At the opening of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “General Idea: Haute Culture” exhibition on Friday, I found myself in a brief discussion with the museum’s Assistant Curator of European Art, Sasha Suda, regarding the National Gallery of Canada’s new Caravaggio exhibition, about which I had just written for Canadian Art‘s website. “I broke into tears in front of [the second] Sacrifice of Isaac,” she said. Tears for art? Now there’s something I can get behind. (When I visited the NGC, it was the artist’s very different and less celebrated first Sacrifice of Isaac, with its starkness and queerness, that elicited a similar reaction in me). “You don’t cry at the Uffizi,” Suda said, referring to the famous museum in Florence where the second Sacrifice, along with other Caravaggios and Renaissance masterpieces, are housed. “But at the NGC, you do.” The work is more alone, she explained; you’re not spoiled for choice.
This is the sort of work for which I have an admitted preference: work that is stubbornly independent; that believes in belief; that gets its power in isolation; that wants to be greeted and discoursed with, but also to be supreme, demanding space, quiet, contemplation, rapture, worship, fetishization—above all, work that works tirelessly at achieving such effects.
A different feeling, of course, emerged at the General Idea show. No one work is necessarily supreme. The trio’s project began in 1969 and was put to an end (a resolute one, due to Jorge Zontal’s and Felix Partz’s AIDS-related deaths) in 1994. So much is deliberately circumstantial and ephemeral. It was precisely for this reason that I looked forward to seeing “Haute Culture”: finally, after years of trying to understand a varied, conceptually dense practice through random encounters with its elements, I was given a large part of the whole thing. The confounding nature of the work, especially of the early stuff, is purposeful and petulant. This is art that becomes art through its own confident proclamation as art. (What else could you do in 1970s Toronto?) It is all gesture, context. “Form is fiction,” goes a well-known General Idea dictum. (Someone tell me: is the collective’s name a reference to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Platonic notion of the “general idea” in portrait painting?)
What seems to emerge despite this, and despite Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris’ Frédéric Bonnet’s decision to organize the show achronologically (an approach that AA Bronson himself, as he told us in his opening remarks, initially saw as counter-intuitive), is a powerful narrative about queer aesthetics, which, especially in the 20th-century, are defined by polarities of, on one side, extreme frivolity and, on the other, radical social meditation/transformation. It is the advent of AIDS which, as it did elsewhere, raises the stakes of General Idea’s work: and by this I mean that the group managed to incorporate it into their existing practice so well, so brilliantly, that it seems, eerily, as if it had been anticipated all along. “Haute Culture” is full of presence: faux-archeaological digs of Mesopotamian-esque objects bearing the likenesses of poodles; a Day-Glo armory; multiple installations in which AZT and other antiretroviral drugs are made into sleek Pop Art. But if one cries, or laughs, it is not for an individual object, but for the project and its having been lived through, and grappled with. It is for the general idea.