March 8, 2008

Complicating and transcending institutional parameters with oblique, allegorical, uncertain sociopolitical themes...

Why do museum curators post such nonsensical texts on the walls next to the artwork they want us to take seriously? I went to the Whitney Biennial today and there was the usual mishmash — lots of artists, lots of artworks — and you can look at it all and make what you can of it or you can stop and read the museum's explanation of what it thinks it's doing assembling these particular artists and artworks. Here's some text I wrote down:
The artists consider each of these multiple platforms equally valid even as they seek ways to complicate and transcend institutional parameters.
So... they are united in their belief in the equal validity of the multiple platforms? I love the way that's completely, incomprehensibly amorphous but also patently untrue — because of all the many artists in the show, there must be at least one who considers at least one of the platforms at least a little less worthy than the other platforms.

Anyway, surely, I'm being unfair by withholding the antecedent for "platforms." Let me correct that seeming unfairness. The "multiple platforms" are: "music and other performance, movement workshops, radio broadcasts, publishing projects, community-based activities, film screenings, culinary gatherings, or lectures." Come on, I'll bet anything one of those artists thinks "culinary gatherings" aren't equal to film screenings or "movement workshops" don't quite measure up to music performance.

Then there is the tiresome tendency — it's been going on for decades — to claim that art is "political." It's so sad and needy the way the assertions are made. There's a reference to "uncertain sociopolitical themes" and:
Much work in this year's Biennial concerns politics although its mode of address is often oblique or allegorical.
Like it's our fault if we don't see politics in the art. Maybe you should stand over there and look from an angle or consult your imagination and hear the political argument that large distressed block of styrofoam is trying ot make. It's allegorical — it's Al-Gore-ical.

Either the politics aren't there and the curators wish they were, or they're barely there and the curators are anxious for us not to miss them. But why is getting politics into the art so important? And if it's subtly there, shouldn't we be teased and left wondering what it is we're really seeing? Am I projecting my own thoughts or perceiving the artist's message? Musing about that, we form a relationship with the artist. It might have been interesting if the curator hadn't nagged us to see politics everywhere.
Projects... explore fluid communications structures and systems of exchange that index larger social, political, and economic contexts...
Projects explore structures and systems? And structures and systems index contexts? I think this is trying to say something political about art, something about how art challenges capitalism – because, of course, if art must be political, it must be left wing. The text goes on to credit the artists for producing objects that cannot be bought — that have "an ephemeral, event-based character." But there are plenty of big, chunky objects all over the museum that hardly look as though they are about to evanesce.

IN THE COMMENTS: Palladian writes:
The Whitney Biennial is a massive, smelly expulsion of all the hip, tiresome shit that's built up in the bowels of the New York art scene for two years, racing artwork from the cradle of the studio to the crypt of that ossified institution without waiting to see whether it could even survive a life on its own. It's a parade of all the embarrassing fashions of the previous two years, all the simple-minded trends and gimmicks that came and went, the hangover the morning after a drink-and-drug binge where one surveys the wreckage and the carnage around them and moans "What did I do last night?!"

"Curators" are also an interesting breed, generally academics not smart enough to be scholars in any actually useful discipline, nor creative enough to be artists themselves, nor attractive enough to be models nor rich enough to be hedonists, they make their living as parasites who, unsatisfied with simply sucking the life out of you, feel the need to explain it to you in the most uninteresting terms while they're doing it.

Art is attractive to people like this. Being at its core interpretive and ultimately unexplainable, it invites these lackluster pedants to simply make shit up. Hence also the gravitation towards postmodernism and its jargon, elevating making shit up into a religion.
Here's what gets me. Their writing proves they lack taste. So it is irrational to accept their aesthetic judgment.

Speaking of writing though, Palladian, that's one hell of a mixed metaphor in your first sentence: shit ≈ baby.

23 comments:

Troy said...

I'm reading Roger Kimball's "Rape of the Masters". Y'all seem of a similar mind when it comes to this type of gobbledygook parading as art critique or appreciation. Lit crit has done the same to poetry.

rhhardin said...

Vicki Hearne comments on the commentary on Degas at the Met ...

The main thing is that this jockey is _not dead_. The dark question is, Why is the art historian so eager for him to be dead? What twists of the human mind, what devious horrors of bland intellect are we here confronted with?

The art historian is eager for him to be dead because our species is uncomfortable when art and newspapers tell different stories, and newspapers tend to win out ...

SMGalbraith said...

to complicate and transcend institutional parameters.

So, place the art on the sidewalk outside of the museum.

Now that's transcending the parameters of the institution.

Yeah, the institution is oppressing you and limiting your ability to express yourself.

I know, this is easy but...what a bunch of spoiled poseurs.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Either the politics aren't there and the curators wish they were, or they're barely there and the curators are anxious for us not to miss them.

Or the art is complete crap, and unless there is a political message, there is absolutely no reason to display it.

Middle Class Guy said...

If the art was political, then the artist would have said so, unless the curators are reading the mind of the artist and/or it was political in the subconscious mind of the creator.

It appears that this is nothing but a shameless effort on the part of the curators/critics to put a value on their higher education and demonstrate that they have a vocabulary that transcends the vernacular.

ddh said...

The movie "Art School Confidential" has a character who talks in the same type of self-parodying gobblygook. Here's a clip--you'll have no trouble recognizing the character I mean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFa4ySkv9Dg

LarsPorsena said...

Tom Wolfe dealt with these poseurs in the "Painted Word" circa '75.

But they still keep on truckin'

WestEnder said...

I agree with middle class guy; I think it's more about social significance than politics. I think the curators want to make sure everyone knows that what they're looking at is significant enough that people with advanced degrees spend time thinking about how to convey how important it is.

rcocean said...

"Maybe you should stand over there and look from an angle or consult your imagination and hear the political argument that large distressed block of styrofoam is trying ot make. It's allegorical — it's Al-Gore-ical."

LoL!

J said...

"Like it's our fault if we don't see politics in the art"

For some reason that remark reminded me of the story earlier today about the foster kid who was told by a judge he couldn't join the Marines (http://www.dailynews.com/ci_8482917?source=rss_viewed ).

First sentence in the article:

"SIMI VALLEY - Shawn Sage long dreamed of joining the military, and watching "Full Metal Jacket" last year really sold him on becoming a Marine"

tjl said...

Of course the curators assume that the political content, if any, of the artwork must be leftist -- otherwise they'd never let it in the door of the Whitney.
The ultra-opaque jargon of the captions is striking for its complete absence of concrete nouns. The curators must have gone to school with Garance Franke-Ruta.

Kirk Parker said...

C.S. Lewis has a perhaps-related thought.

dick said...

One of the few times I have seen art that is patently political was when I was in college. Life Magazine sponsored an exhibition where they handed a group of quotations called Great Ideas of Western Man to artists and asked the artists to make up a representation of the quotations in whatever form they wished. As a student of art appreciation at the time we were to write critiques of how well some of them did and to explain how they did it. I found that fascinating. Some of them were really good and a lot of them were such garbage you felt like setting fire to it.

Now I read some of the art critics on the exhibits in the museums and wonder where they get such crap as they spout off about the art they are seeing. I really think the artist would probably tell them they were full of it but couldn't because it would hurt them financially and professionally.

I would love to see that old exhibit again to see if I thought it held up. The other exhibit I really liked was the permanent one that the Pentagon had of artist's sketches of WW II that Life had printed. That was where the ones of the London Blitz and the other works were kept. It was in the hallway just after you entered the main entrance and was fascinating to see. Don't know if it is still there or not. When I was stationed there I loved to walk down that hallway and look at the pictures.

Chip Ahoy said...

There's a Dr Who episode where Eleanor Bronn and John Cleese are standing directly in front of the Tardis admiring it as a work of art. Their conversation is classic high brow, attributing characteristics it does and does not possess. It's in the shape of a fairly ragged blue police call box.

Cleese: For me the most curious thing about the piece is its wonderful a-function

Bron: Yes, I see what you mean. Divorced form its function and seen purely as a work of art, its structure of line and color is obviously counterpointed by the redundant vestiges of its function.

Cleese: And since it has no call to be here the art lies in the fact that it is here.

Right then Dr Who comes pounding in to the scene, without acknowledging the pair and enters the tardis slams shut the door. The tardis dematerializes with its characteristic series of groans

Cleese and Bron are left standing in front of empty space still regarding it as art driving home the joke of "the fact that it is here"

Without flinching Bron whispers, "Exquisite!"

Edward Willett said...

As a professional writer and frequent gallery-goer, I'm always appalled and sometimes downright angered by the gobblydegook posted next to art work, so I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

I wrote my own rant about it in a weekly arts column I used to have: it's archived at http://www.edwardwillett.com/Arts%20Columns/freeart.htm.

Richard Fagin said...

I had no idea institutional parameters were susceptible to being complicated by artists' use of multiple platforms. Apparently the parameters weren't particularly strong ones.

TMink said...

"Why do museum curators post such nonsensical texts on the walls next to the artwork they want us to take seriously?"

They do so because they desperately want us to take them seriously! It is ego inflation and pseudo-intellectual nonsense.

In other words, they went to gradschool in the humanities.

Trey

Palladian said...

The Whitney Biennial is a massive, smelly expulsion of all the hip, tiresome shit that's built up in the bowels of the New York art scene for two years, racing artwork from the cradle of the studio to the crypt of that ossified institution without waiting to see whether it could even survive a life on its own. It's a parade of all the embarrassing fashions of the previous two years, all the simple-minded trends and gimmicks that came and went, the hangover the morning after a drink-and-drug binge where one surveys the wreckage and the carnage around them and moans "What did I do last night?!"

"Curators" are also an interesting breed, generally academics not smart enough to be scholars in any actually useful discipline, nor creative enough to be artists themselves, nor attractive enough to be models nor rich enough to be hedonists, they make their living as parasites who, unsatisfied with simply sucking the life out of you, feel the need to explain it to you in the most uninteresting terms while they're doing it.

Art is attractive to people like this. Being at its core interpretive and ultimately unexplainable, it invites these lackluster pedants to simply make shit up. Hence also the gravitation towards postmodernism and its jargon, elevating making shit up into a religion.

Omaha1 said...

The way the radical left has appropriated the concept of “art” is one of the things I most resent about them. It seems that the mastery of artistic expression no longer requires the study and practice of technique, but merely sufficient “righteous” anger and the ability to evoke revulsion in the viewer.

Where art was once an endeavor to capture transcendent beauty, inspiring devotion and awe, it has now become a celebration of the crudest instincts of condemnation, ridicule and derision.

It is no coincidence that most Americans reject this ethic and festoon their homes with the works of Terry Redlin and others who still try to depict something more attractive than ugly angular boxes, blasphemous atrocities, and caricatures of bloodthirsty politicians.

There is more of “art” in an Althouse sunset photo than can be found in many esteemed museums these days. Compare and contrast…

This

versus

This (not safe for anywhere)

Palladian said...

Omaha, Mapplethorpe was a consummate technician whose photography was as much a celebration of beauty and sublimity as it was a chronicle of more earthly things. The history of art is also full of the same "graphic" depictions of earthly things such as sex, gory violence, bawdy suggestiveness, ugliness. You can pretend that the past was sanitary (as sanitized as the dreadful romantic schlock artist William Bouguereau that you mistakenly present as a pinnacle of craft and beauty) but you'd be mistaken and I can laugh at you just as heartily as I can laugh at the jaded fashionable tat cluttering up the Whitney Museum right now. Priggish romantic conservatism is an inverse but equivalent to politically cynical post-modernism, both just as tin-eared and blind to art or beauty.

Omaha1 said...

Palladian, I do not perceive anything of beauty or the sublime in a photo of hairy buttocks with a protruding bullwhip. Perhaps my admiration of Bouguereau marks me as overly pedestrian in taste, but I am genuinely moved by his realistic depictions of the human body, in spite of the idealized forms and colorations. Laugh at me all you like. If that makes you somehow superior to me, I am glad to be labeled as inferior in this instance. I respect and admire your views on most issues, but I strongly disagree with you about Mapplethorpe and his ilk, and happily claim the mantle of a “priggish romantic conservative” where art is concerned.

rcocean said...

"Curators"... make their living as parasites who, unsatisfied with simply sucking the life out of you, feel the need to explain it to you in the most uninteresting terms while they're doing it."

Thankfully, art dealers are nothing like this.

El Presidente said...

Mapplethorp is also responsible for self-indulgent and nonconstructive such as:

http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_lg_97A_2.html

And it is even safe for work.