For art and artists, these are interesting times…as Adam Marsland reminds us, that’s a Chinese curse…
I’m currently working my way through a re-read of Honoré de Balzac’s marvelous Pere Goriot as part of my 2015 reading list. While the opportunity to savor Balzac’s loquacious piece of realism that examines parental love and Parisian society is certainly pleasant for a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of realism in its various literary expressions, both foreign and domestic, I have found myself with nothing to write about unless, as Mr. Micawber optimistically, invariably expected, something turns itself up.
Since you are reading this, you know that my own Micawberean expectations have not been disappointed. A piece by art critic Jerry Saltz at the Vulture blog of New York Magazine caught my attention because it addresses one of the unresolved cultural questions left to us by the 20th century: to wit, how do we reconcile the merging of popular and what was once termed “high” culture and make intelligent determinations about what is culturally worthwhile for us to explore, discuss, even preserve in this merged culture?
This issue is one that I have explored extensively before, and, despite my best efforts to offer some explanations/insights/whining complaints, it pops up again and again and smacks me (metaphorically, of course) upside the head saying, “How do you like me now, Jim?” and forcing me to take yet another look at this perhaps never to be resolved issue.
So. Here we go again….
Saltz’s critique of the new retrospective exhibition on the life and career of Iceland’s enigmatic (and occasionally indecipherable) artist/entertainer Björk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is not so much about whether Björk should have an exhibition at MoMA (though he expresses some well founded skepticism) as it is about what the Björk exhibit represents. Saltz goes to some lengths to show that not only a “more mature” (read aging Xer/Boomer) art critic like himself has doubts about the suitability of the work of Björk for a major retrospective at one of the world’s great museums, critics “half his age” are dubious to the point of dismissive of the exhibit. Saltz points to a couple of reasons for this, criticism that in one instance seems sound given the nature of MoMA and its traditional mission and in the other leads us back into the morass that is the argument that’s been occurring ever since “the Post-Modern Moment” effectively merged high and popular culture via what Warren Zevon might refer to as the Waring Blender Method.
Let’s address these separately. First, the provably valid criticism.
Saltz notes that the current home of MoMA, opened in 2004, is a disaster architecturally and that most of its collection of works of modern art remain in storage far too much of the time. While the museum is about to undergo more remodeling that will (Saltz hopes, though is not sanguine about) expand and improve its gallery space so that much more of MoMA’s collection, a collection Saltz terms, “the greatest collection of modern art on Earth” can be placed on permanent exhibit and provide visitors with the opportunity to see work by artists as varied as Monet and Lichtenstein, Edward Hopper and Christo. Given that one of the museum’s stated missions is to provide the public with educational experiences, Saltz’s point that getting the art in front of the public should be paramount certainly seems valid critique.
His second, more problematic, critique brings us back to the argument about the nature of art that I alluded to above. Too much of the current space is being devoted to, in Saltz’s words, “whiz-bang pop-cultural events” like the Björk show. Yet, he moans, the museum insists on producing one “celebrity” exhibition after another; two that Saltz notes feature in one Tilda Swinton in some sort of living pose exhibit and in another an exhibit by film director Tim Burton that Saltz dismisses as “trashy.” The reason for these exhibitions, Saltz argues, is that the MoMA’s curators are playing to the lowest common denominator: Saltz accuses MoMA of attempting to make itself into the cultural equivalent of a “multi-plex mall” mounting exhibit after exhibit for the sole purpose of bringing in the masses. What bothers Saltz is that the reason for bringing in the masses is not to then get them looking at MoMA’s wonderful collection of art but instead to rake in $$$.
The Björk exhibit is a case in point, Saltz argues. He cites another critic who called the exhibit “a combination of Madame Tussaud’s and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The sad thing, Saltz observes, is that these continued celebrity exhibits are turning MoMA into “funhouse exhibitions and events, which admittedly pack the rafters with paid ticket-holders.” (It should be noted that Saltz says he has no problem with a forthcoming Yoko Ono retrospective. Remember, though,that Yoko was a successful and respected artist when she met John Lennon. So perhaps she gets a pass on those grounds.)
In other words, Saltz is asking, where’s the art in all this?
That’s the question a lot of us are asking. There seems to be no clear answer. The path MoMA is following seems to have yet again broadened the definitions of art and artist in ways that make those with more “traditional” definitions of art uncomfortable. This may be simply the changing of the culture and Saltz may be, though trying not to be, doing the dinosaur thing.
But there’s a different possibility – one much more sinister in terms of its implications for art. What we may be seeing at MoMA is the capitulation of a great museum to the forces of capitalism – a capitulation that suggests that art curator decisions will be made as Saltz suggests they are being made – on the basis that “art” which brings ticket buyers into MoMA will be given first, last, sole priority.
The triumph over art of Ronald Reagan’s definition of public interest.
So this offers us another possible explanation of what art has become since the merger of popular culture with “high” culture: fertile territory for those who might be called “creative entrepreneurs.” What will appeal in the marketplace is what we will come to value as art. And our great museums will become the big box stores of what we will call culture.
A brave new world, indeed.
I think I need a Soma….