When I discovered Michael Kluckner’s beautiful paintings of Vancouver, I wondered if the city’s Arts and Culture Policy Council had ever sent any funding his way.
It seemed unlikely, given that Kluckner makes the kind of art the average person enjoys. The city’s arbiters of culture, on the other hand, have a more rarefied taste.
Vancouver’s most recent public art project, the giant poodle by Montreal artist Gisele Amantea, is a case in point. The seven-foot figurine on Main and 18th Avenue has provoked bewilderment and frustration.
Why, some asked, did the city, TransLink and the federal government pay almost $100,000 to install this thing? And what exactly is it supposed to signify?
I called up Kluckner, and we chatted about just what makes the poodle so bad.
The poodle is an inside joke that allows certain people to feel superior–but it’s also an expression of empty consumer culture
“There’s an ironic hipster statement that is made by the poodle,” Kluckner said.
He compares the piece to Jeff Koons’ Puppy. Koons’s thing is to take kitschy objects and elevate them to high art. It’s meant to be a kind of clever joke.
“It’s a real wink, wink to a certain type of people: ‘you and I understand the point of this piece, but the average person won’t,’” Kluckner said.
The National Gallery of Canada Magazine interpreted the Poodle similarly (albeit more approvingly):
[The] poodle is a witty anti-monument that recalls older statues elevating goddesses, emperors and military heroes to the tops of lofty columns, as well as more common sights such as … huge doughnuts on the roofs of shops, or actual cars on poles at dealership parking lots, all for the sake of advertising.
It seems to me this kind of art has an antecedent in Andy Warhol, in the following sense: it’s an expression of commercial culture that embraces the emptiness of consumerism rather than attempting to lift us above it.
The very act of elevating kitsch to high art is a nihilistic gesture: it is a denial of the idea of high culture as such.
But high culture is what enables us to climb out of the cave of moment-to-moment existence; it’s what gives us insight into what it means to be human.
Tired old cliché
So the poodle is an inside joke. But how witty is that joke, really?
As aestheticist Roger Scruton points out, the ironic gesture is de rigueur among artists (at least the fashionable types). It started almost 100 years ago with Duchamp’s Fountain and has been repeated ever since.
The poodle, then, is trading on a cliché that “makes sheep look like free thinkers,” Kluckner said.
Okay, but does the poodle at least say something about local culture on Main Street? According to the Poodle’s creator, yes — er, sort of.
“The poodle is not associated with a particular culture, and can therefore be enjoyed by a wide range of people along the street,” Amantea said.
The sculpture represents “a porcelain figurine, the kind of object that might be found in any number of shops along Main Street,” she said.
Indeed. It’s the kind of mass-produced object that might be found in any number of shops on any number of streets around the world.
“[The Poodle] is kind of hip and fashionable,” Kluckner said, but it could just as well be “plopped down” in any hipster neighbourhood anywhere.
Who picks this stuff, anyway?
When I asked Kluckner if the city had ever commissioned him to make public art, the painter seemed somewhat surprised. He doesn’t really do “big outdoorsy” stuff, he said, adding:
“I’ve never really thought that I was part of that milieu.”
And just what is that milieu? What particular crowd of artists is given privileged access to our public space and supported with tax-payers’ money?
How many Vancouverites would put this morbid image in their living rooms? Not very many, I’m betting: it would be like putting an H.R. Giger piece above your bed.
This might lead one to wonder why an artist who seems to dwell on ugliness for its own sake has been appointed to recommend art for the public sphere.
Stay tuned. Next time I’ll look at the people and process that determine the kind of art that is put in our public places.