So You Think Your Shit Don’t Stink?

by by Lee G. Brooks

illustration by by Eli Schmitt

A recent feature on the Huffington Post collected some of the greatest public access television clips that have made their way to YouTube. Among the highlights are an awkward performance of “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” an eccentric and verbally violent preacher whose body swirls around the frame, courtesy of rudimentary green-screen technology, and my personal favorite, a call-in show entitled “Let’s Paint TV!”—in which the host, Los Angeles–based artist John Kilduff simultaneously runs on a treadmill, makes abstract expressionist brushstrokes on a canvas, blends fruit juice, and takes calls, the majority of which come from young men using this most visible of platforms in order to make defamatory statements, such as “Fuck fucking Santa Monica.”
My first reaction to “Let’s Paint TV!” was to write it off as absurdist performance art, meant as some kind of ironic comment on a society of multitasking dilettantes, but I soon came to realize that Kilduff might very well be serious. Anyway, I’m not so worried about his intent. It seems that what matters is the presentation of the thing—and here, Kilduff exhibits a quality uncommon in the world of contemporary art: earnestness. He carries out his frenzy of experimentation without a smirk, with an almost uncanny sincerity. The result is a beautiful mess of improvised television (according to his website, Kilduff is also available for live shows—Spring Weekend, anyone?).
In contrast, there is often marked lack of sincere and clear intentions in contemporary art. But someone is already sure to admonish me: whether art is sincere or not is beside the point. The lack of sincerity is in itself sincere. Art is not supposed to be clear. The lack of clarity is exactly what contemporary art is after. Or any number of statements that I myself am supposed to use when I take my younger brother to the contemporary wing of the Chicago Institute of Art and try to hold his attention, and end up feeling pretty stupid—as if I’m in on an inside-joke that isn’t that funny, yet has a whole wing of a museum dedicated to it.
So I wonder about the value of contemporary art in light of supposedly lower forms of culture, such as Kilduff’s videos, or more generally, the countless scores of videos on YouTube of people acting in the spirit of Kilduff—saying and doing ridiculous things, and meaning it. Unlike art, Youtube doesn’t claim any cultural superiority. One can share videos that lack any semblance of expertise, with the result that the viewer doesn’t have to expect anything in particular from a clip, but can simply decide whether he or she likes it. The YoutTube community encourages this kind of unpretentious sharing: users communicating with each other directly, engaging with each other’s media. I am reminded of the participatory spaces and happenings fostered by avant-garde groups like Fluxus in the ’60s, where a sense of community could be created outside the usual expectations of what is valuable or worth one’s time, whose members to impact social and political discourses. YouTube, albeit in a different way, has been wildly successful in both of these aims, since mainstream culture actually pays attention to it.
Of course, I don’t mean to conflate YouTube with avant-garde art. YouTube videos generally do not aim to aestheticize the world or spur viewers to think critically. As with “Let’s Paint TV” or, for example, the performance of “Chocolate Rain” (highly recommended) and its numerous parodies, the response tends to be something like pure fascination at the brute fact that the clip exists, that there is, out there in the world, someone who actually did this. YouTube shows us what people are capable of when their eccentricities are allowed to flourish openly. In this way, I like to think of YouTube as an earnest celebration of individual personhood. Not citizenship in some artistic utopia, but the personhood we actually possess: eccentric and strange, with a need to share ourselves. Not that the art-people aren’t worthy of celebration, but it’s refreshing that something closer to actual social experience can be valorized too.
So I want to emphasize two features of YouTube videos often lacking in contemporary art: the earnestness or lack-of-irony in presentation, performance, and sharing, and the creation of a space primarily meant to be experienced without the baggage of high-culture. YouTube is a sensory, bodily experience, before it is a thoughtful one.
The world of high art presents us with something rather different. The relationship of viewer to artwork is one of expectation. We know beforehand that the performance, image, space, or text will exhibit some combination of critical distance, irony, reflection, and message. As viewers, we are ready to receive something, but that something may or may not be apparent in the work. So we must have faith that the work intends to illuminate some presumably important aspect(s) of existence. This creates an aura of mystery in which the viewer tends to expect the work to eventually reveal its secrets. Whether it has any worthwhile secrets to reveal is another matter. But one can see clearly why Kilduff’s ADHD-inspired lessons on active living do not seem to count as art—the lack of obfuscation seems to damn it as a lower form of culture.
And unlike a YouTube video, which calls for immediate, strong reactions, we must generally be quiet and placid in front of the artwork. To appreciate a painting or sculpture, one must contemplate. To read a poem, one must concentrate, because a poem is a difficult thing to understand. The artwork is a strict teacher—it demands our respect even before the lesson begins. Art always has the high ground in relation to its viewer, whereas a YouTube video has to earn its viewer’s continued attention. It’s nothing to close the window on a Youtube link—but you are bound to feel a little guilty leaving a poem half-finished or not taking in a painting or a performance sufficiently (as if art is looking down on you for being so uncultured, so unsophisticated!)
I could imagine that the artwork might in fact deserve our unconditional respect if it always gave us something meaningful. But I think it would be fair to say that, although plenty of compelling art is produced all the time, you have to wade through a lot of shit to get to it. In this way, the art-world is no different from the Youtube-world. We can mercilessly mock bad Youtube clips through a variety of media: comment sections, blog posts, Facebook, and so on. Yet with bad art, we seem to require a politeness of tone, akin to the hushed atmosphere of a museum or gallery. This is convenient for an art-world patronized by academics, agents, collectors, and the wealthy—those who want to convince you that high art is a valuable cultural institution with a deep, profound import for society.
Instead, I want to suggest that we have no reason to place art on a pedestal before it has given us anything—and more reason not to treat the artist as an ironic sage but as just another YouTube user in the sea of humanity, who may or may not have something impressive to say. Our faith in art often makes us take trivial things too seriously. According to an article in Slate, around 27 percent of the poetry in The New Yorker is about poetry. Apparently, the world is so lacking in subject matter that poets often have no choice but to take inspiration from themselves—which would be fine, if the intended audience for poetry consisted entirely of poets and poetry scholars. To take another example, a piece entitled “Noisette” at the recent Urs Fischer exhibition at the New Museum consisted of a hole which had been drilled into the wall, through which a tongue would stick out as a viewer approached. But once the viewer actually came to inspect the piece, the tongue remained inside the hole, only faintly visible. So viewers would wait and wait for its reappearance, and nothing would happen. Finally, they would walk away and the tongue would stick out again for the next approaching viewers. The tongue seemed to be saying, “How pathetic you are right now, viewer, expecting something from me, a piece of art in the New Museum.”
In a sense, the work illustrates my point. It seems to be suggesting that an artwork may not live up to the viewer’s expectations, rendering those expectations somewhat comical, and yet it continues to insist that there is something there to merit attention in the first place (that initial flick of the tongue). The work suggests to viewers that it may not be worth their time, and yet still continues to draw in viewer after viewer, since it was, after all, an installation by Urs Fischer in the New Museum. Which in itself is a pretty banal assertion, and one only acquired after deep reflection on the possible meanings of the piece—a task which is sure to interest only a small and isolated world of art-enthusiasts (including myself—but that should be obvious by now. It is possible to criticize and love something at the same time).
If I had not unconsciously assumed that “Noisette,” being a work of art, demanded my respect, I might have said aloud to friends and strangers alike, “this is fucking insipid.” Artworks generally do not come with a comment section, but I think every museum and gallery should install them, preferably right on the wall, next to the work. This would be a first step toward dissipating the myth that we must necessarily respect art before it has interested us. Perhaps then, we could begin to treat works of art more like YouTube videos, experiencing them without the expectation that important truths will necessarily be unveiled. We could even treat art as a shared space and a shared community, rather than a privileged space of cultural profundity that requires both erudition and a taste for cynicism. Who knows, we could even affirm things in an open and sincere fashion as Kilduff does, without hiding behind the aura of art—the sky’s the limit!
Anyway, if given the choice, I want to experience artworks, rather than respect them. In fact, I would like to see more disrespectful artworks, the kind that spit and throw their feces, and do it earnestly and without pretension, so that I, the viewer, can reciprocate. I am sick of being polite and soft-spoken in front of art, in order to hear its sage-like whispers—I would rather have shit. Just not ironic shit, as in Piero Manzoni’s jars of fake feces that sell for $80,000, but rather genuine cultural shit, something more like