Rhonda Lieberman

Rhonda Lieberman on the best of 2013

View of “Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing,” 2013.

AS CORPORATOCRACY darkens our collective door, income inequality soars the highest since 1928, and journalism is chilled if not altogether frozen out by the aforementioned factors, this year’s Best celebrates underdogs, whistleblowers, and rays of light (who aren’t Madonna).

“Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store” and “Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing,” Museum of Modern Art, Apr. 14 – Aug. 5, 2013. Not an underdog at all. But still Fabulous. Morphing between knickknacks, commodities, blobs, and Art, the mishmash of found and made things in the Mouse Museum and the Ray Gun Wing conducts a hilarious conversation in the absurd and eloquent language of shape. On The Street and in The Store: faux food, underwear, price tags, and other everyday items hand-sewn or fashioned from paint-encrusted papier-mâché conjure a world in which everything is for sale: a baggy burger the size of a settee; a saggy cash register. Oldenburg’s crude and expressive objets palpably demonstrate how we project desire onto blobs of matter. These Mad Men–era pieces are as fresh as ever.

An underdog only in his own mind, Cary Leibowitz’s one-man show of candy-colored tableaux and snazzy brass belt buckles at Invisible-Exports (September 6–October 13) mingles the decorative and the kvetchy with signature Leibowitz pizzazz. Against cheerful pink walls, his peinture confides, in fancy handwriting, HEY, I’M NOT DEPRESSED ANYMORE! and I JUST GOT A PAIR OF GUCCI FOR BERGDORFS LOAFERS FOR 50% OFF AND I REALLY DO FEEL BETTER. The collectible belt buckles commemorate historic events that didn’t happen, but should have, like the Forty-fourth Fluxus Ice Cream Cone Lick-Off Detroit, Michigan July 4th, 1976, 2013 and The Greenwich, CT. Ab-Ex’es Annual, Nov. 8–10, 1974, 2013. Leibowitz makes it look easy to reconcile zippy décor with aspirational and anxious feelings and has long tempted enough copycats to inspire his recent piece: CAN I BORROW YOUR IDEAS? PRETTY PLEASE?

Banksy, Sirens of the Lambs, 2013.

Banksy, Sirens of the Lambs. Yes, the hype during the street artiste’s NYC stint this summer was a bit much, but this mobile installation won me over. What’s not to love about his slaughterhouse truck that toured the streets stuffed with cute animatronic lambs, cows, and chicken puppets “that squeal those horrible dog-toy type noises to raise awareness of the animal’s distress during harmful meat production practices”? Playfully shedding light on a disturbing element of the food chain deliberately shielded from public view, Banksy’s dark humor is as moving as Morrissey’s vegan rant against “Thankskilling,” and perhaps more effective. I hail this disarmingly droll piece of agitprop about the trucks transported “always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking” (as George Packer put it in The Unwindingreviewed brilliantly by Thomas Frank).

Not at all funny but profound and powerful, Liz Marshall’s The Ghosts in Our Machines “chronicles activist Jo-Anne McArthur’s photographic documentation of animals held captive for food and in other industries around the globe […] and calls into question the legal status of animals as property.” From the harrowing practices of fur farms to confinement in labs and the gruesome conditions of factory farms, this everyday industrialized cruelty—in Peter Singer’s phrase, this “eternal Treblinka”—is hidden away, enabling “consumers” to turn a blind eye to suffering that is hard to condone when made visible. Marshall’s film is especially important in light of a new crop of state bills—“ag-gag” laws—that ban the filming of industrial animal abuse and even place whistleblowers on a “terrorism registry.” Obscene laws attempting to keep industrial animal abuse, yes, obscene, by forbidding documentation are one of many prongs in the war against whistleblowers in our creeping corporatocracy.

Government insistence on secrecy in any field is ironic considering Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s massive spying program aimed at everyone and anyone. It is hard to imagine a more able handler for this bombshell of a story than lawyer, journalist, and one-man truth squad Glenn Greenwald, aka “Glenzilla.” Filling the void opened up by courtier scribes who sacrifice candor on the altar of access, Greenwald refreshingly embraces his adversarial role and reminds us “what journalism is about: shining a light on what the most powerful people are doing [to us] in the dark.” For fans of Olympic-caliber arguing chops, few things are more satisfying than watching Glenzilla calmly smack down his hapless interlocutors with flawless sound bites on YouTube and Twitter. He’s the Muhammad Ali of debate, and his slow release of the leaks entrusted to him by Snowden is a brilliant publicity tactic: “Each time the security state comes up with some ‘excuse’ for what it’s doing, the next round of documents are released to prove that they’re lying.” (Astute commenter Nathanael on

And let’s not forget our culture worker comrades! In “Slaves of the Internet, Unite,” the best manifesto for “content providers” on prominent media real estate (New York Times op-ed), Tim Krieder* addresses a vexation familiar to the talent who is hit up to work for free by people who “admire his work” but not enough “to pay one cent for it.” His presentation is priceless:

This contemptuous coinage (“content providers”) is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art”—writing, music, film, photography, illustration—to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads. […] I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.

Krieder ends his satisfying if poignant screed with an exhortation to younger colleagues—“Don’t give it away”—and a handy letter, for public use, with which to decline offers to work for nothing. Power to the peons!

Cary Leibowitz, The Greenwich, CT. Ab-Ex’es Annual, Nov. 8–10, 1974, 2013, brass belt buckle, 2.5" diameter.

If all this isn’t festive enough for you, Tom Scocca’s “On Smarm” takes on another insidious scourge of our time: the decay of critique by the validation-hungry herd of the Internet, where being “social” is confused with marketing, and anything short of puffery is smeared as “hating.”

Snark, when not done well, is merely dismissive. Smarm is snark’s “bright-sided” flip side: Neither engage issues in any substantive way, but smarm is pious about shutting down discussion in the name of bogus “niceness.” So goes the reasoning: “If negativity is understood to be bad (and it must be bad, just look at the name: negativity) then anti-negativity must be good.” But Negativity, according to Sartre, is Consciousness! It’s what distinguishes a freethinking human from a thing or ’bot.

Scocca ably exposes smarm as the enemy that turns the power of consciousness against itself: the “content-free piety” that shuts down debate before it starts.

Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer? […] Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It’s not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.”

What I want from commentary, above all, is insight. For promotional purposes, we have publicists. I “like” “On Smarm.” How can we value what’s great if nobody’s allowed to nail what’s crap?

If smarm is the saccharine at life’s banquet, effectively calling bullshit is the spice. Alice Longworth Roosevelt put it best: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”

Happy New Year, everyone!

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer based in New York. This year she curated “The Cat Show” at White Columns; an expanded version of “The Cats-in-Residence Program,” her purrformance piece for rescue kitties, will travel to the Walker Art Center in 2014.