The Dark Side of the Moon

If today's artists are lucky, they can make a working-class Catholic grandmother cry

Some people say that art--make that Art--has become the secular substitute for religion. It sure acts like a religion: it's produced by high priests revered as conduits of a mystical power--in this case, creativity; it's tended and interpreted by initiates trained in its hidden wisdom; and it's mostly incomprehensible to folks on the outside.

I've been a big fan of visual arts ever since I was an eight-year-old with my parents' big book of Salvador Dali on my lap. But the fact is, more people don't get Art in our generation than in any one before. Art responds to this by ridiculing them.

If a religion did this we'd call it bigoted and exclusive.

Because of trickle-down attitude, you don't have to go to a fancy-pants museum to get insulted. The same tone is available even in popular art and entertainment. Let's take three examples: last summer's "South Park" movie, the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Sensation" exhibit, which caused a huge battle with its intentionally repulsive images, and the performance art of Andy Kaufman.

All these are examples of what I call "insider art." You may have heard the term "outsider art," which means art produced by marginalized people--the mentally ill, the visually disabled, people who are consigned to the outskirts of the Art establishment for one reason or another.

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"Insider art" is not quite the opposite. It is art that, rather than making a straightforward presentation from artist to audience, tries for a bank shot: offend some people so that their distress can titillate others. These beneficiaries get to feel like "insiders"--people who are sophisticated enough to laugh at outsiders.

The stated theory is that people benefit from art that upsets them--it's a kind of "shock therapy." But, paradoxically, the only winners at the "insider art" game are those who resist being shocked. They're too evolved to need the therapy, perhaps. Toward bizarre or hostile art they cultivate instead an attitude of reverence.

This is partly self-preservation. After all, when the game begins the artist has already declared himself superior to the masses and qualified to administer the therapeutic whack they need. Which end of that stick do you want to be on?

This brilliant tactic means that the artwork is pre-insured against criticism. To criticize it is to "not get it," which equals being a loser. The only winning stance is adoration. It's the same dynamic used by a bully in a schoolyard: pick a victim, ridicule him, and watch the nervous kids in the middle sidle over to you.

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