An advertisement for a forthcoming art auction features a replica of Roy Lichtenstein's "Ball of Twine," 40 by 36 inches, painted in 1963, magma on canvas. Estimated selling price: a mere $14 million to $18 million.
Expertly, even suavely executed, the objet d'art looks precisely like what it claims to be, neither more nor less than a ball of twine, although it wouldn't surprise me to read some academic interpretation of it as an Oedipal fetish or a heteronormative embodiment of entropy. Put simply, it's a brazen celebration of unimportance. It invites you - or challenges you - to see it as a trifle. I can imagine the impish artist holding it up against Brunelleschi's dome or Michelangelo's David and daring us to make a judgment of comparative value.
This isn't to say that there's no merit in art which reveals the wonderful in mundane things. We sleepwalk through life unaware that the commonplace is a field of miracles. Moreover, Lichtenstein's ball of twine has a kind of austere beauty, a blank eloquence. It's perfect, however banal. But what does it celebrate? What does it speak to? It strikes me as a taunting denial of transcendent, sublime, ideal beauty. It suggests that the great human enterprise comes to nothing grander than this insignificant, utilitarian, mass-produced thing. Let the citizens of Cawker City, home of the world's largest ball of twine, rejoice. They may have a more worthy civic emblem than the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. The message seems to be that man has become subordinate to his stuff. Like Andy Warhol's famous soup can, the ball of twine proclaims that one thing is as important and no better than another.
Loss of confidence in the meaning of life has been going on since Copernicus kicked humanity out of the center of the universe, of course. And art is driven by the desire to "push the envelope." We are perpetually changing, wrote the great art critic Bernard Berenson. "Our art cycles, compared to those of Egypt or China, are of short duration : and our genius is as frequently destructive as constructive."
The ball of twine is a discreet emblem, but it reminds me of notorious, adolescent art works such as Andres Serrano's Christ in urine, Chris Ofili's dung Madonna, and Bruce Nauman's clown on the toilet. It actually looks like a dropping, a neat excretion deposited by an adolescent prankster in the mausoleum of Western Civilization. That which we can't compete with we mock or defile.
Two world wars have discredited Western Civilization. Science has elevated chaos and uncertainty to ultimate principals. God has retreated to his country house. Instant 24-hour news pummels us with examples of the triumph of irrationality and random causality. Ambiguity, relativity, irony, irreverence mock enduring values. Contemporary art and literature worship the anti-hero and deride the notion our destinies depend to some extent on our actions. The ball of twine fits right in. Perhaps it's an idol we ought to worship.
A kind of rebuttal was offered by John Updike, who said something to the effect that life is meaningless - but not literature and art. Art is the antidote to chaos and futility. It furnishes the meaning we yearn for. King Lear, Hamlet, the Sistine chapel, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony rescue us from nihilism. They inspire us, steel us up after the daily knockout has left us on the mat. Without art, literature and music, our world would have remained a jungle, wrote Berenson. "If we do not succeed in loving what through the ages has been loved, it is useless to lie ourselves into believing that we do. A good rough test is whether we feel that it is reconciling us to life. No artifact is a work of art if it does not help to humanize us."
Whatever the value of Lichtenstein's ball of twine may be, it doesn't meet this test. Actually, I wouldn't mind having it on my wall - but $14 million? You could buy a lot of matadors on black velvet or Precious Moments masterpieces for that.