Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Opening Up the Sophistication Speakeasy

I've been selling art long enough now to have noticed an interesting shift in approach among certain collectors, people who are extremely smart and often captains within their industries but whose interest in fine art is new for them. Several of them I've known had an identifiably reflexive need to demonstrate their knowledge when it was clear they were seeing only a portion of the issue at hand. This impulse is something I get instinctively. I feel the same way when talking among political insiders or literary insiders or people who've traveled more widely than I have. It's human nature, I suspect...an understandable reflex when in most other realms of your life you are expected to voice your opinions authoritatively.

Several of these collectors, though, I've also seen eventually relax in their quest for knowledge about contemporary art and come to realize that they'll not only learn much more by acknowledging what ideas are new for them but that without their authoritative armor blinding them, they'll see that the seemingly threatening insiders are actually highly approachable and just as eager to learn things, even about fine art, from them. When I see that happening, I know this person has become a true collector and is no longer just in it for social-climbing reasons.

I thought about how this change in approach takes time to happen when reading Nicolai Ouroussoff's review of the Chanel Pavillion, designed by Zaha Hadid, which has made its way to Central Park:
Designed to display artworks that were inspired by Chanel’s 2.55, a quilted chain-strap handbag, the pavilion certainly oozes glamour. Its mysterious nautiluslike form, which can be easily dismantled and shipped to the next city on its global tour, reflects the keen architectural intelligence we have come to expect from its creator, Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who lives in London.

Yet if devoting so much intellectual effort to such a dubious undertaking might have seemed indulgent a year ago, today it looks delusional.
Of course when plans for building the Pavilion first got underway, there was no reason to suspect its arrival in New York would coincide with Capitalism's existential crisis, so that last charge is a bit opportunistic, but it's hard to come to the defense of such an elaborate advertising gimmick. Still, as much as I generally admire his writing, there was an observation that Mr. Ouroussoff makes later in this piece that struck me as particularly ungenerous.

The Chanel Pavilion may be less convoluted in its aims [than Rem Koolhaas’s SoHo Prada shop, which opened 3 months 9/11], but its message is no less noxious. When I first heard about it, I thought of the scene in the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce” when the parasitic playboy Monte Beragon sneeringly tells the Joan Crawford character, a waitress toiling to give her spoiled daughter a better life, that no matter how hard she scrubs, she will never be able to remove the smell of grease. We have been living in an age of Montes for more than a decade now. For strivers aching to separate themselves from the masses, the mix of architecture, art and fashion has had a nearly irresistible pull, promising a veneer of cultural sophistication.
And here's the problem. Those "strivers" can fall into two categories: those who truly are just posing and have no desire to eventually participate earnestly in the dialog and those who may just be reflexively wearing their armor until they relax enough to see how to do so. I don't think I can immediately tell them apart when they're at that stage, and I doubt Mr. Ouroussoff can either. But he's willing to lump them altogether, dismiss them as parasitic sneering poseurs, and potentially convince those who might otherwise go on to contribute significantly to the arts that the elitist snobs running that world aren't worth getting to know.

In my opinion, it's better to give all the "strivers" the benefit of the doubt in hopes of permitting those who would naturally join in the dialog do so on their terms rather than checking for IDs or secret passwords at the door. This requires opening up the sophistication speakeasy to the general public. We do this easily enough in museums. We do it easily enough in galleries for the most part too. I'm happy to answer any question about the art we have up so long as I sense that it's sincere. In fact, I live for those moments when someone who isn't initiated in the art world feels compelled to ask about a work in our space. It doesn't get much better than that. When I sense they're posing, I answer their questions all the more carefully.

I don't mean to give Mr. Ouroussoff a hard time about this. I understand that he's right about the symbolism of the Pavilion, given what's going on in the world, but there is a tendency I feel in making such observations to reach all the way back to try to find the source of such issues that ignores how many people on their own private path to participating in the arts might get pushed off the passageway by doing so. Ours is not an age of "Montes" (that's not exactly that catchy a metaphor, is it?), it's an age of remarkable range and intersections of interest, some of them superficial, but many of them staggeringly productive and fascinating. Ours is also an age of unprecedented opportunity to join in the dialog via travel and the Internet. The critics play a...er...critical role in this dialog by reflecting on where it seems lame, where it seems important, and where it seems fresh, to help keep the rest of us honest, but I cringe to think they're passing judgment on who should or shouldn't be participating based on what might be little more at any given point in time than a temporary defensive posture.



Anonymous t.whid said...

I'm not sure I understand your argument...

The Pavilion is a Monte... everyone else in the world can't get the grease smell off of them. They are the strivers.

Ouroussoff is criticizing the Monte-like perspective that this silly thing embodies.

10/21/2008 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not sure I understand your argument...

Yeah, it's muddled.

Bottom line is that it's not some collective of wanna-be's striving for a veneer of sophistication that leads to such Pavilions. It's more money than one knows what to do with at the disposal of confused marketing people. Blame the creators, not the intended audience.

I can't follow your argument that the Pavilion is the Monte though, can you expand upon that?

10/21/2008 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger david kramer said...

Ed- U think people want 2 B experts? I thought they wanted 2 keep it way simple these days.
Maybe this is not true for the lucky ones who go to your art gallery, but the larger part of America...
no expertise necessary. Ya think?

10/21/2008 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

"The pavilion’s coiled form, in which visitors spiral ever deeper into a black hole of bad art and superficial temptations, straying farther and farther from the real world outside, is an elaborate mousetrap for consumers."

10/21/2008 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

U think people want 2 B experts?

Not all...some who will though may not even know they're that interested yet. It's a path...a journey...a cliche of some sort...and I happen to believe it's worth encouraging as many people to feel comfortable walking along it as they can be made to feel.

10/21/2008 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous t.whid said...

Ed said... I can't follow your argument that the Pavilion is the Monte though, can you expand upon that?

Your point depends on the creators of the pavilion being the "strivers." Folks who don't understand art, but want to be part of it. *But* they don't approach it with humility so they come off as asses.

Ouroussoff's point is that the pavilion is an architectural embodiment of a loathsome upper-classer sneering at another sort of "striver" -- someone honestly working to make a better life for themselves. The pavilion sneers at the grease-stained folks that might show up to ogle at the "genius" of Chanel.

I'm not as apologetic as you towards arrogant and ignorant "strivers" coming to art. It's fine to not know, it's not fine to not know you don't know. And it's especially not fine to not know but pretend you know and try to cram that ignorance down everyone else's throat.

The pavilion is being crammed down our throats.

10/21/2008 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I actually assumed the "strivers" were the intended audience of the Pavilion.

Perhaps I muddled my point even more than I knew I had.

I'm not as apologetic as you towards arrogant and ignorant "strivers" coming to art. It's fine to not know, it's not fine to not know you don't know.

Not apologetic...empathetic. I get it. I don't think it's always born of arrogance. And where ignorance is concerned, well, that's my job and so it behooves me to be patient.

It's the lack of patience that I feel is arrogant.

The pavilion is being crammed down our throats.

It's a pretty big city.

10/21/2008 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous t.whid said...

Not apologetic...empathetic. I get it. I don't think it's always born of arrogance. And where ignorance is concerned, well, that's my job and so it behooves me to be patient.

Yeah, apologetic was the wrong word... I guess I have an itchy publish-your-comment finger :-)

It's the lack of patience that I feel is arrogant.

It's a matter of degrees. You show good artists and good art, so I would encourage you to be even more patient in explaining it to the strivers.

I guess I read into your comments a sort of empathy for the position of -- not the ignorant -- but the pretentious. And isn't the pavilion just one big coiled turd of pretense?

Yes. I have no patience for that, I'm sorry -- guilty as charged :-)

It's a pretty big city.

LOL. That it is. Guess I'll stay away from Central Park for a while.

But, even as we don't agree on this, the topic and it's many grey areas I find very interesting. Thanks for bringing it up.

10/21/2008 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

It just dawned on me...

It's an "Art Spa"

Let me rub your eyes with glossy reflections as sexy as the ass end of a Mercedes. I'll whisper sweet MmmPeg secrets in your ear, velour you go you'll be in the know. IN, mind you, oh it's so smooth. Come on down, be with me, I'm in the know.

But wait, darling, have a whiff and grease the skids.

It's pornographic.

Nicolai Ouroussoff nailed it.

10/21/2008 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't take issue with Ouroussoff's critique of the Pavilion, but simply that one implication that it appeals to some supposedly concrete group of Philistines who will always remain such.

What I think is important for anyone is that you're moving toward a wider understanding, not that you landed, fully formed and sophisticated, in the middle of Central Park from somewhere. By suggesting the "strivers" (and is not implicit in that description the potential that what they're striving for, at least some of them, is understanding) are the cause of, rather than merely the intended dupes of, this effort is to shift responsibility from its makers.

OK, so there's a second point I take issue with...that this attempt by Chanel to blend art, architecture, and fashion is any more delusional than many other, less successful attempts. It's understandable perhaps, when faced with daunting new challenges, to pull back and try to separate out the causes from the effects, to wish to simplify and categorize, but the world is just as complex today as it was back when the Dow as at 14,000 and the boundaries blurring then continue to blur despite us.

I for one am not entirely sure that's a bad thing.

10/21/2008 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


The problem is that maybe we're mixing up two different things here.

1. The Chanel Pavillion is a grandiose marketing project which targets a market sector favorable for their brands.

This is not uncommon in the fashion industry, both Lexus and Mercedes spend part of their advertising budgets supporting runway shows. The designers get funding, the automakers get to put a glossy brochure in the gift bags, a representative in the room etc. The idea is that the vendor wants to be associated with a certain class of art, architecture, or fashion because it is a carrot in their target market.

2. The collectors those "strivers" that can fall into the two categories: the poseurs and those who may just be reflexively wearing their armor until they relax enough to see how to do so.

I have a problem with the first point, it's my "baubles for the rich" point, to embrace it helps muddle the second issue.

10/21/2008 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I can't get the smell of shit off of my boots.

10/21/2008 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

DO you think the pavillion is the right message at the right time for the peoples of New York? No? Was there ever a time when this cancerous tumor , this blight, this carbuncular turd, this shit on a half shell would EVER constitute good taste and a sense of mystery in anyone with a mental age over 16? (I mean many 16 year olds probably think this is a dumb idea too, but many "grown ups" probably think this is a fantastic idea).

Like the gates and the falls, these public projects are no better than the piles of garbage that collect next door to my apartment (the landlord of the building knows the judge)

It is this sort of "money rules" rules that piss people off. I am encouraging everyone to tag the hell out of this monstrosity. How well guarded is it? Or will tagging just make it stronger?

10/21/2008 02:09:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

LOL, exactly what I was thinking.

10/21/2008 02:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Ok, this issue is complex and I'm going to try to simplify it.

In art they are two elements: aesthetic and purpose.

With the pavilion in Central Park, the purpose evidently sucks. Does that mean that the aesthetic sucks? I have no idea about what art is shown inside there, but let's give Zaha Hadid a break. For the boring purpose of her project, she made something that looks enthralling (this is a question of taste. I happen to like it).

If you're only going to think about current economical climate when criticizing this, than you are only interested by purpose, and this is detrimental to the other very important aspect of art, which frankly, the world of design has excelled so much in "advancing" since the industrial revolution that it's hard for me to not forgive the infinite vainglory of its purpose.

Maybe if the objects inside are design objects pretending to be art
(or art at the service of commercial design), I can understand the problem, but Zaha Hadid is not pretending to make art. This is a piece of architecture that could have served other purposes. It's mostly about aesthetics, and as with any other aesthetic form, should be allowed the credit of self-abstraction from any other
socio-cultural context.

As for the art inside, the challenge resumes in apprehending if the art functions one you forget that it is about Chanel, or if any artist has something perticularly important to say about Chanel. I certainly would.


Cedric Caspesyan

10/21/2008 02:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three is not artistic "dialogue" You are one of those strivers, dreaming of belonging to a sect of filthy economic rapists, those are the art worlds clients. Their market, their subject matter. The decayed and decadent, how would you be able to tell the diffrerence between a true worker, one who succeeds and loves his job,a nd real art not your crap, A man and woman of passion, not arrogance and attitude.

And this is no defensive posture, but an offensive surge. to destroy you adn your ilk. Go get a ral job, one your parents would be proud to say you have contributed to the world, not separated the elite from teh while, teh scum having risen to the top for the alst few decades, and now reaping the dregs of bitter reality.

Look in the mirror baby, you are them.

10/21/2008 02:48:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

Zip, if you take Christo's Gates off your list of Public Carbuncular Turds, I'll propose marriage to you right now, whether you like it or not.

10/21/2008 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

"When the pot boils, the scum comes to the top"

-James Otis (one of this country's founding "fathers" and a real pill, if I do say so my self, which I do.)

Anonymous, are you drunk on history? Or merely reaping the fermented whirlwind, as am I? Sow the dragons teeth! Sew the pigs purse! Drink of the dregs, for I am the barrel, and the bottom, and the monkey, too.

More fun than alliteration, more cunning than any linguist that yet lived and breathed Chanel No. 5!

I am not they, for we do not share the same pin number, nor the same values, nor even the same DNA, surely?

As I am descended from the Mayflower as well as the maypole, the potato famine and the Hugeonauts who were hired to quell the rebellion. Indeed most of my noble ancestry would probably spit on my grave before it would buy me a noble handbag from some French nobleman and his exotic silky orientalist minion. Who or what does this Zaha represent? Indeed.

I would rather see central park's lawns wither unto dust than whore its fall out to a headless horseman of mere aristocratic commerce! Nobliesse oblige? I say let them eat surgical steel!

Does my protest ring hollow? SO be it, sleep assured, I will not rest until this crime is punished, and my father, who is in heaven, for real, sees this prodigal son rise from being a mere raskolnikovian dimwit, to metamorphose into a bolshevik to be reckoned with.

Otherwise, why live?

I submit to you, there are higher things in life than handbags, or even shallow commentaries on handbags or even false assertions of authenticity in the face of hard times based on ones ability to work a "real job" as an anonymous working class hero.

What man nor beast; are you?

10/21/2008 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Donald is still able to send his insults at Edward regardless of
the moderation. Go figure..
Or was that directed at someone else?

Is it just me, or is Zip constantly receiving mating proposals? Wow!

Cedric Caspesyan

10/21/2008 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I submit the gates should have lost their buddhist pretentions, but they definitely outrank the ivy league pretentions of the virgin megastore's Union Square "steaming sphincter" sculpture.

As Susan Freedman and TOm Eccles wrote to the NYT:

"Public sculpture is an open dialogue that enriches our public spaces and public lives."

To which I say, unequivocally as a phillistine : HA!


best I can do. Maybe we can do an open marriage (apropos of canoodling). I mean I;m not a total idealist, just a cynical romantic with apsirations of sardonic shadenfreude. Oh Oz! let me peer behind your curtain!

I am available for barmitzvas and ghostwriting.

10/21/2008 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I submit to you, there are higher things in life than handbags..."

yup S H O E S :-)

10/21/2008 03:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Karl Lagerfeld fails every time he is trying to make art for the magazine Visionaire. Yet, when he designs a handbag for Visionnaire which purpose is to carry other artists' artworks, he succeeds, and everybody is happy.

Let's not be snobbish against handbags. It is part of culture.
Money is another issue entirely. Handbags and their costs are two different issues.

Cedric Caspesyan

10/21/2008 04:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Carla said...


what a bull run..


10/21/2008 07:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

If people reject the fancies, than we're left with functionality and meaning, at 100 per 100. It's not as evolved a situation as people might think.

Peter Brooks would have all made us sit around a handbag and discuss it. Confront our fear and hate, or desire for the object. Why does a handbag upsets? What are the opportunities that a handbag can bring to knowledge?
How does the object vacillates between meaning and form? Etc..
Is it the transcription (symptom) of somethign greater? Is Central Park the handbag of New York? (I'm laughing here), Etc...

I presume the Chanel show is very boring but I'm interested in the Why? If an handbag cannot be boring into God's eye, why do I find it boring? What is the problem, here? Forget money, think of your relation with the object.

The show fails because too many people have a narrow view of the handbag, both artists, clients and spectators. If people were thinking more about handbags, Chanel would not be able to buy us trying to sell mundane high-class. They would have to rethink the whole strategy of making handbags and forcefully come up with something interesting, at least from the tiny vanguard point where an handbag is able to become interesting.

So the problem is that, by thinking too much about making money, Chanel has forgot its purpose which was to make a handbag so great that it would have shut everybody's mouth about current economical climate. Maybe they picked the wrong aesthetic path (gilded, etc..). There has to be a handbag that is not so vile as people pretend it to be. Afterall, handbags are necessary objects. How do we transform them into interesting objects?

Cedric Caspesyan

10/21/2008 11:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

There's also the issue of censorship. I would love to receive a commission to make an art project about a Chanel handbag, but Chanel would probably censor it. They would say "God, Cedric, this hasn't anything to do with Chanel or handbags anymore".

For me, a handbag is just like any other object, a pretext to begin to talk about the universe around it.

Cedric Caspesyan

10/21/2008 11:22:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

A H-a-a-a-a-a-n-d B-a-a-a-a-a-g???

10/23/2008 01:14:00 PM  

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