Saturday, February 06, 2010

Mind Bending Art

Been thinking about art again recently. At R-'s hospital holiday party, the S.O. of one of her colleagues, was an art history grad student. Neat, cause I haven't talked art history in a while. I confirmed my personal observation that most art these days has become whimsical and accessible, whereas before, art was high minded and constructed high barriers of entry requiring lots of prior art knowledge to understand it, today to take some examples from the last Venice Bienniale I went to, artists put a video camera on a dog so you can experience what a dog feels like, or another one built a simulated subway station inside a museum, complete with hot air and vibrating floors though no subway; or recently at MOMA, a Chinese artist who put the entire contents of his mother's house in one room, so that you can literally see her life laid out on the floor. The art historian confirmed that one of the main themes of art history seminars these days is what to make of the new populism.

I think it is a good development, though I also like the idea of connoisseurship, that some things are worth the effort. Like I had recent discussions about wine, which does take a lot of effort to make worthwhile, but I thought it was worth it. Similarly, for opera, I think after seeing maybe 10 operas now, and no especially enjoying most of them, the genre is starting to make sense to me. Though I've had a hard time convincing others that the investment is worthwhile.

The recent Murakami exhibit at the Brookyln museum merged both high and low well while commenting on itself (which I suppose is so typical of modern art it is almost trite these days). Most of the art itself was fanciful, playing with anime characters, easily accessible. Though the underlying theme is a critique of commercialism, with the novelty of including a louis vuitton store selling murakami merchansise within the exhibit instead of after. A subtle shift that speaks much, building on Andy Warhol who built upon Marcel Duchamp.

Last weekend, I wound up seeing both the Tim Burton show at MOMA and Tino Seghal at Guggenheim. The Burton show I feel takes it a step too far... showing sketches and clips from his movies. It certainly generated a lot of money for MOMA (so good for them) the place was packed full, tickets sold out early, and there was barely room to move. I'm all for populism but this may have been a step too far. I'm not sure it really should be considered "Art" with the capital A and double quotes, except in the grandest most meta- sense, that the MOMA was making a statement about commercialism by wholeheartedly adopting it without irony or commentary. Still, I left dissatisfied.

Fortunately, the next day, the Guggenheim made me feel much better. It still had up an excellent piece by Anish Kapoor, which puts all previous square black canvases to shame. An exhibit years ago at MOMA did make me appreciative of monochrome paintings, by showing many different white square canvases in one exhibit (ranging from one made of fresh milk, one ripped down the middle, evoking a vagina, one made of white nails, etc. But this took the genre to a new level. It was the first "painting" where I really understood the idea of gazing into infinity, and really felt not really despair, but perhaps an echo of it.

The main exhibit was a piece by Tino Seghal, which I won't describe since it would ruin it for you. If you don't care, you can read about it at the nytimes. Self-referentially, it is called, Is this Progress, and I think it is. It echoes my favorite piece of all time, a MFA thesis at the Stanford gallery, a giant wooden ball maybe 15 feet tall, with an inviting hole just big enough to crawl into, that was unmarked, but might as well have had a sign "climb me" a la Alice in Wonderland. Crawling in brought you into a strange world of twisty wooden passages and ladders, dimly lit by lamps, and the key element is that you felt like you were transgressing. Nothing said you were allowed to climb inside, and normally this kind of behavior would break all norms and rules of museum etiquette, and it was precisely this subversiveness that brought me back to being a kid again that made it so amazing. The point of art is communicate something (and as Kirk Varnedoe said, a great artist invents a new language), and this piece did communicate something that no other medium could. I wondered how many people actually got to experience that, and how many people just walked by. The timing was perfect for me, I was in the gallery alone, and was prompted just enough by the ticket taker to look at the piece carefully, without being told it was actually the point. At the Guggenheim, we saw many people missing out too. Still, I suppose lots of people walk past the Mona Lisa without getting it (me included). A risk all art takes for the sake of Progress.

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