Junking the Real Meaning of Art: RIP Mr. Rauschenberg

Posted: May 14, 2008 7:21 PM
Junking the Real Meaning of Art: RIP Mr. Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg made a living turning art into junk.

I’m sorry. The media script has it the other way around. They’re saying that Rauschenberg, who died at 82 on May 12, turned junk into art. He was a Master.

In the larger sense, I think my version is closer to the mark. Inspired by Rauschenberg’s success and unbound by considerations of skill or beauty, a generation of artists was freed to slap together virtually anything. It’s why many modern art museums today are practically paying people to come in and browse.

A lovable and innovative entrepreneur, Rauschenberg provided employment for legions of critics who explained –and are still explaining -- his junk to the rest of us.

In 1999, Rauschenberg told National Public Radio that actual ideas were anathema.

“In the first place, I don’t use ideas. Every time I have an idea, it’s too limiting and usually turns out to be a disappointment. But I haven’t run out of curiosity.” The NPR reporter noted that one critic said, “He never wanted to be held back by an idea of what something should look like.” Even his own.

That would seem to make it rough on those of us who are expected to look at his stuff.

In “Robert Rauschenberg, Alchemist of the Mundane,” The Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik notes that Rauschenberg’s works “are plenty influential. They’re at the root of the past 20 years of installation art. Today’s roomfuls of scattered stuff—almost all the recent ‘Unmonumental’ show at the New Museum in New York, for instance—could barely have existed without Rauschenberg.”

Indeed not. And Gopnik notes also that Rauschenberg’s series of all-white paintings inspired minimalist composer John Cage’s famous 4’33,” in which a pianist sits on a bench for 4 minutes, 33 seconds in a concert hall, and does … nothing. Bravo!

In prose that would be the envy of the two bogus tailors in the Emperor‘s New Clothes, Gopnik explains the appeal:

“Rauschenberg’s white pictures were meant to be receptacles for all the complex light and shade that struck them from the world outside; Cage’s silence was a foil for the ambient sounds of concert hall and audience, a noiselessness that amplified the noise around it. Both works increased our awareness of surrounding realities rather than distracting from them, as many other works of art have done.”

He’s right. Most of us get distracted by paintings that have different colors and shapes. Or by that pesky music, which can fill a concert hall and deprive audiences of the delight of hearing their own coughs and sneezes.

In 1953, Rauschenberg took a drawing from abstract impressionist Willem de Kooning and erased most of it. (Now we’re getting somewhere!) It was the toast of the New York art world. As Gopnik tells us, “It was the younger generation, turning history into a blank slate—but needing that history for its erasure to have meaning.”

Vandals, take note.

My only real complaint with the de Kooning thing is that Rauschenberg didn’t finish the job. Truth be told, he liberated the art world from the grip of the abstract expressionists, who had the art world worshiping at their altar. As with Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, Rauschenberg’s creations were at least based on realism and were entertaining at times, such as his “Monogram” (1955-1959), which featured a stuffed goat wrapped in a whitewall tire and accompanied by stuff such as part of a shoe, newspaper articles and a tennis ball. Not everybody’s cup of tea.

Still, some visitors take convincing that the eyesore in front of them is really art. When a woman did not sufficiently appreciate his works, one of which was “Bed” (1955), consisting of scribblings on his old pillow, sheets and a quilt, Rauschenberg recalled (as related in a book quoted by the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman:

“To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly. So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she’d been saying . …Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand.”

Yes, another admirer won over by the artistry of explanation.

And that’s the problem, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his 1975 book The Painted Word. Very little of modern art would be worth anything without the critics (and sometimes the artists) explaining why we are supposed to appreciate it. As such, the spin becomes as important as the artistry.

But the critics are unpredictably selective.

When David Letterman drops watermelons from a high-rise building so his TV viewers can enjoy waching them smoosh, these videos don’t seem to find a place in the Museum of Modern Art.

Now maybe if he threw down a stuffed goat…..