Thursday, May 19, 2011

And So the King's Men Just Blinded All the Cats

`A cat may look at a king,' said Alice. `I've read that in some book, but I don't remember where.'

`Well, it must be removed,' said the King very decidedly.

---Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Two recent developments in the visual art world have been bugging me. I tried to write about them before and then decided to just let it go, but they keep haunting my thoughts.

I'm sure the instigators of the changes have their reasons, but their methods cut across what I (and apparently even cats) consider a universal right: to look at what's in front of you as you will. The first incident was reported by someone I've always found to be exceptionally polite and mild mannered, Artforum's David Velasco:
On Tuesday evening, those arriving at Sotheby’s for the biannual Contemporary Art Evening Sale were greeted by a massive inflatable rat and a line of picketers who passed out information sheets decrying the auction house’s hiring of presumably nonunion painters. Sotheby’s handed out their own information sheets—a new, passive-aggressive “Media Guide to Attendance at Sotheby’s Auctions”—to reporters checking in at the entrance, each of whom was then escorted by an official representative to the auction room on the seventh floor. “All journalists must remain in the designated press areas,” read item one (of eight)—a rule that doesn’t apply to the New York Times’ Carol Vogel, who always stands beyond the ropes.

Sotheby’s sale began convincingly enough in the scheme of these things but never fully picked up, with audible bids for the most hyped works (Lot 10: Koons’s porcelain Pink Panther, 1988, put up by Benedikt Taschen, and Lot 21: Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies, 1964) staying below the low estimates. “This is a tough night for Tobias,” someone in the press pack observed sympathetically, referring to chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer. In the end, the sale brought $128.1 million with premiums, just over the house’s low estimate of $120 million. “We took slightly larger steps, anticipating a market that isn’t there quite yet,” Anthony Grant, one of the house’s senior contemporary art specialists, explained during the press conference.

“I’m asking please that you stand in the designated area.” The next night, just before Christie’s evening sale, Toby Usnik, the house’s head of communication, tried to corral press behind the crowd-control stanchions at the back of the room. “Do we really need to suffer the additional humiliation of standing behind the line?” one writer cried. “I’m asking nicely,” Usnik grimaced. “And I’m telling you nicely,” came the retort. The face-off fizzled when a bulky security guard picked up the velvet rope and placed it in front of dissident reporters.

The press pack is a kind of collective hermeneutics—a para-society forming around a common impossible task and a similarly restricted view of events. Members try to divine meaning from the smallest gestures: a glance at the phone banks, a stutter in the bids—any wrinkle in the proceedings is weighed and interpreted. Thus, seeing is everything: “Those ladies better get out of our way,” a writer said loudly before the proceedings. “Press don’t get many perks, but one is a fucking sight line.” Penned up like unruly sports fanatics, or unmanageable oracles, reporters are the Greek chorus of the auction drama.

Now I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me truly wishes the art press were as anxious to cover gallery exhibitions or art in general as they are the auctions, but I get that the auctions assemble an irresistible cast of characters and often do produce high drama.

But the other part of me is sure the auction houses would soon be sending limos to collect reporters should they cease to show up at these events at all, so it's rich for them to treat the press as if they were a nuisance. A "fucking sight line" would indeed seem to be the least anyone wishing coverage should offer.

Speaking of lines and sight, though, another art world development is even more disturbing as it impacts how the public gets to view actual art. Also from Artforum:
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Julia Voss reports on a troubling new restriction for museum visitors. In the wake of crowded blockbuster shows, London’s National Gallery is considering limiting viewing time at its Leonardo da Vinci show, which opens in November, to 4 minutes 17 seconds per painting. “In the past, museum-goers who only glanced at pictures would be made fun of,” Voss notes. “Now this sort of visitor is being cultivated—any other sort is a disturbance.”
The image this conjures up in my mind is a monorail for museum goers, jerking to a stop in front of the next da Vinci, with a digital stopwatch just inside their periphery ticking down from 4:17 to 0:00 before they're whisked away to the next painting. Consider it the Disneyland approach to crowd management:

It's known to have taken da Vinci quite some time to paint his best known works (three years he worked on The Last Supper; reportedly he took 16 years to complete the Mona Lisa). But what the hell...four minutes and 17 seconds should suffice each person wishing to view one of his works.

Labels: art viewing


Anonymous Gam said...

I concur. The pervasive attempts to control others understanding and interpretations is rampant in our times. Probably not even exclusive to the now.

But where i take heart, is those paintings in the Vatican.... I mean, aren't you supposed to go there to worship God, and so, that means in moments of inattention, as a sideline, almost an afterthought, these works of art intrude into your conscience. They aren't the reason you are supposed to go there. And yet ... So the notion that art needs a space of calm, of undivided attention for durations of unspecified length, well maybe thats hocum. Maybe art is meant to be the intrusion - not the main course like advertising. Maybe art needsd to be forced back to the periphery. Maybe it's as outsiders that art makes its most subversive announcements? Obviously this is somewhat a devils advocate position , but maybe art shouldn't be center stage, but be that which moves into center stage at unsuspecting moments?

Maybe thats the quandry, that the museums put the art center stage? Not sure what I think of this.

5/19/2011 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Rico said...

How curious the National Gallery should respond to such a seemingly wonderful problem; too many people trying to see art in their museum! Seems like a boon during our current times.

I see a thread tying these two concerns of yours; namely, that art is about seeing and not merely looking. I believe this is not only the case for we who make, but equally for those who experience. There are also the larger points of access and power. One can be a bit more sympathetic in the former example but museums are about public access, so it seems unconscionable to time viewers who potentially may have a true experience if given the opportunity.

5/19/2011 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger typingtalker said...

Other sporting events such as basketball, baseball and football provide reporters with good seats in what is called the "pressbox." I think there's even food and drink available.

5/19/2011 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous LHT said...

I was seven years old at the 1964 World's Fair, but I do remember that Michelangelo's Pietà was presented behind glass to viewers travelling past it on a moving sidewalk. It impressed my seven-year-old brain at the time.

5/19/2011 03:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

What i find weird is that sometimes the prevention of a full clear-view of the precedings makes it all that much more important. That we know "rich" people are making "important" decisions while not knowing the full details makes it so much more enticing.
I wonder why it is that art has gone down this path.
(drunk googles on. maybe sobriety will clarify).

5/22/2011 03:45:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

This is easy for me to say because I don't attend the autions, but I wish reporters would just stop showing up. Then, as you say, Ed,they would be reated differently. They will need the full support of their publications. And, frankly, the publishers--the ones with the fiancial power, such as it may exist--are the ones who should make the call.

As for time limits, I think artists should have free and unfettered access to all museums ad works of art. OK, now I'd heading back to reality . . .

5/22/2011 12:05:00 PM  

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