Blake Gopnik limns the meaning of Bruce Nauman’s work in the Washington Post:
Our culture has a notion that there’s this thing called “classic art” that’s easily, obviously, automatically loveable, and that runs more or less from Giotto to Picasso. And then we’ve got a notion that there’s this absolutely different stuff called “contemporary art” that is obscure, challenging and an acquired taste — with Nauman as its patron saint, and therefore ignorable by most Americans.
Seeing Nauman in Venice, home to some of art’s great “classics,” that distinction falls apart. You suddenly realize that a befuddling, aggressive, Nauman-style challenge is right there under the surface of most of the great classics. It’s what gives them heft.
Take Nauman’s signature piece in the American pavilion, a spiraling neon sign he first had made in 1967, in angel-pink and heaven-blue, that reads “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” It’s a sendup of such comforting platitudes, but it’s also about trying them on and seeing if they might just fit. That same duality is there in most classic art that has dealt with so-called mystic truths.
The huge mosaic of Christ ascending, installed by medieval artists in the dome of the great Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, certainly goes some way to making the same claim you get in a straight reading of Nauman’s neon. But in its absolutely worldly beauty, the mosaic also calls the mystical into question, the way we imagine Nauman doing. After all, any glitzy man-made image has always had to cope with doubts that it can capture a heaven-sent truth. By zooming in on those doubts, Nauman’s piece channels tensions that have always been there.
Bruce Almighty (Washington Post)