Debauchery is not an “Object of Devotion and Desire”Debauchery is not an “Object of Devotion and Desire”
Last year I went to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) here in Manhattan. I remember seeing the most interesting array of shapes, images and crafts. If you’ve been there or have seen a cross section of such art, you may have felt like me — utterly confused.
I am never quite sure what message I am supposed to take out of canvases splattered with paint, or random convoluted shapes without any pattern at all. Looking at these things, I feel a tinge of insecurity, as if any enlightened person should appreciate this and therefore I am just inadequately cultured.
I had a similar feeling when I saw the latest display at the Bertha & Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, in the lobby of the Hunter West building. The gallery had recently installed an exhibit titled “Objects of Devotion and Desire.” I, however, felt neither devotion nor desire for the works I had seen. Although I found some of the works kind of interesting and cool, I did not understand why and how they fell under that title theme.
One such piece was a mirror-like reflective lamp with an intricate crisscross of copper slabs. The piece produced a cool special effect, almost like a 3-D eyeball. I also saw an ancient urn lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dating back from the time of the Roman Empire.
But there was one piece I saw that did not just stump me, but filled me with feelings of repulsion and disgust. This was the Intra-Venus Triptych, by Hannah Wilke. If you’ve recently passed through the Hunter West lobby, you could not have missed it. The work hosts three nude photographs of a woman wearing gauze bandages on her thighs and buttocks.
In a description of the influence for this work, Cynthia Hahn, Professor of Art History at Hunter College and curator of the exhibit, writes, “[T]here is no reluctance to explore the power of the body, to eviscerate it, to push it into the presence of the audience in all its fleshy wonder.”
In contrast to the blatantly unintelligible nonsense of the splattered paint I recall from the MoMA, this image is clear, sharp, perfectly articulated to relate the artist’s precise attitude and view of objects of devotion and desire.
But I don’t agree. Crude, debauched illness is not something worthy of devotion or desire. Civilization has come a long way in eliminating that state of human existence, but apparently some people at Hunter want to return to that way of life.
A year ago I would have felt inadequate to criticize a work of this sort, for fear of seeming unenlightened and uncultured. Only now I have the independence of mind to think, if this is culture, then I must be a caveman.
No, I cannot appreciate this artwork. I cannot look at it with a ponderous gaze and consider the profundity of its depth. And I feel sorry for those who aim for the pretense of grasping its “meaning”.
And so I am left with some unanswered questions. Not for the professors who are responsible for this exhibit, but for the administration.
Do you think this art display has a positive benefit for Hunter students? Do you think that we can extract a positive message that will help us in our experience as students? Will experiencing these works make us more enlightened and educated? Or will this public display breed a cowering insecure lot, who in an attempt to seem deep, pretend to see objects of devotion and desire in Ms. Wilke’s debauched work?