I have been thinking, for the last week or so, about art and criminality. Not so much about the inherent criminality of the art world, necessarily—whether this dealer or that dealer might also be involved in the arms trade, or ruminating on the more subjective moral brand of “criminality” present in the sale of an eighteen-million-estimate artwork—but the literal "Push me Pull you" relationship which the two “concepts,” have been enacting in my peripheral vision.
Several recent news items make up a kind of proto-zeitgeist in this regard: first, the Boston Professor arrested for attempted robbery last week, excused as dubious fodder for an art film; then the robot programmed to shop for illegal goods on the deep web, and finally—most intriguing of all—the episode of the U.S. rape-thriller Law and Order: S.V.U. aired on the 14th of January concerning an actor/performance artist accused of doping and dumping a teen girl.
Joseph Gibbons Photo: Steven Hirsch
That this character is a supposed hybrid of Shia LaBeouf and James Franco is in fact perhaps the second most interesting thing about the episode: the first is actually its real world look at an unreal art world (there is a thesis, or at least a Tumblr account, for the way that popular culture believes that “art” looks, but this topic is too coherent—frankly, too sane—for my present pinball state of mind). This aside: a criminal mode of making art “is [about] the romantic idea of the artist getting involved in these kinds of activities as a kind of research,” as the shamed Professor argues in his own defense. “[And] gaining experience.”
Gaining experience, indeed! The Franco/LaBeouf chimera’s suitcase-stuffed groupie, at first, is written off as a creep show publicity stunt; the Random Darknet Shopper robot, meanwhile, seeks to “directly [connect] the Darknet with the art space” with its purchases of fake Hungarian passports and replica denim. To some degree, the popularity of the romantic ideaof the marriage of art and crime—or of art and the criminally dangerous act—is so typical as to be boring. In handing her body over to the mercy of an audience which she has armed with a gun, Marina Abramovic becomes our William Tell; the anonymous Banksy, our stencilled-in Robin Hood. Caravaggio was a thug, and Pablo Picasso—famously—was an asshole.
Consider the motivational quotes by Werner Herzog circulating wildly on social media, lately (who knew, incidentally, that so many of the vaguely right-on students that you were with at art school liked Werner Herzog so much?): “There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.” Or, for that matter: “Carry bolt cutters everywhere.” Is this real radicality? Maybe it is, given Herzog's age and standing, or given the need for media-training and lapdog-lite goodness in most of the better-indoctrinated of the New Young Faces of Art—sit; stay; attain corporate sponsorship; sell an installation to Jay Z, or a canvas to a hotelier—or maybe the vast majority are still easily amazed by rebellion, packaged or otherwise.
James Franco, Dicknose in Paris, 2008
We imagine slipping on lawlessness as we would a disguise—a cat-burglar’s balaclava, in which the very slipping on-and-off of badness itself becomes important. One need only look at reactions to the work of the real (or the “real”) James Franco, whose projects like Gay Town and Dicknose In Paris, while not examples of actual illegality, are left-of-center enough in their art-school provocation to make him a safe, freaky foil for the normies. A self-identified straight man, playing at queerness; an A-List beauty playing at ugliness with his shaven head and his cultivated paunch, and his close proximity to Seth Rogen (with apologies to Seth). These transgressions are easily undone, or passed off as irony, or as mildly nutso “experimentation.” They are equivalent, in their own way, to the act of robbing a bank and then calling it “film research,” or of using a robot patsy to surf the black market. What links these stories is not simply “art and criminality,” but a kind of phony criminality which can be excused by art, for better or worse. A canny opt-out for the half-committed, or a safety-net for the shrewd.
As I say: these are simply things about which I’ve been thinking, as I circle the drain of my own subconscious during pitch-meetings, Skype calls, and dinners; as such, I wouldn’t perpetrate the crime myself of describing this text as a real, coherent think-piece. I would invite you, though, to imagine the kind of crimes which you might enact were you able to discount them as pure performance. Can murder be art, if intent is conceptual? Does the victim’s identity make a murder more profound? Is killing permissible if the choice of weapon is truly ironic? If liberating a silver-plated Tiffany cigar tube from the shelf is, according to the liberator, a comment on both the unfair distribution of wealth, and the widespread scale of cancer—on the medical difficulties of the poor who live in countries without healthcare—is the liberation beyond reproach? If James Franco faked his death and sold the story to the National Enquirer, would it be an artwork? Feel free to swap your brushes for bolt-cutters; make a still-life of a body in suitcase in lieu of a bowl of fruit; steal freely with specific conceptual purpose.
Brian Eno has posited that the key to understanding art is to cease to think of the works themselves as objects at all, and instead to begin to think about them as “triggers for experiences.” We might easily consider a robbery or a kidnapping or an embezzlement, then, as meaningful a "trigger for experience" as a Futurist sculpture.
(Image at top: Screenshot of Law & Order S.V.U., "Agent Provocateur," aired January 14, 2015)