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Saturday
Jan212012

Marketing a Clown: The Guggenheim's Cattelan

I read Dan Nadel's incisive review of the Maurizio Cattelan show at the Guggenheim several days ago, and wasn't sure what to think. Having seen the show now with my own eyes, I am inclined to agree with his somewhat jaundiced view.

But I don't think the problem with the show lies entirely in Cattelan's work. Cattelan is first and foremost a clown: a provocateur by pratfall and sight-gag. "La Nona Ora", the famous sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, is the kind of thing one would expect to see in a ten-second scene out of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or animated in the Simpsons.

Others of his pieces refer to the 'hanging' of artworks, to artworks as taxidermy, and make mild commentary on social themes such as race. It's very much gag art; funny for all that, entertaining as modern, ironic clown should be, but essentially light and ephemeral. Perhaps that's why it works as well as it does, hung before us like a mothballed circus wardrobe.

No, the real problem with the show isn't the work itself; it's the introduction by the curators Spector and Brinson.

So much of what's wrong in the art world nowadays is in the writing: overamped, overwrought prose that either obfuscates or sells. In this case, it sells. "This Work is Very Important!" it tells us. So, the silly piece involving the Pope is described as "incendiary" and "notorious". JFK in a coffin is "eleagic". And his work overall is described as "deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power". Really? Where? Not in this exhibition, anyway, nor in his prior ones, from the sound of it, such as his decision to make a show out of a locked door with a "be back soon" sign, or his idea to steal another artist's work and pretend it was his own. Silly gags? Yes. Profound statements about authority and the abuse of power? No.

Basically it's a light and humorous show, and light humor is popular. There's nothing wrong with that: we all need a little clowning in our lives. But please, let's not mistake clowning for profundity, nor cloak its essential modesty in marketing bombast.

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