Making shows vs. writing history

9780714844053_mainOver 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?

One thought on “Making shows vs. writing history

  1. Generations, like theories in general, are by definition not “true” in the sense that they merely provide useful frames to help us grasp and make sense of inordinately complex realities as they unfold in history. They leak. They simplify. They edit important details out of the story. But such concepts we do need in order to develop shared understandings of what happened and how.

    Having said that, I think there is a big difference between the Pictures generation and the putative “Younger-than-Jesus” generation.

    The former is a generation in a deeper sociological sense. (I happen to have written my dissertation in part on them, so I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to these folks). In addition to sharing a demographic bracket, many of them studied together, hung out together, made music together, moved to LA or New York together, lived together, did drugs and had sex together, and yes, made art and got into shows together. They had an awareness of themselves as being, however tentatively, tied together in some kind of common discourse. There was, not least, a fairly clear sense of a beginning and an end to the Pictures generation — a time before which they had few contacts, and a time after which their early affinities splintered and frayed.

    The Younger than Jesus group is much more arbitrary in so far as they are simply united by age. Many of them do not know each other. Their aesthetic affinities and frames of cultural and socioeconomic reference are much less categorical. I suspect many of them had no clue that they “belonged” together until they found themselves in the same exhibition. The New Museum could just as well have titled the show “Art By Young People.”

    I am enough of a social determinist to believe that a generation, in the proper sense, needs to be rooted in some kind of real social experience, bounded by tangible historical border lines that set the mentality and actions of one group against another.

    I am writing these lines in Budapest, where I am everywhere reminded of the deep fissures that divide people who had an adult experience of communism from those who did not live consciously under those arrangements. Now, those are generations. They inhabit different worlds.

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