The Beauty and/of the Gimmick

Elizabeth Berkowitz
Sep 18, 2013 11:01PM

“Gimmick” is a seemingly derogatory word, conjuring an image of a gullible audience lured to a sub-par product by clanging bells and flashing lights. Yet, outside of the conventional marketplace, the gimmick has the potential to adopt a different, perhaps less condemnatory tone. With art, where “commodity” value emphasizes intangible benefits far outweighing physical form, the “gimmick” of certain works draws viewers in to the piece and fosters close engagement (once the noise has cleared and the dust has settled). The art-gimmick also exists as “style.” In the best cases, style inspires an immediate attraction or revulsion, a means to the end of closer examination. In the worst cases, a style-gimmick becomes a trademark, and the visual consumer values the thrill of identifying an artist via his or her style over the contributions of the piece as a whole.

I write this having just seen the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim. Turrell’s Aten Reign brilliantly recast the Wright interior: instead of experiencing the vertical motion of one ring spiraling up to the building ceiling, Turrell flattened such rings into a single image of concentric circles. Motion was no longer vertical, but rather horizontal, as the changing colors of light simply re-dyed flattened concentric planes. Yet, most telling, was experiencing Afrum I (White) from 1967. Shreds of light shaped into two quadrilaterals met in the corner of a darkened room, creating a vacillating illusion of a cube projecting outward from the wall, or merely two, touching flat planes, depending on the angle of approach. As viewers moved around the work, many of them marveled at the changing optics, and were enthralled by the trick of the eye. Several spent time explaining the image’s mechanics, while others ran their hands “through” the “cube,” just to prove to themselves that it was in fact, merely an illusion. This wonder, the illusion of Afrum I, is a gimmick. A flash of light (literally) attracts viewer attention: bright, white, appealing, enticing, and endlessly captivating as one marveled at the cube now present, now absent. Yet! This was no ordinary gimmick. From initial wonder, many viewers moved towards connection—whether the hand in front of the “cube” or the debate about “how it’s done”. Such connection leads to appreciation—when the novelty has been exhausted and cast aside, one was left with the beauty of an ephemeral moment, an object which existed only in the mind’s eye, and only sometimes, from certain angles. In its transitory state, gone the moment the lights go out or the full room is illuminated, Afrum I needs the gimmick to bring its viewers to a moment of more meaningful contemplation.

Turrell’s “gimmicks” are gateways, much as one might have said of skilled technique in academic painting. Take, for example, Jacques-Louis David’s famous Oath of the Horatii (1784). Though a seemingly incongruous match with Turrell, Oath of the Horatii shares with Turrell the productive function of the gimmick. With its contrast between rigid, masculine musculature and swooning curved female bodies, set against the barest of backdrops, David’s meticulous Neoclassicism announced the import of its subject through antique detail and perfectly executed forms. Yet technical skill in this instance is an easy attractant, a gimmick, which, in the right hands, leads the viewer beyond the immediate “wow” and into the core of the narrative. Technique, the bells and whistles, allows viewers to engage with David’s image: perhaps the horror and cost of war in the rigid and unyielding men against the sad beauty of the swooning women, or myriads of other interpretations.

Another way to think of this productive gimmick is through one thesis in George Kubler’s The Shape of Time (1962). Kubler defines the moment of an artist’s “entrance,” the confluence of temperament, technique, and the needs and preferences of a particular age as the essential combination ensuring an artist’s success. The effective “gimmick,” as defined here, manifests the conditions for the artist’s entrance into broader recognition, of more widely accepted artistic merit. Turrell’s optical illusion, well-executed and, as one debates the cube’s presence/absence/composition, designed to hold the viewer’s attention longer than a simple glance, is the “way in” to recognition as a substantial work of art. Similarly, David’s carefully-rendered, skilled technique opens the door to further interpretation, the quality of his hand a ploy for viewer appeal which only later enables analysis of greater depth.

We therefore need not fear the “gimmick” in art, but rather should embrace its presence. The gimmick can be a productive, useful tool in an aesthetic experience, and in the well-constructed gimmick, one finds the potential for beauty.

Elizabeth Berkowitz