Friday, October 1, 2010

The Emperor’s New Art

Art is frightening. As Paul Fussell argues ad nauseum in his infamous Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, the middle class thrives on being perceived as well-educated. Admitting to not understanding or appreciating art is a sure way of losing social status in the eyes of other art illiterates. The safest bet is to just purchase museum memberships and walk quickly past the blank canvases towards the free food. Trusting the experts to define “art” and determine “value” is a lot easier than bothering to develop an informed opinion and risking making a fool of oneself. But why do we allow art institutions to dictate what should be personal preference? It’s because we’re continuously allowing them to make the decisions for us. In Museum Legs: Fatigue and Hope in the Face of Art, Amy Whitaker brings this up (p. 32):

In the case of artworks that most elicit a speechless “What the …?”, why does the museum choose to own them? And what are the grounds for the visitor’s confidence in the museum’s judgment? It seems that the viewer’s trust in the museum is the springboard for the museum’s educational mission. Trust is what makes the viewer patient. As if a principle of physics, the steadier the base, the further the cantilever can extend, meaning the greater the center of gravity of trust, the greater the range of comfort with experimentation and uncomfortably new art.

So, it’s like “give them an inch, and they’ll walk all over you,” except that we end up thanking, and paying, them for it. Whitaker goes on to compare the public’s trust in art galleries with their trust in government agencies. This makes a lot of sense. If no one believed that property rights would be upheld in court, or if no one was willing to use legal tender backed by the “full faith and credit” of the Federal government, economic activity would decline significantly. In the same way, if no one trusted the judgment of curators and museum directors, much of the art world’s economy – fundraising, grant writing, and patronizing – would grind to a halt. The whole museum industry depends on consumer confidence in that what they’re looking at really matters.

Last Sunday MOCA closed its Dennis Hopper: Double Standard exhibition. Keep in mind that, at the same time, the gallery was filled with such important artworks as a spinning office chair, a desecrated baby grand, and an automated spray paint gun shaped as a decapitated hand. In comparison, the eclectic collection of the actor’s work was simply refreshing. Yet, I had to questioned whether it too belonged there.

Hopper seems to have been an amateur and patron of the arts in the best sense of each word. He dabbled at a bit of everything, interacted with the art and photography greats of his day, and promoted popular and street art. His black-and-white photographs ooze with nostalgia, certainly gallery-worthy even if only for historical interest. The rest of the exhibit I could’ve done without.

At least a half dozen times, the MOCA docent referenced Hopper befriending and copying someone else’s techniques. In the music world, people are known to experiment with others’ dance beats and compose styles of music they haven’t yet mastered. Here was someone adventurous and with the means to try his hand at making art. Perhaps copying is the highest form of flattery. But unlike his mentors, Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, Hopper hasn’t been credited with originality.

What are we to make of an autographed hotel sign: Hotel Green (Entrance) (1963)? A bigger-than-life model of a switch: Bomb Drop (1967-1968/2000)? What about graffiti canvases created by gang members and wall-to-wall paintings constructed by billboard artists? Is that really his work? Although Hopper’s noted for his wonderful photography, I even began to suspect the genuineness of what he captured after the docent explained that his well-liked Biker Couple (1961/2000) was not depicting real life, as the public had previously been led to believe, but a scene from a Hollywood movie.

Leaving the decision to the recognized authorities (e.g., MOCA’s director), we’d have to conclude that all this is museum-quality art. Maybe it’s time for a revolt.