Tampon in a teacup

STEFAN BECK

Anyone seeking a little comic relief in the wake of Yale University’s alternately sickening and embarrassing "abortion as art" scandal need look no further than Terry Zwigoff’s 2006 comedy Art School Confidential.

It's very loosely based on a comic by Daniel Clowes, which appears in this anthology and is in many ways superior to the film as a satire of the mind-bending pretentiousness and inanity one finds in even the finest fine arts academies.

As I recall, one panel in Clowes's original depicts the "old tampon-in-a-teacup trick": Pressed for time? Cobble together some loaded imagery and insist with a straight face that it "raises questions" about something or other. "Raising questions" has enjoyed a lucrative career as the art world's biggest con. When the shock-schlock "Sensation" exhibition appeared at the British Royal Academy of Art, Theodore Dalrymple asked its chief of exhibitions, Norman Rosenthal, what value he saw in a giant portrait, made up entirely of tiny handprints, of the child-murderess Myra Hindley. Right on cue, Rosenthal said that "the picture raises interesting questions."

Dalrymple asked what those might be, politely reminding Mr. Rosenthal that "it must be possible to formulate them in words." A picture is worth a thousand of them, after all — but in this case the ratio turned out to be more like 1:1, if a sharp intake of breath may count for a word.


...an adult could have and should have stepped in and said, "This proposal is nonsense. There is nothing artistic about it and the questions it 'raises' are a figment of your imagination. You're embarrassing yourself and your school."


Of course, most great works of art do raise questions, but they do so in addition to (for instance) being beautiful, or telling a story, or demonstrating proficiency of some kind. Bad art can rarely claim to do anything but raise questions. Yale senior Aliza Shvarts's menstruation videos supposedly address "the ambiguity surrounding form and function [sic] of a woman's body." If, God forbid, that sounds to you like it might mean something, take a moment to pick it apart. What ambiguity? Is there some fundamental disagreement about whether the female form should function as a tube of red paint?

The fact that ridiculing the project and its unintelligible justification seems redundant is entirely the point. At any point in this project — which at best is a black eye for Yale and a waste of our time and at worst may lead to some lunatic assaulting Ms. Shvarts — an adult could have and should have stepped in and said, "This proposal is nonsense. There is nothing artistic about it and the questions it 'raises' are a figment of your imagination. You're embarrassing yourself and your school." None did.

Instead of piling on Ms. Shvarts, who probably knew she wasn't having abortions and at any rate is clearly too ignorant, unimaginative, and emotionally stunted to grasp the smallest part of her project's implications, why not find out who her professors are and hold them to account? Ms. Shvarts's fifteen minutes of flim-flam are over — her tempest in a tampon in a teacup, as it were — but these negligent adults threw their young charge under a bus and are drawing Ivy League salaries anyway. And that raises interesting questions that I'm sure you'll have no trouble at all formulating into words.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Stefan Beck. "Tampon in a teacup." New Criterion Volume armavirumque, (April 2008).

Reprinted with permission of New Criterion.

THE AUTHOR

Stefan Beck is assistant editor of the New Criterion.

Copyright © 2008 New Criterion




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