Andy Warhol didn't invent Americans' obsessive lust for fame. Jeff Koons didn't invent the banality of our collective desires. Damien Hirst didn't invent the inanity of the global art market. Each merely observed and then pointed such out to us. Whether they did so via art that is good or bad is the appropriate point at which to critique their work, not IMO their respective subject matters.And yet, we often find criticism of these artists suggesting they were somehow responsible for such ills. As if they were socially required to condemn, rather than reflect, what they saw around them. As if they were required to lead the charge in correcting these human conditions.That's one hell of a lot of transference, in my opinion. I had a conversation with a retired gentleman over the weekend, who has done quite well for himself, travels extensively, and can be squarely described as a "man of the world." He grew up in New York in the 40s and 50s and was rather insistent about how back then we collectively had higher standards and a finer appreciation of quality, but how now few people understood anything about anything meaningful or well-done. He refused to engage in the contemporary dialog about art or culture because it all seemed so infantile and exasperating. He knew what was good and could continue to mine the works of an era gone-by for the sustenance his soul needed, but he didn't have the patience to weed through the new for the few nuggets among the dreck.He didn't actually use the phrase, but his argument rang in my ears as "In my day, they created better art than this nonsense being exhibited today."I barely know this gentleman, so I didn't press the issue (it wasn't the place), but I later thought next time I see him I'll share that, to my mind, this is still his day. The world may not look anything like it did when he was growing up, and events may have knocked some of the bright-eyed optimism out of all of us, but we are still here and this is our world (warts and all) to make sense of. The art they created "back then" may indeed be better by the standards used back then, but each generation gets the art it gets. Plenty of folks in the 1940's pooh-poohed the works of Rothko and Pollock, and before them, plenty sucked their teeth at the thought of Picasso. In other words, what among the work being made today is valuable to society must be measured by up-to-date standards...standards that truly reflect their time. Indeed, the notion that one period of art represented a true pinnacle usually correlates with the point at which things "clicked" for the person identifying that pinnacle, much the way that most people's musical tastes seem forever influenced by what they liked during their high school or college years. That is, unless that person remains engaged with the growth of such art forms and, moreover, remains engaged with the developments of society and human history at large. Things keep changing, whether we like it or not, and clinging to some point in the past like a barnacle on the butt of history, regardless of how glorious the world seemed back then (and believe me, the longer you live, the more you realize that any "glorious" era you were lucky enough to live through was relative to your unique position...the world always more or less sucks for most people at any given time) only serves to fossilize your opinions and their helpfulness to others still engaged.I suspect more than a few folks will disagree with where I'm going with all this, but in thinking this through it has dawned on me that this is why I have stood firm in my conviction that the New Museum exhibition that's causing so much controversy is best judged on its merits as an exhibition, rather than on standards that seem to represent some era that has passed and isn't coming back. The world has changed. This exhibition is merely one more piece of evidence of that. And trying to shut it down seems so reactionary to me. Judge it on quality...rip it to shreds if it deserves it then, but I'm not yet convinced by any of the arguments that its presentation represents something so antithetical to who we are today that we need to throw the baby (the potential value of bringing this collection to New York) out with the bathwater.The arguments that I've seen against it boil down to:
Personally, I think the world has changed and I'd rather have honest insightful reflections of it than bury my head in the comforting sands of yesteryear. I'm willing to wait to judge whether this show will prove to be a valuable addition to the exhibition landscape. If it is, then I'm willing to applaud the New Museum for charging, through the criticism, into the brave new world. If it fails, then I suspect we won't see much more like it anyway. In short, I simply don't like the idea that there is a "right" way or a "wrong" way to present art. So long as there is transparency, and a sincere desire to focus on the work, why not let a museum dedicated to what's "new" (even if it's not pretty) offer honest reflections of that? Private collections have outpaced many public collections in terms of the depth and focus of their contemporary art collections. The market is known to be influenced by museum exhibitions. The collection is known to be of very high quality. This show is being marketed as a new way to bring such work to the public. There seem to be no non-transparent parts to this...if we assume the intended audience knows all this (or will learn all this through the exhibition), the show seems to be uber-timely. If an institution's mission includes showing us how the art world truly looks
- "Marcia wouldn't like this show" : And perhaps she wouldn't, but ...God rest her soul...she's not the director now. The museum MUST be of its time to be New.
- Public money shouldn't be used to potentially make a rich person richer : It's hard to argue against this one, but an art exhibition seems a oddly minor example of this when we have billions being abused in much more offensive and destructive ways that don't have any such obvious benefits for the public. Transparency is required (and being given) by the museum here, and that already puts the exhibition at a disadvantage in terms of getting a fair shake critically, so I think this one is a bit of a draw.
- Shows of this ilk represents a shift in the power structure (away from the individual, and especially the artist, and toward the oligarchy) that must be stopped: I would suggest that it represents a return to previous power structures that will continue to cycle back throughout all of human history and that shouting against it is like shouting against the tide. Besides, the most meaningful responses to this, to my mind, must come from artists. William Powhida's response is priceless (and ironic, given how much he owes to Koons), but even that is a summary of what mostly non-artists said in response. Not that their opinions aren't a valuable part of the dialog, just that if the issue is the empowerment of artists, then, well, artists must lead the charge.
, then this show is consistent with that mission, no?
I don't wish to ignore what's right before my eyes in hopes of returning to some relatively "better" point in history. I'm still right here, right now...and want to see what the changes are for myself. I'll be relentlessly honest in my criticism should the show suck or not live up to the institution's sales pitch. But I want the chance to judge that for myself.
Labels: controversy, New Museum