Arsewoman: Art? Sure. Great art?
December 8, 2002 8:17 PM   Subscribe

This is the text of a painting called "Arsewoman in Wonderland," shortlisted for the UK's Turner Prize 2002. Fiona Banner's painting consists entirely of a textual narration of a porn film; specifically, a porn film dedicated to an extended exploration of anal sex, with an "Alice in Wonderland" theme. (Apparently, dwarves are also involved.) The Turner, which comes with a £20,000 purse, ostensibly recognizes the best British art. Now, I love a good conceptual dig as much as the next guy, but does Banner's painting really challenge the way we "compartmentalise private and public behaviour," let alone represent the best the British art world has to offer?
posted by adamgreenfield (49 comments total)

You know...if she was going to put that much effort in, she could at least have spellchecked it. Wow.
posted by biscotti at 8:25 PM on December 8, 2002

Well, no, it doesn't represent 'the best the British art world has to offer', possibly because she didn't win. Though do the Oscars always represent the best that Hollywood offers?
posted by riviera at 8:50 PM on December 8, 2002

"That's the thing with Britain, they don't know what they've got until it's gone. There would be national mourning if Damien (Hirst) were to go under a bus."

posted by Stan Chin at 9:00 PM on December 8, 2002

If you're wondering what this looks like, there's a detail on her site. If it's a painting she sure has a steady hand...
posted by zsazsa at 9:13 PM on December 8, 2002

Last year the prize was won by Martin Creed, whose entry was a bare room with its lights switching on and off.

Um, yeah...
posted by thatweirdguy2 at 9:19 PM on December 8, 2002

It's always interesting to make something outrageous if for no other reason that you're able to examine where the boundaries of normality are placed. I don't know if this is very outrageous, but I'm pretty porn-saturated to begin with, being Danish and all.

It does however transform the media of the phenomenon it tries to depict, and that is sometimes interesting in a Roy Liechtenstein-kind of way. It challenges our preconception about a genre by presenting it in another context. What wasn't art suddenly becomes art, or, you'll be all, like, reflexive about it.

It's all about what you take for granted, I suppose, and if art can change that, I think it's succesful.

Whether this piece is among the finest in Britain, I don't know, but I think it's all right.

Oh and BTW [this might be offensive] to someone.
posted by cx at 9:20 PM on December 8, 2002

It's all about what you take for granted, I suppose, and if art can change that, I think it's succesful.

Sadly, the only thing art has changed in quite a while is people's opinion of art.
posted by Hildago at 9:29 PM on December 8, 2002

Neat assertation, Hildago. Care to back it up? True masterpieces in art are rarely recognized in the lifetime of their creators, it takes many years to sift the crap from the genius.

I suppose I sound like a fawning art fanboy, but I'm really tired of people bringing up art that is basically a dialogue within the art community, and then trying to show how irrelevent it is to everything else. I don't pull academic papers from obscure sociology magazines as examples of "modern sociology". There's alot of really great art out there if people would just stop pointing what they perceive as "bad" art.
posted by chason at 9:43 PM on December 8, 2002

This is the most shocking thing that has ever shocked me since a faulty electric socket a few years ago. Seeing pornography in written form (written! not seen!) is like having a bowling bowl dropped on my fragile bourgeosie preconceptions. It's like living in an abyss in which no line divides the public and private spheres!

Sweet Jesus, now I know how Willy felt at the end of Ghost, when he gets hit by that car and then the evil spirits come and pull him away, and he's screaming: Aah! Aah! No! No! No! Aah! Help me! Heeeelp me!
posted by Ljubljana at 9:43 PM on December 8, 2002

Nice to see an artist coming out and just using words instead of using imagery that has to be explained with words.
posted by KettleBlack at 10:03 PM on December 8, 2002

Clearly we're discussing the wrong award.

chason: Fair enough, but people rarely start railing against modern art until it's brought to their attention, usually by being portrayed as "great" art. Banner's work isn't simply a dialogue, it's being portrayed as relevant enough to warrant an award. I don't think anyone would give much of a damn about it had it not been on the short list.
posted by apostasy at 10:19 PM on December 8, 2002

Am I the only one who notices the unmistakable similarity to Phallus in Wonderland?

Maybe GWAR deserves a shot at the titillating Turner prize too!
posted by hama7 at 10:23 PM on December 8, 2002

Relevent enough to warrant an award from who? Just as I won't be shocked if Strom Thurmond wins a lifetime achievement award from the Christian Coalition, I'm not suprised that art like this is being praised in the Turner Awards. I'm pretty sure we've already had several threads on this subject, though I'm feeling too lazy to look them up.

The Turner Awards committee digs on this kind of stuff, they always award some shocking young conceptual artist, which is why a whole bunch of artists don't care for them. When the Turner awards say that these are the most talented young British artists, they are saying that in a context that should be defined very narrowly, just as if the HRC awards a "best politician" award.
posted by chason at 10:46 PM on December 8, 2002

chason, my feeling isn't that "Arsewoman" is "irrelevant to everything else," rather, that it is ineffective in just about everything its creator set out for it to do - by my lights, anyway.

OK, there's a minor frisson in realizing that the video Banner narrates so tendentiously would be thoroughly unacceptable in (and unwanted by) most establishment art galleries, but the exact textual equivalent of the acts depicted somehow makes it as Art. For twenty-three seconds, maybe, someone scratches their chin and thinks, "Hmm. The word is still privileged over the image in Western culture."

But that's a trivial thing to point out...isn't it? And isn't using the guaranteed hot-button trigger of assfucking imagery cheating, anyway?

It's a dodge to say "Arsewoman" didn't actually win the Turner, either; it was shortlisted, with four other entries, from among hundreds. And deliberation apparently took an unusually long time this year, tho' it's true we don't know whether that deliberation actually took up Banner's cause.

I'm the kind of guy that is always willing to see the clothes other folks insist the emperor's not wearing. I've gotten a lot, personally, out of the works of William Gibson, Maya Lin, Philip Glass, Bridget Riley, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra - all artists, in their respective media, who have been accused of either not having terribly much to say, or embroidering a thin premise way past the point of palability. I have nothing against asspr0n, either. And I even occasionally find Damien Hirst provocative.

So why do I find Banner's work so terribly weak? A yawn-inducing first-year stunt at best? My question in the FPP is sincere.
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:50 PM on December 8, 2002

hama7, Maybe the Turner Prize folks don't feel comfortable leaving their flesh at GWAR's door.
posted by samuelad at 10:50 PM on December 8, 2002

"There would be national mourning if Damien (Hirst) were to go under a bus."

inevitably, they would call it art. and Damien would be the new people's princess.
posted by stonerose at 10:56 PM on December 8, 2002

Seems like all discussion about art in a democratic environment degrades into a sort of postmodern game of Jenga, with people who "know something" about art chipping away at people who "don't know anything about art" until the whole thing degrades into a pit of knees and elbows.

That being said, I do agree with the comment about art as dialogue. Other higher creative forms, such as literature or theatre, require a sort of ante before one can criticize. You have to read a book or sit through a play before you can insult it, and that lends some veracity to the insult. With other creative endeavors, such as visual art or (some) poetry, one can simply glance at the piece and make a snap judgment. Although thought does go into pieces such as "Arsewoman," it's hard to describe to the uninitiated the entire intellectual backdrop upon which such art rests. And in some cases, even the most solid conceptual foundation doesn't make up for good ol' fashioned shitty product.

After considering the whole mess, I've decided that it's not worth it. Fuck art, let's kill.
posted by mmcg at 10:59 PM on December 8, 2002

Well, it seems to me there's a continual tension between the springs-eternal urge to get "Art" out of the hands of the curators and galleries (and prize committees) and into the realm of real people's everyday lives, and the densely referential or intertextual nature of a lot of contemporary work.

That is, the artist has put a lot of effort into weaving their work into a borader tapestry, a longer-running conversation. In some cases this is simply so we can pat them on the back for being clever, but frequently enough it's because they've actually (as you imply) digested a deepish body of work and criticism, and the work at hand is a personal response to that body. Is it valid to say that someone who can't apprehend this thicket of reference "doesn't get it"? Doesn't that throw everything right back into the clutches of the duly-accredited Authorities, who've been trained to elucidate and savor just such skeins of intertextuality?

Great art, IMO, works on many levels - not necessarily "every level," but enough at least to please the casual civilian spectator and the clued-in possessor of esoteric knowledge. To aim merely for one is to be Thomas Kincaid, to aim for the other is to surrender to the hermetic and the snooty. I don't think, actually, that Banner's "Arsewoman" is successful on any level - aesthetically, socially, politically, intellectually - and that's why I wonder.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:07 PM on December 8, 2002

Britain's culture minister Kim Howells has branded this year's four shortlisted entries in the prestigious Turner Prize as "bullshit."

Howells' attack on Turner prize sparks fierce art debate

A work based on pornography has sparked this year's ritual Turner prize furore. So who better to judge it than Britain's biggest porn star?[a must read, btw]

Hah. It never ceases to amaze me the emotions that get caught up in these things. I still can't believe that the three most sacred areas of human endeavor are art, religion, and sex. How ridiculous are these things? I would fight to the death to preserve peoples right to do what ever they want in all three. (You want to worship elves- go right ahead. You like Billy Ray Cyrus- Its your tape-deck. You want to poke what into what?! Have fun.) But I don't see why I should let their seemingly inscrutable choices affect me in any great way. The Oscars, Grammys, Turner Awards may or may not intersect with my ideas of great art, but if they don't, why is it of any importance to me? I discover amazing new art everyday, and there's plenty more out there, past and present, I reckon. Popular trends and opinions aren't going to change that, so why should I care?

PS-Did somebody say GWAR. Sweet!
posted by dgaicun at 11:12 PM on December 8, 2002 [1 favorite]

Don't get me wrong, "Arsewoman" isn't a terribly great piece to me either. It seems to be rather tedious and unsubtle, but I wasn't ranting against this post itself, but rather a member's critique that art today had nothing to say, when in fact I visit art galleries around town and they speak volumes to me.
posted by chason at 11:14 PM on December 8, 2002

New Math
Yeah i'd stoop to that.
sure i would.
yeah you been had.
that's how i got my job at the underwriter's lab.

you bet i sucked up.
everychance i had.
that's how i fixed it.
that's what i did.

and now my knees are spotless and my legs are crossed.
and i needn't spread them.
cause i can afford:
piety, chastity, charity, your company.

- Drive Like Jehu

posted by four panels at 11:27 PM on December 8, 2002

Yep. Art ain't dead yet.
posted by dgaicun at 11:27 PM on December 8, 2002

I love a good conceptual dig as much as the next guy
Well, I certainly don't.
posted by HTuttle at 11:34 PM on December 8, 2002

"Banner uses pornographic film to explore sexuality and the extreme limits of written communication." In countering the outcry, Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, said, "these are not comfortable works to view but then much art is not comfortable." (from the second guardian link)

Uh, what? I don't understand how this work is particularly uncomfortable. Literature has included sexual content since we've had literature, just because this particular piece is on a billboard and describes anal sex doesn't mean it's breaking some barrier, or even making a particularly original point. Trying reading Justine sometime, or any of de Sade's writing. This is only disturbing if it is your first exposure to sexual content, and from what I understand regarding British taste in humor, the culture tends to run rather blue, just as America's culture tends to do.

As for "[exploring] the extreme limits of written communication," this piece doesn't do any kind of exploration, it simply rehashes slang and cliches that have been floating around the smut industry for decades. For exploration of the extreme limits of written communication, try reading some Joyce, not something that throws around "cum" and "cock" and then considers itself edgy.

I don't know who I'm more upset with, the people who are throwing a fit or the guy who is defending the work.
posted by mmcg at 11:48 PM on December 8, 2002

I call it shock art, because that seems to be the intended goal. The truth is, that every single mefi reader could create the art in question, and if everyone can do it, then why is it special?
posted by Beholder at 12:39 AM on December 9, 2002

"There would be national mourning if Damien (Hirst) were to go under a bus."

.....then stick his battered corpse in a tank of formaldehyde.
posted by SpaceCadet at 12:55 AM on December 9, 2002

if everyone can do it, then why is it special?

It isn't special because anybody would be able to reproduce it. It would special if it was original, and to my knowledge it is. In some ways anyway.

I wouldn't call it shock art (but I'm no art critic) and I'm not sure that is indeed the intende goal: It reminds me more of pop art, and while that is hardly the avant garde of the art world, it has merit still, IMHO. And as pop art isn't the idea to present a mundane thing, something that has little or no perceived artistic value, and present it as high brow art?
posted by cx at 12:57 AM on December 9, 2002

Trying reading Justine sometime, or any of de Sade's writing.

Try reading it here, for instance. Of course, if you can't read French, you might have to try a little harder.* For those of you who can't read frog, read 120 Days of Sodom in its online entirety, or download it onto your computer, along with Philosophy in the Bedroom.

Now that's pr0n art, Gaw-dammit!

* Hey, there's always BabelFish.
posted by dgaicun at 1:33 AM on December 9, 2002

Every clerisy seeks to preserve itself by encouraging the perception that it is inscrutably wise. One of the more efficient ways to maintain this perception is to distribute self-pollinating, rabble-baffling awards. It goes without saying that award-winners will be turbid enough, in both subject matter and quality of expression, to require boatloads of expensive critical elucidation.

(Oops - an anti-pluralism brain fart - it will pass.)
posted by Opus Dark at 2:40 AM on December 9, 2002

You'r ejust pissed for not thinking of it yourself. Admit it.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:59 AM on December 9, 2002

In retrospect 1994 was a good year. I bought this album that I had never heard of and no one else had seemed to know anything about it either. It kicked the ass of every whiney grunge and proto emo band out at the time. I have no idea what happened to them. I haven't listened to them in a long time either so I have no idea if I even still like them. But it's nice to be reminded that "alternative" doesn't mean what's force-fed to you, but what you have discovered for yourself. Thanks four panels.
posted by wobh at 6:15 AM on December 9, 2002

Now this is a list I find really offensive, and this was, of course, voted for by the good old British public.

More Turner prizes please.
posted by ciderwoman at 6:27 AM on December 9, 2002

Space -- It's not about thinking of it first, it's really selling it first. And that takes connections, a nice artist's statement, etc...

Has anyone else ever read Tom Wolfe's essay, "The Painted Word?" This seems to embody what he's talking about...
posted by ph00dz at 8:07 AM on December 9, 2002

At least it wasn't Nipplejesus (excerpt)
posted by rainking at 8:19 AM on December 9, 2002

AdamGreenfield - is the word really priveledged over the image in western culture? I make a case for just the reverse. But anyway:

1) Sex sells
2) Although "porn images as art" haven't made it to the galleries yet, text is not taboo. So: Sex text! mmmmm good.
3) The piece is evocative because it's text in a visual (art gallery) environment and,
4) It gives bored art gallery patrons an excuse to stare for long periods of time at the wall while engaging in lurid fantasies about anal sex.

Sounds like a hit to me, but it's been done before.
posted by troutfishing at 8:57 AM on December 9, 2002

an ascii art duck
where's my damn award
posted by KettleBlack at 10:36 AM on December 9, 2002

I think y'all are missing some of the important underpinnings. This art gets to be nominated for the Turner Prize because it has met with the approval of some of the 200 or so very rich people who, globally, devote their time to deciding what gets bought in contemporary art, both privately, for corporations, and for institutions. The rise to prominence of contemporary artists like these is dictated by a small cadre of festival and biennial curators, but primarily by this small global community of people with more than two homes. Does this work apply to you? Guess what? It does not matter. Much of this sort of conceptual work is not made for you as the audience -- which I think is unfortunate.

Banner's resume is actually fairly informative of her work in text explications of film events. Much of it is devoted to how we process film structures and narratives, particularly with regard to psychoanalytic ideas of random association, forgetting, and misremembering.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:36 AM on December 9, 2002

Although "porn images as art" haven't made it to the galleries yet

I see your point, troutfishing, but this assertion simply isn't true -- Wittenbols' work, for example.

Sadly, the only thing art has changed in quite a while is people's opinion of art.

Hildago (et al), have you actually gone out into the world to look at art or do you feel qualified to make judgements based on a Guardian article and a small jpeg?

if everyone can do it, then why is it special?

Beholder, is this a troll? Are you so unaware of the very basic developments in art in the past hundred years that you honestly think that art is only the skillful creation of realistic images?
posted by statisticalpurposes at 12:45 PM on December 9, 2002

"porn images as art" haven't made it to the galleries yet

Jeff Koons' art has featured images of him having sex with his former wife Cicciolina, who has been a porn star as well as a member of the Italian Parliament. One example. (Scroll down for the prurient pictures.)
posted by faustessa at 12:51 PM on December 9, 2002

statisticalpurposes (I'm calling you "stats" from now on, hope you don't mind): Don't be so quick to toss around the word "troll." It's quite possible to know about "the very basic developments in art in the past hundred years" and still think that living on a shelf in a gallery for a week, or turning off the lights in a room, or crawling up Broadway,* or doing something else that requires no special ability is not art in any meaningful sense. You're free to disagree, but insulting the person you disagree with is uncalled-for. I have high regard for Kandinsky and Mondrian and Pollock and Rothko, and I still think this stuff is crap. But I'm not calling you a troll.

*All actual artworks!
posted by languagehat at 2:02 PM on December 9, 2002

Beholder, is this a troll?

Just one more example of what I was talking about before.

Art's just something that elicits pleasure, people. Something rather silly like an orgasm. Don't let your brain trick you into thinking it's anything more powerful than it needs to be. Settle down, enjoy what you may, that's all there need be to it. There's plenty of art for everybody.
posted by dgaicun at 2:32 PM on December 9, 2002

What I love is the sick stuff people get pleasure from. Like pretentious garbage. And artist's statements. And long discussions about things that supposedly can't be communicated with words very well.

And btw there's more to art than pleasure. I'd say the art market is the first reason for art. It's less something silly like an orgasm and more something silly for the wealthy to hang on their walls.
posted by KettleBlack at 4:20 PM on December 9, 2002

sure, languagehat, I wasn't saying that it's all or nothing, that all conceptual art is great, but I have to contest the blanket assertion that "it's not art if I could make it." This is something I hear all the time, and it irks me. I suppose name calling was, however, unwarranted.

dgaicun, you make a truly excellent point. My mistake was to integrate statements here into a larger argument about whether the arts deserve funding that I often find myself in. Though it has no concrete, material basis, I get a lot out of art, and get worked up when people attack it. Art may not be objectively valuable or sacred, but it is to me. When you like orgasms so much it's hard to hear people berate them and threaten to go celibate. But you're still right.
posted by statisticalpurposes at 4:23 PM on December 9, 2002

I'd say the art market is the first reason for art. It's less something silly like an orgasm and more something silly for the wealthy to hang on their walls.

Well that's obviously not true. People enjoy art when there's no market, and no one else around to see them own it. Fundamentally we like art because we have innate aesthetic appreciations.

Of course, art is used to acquire status, but I hesitate to say that's why humans like it. Essentially, there's nothing we won't use for status.
posted by dgaicun at 5:44 PM on December 9, 2002

dgaicun: no, you're wrong

First - do we have innate aesthetic appreciations? I suppose we do, but it isn't like they can't be manipulated easily. I study industrial design, the art of making things look like something someone will buy.

Second: What people enjoy the art world doesn't call art. They call it Thomas Kinkade. And only certain people don't even enjoy that. The vast majority of Americans couldn't care less about the visual arts.

This is precisely why I object to public sculpture. I am disgusted by the public funding of enormous, pretentious, didactic monsters in cities. They say nothing else than "look at me I'm a work of art". Most people don't take art appreciation courses, and if they do, an appreciation of art becomes for them a status symbol. If you can enjoy looking at something Jeff Koons does, you belong to an elite little club.

Okay you're part wrong but you're totally wrong in that part. ! !!!

Furthermore I was referring more to the reasons people create art not why they like it.

And the point you made about humans using anything for status was quite interesting.

posted by KettleBlack at 8:17 PM on December 9, 2002

stats: I understand. I get that way when people babble about grammar.

Kettle: Oh, come on -- everybody can enjoy Koons's "Puppy"!
posted by languagehat at 8:47 PM on December 9, 2002

statisticalpurposes - I couldn't resist looking, but Jef Koons and Cicciollina are not, in my book, exactly "porn". There are many degrees of "porn", and these limp pics do not come close to measuring up to the lurid text of the art in question.

The exception proves the rule: no exception (even) yet....

I'm sure, actually, that there has been plenty of (strong sense) "porn" images in art galleries. But these are still taboo and an exception, and so....
posted by troutfishing at 9:17 PM on December 9, 2002

Neat assertation, Hildago. Care to back it up?

Uhh, sure. Let me just flip to the art section of my newspaper. Err, a popular magazine. Err, let me turn on the radio to hear coverage of the art scene. How about my tv?

Wait, postmodernism has alienated the artistic community from all but a small number of loyal fans. I keep forgetting that, increasingly, visual art is becoming insignificant in the lives of most people. Let me just think back to all the times I've heard people discuss art, and subtract the times they've been talking about anyone older than Jackson Pollock, and let's see what we're left with. Hmm, zero.

Well, perhaps this is because nobody pays attention to popular culture anymore. Wait, no, everybody watches television and movies. So maybe it's just that art doesn't make people care enough anymore, so it's been pushed to the margins. Yeah, sounds right.

Hildago (et al), have you actually gone out into the world to look at art or do you feel qualified to make judgements based on a Guardian article and a small jpeg?

I have no idea what this has to do with what I said, but if you want to know, yeah, I've made the effort. But even if I didn't know the meaning of the word art, I'd still be right, because people not caring about art is what we're freaking talking about.

And what judgments have I made, incidentally? I've made an observation about the place of art in our culture, but you couldn't say with certainty whether I like the painting in question or not.
posted by Hildago at 11:07 PM on December 9, 2002

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