What Should Artists and Critics Urgently Care About?

What should artists and critics urgently care about? A Whitney Museum show of early performance-related art represents curators' interest in art about art. It's part of the performance art vogue, but much of the art is rather minor.

In his review of the Whitney’s “Off the Wall, Part 1: Thirty Performative Actions” exhibitions, Ken Johnson writes in the NYT:

Andy Warhol's Dance Diagram, 1962. Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica.

A more pedestrian line of inquiry is broached by works having to do with the floor: a 1975 row of copper plates by Carl Andre that you are allowed to walk on; an early ’70s video in which Paul McCarthy inches along face down while pouring white paint from a can ahead of him; and Andy Warhol’s painted copy of an instructional dance diagram displayed horizontally (1962). Hard to believe now, but such works raised questions about painting and sculpture that artists and critics once urgently cared about.

Is it easier to believe artists and critics urgently care(d) about monochrome paintings, earth excavations in the desert, plywood boxes, piles of tires in a courtyard, enlarged frames from comic strips, exhibits of deliberately vacant galleries, disjointed stoner phrases painted on walls, assemblages of detritus, giant metal balloon animals? What should artists and critics urgently care about?

Well, of course, were audiences tutored in theory they might enjoy musing on the nuance and gamesmanship of such conceptual and iconoclastic undertakings. For the most part, however, they aren’t, and it is not clear why they should become so.

You’d think curators would make a point of explaining it all, but most of them behave (and write) as if their goal were to gain approval from their grad school professors rather than to illuminate us as to why general audiences should urgently care about their exhibition. They seem concerned mainly with demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the subject, but like professors they often remain locked in hermetic boxes of theory, determined to please one another rather than to meaningfully reach their audience.

(The better museum education departments translate academic cant into ideas that an audience can care about, but the Whitney is no leader in this respect. Its web site’s exhibition pages are atrociously designed and nearly devoid of detailed information, images, links and any other useful educational material.)

Perhaps the role of the curator is not to evaluate, but to present historical facts in context. Leave it to critics or to the audience themselves to ascertain the value of the artworks. Very well. But in their choice of work to present curators do exercise taste, and when that taste is academic or faddish the audience does not always benefit.

And we know that curators are generally lazy, preferring one-artist shows to multi-artist exhibitions about ideas. Standard operating procedure is to pick an artist they believe will burnish their own curatorial reputation by association, then strut around as if they are brilliant for having done so. And like all academics they travel in flocks.

These days, there is a great vogue for “performance art,” much of which is little more than mediocre small-scale experimental theater, often by narcissistic exhibitionists of negligible talent. The Performa festival is rife with half-baked stunts and stagings among which a very few events merit attention. The museums are fully on board — witness recent performance-based exhibitions of Marina Abramovic (MoMA), Tania Brughera (Neuberger), and Tino Sehgal (Guggenheim). I must say I very much admire these artists for devising dramatic means to get audiences thinking about the challenges of interpersonal and personal relationships, and for promoting discussion of values. But I will not delve into their work here.

My point is that in support of this performance-art fad, curators are exhuming less significant actions of the past as a way not only of creating a context for the current work, but naturally, to seem relevant and hip themselves. Consider that right now there are the very same works by Maya Deren, Hannah Wilke — and there are others that I’m forgetting — on view at both MoMA and the Whitney. Not merely works by the same artists, but the very same films or editioned works.

Should we care urgently about it? I find the works in the Whitney show slightly diverting, but few of them are worth looking at for more than a minute or two. I don’t care if Vito Acconci pushes the other guy out of the frame. Carl Andre’s floor plates are pseudo-intellectual design objects and nothing more. John Baldessari makes lots of boring art regardless of his admonitions not to. Cindy Sherman’s dressing up and doing mock interviews is fun, but it gets tired fast. Even Trisha Brown’s harnessed dancers, who climb the walls, fail to move me much intellectually or emotionally. It’s a neat and novel trick, but leaves me asking, so what? It’s not enough to keep me interested.And I am mentioning some of the more memorable works; many more are not even worth mentioning.

Then again, Lucas Samaras is a wonderfully inventive maker of objects and self-portraits, and I do enjoy Hannah Wilke’s feminist striptease behind Duchamp’s see-through window collage that he titled The Bride Stripped Bare. Kalup Linzy always cracks me up. I mean to say, I enjoy a lot of these works but they are minor in the larger scheme of art and history. The museum validates these visual artists as representatives of the highest aesthetic achievement in our time, but they are not cultural cynosures. Too much of the show contains art about art, and the museum fails to convince us that it has any urgency for our lives today.

Should we care about these works when so much of the world’s attention and passion is directed at the failures of government, the petty and corrupt politics that support the rich and neglect the middle class, the money that is eroding our notions of social justice and democracy, the fortunes wasted on misguided war without end, the evils of religious fundamentalism, the libelous lying of the right-wing pseudo-media and its manipulation of society, the destruction of the environment — the great issues of our time?

Of course not. Perhaps if the art were so beautiful, so emotionally rich, so intellectually stimulating, so spiritually elevating that it returned us to the world more inclined to understand one another — perhaps then we would feel it were all worthwhile. But instead, what we get is academic log-rolling and light entertainment. (I won’t even begin to get into the dynamics of the market driving so much of what goes on in museums.) Why should the non-academic public care at all, let alone care urgently?

I have more to say about this in relation to MoMA, in my next post.

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8 Responses

  1. Performance art is not a “trend,” it is actually one of the MORE accessible media in contemporary art history. The Whitney is not the MOMA or the Met. Not every museum should or needs to be accessible to everyone. The Whitney knows their audience, and anyone who has taken even one college level contemporary art course will know exactly what is important about Vito Acconci, apparently better than you do. If you want to join the chorus of “I don’t understand contemporary art,” then you should choose a new profession. Honestly I would be embarassed if I were you.

  2. “Not every museum should or needs to be accessible to everyone. The Whitney knows their audience, and anyone who has taken even one college level contemporary art course will know exactly what is important about Vito Acconci, apparently better than you do. If you want to join the chorus of “I don’t understand contemporary art,” then you should choose a new profession. ”

    Note every museum should or needs to be accessible to everyone??

    Ahem excuse me what cheap & VERY mediocre technical art school have you been going to & what kind of snot inducing art history program have you soaked up?

    Really. Who should be embarrassed-. ( & who obviously has a nice healthy need for BDSM, now that- is interesting )..

    What static space bubble has your brain been living in.

    Using Acconci to defend your ‘argument’ does Acconci- no favors.

    An artist ( or art critic, average citizen/observer ) with a unique, dynamic & evolving active mental life is always not only open to self skepticism- but the scrutiny of others..

    It’s a bitter meant to swallow time & time again.

    Your ‘credit card/institutionalized & commercially isolated art mentality’
    failed to articulate whatever it is/was you were trying to express in your disagreement ‘that performance art is not a trend’. So you could have been ‘right’ ( whatever ‘relative’ right means ) & introduced some interesting facts or ideas to think about , if only you actually knew- how to prove/generate whatever point you were/would be trying to make.

    The united states of america is a mass scale televised/ & media saturated ‘art performance’ ( with a gleefully sadistic streak) performace artists, have- increasingly been bouncing off of the ‘concept of popular thought’ ( commercial philosophy – “Hume’s Social Philosophy” ) without examining the ‘dirty’ margins, our reality as a nation & planet- as thinkers, audiences, PEOPLE & appreciators of art-.

    SO instead of sticking with this banal program & giving our wet nurses a little too much credit for the loving care of our popular mentalities- perhaps we should deviate against ‘propaganda’ & face the band/s EMMA.

    The global, cosmic band-.. The flesh & blood band. The atomic band. The technical band. The WAR band.

    Perhaps some of us want to unweave & weave ourselves into the chaos of our realities- & want that mental challenge, exercise – sense of stark lucidity which comes with the observer- etc..

    I think even butoh dance groups such as rhizome lee ( kazuo ohno ) have far more meaningful – valid & post modern takes on ‘performance art’ than many of the artists listed above.

    But this just does not fit your ( painfully limited _) criteria for art does it. Your omnipotent UNDERSTANDING- oh so complicit in the ‘LAWS’ of ‘art’ but lacking in even the exploratory fundamentals of physics – there is no- privileged- frame-.

    WE ARE GETTING TIRED & BORED WITH static, BANAL & destructive- PRIVILEGED FRAMES.. It’s history, it happens…

    Well- maybe, perhaps, this limited ( & bridled )WAY OF THINKING is what NEEDS to change now don’t you think?

    Now who’s embarrassed..( BE SURE TO inexplicably POINT OUT WHEN OTHERS SHOULD BE EMBARRASSED -.. That’s a joke.. )

    Well enjoy that embarrassment while it lasts, it’s a very useful & austere emotion/process, don’t take it for granted.

    It’s one of my most stimulating forms of caffeine.

    Obviously this article is trying to point out as one of it’s points that we should perhaps attempt to be a little embarrassed.

  3. @Emma, apologies for the delay in responding. True, performance art itself is nothing new, but we have been experiencing a vogue for it in the last 5 years or so, bringing it to a mass audience. It’s no longer something a handful of insiders attend at a gallery. It’s filling museums and the subject of citywide festivals. I was noting that curators jump on the bandwagon, but may neglect to consider whether the art they present is really interesting, other than as a historical artifact. I agree that not all art is for everyone, and not every institition needs to be universally accessible, but one often finds work that has been hailed by academics that fails to serve anyone else. It’s not that I don’t understand contemporary art – I have studied and written about it for decades — but some of it just doesn’t strike me as all the conventional wisdom would have us believe it’s cracked up to be. As @nobody seems to understand, I am just raising some questions. I appreciate your responses, and would be most interested in your take on Acconci, some of whose work I really have admired over the years.

  4. I think these comments really illustrate the inherent problem with art criticism.

    There is so much art out there that is really unappealing and academic. A very tiny majority of people get off on it and can really feel special by talking about it, but to the actual world of people, the other 99.9% of people, it is just boring, unengaging, irrelevant art. And what is worse for art than to be boring? What could be more damning to an artpiece than for the vast majority of people to look at it and have no reaction. To be an eminently forgettable work.

    So when someone comes along and dares to challenge the contemporary art world, it takes real cajones. Because instantly you get these art guard elite members that start snobbishly suggesting “You just don’t understand art because you are too dumb.”

    It is a real tough situation. You either play the game and pretend the emperor has really nice clothes, or you bring up questions and everyone looks at you like “how dare he question or challenge any of this?!”

    Things need to change. Art shouldn’t be an ego-salve for a tiny club.

  5. I’m late coming to this discussion. I just wanted to say how refreshing I found this blog entry and Ken Johnson’s review of “Off the Wall.” Sometimes critics seem to be so much a part of a small circle within the art world that they forget to take a step back and ask why anyone should spend time with some of the work they’re writing about. Not so here. Thanks!

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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