Matthew Milliner writes a charming account of a recent trip to Chelsea’s art galleries:
Duane Hanson’s painstakingly crafted trompe l’oueil mannequins of life-sized overweight American tourists stood in blank white rooms, complete with floral pattern shirts, dangling cameras and uneven patches of sunburn. The exhibit served as a sort of art world threshold, marking a border between profane and sacred as clear as any Byzantine iconastasis. The sculptures seemed to suggest that by strolling the Manhattan gallery scene, you—art lover—are leaving such uncultured creatures behind.
Milliner’s point about the sacralizing effect of the exhibit space is tremendously important. I sometimes feel that visual art since Duchamp has been living a curiously dual existence. On the one hand, Duchamp was famous for work that drew attention to the sacralizing effect of museums. Merely by placing objects in museums, I can make them art, his readymades say, which is tantamount to a practical deconstruction of museums as institutions. Foucault could scarcely have done better in a thousand painfully researched pages. On the other hand, while contemporary artists are indebted in every way to Duchamp, the effect on the contemporary art world has been not the destruction of the sacralizing art-space but its vindication and triumph. Visual art has become not less but more architecturally situated — which, since we are bodily beings, means socially situated. Contemporary art could very nearly be defined exhaustively as “that which happens in contemporary art galleries.” The significance of the work is provided not by any inherent quality, but by its social and architectural situation. It happens in Chelsea, and is enjoyed by artsy types, and is therefore given the holy name of art.