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.'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.
`Well, it must be removed,' said the King very decidedly.
---Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
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.
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.
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.
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