Monday, January 04, 2010

A Glib Familiarity with Labels : Open Thread

For me personally, there seem to be two benefits to this recession (among a host of truly sucky disadvantages): 1) necessity is proving to be the mother of invention, and as we solve the problems that crop up daily, I'm more and more aware how much fun problem-solving can be...not that it isn't stressful, but there is a fabulous satisfaction that comes from seeing a solution you came up with work; 2) the downturn in activity affords ample opportunity for reflection.

One such reflection effort will be "#class," the second exhibition in our new location, that's being organized by Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida:
Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida will transform Winkleman Gallery into a classroom workspace in which the public audience, guest artists, critics, academics, dealers, and collectors will discuss the role of class in the art world and identify and propose alternatives/reforms/solutions to the current market system. The notion of the gallery as a work space will be explored aesthetically, socially, critically, and academically.
The Wall Street Journal's Candace Jackson spoke with Jen and Bill last week about their plans and posted a great summary on the WSJ blog Speakeasy. I'll share more details on how you too can get involved with this effort soon.

But in thinking about the plans Jen and Bill have been sharing with me, I've been reflecting too on the overarching hierarchy in the art world, not just within the commercial art market, and realized that if, as is often the case, the fish stinks from the head down (and don't get me wrong here...I'm not one for throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but I am open to hearing other people's opinions about how the system/s can be improved), it makes sense to spend some time examining how museums works. They do represent the pinnacle of art appreciation, and all good art supposedly flows uphill into them, so understanding how they operate seems a good place to begin my search for better understanding.

Current events unfold in unpredictable ways, and I'm searching for more concrete foundations on which to form my opinions, therefore, I thought I'd look back a bit and see what I might cull from how museums have operated through the years, or even more important, what drives civilizations (especially Western civilizations with which I'm much more familiar and therefore more qualified to comment on) to build museums. Fortunately, a very handy summary of the central drive was provided in an essay by E.M. Forester titled "For the Museum's Sake" (1920) (reprinted in the collection Abinger Harvest (1964) [pp. 290-297]). He begins with a history of the renewed interest in antiquity that sprung forth during the Renaissance, but then carries on to note how the search for authentic ancient objects quickened:
In the nineteenth century the soil was scratched all over the globe, rivers were dammed, rocks chipped, natives tortured, hooks were let down into the sea. What had happened? Partly an increase in science and taste, but also the arrival of a purchaser, wealthier than cardinals and quite as unscrupulous---the modern European nation. After the Treaty of Vienna every progressive government felt it a duty to amass old objects, and to exhibit a fraction of them in a building called a Museum, which was occasionally open free. "National possessions" they were now called, and it was important that they should outnumber the objects possessed by other nations, and should be genuine old objects, and not imitations,which looked the same, but were said to be discreditable.
Once the Museum's importance as a symbol of national pride was established, and most of the genuine old objects that could be excavated seemed to have been divvied up among those with the means to steal/secure them, it was only a matter of time until plans to either expand existing spaces or build museums to house objects that were not so old would occur to the proliferating purchasers. And hence, the dawn of the contemporary art museum or contemporary wings within existing museums. (I've looked for which institution claims to be the world's first contemporary art museum but can't figure that out...anyone?).

What seems to define the excess of the typical Western museum most is the ratio of objects it possesses versus the number the viewing public has access to. In his essay, Forster tells of how the British Museum smuggled the Papyrus of Ani (the Book of the Dead) out of Egypt even though (because taking it out of Egypt was illegal) they wouldn't be able to display it. In doing so, Forster hits on what I think are two of the central flaws in how we currently build and/or interact with museums:
The dreariness and snobbery of the Museum business come out strong beneath this tale of derring-do [i.e., the smuggling tale]. Our "national possessions" are not accessible, nor do we insist that they should be; for our pride in them is merely competitive. Nor do such fractions as are accessible stimulate our sense of beauty or of religion [EW: not that that remains the end-all experience, mind you...but...]: as far as Museums breed anything it is a glib familiarity with labels.
Indeed, both those criticisms ring true for me today: 1) our pride in what is possessed in our museums is far too often merely competitive; and 2) this serves to feed a "been there, done that" approach to visiting them.

Upon our return from our first trip to Berlin this past fall, for example, during which Bambino and I saw dozens of art spaces (museums, galleries, private collections, fairs, etc.), several times, when sharing our experiences, we were asked, "You didn't make it to Museum X?" (as if that in and of itself should have been our very top priority). All of which tells me that the competitive pride Forster noted in his day has more recently morphed past just the number or prestige of objects in any given museum and into the number of museums you can check off your list. Seriously, our trip was packed with art viewing, but for some folks it somehow still wasn't enough. As it is, when I return to Berlin, my hope is to spend even more time at the Museums we had visited.

I suspect the push for more and more attendance, more and more expansion, more and more endowments, etc. is related to all this, but I've gone all long enough here.

Consider this an open thread on what might be the alternatives/solutions here? How might what/how much we collect move away from being based on a competitive drive and move toward something more admirable? And what can curb the "been there, done that" approach to museum viewing that that competitive drive seems to foster?

Labels: art appreciation, art museums, art viewing


Blogger zipthwung said...

it is important to be comfortable in your own skin - whatever class you belong to. it would be hard for someone who never read a book to become a part of the "intelligentsia" except as a representative of the barbaric class - the authentic working man, the working class hero. The autodidact blue collar is of course of the greatest novelty, a cherished token to be remembered whenever one is composing a list of invitees to one's salon.

Salons of course are a kind of answer - despite their exclusivity, they have no pretention to populism, but allow like minded individuals or "affinity groups" to form.

The art market tends to ignore the true soil from which an artist springs - focusing merely on the quality of the new england light, or the saltiness of the background color. I argue that art becomes kitch whenever you extract it form its beginnings - that money isolates art and artist in gated communities, alienating the artist and eliminating audience, nutrition and eventually all light. Some artists thrive in darkness.

Salons are think tanks, subsidized but informal, if only to provide a meeting place - something new york has a derth of. If the price of public meeting is 4 dollars for an Americano, already we can speak of class. There needs to be the one dollar cup of coffee or the can of Pabst, the shot of wild turkey, the generous offer of a joint. Such social lubricants allow people who would otherwise bore each other to get along - and pass information.

Witness, at a party or opening, the scrum of insiders, themselves excluded from another scrum. How subtle these walls are! SOmetimes just a look or a pause.

And indeed a salon, like a small village, may contain the idiot, the drunk, the wife, the lover, the deaph mute and the chanteuse. Who do you want to be today?

Do artists act like artists in public? or do they merely embody themselves, the true mench? Are artists who act like artists simply becoming more of their essential nature? Or do they hollow out, becoming shadows of themselves? Inauthentic husks.

If the salon is also theater - there must be no way for wealth to buy any other role to play than patron. All else is up for grabs.

Still, it takes leasure to be an artist - or, indeed, to show up at a salon. This is the problem with the class that has kids - are we to allow kids into the salon? What role do Legos have other than at the feet of the coffee Klatch?

Women as a class talk differently than men - if this is essentialism, or simply cultural preference, who can tell - groups tend to take on the flavor of the individuals that comprise it - cultures born around aping or imitation of the most charismatic.

Maybe salons are too intimate for real artists, those that seek a kind of objectivity by only referencing themselves, spinning endless anecdotes about their hygienic rituals, or perhaps the formula with which they use to create a personalized cup of coffee - or even - the ways in which they gain their wealth.

1/04/2010 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be nice if regional museums, rather than just compete with each other for lesser work by great artists or great work by lesser artists, put more effort into rooting out, supporting and promoting the great and potentially great art and artists from their own region. If they had the courage to make aesthetic decisions without completely relying on critical validation from beyond their borders, the museums would have more flavor and would make a much larger contribution to sustaining and elevating art. They'd be leaders rather than followers.


1/04/2010 01:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for a long time Ed, but this post hits home with me more than anything you have ever posted. I think that the Powhida/Dalton collaboration sounds amazing... I wish I could participate.

I teach art to elementary children, so I know a little bit about the roots of the art world (albeit from a marginalized perspective). I have children all the time tell me that they want to be artists when they grow up, they have no concept of the intricacies of the art world, but they know how to engage in creative and meaningful activities in spite of what they may critically lack (they more than make up for this with enthusiasm and honesty). More than anything, the children love to take the trip to the art museum to witness art in the institutional element. It's such a strange and mystical adventure for them. It always takes me back to my first experience with art, how nai

If I have anything to contribute to this discussion it would be from the perspective of a child and one who educates them. As a child, I would want to know how this whole machine that is the art world works. I would want to learn all that I could, but unfortunately not everyone in the viewing public adopts this attitude nor do all participants in the art discourse feel inclined to educate.

I would like to see the art world remade as a place in the service of education rather than a parade of special interests which it has unfortunately become. If I were a child once again, I would want to know how this strange network of people (artists, museums, curators, critics, collectors, viewers etc, etc...) comes together to create the dynamic place that is the art world. Above all, I would want to be educated.

You are definitely doing your part Ed, I wish more artists, dealers and curators would take a more active role in engaging and educating audiences. In the end the only real significant art is the art that educates and makes a connection with the audience.


1/04/2010 08:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the been, there done that attitude towards art museums is a product of our entertainment saturated culture. Art has become nothing more than an amusement and a feather in the cap. So many people are out of touch with what the whole art viewing experience is about. It's like drinking to get drunk without savoring the experience...what shame!

I think that as Dennis suggested, museums should operate primarily as educational institutions, but they also need to rethink the manner in which they engage audiences. Exhibitions need to be more dynamic and interactive. Paintings and objects in a spacious room don't cut it anymore. The audio tours are a nice recent development, but that should only be the tip of the iceberg. I'm not in favor of changing the environment and feel of a museum, but I think there is a great deal of room for experimentation within the exhibition programming of museums.

The Walker Art Center produced a very interesting salon style show which really activated the viewing experience. I think works always yield something new if they are presented in a new and exciting context. Making something fun doesn't mean it can't be serious and intellectual.


1/05/2010 10:51:00 PM  

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