The Problem with Saints
What are you making?
If you ask Bruce, it doesn’t matter.
I know this because “Bruce Conner Makes a Sandwich” from Art Forum #61 tells me so. The SFMoMA wall blurb says the work “parodies Art Forum bringing readers to artists’ studios” as if looking at art studios is worth parody. It is not. Observing the site of making is not what Mr. Conner mocks. He mocks the magazine’s aggrandizing voice. To do this, Connor demonstrates making a sandwich step by step. It is a terrible sandwich (peanut butter, cheese, miracle whip, more). Bad moves are reverently pictured and captioned. “placing the lettuce” shows a hand putting lettuce on a sandwich. Conner mocks the distorting reverence bestowed upon select artists and their art. Charles Desmarais doubles down on the hagiography in his gushing review of Conner’s SFMoMA exhibit “It’s All True” in the SF Chronicle, proclaiming masterworks found in every room,
The greatest artist Bay Area ever produced! Among the most significant artists of the 20th Century!
(Museo Reina Maria in Madrid uses art history to authorize the work “one of the most pre-eminent American artists from the second half of the twentieth century”) and, in an interesting recursive equation SFMoMA and its international market driven agenda validate Conner, as Conner bestows credibility on the museum. Desmarais is not wrong. There are great works here. The exhibit is broad and deep enough for viewers to feel the weight of Conner’s work in its many forms. Conner’s scattershot approach to making is the heart of the issue.
Debris assemblage to felt tip pen drawings to filmmaking to etching-collage to photograms to inkblots. Conner picks up a thing and jumps in making… and then he makes and makes and makes. Even thought his inquiries take place via unrelated materials or aesthetics he seems to land in the same place. That place is a zenith of destruction on the brink of new creation. Exemplified in the mushroom cloud films where we watch an exquisite unfolding that ultimately takes us back to an unbroken world.
The assemblages are superb. See Assemblage of the Sheik. Where junk jewels in nylon stockings serve as purses and testicles beneath a ruffled canvas torso. “Breakaway” is a music video on film from 1966 that presents a woman in a frenzied dance so disjointed that she jump cuts from costumed performer to sweaty naked girl and back again leaving the viewer grasping for a cumulative whole that does not arrive.
Angels are elegant in reductive simplicity born of a man standing naked before photo paper, then exposed, leaving a flash of vague bright figure. Ink blot and felt tip drawings demonstrate a compulsive accumulation that end up not more than the sum of their parts. For me these, along with the etching collages are the least of his works but I am as happy to see the master works along with the not so master works that fed them.
In his very human seeking Conner gives us all permission to wander down paths that may not yield. That is how artists find art. And, this is why non-artists need art. The work is neatly framed and beautifully presented in the exhibition but the gushing commentary values greatness over actual experience which runs the risk of murdering these Boho-Beat-Punk artifacts.
Offering artists as saints tells the other humans that they should follow Conner by making peanut butter and cheese sandwiches instead of following Bruce; by picking up stuff that interests them and then push it around until it lands in a place that feels true.
It is useful for me to see Conner and others like him (Lucas Samaras, for example) as they search and wander in their making.
Like major league sports figures, most artists go through years and decades of trying and making and throwing the results on the heap. And then doing it again and again as they reach for the shape of the thing they mean. In this way Conner truly is a maker in his art. Some successful few, like Conner, get recognized. And then suddenly everything they made is GREAT! And, how they made it is raised above human endeavor.
The sandwich demonstrates this thinking as wrong.
Humans make art. Great art is great because it is a delivery system for this humanity.
But, once the grandiosity machine gets hold of it, the humanity is separated from the art.
Greatness is then acquired through ownership and association. In his art Conner again and again disavows this premise. He puts on surgical scrubs to receive an honorary doctorate to demonstrate that being given an honorary doctorate DOES NOT MAKE YOU A DOCTOR.
At the members preview, Jean Conner, (that’s Bruce’s widow) mentions “Bruce is getting so much attention people are looking at my art.” That’s a tragedy. I am glad that people want her work. I imagine it had merit even before it was standing next to BRUCE!
When we give mystical weight to (select) art and artists it diminishes our ability to experience art honestly.
By creating supernova artists, the art and artist are imbued with so much hyperbole and excessive value and that value cannot be experienced directly in the art. This hyperbole and hagiography deny us our art. And artists. Real artists serve as models showing the world what is possible through making. Mr. Conner’s sandwich demo demonstrates that one run through art world bloating, your average reader not even making a sandwich makes sense.
The second loss in sanctifying excellent artists is that other excellent artists who have not been sanctified become invisible. Their worthy product fills dumpsters while people cover their walls with what came in the Ikea frame.