“Understanding something as an artwork gives rise to two possible mistakes of ontological mislocation: taking something as an artwork when it is not one, and taking something as a real object when it is an artwork.”
—Arthur Danto, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace“
DETROIT — It seems evident to me that if you’re going to take arguably the most commonplace materials — for example, whatever can be bought for $99 or less at a dollar store — and make them the jumping-off point for an art exhibition, you’ll need to work like hell to transfigure them. This requires labor, care, attention, and devotion. And while these efforts may have been applied individually to some of the works in 99 Cents or Less — a massive group exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) — it’s disappointing to report that, from a collective standpoint, this show was basically drawn from junk, and so it remains.
Perhaps there are arguments to be made about creating commentary on our culture of consumption or the commodification and perceived value of art — but it’s exhausting to think about attempting them in defense of a show so sloppy. Works by 103 artists (billed as 99 artists, for the sake of symmetry, in a show so undisciplined it can’t even follow its own rules) are jammed into a single gallery of 6,156 square feet, creating a regrettable obstacle course of forlorn and garish objects that are afforded no individuation or breathing room. Each artist was given a budget of up to $99 to create an original work using only materials sourced from a dollar store. This is an exercise in creative problem-solving that might be appropriate for an introductory art class, but it feels a bit beneath the dignity of the head-turning lineup of out-of-town talent, not to mention dozens of Detroit’s best and brightest.