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Contrast all this with the mumbo jumbo on offer at PBS. “This material is a holdover from the projects that came before Cremaster,” Barney told Kimmelman, referring to the tapioca he used for some of his sculptures, “that were kind of a meditation on a fictitious metabolism. It’s basically looking for a way to regenerate its energy by creating a metabolism between complex carbohydrates and sugars but adding these materials like Vaseline and prosthetic plastic into a fictitious metabolism.” Kimmelman nodded sagely. Viewers nodded off. As a friend of mine said, “I was going to go to Barney’s show — until I saw that interview.”
The Cremaster Cycle, as described by Kimmelman and Barney, sounded arbitrary to the point of madness. The Hubble, on the other hand, documents a kind of madness (an infinite succession of galaxies) that is terrifyingly real. One discovery it has made possible, according to Adam Riess, a 32-year-old astrophysicist interviewed on 60 Minutes, is that the universe is expanding rapidly. As a result, future inhabitants of Planet Earth may not be able to see the stars at all. “The interesting implication of this work, if it’s true,” he said, “is that we will sort of be alone on an island, because all the lights around us will blink out.”
And then, as one small example of the universe’s expansion, he showed an image on his computer of an exploding star. The picture of the star — a small, jewel-like object floating in what looked like a luminously blue David Hockney swimming pool — was actually quite beautiful. It was, you might say, art. Certainly it was “a found object,” though discovered billions of light-years away by someone at NASA rather than on the sidewalk by someone in SoHo.
“So far the United States has invested ... about $7 billion in this Hubble project,” Bradley said to Livio at the conclusion of the program. “In your opinion has it been worth it?”
“Is it worthit?” Livio repeated incredulously. “It has given us the universe! This is cheap.”
Such a direct question followed by so direct an answer was what one would have liked more of from Kimmelman and Barney. Instead, art was treated in the way religion once was — as something whose inner workings may be explicated, but whose overall relevance or value must not be disputed. There would be no Ed Bradley to ask Barney if the show was “worth it,” or to suggest that the whole thing might have been overhyped. Barney was treated with kid gloves. But perhaps he needed to be. As Auden realized, it’s tough being an avant-garde artist in an age when scientists, not artists, are making all the breakthroughs.
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