in Opinion | 11 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

Cheap Tricks

In praise of the gimmick

in Opinion | 11 SEP 07

‘What would you say is the difference between being cutting-edge and being gimmicky?’

‘Most people see it as a difference of quality. And I know Michelangelo and all those masters have quality. But when I look at those masters, I long for a gimmick or two. Originality can be so boring. And second-rate art can be interesting in ways that first-rate art cannot afford to be.’
Linda Nochlin

If truth be told, to begin an article with a quote is in itself a seriously gimmicky thing to do. What can be more of a cheap, generic addition, rich only in obsequious, attention-grabbing atmospherics, than quoting cultural authorities at the top of your Word document? A ruse so predictable Microsoft is soon to introduce a short-cut function (select and insert top quotes with fn + ctrl + shift). Admittedly, the very fact that it’s now an acceptable convention may imply it is not – or no longer – a gimmick but a stylistic catachresis of sorts. In marketing, for instance, a gimmick hopes to make an otherwise humdrum product stand out, so a gimmick ensures a special feature in the aim of having any feature at all. As every so often, the Oxford English Dictionary offers an attractive twist on the subject, suggesting the word was first attested in the 1926 Wise-Crack Dictionary, where it is defined as a device for ‘making a fair game crooked’.

In the above exchange with feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, which took place at the Frieze Art Fair in 2005, a member of the audience implies that being ‘cutting-edge’ is actually akin to being gimmicky, at least some of the time. Nochlin responds with a convoluted rhetorical swerve, a warped squiggle of brilliance you need a transcript to follow. She begins by saying a gimmick is something considered lacking in quality, yet side-steps the implication of poor quality in latter-day cutting edge in favour of conjuring Michelangelo instead, if only to absolve the latter respectfully of gimmickry. Which is somewhat oblique, for the power of guilt by association is in this case superb; an audience naturally finds the idea of the Sistine Chapel as a gimmick far too entertaining to ignore – and Nochlin, in the meantime, hurries to equate quality with originality, further implying that both are actually forms of aesthetic insolvency, since there are so many things they cannot ‘afford’ to do.

I could, at this point, helpfully add that the gimmick is by default supplementary, superfluous, ornamental, before moving on to, say, the deconstructive moment of the essay. Who can say ‘no’ to a hearty deconstruction of superstitions such as excellence, innovation and ornament-as-crime? Why resist a historical romp from André Breton to Joseph Beuys to John Baldessari, during which we see that all distinctions between gimmicks and more aristocratic forms of humour are fallacious from top to toe? We then top off our post-Structuralist promenade by tracing supposedly silly details that were proven essential to success or failure over time.

But something tells me it’s irritating to use the term ‘gimmick’ only to deconstruct my way back into the canon, like those people who use ‘periphery’ only to deny ferociously there really is such a thing in the first place – more catachresis, more gimmicks becoming unnoticed metaphors of scholarly serenity. When it comes to the gimmick, you should stand your ground and embrace society’s scorn and derision with the fervour of a young hippie. It is hardly surprising that people will only admit to gimmickry (the idea is usually to kick-start a career) behind closed doors, in the wee hours of the night, demanding eccentric vows of secrecy in return.

By and large, a key objective of the gimmick is to catch the audience unawares, dangling there in full view before anyone has time to shout ‘generic’ or ‘shallow’. Slapstick, as others have argued before me, generally relies on a rigorous management of split-second hermeneutics in order to reveal the seam within the seamless, the gritty smudge within the consistent surface. And a gimmick can equally hope to go beyond l’humour pour l’humour, to cheese off and vex, critique without pretence – alienation without the grim, ostentatious alienator. And it even, I would argue, goes a step further, for it aims to seduce not by being suave or clever but by being perceptibly strategic, to the point of being obnoxious. The forte of the gimmick in an arts context is its capacity to go far too far enthusiastically and become much too much, to summon the spectre of professional suicide. The failed punchline, the awkward flop, the problematic embarrassment offer some of the most intense, memorable, pedagogical, wrenching and entertaining moments that culture has
to offer. Built to last, in a way.

Tirdad Zolghadr is a critic and curator based in Berlin.