Art Installation of Giant Cigarette Butts Elicits Barely A Remark at Whitney Museum

News flash, kids! Times change! What was shocking once, now evokes a weary “Meh!” When that crushing realization is made, it can be kind of depressing for some, forcing people to ask themselves “What’s it all mean?” and to think really hard for a moment about one’s ever-shrinking relevance and relative smallness in the scheme of the Universe.

Or, to put it another way: Some shit just don’t resonate anymore and nobody gives a flying f*ck.

The artist Claes Oldenburg and his chief collaborator Coosje van Bruggen, a GIANT of post-modern pop art probably best known for his literally GIANT artworks, may have elicited “Oohs” and “Aahs” when his art installation of a GIANT ashtray overflowing with GIANT cigarette butts hit the public back in the day. The artwork is titled “Giant Fagends” (which might be funny to some subset of rural American teenage boys) and was created way before our time in 1967. (In case you didn’t know, “Fagends” is the British English word for cigarette butts.) It is a major artwork by a major artist that any major museum or serious major collector would be stoked to have in their major collection.

But spotting this fun and playful artwork with a sudden rush of art-nerd enthusiasm in the Whitney Museum in New York City, we were a bit surprised to see so many museum visitors — uh, almost everybody, actually — walk by it with scarcely an intrigued glance during a 10-minute period.

First, this says something about Whitney Museum visitors, which is a mix of aforementioned art-nerds, art-worlders, hipsters, students and tourists. Art-nerds and many art-worlders aside, lot of them don’t know shit about art, or they’re tired or bored and don’t even want to be at the museum.

And, for the art-nerds/-worlders and hipsters and those who are interested in art and do want to be at the museum, there’s just so damn much to see at the Whitney. Sure, it’s not the gargantuan MoMA, but it’s still huge. It’s a treasure trove of an art collection and is among the finest in the world. But it can be exhausting. (Granted, this is pretty much true for any major museum.) 

More importantly,  it says something about where art is at, mon amis!  With each passing hour, “Giant Fagends” has to compete for human attention with an ever-faster, ever-growing body of artworks and media, in the museum, in the city, on the streets, in other galleries, on the Internet, on your iPhone, in your InstaSnapFaceTwitter feed.

But don’t despair. In the five decades since Oldenburg birthed “Giant Fagends,” contemporary art as we know has evolved and arrived in greater volume, in more mediums (media?), at greater scale and in more surprising ways, in an exponential explosion of richly diverse creative output, that is more than we can keep track up in our present uber-information-over-loaded era. Hooray and awesome!

And this is a testament to the power and influence of Oldenburg’s work and other artists and artworks like it. It was ground-breaking, pioneering, original and genius, and it opened the minds of creators and viewers alike to the possibilities of what art was and could be, where it was going, where it could go.

Sooooooo. Amen. Word. #shook. Go to the Whitney — and if you’re lucky! — “Giant Fagends” will still be on view.