Archive for ‘Art & Culture’

June 2nd, 2024

Regarding the Brooklyn Museum

My wife and I just made a donation to the Brooklyn Museum, to support the institution generally, and for conservation work on Deborah Kass’ “OY/YO” sculpture that sits in the plaza in front of the Museum. Unfortunately, that conservation is now necessary because the sculpture was vandalized by activists who support the Palestinian liberation movement. As ABC News reported about the May 31 incident: “Organizers, including the group Within Our Lifetime, called on supporters to ‘flood’ and ‘de-occupy’ the museum, saying they wanted to take over the building until officials ‘disclose and divest’ from any investments linked to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

My perspective on the role of art museums and other institutions in the face of this conflict does not need to be restated here; I made those clear previously in pieces for Artnet and The Forward. But the “protest” that took place and that resulted in the defacing of Kass’ artwork, is an altogether different situation.

While activists have a right to protest in public spaces, they do not have the right to assault people (in this case, the Museum’s public safety officers) in the name of protesting. That isn’t called activism, it’s called assault.

Likewise, protesters have a right to carry signs and banners, but they do not have the right to graffiti those messages on other people’s property. That’s not called civil disobedience—it is destruction of property.

None of this is to be celebrated.

Back in March, I wrote in The Forward that “I am appalled by Israel’s actions in Gaza — just as I am appalled by the Hamas attack that precipitated them. I am equally appalled by Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank, including the expansion of settlements and violence against Palestinian civilians.” All of that remains true.

But I am also appalled by the actions of people who claim to support the cause of Palestinian liberation and in that see themselves as justified in their illiberalism. History is littered with morally self-righteous people and movements that fail because there is, in fact, a difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. This so-called movement continues to feel like it is only the latter, which deeply diminishes the cause they are trying to serve.

Tags:
October 18th, 2023

Sometimes silence is golden

For Artnet News, I wrote an opinion piece headlined as:

Enough With the Solidarity Statements. Why Art Institutions Should Stop Taking Positions on Geopolitical Events They Have Nothing to Do With

I am grateful to Artnet for their quick response and helpful edits, and very happy to have this published. I think (alas) that as an issue, this is not going away any time soon.

December 8th, 2013

Circus Maximus

ABMB

It has been clear for a while now that we as a culture have embraced celebritism as a most essential element and vehicle of success. We chase, photograph, Tweet, talk about, and otherwise fixate on people who in many cases are famous just for being famous. Even worse, we give nearly unlimited veneration to people who pretend their life experience confers expertise and has relevance and value in any sphere in which they choose to dabble. The culture of celebritism risks taking over and toppling the culture of expertism, and much else along with it—all supported by a commercial model from which very few of us benefit.

Thus at the recent Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), one of the highlight events was rapper Kanye West taking center stage to discuss design with a famous architect, under the auspices of a famous curator. Yes, West says he was an artist as a young(er) man, but still: there is a difference between having an interest in architecture and being an architect or a critic prepared to attack or defend from a position of knowledge. Might Mr. West have interesting views or perspectives? Sure. But alas, what validates them is his celebrity as a rapper, which hardly seems like the right credentializing process. Gone, it seems, is even the vague glimmer of skepticism that followed U2’s lead singer Bono when he began exploring global economic issues more than a decade ago. Bono, meanwhile, has proven himself a terrific student of the subject, having invested copious time in the hard work of learning. So far, the evidence of similar behavior by Mr. West seems thin; it is more about grandstanding than impact.

I’m not here to criticize Mr. West, however. It’s hardly his fault that the rest of us are so willing to submit ourselves to such silliness. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

After a visit to ABMB this week, I cannot help but be more than a little depressed at the circus that it was–and the way the social imperatives overwhelmed everything else. Walking around, people seemed consistently more interested in the see-and-be-scene and celebrity sighting aspects than in the art. What could encapsulate the absurdity of that better than the story of Jeffrey Deitch apparently mistaking Sean “Diddy” Combs for Kanye West?

If ABMB and all of the attending brouhaha helps living, working artists sell art, then it is worth it. Free markets can be terrific, and this is no less true for artists than anyone else. I begrudge no artist the opportunity to sell their work for the best possible price, and gallerists or dealers make sense as supporting partners for these transactions. Moreover, the marketplace is a common point of entry for emerging artists seeking recognition: galleries present their work, patrons buy it, and word spreads. But it is a bit hard to believe this is really the case here, let alone to take ABMB seriously as a process. Walking around this and other fairs certainly does not suggest a culture of serious art engagement. Instead it feels like a fixation with fashionable art names—and fashionable prices—that is not much different in practice from our veneration of celebrities.

Some aspects of celebritism are unavoidable at a macro level; it might just be who we are as a species. Look back in The New York Times archives and a story from November 29, 1877 about a reception for 3,000 people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hits the A List names as close to the start as just the third sentence. It’s a question of balance and proportion. Right now what we have is imbalance and disproportion, not just in the world of art and design but in almost every sector of society. The Kardashians and their ilk get as much attention even as celebrity business leaders, despite the fact that the business leaders actually run organizations that create new products and add value to our lives in concrete ways. Google’s Trends tool even bears that out; it took Steve Jobs dying for him to break through to the level of global chatter aroused by Kim Kardashian.

Kardashian_Musk_Jobs

Interestingly, Times coverage for the granddaddy of ABMB, the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show), had reportage focused more on the artists on display than the attendees who came to see it. That seems a shocking and rare example of an ancient restraint, but then, there were fewer Kim Kardashian types in 1913—and fewer rapid-fire outlets to promote and glorify them. Yet that restraint is exactly what is needed all over again. We need to resist this imbalance, this misalignment between celebritism and expertism, and work towards a stronger focus on quality and depth of knowledge, and an appreciation for creativity, innovation, and inspiration that is not confused with simple and often undeserved notoriety.

April 18th, 2013

Arts & Elitism

There was an article in the New York Times on April 14th titled “Is It Art, or Is It Just Real Estate?” But the URL for the article reveals a slightly different view of the content: after the NYT’s domain name, and the relevant date and section folders, comes “the-importance-of-art-in-high-end-condo-developments.html”. That seems a more accurate summary.

Let us not make too much of the possible conflict between reporters, headline writers, and web coders, interesting though that is. Instead, I think it is important for those of us working in the arts (and especially in arts communications) to be aware of the implicit messages this article and others like it may convey to different audiences, and how we can learn from it.

So art is being used to sell very expensive condominium apartments. Who cares? There is nothing surprising about this: art has been used as a symbol of wealth and status for hundreds of years. Real estate developers can afford and surely crave being seen as “elite,” and art can be one component of that. The danger is when that message starts to carry over to perceptions of arts organizations–to how people view non-profit institutions dedicated to serving the public by presenting art.

Which leads to one simple, fundamental question: Is it ok for an arts organization to be seen as “elite”? Maybe.

If an organization can own the use of “elite” and apply it to the arts, to convey that what it has to offer is of the highest quality, that’s great. If the label “elite” evokes for people that the experience they will have at an institution is a great one, that’s terrific too. Quality surely matters to audiences, which is why (despite other institutional considerations and concerns) blockbuster exhibitions of famous art and artists tend to do well, even with admission fees attached. People want to see great art and they understand when this is what is being offered.

On the other hand, if that sense of elitism makes people perceive that an institution is really only catering to the interests of the wealthy, that’s bad. (Isn’t that self-evident?) And if people draw a connection between an institution being “elite” and and limitations on accessibility–essentially, that one must be wealthy to have access to an institution’s art experiences–that is worse.

Few institutions can afford (literally and figuratively) to carry the wrong badge of elitism, and this is an area of constant tension. Certainly an organization should celebrate those whose support, financial and otherwise, helps ensure its ability to operate. Philanthropy has been fundamental to the success and health of America’s arts institutions; if that philanthropy comes from those who sell real estate, or art, or both, that’s fine. Celebrate the right kind of elitism, the kind that encourages participation, and marry that to a commitment to accessibility, and your audiences will know and should respond in kind.