What is the point of Art? Is it to produce pretty objects for wealthy people to collect? Is it to celebrate the cultural sophistication of a society? Is it to provide a reflective surface for individuals to explore their own natures and grapple with some of the biggest questions in life? I have most of an MFA and I couldn’t even begin to tell you definitively. These are questions that have dogged humanity since we first made crude scratch marks on the walls of our caves.
Earlier today Cristiano Ronaldo was on hand for a special ceremony in his native Madeira, in which the island’s largest airport was officially renamed after him. There was the usual pomp and circumstance that you associate with these proceedings but nothing that would really cause much of a blip in the sporting press.
Until this gem was unveiled.
There is a legitimate debate over whether this piece needed to exist in the world in the first place. The time for that debate is long since passed. It's here now, and we are left to come to terms with it.
So how do we do that? How should we grapple with this work and try to understand it in its proper aesthetic and political context?
For that, let's turn to the preeminent critical theorist Hennessy Youngman. His series of YouTube lectures are truly a gift to our contemporary aesthetic discourse, but his talk on Post-Structuralism is perhaps most germane to our current dilemma. (Language is definitely NSFW.)
It's important also to explore the relevant history that underpins this CR7 bust. One can approach the work in the context of various Anti-Art movements and sensibilities that came into vogue in the early 20th century. When viewing this work, one is immediately reminded of Duchamp's Fountain, a truly seminal work of Dadaism and foundational to the next century or so of institutional critique. By taking a porcelain urinal purchased at an iron works in New York, scrawling a signature on the base, reorienting it at a 90 degree angle, giving it a title, and placing it on a plinth in a gallery setting, Duchamp challenged what art is or could be. Whether the questions he asked were in good faith is open for debate, but whatever his motivations, the art world has spent the better part of the past century grappling with this aesthetic and ontological crisis.
But that approach is, perhaps, too simplistic. If we're going to commit to a post-structural engagement with the work, we have to consider what it's responding to. A full interrogation into the politics and aesthetics of memorial sculpture is well outside the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that bronze busts honoring famous and/or wealthy men always have an agenda. Such a work functions to send a message not only of the subject being depicted— that he (and it is almost always a 'he') is important, that he is an honored figure, that he is worth memorializing, that his legacy is so great that he will remain relevant to future generations— but about the social, political, and economic context in which it was produced. The bust was not just about celebrating Cristiano Ronaldo. It was about celebrating the corporate power that shapes modern football. It was about celebrating capitalism. It was about celebrating Empire. And so, to produce a work in that aesthetic/political milieu but to have the finished product be so unmistakably ugly is a critique of the man, our current political and cultural moment, and memorial sculpture itself. It is a glove to the face of every ancient Greek and Roman sculptor, as well as the Renaissance masters who aped them centuries later. The message is quite clear: we reject your aesthetics, we reject your Great Man theory of history, and we reject your hollow neoliberal narratives. Your politics are crooked, and now that crookedness is reflected in this bent nose and slanted smile. In this reading, the pointed subversion of semiotics and narrative almost elevates the work to something truly worthy of a museum showing. Almost.
Finally, we must consider the work in the context of the viewer's response to it. For as deep as we can explore the work in a vacuum, the responses to it have been almost as enlightening.
The Mona Lisa is a foundational work in the Western visual canon. But just as important as that work is L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp’s response to it four hundred years later.. Art does not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum.
So. What do we make of this piece? Is it a critique of late capitalism and the hyperindividual? Is it a challenge to classical aesthetics? Or is it simply a pointed example of human frailty as evidenced by the inability to produce a faithful representative depiction of another living person? Like all great works of art, this piece refuses to answer these questions to our satisfaction. The piece leaves us, as the famous YouTuber and cultural critic John Green would say, “unsettled, but enlarged.”
It is tempting to laugh this work off as simply ugly and poorly-executed. It’s an easy way for us to disavow responsibility for its existence, to pretend that it was formed in a vacuum and that we are not complicit in the establishment of the political and aesthetic abattoir in which we are presently queued. We may insist that we are not the father of this baby. Yet, as always, Post-Structuralist Maury Povich is here to tell us: we are the father of this baby.