Art and Satire

Yvonne Tam

What is art? Various guest speakers have taken on this old, even clich?e question familiar to Little Hall, the Art and Art History building perched at the knees of the campus hill. Here, the Clifford Gallery hosts an exhibition of works by satirical artist Robert Cenedella, showing from March 7 through April 8. Paired with the artist’s March 9 lecture titled “WHAT isn’t ART,” this event promised yet another lesson on… you guessed it – What is art? Yet, Cenedella’s lecture taunts established academic and cultural discourses on art, focusing instead on the contribution of such discourses to what he sees as a mass unconscious conspiracy of the cultural elite. Opening his presentation with a satirical introductory film, the artist revealed his relationship with the art world. Cleverly edited from a 60-minute show, the film cornered art experts in the midst of their esoteric speeches while shadowing spectators flocking to sample the art flavor of the week. At once a part of – and apart from the art world – Cenedella is a kind of artistic anarchist, waging a revolution against the coercive authority of art censorship. He credits the stagnation in the art world today to the rising role of elitist authorities. For him, the ability to show one’s work is hindered by “the powers of museums that do the censorship for the government. Museums themselves have become tastemakers and this is not the job of the museum. Its job is to show what is happening. Not to direct what is happening.” Ever courting controversy, Cenedella visually manipulates popular icons and cultural symbols to form powerful compositions often accusing the powers that be, namely corporations, government, media and cultural mores. Consequently, galleries and art venues often censored his work, limiting his exhibition opportunities. “I’m not so concerned about what is being shown so much as what isn’t being shown. If one artist isn’t free, no artist is free.” Cenedella’s distaste for administration and authority had a head start in his education at New York’s High School of Music and Art in the 1950s. Raised in an environment in which “it was important to be sharp and meaningful,” his aversion for the atom bomb drills at school motivated him to write an article denouncing the practice. Laced with rousing sarcasm, his article unveiled the drills as a political ploy of scare tactics while pointing to the practical uselessness of the raid drills. Although the school professed dedication to self expression, the article resulted in Cenedella’s expulsion from the school. The hypocrisy of the school’s actions sparked Cenedella’s interest in what he calls life’s “oxymorons” that would later characterize his work. Still, his affinity for art continued in his enrollment at the Art Student’s League of New York, where he met his mentor and teacher, satirical painter George Grosz.Following in the steps of his mentor, Cenedella gained a teaching spot at The League, teaching a Life Drawing and Painting workshop. Today, Cenedella is hardly a struggling artist despite his peppery reputation for controversy. His shows in numerous public and private collections and numerous commissions are testaments of the international praise he has amassed in the past 20 years. Voices must be heard; speak up! Cenedella’s vocal works convey a significant degree of noise, both symbolically and visually. Constantly in dialogue with his culture and society, Cenedella visually mobilizes popular symbols and scenes, varying from McDonald’s golden arches, Pepsi cans, the stock exchange and Santa Claus in order to comically highlight life’s oxymorons. What makes an issue worth commenting on? For Cenedella, issues of injustice, corruption and coercive authority are all fair game. Ranging from the 1962 Selma riots to the situation in Iraq, his work covers most of the political arena. While symbols and satirical commentary remain the hallmark of Cenedella’s work, he considers himself an artist first, commentator second. “I only charge for the color and design; I