“All artists,” my old friend Ed Abbey was fond of saying, “should have their lips sewn shut.” Certainly, to judge by current trends in the art world, many ought to have their fingers broken, their easels burned, their chisels hammered into plowshares.
Witness, to name but one instance, last summer’s Kulturfest in sunny San Ysidro, California, where a group of so-called performance artists dispensed ten-dollar bills to illegal aliens—beg pardon, undocumented workers—to demonstrate the metaphysical resonance of cash. Whether the bewildered Mexicans and Central Americans whose photographs graced national newspapers got the point is a matter of speculation, but they seemed pleased by the donors’ largess. That generosity was, of course, federally funded until an embarrassed national arts program pulled its grant.
Just as silly is a recent excursion into mobile art that had as its setting the normally sane state of Wyoming. For reasons that have yet to emerge, a thirty-something painter named Pip Brant decided that a herd of 111 cows on a Pinedale ranch was incomplete without the application of her gifts. Bravely taking brush in hand, she and two assistants set about painting the poor bovines with one-word messages to some alien god: “EVERY.” “BIRDS.” “PARTS.” For this Ms. Brant received a grant of $4,000 from a federally supported foundation in nearby Montana, a place artistically sober until folks like Jane Fonda and Robin Williams began buying up ranches and Californicating the Big Sky State.
Ms. Brant had lofty goals. “This is art,” she bleated, “that can be interpreted on many levels. . . . It’s a reflection of the fragmentation that’s happening in the West and on another level it’s about spontaneous poetry since the cows are going to randomly reorder the words for us and make new meanings.” Hmmm. Piling gibberish on gibberish, another local artist remarked. “It’s people who don’t understand how important cows are that think they’re stupid. In ancient times there were cow goddesses. We need to look at how cows are linked to nourishment, nurturing, and motherhood. Our idea is to propose an alternative to the masculine winning of the West, to show women’s role in creating regional culture here.” Someone bring us a needle and thread now, please.
This is a Weimar-like time when a female performance artist can earn ample federal grants by inserting certain vegetables into certain places you would not have thought imaginable, when an Italian painter can become a millionaire by vending cans of his own excrement. Painting foot-high block letters on cows and tossing out dollars to visiting Latinos are innocuous by comparison, to be sure. For all that, the time is ripe to question, once again, whether the government’s business is to provide daily bread to this asinine corps.