The irony is not lost on me that I am
writing a snarky piece about snarky work, but I think many of us young artists have itchy middle fingers for the
New York conceptualist Merlin Carpenter had a show this summer at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in Manhattan between May 6 and June 3, delivering yet another “fuck you” to the upper echelons of the art world. The show, titled The Tate Café, was probably bolder and more rebellious than his previous work (under this particular alias) because the subject of his flipped bird – the Tate Modern – was named in the title.
But I prefer his earlier work for a couple of reasons. For one, in his 2007 show The Opening, he took painting – the bread and butter of art sales, lowest-ranking on the imaginary universal scale of ground-breaking, envelope-pushing, eye-poking badassery – and he used it to expose the art world for what it is. Another reason that I liked his first couple of shows was because they were so brave – which he attests to in an interview – but, they were maybe not so brave after they begin to be the basis for his entire practice.
The final reason I liked his earlier work under this alias was because Merlin Carpenter also supposedly had a previously lucrative career as a painter, which brings me to the following issue.
I think it is safe to say that anyone reading this article right now knows that the art world is full of as much bullshit as anything else. I also would assume that anyone who looks at Carpenter’s work would feel the same. These people would also be aware that most things like politics are full of shit too. When you see someone huffing and puffing about politics being total bullshit, you’re probably not going to praise them as a brave sooth speaker, or a really forward thinker. On the flipside, if someone who is deeply embedded in politics for years were to suddenly come out and confirm the obvious, I think there would be a few cheers of support.
Often enough there is an urge to point a middle finger at established ideas, cultures, and institutions in service of making poignant work, and it is often all too clear when a subversive attitude is the only motive behind it. Too often young artists feel the need to stick a finger in the eye of the established order. I think this is probably the least effective time for snarky work to find much effect. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible, but more often than not it comes across as naive in the same way that romantic slogans scrawled in graffiti can seem twee and hollow. I also would say that Merlin Carpenter’s snarky work loses its strength with every new show, and that he is perpetuating what he criticizes.