My home town of Albany takes pride in its public artworks. The city just planted a bunch of eccentric sculptures through the downtown area this summer. Riding through this morning, I saw many of them wrapped in white, and I remembered noticing the windows of a Lark Street gallery covered in similar fashion. Had Christo come to town? I thought not; he was supposed to be covering parts of a river with cloth. The truth was apparent as soon as I noticed red-ribbon logos on the wrappings.
Today is World AIDS Day, an occasion to bemoan all the lives lost to the illness and renew promises to achieve a cure. The scene in Albany was reminiscent of earlier commemorations of the day. From 1989 forward it was conceived as a "Day Without Art," and the spectacle I saw here was once a more common sight elsewhere. I suppose it was meant in part to mourn all the people in the various arts communities who died of AIDS, but there's also a hint of the principle attributed to the 20th century German critic Theodore Adorno. He said, in essence, "No poetry after Auschwitz," implying that in the face of some moral enormities or human catastrophes all art was inadequate, leaving silence the only appropriate response.
Adorno's was always a futile notion. "Art" is a genie that got out of its bottle long, long ago. We live in the age of John Cage, who set the tone for the time by composing a work of carefully-timed silence. Art has thus become as easy as self-assertion, so long as you have the proper credentials. With those, as long as you have a thesis or a theory, anything you make, or anything you as a critic can label becomes art, defined as whatever critics talk or write about. The futility of a "Day Without Art" should also be obvious. I wasn't quite honest in writing that I first mistook the Albany wrappings with the work of Christo, but the thought came to mind pretty fast. Whoever did the work, the wrappings themselves are a kind of spectacle with a self-evident conceptual purpose, represented by the logos and "World AIDS Day" legends, that only await an accredited critic to declare them art in their own right. Worse, you could say that the activists who arranged for the wrappings have replaced art with advertising, for today at least.
If some more profound sentiment was sought for the occasion, possibly only iconoclasm will do. What better way to declare a day without art than by smashing some or burning it in a bonfire of vanities? If the activists have a genuinely ascetic purpose, they might take notes from their iconoclastic (or iconophobic) Muslim neighbors, many of whom distrust representative art, at least, on a regular basis. If that's too dangerous an idea, they might still learn from the Shia branch of Islam and designate December 1 as a day of mourning through mortification, of achieving solidarity through some shared ordeal that might induce the desired empathy with those still suffering.
My suggestions are only partially satirical. I can't dismiss such a stunt as today's completely just because I don't really know what the object is. I'll agree with anyone who says that the world's resources would be better spent combating AIDS and other plagues than on combat, but is a day of artificial artlessness in the guise of a day without art the best way to say it? On the other hand, if this was just a pretentious way of saying, "We care," then there isn't much for me to do beside shrug and say, "message received."