Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dumbest Themed Exhibition Ever | Open Thread

There's an episode of South Park with a theme song running through it, the refrain of which is a very catchy syncopation of "Dum(b), Dum(b), Dum(b), Dum(b), Dum(b)." It has entered the private communication system Bambino and I use to talk about other people in public (although, now, we can hardly keep using it, can we??? Go on, Bambino...I deserve it...sing away).

That refrain instantly sprung to mind, however, when reading of an exhibition discussed on the always thoughtful
Art History Today:

The Parrot in Art: Durer to Elizabeth Butterworth ... now on at the Barber Institute, Birmingham University, is billed as "groundbreaking" thus giving new meaning to the term. Curated by the bird man himself, Professor Richard Verdi- wouldn't a basilisk be more appropriate-, it boasts a series of lectures which are guaranteed to pack em in. Here's the spiel:

"The show is to be curated by the Barber’s Director, Professor Richard Verdi, distinguished art historian, and keen parrot lover and owner, and will feature loans from public and private collections in Britain and abroad, including Tate, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the National History Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the Rijksmueum, Amsterdam.This fascinating show will be of huge interest to parrot-lovers and art-lovers alike. As well as a beautiful colour catalogue, it will be accompanied by a series of lectures – both art historical and zoological — Art Alive! drama performances, practical workshops and other events — including Parrots Galore!, a special open day when the painted parrots will be brought to noisy life by a host of live parrots exhibits."

It all sounds like great fun, but it's shame that the director and his cronies have abandoned their commitment to serious exhibitions.

More than just evidence that the age of the "curator as egomaniac" has finally reached its nadir, this idea for a show will go down in the history books as conclusive evidence that in the 21st Century there was no discernible difference between fine art and entertainment. It's over folks. Bring on the puppies and kittens shows.

Yes, yes, yes, I know. I'm an insufferable snob. But I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one. So I'm opening up this thread for suggestions of the "Dumbest Themed Exhibition Ever" at a public institution supposedly dedicated to fine art. Let the snark fly.

Labels: themed exhibitions


Anonymous bambino said...

dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb...

2/06/2007 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger jf said...

Puppies! The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. http://www.mfah.org/main.asp?target=exhibition&par1;=1&par2;=1&par3;=318

2/06/2007 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Oh dear god...they've already done puppies.

That was only a joke. Yikes!

thanks jf.

2/06/2007 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I usually assume that exhibitions such as this one are geared toward bringing in a larger audience. You know, the art crowd plus whoever's interested in the theme itself. So that's what's baffling to me. I mean, are there really that many "parrot lovers" in the world?

Seems like they could bring in bigger crowds with a theme like Chocolate or something. Has that been done?

2/06/2007 11:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I love the idea. Too bad though, that it's not a parrot giving the lectures.

2/06/2007 12:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

On the other hand, I'd nominate Rachel Berwick for the best use of parrots in a show. There's a South American language that was completely extinct except for its usage by parrots in the neighborhood of where the tribe used to live. Anthropologists recorded what they could based on the parrots (who have presumably all died of old age by now).

Berwick's installation is based (in part) on her teaching parrots that language.

Artist Rachel Berwick, an associate professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, has sought to recreate what is lost through her remarkable installations and exhibits on the Tasmanian tiger, parrots that speak the language of a vanished South American tribe, extinct passenger pigeons and a fish – the coelacanth – that was thought to be extinct but later found alive. “Her celebrated ‘May-por-é’ enclosed live parrots in a translucent cylinder, backlit into shadows and chattering in strange syllables,” according to the school. “She had taught the parrots to speak the few known words of the lost Maypure people of South America, who had been massacred, but passed their vocabulary on through their pet parrots.”

2/06/2007 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the idea of a parrot show. Why didn't I think of it?

Imagine all the islands/countries/continents you can represent in a show like that.

From Egiptian, Asian, old masters to contemporary art; the pet, companion, gods, new worlds and paradise. Think of Humbolt, anthropology, the Amazon, Africa and ethnic art and cultures and more.

Sorry guys but dumb to you is an opportunity for others.

I love the Andy Warhol's parrots in his endangered species series and Laura Owens at the Gardner Museum and also the installations by the Argertinian artist, what's his name, I forgot?

Google parrots in art, please guys. It is History of Art.


2/06/2007 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

The "puppy" show in Houston you speak so demeaningly of was actually very good. Tyler has been snarking about it for months; I'm surprised you didn't hear about it already.

The quality of work was actually very high, from ancient work to 18th and 19th century work, all the way to the present. It had a lot of good contemporary work like Wyeth, Hockney, Emin, Koons, Baselitz, Cattelan among others. And of course some Wegman photos.

Maybe NYC Art Royalty like you guys up there can see works from Cattelan and Koons every time you go to the bathroom, but we unwashed trash out here in Houston don't get the chance every day.

In my opinion the dog show was better than the current humongous blockbuster at the MFAH, which is a number of borrowed works from the Met. Ingres? Check. Gerome? Check. Monet? Check. Manet? Check. Lots of good examples from many great artists, but it was all second- and third-rate stuff, relatively speaking.

There are a few stars in the show -- the Monet room gave me a new appreciation of his talent, believe it or not -- and there are some nice gems here and there, but why would I want to see Ingres's Odalisque in a small grisaille copy from his studio? Why would I want to see a small study of La Grande Jatte? Too much filler, not enough nourishment.

BTW, the Dog show was partially curated by Robert Rosenbaum, and based on a book he wrote 20 years ago. From the obituaries I read last month, I didn't get the sense that he was a person whose opinions were unrespectable.

2/06/2007 02:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

(Forgive me: It's of course Robert Rosenblum, not -baum.)

2/06/2007 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger burrito brother said...

Nice Henry!
Don't mess w/ Texas.
Or puppies.

2/06/2007 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

Y'aargghh, Cap'n Winkleman.
What is ye gots again't us here parrots?
Me thinks ye shall walk the 27th Street plank for this commentary.
Captain' Jack Sparrow

2/06/2007 04:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There have been some nice birds shows though. In the 80s Dior hosted a "Birds of Paradise" show... I think that was the name of it. At the NY Public Library. Illustrations from all over the world, really well done. And then Dior had this makeup line all based on birds at the same time. But I can see how a parrot show could get on your nerves.

2/06/2007 04:59:00 PM  
Blogger The Hanger-On said...

I don't mind shows like this parrot one. True, they're corny crowd-pleasers, but they do give us the chance to see art in a totally different view or context. That's what a good curator should do, no?

This thread reminds me when I visited the National Gallery of Art a couple years ago. Walking through the American and European old masters, my friend kept noticing how many dogs were included in the paintings, usually happy lap dogs in the lower left or right corners. With a cell-phone camera, she took pictures of all these dogs, ending up with a dozen or so images. It became a silly game but was still a novel way to approach an art museum.

2/06/2007 06:37:00 PM  
Blogger carla said...

I find golf boring. Why don't they alter the game so it's more interesting to those who aren't interested in it?

2/06/2007 07:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bringing together finders from different streams that flow or form naturally their own terestories.
We all liver ignorance!
Dull post, weak bashing!

2/07/2007 08:03:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'll say it again then, just to really irk you

Dull exhibition, weak premise for a show!

And what's with all the regionalism in the comments. I didn't mock the puppy show because it's in Texas...I'd mock it anywhere...it's dumb.

2/07/2007 08:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Edward - The Dog show was a very good one. You won't unsettle me on that point, and it was a bit wierd that you tried. Calling it a dull exhibition is either impoliteness, petulance or prejudice (i.e., reviewing a show without seeing it).

Yesterday I let out some steam that's been brewing for a little while -- after reading a number of MAN Pronouncements without rejoinder -- and that was the end of it.

I'm begining to question whether you enjoy art. I'm getting a whiff of "art as religion" from you. Do you think art must be venerated? Is art some philosophically special endeavor? I don't think it is. Art is powerful inasmuch as it stirs our human impulses -- with philosophy, humor, amazement, and plenty of other emotions -- but that's it. I lost my religion a long time ago, but I'm not trying to replace it with politics or art. Maybe this is the reason we don't see eye-to-eye on this one.

2/07/2007 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

And I think my point about Texas was poorly communicated. I was trying to say that we don't live in a place where we can pick and choose from a thousand different curatorial statements every day. Any excuse to see great art around here is a good one.

If I lived in or near NYC or WDC I would probably not have thought much of a Dog show either. I could have seen the same type of art in other settings, probably more intellectually interesting ones. I'm not saying there's a prejudice against Texas, but a prejudice against those of us who don't live within a day-trip of NYC (as I did for so many years when I lived in Albany, Boston and Philly).

I saw the Dog show as a way to bring lots of good art to my city, and I enjoyed the art for reasons which had nothing to do with the theme. Tho I should say in all seriousness that it was pretty interesting to see different artists interpret the same theme in a different way. Warhol's painted and screen-printed spaniel was even more funny when seen in juxtaposition with Koons's large wooden carved poodle.

2/07/2007 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I have no interest in unsettling you on your point. You're entirely entitled to your opinion. Stand by it. You liked the exhibition, you don't think it's dumb. Fine. We disagree.

For me, though, the dog show might have been the very best art about dogs show the universe can ever hope to have---I haven't made any quality judgments about the work or even the curation, so I don't have to had seen the exhibition to offer my opinion---but I read the press release, and I still conclude as themes shows go, this one is dumb.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't enjoy it, either. I enjoy the Three Stooges as well.

My reason for noting this at all is that I can see that "fine art" institutions are under incredible pressure to appeal to a wider audience. But, how they do so will influence the future of what they collect and exhibit. I see it as my role to protest when how they appeal to a wider audience strikes me as at odds with what I believe they shold be teaching the public. I look to them to encourage the public to reach higher, not pander to their already bought-and-sold tastes.

It's accumulative, this dumbing down process. There's little that I can garner from their press releases that will challenge the public attending the parrot or dog shows. Little that will lead them to greater understanding. Little that will lead them to appreciate the likes of Nauman or Tuttle or other geniuses of our age.

They're crowd pleasers ... entertainment. Can't we, at least in the halls of our fine art institutions, as a nation, aim a bit higher? Please? Must we demand the world entertain us in every context? There are other venues for dumb entertainment.

As much as what you perceive as my elitism seems to offend you, these exhibitions taking up the limited space in our fine art institutions offends me. It offends me deeply.

Especially in places outside the cultural centers, this pandering offends me. There's often precious little else in such areas to help a curious young mind stretch its imagination...fine art institutions should be a refuge from the otherwise brain-dead offerings that stand in as culture for the general public.

2/07/2007 10:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Dogs and Cats shows can be extremely pertinent.

They are more domestic animals than children these days, it is natural that cultural events would reflect upon that.

The Mass Moca show about animals a year or so ago was fantastic.

If Giacometti wants to save his cat instead of his Picasso in a fire, than why not be honoring his cat through art? I do have a couple pieces myself that are about domestic animals, and had secret wishes to curate a show about cats, but only if I could get the piece by Brian Jungen filled with abandoned cats left for people to adopt (no money demanded, big irony with the art market).

To call something dumb without
even allowing a wink of reflection is not the meaning of eloquent with me.

Parrot show seems to aim for casualness, but then they are ways to deal with this issue in all seriousness, and I already have the piece in mind that would deal with it seriously. Yep, I just as well might do art about parrots.


2/07/2007 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


you're gonna make me do the hard work on a post that was meant to be light, aren't you? I have, despite your assessment, given this more than a wink of reflection.

There are more shoelaces than children these days. More discarded milk cartons. More cockroaches. More dandelions. I have no idea what that might have to do with whether the idea for a themed exibition is smart or not? You seem to be saying that popularity = pertience, suggesting to me that an exhibition on Britney Spears would be a good follow-up.

IMO, for the shows in question, puppies and parrots were chosen specifically because they're regionally popular and their organizers wanted that popularity to translate into attendance. Let's be honest about at least that much of this. Note how they are presented:

You are sure to enjoy this parade of dogs through the centuries.


This fascinating show will be of huge interest to parrot-lovers and art-lovers alike.

They're designed to be entertainment.

I don't have a problem with themed exhibitions revealing insight into daily life. I'm not arguing they have to be loftier than thou. But I cannot see where there was anything other than popularity with the intended audience or curator that led to these themes. That's a reflection of popular culture, not anything pertinent within fine art.

2/07/2007 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hmmm...poor choice for my final thought there. Of course popular culture can be important to/within/as subject for, etc. fine art.

I mean that it's a presentation of popular culture in the guise of fine art. Kind of like "Get your culture here! Bite-sized, painless culture! You like puppies? You love parrots? Well, have we got some "art" for you!"

2/07/2007 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep at it, Edward. This parrot theme is just too simple. How can any curator honestly group some works of art together simply because they depict parrots, even given the various symbolic uses? Cedric, you shoot your own argument in the foot. If domestic animals are so popular these days, wouldn't a more pertinent exhibit be themed around 'domestic animals' rather than zeroing in on parrots? Henry, you seem to be confusing great art in an exhibit with a great exhibit. Those are two separate things.

2/07/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Anonymous [2/07/2007 01:03:00 PM],

Good point. But I'm trying to say that an exhibition is just an excuse to see great art.

A great exhibition can never be better than the art it contains, and a great theme isn't going to improve upon its art by much, if at all. The theme of an exhibition is far less interesting to me than the collection itself.


you're gonna make me do the hard work on a post that was meant to be light

No fair. The Dog show was meant to be taken lightly too, but you gave it no leniency. :-)

I look to them to encourage the public to reach higher, not pander to their already bought-and-sold tastes.

I can see what you're saying, but you'll need to define "reach higher" for me. Like I said above, an exhibition for me isn't a lot more than a collection of great art. Most themes are just an excuse to assemble semi-related pictures. Some of them just sound loftier than others.

As far as the parrot exhibition, the sample images aren't great. If there were more genius paintings with parrots in them, it might be a better exhibit. Back to Anon's point above, my ranking is 99 44/100% based on the pictures in the catalog, not on the essays.

They're designed to be entertainment. [...] I cannot see where there was anything other than popularity with the intended audience or curator that led to these themes.

Isn't art entertainment? What's wrong with a popular theme if it assembles great art?

BTW, I think your comparison to the Three Stooges is inapt. The better comparison might be something like a Mozart symphony versus a Messiaen one. At the end of the day you're still getting a fine symphony.

2/07/2007 01:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The Dog show was meant to be taken lightly too, but you gave it no leniency.

What tells you that, though?

I can see what you're saying, but you'll need to define "reach higher" for me.

Curated exhibitions, to my mind, bespeak of scholarship and/or a thesis. "Here's how so and so or this or that movement led to this or that." Or, "this presented evidence suggests a zeitgeist of this or that sort." Or the like.

They can range from very academic to very soulful, but they should have a raison d'etre that fulfills the institution's mission statement, not simply greater attendance (unless that's their core mission, which I don't think MFAH would agree is theirs, although, it's hard to find the exact statement on their website).

As for the definition of "reach higher" there are multiple quotes I might cite as precedent here (including Allan Stone's quote in a de Kooning catalog: "Art is man reaching about himself, reaching for the angels"), but in general I mean to serve to inspire, to spark the as-yet-untapped regions of the visitors' imaginations...to make them see the world in a new light.

Exhibitions that celebrate the same preferences they entered the museum with don't do that, IMO.

What's wrong with a popular theme if it assembles great art?

I guess I'm gonna have to agree that there's essentially nothing wrong with it. But that still doesn't make the theme less dumb.

No I take that back. What's wrong with it is it's lazy. The Warhol and Koons you admired so much could have been brought together within a range of much more interesting contexts. As Anonymous notes, the "dogs" idea is too simple.

What you're relying on to defend your position here is parallel to a wonderful performance in an otherwise uninspired film. Sure there's still value in seeing the performance, but why let off the others involved for not pulling their weight to make the entire project worthy of that performance?

BTW, I think your comparison to the Three Stooges is inapt.

Fair enough.

2/07/2007 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Stone quote is "Art is man reaching above himself...."

it's in this month's ArtNews obit for him.

2/07/2007 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger jf said...

To have an exhibition of fine art that is solely created for finding a dog in a picture is akin to Where's Waldo. This type of activity might be more suitable to a web page where it can have a casual existence. I tend to view my museum-going experiences as enlightening endeavors where wonder and awe are side-effects of serious inquiry.

It seems like this discussion is skirting around the issue of high v/s low culture, and which one belongs in the museum.

And yet, to contradict myself, I recently found a book by Gombrich that is a serious iconographic analysis of apes in art. It's an amazing book.

It's difficult to retain one's position on these issues because the benefit received from art varies so greatly between individual viewers and individual works.

Carla's suggestion about golf is hysterical and pertinent.

2/07/2007 02:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Ok, yes, they are more shoelaces and croakroaches in this world than children (this is getting silly), but I meant that people are "replacing" kids with domestic animals. Maybe I should have been more clear.

Personally I believe all arts to to be some form of entertainment,
but, basically, humor being one of the hardest path in these concerns, and doing a show about parrots certainly putting the risks of failed humor at a terribly high stake, maybe this wasn't the right choice. Unless...

I think mundane or absurd themed shows can be an opportunity to witness if art is able to get away with it.

If there is that much art about parrots, than what does it says about them? I'm interested in seeing that spread out, though I terribly expect that it's because the darn animals sports flashy colors that are challengin to transcribe in painting.

That's where if I was the curator of that show, I would try to elevate my subject by showing a lot of surprising works which would defy my apprehension about the show. In other words...I cannot critique this show until I see it. Maybe if it is surrounded
by a strong historical survey about the evolution of western's perspective of "exoticism", than Parrot can only be a pretext for that.

I mean, isn't it peculiar, so many art about parrots? You got to give it some amount of curiosity. Maybe that's just "cabinet" curiosity, but then that's how all museums started.

In the meantime it's opportunity loss if artists aren't able to do serious art about parrots. I think Eduardo Kac used a parrot in an interesting piece. I've designed mine ready to set up in a future Parrot exhibit. Please invite me. ;-)

Now I have to think about one that would be about shoelace.... Hmmm...


Cedric Caspesyan

2/07/2007 07:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll say it again then, just to really irk you

cranky pants!

2/07/2007 08:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

No I take that back. What's wrong with it is it's lazy. The Warhol and Koons you admired so much could have been brought together within a range of much more interesting contexts. As Anonymous notes, the "dogs" idea is too simple.

I think we're actually starting to agree. Thanks for seeing the conversation out. We're not exactly like-minded but I think we're close.

I grant you that the Dog theme is not a great one. But as I replied to Anon's good comment above, I'm talking about the art, not the theme -- for the pictures in the book, not the essays.

To your question about actors in a movie, I don't see it that way. In a movie, the director [curator] comes first. In an exhibition, the art [acting] comes first. A theme to me is no more than a thin covering, to give some focus. If you want to extend the metaphor, I'd say it's more like seeing an acrobatic troupe. You go more for the performances than the theme. If the theme is interesting, then hey, that's great. If not, you don't lose anything if the performances were good.

You have to admit that most exhibitions don't even try. I mean, most exhibitions are like "Jasper Johns and all the guys he went to college with," or "Merce Cunningham and all the guys who hung out with him backstage," or "Some artist and all the paintings I could borrow from the rich people I know," or something like that. Most themes are just an excuse to show a bunch of good works.

How I know the Dog show was intended to be light-hearted -- other than seeing it in person and smiling from ear to ear -- was that I discovered that Rosenblum wrote a book on the subject of dogs in art twenty years ago, and until his death in December, he was always considered just a bit "unique" in his views. One of the walls in the exhibit had a small memorial wall-text to Rosenblum, including a photo of him smiling to the point of laughter, which made it clear how fun he thought the whole thing was. Also the press release says explicitly that it's a "highly entertaining exhibition."

Anyway, I'm not going to defend this show's theme. Call the theme silly if you want. Either dogs in art is interesting or it isn't. I liked the show itself, and loved the work. It had a very high ratio of high-quality pieces to filler works. I might even say there were almost no fillers, especially as the work got more contemporary. So maybe the quality of the work won me over to reconsidering the quality of the theme. I can't say. It's hard for me to separate the two any more.

2/07/2007 08:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

You know the William Wegman retrospective of recent could have almost been called "The Dog Show".

That wasn't bad art to me.


Cedric Caspesyan

2/08/2007 06:55:00 AM  

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