Metalsmith, Spring 2006
Michael Aurbach: The Critical Theorist
Lamar Dodd Art Center
LaGrange College LaGrange, Georgia
March 6-April 14, 2005
By Dorothy Joiner
Through the centuries few weapons have proved more telling than laughter. In Lysistrata , Aristophanes poked fun at the Greek male’s hunger for sex that exceeded even his bellicosity. In the American colonies, malefactors restrained in stocks were punished by the ridicule of their fellows. Voltaire in eighteenth-century France lampooned Leibnitzian optimism–“the best of all possible worlds”–with the multiplied catastrophes befalling Candide and his friends. And closer to home, the group Capitol Steps, with sidesplitting humor, spoofs the foibles and corruption of Washington insiders.
To this richly risible tradition, Michael Aurbach contributes his laugh- and thought-provoking contraption, The Critical Theorist (2003), a burlesque of fatuous contemporary scholarship. The darling of chic, “avant-garde” academics, critical theory, though elusive and hard to pin down, tends to denigrate the art object, replacing its former centrality with ideational speculations.
Aurbach’s fantasy machine, à la Rube Goldberg, begins with a large metal pot, suggesting that critical theory is “cooked up.” Each labeled with its particular contribution to the “stew,” three meat grinders extrude their ingredients into the vessel: “Essence of Derrida” (called an “abstruse theorist” by the New York Times); “Extract of Foucault” (Derrida’s teacher); and “Art” (soon to be eliminated, however). Five faucets with valves deliver in tandem “Fragrance,” “Distillate of Deconstruction” (a fancy word for analysis), as well as FD&C coloring (the official names of commercial colors): Yellow#5, Blue#1, Red#40. Nothing organic about these. Next come strainers labeled “Fact Remover.” No truth here! Condiment dispensers called “Spin Cycle” follow. Then, a meat cleaver, the “Cutting Edge,” secures the critical theorist’s position in the academic vanguard. In addition, a garbage disposal, the “Object Disposal,” grinds up the art, as it were; a teakettle, the “Art Evaporator,” further eliminates its traces. The humor turns even more caustic when the product of this learned, non-functional factory appears on the conveyor belt. A wooden book opens to reveal a vibrator nestled in potpourri. A sort of intellectual masturbation, the artist jabs, critical theory is self-referential and ultimately sterile.
Aurbach’s inventiveness is not spent. Two ancillary pieces accompany The Critical Theorist. An exquisitely spare Plexiglas box with a gabled roof is titled Reliquary for a Critical Theorist. Playing on the centuries-old tradition of an elaborately decorated container fashioned for the remains of a saint, Aurbach’s “reliquary” is empty, void of ornamentation. In a slyly appropriate detail, moreover, the gable roof is “unhinged.” Also in transparent Plexiglas, another container exactly half the size of the first–as though sliced down the middle along the ridgepole–bears the title Reliquary for a Second-Generation Critical Theorist. Latter-day new clothes for the Emperor!
Some academics will smile broadly or break out in guffaws at Aurbach’s “wit larded with malice,” to borrow Shakespeare’s words. Other literati, immersed in critical theory’s jargon and obfuscation, will be more dismissive. A third group, blessedly unaware of academe’s “inspeak,” may not appreciate the artist’s incisive allusions, wondering what all the fuss is about.
Thankfully, Aurbach does not stand alone in his castigation of academic doublespeak, in his recent book, The Rape of Masters, Roger Kimball cites contemporary critics who actually do what Aurbach satirizes. Nicolai Cikovsky, for example, compares the sharks circling the wrecked boat in Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream to “castrating temptresses, their mouths particularly resembling the vagina dentata, the toothed sexual organ that so forcefully expressed the male fear of female aggression.” Another inventive critic, Michael Fried, sees the scattering of grain in Gustave Courbet’s The Wheat Sifters “as a downpour of menstrual blood–not red but warm-hued and sticky-seeming–flooding outward from the sifter’s rose-draped thighs.”
In making viewers laugh at such absurdities, Aurbach exposes the emptiness of critical jargon that often serves only to obfuscate our understanding of art or literature. Aurbach does not hesitate to call attention to the Emperor’s imaginary clothes and, using his madly inventive ability to provoke laughter, he invites viewers to do the same.
Dorothy Joiner is the Lovick P. Corn Professor of Art History at LaGrange College, LaGrange, Georgia.