The Art of Argument: Controversial Juxtapositions Spark Debate at a Multi-Museum Exhibition

In the spring of 1917, in a storeroom at an exhibition space in midtown New York, the painter George Bellows and the art curator Walter Arensberg had one of the liveliest arguments ever held about a piece of art. Bellows and Arensberg took opposing views of Fountain, an upside-down urinal that Marcel Duchamp wanted to display at a major art exhibit. Bellows said the piss receptacle, which Duchamp purchased from a business, was “indecent” and “a joke.” Arensberg countered that the work had been “freed from its functional purpose” to reveal an aesthetic marvel that was entirely appropriate for public display. Bellows won out, and Duchamp's “ready-made” art was rejected for the exhibit, but the debate still remains a century later: Can a porcelain bowl that's meant for men's body waste be considered “art” or even “gorgeous art?”

A Duchamp urinal is one of the many standout works in “Gorgeous,” an exhibit co-organized by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Asian Art Museum that asks art-goers to consider the fluid chasm between beauty and repulsion. Profound (and some profane) works of recent vintage are juxtaposed with works from previous centuries that were meant for high-minded pursuits. One example: A designer cocaine spoon that's made from gold and bronze (SFMOMA's contribution) sits in the same glass case with a gold-and-jeweled dagger from 18th-century Indonesia (the Asian Art Museum's contribution). Which golden object is more worthy of adulation or disgust ­— the object that feeds drug habits through wide-open nostrils, or the one that may have cut off people's noses? Don't they serve similar purposes?

The juxtapositions are everywhere in “Gorgeous,” where the art is shoehorned into different subject areas like “Pose,” “Seduction,” and “Fantasy.” Instead of festooning the walls with dry, academically written captions, the art features spry, thoughtful musings from curators. And the exhibit's center court has a line-up of video screens showcasing on-the-street interviews with opinionated San Franciscans about what makes for arresting art. “I think blood is gorgeous,” says a teenage boy, while someone else cites dead animals on the sides of roads, and another praises the smell of urine on public buses.

SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum should be lauded for taking a chance and refashioning their collections into one of the year's most provocative exhibits. On the other hand, desperate times call for desperate measures. SFMOMA is in the middle of a three-year shutdown that has deprived Bay Area art-goers of its prized collection. Yes, SFMOMA works have popped up in other venues, but this is the first time that 33 of its longtime gems, like Andy Warhol's Two Jackies and Jeff Koons' gaudy sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, have re-emerged in San Francisco. And the Asian Art Museum — with its Civic Center location, where street denizens recline on nearby sidewalks — is a fitting address for an exhibit that has Duchamp's Fountain and Chris Ofili's Princess of the Posse, which incorporates elephant dung onto its canvas.

Twenty years ago, I got into a fierce argument about art with two journalist friends as we stood on 16th Street near Valencia. It was around 2 a.m., and we'd been drinking a bit. A homeless man walked in our direction. One of my friends noticed, and said something disparaging about the man. “Oh,” I remember saying, “if a famous photographer like Salgado took the man's image and put it in a gallery, that would be 'art' and you'd be elated to spend time with it. In front of you, though, the man isn't 'art.' He's just a homeless man to be avoided.” My friends and I began raising our voices at each other — to the point that a woman living in the nearest apartment building opened her window and told us to shut up, or she'd call the police. We left. End of argument.

“Gorgeous” is where the arguments can resume, but also where quiet moments of reflection can occur. The exhibit's smallest gallery features Mark Rothko's No. 14 — a visual triumph that seems to breathe layers of orange, purple, and brown — next to a centuries-old Tibetan mandala that, using Rothko's same colors and then some, imagines a universe ruled by deities that connect all its subjects. The gallery is a darkened chamber with a bench that art-goers use to sit down and contemplate the work that surrounds them on every side. No. 14 and the Buddhist mandala are entirely appropriate together. As Rothko once said, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

Duchamp's Fountain is right in front of the gallery with No. 14, guarding Rothko's work from a pedestal that elevates it practically to eye level. On the day I visited, I left that area to use the men's room, and when I emerged, an Asian Art Museum janitor was waiting outside with her rolling supply cart, ready to clean the facilities. With a solicitous voice, she asked if anyone else was still in there. “I'm pretty sure there's no one,” I said, then went back to double-check. When I re-emerged and said, “All clear,” the janitor laughed. So did I. A gorgeous moment, I thought. No doubt about it. The art of conversation is encouraged at “Gorgeous,” and where it leads is anyone's guess.

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