The Guggenheim recently closed a fun retrospective of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. In it, hundreds of odd sculptural items hung from the museum’s ceiling at varying heights, gradually revealing themselves on the trek up the Guggenheim’s classic spiral ramp. From the child-size Hitler to the fake pigeons and animal skeletons, it was a kooky, enjoyable exhibit largely for its silly strangeness.
The artist and the Guggenheim didn’t see it that way, though. Their vision of the work was “bolder” and more “political:” “Cattelan creates unsettlingly veristic sculptures that reveal contradictions at the core of today’s society,” wrote the show’s curators. “While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power.”
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How exactly is one supposed to take a “scathing critique of authority” seriously when it’s sponsored by cash from global banks and multinational corporations? It’s not that there isn’t an appropriate way to handle sponsorship—artists have had patrons for centuries—but the overwhelmingly vague petulance with which contemporary visual artists shroud their work always positions The Man as the winner, especially when artists call their work political. Nipping the hand that feeds them only highlights who is really calling the shots.
In The Road to Mecca, Roundabout’s Broadway revival of the 1988 Athol Fugard play, Rosemary Harris plays an eccentric South African artist whose bizarre, concrete sculptures have earned her the disdain and irritation of her neighbors. She doesn’t, however, try to justify the strange figures in political or corporate terms, explaining that they come to her, they just come, and she has no choice but to bring them to life. She’d like to have the respect and companionship of those around her, but she’s compelled to make these pieces with or without societal approval. She had no choice.
This woman, then, is far more the rebellious artist than Cattelan and his contemporaries. She doesn’t claim her work is revolutionary or grab at corporate cash, but in following her own idiosyncratic vision, a vision that challenges people to see the world with new eyes, revolution comes along anyways.
Getting caught up in self-proclaimed labels of rebellion, it seems, is just the way to avoid actually impacting the world.
Photo of Rosemary Harris by Joan Marcus