Nailing art at the Hammer

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Telephone poles and other objets d’art at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles. (Hammer)

Actors Will Ferrell and Joel McHale have helped to produce a hilarious six-minute advertising spot for the Hammer Museum, at UCLA, in which they pretend to be baffled by works of art at the museum’s latest exhibit, “Stories of Almost Everyone.” Whether the film, “Baffled by Conceptual Art?” and its humor are a fraud depends on whether Ferrell and McHale “get it” or not. Are they dupes of the museum staff and the 30 artists in the exhibit? Or are they in on the joke?

If so, they, the artists and the museum staff are equally the dupes of their own convoluted pretense to profundity. They all look down their noses at museum visitors who express bafflement, the sort whom Ferrell and McHale portray in the film. That is, the rubes whose foreheads wrinkle when they see a purple pillow that’s only been slept on by acrobats (Ferrell: “Yeah. This is really good.”); telephone poles lying on the floor (McHale: “That’s an artist saying, ‘I got 25 people to carry telephone poles up stairs.’ That gives me a strange joy”); a long yellow rectangular box leaning up against the gallery wall whose art consists of whatever you may imagine it contains; a mess of sneakers that took about a day to lay out on a patch of floor; a pair of socks randomly placed, about which you are supposed to wonder whether the night guard could resist changing their placement without telling anyone; the museum’s mail piled in a corner of the gallery daily at 4:20 p.m. for the length of the exhibit, to which Ferrell responds, “Here’s my concern” … what if someone sends fresh oysters; and other stuff deemed art by the museum.

“I don’t know if this is art,” McHale says at the end, adding, “It’s definitely art. … I think.”

Whether Ferrell and McHale are actually co-conspirators with the museum staff in the making of this film, with its mockery of normal attitudes about what art is, it is actually the visitors they portray whose take on the art – that this stuff is not art – reflects the deeper understanding of art. The art in this gallery should be surrounded by air quotes.

I’ve always believed that if I run over my bicycle with my car and lean the bent-up remains against a gallery wall, it is not art. It does not have a value in the range of five or six figures. It does not deserve anyone’s respect.

I still stand by that belief, even if the “artists” at the Hammer Museum buy into this fraud. Whether they realize it or not, or whether they merely think they have latched onto a “good thing,” they are part of an intellectual trend of long standing that seeks to undermine the stability of language and thus our confidence that anything is really what we think it is in our society. It is in the truest sense subversive, and not really all that funny.

Call it postmodernism, structuralism, constructivism, deconstructivism or whatever, art and architecture are the only fields in which the wacky trend has supplanted common sense within the establishment. That’s okay for art, since it’s so easy for most people to disparage and disengage. Architecture is one of the practical arts, however, and while it is easy to disparage, it is impossible to disengage.

Let’s see Will Ferrell and Joel McHale do an ad on modern architecture!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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