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Disco and Dinosaurs in L.A.’s Contemporary Art World

Reading about the latest controversy at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—the apparently forced resignation of the longtime head curator Paul Schimmel over the pop-culture exhibitions that the new director Jeffrey Deitch is bringing to the museum—I experienced my usual feelings of disbelief. But this time around it was not my usual amazement that anyone alive today was naïve enough to believe the old avant-garde orthodoxy of shocking the bourgeois, the tired old line offered in support of Deitch by Aaron Rose, a curator of one of Deitch’s recent exhibitions: “I feel like [Deitch] is shaking the foundation of the castle, and the people who’ve been living quite comfortably in that castle for the last 20 years are nervous about it. Could it possibly be time to pass the torch to the next [generation]?”

I was not even all that surprised when Rose enthusiastically revealed that he did not know the difference between art museums and corporations or, more to the point, that he thinks their managers function in the same revolutionary fashion: “You see this all the time, with the replacement of CEOs, with an old guard stepping down and bringing in a young guard to keep something relevant.” Rose’s mix up of “old guard” and “young guard” (a new coinage, I think) with the once-radical artistic avant-garde when speaking of CEOs, not to mention his casting himself (age 43) and Deitch (age 59) in the heroic role of “young guard,” did not really faze me, as I have long grown accustomed to this kind of comic confusion in art-world battles.

That the things that the daring curator said sounded virtually identical to what the moneyed co-chairs of the board of MOCA, Maria Arena Bell and David G. Johnson, said in Deitch’s defense—“There is a paradigm shift happening today, and both art and its audience are changing. Mr. Deitch came here to bring us into this new era”—did not make me think twice, although I did pause for a moment when I learned that Bell is the former head writer and producer of the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” (but, then, this is Hollywood). Nor was my composure at all unsettled when I read the Los Angeles Times op-ed by the L.A. art/real estate billionaire and lifetime trustee of MOCA, Eli Broad, writing that that under the leadership of Schimmel, even though there were “many great” shows, there were also “a number of exhibitions that were costly and poorly attended, often exceeding $100 per visitor,” and that “in today's economic environment, museums must be fiscally prudent and creative in presenting cost-effective, visually stimulating exhibitions that attract a broad audience” blah blah blah.

Instead, what prompted my familiar feelings of disbelief was reading John Baldessari’s explanation for why he decided to resign from the MOCA board of trustees. (Baldessari was the first of the four artist-trustees to resign; the others—Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, and Ed Ruscha—have since fallen suit.) Baldessari has made a career of appropriating photos from commercial, mass-produced entertainment and then altering or juxtaposing them with words and images in a deadpan fashion—in its 1960s iteration, this was part of a larger movement dedicated to destroying the boundary between art and life—but it turns out, and this is what surprised me, there were limits to this project. In an interview with the New York Times, Baldessari, who as recently as 2004 was still proclaiming his mission as “trying to jam the media world together with what we would call the ‘real world,’” objected to what the Times described as “a large exhibition being planned by Mr. Deitch that will explore the influence of disco culture on the visual arts and performance art.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, we learn that Baldessari could not believe what Deitch was planning: “When I heard about that disco show I had to read it twice. At first I thought ‘this is a joke’ but I realized, no, this is serious.”

I have to admit that when I have looked at some of Baldessari’s pieces, I have had almost the same reaction, and even more insistently when I have been in the presence of the work of some of his most successful epigones like Richard Prince and the late Mike Kelley. They have attained the status of “art world superstars,” as such figures are commonly called today, for continuing Baldessari’s mission of raiding mass-produced entertainment in such a direct, unmediated way that it has become increasingly unclear what sets their photographs, collages, paintings, videos, and installations apart from the commercial products they are “appropriating,” except for the fact that their work is displayed in art galleries and museums and auction houses. In Prince’s case, the works that helped launch his superstar career were his photos of magazine ads featuring the Marlboro Man, which he made into “art” by enlarging them; in 2011, Prince was successfully sued for copyright infringement by Patrick Cariou for taking original pictures out of Cariou’s book Yes, Rasta, cutting them up, and juxtaposing them with images of guitars and naked women for a series of collages entitled Canal Zone.            

Yet, when it came to “disco culture” in the museum, such a show apparently violated some sacrosanct boundary that dinosaurs like me had come to believe was impossible. I could only think, another fine example of the world turned upside down: Some of the most “progressive” segments of the art world, in truth, the very people who have devoted themselves to obliterating the distinction not only between art and life but also between the “media world” and the “real world” (Baldessari’s terms), feeling righteous indignation at the prospect of things overly commercial or lowbrow being shown in the museum. Concern about standards was showing up in the most unlikely of places.

WHAT FINALLY LED Baldessari to step down from the board was Schimmel’s departure, because it made him realize that “MOCA was going to become something else, whether I liked it or not.” And then came the line that made me rub my eyes in disbelief: “It also makes me think that I’m a dinosaur, and Jeffrey Deitch and his ideas may be the future. But I don’t like it.” I couldn't help feeling that there was something comic and a little poignant in a figure like Baldessari—whom the New York Times has labeled “the dean of the Los Angeles art world” (and intended this as a compliment)—finding himself in the same dreaded position as art lovers who have questioned the aesthetic value of the pop appropriation/“critique” he has made and championed all his life. And he was becoming a dinosaur not because his sensibility was being made obsolete by an aesthetic breakthrough or, more likely these days, by the latest art-world sensation, but rather because of what was going on in his hometown museum now that it has been taken over by Deitch, who, as Soho gallery owner, shook things up ten years ago with projects like “Session the Bowl,” centered on skateboard culture, which Deitch, with his signature enthusiasm, described as “a remarkable generator of artistic innovation.”

On the website of Deitch Projects, one can view photos of the gallery jam-packed with cartoony, graffiti-style canvasses and drawings of every size, personal memorabilia consisting of small photos and offhand drawings taped to the walls, decorated skateboards attached to the walls, a computer terminal with animated video and accompanying wall paper. There are also photos of skateboarders (one in the nude), demonstrating their skills in the gallery on what the press release describes as an “enormous wooden empty swimming pool sculpture/skateboard bowl created by Simparch,” a group, I learned from the press release, that was founded in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1996 and whose “primary interest is how one relates to the commonplace structures of everyday life.” And to set the tone, on opening night, there were bands with names like A-ron the Dirty Rotten Don with Kid America & the Bandy Crew BARR. Lest anyone think that “Session the Bowl” was all fun and games, in the press release, one also reads the precious words of someone named Hamza Walker, who opined, “In its quest for perfection of form for its own sake, skateboarding is to pavement what Greenberg argued paint is to canvas.” This is offered, apparently in all breathtaking earnestness, as a statement about “the convergence of art and skateboarding.” Why, I began to wonder, didn’t Baldessari and his fellow artist-trustees resign in protest from the board when Deitch arrived at MOCA two years ago?

And where was “the colorful and controversial” Deitch in the current dispute shaking MOCA? He had been silent until he agreed to talk to the Times on August 4. At last we learn that Deitch believes, as the Times put it, “that a generational shift is opening new directions for contemporary art museums.” If I have understood the article, it appears that two things have happened. First, there is a new, untapped audience that Deitch wants to get into the museum: “They're not the people who make a living as artists, art critics or professional art collectors, which is the traditional MOCA audience.” Not these snobby insiders for Deitch, nor, for that matter, those men and women who do not earn their keep from art but visit the museum simply because they care about contemporary work. His target audience is comprised of far more exciting people: “These are people who hear about a great new film they want to go to. They hear that there's a terrific new fashion store that's very cool—they want to go there. They don’t differentiate between these cultural forms.”

Secondly, Deitch wants us to know that there are “giant cultural trends that span innovation in art, music, fashion and often bubble up from underground subcultures.” MOCA, he insists, must be at their “intersection,” especially if the institution is to “reach a new, more diverse audience.” This was the mission of Deitch’s 2011 “Art in the Streets” show, with its “paintings, mixed-media sculptures, and interactive installations by 50 of the most dynamic artists”; its “special sections dedicated to seminal local movements such as cholo graffiti and Dogtown skateboard culture”; its “photographers and filmmakers who documented graffiti and street art”; its “display of graffiti black books”; its “highlight … a re-creation of an urban street complete with overturned trucks by Todd James, Barry McGee, and Steve Powers” (names the museum’s publicity department confidently listed as if they were as familiar to visitors to MOCA as the artist-trustees John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and Barbara Kruger); its “demonstrations by the Nike SB skate team … onsite for the duration of the exhibition”; and its members’ opening party with “performances by the stars of the classic hip-hop film, Wild Style—Busy Bee, Cold Crush Brothers with Grandmaster Caz.” All of which sounded to me like a deluxe, corporate-sponsored remix of his “skateboard culture” show. Deitch was pleased to announce that the show attracted 201,352 visitors, “the highest exhibition attendance in the museum’s history.”

DEITCH IS A MAN with a trademark vision and co-chairs of the MOCA board Maria Arena Bell (of "The Young and the Restless" fame) and David G. Johnson have declared, We are 100 percent behind him and his vision.” Which brings us to the controversy surrounding Deitch’s upcoming disco show and with it, a number of misunderstandings worthy of a comedy. Just as the vanguard artist could not believe he was becoming a dinosaur, the fun-loving, everyman museum administrator cannot believe his authority is being questioned. And so Deitch directs the reporter of the Los Angeles Times to open the catalogue of his current exhibition, Painting Factory: “How can people talk about the lack of seriousness? This is the heaviest book on new abstract painting that’s been published in a long time.” I wonder if he is talking about its seriousness—“the heaviest book”—or whether he is counting pages just like he counts paying customers at the gate. Before I can decide, I read that another weighty tome is thrust before the reporter: “This is one of my good efforts, OK? This is the definitive book on Keith Haring. I never had to go to a newspaper and say, ‘But please, don't you see my book is serious?’ The books, they were well-reviewed, they won prizes. This is crazy for me.” Which recalled to me Baldessari’s reaction to the news of Deitch’s disco show: “At first I thought ‘this is a joke’ but I realized, no, this is serious.”

Apparently no one these days can believe what is going on. Wasn't this, I asked myself, the inevitable, if absurd, consequence of the waning of seriousness all around us? Still, I do not think I noticed just how deranged things had become until I saw that Deitch, of all people, was defending his fun, “diverse” exhibitions on the grounds of their “seriousness.” The L.A. Times summarized Deitch’s approach to the disco show as “a scholarly investigation of disco’s overlap with such era-defining phenomena as the emergence of gay culture from the margins and the rise of hip-hop as a dominant pop-culture aesthetic” and, it struck me, if this were offered as a course description in a Cultural or Media Studies program at almost any college or university today, it would no doubt be approved by the curriculum committee and over-subscribed to by eager students. No wonder Deitch felt incredulous, even indignant, at the ridicule to which his “ideas” were being subjected, for he was only following the lead of what has passed for “advanced” thinking in the academy for at least two decades.

It was then that I saw that for Deitch and his ilk, “serious” meant “scholarly” or, better yet, “earnest,” (that long-discredited disposition) and so if Deitch took a serious approach toward the “intersection” of “giant cultural trends that span innovation in art, music, fashion” like disco—or skateboard culture or street art—how, he had every right to demand, could anyone question their legitimacy? But this, I thought, was to misconceive what was at issue, which most decidedly was not Deitch’s approach to disco or skateboard culture or street art, but rather the notion that such louche things were worthy of, let alone amenable to, “serious” treatment without becoming academic burlesque. The comical overreach of “scholarly” statements like “in its quest for perfection of form for its own sake, skateboarding is to pavement what Greenberg argued paint is to canvas” suggests how difficult it is to treat the stuff of entertainment as if it had the intellectual depth or emotional intensity or metaphysical reverberations or aesthetic nuance of art.

As I wrote these words I could not help thinking that these are precisely the qualities that the first generation of pop, minimal, and conceptual artists had self-consciously set out to challenge and that they are conspicuously absent—perhaps more from habit than by design—from the work of their legions of followers. Which brought to mind some lines of Harold Rosenberg, that always seem to return to me when I entertain such thoughts: “The development of art from the fifties to the present [1976] consists largely of further counterstatements to Abstract Expressionism. Barnett Newman’s call for ‘subject matter that is tragic and timeless’ was answered with a hail of hamburgers, coca-cola bottles, and comic strips.” 

For much of my adult life I have been moved by the seriousness of Newman’s project, by which I mean its depth, its profundity, even if his paintings—at least for me—never quite attain the artistic form equal to his strenuous vision of the sublime for what he rightly called “a time without any legend or mythos that can be called sublime.” In my present rather enervated mood, I felt myself summoned back to life as I read Newman’s famous 1948 essay, “The Sublime is Now”:

We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted,
for a concern with our relationship to the absolute
emotions. . . . We are creating images whose reality is
self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches
that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime
and beautiful. . . . Instead of making cathedrals out of
Christ, man, or “life,” we are making them out of
ourselves, out of our own feelings.

“We are making cathedrals out of ourselves” put me in mind of Jackson Pollock’s “I don't paint nature. I am nature.” And before I could repress the dispiriting thought, I found myself wondering, who could say such things today without sounding faintly ridiculous even to one’s self?