Monday, August 01, 2005

Private fantasias

Lately critics have piled on Wes Anderson for making private, inscrutable adolescent hipster fantasias in which set design trumps any kind of potential audience interest in plot or character. His films are dubbed elaborate dollhouses whose innummerable details are painstakingly placed just so, while the lifeless characters, thereby turned into dolls, limp through an undercooked story speaking unlikely lines. But he is far from alone in this tendency, if anything he's merely following recent trends in the fine arts world epitomized at last year's Whitney Biennial and currently on full display at a thoroughly entertaining but strangely empty exhibition of contemporary work by New York artists at P.S. 1 in Queens. Perhaps a long-developing reaction to the lazy conceptual work in the 80s and 90s, the tendency now is to create hyperprecise and extravagantly meticulous work in which all the conceptual ideas are muted or overwhelmed by the painstaking and laborious process of their execution. So virtually everything at P.S. 1 fell into two camps: drawings with obsessive, microscopic detail receding into an infinite fineness (as with the absolutely amazing bonsai-tree like sculptures made by cutting out silhouettes in a paper bag) and room-sized installations developing a whimsical Willie Wonka idea to an absurd extreme (the best example of this was the truly nightmarish room full of yeti-like robotic snow monsters). These are often technical tours de force, but they inevitably seem to be about nothing more than the artist's own compulsion, or more generously, the amount of free time they can devote to their art. It is as if they are out to prove they have to devote their energies to nothing else in this life, that when they make their drawing of 20,000 cats intertwined with each other, they are proving their professional commitment to art. The essence of these artists' fantasia then, regardless of its specific form, is the fantasy of being a pure artist, doing nothing but making art even though the economy doesn't really afford them a place in productive society. And that's ultimately our payoff in looking at these works, getting to daydeam of the ability to indulge our curiosity and our whimsey with such relentless focus, spending all our time on it instead of processing payment claims or attending productino meetings or making photocopies or whatever it is we really do to earn our keep. The reason these things seem so often to be adolescent is that they recall our own adolescence, the last time we could indulge ourselves by making colleges or building life-sized dioramas in the form of out bedrooms in our parents' houses. Some artists make this literal, recreating teen-age bedrooms. At P.S. 1, one clever take on this theme turned the effluvia of a teen's life into a sailing vessel, the ship of fledgling personality that an adolescent sets out on into the choppy waters of mature selfhood -- because personality is a vehicle, after all, not an ontological essence. Anyway, it's the focus on the individual somehow skirting the expectations society places on him, avoiding the stultification of the jobs it creates for people, that makes this art smack of hipsterism, as well. Hipsters, like artists, are often subsidized by someone -- their parents usually -- and need not make any concessions to the Man. Hipsters, unlike artists though, are usually content to make their being their artwork, they live as their own work of art, with much less attention to detail.

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