Art Depreciation

One of the high points of my recent trip to New York City — and I plan to write at least 20 more columns about this trip, so get used to it — was seeing my friends Patrick and Lindsay. They are a married couple, though they were single when I first met them, back in Utah. In fact, I’d like to think I’m part of the reason they got married. It isn’t true, but I’d like to think it.

They live in Hoboken, N.J., now, just across the river from Manhattan, and I had not seen them since I moved to Portland almost three years ago. Our reunion was joyous! We chose to spend our day together at two of New York’s finest museums, appreciating the art and culture and feeling good about how sophisticated we are. I mean, we were in New York City, going to museums! Of our own accord, too, not on a school field trip or to get a merit badge or something!

Our first stop was the Guggenheim Museum, which at this time had an exhibit called “I Want to Believe” by a Chinese artist named Cai Guo-Qiang. You might not have heard of him, so I will quote the Guggenheim’s website, which says he is “internationally acclaimed as an artist whose creative transgressions and cultural provocations have literally exploded the accepted parameters of art-making in our time.” How can he literally explode an abstract concept when the rest of us can only figuratively explode such a thing? That is something that art experts and grammarians have pondered for years.

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Cai Guo-Qiang doesn’t just hang wolves in midair. He does it with cars, too. And why not?

The Guggenheim is structured with a large rotunda in the middle and a ramp that spirals around the sides up to the top level. Visitors start at the bottom and wind their way up. Whatever the current installation is, it has to fit that layout, and it usually occupies the whole space. It is the canvas, if you will, and the commissioned artist must fill it with his imagination. And, in this case, with a hundred life-size papier-mache wolves, suspended in air as if flying.

And why shouldn’t there be a pack of flying wolves? Like most of the features of Cai’s installation, and like those of the Matthew Barney exhibit that I saw here in 2003, the point seems to be to make patrons look at it and go, “Huh. Cool.” If there are deeper artistic messages being sent, you either have to think about it really hard and hope you guess correctly, or else buy the exhibit’s companion book (on sale at the museum gift shop, all major credit cards accepted!). Patrick and Lindsay and I are all very smart and cosmopolitan, and we have several college degrees between us, all of them in the arts and humanities, and we’ve read many important works of literature, and mostly we looked at the stuff at the Guggenheim and went, “Huh. Cool.”

After the Guggenheim, we had lunch at a quintessential Upper East Side diner — and by “quintessential” I mean a sandwich and fries cost $13 — and then headed to the Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is New York’s largest, most famous museum. It is a huge place with a crapload of art. Seriously, just a crapload. It has everything from ancient Greek statues of naked people to modern works by noted paint-flinger Jackson Pollock and Campbell’s Soup spokesperson Andy Warhol, plus works by some of today’s most talented artists, brilliant visionaries who have done what art scholars for decades thought was impossible: produce blank, untitled canvases and somehow convince the Met to hang them in a gallery.

In addition to its vastness and diversity, the Met has another advantage over the Shmuggenheim: It’s cheaper. It’s $18 to get in to the Gugg. The Met has a “recommended” admission price of $20, but it’s actually up to you how much you want to pay. You could show up with a dollar and say, “This is for me and the next 50 people in line behind me! Cheap art for everybody!” You wouldn’t really do that, of course, but you could, and the museum employees at the ticket counter would have no recourse but to glare at you witheringly.

Fortunately, Patrick has developed a very high tolerance for those withering glares. He paid $3 for the three of us. We are urbane, highly cultured individuals who go to fancy museums in our spare time, but like most people with multiple degrees in the arts and humanities, we are also poor. And in our defense, what we did is what most people do. Visitors who pay the full $20 are privately known among museum employees as “suckers.”

The Met is actually a great place to spend a few hours with friends you haven’t seen in a while. You can talk and laugh and reminisce as you wander around, and the artwork can inspire new topics of conversation. I can see why “go to a museum” was always one of the suggestions for inexpensive date ideas that we used to hear when we were teenagers. If you run out of things to talk about, you can always just make fun of the abstract art. And if your date disapproves, you know not to date that person anymore. Abstract art is a lot like poetry, in that it exists primarily so people can make fun of it.

The problem a lot of people have with abstract art comes from what you might call the “I could do that” factor. If something looks extraordinarily simple, people assume it must be easy — and if it’s easy, that means they could have done it themselves, and that means it can’t be great art.

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The Met’s cleverly titled “No. 13 (White, Red, on Yellow),” by Mark Rothko.

I freely admit that I belong to this class of people. As Patrick and Lindsay and I walked through the Met’s modern galleries, I generally appraised the artwork based on whether I thought I could have done it myself. Surely this makes me a philistine, but I can’t shake the idea that certain paintings hang in the Met only as a prank to see if people will pretend to find them magnificent even though the art itself consists of nothing more than a canvas covered entirely by one solid color.

My friends and I did our best to appreciate these works, but in most cases we failed to “get” them. Adding to our skepticism was the fact that many of these paintings are untitled. This is very frustrating. You look at a piece, and you don’t have a clue what it’s supposed to be about, so you look at the little card next to it to see what it’s called, figuring that will give you a hint. And then it’s not called anything. To me, that’s a dead giveaway that a painting that doesn’t seem to mean anything does not, in fact, mean anything. You took a big canvas, painted half of it red, half of it blue, didn’t bother to come up with a name — how are you any different from a house painter?

It’s especially disheartening when the untitled artwork is something exquisite and beautiful, a portrait or abstract piece that is obviously the work of a talented artist. You spent months, maybe years, on something, and you couldn’t spend five more minutes coming up with a title? Or nothing occurred to you during all those countless hours laboring over it? Come on! Now you’re just being lazy.

These are the sorts of things that smart, educated people such as Patrick and Lindsay and I discuss as we stroll through one of the world’s largest and most respected museums. I don’t want to sound smug or elitist or anything, but I think we literally exploded the accepted parameters of art-viewing in our time.

Lindsay was in one of my circles of friends back in the old days, and Patrick was in another. I don't remember what caused those circles to overlap and the two of them to meet, but I'm glad they did (as I'm sure they are too). They're a very hip couple. They both always have really cool hair. That's probably the thing the rest of us admire most about them.

SnideCast intro & outro: "New York City," They Might Be Giants.