Critiquing with clenched fists
Before New Republic art critic Jed Perl penned his latest insights, he visited a good number of recent exhibitions, including
* The inaugural exhibition at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
* ” © Murakami” at the Brooklyn Museum
* Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, at the Museum of Modern Art
* “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century” at the New Museum
* “Jeff Koons on the Roof” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
and within his essay, he referenced a good number more–including some not-so-recent shows and installations (although when, if indeed ever, he visited each of these is not clear to me from his text):
* Damien Hirst in “Beyond Belief” White Cube, London
* Richard Serra at just about any museum of your choice, but in particular at Broad Contemporary Art Museum
* Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe” at the Guggenheim
* “Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today” at the Museum of Modern Art
* Tony Feher’s March-April 2008 exhibition at PaceWildenstein
and yet, he found precious little in any of them that seems to have moved him. Indeed, he goes on for nearly 6000 words explaining how all he can offer “after all this museumgoing and gallerygoing, is a series of postcards about nothing written from places that felt like nowhere.”
About three-quarters of the way through his opus, he does mention some artists he seems to like, though, including Ry Fyan, Carroll Dunham, Jess, and R.B. Kitaj (although with Kitaj, you get the sense Perl only likes him after he turned away from Pop art and embraced “tradition”). But just in case you’re not sure how he really feels about the state of contemporary art, Perl goes that extra mile to note that “you cannot possibly understand what a safe haven for frauds and con artists the art world has become.”
As fate would have it, I read Perl’s piece just after having slogged my way through Carlos Basualdo’s essay “The Unstable Institution” (from the collection of essays “What Makes a Great Exhibition?”) in which Basualdo berates the general and specialized art press for their “enormous disparity and lack of analytical rigor” in their published reactions to international art exhibitions, like Documenta and the Venice Biennale. It’s not fair to Perl, I know, that his essay was the first I happened upon after encountering this charge (and Basualdo is clearly focused on what international exhibitions are attempting to do, not other type of shows), but it did lead me to read Perl’s text with an eye toward judging the rigor of his analysis. I found several of his arguments rather convincing contradictions of his other assertions.
For example, Perl argues that
I find it interesting that many commentators are far more eager to criticize the collectors and the dealers than the art stars who produce this junk in the first place. […] The woes of the art world cannot be blamed entirely on the rapacity of a cadre of collectors, dealers, and curators. After all, it was an artist, Damien Hirst, who dreamed up the platinum replica of a human skull, paved with diamonds […] It is the artists, and a certain line of thinking about art, that have given the people with the cash permission to buy and sell what amounts to nothing, and to do so for ever larger and more insane sums of money.
But follows that later with
Those of us who are outraged that Koons and Hirst and Murakami now take up so much space in our museums are not angered by their work. We are angered by the significance that arts professionals are attaching to this work.
I wish more museum directors and trustees understood how hungry–and how disgruntled–museumgoers in America really are. Again and again, people are pointed in precisely the wrong direction.
Is it the art being produced today that’s to blame for the outrage or the people who champion it? Perl seem unsure. Overall, though, he seems to be arguing that if museums and contemporary galleries would just point people toward the art he likes–and the most passionate examples he can offer of that is the work by “Picasso and Giacometti” and “Watteau, Le Nain, and Seurat” and “Cézannes and key works by Seurat and Matisse and Renoir”–then things would be better.
Secondly, he offers this opinion:
[T]the place where we look at [art] is also under threat. This helps to explain the poorly defined character of so many new museums and galleries. These exhibition spaces, whether the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles or the New Museum in New York, are as incoherent as the art they have been designed to house. They are bland, generic warehouse-style spaces–places to dump expensive stuff. And the new style in exhibition design, especially at the Whitney Biennial, favors a chockablock look, with works set in front of one another so that nothing can be experienced in and of itself. Is it any surprise that, after decades in which aesthetic contemplation and the idea of the freestanding work of art have been under attack, the people who design museums have not a clue how to arrange an exhibition space?
Here is an installation view of a current exhibition at the New Museum (source: The Brooklyn Rail)
I mean, is it any surprise after decades in which aesthetic contemplation … huh?
And here’s a link to an installation view of a current exhibition at the Whitney.
Psst…Jed, the Cherrypicker Emporium called…they want their vehicle back.
Finally, Perl guns for contemporary art scholarship (presumably in the spirit of faulting the institutions and not the artists at this juncture):
The anthropologist in me remains fascinated by the spectacle of MoMA, this grand dame of modernism, as it tries on all the new party dresses. They like to point out that the new party dresses are not entirely different from the old ones; this is what passes for scholarly probity. As an accompaniment to the Eliasson show, the Modern offers a brief survey of kinetic light effects in twentiethcentury art, beginning more or less with Moholy-Nagy. Eliasson, so we are being told, is in the Great Tradition, or at least in some tradition or other.
I assume he’s dismissing the “scholarly probity” of the 4-page exhibition brochure available for free (you can download it online here [pdf file]) and not the 275-page exhibition catalog edited by Madeleine Grynsztejn, with essays by Mieke Bal, Klaus Biesenback, Roxana Marcoci, Daniel Birnbaum and Olafur Eliasson, but that’s not entirely clear. I would think that viewers (let alone critics) truly interested in why the grand dame donned this particular Danish party dress would spend some quality time with the larger publication.
Perl ends his piece with notes on a trip to the Barnes:
When I was there, everybody looked keyed up–they looked happy, the way nobody looks at BCAM.
Personally, I’m always happy to spend time with familiar favorites as well…for a while. It’s comforting. I don’t understand being outraged that some wish to champion the contemporary artists working to push past such achievements, though. Perl notes that he’s “angered”…”angered by the significance that arts professionals are attaching to this work.” Really? Angered? George Jean Nathan once said of anger, “No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched.” I don’t think Perl should ever leave the Barnes.