A sketch in the TV comedy series Portlandia shows a nightmarish hipster city in which every single action is called an "art project" by its participants – even the traffic cop waving his arms says he is "showing the juxtaposition of motion and stillness in a shared public space." The purse snatcher asks earnestly, "How do we see personal property?"
That such simple-minded artists' concepts have become so common and so predictable has made them a subject of parody for television. The dreary language of the second-rate art students who come up with these things, their deadly serious determination to say the obvious again and again, is especially familiar.
This makes it difficult, one would think, to seriously come up with new public performance-art projects and not feel as if one was participating in some kind of giant parody.
Self-consciousness is the way around it, of course: to claim an ironic distance, to acknowledge the parodic aspect of all that is derivative, to claim that one is satirizing art itself. If one has no original idea, one can always make an art piece positing the impossibility of originality in a cut-and-paste world.
Indeed, the ubiquity of influence is a serious inspiration for a lot of experimental art practices. Vast teams of avant-gardist poets are all about found or copied words; novelists write coherent essays made up entirely of other people's sentences. Music is made entirely from samples. The thing is, those artists are trying to make something powerful and serious out of our surrounding flotsam. An artist who sets out to make a parody of really stupid art by just copying really stupid art, well … that artist might succeed in making some seriously stupid art.
As the New York poet Kenneth Goldsmith wrote in an essay last year, the pursuit of dumb – the purely dumb, the purely meaningless – has driven some of the world's most intellectual artists for a century. In the incisive words of David St. Hubbins, front man of Spinal Tap, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
On what side of the line is Shia LaBeouf? The actor has been doing a lot of strange things lately and claiming, à la Portlandia, that it is all an "art project." The themes of this project are numbingly familiar: originality, reference, celebrity. First he got into trouble for plagiarizing a short story for a film he made. He apologized abjectly for that. Then he went a bit overboard on the apologies and it turned out all his apologies were plagiarized. This is when people first started thinking he might be attempting some kind of intellectual performance. He confirmed that with a series of inarticulate tweets about performance art and celebrity that used such grand phrases as "meta-modernity."
Then The Hollywood Reporter reported that they had heard from four Los Angeles art galleries who had received a proposal from LaBeouf for an art installation. The show would be titled #IAMSORRY and would involve a performer – possibly the actor himself – sitting in a gallery with a paper bag on his head, emblazoned with the phrase "I am not famous any more." (LaBeouf did appear at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday wearing this bag.) Visitors would have a choice of implements, including a whip, a pair of pliers, a bottle of whisky, some chocolates and pieces of paper with nasty Twitter comments on them. Each visitor may take one object, then use it in any way he or she chooses on the artist. The piece has so far not been performed.
This idea is of course itself a copy of a very famous performance done by Marina Abramovic in 1974. (And Yoko Ono had done something similar, in her Cut Piece of 1964.) So is it designed to be another comment on originality? What if it isn't – what if LaBeouf doesn't even know about the Abramovic piece? Does that make it a clever plagiarism or just … stupid?
LaBeouf's next piece of reappropriation happened just last week, at a press conference for the screening of Nymphomaniac. In answer to the first question of him, he quoted a famous line from another celebrity press conference. He said, "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." Then he left dramatically, like a teenager deciding to ruin the prom.
When the impetuous French footballer Éric Cantona said the same thing to the press in 1995, he was thought to be referring to his fame and the press's appetite for gossip. So it fits LaBeouf's current disgust with his own fame. There are other parallels between Cantona and LaBeouf: Both are brawlers. Cantona was notorious for losing his temper and punching people out (in fact it was after an assault conviction that he made his famous statement). LaBeouf has been accused of fighting twice at the same London pub. Cantona also went on to become an actor.
LaBeouf was a teenage star like Justin Bieber. The recent aggressions and erratic behaviour of both men have been called "meltdowns"; only LaBeouf has had the shrewdness to call his art. LaBeouf did, it must be said, look a little rough – underslept, maybe – at that press conference. I think he is going through a lot more than an art project. But even unhealthy and excessive living has been an art project for some: British dandy Sebastian Horsley convincingly made his own fatal self-destruction a work of art, for example.
Is there anything interesting about any of this? Yes: It's an indictment not of contemporary celebrities but of contemporary art itself. It's the fault of all the bad MFAs that we have to live through all this pretense right now. It's their clichés – and their nihilism – that are being shown to be deeply entrenched, familiar and ripe for mindless imitation. If there's anything artists can learn from Shia LaBeouf, it's to stop giving him such terrible role models.