Vincent van Gogh of the Netherlands and Susan Jeiven of Brooklyn have something in common. They are artists. Where van Gogh worked in oils, however, Susan’s medium is dead mice.
In ads for her work, Ms. Jeiven is described as an anthropomorphic taxidermist, a tattoo artist and an educator. The “educator” label derives from a class she teaches at the Observatory Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The course, called “Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy,” teaches students to “create and display taxidermied animals as if they were engaged in human activities.”
For a $45 fee, students are provided with all that is needed to create their artwork, including dead, disease free mice. But if you’re thinking of bringing your own art supplies to class, don’t bother. The gallery warns budding anthropomorphic artists, “Please do not bring any dead animals with you to class.”
Ms. Jeiven, a petite blond easily mistaken for a librarian, is serious about her art: “I don’t like rogue taxidermy,” she insists. “I want them to look classy.”
In New York City, her class was sold out in four hours.
If anthropomorphic taxidermy and dead mice do not evoke in you a sense of artistic beauty perhaps elephant droppings and porn will.
The Turner Award is annually awarded to a British artist under fifty who had the best exhibition or presentation during the previous twelve months. The 1998 award was given to Chris Ofili. Mr. Ofili’s technique combines bright colors, geometric patterns and elephant dung. He is best known for his New York City showing of a work titled “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a depiction of Christ’s mother surrounded by pornography and elephant dung.
If you think combining pornography, elephant dong and a religious image is stretching the definition of art – borrowing a riff from Jeff Foxworthy – you may be a philistine. Professor of Art, Michael Davis, of Mount Holyoke College, responded to criticism offered by Mayor Rudolf Giuliani to Ofili’s New York City’s showing:
Chris Ofili’s collage is “shocking,” in that it is deliberately provocative and intends to jolt viewers into an expanded frame of reference, and perhaps even toward illumination. In this sense, it relates to the medieval aesthetic of ugliness in which visual dissonance and distortion were used in art to urge the viewer to move beyond the superficial material plane to a higher level of spiritual contemplation.
Mount Holyoke’s website describes Prof. Davis as specializing in “French Gothic architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the history of modern architecture; the arts of Islam.” His expertise in elephant dung and pornography is left unaddressed by the college.
If, so far, your frame of reference wasn’t expanded, and you weren’t moved beyond the superficial material plane to a higher level of spiritual contemplation, shame on you. Some of us have it, some of us don’t. But those of us who do look forward Mr. Ofili’s next venture into the artistic denigration of another faith in the name of creative diversity. Perhaps he’ll choose to apply his talents to the religious art for which Prof. Davis boasts a specialization. The good professor is invited to be shocked and jolted by the exhibit.
Moving on. If dead mice and dung don’t evoke awe, we now turn to dog biscuits.
In 2007, a Costa Rican artist named Guillermo Vargas presented his masterpiece at the Codice Gallery in Nicaragua. Its title, “You Are What You Read,” was written in dog biscuits above an emaciated dog tied to the wall of the gallery. The dog, named Natividad, was given neither food nor water and is reported to have died, although the gallery’s director claims it escaped — an apt description, if true. No reviews are available, but we can reasonable conclude that any visitor to the Codice Gallery who did not feed the starving animal already resides in an alternate plane far removed from the rest of us.
We are left to ask if art can elevate cruelty to another plane, what other depredations might be sanctioned under its banner.
In his book “Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom, a Professor at Cornell and a philosopher, classicist and academic, had this to say about art.
What defines man is no longer his reason, which is but a tool for his preservation, but his art, for in art man can be said to be creative. There he brings order to chaos. The greatest men are not the knowers but the artists, the Homers, Dantes, Raphaels and Beethovens.
To be fair, Mr. Bloom died in 1992 and didn’t have the opportunity to attend any of the above showings. But his statement, whether or not we agree with his premise, contains a hint of how art may have arrived at its current state: “The greatest men are . . . the artists.” With this in mind we can ask the question, What if artists are no longer great men and women? What if our great men and women no longer use their gifts for artistic endeavors? What if societal change through relativism and cultural drift has numbed our appreciation of artistic creativity, leaving us attracted, instead, to what appeals to our base drives?
Perhaps his intentions were otherwise, but Mr. Dana Gioia, former National Endowment of the Arts chairman, has opined, “The Right viewed us as purveyors of smut and filth, while the Left saw us as inept, but loveable, purveyors of smut and filth.” Mr. Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the City Journal, agrees in his own colorful way: “There is no such thing as bad publicity, however; indeed, in an age of perversity: bad publicity isn’t bad—it’s the best.”
While we may speculate on what brought art to its present state, we should be mindful of Occum’s Razor, the principle of looking to the simplest cause. The shock, awe and disgust art of today may exist because it is easy to produce. The artistic challenge today may be finding new ways to accomplish it; elephant manure, after all, has already been used.
In truth, rather than expanding boundaries, genitalia and manure painted on iconic images are clear markers for an artist who has wondered beyond the limit of his talent. His work suggests a subconscious cry for help: “Stop me before I create again.”