Making shows vs. writing history
Over the weekend, Holland Cotter, the (now) Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for the New York Times decided to take that newly minted status out for a spin. On Sunday, Mr. Cotter attempted what I guess one would call a “think piece” that took as its objects of interest two exhibitions in New York that deal with the idea of a “generation”: The Met’s Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 and The New Museum’s Younger Than Jesus. These shows have been open for a while, so Cotter’s attending to them now announces that he has something more than a mere review in mind. And in essence, his point seems to be that the notion of a “generation” is circumspect. Here is Cotter’s conclusion:
Is same generation a useful basis for writing history? Obviously the answer is yes and no. For years now scholars have questioned the validity of viewing the cultural past and the present through the old apparatus of renaissances, dynasties and “periods.” They see these categories for what they are: packaging designed to sell an account of events that will go down smoothly and leave no spaces blank or questions unanswered. Generations could be added to the list.
So much for the “no.” But what of the “yes”? Why wouldn’t “same generation” be a “useful basis for writing history?” Because, one imagines, without the contemporaneity that underpins much historical analysis, the writing of history would make little sense, or it would at least require significant methodological justification just to get itself going. But this gets beyond my immediate point. Cotter takes to task The Met and New Museum shows because their “history” is somehow incomplete. Cotter thinks the Met’s case is myopia, the New Museum’s is inevitability. Of course some of Cotter’s points—that the Pictures retrospective gives Philip Smith short (actually no) shrift; that the Generational is an exercise in curatorial self-gratification—have some merit. But here’s the thing: they are shows. They may even be historically important. But they are not histories. Or are they?
This confusion between art exhibition and art history, between curator and historian, is increasingly prevalent. It has even found a kind of institutional codification in the recent publication of Phaidon’s Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that made Art History, 1863-1959 (2008), the first volume in a two volume set that traces the history of the modern “group exhibition.” The question here is whether we take these two recent shows that focus on “generations” as Cotter does, which is to say as actual attempts at writing history; or do we see them, and Cotter’s criticism of them, as symptomatic of a condition in which the narratives that we call history are increasingly subject to a kind of lateral spread, in which chains of events, causes and effects, beginnings, middles and ends–that is to say, stories–must give way to the irreducible present? And what form is more appropriate to the presentation of the present than, of course, the show?