X Marks the Murder of Art

Last week, prostate I determined to give up for good on my age-mates. This was not the first time I’d despaired for the mores and talents of my so-called Generation-X; but if I resigned my X credentials, pharmacy I reasoned that it could plausibly be the last.

For the most part, that Gen-X group, born, rather roughly, in the years 1965 through 1980, have sought to drain the worth from everything. From global economies to journalism, it has been the work of my peers to diminish value. And nowhere does our ethical bear-market scratch its fleas more conspicuously than when it is making art.

In the blank, conceptual works of Damien Hirst, we can see our art congeal. In the wholesale irony of a Jonathan Franzen narrative, we can be certain that nothing, really, means anything anymore. Between half-sharks and hateful characters preserved in the aspic of abject self-loathing, we’ve been more complicit than any generation in the murder of art.

If one does not count the recent poetry of uber-X-er Charlie Sheen, the only kind of art in which we ever comported ourselves with grace was rock. And as of last week, even that’s at an end. It was then I learned of upcoming performance Nevermind – A Salute to Nirvana.

Apparently, a few musicians with résumés that do not resonate in memory will perform memorable bestselling album Nevermind. This evening, so promotional text instructs, will include Smells Like Teen Spirit. In the case this song is unfamiliar to you; Ticketmaster helpfully reminds it was “Dubbed an Anthem For Gen X.”

Yes. It was. I recall it being fairly important at the time and I recall, in agonizing detail, just how momentous the death of its author felt in 1994.

When the pop-singer Kurt Cobain died by suicide, I took it very personally. Certainly, it was then my job to do so; as a broadcaster on a youth-oriented radio station, my remit was Gen X Mother Hen. I was just twenty-four and most of my audience was quite a bit younger so, naturally, I felt a responsibility to talk about the Nirvana singer’s death as though I were his widow.

“Why? Why? WHY?,” I asked, serving up the vacant mix of misery with nihilism so popular at the time. There was, despite the best efforts of cottage-industry conspiracy theorists, never an answer. Of course, suicide by anyone of any generation can rarely be explained. But the point of Cobain’s death, to Gen X, fell into lore as an explanation per se.

In short, Cobain’s end eclipsed his oeuvre for Gen X. It became his most significant act. This is not to say there were copycat suicides; to the best of my knowledge, there were not. It is, however, to suggest that the hopelessness of his death went on to fuel the half-arsed fires of a generation of artists.

Thanks to Gen X, the middlebrow and the miserable have now become sacrosanct. As an arts commentator, and erstwhile Gen-X Mother Hen, I know this absolutely. The arts and literary establishments now largely expect and uphold the “value” of meaninglessness. We’ve accepted, more or less, that the function of new art is to cannibalise or parody itself.

Of course, the idea of art as a colossal prank was once rather good. In Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal with a signature, and even in its renal descendent Piss Christ, we can see how meaninglessness might have great merit. In the work of X-art-superstar Martin Creed, whose Turner Prize Work No. 227, the lights going on and off is now installed at MoMA, it’s not so easy to see such a spark.

My favourite review of a work I saw when it compromised the power bills at ACCA did not compare Creed’s assault on the idea of authenticity to Duchamp. Instead this review, which appeared in a blog I neglected to bookmark, compared Creed to Homer Simpson. The critic was reminded of Homer opening and shutting his refrigerator door while muttering, “Lights go on. Lights go off.”

This, come to think of it, describes the staccato tradition of art and art appreciation evolved by Gen X. The contents of the cold object before us are illuminated and darkened with such frequency, we are unable to say anything save for, “D’oh.”

In an age where genius and Kurt Cobain are respectively frozen and dead, we deserve nothing better than a defrosted treat like Nevermind – A Salute to Nirvana. At some point or another, my generation’s disdain for authenticity and the “real” would come to this.

Actually, I might have to go. I might have to take my baby-doll dress, and my smug irony, out of mothballs just to see it. And just to hear the faux-Kurt sing, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous.”

Stuff it. I’m going to video the event on my phone and text it to the Turner Prize for consideration.

This article originally appeared in The Age Newspaper

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