Leave Some Room for us Troublemakers!

Leaving Room for the Troublemakers, is an outstanding essay written by art critic Holland Cotter for the New York Times. Cotter wrote about those forces, aesthetic, financial and political - who are consolidating their hegemony over the nation’s art institutions to the detriment of us all. As an artist increasingly concerned with the ever-shrinking space available to those who break the rules and buck the system, Cotter’s article struck a nerve with me. Here he writes about art world elites, flush with cash and determined to put their stamp on things:

“Any existing museum anywhere needs to be expanded expensively. Thanks to all this stretching, art and its institutions have, we are told, grown increasingly democratic, more accessible to all. In fact, the more successful a museum grows, the more elitist it tends to become. Social distinctions based on money and patronage can assume the intricate gradings of court protocol. At street level, admission prices climb, reinforcing existing socioeconomic barriers. Programming grows more cautious. If you’re laying out $20, you want to see ‘the best’ art, which often means art that adheres to conventional versions of beauty, authority, ‘genius’ (white and male) set in a reassuringly familiar context.”

Cotter accurately depicted the process occurring all across America, and his analysis certainly applies to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, currently undergoing its own expensive renovation costing hundreds of millions of dollars. In his article Cotter described two dissimilar paths for today’s art museums; the first leading to an unadventurous mainstream conformity where the bottom line is all that really matters, the second to “an ethically charged experience, a psychologically fraught encounter, a stage for disruptive, possibly dangerous, ideas.” It’s not hard to appreciate the fact that most of America’s art institutions these days are navigating along that first, orthodox path.

Holland Cotter opened his NYT essay by mentioning curator Chris Gilbert resigning his position at the Berkeley Art Museum in California over that museum’s attempt to alter one of Gilbert’s projects - an incident that Cotter believes embodies his case of there being two directions for today’s museums. Chris Gilbert had organized an exhibition for the Berkeley Art Museum titled, Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process. In the exhibit, Gilbert mounted a wall label that pronounced the show to be in “solidarity” with the struggle in Venezuela - the museum recoiled from the use of that word, insisting on a more dispassionate, middle-of-the-road expression. Gilbert refused to make the change and instead resigned his curatorial position at the museum.

It’s interesting to note that at the time of Gilbert’s April 28th, 2006, resignation, the NYT and most other newspapers, not to mention the art world press, paid not the slightest bit of attention to the story. I’m pleased to say that I not only wrote about Gilbert’s resignation on this web log when it happened - I also published his full, un-edited resignation statement. Cotter went on to describe the troubling and corrupting influence of money upon American museums, turning them into timid institutions that pander to conventional tastes, the art market and those who manipulate it:

“(….) money is again in truly fathomless supply. People think about it constantly, about how much there is of it, spilling out of pockets, oozing from hedge-fund accounts. Curators find themselves enlisted as personal shoppers to the collectors who swarm through the art fairs. Museums hope these guided purchases will end up on their walls; collectors hope they will serve as tickets to higher ground on the art-world social terrain. When the painter Brice Marden was interviewed in The New York Times before his recent MoMA retrospective, he talked primarily about real estate, about how many houses and how much land he had bought, or was buying thanks to his phenomenal sales. ‘What else am I going to do with all this money?’ he asked.”

What else to do indeed. I could propose numerous pragmatic ways for Marden to spend his riches, schemes that would benefit both the arts community and the wider society, but there lies the catch - and it’s what Cotter was driving at in his essay. Will artists and art museums promote a social vision, or will their only outlook be a financial one? The lines have been drawn and they couldn’t be clearer. There are those who act as if art was nothing more than commerce, and for those artists like Marden and the institutions that lionize him, the art world is certainly one of privilege. How can that realm be altered to allow for art that is truly unconventional and challenging? I have my own ideas on that subject, but in part I concur with some minimal steps proposed by Holland Cotter.

“One thing it can do - that museums can do - is clear an alternative space in that culture, a zone of moral inquiry, intellectual contrariness, crazy beauty. In this space, artists can simultaneously hold a magnifying glass up to something called ‘America’ and also train a telescope on it: probe its innards and view it from afar, see it as others see it. From these perspectives, they might come up with models of a cosmopolitan, leveled-out society for a country in solidarity with the world, in contrast to the provincial, hierarchical, self-isolating one that exists today. The common wisdom of the moment, however, tells us that carving out such a zone is no longer possible. The market, that state of manipulated consensus called freedom of choice, is so omniscient, so all consuming, so universal that there is no alternative left, no margin; no outside, only inside. Well, yes and no.”

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