Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

The LACMA Train Wreck

Train - by Koons

"Train" - Jeff Koons. Work in progress. The Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, has compared the $25 million 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 23, 2009, Bloomberg News filed a report titled “Koon’s $25 Million Dangling Train Derailed by LACMA Shortfall.” The story covered the now delayed collaboration between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and artist Jeff Koons, whose monumental “sculpture” titled Train, LACMA continues to insist will be erected at the museum’s entrance.

With a projected price tag of $25 million, the work by Koons - if undertaken - will be one of the most expensive public art projects ever to be mounted. However, the collapsing economy continues to incapacitate museums and galleries across the U.S., and LACMA is no exception.

In a Nov. 21, Los Angeles Times article titled “Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hard hit by recession“, writer Mike Boehm reported that the museum’s endowments and donations shrank from a total of $129.7 million in 2007-08, to $29 million in 2008-09, a stunning loss of over $100 million!

As a result LACMA has pushed back plans to build and install Koons’ Train until 2014 at the earliest, as the museum simply does not have the required financial resources to construct the ridiculous thing.

The Bloomberg article quoted LACMA’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, Barbara Pflaumer;

“We wouldn’t do it unless someone funds it; someone has to write us a check. This is a very tough economy. (….) The train is something on our to-do list. There’s no question we’d like it to happen. It’s a question of whether we can make it happen.”

Some things should just not be made to happen. On more than a few occasions I have inveighed against Koons and the Director of LACMA, Michael Govan, so I will not bore you stiff by reiterating critiques already made - though a reading of past fulminations would provide some necessary background to this story. Mr. Govan has persistently worked at making the Koons project a reality, but one really has to ask - why? Is it that Govan, LACMA’s Board of Directors and wealthy contributors, actually believe Koons to be the preeminent artist of our time? I shudder to think that is so, but no other conclusion seems possible.

Considering LACMA’s shaky finances during this exceedingly difficult economic period, not to mention the hard luck millions of Americans have fallen upon - who can sympathize with squandering so much money on something so frightfully banal and stupefyingly crass? That LACMA intends to commission and install Koons’ Train to the tune of $25 million, is analogous to proposing that our great libraries be emptied of the classics and filled up with romance novels, pulp fiction, and comic books.

There is another aspect to this tale. On a surface level the Koons Train sculpture bears a close resemblance to two other train artworks; these were created in Scotland and Brazil respectively, well before Koons drew up his Train proposal for LACMA. The Scottish and Brazilian train projects are little known in the United States, so a close examination is in order. Comparing the three train projects, one is not so much left with the suspicion that Koons simply lifted his idea from others, as one is given insight into just how much Koons’ Train is totally uninspired and lifeless.

Straw Locomotive - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

"Straw Locomotive" - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

Scottish artist George Wyllie produced a public art installation and performance piece in 1987 titled, Straw Train. Wyllie paid tribute to the history of the Scottish Railway industry by building a full-sized steam engine locomotive out of straw. The work of building an accurate replica train from straw took place at the abandoned Hyde Park Works in Springburn, Scotland, where the nation’s first private locomotive company built steam engine trains for export and domestic use. At its peak the massive train factory covered 60 acres, employed 8,000 workers, and constructed 600 trains a year.

Upon completion, Wyllie’s Straw Train was paraded through the streets in a public procession that followed the route real engines would have taken as they were transported to the shipping docks at the Finnieston port. Once at the port, Wyllie’s Straw Train was suspended from the famous Finnieston Crane, a prominent landmark in Glasgow, Scotland, celebrating the city’s industrial heritage. The Finnieston Crane once loaded untold numbers of the massive locomotives produced at the Hyde Park Works onto transport ships for export. Wyllie’s whimsical sculpture remained suspended from the massive crane for several months as part of the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988 – attended by some 3 million people.

Following the Glasgow Garden Festival, Straw Train was transported back to the Hyde Park Works in Springburn, where it was set ablaze in a public performance. As flames consumed the dry straw, the sculpture’s metal armature was exposed. When the straw was reduced to ashes and only the metal framework remained, one could plainly see that the artist had incorporated a giant metal question mark into the structure – the artist’s emblematic signature but also a query as to the fate of Scotland’s industrial past.

Straw Train had great resonance for the people of Scotland, making direct reference to their proud history and accomplishments even as the artist posed relevant questions about capitalist economic restructuring and the resultant deindustrialization of society. Conversely, Koons’ work is altogether bereft of social import. It fails to challenge or advocate and does not lead to any meaningful introspection, it has no connection to history; in fact it makes absolutely no claims about anything whatsoever, it simply exists, like the faux Matterhorn Mountain at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Koons said of his project; “It’s very visceral. It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life.” Just what exactly does that mean? Such a statement could be used to describe a pile of junked automobiles - if one’s intent was obfuscation. And what can be said of those at LACMA who find profundity in Koons’ gobbledygook explication?

Train at the entrance to Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The train at the entrance of Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The popular theme park Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) in Canela, Brazil, incorporates a life-sized steam engine train into its entry way in much the same manner that LACMA looks forward to doing - although only L.A.’s museum has pretensions of presenting “high art.”

Canela is a small picturesque city situated in the mountainous region of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Mundo A Vapor is a charming theme park that presents the history of the steam engine, from toys and crafts to productive technology and train transport – it offers informative displays and fun for the whole family, including a miniature train kiddy ride. The theme park is internationally famous for its unconventional entrance façade which makes use of a full-scale replicated steam engine locomotive; a life-size reconstruction of the 1895 train crash in Montparnasse, Paris. The train’s steam powered whistle actually screams on the hour as the train’s chimney discharges billowing clouds of steam to the great delight of tourists, who crowd around the locomotive to take still photos and shoot videos (one such amateur video can be viewed on YouTube).

Chances are only a handful of people know, or care about, the name of the architectural engineer commissioned to design the entrance façade at Mundo A Vapor, and it is my educated guess that the professional was not awarded $25 million. It never occurs to the jovial tourists flocking around the steam engine behemoth - marooned at the theme park doorway like a beached whale - that the tableau was designed by a specialist; that detail is simply irrelevant. To the cheerful multitudes the train façade offers only a fantastic setting for photographs, nothing more, and that is how it should be seen. If those gathered around the train were told that the locomotive was in fact a majestic sculpture of paramount importance, created by a modern master of unsurpassed vision, and that the objet d’art was worth ten of millions of dollars, they would most likely laugh out loud at the preposterous tall tale.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

So then what precisely is the difference between the locomotive at Mundo A Vapor and Koons’ Train? Aside from the fact that the Brazilian train does not spin its mighty iron wheels as the LACMA train is being designed to do, the one and only distinction is that LACMA’s Train is linked to brand Koons; declared by inordinately powerful individuals with exceedingly bad taste to be the finest high-end commodity available on the “art market” today. Museum culture is undergoing a transformation where a sham populism guided by market forces is quickly becoming the norm. Some museums are developing into zones for the appreciation of the kitsch, shallow, and gaudy; there is no better example of this than the relationship LACMA has cultivated with the likes of Koons.

The train at Mundo A Vapor is a real crowd pleaser to be sure, and undoubtedly millions have stood beside it to have their pictures taken, but does anyone think of it as a magnificent artwork? Would anyone in their right mind say of the train; “It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life”? Well… perhaps some would, just as they might say the same thing about that thrilling roller coaster ride at Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain - but that does not add up to momentous art or a thoughtful art experience.

200 One Dollar Bills

200 One Dollar Bills - Andy Warhol (Detail) Silkscreen ink on canvas. 1962. 80¼ x 92¼ inches. Sold at Sotheby’s auction for over $43 million.

"200 One Dollar Bills" - Andy Warhol (Detail) Silkscreen ink on canvas. 1962. 80¼ x 92¼ inches. Sold at Sotheby’s auction for over $43 million.

On November 11, 2009, Sotheby’s in New York held an auction of Post-War and Contemporary art, attracting a crowd of deep-pocketed collectors who ended up spending over $134 million in acquiring 52 artworks by an assortment of celebrity artists – mostly from the Pop Art school of the 1960s. The biggest seller of the evening was Andy Warhol, whose 200 One Dollar Bills - the earliest silkscreen print made by the artist – was sold to an unidentified bidder for the ridiculous sum of $43,762,500.

The celebratory headlines regarding Sotheby’s auction bordered on the giddy in the mainstream press, “The Art Market Shows Signs of Life” (Wall Street Journal), and “Warhol painting gives brush-off to art downturn” (Financial Times), are but two examples. Reading these accounts one is left with the impression that the great economic crash of 2008 never occurred. During the same week as the Sotheby’s auction, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the actual unemployment rate in the U.S. soared to 17.1 percent. But you would not have known this from the frenzied bidding at Sotheby’s or from the laudatory accounts of the auction in the media.

Press accounts have not offered any in depth analysis of the meaning or repercussions of Sotheby’s astonishing sale. For instance, with museums across the U.S. slashing budgets, firing staff, freezing hiring and wages, canceling exhibits, reeling from plunging endowments, and in some cases permanently closing their doors to the public – all because of the economic downturn; how is the making of $134 million by Sotheby’s auction house and a handful of commercial agents any indication of a healthy arts scene? Moreover, with more and more artworks being purchased by private parties at astronomical prices, artworks to be sequestered away in private collections – how will under funded museums be able to acquire important works? What will happen to the public’s access to historic works of art if they are all held in private collections?

Roll of Bills - Andy Warhol. Pencil, crayon, and felt-tip pen on paper. 1962. 40 x 30" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4,226,500 by Manhattan art dealer, Larry Gagosian.

"Roll of Bills" - Andy Warhol. Pencil, crayon, and felt-tip pen on paper. 1962. 40 x 30" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4,226,500 by Manhattan art dealer, Larry Gagosian.

One should recall that in February of 2009, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, his so-called stimulus package. That plan allotted $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, monies that were distributed in July of 2009 to 631 arts organizations across the U.S. It was a woefully inadequate sum, as over 2,400 art institutions in dire straights had applied for financial assistance. To put all of this in perspective; one unidentified individual purchased a single print by Andy Warhol for over $43 million. Again, how does such an acquisition contribute to the health and stability of the art world? It is simply an exchange of trophies between oligarchs.

Writing for the New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter seemingly joined the crowd enthralled by all that is golden, informing us that Warhol was “one of the first modern artists to realize, or rather to say out loud, that money itself is beautiful, is art, which has helped create the reality that, aesthetically speaking, it is as often as not, the price tag, not what it’s attached to, that generates value.”

I could give Cotter the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is opposed to art being monetized to the extremes we are presently witnessing; but if that were the case then he would have said so – however feebly. Instead, Cotter’s observations are equivocating and fuddled. He seems to be in agreement with the widely held supposition in elite art circles that the essence of art is not humanist concern, historic import, or spiritual core; let alone technical skill and artistic vision - but simply exceptional marketing skills and sky-scraping prices. The avariciousness exemplified by Warhol’s early 60s quip; “Good business is the best art” – has become one of the prevailing tendencies now poisoning the art world. It is indeed a shame that Cotter, and other art critics as well, are unable to proffer anything approaching a well thought out critique regarding the dominant role of money in today’s art world.

"Violins Violence Silence" – Bruce Nauman. Neon tubing with suspension frame. 1981-82. 62 x 65" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4 million.

"Violins Violence Silence" – Bruce Nauman. Neon tubing with suspension frame. 1981-82. 62 x 65" inches. Purchased at Sotheby’s auction for $4 million.

At least one commentator mustered a somewhat critical assessment of the proceedings at Sotheby’s. In his article for the New York Times, arts writer Souren Melikian made a few withering comments about the auction, first laying into Warhol by writing; “The price paid this week for the Warhol signals the triumph of what some might call commercial propaganda. The essence of propaganda is relentless repetition, and few names have been tossed about with as much insistence as Warhol’s.” Melikian closed his article with a wry jab at Bruce Nauman, whose “(….) neon light tubes attached to a suspension frame, executed in 1981 or 1982, realized $4 million. The letters they form read ‘Violins Violence Silence,’ hence the title of the work. The alliteration aside, the contradictory evocations of the title do not mean a great deal. But then, meaning did not seem to be a primary concern on a day when the mechanical reproduction of 200 bank notes cost more than $43 million.”

In the early 1950s Nelson Rockefeller, whose family ran the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), referred to abstract art as “free enterprise painting”; but what would Mr. Rockefeller have said about the art sold at Sotheby’s? Certainly the works avoid serious examination of the world and our place in it, not even in a cynical or banal way. In some cases the works, like Warhol’s, are nothing more than brazen celebrations of money; empty, meaningless, and without the slightest interest in the human condition. But then, Warhol once said; “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

In the early 1960s Robert Scull, the taxi cab company tycoon and art collector, purchased 200 One Dollar Bills directly from Warhol. I have no idea what Scull paid for the print, but seeing as how he had purchased an original painting of flowers by Warhol at around the same time for $2,500, it is hard to imagine the purchase price of 200 One Dollar Bills being any higher. In 1973 Scull sold off a portion of his Pop Art collection at a controversial auction that made over $2 million – which at the time was an extraordinary amount of money. It was the event that ushered in the overriding role of big money in art. Scull’s auction was considered so offensive and exploitative by artists that dozens of them set up a picket line outside of the auction house in protest. Warhol’s painting of flowers sold for $135,000.

In 1986 Scull sold Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills for $385,000. At the 2009 Sotheby’s action it sold for $43,762,500 - perhaps ten years from now it will sell for $1 billion. Whatever its inflated “market value” turns out to be – it will merely be a reflection of the gross narcissism of those rich enough to own it.

The forces involved in the Sotheby’s auction represent an extremely influential layer in the elite art world, people who must surely believe they are shaping and controlling the future of art; but as any student of history will tell you, the most grandiose plans of the powerful are often times thwarted by material conditions, social pressures, and the acts of the independently minded. I count myself amongst the latter category. I obviously do not believe that “Good business is the best art” or that it is “the price tag, not what it’s attached to, that generates value.” In fact, I do not believe business has anything whatsoever to do with creating art, just as it has nothing to do with one’s prayers or one’s heart when it is bursting with love. Call me a fool, but I have always believed that art serves a very noble purpose in our collective experience. It is one of the highest expressions of human achievement, so great in fact that scholars throughout the centuries have always pointed to the arts and sciences as the truest measure of civilization. If in lieu of art, all we pass on to the future is a superlative business acumen – then we shall be appropriately judged.

Here I am reminded of the words of Joseph Incandela, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Incandela is a physicist working on producing the so-called “Higgs boson,” a particle that so far has remained unobserved, but could someday help answer a number of elemental questions pertaining to matter in the universe. Needless to say Incandela is a man of lofty thoughts, and unsurprisingly he made an interesting comment about art in a recent CNN interview concerning his research. Believing that art and science are linked by shared goals, Incandela remarked; “Both of them enrich the human existence beyond just the maintaining of health, wealth and welfare. They both have an idealism also associated with them, a timelessness.”

Art Hate Week!

Hate At Tate – Billy Childish. 2009. Poster. Announcement for “National Art Hate Week”, an event promoted by The British Art Resistance. Small text reads, “National Art Hate Week: Programme 2009. Morning HATE commences 10.30 am Daily. Picasso, Rothko, Doig. Evening HATE at 6.00 pm (Wednesday and Thursday only). Hirst, Koons, Warhol.”

Hate At Tate – Billy Childish. 2009. Poster "against cultural fascism" that announces “National Art Hate Week”, an event promoted by The British Art Resistance. Small text reads, “National Art Hate Week: Programme 2009. Morning HATE commences 10.30 am Daily. Picasso, Rothko, Doig. Evening HATE at 6.00 pm (Wednesday and Thursday only). Hirst, Koons, Warhol.”

The British Art Resistance (B.A.R.) has organized National Art Hate Week for “the disruptive betterment of culture” and for purposes of giving UK bourgeois art institutions “a necessary kicking.”  Sarcastically modeled after the two-minute hate rallies found in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Art Hate events will encourage people to express contempt for “the business of culture” as well as those who feed at the trough of the postmodern culture industry.

Art Hate actions are to be held on the steps of the Tate Modern and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the National Gallery of Scotland, and other select locations. In part, a statement of intent released by the B.A.R. reads as follows:

National Art Hate Week takes the symbol of the swastika hung from a gallows as an emblem of resistance against cultural fascism as disseminated by the bureaucrats of art.

National Art Hate Week is a call for direct action against the mass acceptance of art as a phantom economy for the smug manipulative elite and their ensuing grip of control over culture as a tool for mediated emotion, market lead non-critical homogeny, and boring popularism.

National Art Hate Week presents a unified front of non-unified creative individuals against all that is despicable and loved by the people. We oppose the deliberate socio-economic strategy to make us all complicit in our own idiocy. We oppose the affront of state endorsed auto-cryptic balderdash and oppose the ruffians who have been pulled from the ghetto and polished up for elevated status and easy consumption by the masses.”

 National Art Hate Anthem – Jamie Reid. 2009. Record sleeve art for a limited edition 7" vinyl single produced in conjunction with the Art Hate campaign. The single was recorded by the group, Silent Revolt (Harry Adams, James Cauty, Billy Childish). A parody of songs by the Sex Pistols, side one is titled "Pretty Vacant Art Hate", and side two – which is blank – is titled, "God Save Marcel Duchamp." Jamie Reid designed the iconic graphics for the Sex Pistols back in 1977.

National Art Hate Anthem – Jamie Reid. 2009. Record sleeve art for a limited edition 7" vinyl single produced in conjunction with the Art Hate campaign. The single was recorded by the group, Silent Revolt (Harry Adams, James Cauty, Billy Childish). A parody of songs by the Sex Pistols, side one is titled "Pretty Vacant Art Hate", and side two – which is blank – is titled, "God Save Marcel Duchamp." Jamie Reid designed the iconic graphics for the Sex Pistols back in 1977.

If that is not clear enough, then the ensuing bit of propaganda from B.A.R. will certainly not help you in the least. The following excerpted outburst appears with its original spelling:

“such a time comes when the distinction between art and high finance has become so foggy and moribund that one has eaten and consumed the other leaving only a bloodless husk – as if a particularly veniminous spyder had swung from its web and suck’t the life essence out of an otherwise joyiously singing cricket.

and so the word ‘art’, which is a mear label or ‘catchword’ as it were, has by subtle manipulation been inverted, bit by bit, to mean its direct oppersit. what that direct oppersit is i do not venture to answer. but it could possably be termed ‘financial anti-art’, or ‘bankers dada.’

in just such epochs heros of a mythical nature are apt to step forth. Not dressed for war but never-the-less cloth’d in poetry. that these heros will be melighn’d and slandered by the cultural elite is the mark of their true worth and necessity.”

For more information, visit the British Art Resistance website, and read the UK Guardian’s article, National Art Hate Week needs you.

LACMA’s $25 Million Choo-Choo Train

The March 2009 edition of The Art Newspaper reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is funding the building of a monumental sculpture by postmodernist artist Jeff Koons - at a cost of $25 million. Titled Train, the “sculpture” consists of an actual 70-foot long steam locomotive hung from an immense 161-foot construction crane. If the project actually proceeds, it will become, in the words of The Art Newspaper - “the most expensive artwork ever commissioned by a museum.” It should be restated once again that President Obama’s economic stimulus bill contains $50 million to service the needs of art institutions for the entire United States of America.

In my April 2007 article, Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New, I detailed the collaboration between LACMA and Koons when it was merely at its formative stage. At the time, the Annenberg Foundation provided LACMA and Koons with funds for engineering studies concerning the feasibility of such an edifice. As it turns out, The Art Newspaper reported; “LACMA has already spent about $1.75 of $2 million pledged by trustee Wallis Annenberg for preliminary studies.” In my ‘07 article I wrote:

“Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, ‘A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.’ There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think!

(….) Koons supposedly represents the ‘best and brightest’ from the national cultural scene - a sad ‘fact’ I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; ‘Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’”

In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Modern art enthusiast and critic, Waldemar Januszczak, wrote an article for the TimesOnline of the U.K., in which he describes his waning love affair with postmodern art. He was specifically writing of the U.K’s conceptual Young British Artists and the Tate Modern, but his words can just as easily apply to LACMA, Koons, and postmodern art in general. Significantly, Januszczak took great pains in his article to describe himself as a booster of contemporary art, writing that “it’s been my life, my career, my sustenance” and that when he offers a critique - “you can be confident it’s serious.” Januszczak wrote:

“What we have here today is a situation that parallels events in France in the 1860s, when the Paris salon became too powerful and the impressionist revolt needed to happen to revive art. The Tate is the salon of today: pompous, arrogant, all-powerful and utterly convinced of its superiority. What began as a force for progress and coherence has turned into a cultural despot that has the government’s ear.

(….) Just as the Paris salon favoured the conceptual over the actual - pretentious history painting over vivid snapshots of everyday life - so the Tate supports art that imagines it is on a higher plane than the everyday.”

It is entirely appropriate for Januszczak to compare today’s postmodern art elites with the entrenched French Academy of the 1860s and its attempts to suppress Impressionism. But LACMA’s patronage of Koons reminds one not so much of the French Salon as it does the insensitivity and pitilessness of France’s Ancien Régime just before it was overthrown by the revolution of 1789. At the same time as American museums layoff staff and cancel exhibits, as galleries go out of business and artists struggle to stay alive, while millions across America lose their jobs, homes, or both - LACMA fritters away tens of millions on what can only be seen as a monument to triviality. How many thousands of artists could LACMA commission with $25 million? How many art workshops could it subsidize in underserved communities? Let them eat cake indeed.

On March 4, 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of its research on artist unemployment rates, a report that concludes joblessness is not only skyrocketing for artists, but that the artist workforce has “contracted” and that “artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers.” The NEA found that in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 129,000 artists were unemployed nationally, a 63% increase from the previous year. While the NEA report did not give a state-by-state breakdown on unemployment rates for artists, a previous NEA study found that more artists live in California than in any other state of the union (some 140,620 working artists), even ranking above New York, which came in fourth. It is therefore not unreasonable to surmise that there are huge numbers of artists now unemployed in the state of California.

According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, California is presently last when it comes to contributing to arts funding. The national average for state arts funding comes to $1.35 per capita - but California’s funding for the arts comes to a trifling 15 cents per citizen each year. The California Arts Council (CAC) is the state’s arts policy-setting agency, administering grant programs and directly supporting arts programs for all of the state’s citizens. It has a budget of only $5.6 million to administrate cultural affairs for the entire state of California.

A February 28, 2009 article by the Los Angeles Times reported that the unemployment rate for workers in the state of California has reached 10.1%, the state’s highest jobless rate in twenty-six years. Statistics from the Employment Development Department of the State of California show that as of January of this year, 1,954,900 Californians are out of work, with 537,000 now jobless in Los Angeles. Those are the official statistics, but how many Californians are underemployed or have simply given up looking for employment? The aforementioned Los Angeles Times piece quoted one economist as saying, “California is hemorrhaging faster than the U.S. economy.”

In light of these facts, a price-tag of $25 million for the LACMA-Koons Train boondoggle verges upon lunacy, and it most assuredly is an indication of an arts institution profoundly out of touch with the realities lived by the vast majority of the working population of California and the nation. I should reiterate here that the base salary of LACMA director Michael Govan is $600,000 while the total annual compensation for a sitting president of the United States is $400,000.

Arts professionals have some soul searching to do. It is transparently obvious why a greater part of the U.S. population feels alienated from and at variance with contemporary art. In short the public’s gut reaction that art has nothing to do with them and that it is only for the privileged few, is in fact an astute observation based upon the circumstances before us. It is high time that American artists begin to create the new works and institutions that will help free the public of such an erroneous opinion.