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Ragnar Kjartansson
and The End

by Miles Mathis

Today [June 3, 2009] the New York Times ran a long article on the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Kjartansson, 33, is working on a performance piece for the Venice Biennale, where he is the representative from Iceland. His piece, entitled “The End”, is “a farcically romantic idea of what the end of the world might look like, at least for an artist.” To prevent you from wasting precious seconds guessing what that might be, I will tell you that it is Kjartansson painting from a live model for six months, then posting that oeuvre as a performance. What is supposed to make the performance somewhat hellish—or end-of-the-world-ish—is that Kjartansson must paint from the same model the entire time: a man in a black speedo with a beer and cigarette. He must also paint a new one every day.

Neither the artist nor the Biennale nor the writer are interested in the actual canvases covered in that period, they are only interested in the farcical content of the performance. Yes, in the modern world, painting from the live model is now considered a farcical performance. Kjartansson doesn't even have to try very hard to insert the farce into the performance by choosing an obviously farcical subject. A man in a black speedo is boring, inartistic, and pointless, but it isn't especially farcical, since Kjartansson's model is not grossly fat, is not missing any limbs, is not a transvestite or a hooker or an addict, and is not making any effort to be comical, blackly or otherwise. The fact that the artist is attempting to paint in a realistic manner is all the farce required here.

As with Dennis Hopper, we are doubly removed from art. But while Hopper pretends to be a pretend artist, Kjartansson pretends to be a real artist. Kjartansson's second level of abstraction from reality is that he isn't really pretending to be a real artist. He is pretending to pretend to be a real artist.

The writer seems to understand that this farce cuts both ways. He says,

In the manner of many young artists now, he seems to be trying to express a kind of simultaneous reverence and mockery, though maybe only the mockery of ribbing himself for longing to be a more traditional artist.

Cutting, but not nearly cutting enough. Kjartansson has done this before. Last year he pretended to be a plein air painter, setting up an expensive traveling easel in upstate New York, reading Lolita and smoking cigars in between bouts of fake painting. It was supposed to be funny, but was only funny to those pathetic people “in the arts”, all born with the same birth defect, whereby the funnybone, instead of being in the usual place at the tip of the elbow, is instead buried at the base of the sacrum, where it conflicts with the normal use of their keisters.

To be clear, it wasn't funny because it completely failed to skewer the intended target. When Dana Carvey pretends to be Clinton or Bush, it is actually funny, because Carvey 1) has a talent for comedy, 2) has a talent for impersonation, 3) has a talent for finding absurdity and highlighting it. Unlike real comedians, contemporary artists never have any of these talents. They think they only have to choose a subject and all the “farce” automatically attaches to it. They forget that they have to do something that is funny or clever or poignant.

Kjartansson only makes himself look pathetic, which admittedly is more poignancy than one is used to seeing from modern art. In trying to paint and failing, he achieves nearly the high artistic effect of a mime trying to walk against the wind. As proof of this, see the painting above, which is just a cartoon. It isn't a terrible cartoon, by modern standards, but, given the situation, it can only seem sad, like the sad mime. Only if it were much much worse could it avoid some of this pathetic sadness.

Likewise, the article in the Times is also sad, to the artistic level of a sad mime, since it also tries to reach the level of real writing, but fails. A real article would tell an interesting story, but the arts are out of interesting stories. So we get a long sad parade of articles like this, year after year, mimicking the form of an interesting story, without the interest. We have an almost nude model, a palazzo in Venice, an artist, and a big expensive show: the ingredients of an interesting story. But all we have at the end is a no-one pretending—tongue-in-cheek—to be a some-one, and a non-writer pretending to be a writer, and a non-arts section pretending to be an arts section, and a non-newspaper pretending to be a newspaper. Our white mascara runs down our cheeks as we weep onto our black Capezios.

The saddest part of this whole soppy story is that neither the artist nor the writer are aware of the fact that the end of the world, for the real artist, was many years ago. Kjartansson implies in the article that the economic crisis, which has already decimated Iceland, will destroy art in the near future. This is strictly delusional, since there is nothing to destroy. Art has been dead for almost a century. I have no fear of the future, artistically, because I have been living in an artistic hell all my life. The economic crisis may affect the fake artists like Kjartansson, and for that reason I welcome it; but it can have no affect on art. An economic crisis can only affect the markets, and there has been no market for real art for as long as I can remember.

Kjartansson and the all the other modern people have no conception of either heaven or hell, in an artistic sense. They cannot experience either the highs or the lows, because their brains are frequency modulated and art is modulated by amplitude. They are constitutionally set to vibrate to quantity, but art concerns quality. They cannot possibly experience the joy of creating a great painting, because they are not artists, and they cannot experience the hell of living in a milieu taken over by phonies, because they are these phonies. Kjartansson can only experience the smaller hell of having once been famous in a small way, which, for quantity-minded people must indeed be a bit of a fall. But at least Kjartansson and the rest can console themselves with the knowledge that their loss was the gain of art history.

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