The Controversial New Gold Exhibit at the Guggenheim

The Controversial New Gold Exhibit at the Guggenheim

image: not a representation of artist  Maurizio Cattelan’s work, but still a pretty nifty piece of plumbing

The Guggenheim Museum, perched conspicuously in Manhattan’s Upper East Side on the corner of East 89th Street and Fifth Avenue, has one of the world’s finest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Early Modern and contemporary art. Designed by master architect Frank Lloyd Wright as “a temple of the spirit,” the building itself is a work of art. Cylindrical in shape, its floors slope subtly to accommodate the museum’s visitors who walk around a spiral to view the legendary works of art mounted on slightly concave walls.

In May of this year, the prestigious museum will debut a new objet d’art by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which, depending on your outlook, will represent either a triumph of aestheticism or an Upper East Side nod to the ninety-nine percent in the U.S. economy. It will install a toilet, designed by Cattelan, made entirely of 18-karat gold.  What’s more, the toilet will be functional, giving, we must conclude, a whole new meaning to “going for the gold.”

Cattelan is known for his works that poke fun at capitalism and the excesses of the rich. In 2010, his sculpture of a hand with a raised middle-finger was displayed in front of the Milan Stock Exchange. Critics across the Atlantic have already expressed a strong reaction to Cattelan’s satirical work. Here’s columnist Jonathan Jones’s take on the costly crapper from Britain’s The Guardian:

So the point of Cattelan’s facility is not its profanation of the art museum with base human functions. That’s all been done before. Or even his work’s practicality. Sarah Lucas exhibited a plumbed-in toilet at the Royal Academy in London two decades ago. It’s the fact that this one is so expensive. Guards will be posted to deter thieves. This, truly, is a throne. And as they sit on this luxurious item, many may ask themselves – is this the only gold crapper on the Upper East Side?….The absurd prices paid for art, of which a golden toilet is a pungent symbol, make visible the excess and inequality that scar our society.

Well that’s one take.  For all I know it may be correct.  But for all its censure of excess, my guess is that for anyone who has or will make use of this new exhibit, they’ll experience a little stolen thrill that life, even for just a few brief seconds, has gotten really luxurious.

Of course, one additional irony of Cattelan’s work is its announcement during the burgeoning bull market for the yellow metal. Intended or not, it underscores the contrast between true wealth and waste all the more dramatically.

Six years ago, the Guggenheim exhibited a work of similar anti-capitalist intent created by artist Hans-Peter Feldmann, to much less fanfare and controversy.  Feldmann posted one-hundred-thousand-dollars’ worth of previously circulated dollar bills on several of the museum’s walls.

Somehow, even people who give little thought to our financial system are less shocked by the re-purposing of paper money than they are by Cattelan’s use of gold.  Is it that, instinctively, we know paper money has no inherent value; it can be replaced or reprinted, whereas gold is valuable both for being finite, and because it represents real, physical wealth in a way paper never can?

So which exhibit makes the stronger statement? Hopefully, for those of us who aren’t one-percenter collectors of overpriced art, its real value lies in reminding us that it matters what form our money takes.  When it’s paper bills, digital stock records or bank balances on a computer screen its value can be wiped out virtually in an instant.  But gold is actual, un-digital, un-hackable wealth, now and in the future.

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