There’s not a lot of Christmas art out there, at least not by artworld types. Of course, the visual culture of Christmas in America is ubiquitous, diverse and aggressive, but that’s not what gets seen at museums and galleries or taken seriously by the critical art press. The visual culture of Christmas tends to be proudly sincere and ultimately exists as safe, lovely background noise during the holiday season.
When contemporary artists do make serious work about Christmas, it diverges from the standard imagery and often-to-always leans ironic or dirty or nihilistic, certainly unsentimental. All these qualities, these are qualities I adore in art and in my short list below, I hope to share my pleasure in the charm of gently mean-spirited Christmas art. That’s not snide; I love Christmas as much as any casual Jew (which is a lot), and I only ever use “mean-spirited” to describe art in a positive way.
Here are some clever examples of a critical artistic approach to the most wonderful time of the year.
1) Paul McCarthy, Tree, 2014
Paul McCarthy’s giant inflatable Christmas tree caused an international, adolescently-bemused scandal this past October after he installed it in Paris’ Place Vendôme. A scandal I just cannot understand, since the sculpture clearly looks exactly like a wholesome Christmas tree and not even a little bit like anything else. Absolutely only a Christmas tree. Why are you giggling like a dirty-minded teenager? What do you mean it looks like a butt plug?
This isn’t new for McCarthy, who has made work linking Christmas, Santa, butts, chocolate and shit since at least 1997. Ho Ho Ho!
2) Roman Signer, Zimmer mit Weihnachtsbaum (Room with Christmas Tree), 2010
Swiss artist Roman Signer ought to be better known than he is. His artworks often seems like playful, willfully innocent, joyously destructive science experiments, investigating basic physics questions, such as: What happens to a table when rocket power is applied to it? (Answer: there’s an explosion and then the table shoots straight up into the air before coming crashing back down.) Or, more relevant to this list: What happens when centrifugal force acts on a Christmas tree fully decorated with fragile ornaments? Hint: Note the shattered detritus strewn across the floor around the madly spinning tree.
3) Rhonda Lieberman, Barbra Bush, 1994
As far as I’m concerned, the runaway hit of the Jewish Museum’s landmark 1996 exhibition “Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities” was Rhonda Lieberman’s homage to what’s really important during Chrismukkah. Plus, who doesn’t prefer la Streisand to the work’s jokey namesake former First Lady, whose legacy has not aged well at all.
4) On Kawara, Today series, Dec. 24, 1978
For more than four decades, Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara painted an enormous number of dates on canvases. Always the date it was painted, always competed on that single day. He was also known for sending postcards and telegrams to curators, galleries and other artists all over the world announcing information such as what time he woke up the morning he sent his missive or simply (and very, very frequently), “I am still alive.” In 2009, he opened a Twitter account that automatically tweets “I AM STILL ALIVE #art” every day. Kawara died this past July, but the Twitter account is still tweeting apace.
I AM STILL ALIVE #art
— On Kawara (@On_Kawara) December 23, 2014
I’ve plucked Christmas Eve out of the river of unremarkable dates in Kawara’s series to highlight the utter lack of interest he showed in holidays and any date pre-determined to be special in some other context.
5) Decorations on 6th Ave. adjacent to Rockefeller Center
OK, this one is cheating. Nonetheless, it’s the many things these decorations have in common with the work of some artworld star artists, as well as persistent differences, that help make the point I began with about the rarity of Christmas-themed fine art and the virtual—if not total—absence of open-hearted, sincere Christmas-themed fine art.
These giant Christmas tree lights and balls exude an ersatz Claes Oldenburg-ness (with perhaps a little Jeff Koons thrown in). But it’s the all-in, unironic indulgence in Christmas that reveals the content of these installations as the kinds of things Oldenburg does not make. He is known for his monumental sculptures of modest, banal objects—a clothespin, a broken button, a shuttlecock, etc.—but vital to Oldenburg’s work is the jarring incongruity of the subject matter, the scale and the context. Oldenburg’s work, simply put, raises questions and challenges the viewer. In front of the corporate office buildings along 6th Ave., at Christmas, there’s an immediate facility to the sculptures that makes them, frankly, not interesting enough to be good art. But they’re so shiny and glowing and gorgeous, they make excellent Christmas tableaux. And that’s all that matters, at least in midtown during December.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays!