Of course performance is silly, but isn’t all art? Milo Moiré performs PlopEgg at the 2014 Cologne Art Fair
If you argue it well enough, all art is a joke. If you’re a nihilist, cynic or reactionist critic who’s good with words and who holds a respectable position in the art world, it’s easy (and always fashionable) to slip into the role of the contrarian. Jonathon Jones, British art critic and journalist for The Guardian, has now played this role for so long that one might wonder if, underneath the infamy and caustic wit, his criticism is really saying anything defendable.
Jones’ most recent piece, a cursory attack on Milo Moiré’s PlopEgg, broadly asserts that performance art is an “embarrassing revelation of the art world’s distance from real aesthetic values or real human life”. One doesn’t need to know what Jones considers to be “real” aesthetic values to pick up on his smug assumptions about the state of contemporary art. Personal preference is the heart of art criticism, but sweeping generalizations and pompous dismissals are not the critical frameworks from which a valid argument is made.
We don’t blink twice at the supposed artistic validity of painting and sculpture because, for hundreds of years, they were the only available mediums. The new media boom that followed the industrial revolution opened the avant-garde floodgates, subsequently inventing new artistic genres and freaking a lot of people out. Evidently, performance art is still doing this. Jones is quick to differentiate between good and bad performance art (trash-talking Marina Abramovic may be more than even he is willing to take on), and Moiré’s piece is, I admit, not fated for canonical fame. Jones’ seems so comfortable in his crotchety demeanor that he may be overlooking the onset of the inevitable: a tired shtick stubbornly collides head-on with a new generation’s artistic ethos, and suddenly you’re the one who’s out of touch.
It is as easy to mock the absurdity of performance art as it is to poke fun at the posturing of gallery openings and gala events; arguably, they’re not all that different. For an outsider looking in (ie, not a high-ranking art critic), the art world, to use Jones’ own words, takes itself far more seriously than appears justified. I’m skeptical of any argument that uses uptight descriptors like “absurd, gratuitous, trite and desperate”, and, at the end of the day, I know why I like the kind of art I do. If performance art is a joke, at least I’m in on it.