Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

L.A.’s MOCA in Meltdown

Los Angeles’ flagship museum dedicated to modern art of the last fifty years may cease to exist. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), has been incapacitated by a crushing financial crisis of its own making. On November 19, 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that “The museum has burned through $20 million in unrestricted funds and borrowed $7.5 million from other accounts. Cash from donors is being sought. A merger has not been ruled out.”

It appears that MOCA Director Jeremy Strick and the museum trustees are guilty of a total failure of leadership - not to mention the gross mismanagement of the world famous museum. As a nonprofit institution, MOCA collects little government funding and instead relies on donors for some 80% of its expenses. By checking the GuideStar website, which keeps track of nonprofits and their donors, it has come to light that Strick has a salary of $500,000. Readers should be reminded that the annual compensation of the president of the United States is $400,000. Strick also pays at least five higher-ranking MOCA employees six figure salaries. Furthermore, the Board of MOCA loaned Strick over $500,000 for the purchase of a house - all at a time when the museum is tottering on total financial collapse.

In his Open letter to MOCA’s board of trustees, L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight puts the blame for MOCA’s crisis squarely upon Director Jeremy Strick as well as the museum’s trustees; “As trustees your first responsibility is fiduciary, and in that you have been a flop”. Knight went on to disparage the supposed “rescue plans” being considered to save the museum as “shameful”. The irate art critic made the following comments about the proposed rescue strategies:

“One would rent your incomparable painting and sculpture collection to a local foundation - controlled by one of your own trustees! - in exchange for some sort of multimillion-dollar annuity. The other would be a flat-out sale of it to another museum, so that you might shift the fundraising burden elsewhere, take the revenue and continue as an exhibition-only venue.

Yes, we live in a market economy, where art is bought and sold; but one of the glories of an art museum is that it provides refuge from the crude commercial world. When art enters a museum’s permanent collection, it leaves the marketplace behind. That your first instinct is apparently scheming to monetize your extraordinary collection shows that you are not trustees, you are art dealers in disguise.

The third plan I’ve been told about is even worse - total Armageddon. A merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which the collection and selected staff would move to the Mid-Wilshire campus and the downtown facilities would close, would mean MOCA would cease to exist. You seem to be willing to allow your own institution, one whose remarkable program and astounding collection are the envy of cities around the world, to simply disappear. Dumbfounding.”

Apparently the Armageddon option has been selected. On the Los Angeles Times arts blog, Knight stated; “(….) here is what I’m told the board is now prepared to do: formally approach the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about a merger, which will effectively mean a transfer of MOCA’s extraordinary collection to the Mid-Wilshire complex.”

To be honest, I have never been enamored of MOCA. True enough, it houses notable works from the likes of Arshile Gorky, Robert Rauscheberg, Jackson Pollock, and others; and in 2003 it did present a wonderful retrospective of paintings by Lucian Freud. But as of late MOCA has advanced pointless and vacuous works that tell us nothing about the human condition, witness the loathsome Takashi Murakami. To survive as a viable institution, which seems doubtful at this point, MOCA’s continued existence depends on more than just massive infusions of capital - it requires a new vision. That being said, I take no particular delight in seeing one of the major art museums of my city going to ruin.

MOCA’s dilemma is indicative of the crisis now rippling through the world of elite art institutions, a disaster that will only intensify as late capitalism careens into worldwide depression. But the problem is much more than just financial, it is one of art and culture having reached an aesthetic and political impasse. Breaking through that dead-end to reach the transformative and liberating will be necessary if the crisis in contemporary art is to be resolved.

UPDATES:
Dec. 23, 2008. In its article, MOCA accepts Broad’s lifeline, the Los Angeles Times reports that MOCA has voted to accept a $30-million bailout offered by billionaire Eli Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”). Additionally, MOCA’s director Jeremy Strick has resigned and the ailing museum has appointed UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Charles E. Young as its CEO. Acceptance of the Broad offer ends speculation that MOCA might merge with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Bloomberg.com reports that in a Dec. 23 joint statement made by MOCA and the Broad foundation, Mr. Broad said; “It is in the best interest of the city for MOCA to remain independent.” There is more irony to be found in that remark than in all of the postmodern art found in MOCA’s collection. In 2007 Broad was ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans - with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion. He is also the founding chairman of MOCA, and his bailout of the institution should be seen in that context. Broad is also chair of the Los Angeles Grand Avenue Authority, which plans a $1.8 billion “improvement” of the downtown area where MOCA is located.

Nov. 21, 2008. A spokeswoman for MOCA released the following statement: “MOCA has received a letter from the California attorney general’s office. The California attorney general has broad jurisdiction and oversight over California nonprofits, including MOCA. The letter requested information and documents related to the museum’s finances. MOCA is fully cooperating with the attorney general.” So far the office of the attorney general has not commented on its investigation of the museum.

Petition Helps Free Michael Dickinson

In a major trial that challenged an artist’s right to free expression, the British artist Michael Dickinson, who lives in Turkey, was prosecuted by the Turkish government in 2006 for creating a photo-collage seen as “insulting the dignity of the prime minister”. Dickinson faced years in prison for his artwork, but on September 25, 2008, the judge in the case dropped all criminal charges against him.

In part Dickinson’s release was secured by global protests initiated by artists. A member of the Stuckist International - the “art movement for contemporary figurative painting with ideas”, Dickinson received immediate backing from Stuckism’s London headquarters. Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists, wrote a widely publicized letter to the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in which Thomson stated: “It is intolerable that a country applying for European Union membership should censor freedom of political comment in this way. I trust you will communicate your strongest condemnation and ask for this case to be abandoned immediately.” Thomson also sent a similar letter to the current British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

But Michael Dickinson’s predicament was also noted by others. I followed Dickinson’s trial closely, and when Mark Givens, the editor-in-chief of MungBeing arts journal in Pomona, California, started a worldwide petition to call for the release of Dickinson - I became a signatory. In part, the petition stated:

“We, the undersigned, support an artist’s right of free expression. We stand firmly with Amnesty International in their calls on the Turkish authorities to terminate without delay all prosecutions against individuals under the notorious Article 301, and to abolish all other articles in the Turkish Penal Code that stifle and punish freedom of speech and expression. We call for the prosecution of Michael Dickinson over his political collages to be dropped.”

In Southern California’s Inland Empire Weekly, Kevin Ausmus’ article, Pomona editor helps keep British artist out of jail, summarizes the successful campaign waged by Givens to free Michael Dickinson. An except from that story reads:

“After hearing of Dickinson’s plight, Mark Givens of Pomona, editor-in-chief of MungBeing, decided it was necessary to start an online petition on the artist’s behalf. Now, Givens’ ‘tremendous support’ in publicizing the case is being credited for galvanizing the necessary publicity to tip the verdict in Dickinson’s favor (….) Though the petition gathered less than 600 signatures overall, those who did sign proved to be of high quality in the international art community, including Steve Bell, a British political cartoonist for the Guardian known for his controversial caricatures; Mark Vallen, a Los Angeles-based painter and activist; Noam Chomsky and several artists associated with the Turkish Freedom Movement.”

When facing the seemingly insurmountable problems of today’s world, it is not difficult to see why some surrender to hopelessness and indifference. However, it should not go without saying that our actions, or lack thereof - do make a difference; which has been amply demonstrated by the successful defense of Mr. Dickinson.

His Majesty King Mob

“One thing is certain. King Mob never wanted to find themselves here, in the house rag of cultural consumption, let alone locked away in Tate’s permanent collection. But these posters and magazines are just detritus, the record of past struggles. In the present day, the real action is elsewhere.” So writes author Hari Kunzru in The Mob Who Shouldn’t Really Be Here, an article for the Tate Britain publication, TATEetc., on the subject of a minuscule collective of English radicals from the 1960s who took their name from the 1780 Gordon Riots of London. During that long-ago uprising, London’s Newgate Prison was destroyed by the rampaging multitudes, and left on its walls was a daub that credited the destruction to “His Majesty King Mob.”

Graphic by anonymous King Mob member

[ Front cover graphic from a King Mob anti-art diatribe, circa 1968. Anonymous. Courtesy Tate archive. A dancing skeleton holding a burning torch captioned "anarchy" and wearing a sash captioned "communism", unfurls a scroll labeled "Mob Law", upon which is written a message from King Mob encapsulating the group’s ideas regarding culture - "the commodity which helps sell all the others". ]

I need not recount the chronicles of King Mob as it reared its ugly little head during the turbulent 1960s, suffice it to say the rebel faction left its mark and Kunzru’s article recounts that history well enough, save for one bothersome fact. Kunzru wrote about the Mob as though it were a prehistoric fossil preserved in amber, when in fact some of its surviving cadre still publish hair-raising tirades designed to give elites apoplexy. But Kunzru was correct in noting that King Mob would have wanted absolutely nothing to do with a “cultural mausoleum” like the Tate, since the Mob was, and continues to be, opposed to art altogether - considering it “the commodity which helps sell all the others”. The question is not why King Mob railed against the grotesqueries of an “outrageous society” - but why Tate Britain thought it essential to include King Mob ephemera amongst its collection of Damien Hirsts and Tracey Emins.

An archive of King Mob’s subversive printed materials has recently been acquired by Tate Britain, and several anti-art collage works by the King Mob collective are now included in the Tate Britain’s Collage Montage Assemblage exhibit which began at the museum in July, 2008. This is indeed a conundrum, especially in light of the Mob’s unambiguous views regarding art as expressed in a recent statement from them:

“A master of irony and word play, would Duchamp have savoured the irony of seeing his Urinal hailed as the most important single contribution to the evolution of modern art by cultural pundits? Unfortunately he would most likely have been flattered. The ‘Urinal’ is now Tate Modern’s altar piece surrounded by a culturally beatified host of imitators.

One wonders what effect a gesture like smashing the urinal would have in the media, on decrepit youth and the avant garde (rather arriere garde) of the cultural establishment, especially if accompanied by a coherent explanation. We are almost tempted, but the thought of the ensuing court case, accusations of cultural vandalism equivalent to the burning of the books, even a prison sentence and certainly a crippling fine for having destroyed a priceless work of art when the aim of the original piece was to debunk any such pretensions, is enough to deter anyone.”

I understand King Mob’s observation that Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’ is nothing more than a urinal transformed into an “altar piece” by the Priests of Postmodernism, what I cannot understand is the Tate Britain embracing the Mob’s incendiary and volatile gesticulations as “art”. I suppose the Mob gets the last laugh by bringing some clarity to the situation when averring the following:

“Where anti-art as an essential part of a modern revolutionary critique was once proclaimed loudly, the simple realization that art is nothing but a consumer appendage or that popular culture is now inseparable from advertising in an utterly commoditized social life far more dire than in the late 1960s - has again been reaffirmed.”

An Art World Mesmerized by Bling

As the world burns and international financial institutions fall like so many dominoes, impulsive oligarchs and imprudent investment bankers continue to put their money into the overheated contemporary art “market.” At a two-day Sotheby’s London auction of works by postmodernist Damien Hirst, the artist made a whopping $169 million before the auction even closed. Among the masterpieces snatched-up; The Kingdom, a tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde ($17.2 million), and The Golden Calf, an embalmed calf with hooves and horns of 18-carat gold, also encased in a tank of formaldehyde ($18.6 million). Hirst, who did not attend the auction but monitored sales from his home, brashly stated: “I love art, and this proves I’m not alone and the future looks great for everyone.”

While it is easy to carp about the debauchery of the elite art world, it takes considerable effort to understand how the enjoyment of art has been substituted with the worship of celebrity artists and an effusive fawning over their ridiculously excessive prices. The esteemed art critic Robert Hughes said the following about Damien Hirst in an article published in the U.K. Guardian:

“Actually, the presence of a Hirst in a collection is a sure sign of dullness of taste. What serious person could want those collages of dead butterflies, which are nothing more than replays of Victorian decor? What is there to those empty spin paintings, enlarged versions of the pseudo-art made in funfairs? Who can look for long at his silly sub-Bridget Riley spot paintings, or at the pointless imitations of drug bottles on pharmacy shelves? No wonder so many business big-shots go for Hirst: his work is both simple-minded and sensationalist, just the ticket for newbie collectors who are, to put it mildly, connoisseurship-challenged and resonance-free.

Where you see Hirsts you will also see Jeff Koons’s balloons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stoned scribbles, Richard Prince’s feeble jokes and pin-ups of nurses and, inevitably, scads of really bad, really late Warhols. Such works of art are bound to hang out together, a uniform message from our fin-de-siècle decadence.

(…. ) The now famous diamond-encrusted skull, lately unveiled to a gawping art world amid deluges of hype, is a letdown unless you believe the unverifiable claims about its cash value, and are mesmerized by mere bling of rather secondary quality; as a spectacle of transformation and terror, the sugar skulls sold on any Mexican street corner on the Day of the Dead are 10 times as vivid and, as a bonus, raise real issues about death and its relation to religious belief in a way that is genuinely democratic, not just a vicarious spectacle for money groupies such as Hirst and his admirers.”

[ LEFT: Day of the Dead sugar skull from Mexico, cost - around two dollars. RIGHT: Damien Hirst’s platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds, cost - around $100.5 million. ]

Charles Thomson, co-founder of the international Stuckist movement of figurative realist artists, said this about Hirst and the Sotheby’s auction:

“The auction shows only that some people have more money than sense, and certainly more money than artistic insight. Hirst repeats ideas that are already in common currency, but merely makes them a larger size, gives them a pretentious title and puts them in an inappropriate context of art. If the same items were in a gift shop at the seaside, nobody would bother looking twice at them. It shows the triumph of marketing over substance, and operates on the same level as a craze in the school playground for Teletubbies or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The art world has historical precedents, such as the 1875 painting The Babylonian Marriage Market by auction record-breaking Victorian artist, Edwin Long, whose work fell to 10% of its previous value after his death and who is now forgotten. William-Adolphe Bouguereau was the must-have star of the 19th century French Salon. By the 1950s museums were giving his work away to get rid of it. Now he has become modestly collectible as representative of a certain affectation of the period, but his work has never regained its peak value or status. Hirst is fashionable, and fashion doesn’t last. Worse than that, it later looks ridiculous.

It is significant that collectors ahead of the game, such as Charles Saatchi and Helly Nahmad - both major fans in the past - have already offloaded their Hirsts. The art world is a pass-the-parcel game, and the last person holding the parcel is the loser, when everyone else decides they don’t want to play any more. Eventually some people are going to lose a lot of money. It’s the same blind money-for-nothing mentality that created the sub-prime lending disaster. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Never buy anything because it is expensive.’”

Sotheby’s Hirst auction is the ultimate spectacle to come from a certain layer in the art world that has, from top to bottom, completely lost its way. It is the end result of the philosophy best expressed in 1975 by Andy Warhol, who wrote - “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.” The Golden Calf indeed.