Thursday, August 13, 2009

More on Media Bias

There's an interesting parallel between the dialog in the US about race and the dialog in the art world about artwork media. The parallel centers, IMO, on the difficult tying up of loose ends in seeking meaningful equality. We have declared for quite some time in the US, for example, that "all [people] are created equal" but it took over 200 years for that statement to bear fruit in the form of the first non-white President. Even still, we see (through issues raised by events such as the Gates Crowley he-said--he-said kerfuffle, if not the actual arrest itself) that there's quite some distance between such milestones and true widespread acceptance/implementation of equality.

Likewise in the art world, the era of Post-Modernist production and current media pluralism has made it rather un-PC to dismiss work created in media other than painting or sculpture, at least openly. Still, the lingering bias tucked away in the recesses of our discourse won't disappear it seems without shining a very bright light on some rather ossified, if only whispered, opinions. As with the arrest of the Harvard professor in his own home, it often takes a public scuffle to even begin that process.

In the art world, one such scuffle is currently taking place in L.A., where the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) recently canceled (to reconsider) its highly regarded weekend film program, which has reportedly lost $1 million over the past decade. That decision alone has led to a high-wattage outcry (and much to LACMA's credit, they've encouraged an online discussion about the changes), but it was the stated rationale behind the decision that promises to crack open a real debate. From a statement by the museum to the staff of the film department (PDF file):
As part of [the planned changes], and for the present, we will certainly place greater emphasis on artist-created films reflecting the museum’s growing relationship with contemporary artists and the contemporary art world. [emphasis mine]
While I'm sure that sentiment was designed to comfort the museum's film department, it struck some in the film industry as a snub, including celebrated director Martin Scorcese:
I do not understand why this approach to programming needs to be re-thought. I am puzzled by the notion of pegging future film programming to “artist-created films,” as stated in the letter announcing this shift – to do this would be tantamount to downgrading the worth of cinema. Aren’t the best films made by artists in the first place?
I find it somewhat unfortunate that LACMA chose that wording too, especially as the "fine artists" I know who work in video and film often cite the influence of directors and other filmmakers who wouldn't necesssarily be classified as "fine artists" in discussing their own work. Indeed, as I noted a while back the lines between "fine art" film and other film are increasingly being blurred. What should be screened in a gallery or museum (in the context of "art") versus what should be shown only in a cinema will become ever more difficult to distinguish, IMO, and that's OK. Why should art not be viewed as far and wide as possible?

That, actually, the is heart of the matter for me. By insisting on a delineation between "fine art" and "other cinema" the big loser stands to be fine art film and the potential public that will never see it. A context in which contemporary art is seen as including contemporary film seems the appropriate path forward for museums and cinema houses alike.

UPDATE: In thinking this through a bit, I realize my logic is faulty. LACMA's decision isn't so much based on a bias against a medium, but rather the handling of that medium. I do think these issues are tangentially related, but...

Labels: art museums, art viewing, Film


Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

As far as LACMA's film thing goes ... they just about went under this last year, so it is likely that they are examining their programs vs. sustainability vs. budgets. A $1M loss is usually difficult to sustain in the confines of a nonprofit that is healthy, let alone one in fiscal recovery, so this makes sense to me.

The would do an about-face if the films brought in a ton of cash, or if a director that wanted to "give back" donated $2M for the purposes of screening films for 10 years.

8/13/2009 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

It baffles me to read such confusing PR coming from a major art institution.

Artists making films? What does that even mean? Do they mean the experimental art film legacy? (a legacy of Cinema which for a long time only marginally developed or revealed its links with Fine Art)? Or the Video and Media Art legacy? (Gary Hill, Bill Viola?). Or do they mean they will feature Shirin Neshat's new film because it is in competition at Venice's Mostra and it's a film made by a "contemporary artist"??

Personally I think film and video art are better seen in quality projection rooms unless there is a sculptural or installative strategy to it. Some video art also is made to be seen on a small monitor, but not necessarely in a museum (it looks better in your home).

I have a reticence with showing any film in a gallery because to me it objectifies the screening.
It pulls all the parts I hate about Fine Art and forces it unto cinema. Especially the distanciation (or often, irony) when an old film is shown on a plasma screen in a museum as part of an exhibit: it's not even expected that people actually watch the film. The film is turned into a superfluous bibelot to flatter some curatorial perspective. At the same time, some video artist who in my opinion are clearly making conventional cinema adorn their art with an exaggerated level of vanity when they install it in a gallery almost as if it is a sculpture, when what is shown on screen might actually be described as a comical short film spoofing Hitchcock (to give an example).

I think there is a Fine Art in Film and a Fine Art using Film, but not many people yet are insistant about that difference.

Maybe that was the difference LACMA was going for, but I doubt it, and even there it was badly expressed.

Cedric Caspesyan

8/13/2009 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Can we sort of consider this to be kind of like an open thread on continuing prejudices against non-traditional media, as well as new prejudices against traditional movies, painting and sculpture?

8/13/2009 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...


When I say there is a Fine Art in Film, I do mean that a fair portion of Video Art to me belongs to a "Fine Art" appreciation of Cinema, and should be attached to its own legacy of experimental cinema.

It's all case-by-case, but if you have a beginning, development and ending and are including credits,
hmmm... Well you know, that's not too far from what Scorsese do.

Cedric Casp

8/13/2009 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Can we sort of consider this to be kind of like an open thread on continuing prejudices against non-traditional media, as well as new prejudices against traditional movies, painting and sculpture?

Go for it!

8/13/2009 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger ryan said...

I think Cedric brings up great points.

I usually find viewing video in a gallery setting to be somewhat awkward. I think what distinguishes video art from film is that the viewing format of video art is integral to the work (i.e. Michal Rovner or Pipilotti Rist). If it can be viewed in different formats (monitor, projection, etc) without inherently altering the work then I think it falls within the context of film. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule and would love to hear about them.

But generally speaking, I'd rather watch film in a movie theater or on a couch rather than on a cold, uncomfortable gallery bench. I greatly admire and appreciate the work of artists who work in film/video, but I wonder whether we should just call it what it is. A photograph by someone who identifies themselves as an artist is still a photograph -- when photography wasn't considered a form of art perhaps this was not the case.

I'd love to see more work by more traditional film makers in museums -- especially if they have the ideal setting in which to present it. And I think it would be beneficial to artists who work in film/video. The disconnect between these two categories is unnecessary.

8/13/2009 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Dare I say that, for me an artist waving the defense of painting as a valid fine art media is a little like a heterosexual person
militating for the organization of a straight pride parade? ;-)

Cedric C

8/13/2009 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

If we work in a non-traditional medium (as I do), how much does our confidence, or lack of confidence, in our choice of medium determine our attitude toward traditional media? Do we feel the need to tear down traditional media in order to advance our work? Or do we feel there's room enough for everything?

Do we feel slighted if we work in a traditional medium, and some new medium is getting all the attention? Do we feel the art world has actually become exclusive, rather than inclusive?

Do any of our attitudes fit the facts? Do the specific examples we can cite to support our views really represent the art world as a whole?

The art world is always changing. How much of a role does generational conflict play in that? The young wanting to realize their dreams - the old wanting to hang on to their dreams? What about the young who want to resurrect the old dreams of others, and the old who want to dream something new?

Just wondering ...

8/13/2009 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

I think it was good for LACMA to create an online discussion about this issue so people can share their two cents.

8/13/2009 01:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


LACMA did not just about go under this past year. That was MOCA, which is downtown. LACMA has actually been under a steady expansion, which is why cutting the film program seems strange.

Please at least talk about the correct museum.

8/13/2009 01:22:00 PM  
Anonymous david carson said...

Tom - agree with keeping the idea of "prejudices against non-traditional media" an open thread.

Edward's framing of the issue around the race/equality metaphor is a good one. Painting is the white-male of the art world. It dominates the conversation. I always have to laugh at how some painters feel under-attack from the "painting is dead" rhetoric from the last 40 years as if they are that mid-western white guy who buys into the Dobbs/Limbaugh/Beck/O'Reilly myths that the white guy is in "cultural extinction danger mode".

I've had this conversation a lot with artists who are concerned primarily with digital mediums. One of the many amusing things that come up during this conversation is asking this simple question:

What would have happened if Jeff Koons would have simply printed out his Popeye, or Elvis images as C-prints - never having them painted with oil on canvas? Would they be as "important"? Would they be any less valuable?

It always starts a spirited debate.

8/13/2009 05:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

The validity of Koons depends on his objects because his art is not just about what you see. There is a process in there, mixing the industrialism of Judd with the pop art of Warhol, while juxtaposing the kitsh of the readymade (Duchamp) with the sublime of the reflective monument (Brancusi).

When you think about it, Koon's art is not pop. A Balloon Dog or a Heart Pendant is not exactly pop, not in the sense of Madonna. I think Koons he's looking after contemporary archetypes, images that our subconscious know since very early. And somehow this art vascillates between the mundane and ephemeral (balloon rabbit) and the iconic ad permanent, almost like that balloon dog is coming back at you after all these years and saying "you've always known me, now revere me". Not everybody around the world know Madonna, but they all know the symbol of the heart, ice cream sundaes, or perhaps.. Michael Jackson?

The limit of Koons's art is that it intertwines with vanity and the museal, but I don't think making just the paintings would have been enough. His paintings look like Ads that don't sell anything precise, They very much follow Warhol but in a very visceral way. Like it's not painting but the ice cream comments on that expectation of what a painting sould be.

I tend to defend Koons because he's so thrown easily as a simple bauble maker. Yes, his art is bauble, but it's not stupid.

Cedric Casp

8/13/2009 08:07:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I'm against genre. So by now conceptual film is a genre, so I consider it as "narrative" as the Godfather opus. Get over it people, no one runs from the film of a train like it is "real" anymore.

The audience is the locus for this debate.

8/13/2009 10:03:00 PM  
Anonymous david carson said...

Cedric - love the way you deconstruct Koons - agree on your opinion that "there's a process in there" and that his art depends on the production of his objects.

That said, doesn't the juxtaposition of his kitsch subjects and his production process to turn them into the "sublime" make the point? Koons art in particular is low-culture arbitrage - the equivalent to black music being made into "palatable" forms to the market through a white guy like Elvis.

Koons' art recognizes that painting is the white-male of the art world and uses it's class rank to do two things, IMO...

1. make his art more valuable to a collector

2. demonstrate the reality and absurdity of his arbitrage art making process - a subversion for sure.

Koons could not possibly make his Popeye, or Elvis images that originate in photoshop into C-prints for the market. Where's the subversion in that? I think his work shines a spotlight on Ed's original point about "artwork media bias", but i don't think it has changed the bias - it may have fortified it.

8/14/2009 09:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

Conceptual cinema is a very broad term.It encompasses pure form experiments like Acconci walking around a camera or Michael Snow continually zooming in, or Michael Haneke's Funny Game's play on conventional narrative. I think you need to categorize different niches for conceptual cinema (mise-en-scène, narrative, genre, montage, industry, glitch (scratch film), etc..). I find that generally conceptual cinema involves revealing clichés or accepted constructions of cinema.

I love categorization, I think it's a healthy process of cognition, but I also love to acknowledge when something defies categorization or stand in between categories (categorization exists to be challenged and redefined).

Sometimes you meet artists who are fragile about this issue of being "pigeon-holed", but you can't help put them in a cage. Other times an artist claims they are "doing THIS THING" when in fact they are doing something completely different.

Cedric Caspesyan

8/14/2009 09:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

David Carson: I always have to laugh at how some painters feel under-attack from the "painting is dead" rhetoric from the last 40 years as if they are that mid-western white guy who buys into the Dobbs/Limbaugh/Beck/O'Reilly myths that the white guy is in "cultural extinction danger mode".

Last month I researched a major travel/exhibition grant (sorry about the lack of details, but I'm not naming names). I contacted one of the principals of the organization, who liked the project, but informed me that the man who runs the exhibition program was "into new media" and - I'm quoting - "wasn't going to like the idea of drawings on the wall."

I have watched talented painters languish in day jobs while artists tossing together the most cynical, simplistic conceptual statements imaginable become minor stars. I had the opportunity to witness contemporary curators scrap a scheduled exhibition at their museum rather than countenance the prospect of including local still life painters who would have been entirely appropriate for it. No less than Jerry Saltz said of the most recent Venice Biennale that the curators involved "seem to hate painting."

So you can imagine how thrilled I am to hear that animosity towards painting is mythical and I'm a dittohead. Really, no one ought to dismiss work on the basis of medium, whether traditional or new. And among working artists, in my experience, practically no one does so. But there are plenty of people at the curatorial and administrative level who do, and they are self-described aficionados of new media, pluralists, and progressives. It was by interacting with such people that I first learned that I was not a liberal.

8/14/2009 09:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I just had to say: did anyone else experienced this fear of the "fake train"? I did! It was when I was a child at Disneyworld's Toad ride. They had a simple lamp on the ceiling acting as a train, but it had my heart pomped. Ah ! Suspense of disbelief....

Cedric Casp

8/14/2009 09:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I force myself to not go see painting, just to make things even, and still half of the shows I see is painting. There is no way in the world I am going to deny that I find an artist great because they do painting.

But I don't mind being a little discriminate because I'm discriminated on a bunchful of accounts myself. "Give a little hate - Take a little hate":
that's part of life too. Eventually I assume any great artist will have to "comment"
about painting somewhere in their career. You just can't escape that.

David, regarding Koons, my opinion differs on the general aknowledgment that his subjects are arbitrary. I think he starts with a theme (say, love, or celebration) and then he seeks what's for him the image-of-a-1000-words (making a monument out of an early doodle from your own son is significant to almost Lacanesque
levels). Since he started topping the auction charts he made those cracked eggs. I don't think this is arbitrary. The phallicness or sexuality that "undertones" a great
portion of his work does speak to me as strongly masculine (paternalist), so his popularity
is no big win for feminism. Does his paintings help validate his sculptures? I never thought
about that. I think that would be very true of Damien Hirst. Hmm...

As I said above, maybe any visual artist is force to acknowledge or contemplate painting at one point or another.

Cedric Caspesyan

8/14/2009 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I needed to add to this thread that the book "1001 paintings you must see before you die" makes me cringe.

Nearly half of the book covers the modern and contemporary era, and there was so much other things happening than painting. I think it's pretty symptomatic that the masses are only interested by that medium. Judging by that book, Will Cotton is one of the most significant artist of the last 10 years.


Cedric Casp

8/15/2009 11:06:00 AM  

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