General Idea’s Retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario

28 Oct

General Idea’s Retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario

By Lorette C. Luzajic

The Art Gallery of Ontario really outdid itself this time, devoting two of its four floors of prime cultural real estate to the “art” of General Idea. It should have been called “No Clue.”

Given the breathless gushing about this Canadian train wreck trilogy of conceptual artists by critics and bloggers, I could have been fooled into thinking I’m the only one who doesn’t get it. But during each of the several occasions that I’ve spent time immersed in the exhibit, the dialogue of the audience around me gives it all away. “Is this supposed to be art?” I heard in not-so-hushed tones.  “How is this challenging? They were probably just high.”  “If this is the art my taxes go to, I’m with Rob Ford.”

Nor were all the visitors artless redneck bumpkins. “Another room of this junk?” asked one  to another. Both were well dressed, urbane women that I could assume attended countless art events. “I don’t get it.” “Am I supposed to get it?” The best was yesterday, from a little girl around five or six. She insisted on her own little piece of performance art, howling and yanking at her mother’s sleeve. “Mom! I want to get out of THIS PLACE NOW!”

I enjoy a wide variety of art in many styles, from Titian to Basquiat. Much of my own work tends toward the conceptual and the abstract. But a floor covered in bathroom linen? Puhlease. A whole room full of hay, with poodles sitting beside bronze buckets? “In this hilarious self-portrait, which references a recurring element in their iconography,” reads the gallery write-up,  “the dogs are animals to be milked, from which can be extracted the essence of artistic creation. In other words, the artists are playing with the clichés they are subjected to by infiltrating them.” Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

P is for Poodle

General Idea was born in 1967, when a bunch of unemployed Torontonians decided to get creative and fuck with society. They transformed their home’s storefront window into a mock retail shop for Harlequin romance novels, found in the garbage. They hung a sign on the door that said, “back in five minutes” and left it there. This was the beginning of what Macleans Magazine hailed as “one of the world’s most subversive art practices.”

A.A. Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal, who worked together until Partz and Zontal died of AIDS in 1994, apparently earned their reputation by “redefining the role of the artist.” Art was no longer about making something to hang on the wall, said Fred Bonner, GI’s curator, also in Macleans. It was about being “a commentator on society.”

I’m pretty sure that particular role for artists was in action long before GI was even born, but that didn’t stop Macleans from cooing that “the collective’s prescience becomes increasingly apparent with the passage of time.” Apparently, their ideas about using art as a virus and or using a variety of media foreshadowed reality TV, facebook, and the practice of one artist using multiple media.

In any event, General Idea created a vast body of work, using everything from paint to typed up chain letters to plastic to video to installation to a beauty pageant to photographs to a crystal butt plug to a bunch of fluorescent light tubes lined up on the floor.

And some of their oeuvre is engaging and  clever- a stylized series of massive neon poodles engaged in Kama Sutra acrobatics, for example. And in the advent of AIDS, with two of the three infected, they created a kind of “logo” for AIDS and used it in everything from wallpaper to industrial-sized aluminum sculpture. There are  arrangements made out of giant blue and white plastic capsules, which represent the AIDS treatment drug AZT, that were surely instrumental in facilitating difficult conversations when AIDS was still taboo. This is all good.

But so much of the work really strains credibility. Like the bathroom linen towels on the floor, for example, or the packet of Kleenex, “repackaged” as “art.” The problem, for me, with this kind of work, this realm of “conceptual” artwork that critiques, parodies, and commentates on media and society, is that it really isn’t saying anything at all. Despite an endless cacophony of critics writing about the “rigorous” cultural commentary and the exhaustive “critiques” of society inherent in this art, when taken apart, is it really saying something? What, exactly, is the critique, the rigorous social commentary?

General Idea produced glamour in order to parody it,” writes Derek McCormack in the Toronto Standard, “the artists inhabited the world of fashion in order to fuck with fashion. Of course, being fashionable complicated their critique of fashion: was the critique for real, or were they simply co-opting criticism for fashion, furthering fashion’s reach? Miss General Idea embodied this ambiguity; she made fashion seem as complex and intellectual as I always wanted it to be.”

Which translated means: not complex, not complicated, not intellectual at all. Vacant. The AGO’s placards spoon feed it to us, too: It’s all about  “The critique of both mass culture and the art world itself. While the art world remains the preserve of the elite, the media are daily concocting new and appetizing but culturally toxic elixirs. This is why the artist group launched its infiltration of magazines and TV and radio programs so that art could become accessible to all.”

But if this is the true intent, it is an abject failure. Little of their art was “accessible to all.” For this is the very kind of art that “remains the preserve of the elite.” It’s certainly not for the enjoyment of the average art lover; and isn’t it elite in and of itself to accuse the media of provoking cultural bankruptcy if it is catering to the tastes of its non-elite? Why is “appetizing” fare culturally toxic? You can’t have it both ways, but if you talk the talk and dump towels on the floor, you can sucker the gullible elite into a two-storey show lauded by anyone who doesn’t want to appear as if they just don’t get it.

One Day of AZT, 1991

Finally, the whole idea of General Idea is to avoid signature, to work together as a cooperative to defy the “myth” of unique, original talent. “Being a trio freed us from the tyranny of the myth of individual genius. It left us free to assimilate, synthesize, and contextualize influences from our own immediate cultural environment.”

It is a popular misconception that it is noble to deny individuals their talents; yet the result defies freedom, art, and progress. All artists “assimilate, synthesize, and contextualize” the world around them and create through influences. But erasing the individual and his or her unique set of skills and weaknesses, his or her way of seeing the world, is a human-hating obliteration of identity. Individual genius is not a tyranny- rather, the idea that we are all the same, interchangeable, is the tyranny.

The renunciation of individuality never leads to the idea that everybody matters, rather only to “no one matters.” The idea that a commonality or community rights trumps the one, never leads to common good but to the denial of individual identity and liberty.

What greater illusion is there, in art or any other field, than to say that individuality is tyranny? It is absurd when illustrated. After all, I certainly cannot sing like Aretha Franklin or Michael Jackson. They are vocal geniuses, with special talents that were innate and then further developed. I can’t sing a note. But I am no less unique or important – I have my own constellation of gifts and skills. Under this kind of rhetoric, General Idea and the gallery itself should have no problem then if I decide to take a Sharpie and continue to work on “our” art.

If everyone is Van Gogh or Velazquez or Warhol, then everyone is a doctor, everyone is an engineer, everyone is a plastics manufacturer, and everyone is a priest. Welcome to hell. Welcome to chaos. Welcome to the disintegration of society and to true tyranny.  Once you reduce someone’s unique constitution, anyone’s, you erase his or her humanity. Once you erase human individuality, you have a herd of repetitions; you have disposable, dispensable lives. You see the world the way a virus does, without sentimentality, attacking indiscriminately. Individual lives make no difference to a virus.

Indeed, the only surviving member of General Idea, A.A. Bronson, agreed with Ger Zielinksi when asked if General Idea wanted to “render the unique art object banal to the many through the multiple.”

Perhaps this was precisely the underlying nihilism that fuelled the work of General Idea. They wanted to be a media virus, making art “infect” everything. A virus indiscriminately infects everything in its wake, without rational thought, without meaning, without consideration. If the artist nor the art nor the audience is unique, but are all interchangeable, all “banal,” than it is all meaningless after all. If the artist is not an individual with something to say or reflect; if the audience is a random host for infection by the imagevirus; if the work itself is rendered meaningless through multiplication, then all of it is as vacuous and empty as it seems.

Then it really is a show about nothing.

Visit artist and writer Lorette C. Luzajic at Her most recent book is Solace, a poetry collection, and Fascinating Writers: twenty-five unusual lives, available by clicking here.

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