An open letter to my friends at the New York Guggenheim

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.

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17 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    I actually enjoyed the Cremaster films, I think because I just saw them as weird dreams on film and made no attempt to understand them. I think this is the first thing I’ve ever read about them in fact.Report

    • I think I would probably have reacted to them quite differently if I’d gone in to see any of them in a theater. I might even have enjoyed them, who knows? (I’m a fan of Peter Greenaway [kinda], and Lord knows his films are gorgeous piles of rococo obscurity. But the ones I like best have some kind of plot underpinning the whole fiasco.)

      As it was, however, I saw them in a heavily-curated exhibition at the Guggenheim, which fell all over itself to invest them with Meaning and Artistic Depth. Which… whatever. “Weird dreams on film” is a perfectly good interpretation, but mine is “Matthew Barney is really up his own ass, and got paid a lot of money by wealthy donors to burrow in even deeper.”Report

  2. Creon Critic says:

    I understand the sentiment that roughly goes ‘I don’t like that piece’, I have more trouble understanding the criticism, ‘and furthermore, that isn’t even art’. Partly because the “that isn’t even art” side has tended to come out quite badly in art history terms, Paris Salons and the Impressionists, the Society of Independent Artists and Marcel Duchamp, and beyond the visual arts, various then-contemporary music critics and the Große Fuge.

    Aside from that, I always quite enjoyed the sense I got after visiting a museum like the Guggenheim, the Whitney, or MoMA that all sorts of everyday things that I encountered could be viewed as art, and yes, including your proposed “Toy strewn Foyer”. The museum giving you a push to look at the world of the everyday and consider what might make this or that art. A kind of suspended disbelief.

    Now, as for pricing, the museums are doing a horrible public disservice by charging so much for admission – generally I’d recommend (schedule permitting) the free evenings at any of those museums. And there’s a difference between art appreciation and what artworks I’d ever consider purchasing if I suddenly had an art collecting budget. So I wouldn’t buy Tracey Emin’s My Bed, but I’d be open to considering what a curator has to say about it.

    Also, it never matters to me what’s“at” the Guggenheim, it is the Guggenheim. If the artworks disappoint I can just be in awe of Frank Lloyd Wright for an hour or two.Report

    • I tend to be super super lenient on the whole “Is that Art?” question, even if I am distinctly skeptical of some of it. But I’m going to have to draw the line at a single square of light directed at a wall in an otherwise dark room.

      And perhaps Aten Reign would have impressed me more if it wasn’t essentially the whole damn “exhibition” and if it hadn’t managed to detract from the architecture rather than enhance it. The effect is beautiful if one sits on the ground floor and gazes up, as museum-goers were meant to do, but otherwise obliterates the glory of the spiral with its screen.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Creon Critic says:

      Duchamp isn’t art! He’s making fun of you! He’s doing crap and saying “let’s see if they agree that this is art too…” and everybody circles around the bottle rack that he purchases at a department store and they discuss how the spikes are so very threatening!


      • I have a mental image of Marcel Duchamp shaking his head incredulously every time people gave him money for his artwork.Report

      • Creon Critic in reply to Jaybird says:

        So to be clear, the Dadaists and Surrealists, not artists in your view?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Creon Critic says:

          Perhaps some were. Perhaps some were capable of being artists but instead chose to mess with people’s heads.

          But to draw a mustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa as a setup for showing just a plain old Mona Lisa and saying “this version is shaved”?

          The art is not in the thing presented.

          It’s in the contortions done by the critics as they out-explain the brilliance of the thing presented to each other.Report

          • Creon Critic in reply to Jaybird says:

            “to mess with people’s heads.” Maybe as good a definition as any for whole conceptual art movements.

            “The art is not in the thing presented.”

            The art being, in some cases, in the idea, yes. What’s the problem?

            “It’s in the contortions done by the critics as they out-explain the brilliance of the thing presented to each other.”

            Who knows who is brilliant? That is, brilliance is something someone has to convince you of, and you’re free to reject assessments of brilliance on offer from artists, curators, art historians… If something doesn’t move you, it doesn’t move you, is one perfectly serviceable standard. “Not art” though, that’s a high bar for me.Report

            • trizzlor in reply to Creon Critic says:

              Creon Critic: “Not art” though, that’s a high bar for me.

              And what clears it? What about outsider art? The outsider artist is not aware of the art “scene” at all and their works are typically not even intended to be viewed, certainly not to be part of some kind of formal dialog. Often, the artist is mentally handicapped or dead, so the work is about as close to Jaybird’s “contortions done by the critics as they out-explain the brilliance of the thing presented to each other” as you can get. And unlike Readymades (etc) the work isn’t really being appropriated either: put a urinal into a museum on a plinth and it becomes something else, but put a Henry Darger collage into a museum and it’s still the same thing.

              On the whole, I’m partial to the view that “art is anything that is intended to be art” (i.e. presented for interpretation) but outsider art falls into a gray area for me. And if a high bar is never cleared maybe it’s too high?Report

              • Creon Critic in reply to trizzlor says:

                Why does the author of the work be the one presenting it for interpretation? Can’t a curator present a piece for interpretation whether or not the author of the work presented it as art at the outset?

                One thing that comes to mind is the collected letters of a literary figure. Said author may never have intended to have their correspondence with someone brought together and published as a book, but the editors doing the work of assembly and sorting can create something that gives us a better sense of the author out of what were at one time just so many letters. So why not the same for art, in assembling several pieces that may have never been considered art by their creators, an artist (or curator) can present a set of ideas that certainly meet my standard.

                Another example that comes to mind, votive images. There are hundreds of Crucifixions and Virgin Marys that were created for entirely different purposes than to be in museum examining the difference between Medieval and Renaissance representations. The beginnings of a piece are only the start of a much longer conversation about it.

                Again, I don’t want to then say, and thus everything ever created everywhere and presented as art is brilliant or that I particularly like all the art I see. Nor do I claim, appreciating a certain body of work by definition makes some set sophisticates and others uncultured. (There is a difference however, between criticism from a position of ignorance and criticizing from a position of knowledge.)

                I’d also want to ask the question, of whoever cares to answer, in the other direction. How far does this “not art” designation go? I had this argument with a friend who believed, essentially, that the visual arts ended in 1900. Does Rothko count as art? What about Mondrian? What about Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, not art? (And because Godwin’s law must always be satisfied, I tend to worry that such designations, held too firmly, lead in scary entartete Kunst directions.)Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Creon Critic says:

                I know that you know that I know that you’ve seen the Poet McTeagle sketch from Monty Python.

                I’m linking to it anyway.Report

              • trizzlor in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Can’t a curator present a piece for interpretation whether or not the author of the work presented it as art at the outset?

                I’m uncomfortable calling a curator an artist because their work does not involve creation. If the placement and juxtaposition of the works is so expressive as be it’s own entity, then perhaps you could argue that the show now becomes a work of art itself. But that does not make the individual items in the show works of the curator. If someone takes all of Darger’s work and puts it in a room, have they become an artist? Have they created a work of art? If we take The Fountain off it’s plinth and put it into a men’s room, it stops being art, right? So does Darger’s work stop being art once it’s taken out of the gallery? It somehow makes more sense to me that it was “not art” to begin with.

                The same goes for votive images, or folk art, or beautiful furniture. It either was not intended for interpretation or it’s not a work of personal expression. That doesn’t mean it has no aesthetic qualities, or craftsmanship, of course. I mean, is The Museum of Natural History an art museum? I feel like your constraints are broad enough to allow that? If curation is art are there any concrete examples of “not art” at all?Report

              • Creon Critic in reply to trizzlor says:

                “If someone takes all of Darger’s work and puts it in a room, have they become an artist?”

                But how did they arrange them in the room? By date? Thematically? By color? By making connections between Darger and other artists? When you visit the room, what do you see first and what do you see last? Can a visitor wander around the room freely or are they put on a set path?

                To me, yes, conceivably curation is an art unto itself and a curator becomes at least a collaborator with the artists, if not an artist in his or her own right. Saying the curator is not an artist is like saying the director isn’t an artist because Shakespeare wrote the play.

                “Have they created a work of art?”

                This not the most satisfying answer to a really interesting question. I’m a firm “maybe” and leaning towards yes. I can remember really good juxtapositions that made me see things in Monet, Rothko, and Pollack that I hadn’t absorbed before; the Tate Modern to be specific.

                “If we take The Fountain off it’s plinth and put it into a men’s room, it stops being art, right? ”

                Does it? I don’t know if I agree. It can never stop being Duchamp’s Fountain. Even upon returning to a men’s room it is clearly the urinal with the most interesting backstory.

                “is The Museum of Natural History an art museum?”

                So again, I’m kind of a maybe here. I guess my boundaries for art are rather loose and porous. I don’t see why the items we’ve been discussing can’t both be art and something else, both a votive image and art, a beautiful piece of furniture and art… Something can be functional and an artwork at the same time. Imagine a baroque clock, it isn’t just a clock and it isn’t just baroque; it manages to be both.

                “If curation is art are there any concrete examples of “not art” at all?”

                In all honesty, I may be violating my own rule here by conflating “I don’t like it” with “and that isn’t art” but I’m really squeamish about certain performance art pieces that endanger the artist.

                So Chris Burden’s danger pieces for instance, Shoot and Doomed. For Shoot an assistant shot him, his description “At 7:45P.M. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” (New Yorker). Same source on Doomed:

                Burden’s most trenchantly significant work was “Doomed,” performed in April, 1975, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He set a clock on a wall at midnight, and lay down on the floor under a leaning sheet of glass. Viewers came and went. Burden didn’t move. Inevitably, he soiled his pants. (“It was awful,” he recalled.) Forty-five hours and ten minutes passed. Then a young museum employee named Dennis O’Shea took it upon himself to place a container of water within Burden’s reach. The artist got up, smashed the clock with a hammer, and left. He never again undertook a public action that imperiled himself. It wouldn’t have made sense. “Doomed” unmasked the absurdity of the conventions by which, through assuming the role of viewers, we are both blocked and immunized from ethical responsibility. In O’Shea’s case, the situation was complicated by his duty to maintain the inviolability of art works. There should be a monument to him, somewhere, which would commemorate the final calling of the bluff of art as a law unto itself. (Would Burden have lain there until he died? “Probably not,” he said.) I have in mind Robert Rauschenberg’s famous intention “to act in the gap between” art and life. There isn’t any gap. Art is notional. There is always only life and death.

                If I get fairly close to “not art” it is here. I guess I’m willing to entertain a wide range of conceptual arguments, and then like them or not, but for Burden’s work in these instances he’s just crossed a boundary into serious harm that my aesthetic just doesn’t put in the art category.

                What do you think? Have you ever been to an exhibit that made you appreciate the curator separate and apart from the works you were viewing?Report

              • trizzlor in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Hey Creon Critic, sorry for the delay, real life called for a bit.

                Have you ever been to an exhibit that made you appreciate the curator separate and apart from the works you were viewing?

                One that really sticks out for me is the juxtaposition of Picasso’s Three Musicians and Three Women at the Spring at MoMA. Two paintings with similar subjects, composition, use of color, etc. but representing such radically different visions of the world (and revolutionary at the time). When I read the little cards and found out they were painted in the same year it just blew my mind, like seeing someone split an arrow. The Guggenheim also had an excellent Chaos & Classicism show which winds up the museum in a loose chronology and ends at the top with a Ziegler’s Four Elements – Hitler’s favorite painting. Yeah, the curator essentially Godwined the whole show, but capping off the climb with this huge, beautiful painting that was sort of the ideal of everything leading up to it – and the obvious subtext that it was also revered by a monster – was a fascinating experience. I’ll absolutely concede that a lot of thought was put into the curation, and even artistry in some cases (the way you’re guided through a show) but there’s still something rigid in me that wants to have a distinction between editing and authoring. This is especially the case with outsider artists, because they often explicitly argue that their work is not art and that they are not interested in the art scene whatsoever. The fact that we get to define what something is in spite of the creator’s wishes is troubling to me.

                It’s interesting that you bring up performance art as a negative example because my feelings are the complete opposite: by doing away with most elements of craft and representation, performance art all but guarantees that it must be art. I mean, it’s not nothing, and it’s not craft, and it is personal expression through a visual medium – what else can it be? Personally, I bristle much more at the trend of putting design pieces in art museums – Olivetti typewriters, iPods, signs with Helvetica on them, etc. I feel like it’s doing a disservice to art as a whole by insinuating that being pretty is all it takes for something to be artistic. And, by extension, that viewing art should just be about viewing pretty things. I feel like it encourages even more the “my kid could paint that” attitude now that you’ve Rothko hanging one room over from a beautiful, dumb sports-car. The fact that MoMA elected to spend it’s money on putting an F1 Ferrari on the wall grinds the hell out of my gears. It really does.

                Out of curiosity, do you end up remembering the curator of a show you liked? I’m not asking to be snide, I just realized that even when I see a show where the curator really elevated it, I almost never look who curator actually is, and I definitely don’t seek them out the way I do specific artists.

                BTW, in case you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend this ART THOUGHTZ segment on performance art ( which seems to agree with what both you and Jaybird are saying (give it a couple of minutes at least).Report

              • Creon Critic in reply to trizzlor says:

                Sorry, two words missing there: Why does the author of the work have to be the one presenting it for interpretation?Report

  3. KatherineMW says:

    In which case I am going to start referring to the rooms in my home as galleries, christen the house “Prado West” and start charging admission. (I’m sure critics will positively swoon for “Toy-strewn Foyer.”)

    I’d probably prefer it to 90% of modern/’contemporary’ art I’ve ever seen.

    Pretty lights are still ahead of “a canvas painted entirely black” or “a few colourful lines” or “a burned piece of rope”.

    (Clearly, I am insufficiently sophisticated.)Report