The Brits had Sherlock Holmes the quintessential bourgeois. Maurice Leblanc, a Frenchman, created Arsène Lupin, the gentleman-thief who comforts the people by dragging the establishment into ridicule, and embracing life with sensuality, class and style, eventually proving to be higher minded and with a greater purpose than those he confronts or victimizes.
Being born literally a bastard, this is where I come from.
In this current decadent society the establishment has taken back its grip on artistic expression through the starisation (or is it “tsarisation”?) of big institutions, big museums, “major” galleries, whose place in the marketing equation allows them to pronounce what is in and what is out. The art establishment has decided that the universal human quest for beauty and the thoughtful display of ideas through visually compelling iconography are no longer valid. Instead, the preferred genre that gathers its appreciation is an ultimate breed of Dadaism. It is called post-modern art. It wants to challenge, everything or its opposite, but mostly confuses visual arts for sociology or philosophy. Those two disciplines have always been a component of art, but in visual art, “visual” implies that a rendition of a sociological or philosophical point, when applicable, will also satisfy the necessity for a visually flavorful angle, a superior vision. What we are served now, is a hyped-to-no-end cult of the unremarkable, and the the 2007 Richard Prince retrospective at the New York Guggenheim epitomizes this diagnostic.
Richard Prince made a name for himself by stealing photographs from others in an alleged attempt to challenge ownership. I intuitively suspected that the outcome for humanity would have been better had the guy chosen to challenge an even more fundamental aspect of life on this planet, gravity, and tested it from one of those tall buildings in Manhattan. I could not escape observing that the author of that ownership challenge business, as oxymoronic as that seems, did not even pretend to consider moving to North Korea, or at least Havana, and rather gravitated all the way from middle class America to a spot at the top of the art world food-chain. Challenging for challenging, I was going to challenge his seriousness.
With the determination that the sense of a rightful mission gives to warriors, I contacted the Guggenheim requesting authorization to document whatever I would find relevant in their Richard Prince retrospective, for the utmost goal of benefiting art, its understanding and appreciation. As anticipated, I met resistance, forcing me to point out that what I wanted to do was an application of the museum’s own mission statement, that furthermore, surely an artist who steals other people’s work and defies ownership would not mind me taking photographs featuring “his.” I was opposed with a final no go, on the grounds of lender’s agreements. That was beautiful, a Rembrandt if I may, in light of that stubborn ownership challenge concept. But I guess that challenging for the sake of challenging, without real purpose other than expressing a sense of superiority, of detachment from a world that offers itself to criticism, but from which nevertheless Prince and his enablers do not forget to benefit handsomely, is the new frontier for visual art. Except that there is nothing new in that; teenagers have been doing it since time immemorial, and not rarely in a more visually compelling fashion. Is it too much to ask that what is presented as art while being nothing much more than a flaky idea, at least lives up to its concept? If one challenged slavery, would one nevertheless own slaves? An overfed art intelligentsia, tired of looking at art, cannot be bothered any longer with works that are only an evolution, often incremental, sometimes though essential, from what has been done before. One has to be bold as they say, therefore, in order to surprise the gatekeepers, Prince and his likes come up with ridiculous schemes whose excellence is only in the ridiculousness register, one out to tickle the tired minds.
It was clear to me that all the players involved in this Richard Prince shenanigan needed an attitude correction. I picked up my old Arsène Lupin costume and showed up at the Guggenheim on a Friday evening, as that is when they extend “pay as you wish” for admission. I offered 2 cents and went on my mission, my M4-P caliber Leica discretely hidden under my arm as a weapon apt at delivering truth and peace. After a quick reconnaissance, choosing the angles, measuring the light and figuring out where the security was, I proceeded to capture the forbidden photographs. Some innocents were already doing that, with point and shoot or cell phone cameras, assuming freedom, often uncaught by the overwhelmed or distracted guards. The scene evoked the tower of Babel. I collected my bounty, and left swiftly, unnoticed, genuinely smiling at the staff whose gentleness was second to none in a building whose design is the best I have ever seen for a museum. Comprenne qui pourra.
To all the people on earth who will rebel against abusive powers, expose ill-founded laws and corrupted rulers, if necessary stealing their own weapons from their oppressors.