New York

“The End of the World”

The conjunction of a renewed awareness of the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the coming of age of a rather dated sci-fi novel makes 1984 likely to be a year in which a lot of vague art will be presented in a lot of vague exhibitions. All this activity will be presented as somehow terribly meaningful to our present situation, and it will all attempt to live with that situation by diminishing the seriousness of the several very real threats that face us by reducing these threats to the elements of a camp joke. Armageddon is the hot topic among curators and artists anxious to prove that they can be as up-to-date as all the famous news analysts on TV. This might not be so terrible if some real thinking occurred, even by default. But big themes seem to freeze into little ideas in the minds of those who orchestrate mass entertainment. As a result, “The End of the World” was an exact equivalent of The Day After on ABC television—both sought credibility and ratings, and both reduced real horror to nothing worse than “mind-blowing” special effects that were no more terrifying than something you might see on MTV.

In fact, the exhibition was worse than the TV special, because museums are supposed to provide something more than fancy-grade mass entertainment. That they are willing to cater to this diminished responsibility is evident in most American museums’ refusal to take contemporary art seriously, preferring instead to celebrate a camp humoresque that is quickly becoming the official style of American art. This kind of art, and it is the kind that was on display here, extols a stereotypical idea of individuality that is about as convincing as that portrayed by, say Magnum, P. I. It is an art that shows an understanding of the world that is false and dangerous, an understanding that seeks to avoid real issues under cover of the cute. This show reveled in the mediocre, as though to demonstrate that some things are so awful to imagine that every effort can only achieve the banal.

Not all the art in the show was hopeless, although the cramped, unsympathetic gallery space of the museum’s new location made it difficult to tell. One piece in particular that I want to single out for praise is Michael Smith’s fallout-shelter piece (which incidentally fared much better in its earlier installation at Castelli Graphics). Smith’s piece is funny, but what saves it from being camp is the painstaking attention to detail. and the passion for the everyday that that attention reveals. The humor of the piece is informed by an angry rejection of policies that will lead to the destruction of the uneventful, normal life heroicized by Smith’s engaged collecting.

Thomas Lawson