How long did it take her to stack all those cups? And isn't it interesting that almost everything she's done is called "Untitled"? I really should just try to lie back and enjoy it, or think of England, or something.

Then again, I can almost already hear people asking me (or thinking to themselves), why can't you just sit back and enjoy all the pretty, mindless coolness, Mr. Snarky Artsy-Fartsy? And Tara Donovan's art is about something - it's like, about digital networks, and it's biological. Biomorphic, whatever. It is conceptual, that's the point - it's like there's this concept, or this process, or this concept process, or this process concept, of doing this small thing over and over - just like cells do, okay? - and then like stepping back and going "Wow. That is amazing." And Tara Donovan didn't have to have any particular ability, just tons of patience and, yes, hard work and determination, because anybody should be able to be a great artist, whether they have talent or not; that's what "contemporary art" means.

So let me tell you, gentle readers, I can enjoy mindless coolness as well as the next man. I, too, enjoy the strange ying-yang between size and scale that Donovan plays with; I totally dig models of Manhattan that fit on a tabletop, as well as twenty-foot pencils. I, too, went "Wow!" and ran around the perimeter of the cups/straws/tape and said "How did she do that?" I, too, understand that what she does is not at all like building an Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks because the Eiffel Tower is not cool. I, too, walked up and down before the gazillion straws of "Haze," letting the piece play hackey-sack with my depth perception. I, too, gazed through the one that's like a window stuffed with curls of polyester film, and thought about how beautiful it was, and how it reminded me of stained glass. And the way the sounds from the hall came through it, that was totally cool, too.

The trouble comes later, when I'm sitting here, before the keyboard, trying to think of something to say about Tara Donovan but not being able to come up with a single thing. Except that I suppose she's given Minimalism some fresh life. But did anyone really want to give Minimalism fresh life? Well, maybe a few curators did! Oh wait - speaking of curators - you know what? I can say something nice about Ms. Donovan after all: she was a lot more fun than those nominees for the Foster Prize! Because they weren't even cool. And man, if you don't have anything to say, then it's not cool to not be cool.


  1. Tom, I know this was not your intention, but you've convinced me to bring my kids to see this show. If they can have a few "cool" museum experiences during their formative years, hopefully they'll become voluntary museum/theater/concert-goers as adults. And, of course, I hope they'll learn to discern between fluff and substance. But for now, I'm just happy to get them through the doors of a gallery or museum and have them leave feeling that the experience was... well, "cool."

    Susannah Abbott

  2. Hi Susannah -

    Fair enough! Glad to be of service, etc. But I'd feel better about the Tara Donovan show if I felt it were a glitch, or an anomaly. Yet after the Kapoor show - which, admittedly, had a bit more actual content - I'm beginning to sense that "coolness" is how the ICA has learned to sell its superficial shows - the deeper question is, of course, whether or not that superficiality is the result of weak curating, or an actual void in the arts right now. All I can say is I hope to God it's weak curating. Meanwhile, don't bother the kids with the Foster Prize nominees, but take a look yourself, and look hard - the same emptiness you'll feel there is what's actually beneath Tara Donovan, too. That is what I wish would change at the ICA.

  3. Okay. Speaking 'only' as a cartoonist, let me see if I've got this down:

    Q: Comics aren't art, especially if/because they're fun and cool?
    A: No.

    Q: Not even George Herriman's "Krazy Kat"?
    A: No.

    Q: Not even when John Alden Carpenter makes 'Krazy Kat' into a ballet in 1925, which means we can talk about it in some other contextual, 'deeper' way?
    A: Ok ... maybe.

    Q: And if Carpenter uses ragtime in said ballet?
    A: Shouldn't have said that; we're back to "no" again. It's pretending to be cool; I HATE that.

    Q: I designed posters for the Sugan; that's advertising. Not Art.
    A: No.

    Q: You loved "She Loves Me." I did the cartoons and the programme cover for that.
    A: Um ... well ...

    Okay. I think I got it now.

    This is one (minor) reason I don't often exhibit my paintings.

    I'm writing a play about John Singer Sargent, so I'm particularly curious about this "Ease of Understanding means Shallowness Incarnate" trope.

    You razz on the coctail party chitchat, but I'm afraid that kind of talk isn't much deeper when the subject is Anselm Kiefer. ("How did he glue that on the painting? Do you think he knows the guy who glues plates on canvas?" --yes, I did hear that said at MoMa once.)

    I suspect some of the Tara Binge is just Zeitgeist; but a lot of the edginess of, say, the older agitators (like ---oh, Man Ray or Max Ernst) is regarded as uncommercial and uncool, and I think you make that point.

    A few of the more talented people I went to RISD with are not only no longer doing what they once regarded as their 'work' ...they don't even like to talk about it anymore.

  4. Hi Robert -

    Surely you're not positing that Tara Donovan has the power or depth of "Krazy Kat"! Don't be ridiculous! Of course there's great work in every and any form - it's just that these days we like to pretend that certain modes - like the comic - can be assumed to have a depth they often lack, because we like their formal qualities so much. Worse, we assume that comics offer a valid mirror for our age - when it seems to me they only offer a mirror of our wishful self-image (again, an adolescent thang; I worry that our culture's adolescent stance is becoming so engrained that it's practically unconscious).

    There's a similar problem with the supposed "content" of Tara Donovan. Her sculptures suggest digital networks - uh, so? What does she have to say about digital networks? What's her point? Nothing, apparently, except that they're "cool" - just like her installations. My problem with her "coolness" is not that it's the delivery system for her content, but that it is her content.

    And sure, people have said dumb things about Max Ernst and Man Ray, but there are a lot of interesting things to say about them, too. (I probably agree with your jab at Anselm Kiefer more than you realize.)

  5. That's an interesting point. (Okay, two points.) Ben Katchor, who won the MacArthur Genius grant for his graphic novel works "Julius Knipl" and "The Jew of New York," once wrote me "I'm not in love with the medium of comics" (he was trying to get his publisher, Pantheon Books, to take an interest in my graphic-novel-spoof of Ayn Rand's pods). He suggested I turn it into a 'straight' novel. I've heard this ambivilence from other a few other cartoonists, too; but I wonder if it's really the medium itself that's at fault.

    In Japan, the medium itself *is* quite different --as is its audience-- and it plays with time in a way that's the polar opposite of American expectations.

    Perhaps out of ambivilence, Katchor has branched out into turning his narratives into screen-illustrations-with-semi-staged-opera (one of them was done last year in Newton), which is one way of broadening, or trying to vary, the emotional scope of your work.

    My college roommate comes East sometimes, and we go and look through the Newbury Street galleries; and when a so-so marketing idea takes the place of any real artistic or cultural insight on the part of the painter, our code word is to simply look at each other and say, "Concept."

    Sometimes that's all you need to say; in some creative circles, it's all you need. Period.