Dash Snow, “Artist of New York Downtown Party Scene” as one obituary poignantly described him, died the other day, from what seems like a drug overdose. A couple of days later, a friend sent me an email, which included the following questions: “Who is responsible for getting his work into museums? Why Dash Snow? […] What do his tired, shitty Polaroids of naked, drunk, partying friends say about anything? Is there a set of signs or language that he’s developed that imbue his work with insight? What is it that people like? What am I missing?” I am familiar with questions like these - or similar ones. Occasionally, I receive emails with such questions; and often my wife will ask me about photography we’re looking at when she accompanies me on my tours around Chelsea.
Often, I have answers for these kinds of questions. What I usually do is to explain what the art world in general thinks about the artist’s work (provided I know that), and then I explain what I like about it (in case that is different from the former), with my main idea always being that whoever asks me about some photography can then make up her or his own mind about the work. After all, this is what the experience of art should be: A true experience, which includes the freedom to like or dislike something regardless of what everybody else has to say.
In the case of Snow, I don’t have good answers. I personally find it impossible to disagree with my friend’s assessment of Snow’s Polaroids. And I did ask myself whether someone from a less privileged background would have enjoyed the same success with this kind of work.
But regardless of whether one thinks that Dash Snow was a great artist or not, what is really important is not only to ask those questions, but also to demand answers. Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily see this happening to the extent that I wish it would (c.f. this round-up of reactions to Snow’s death)
Of course, in many cases such discussions might ultimately end up being somewhat unsatisfactory, because, after all, art being art, providing explanations is often hard. Some people might be tempted to say it’s impossible, but we need to be careful here: Often, the excuse that one cannot talk about art without ruining it is really just that: Namely an excuse, if not an attempt to get away with something.
But there also is another problem, namely that a question like “What do his tired, shitty Polaroids of naked, drunk, partying friends say about anything?” can easily be construed as a very conservative approach to art. Given the history of conservative, reactionary, and/or fascist politicians dealing with modern art one indeed has to be a bit careful.
But, and this is where it gets interesting, just because a Rush Limbaugh could easily ask “What do his tired, shitty Polaroids of naked, drunk, partying friends say about anything?” doesn’t mean that it is a question that cannot or should not be asked by people who love contemporary art. The very important thing to note is that while someone like Rush Limbaugh is not in the least interested in whatever the answer might be, my friend who asked me that question in fact very much is - as am I. My friend or I might still think of those Polaroids as shitty, but it’s very likely that we will be able to appreciate them for whatever they are and whatever they might mean. And that is part of the process of art, too.
So yes, I would like someone to answer the question “Is there a set of signs or language that he’s developed that imbue his work with insight?” - because that’s a critical question, and if we don’t get an answer all of contemporary art will suffer.
Art, especially the one that lasts, is not bullshit (OK, some is, but you know what I mean). It is very important to talk about art, especially about controversial art, so that everybody can see what it is about. And by “about” I don’t mean the kabuki-theater style discussions of “this is pornography” (from the right) versus “this is free speech” (from the left). For a wonderful example of what I am talking about see Dave Hickey’s article about Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Revised and Expanded.
We have to demand more than, for example, this piece: “Snow’s installations and films contained penises, semen, nudity and a violent sort of freedom. He taunted the audience, daring them to accept sex and drug binges as fine art.” This doesn’t answer the question “Is there a set of signs or language that he’s developed that imbue his work with insight?”
Of course, in the case of Dash Snow, things have now got complicated, since he just died. De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. But there are still lots of other artists left where we could use some answers, some smart discussion.