New Genre Expression: Is It Art?

By Lisa Goldblatt

A few years ago, I walked into one of the Smithsonian Institute's fine art museums, and I was surprised by what I saw. The first exhibit was larger-than-life renditions of food. I gawked at a giant fork with a huge meatball surrounded by towering spaghetti and sauce. I looked up at a big apple core. Finally, I accepted the work as the art that it was. That display was only the beginning. Next, I walked into a room where more art was being displayed. It consisted of two television sets, with one video of the artist sucking on her big toe with gusto, and the other one of her dog running after a sneaker she had thrown. I did not understand what the artist was trying to express by these two pieces, nor did I see any skill in the work. In fact I was quite puzzled by the whole thing. However, there was something I missed, I am sure, so I spent the rest of my visit trying to decipher the difference between expression that was art and expression that was not.

But what is art? If you have the same thoughts I used to, you probably think of art as anything by the great artists in history, such as Monet, Michelangelo or Dali. Those artists have expressed themselves well, despite the fact that some were once thought of as offensive and were not readily accepted in their time. Then I realized that all forms of

"Sometimes I think the
intention (of the artist)
is worthwhile but the
choice of medium or
articulation is confusing."
— Carol Cruickshanks

expression are works of art. No, the common person would not consider two piles of blank paper in an empty room to be art. The Joe off the street may not think of a videotape of a woman masturbating as art. However, even though these things may offend, these artists are expressing themselves. They have a message, maybe not too clear to you and me, but they are trying to convey it. The challenge is to try and figure out what exactly they are trying to say.

When asked her opinion on the matter, Jenine Sweeney, an art major at Trenton State College in New Jersey, said, "Well ... [pause] ... I guess they [the artists] are trying to express themselves in some way ... sometimes you just don't know what they are trying to say." This notion seems to be the popular one about this kind of art these days, and it is common for people, including myself, to get insulted or offended when we do not understand what the artist is trying to convey.

On the teaching end of the student-teacher spectrum, Professor Carol Cruickshanks, art history professor at Trenton State College, said, "I think that it (the art) is symptomatic of people attempting to express themselves but at times being extremely self-indulgent when it comes to the sincerity, skill and clarity of their delivery. Sometimes I think the intention is worthwhile but the choice of medium or articulation is confusing."

The art about which I am skeptical, including the exhibits that I have previously described, is known as "new genre art." This is a blanket term used for experimentation in different art forms and content, according to Suzanne Lacy, editor of the book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. This art is meant to comment on society or an aspect of our humanity, such as sexism, drugs, violence, pollution, etc. Nina Felshin, author of But Is It Art, said that this art is "characterized by the innovative use of public space to address issues of sociopolitical and cultural significance, and to encourage community or public participation as a means of effecting social change." This is fine, but some people are abusing the original concept of art (which is expression) and are creating perverse pieces. And they are not hard to find, either.

One of the most popular places for artists to display their work is not in their garage or in some obscure gallery, but in a most conspicuous place: the Internet. Yes, there is a plethora of interesting, odd, crazy, even offensive (to some) art on the World Wide Web for all the world, including children, to see (a potential problem).

The first artist I came across was Carol McCullough. Her art has been censored several times; once at a solo art exhibition in 1993 at the municipal building in Madison, Wisconsin, and again at a special art exhibition for censored art at the University of Eugene-Oregon in 1994. On the Web, however, one can see her exhibit "Barbie Bashing." The Barbies (the popular Mattel dolls) in her exhibit are not your average "Fun in the Sun" or "Glitter" Barbies. They are more like Barbie on the Cross, Ground Zero Barbie, Hostage and Terrorist Barbies, and Baptist Barbie. The public may not readily accept this work as an art form, including concerned parents. One mother of two elementary-school-aged children in Lyndhurst, New Jersey said, "If my children saw something like that [McCullough's piece], they would ask questions. I don't want to have to explain these things to a five-year-old."

Violence is not the only subject matter of this fairly new type of art. A known performance artist, Annie Sprinkle, uses sex as an art form. She does self-cervical examinations for the public to see. In addition, there is a part in her show where she urinates on the stage in her own personal stage toilet bowl. In these performances, she is trying to show that the human body is beautiful, that we should not taboo it, etc., according to her home page on the World Wide Web. However, children have access to this. If I understand her concepts and am still put off by the work, what is an eight-year-old going to think? Art or not, there is a fine line between taste and vulgarity which I believe Ms. Sprinkle has crossed.

There are people in the world who create all types of art. Does everyone accept it? No, but they do not have to. Everyone is not going to agree on the artistic value or skill involved in a piece. The artists are not hurting anyone, but people, especially parents, do not feel that this type of art is appropriate for young audiences. However, they can prevent their children from viewing it to the best of their ability. Rape, drug addiction, murder and cervical examinations are not pleasant, but they are a part of life, and that is why artists create work with these themes. They are making waves in the world of activism and they are surely getting their points across. Their messages are strong. Just because they say it is art; however, not everyone has to like it. Still, all forms of art should be appreciated for what they are trying to express, because that is what art is all about.