Friday, March 21, 2008
The Cremaster Cycle: Treading Water in a Sea of Retarded Sexuality and Bad Poetry
Matthew Barney's film series, the Cremaster Cycle, is a cognitively retarded and symbolically barren exercise in tedium and bad taste. Barney's take on biology is more of a superficial pose than a serious exploratioin, and the sexual logic underlying his artistic vision is not evolutionary (i.e. human) but rather postmodern and Freudian. He throws around terms like "system" and "entropy," but makes no effort to link his use of these concepts to the notion of complex dynamical systems as they are now understood to occur in nature and culture (see James Gleick's Chaos and A Blessed Rage for Order by Alexander Argyros, both of which predate the Cremaster Cycle, for an introduction to this topic). Sport, likewise, appears in his work as a pseudo-theme, but since there are no distinct players or rules (not even the dynamic, evolving ones described by game theory), the treatment, again, is superficial.
What I can't understand is why Barney gets such rave reviews--his work appears on the covers of art history textbooks, and people seem to be throwing money at him to slop vaseline all over the Guggenheim (only an American artist could be so self-consciously Eurotrash). I guess the sophistos and trendoids of the moneyed academic art world have mistaken his vagueness and obscurity for depth, so no one wants to be the poor benighted rube who asks why the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.
The film series' only (dubious) value, it seems to me, is as a study of how an ill-conceived "closed aesthetic system" quickly succumbs to entropy, resulting in artless and sterile mutations like a grotesque half-sheep/half bagpipe or a rubber tire from which a pair of testicles dangles uselessly. It may be argued that this is the point, and that Barney's work succeeds as a depiction of aesthetic schizophrenia and metaphysical failure, but it's surely foolish to praise bad art for its ability to express bad ideas. Serious art, whatever its form and content, gives expression to enduring human themes like hope, promise and gravity--ideas which are absent from Barney's inane films.
Here's a link to a documentary-length interview with Barney that shows some of his work, and here's another to a Cremaster trailer. See if you can figure out what he means by terms like "mythology," "narrative," and "character"--I don't think he even knows.
Rather than releasing his films in a low cost, mass-market format like everyone else, Barney has pressed a limited run of 20 DVD's and auctioned them off in gussied up packaging for over $100,000 each. The unwashed philistines and non-cognoscenti will have to settle for a 30 minute excerpt from Cremaster 3, or maybe they will be able to find Neville Wakefield's overpriced book in a public library. Walter Benjamin, (the Marxist author of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" whose ideas about art and mass production have influenced 3 generations of "anti-establishment" elitists) would be impressed, no doubt, but I suspect Barney's marketing strategy has more to do with the fact that on some level he realizes that the common consumer, who is unburdened by a Yale education in postmodern pretension, would quickly see the Cremaster films for the malarky that they are.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If civilization fails when art and culture stop being sexy, then the Cremaster Cycle is a crime against humanity. I, for one, would rather watch a clown die of cancer than sit through all 7.5 hours of Barney's incoherent, self-indulgent, desperately ugly horseshit.
(image from www.soundopinions.org)