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The fine arts today

The Tate Gallery has paid £22,300 for 30 grams of merda d’artista. The artist, apparently an honest and talented man, canned the stuff and sold it for the price of 30 grams of gold to express his utter disgust with the art world. A couple years later, in 1961, he died of drink. At least half the 90 cans he produced have since exploded, just as the artist intended: “I hope these cans explode in the vitrines of the collectors.” Now the Tate treats it as a masterpiece—again, as the artist expected.

Was the artist right to drink himself to death? Last time we visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York we went through the permanent collections and were struck by the number of pieces that seemed like experiments in technique for some future work that was never produced and never could have been produced. What’s the point? Isn’t it natural that a man with talent would step back from the mess, decide it was stupid and pointless, and (since he had the artistic compulsion) produce something that expressed how stupid and pointless it is? And could not such a work in fact constitute the great artistic work that sums up the spiritual reality of the age? On that view, maybe the Tate paid too little. They should have sold their Turners and put all their assets into the one work that allows us to contemplate perfectly what—it seems—the modern art museum has become: an industrial container for the very thing the Tate just purchased.