udely, crudely put, political art is bad art; in fact, it isn't art at all. It's preaching in a fancy form. Conversely, art about art, about craft and transcendence and Beauty with capital B, is just so much cultural junk food, empty calories for empty-headed people, nothing more.
These two views have faced off in opposing corners of the art world boxing ring for the better part of a century, ever since Marcel Duchamp, the Muhammad Ali of Western modernism, came floating and stinging onto the scene and messed with the protocols and the expectations of the game. And whether the resulting standoff is billed as politics versus pleasure, or ideas versus objects, it is almost always seen as a bout between Progressive and Conservative.
Pleasure and objects, the old faithfuls of aestheticism, are currently ascendant in New York art, thanks to recent strenuous campaigning on their behalf. And what are the champions of traditional values trying to conserve? Among other things, the golden, olden, pre-postmodern days, when art meant Fine Art and was made, admired and acquired by a discriminating few.
Those were the days before the Conceptualism of the late 1960's, one of postmodernism's utopian main events, thoroughly scrambled the definition of art as we knew it. They were also the days before digital technology — which a whole, aging segment of the art world knows virtually nothing about and probably never will — was creating images so inventive that no painterly imagination could compete.
Call postmodernism an academic delusion if you will, but it has vastly expanded what art is and what is art. And in doing so it has made a showdown between political art and beauty art something of a bogus spectacle. In reality, the present art-world-without borders has plenty of room for both, and much new work falls somewhere between the two extremes, as the following look at a few current exhibitions may suggest.
Speaking of extremes, "public.ex: Public Execution" at Exit Art represents one of them, at least in terms of format. The show is all but invisible in the gallery, where another, long-running exhibition takes up most of the space.
In fact, "public.ex" has just two works on the premises. One, by Siebren Veersteeg, is a screen with a live feed of Associated Press news scrolling across a Coca-Cola logo to demonstrate the pervasiveness of American monoculture. The other, titled "What an Art Gallery Should Actually Look Like (Large Glass)," by the Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya, is made up of thousands of slides of artworks submitted in response to an open call on the Internet. Deliberately abnegating curatorial control, Mr. Ozkaya displays all the submissions edge to edge, in random order, across several of Exit Art's windows.
There's also art in the form of handouts. The collective called Paper Rad contributes a funky cartoon newspaper with a cool, righteous election-year editorial. And Kelley Walker, one of the more promising young artists around, offers a CD of a poster he has designed. For $10 you can have the disk and as many copies of the poster as you care to print. So much for the sanctity of the art object.
The rest of the show is made up of Web sites (for the collective xurban.net, for example); screenings of videos (by the hacker activist collectives BEIGE and Radical Software Group); and live events. Will Kwan is organizing flash mobs to protest the city's plans to build a stadium near Hell's Kitchen. Brendan and Patrick FitzGerald, brothers, will lead walking tours of misused public and private urban space. Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga will push a shopping cart equipped with radio broadcast hardware through the streets, inviting passers-by to program their own on-air shows.
All of this will be archived on Exit Art's Web site, further dematerializing an exhibition composed of ephemera, gestures and pixels. And such a disembodied show is precisely what the curators — Anne Ellegood and Michele Thursz, with Defne Ayas — are after: one that as far as possible sidesteps the authority of the art institution, with its conventions of display and critical categories. Instead "public.ex" is dispersed into the everyday world, where art and life, silly and serious, seem to interact on the random, nonlinear model of the Internet, that most potent and exasperating of cultural resources.