I hesitated to post this review because the one I had written out originally had a lot of musing about art and its worth*. It’s a valuable question to ask to be sure; I am always ready to enthusiastically wade into arguments about it on tumblr or wax poetic at family occasions. I’m not afraid of posting unnecessarily deep reviews but quite honestly – this book doesn’t care that much about this stuff.
It certainly does make you ask the question, because the kids’ childhoods of abuse made them objects of art rather than people themselves – they keep performing long into their adulthoods, not just in their arts careers but the disguises and odd schemes they pull. But the longer I thought about it, the more I found my meandering through grand questions of art and meaning just didn’t match the actual book. At times it felt like the book was asking whether the art was worth ruining these kids’ lives, but at others it seemed to be content poking fun at the absurd performance art.
Which… the Fangs’ pieces felt so much like parodies of performance art that I didn’t take them that seriously. (Again, okay! The book wasn’t trying to be a treatise!) Even famous, lauded, confrontational performance art is more focused than their work. I simply don’t believe the art world would find this stuff so insanely good.
At times it felt like the book was asking whether the art was worth ruining these kids’ lives, but at others it seemed to be content poking fun at the absurd performance art.
As I keep saying, that’s fine, because in all honesty this book is just a comedy. And it is funny, at the same time that my proximity to the art world (I’m definitely not in it, but I’m aware of it, and I was even closer to it in college) made me cringe at some of the stuff in there. The kids’ arrested development and adult coming of age was sweet in its way and the mystery wasn’t predictable.
I am writing this review two days after Notre Dame de Paris suffered a massive fire. It’s extremely sad. I was extremely sad. I didn’t mourn to the extent some people did because this is sometimes what happens to art. I also didn’t criticize those who were deeply touched, because art is so powerful to so many. I think the questions of “why do we care so much about western Catholic monuments when black churches are burned down more often with no attention” and “why would billionaires donate zillions of dollars to repair this and not have tried to use that money to solve problems affecting real people, homelessness and poverty, rather than stone” are crucial questions. This day and age, the question of what art matters and who benefits is more important than ever.
Not every piece of art about art is saddled with this responsibility, but asking the question might have given the book more depth. As it was, it was a fun, kind of surfacey read. I liked it a lot, but I think the questions of What Is Art and What Is Art Worth stuck with me more because I care about the meaning of art than this book did.
*The general thesis I came up with was:
It gets to a fundamental truth about art, which is that it seeks a reaction. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to see it, it’s not art, but if it falls and someone records it, takes a picture or paints it or recreates it in dance, it becomes art. The debate about whether or not modern art is art is, in my opinion, bullshit because the artist has put the piece in front of our face and said, “Do you see this??? What do you think???” and in doing so, even if they couldn’t care less about the answer, it becomes art.