"Clunkers"—or masterpieces? | Bleader

"Clunkers"—or masterpieces?


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Steve Johnson's provocative discussion of what he calls the "clunkers" or "sore thumbs" taking up precious space in Chicago's great museums is necessary reading for anyone who thinks oneself aesthetically engaged.

Johnson's most provocative case in point: the Arthur Rubloff paperweight collection in the bottom floor of the Art Institute. He calls them "moderately pretty hunks of glass."

And "tchotchkes."

Well, of course they are. I have passed them often in the Art Institute without ever once slowing my stride, but I have never doubted their right to be there. If the A.I. says they're art they're art—end of story. Marcel Duchamp worked all this out decades ago. Duchamp was the father of "readymades," stuff that became art because he said it was.

His most famous readymade, of course, was Fountain, a 1917 piece that before Duchamp told us differently, was simply a urinal. Actually, he didn't tell us differently—he told us, here is a urinal and it is art. He signed it, thus nailing down its new status, though he signed it "R. Mutt," adding that element of ambiguity with which the 20th century left the 19th far behind.

Wikipedia tells us this about Fountain:

In December 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals.The Independent noted in a February 2008 article that with this single work, Duchamp invented conceptual art and "severed forever the traditional link between the artist's labour and the merit of the work."

I know what you're thinking: A urinal is transgressive, but a paperweight is just a paperweight.

But this is the deeper artistic message of the Rubloff collection. Duchamp and his acolytes made transgression the cheap and easy route to artistic immortality. By now, well into the 21st century, there is nothing at all transgressive about transgression. It's the same old same old. We laugh off people who try to offend us by being offensive. What does manage to offend us, and Johnson's article in Wednesday's Tribune is a perfect example of this, is a claim of art when it's made for an amiable, inoffensive tchotchke.

The very idea makes our blood boil. I'm not saying that Rubloff's paperweights should be regarded as the most influential art collection of the 21st century, but they belong in the conversation.

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