Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 2

On the nature of judgment and honesty among the chaos.


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I’ve had a difficult day. It turns out that I really don’t have the constitution for it. I don’t have the will to concentrate when I’m confronted by the endless long corridors with booth after booth, gallery after gallery. It is like looking into infinity gazing down one of those corridors at Art Basel or Scope or Pulse or Art Miami. I see God down there at the end, or the bottomless abyss of the self. I don’t want to go there. But I can’t look at the works for very long either. There’s no context for them. So I’m back into the corridor and on the move, glancing to the left and right as millions of dollars worth of pigment and wax (people seem fascinated with sculpting in wax this year) flitter in and out of my weak and diluted perception.

   2007 Art Basel Miami

It is said that when Clement Greenberg would go out looking at art he would turn his back to the painting or sculpture or whatever until he was good and ready. Then, he would spin around and just judge, right there — Bammo! — before the rest of his cognitive apparatus could catch up with the process. This is the result, no doubt, of reading Kant’s Critique of Judgment far too seriously. For Christ’s sake, Kant himself was never really sure what the hell an aesthetic judgment was anyway. But that was Clement. He was a man with a lust for judging. I am not. In fact, I do not believe that there is such a faculty as aesthetic judgment at all. But this is a technical and tiresome matter that won’t be sorted out here. Suffice it to say that I’m of the school of profane illuminations. I think you’ve got to wrangle with a work for a long time, get inside it somehow, fuck with it and let it fuck with you. Then something leaps out and you’ve got it. Or not. But you have to try, damn it. It is hard, however, to do that kind of trying amongst the corridors of doom.

There are, of course, lots of nice things. And that can never be an entirely bad thing. There are pretty objects and there is good art.

Art Basel has work that could be in any top collection. You pass a Donald Judd, green boxes in a series down the wall with a Calder mobile hung right next to it, bumping the Judd a little when there’s any breeze. The medium-sized art fairs remind you that there is quality work being produced by thousands of artists right now coming from every tradition. I came across one of Stephen Westphal’s orange abstractions. It jumps off the wall with perfect lines, perfect color. It says, “This kind of painting still works.” Around another corner a bursting-at-the-seams canvass by Julie Heffernan, 10 million vegetables. Rococo on crack. These are good things.

There, too, is junk. At some of the smaller fairs in hotels there are entire rooms filled up essentially with tchotchkes, figurines, and lumps of crushed metal that would suffice, in a pinch, as paperweights. I walked into rooms filled with canvases painted in brown mud that I was told “referenced the psyche” and featured the murky figure of a woman making her way through what appeared to be an excrement blizzard. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli once remarked about a poor paper on quantum physics that, “that’s not right, it’s not even wrong.” There is work to be found here in Miami that isn’t good, it isn’t even bad. But, in a way, I prefer the stuff that hasn’t even made it to the level of bad to all the competent works, to all the nice objects and things you’d like to display in your home (many of which I would, by the way, like to display in my home). The work that is beneath even the possibility of being judged has an honesty to it that seems sweet, especially in this brutal context wherein something is either bought or not bought. Walking through these corridors and past all the booths, I want to create a home for abominable works — a place, a museum where all the works that couldn’t even figure out how to be art could live together and sustain one another in common caring. I will be the curator of this sad and wonderful home. I will find them and I will love them.

Toward the end of the day I did find a place where I could have some aesthetic experiences more on my terms. It is called the Queen Bee and it is a little shack constructed by Rodney Dickson in the parking lot across from Collins Park. It bills itself as a “War Remnants Museum” and comes out of Dickson’s longstanding obsession with the Vietnam War that no one completely understands including himself. But really he doesn’t need to explain it since the point is clear: The Vietnam War is chock full of meaning, meaning in spades, meaning way beyond what you bargained for. Rodney’s museum — which has the feel of a roadside operation you’d find in the middle of nowhere — is thus a much more troubling place than one might guess from its outward kitsch and from the babes who tend to it in stockings and short skirts. The inside of the shack is filled with real war memorabilia, Vietnam and otherwise, and with paintings and drawings by Rodney that reference the sleazy prostitute bars frequented by the typical soldier during the war. Every so often you come across one of the Ace of Spades death cards that Marines would put on the lifeless bodies of North Vietnamese soldiers who didn’t make it. A real live phonograph plays recordings of soldiers during actual combat missions in the late `60s. It is a melancholy place, that shack; it takes you in and treats you like a human being. It dares, as an art piece, to take on real memory, the actual memories we actually have, in all their complications. We sat outside on plastic chairs drinking cheap red wine and talking of art and death and the setting sun to the sounds of skateboards banging around on the ramp built nearby for further purposes of art. I’ve decided that the Queen Bee will be my headquarters for the next two days. • 8 December 2007