n 1971 the performance artist Chris Burden stood against the wall of a California art gallery and ordered a friend to shoot him through the arm.That .22 rifle shot was the opening salvo of a movement that came to be called “endurance art”—an unnerving species of performance art in which the performer deliberately subjects himself to pain, deprivation, or extreme tedium.
In terms of quantifiable data—prices spent on paintings and photographs and sculptures, visitors accommodated and funds raised and square footage created at museums—the picture could hardly be rosier.
On May 1, New York’s Whitney Museum moved from 75th Street to the Meatpacking District and reopened in a $422 million building.
This collapse in the prestige and consequence of art is the central cultural phenomenon of our day.
It began a century most of human history, works of visual art were the direct expression of the society that made them.
And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them.
Fatal, because the moment the public disengages itself collectively from art, even to refrain from criticizing it, art becomes irrelevant.One student fretted about the legal liability of the shooter; another intelligently placed the work in historical context and related it to anxiety over the Vietnam War.Placing things in context is what contemporary students do best. Instead there was the same frozen polite reserve one observes in the faces of those attending an unfamiliar religious service—the expression that says, .This refusal to judge or take offense can be taken as a positive sign, suggesting tolerance and broadmindedness.But there is a broadmindedness so roomy that it is indistinguishable from indifference, and it is lethal.For while the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one.