Sunday, May 27, 2012

Art: I love it, I hate it....

I went to Chicago recently, and had a mini art crisis. One dark and stormy Sunday afternoon, blissed out after a morning of kundalini at Yoga in the Loop in the landmark Fine Arts Building, I crossed Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute to see Renzo Piano’s much-touted Modern Wing—and got all cranky.

First of all, while my press cards got me in free, unlike other museums where press are treated like members, I was sent to the regular ticket line, which shrank my allotted hour by more than half. Having only 20 minutes and being pretty familiar with Roy Lichtenstein and photographer Dawoud Bey, the subjects of special exhibitions, I took in the lobby/atrium, and headed upstairs to the galleries displaying the permanent collection—which is where I had my meltdown. OMG I’m SO bored with museums where there is some spectacular entrance, hallway, atrium (or stairway, in the case of Richard Meiers’s Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art) that serves as a showcase for the architect’s creative genius, his use of natural light and ability to spend millions of dollars, while the art is shunted off to be imprisoned in the same-old-same-old square white boxes with track lighting. Really, if I never see another piece of white-painted drywall again (such a lifeless material!) it will be too soon. I don’t know what the alternative is, but there’s gotta be another way. Perhaps if, instead of designing temples to their egos, architects were to think creatively about new ways art could be displayed, they might come up with something.

Renzo Piano, Modern Wing, Chicago Art Institute: Where is the art?

Anyway, featured in this particular white box on the second floor (Contemporary Art from 1960 to the Present) the walls were lined with deadpan portraits by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, whose fame (soon to have a Guggenheim retrospective) I’ve never understood. Really, I’d rather look at drywall. There was more to the exhibition, but what it was I can no longer remember, because as my eyes darted from object to object, searching for something satisfying to look at, I became more and more upset as I realized that my life was clearly worthless because I’d chosen to devote it to a field in which I had absolutely no interest. Even the next gallery with its exquisite de Koonings and Pollocks failed to console me, as they represented a glorious past now lost.  And if I, a presumed professional, am alienated, what must these dazed-looking tourists feel like, who not only spent time waiting in line but actual money ($18 apiece) to get in? “I just think I don’t know enough,” is what a perfectly intelligent friend said to me. Is this the purpose of museums and art? To make people feel bad about themselves?

My sense is that curators, now that theirs is a career rather than a calling, are so deep inside the justifications embedded in their field that they can no longer view them impartially, and have not learned how to trust their own intuition. This is a field that that took seriously, and obviously still does, Michael Fried’s derisive term, “theatrical,” for art that acknowledges the possibility of a viewer response or experience (we can still hear Fried spitting as he wrote the word),* along with the Marxian theorists who feared that “spectacle” (like the gladiator fights in Rome) would distract the masses from the circumstances of their daily misery.

When I walked outside (or rather ran out screaming), the driving rain had broken. Buying more time by deciding to take a taxi back rather than the bus, I explored Millennium Park with its glorious spring plantings, full of flower scents and bird sounds that felt happily out of place in midst of the city. The Frank Gehry band shell, which Chicago friends tell me functions wonderfully as a site for concerts in the summer, made a dramatic frame for nearby skyscrapers and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (2004-8) was teeming with people, an example (like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial,1982) of how a pure, seriously minimal work of art can serve as a catalyst for meaningful engagement, and that it’s possible for good art and public appreciation to go hand in hand. Whew! No need to sign up for the aptitude test just yet.

Gehry Bandshell, Millennium Park, Chicago

Of course our Marxian friends will surely point out that last week, not far away from “The Bean,” as Chicagoans call the Kapoor, military-style police were bashing the heads of NATO protestors, and that both that action and the sculpture are expressions of the same mayoral power structure.** But does that mean they must be uniformly evil? The truth is that inspiring art makes people want to lead inspiring lives. Boredom achieves nothing.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2004-8.
Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2004-8, view from underneath.

 **While Mayor Richard Daley’s influence was key in the realization of the park, we have no reason to believe his police would have been more restrained than those of his successor, Rahm Emanuel, or that Emanuel does not see the value of the park.


virginia bryant said...

i've never understood why Fried was so denigrating about theatricality in visual art. is there some way to make sense of this that i am missing?

Benjamin F. said...

The large white box, and grand entrance are created to give a sense of permanence in the way banks used to be built. A sense that the bank would be here long after you are gone so that you could trust your (donations of art/money) would be safe. The large space then needs to be fit with art to scale.

I think artists and the public would be better served with small spaces that imitate there own homes. The intimacy and focus would be on individual pieces of art, and art could be seen as something the public could purchase and put on their own walls.

In regards to the lighting....I have worked in an art museum and the one factor that registrars will not compromise is the amount of light on works on paper or fabric. 5-8 lumens (track lighting). When the museums are built they want the flexibility to show everything in every room so there is almost no natural light. When they know that it will only be sculpture or even painting then they allow for natural light. PAFA in Philadelphia has some great natural light.

Franklin said...

Well said. I feel your pain, right down to the aptitude test.

Debra Ramsay said...

I think you make an accurate argument about the wow factor of museum entrances and the same ol'... for the exhibition areas. One exception that comes to mind (there's always at least one) is DIA:Beacon. That naturally lit space is breathtaking, regardless of weather, it always glows.

Agree too on Millenium Park, I found the public very engaged with the public art in Chicago when I visited. What about Jaume Plensa's "Crown Fountain!

Carol Diehl said...

I agree with you, Debra, about the Dia Beacon, and it's important to keep in mind that the architectural advisor on that project was an artist, Robert Irwin.

As for Plensa's fountain, I'm glad I missed it!!!

Victoria Webb said...

Dijkstra seems to be carrying on the tradition of August Sander's portraits of German farmers and peasants in the early 1900's. Although from interviews I've read, it's not clear she has any idea of his work. If it's supersized, photography now gets noticed whether the artistry is there or not.

As for the empty white space in museums, this is one reason why the (old) Barnes in Philly was refreshing.
The building was old, too small and musty, the security was Gestapo-like and parking was non-existent. But boy, did you get to see a mess 'o art!