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Jed Perl on art.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

Museum of Modern Art

Skin Fruit

New Museum

William Kentridge: Five Themes

Museum of Modern Art

The social history of art in our time will not be easy to write. A daunting range of factors must be taken into account. There is now a large, heterogeneous public aware that art is big business, and it is eager to follow developments in the auction houses, the commercial galleries, and art fairs such as the Armory Show in New York and Art Basel Miami Beach. The ever-increasing prominence of moving images, performance art, and Disneyland-scale installations in museums and galleries can make the art world seem an extension of the multiplex. And the insider scoop about artists, collectors, and dealers, while of interest to far fewer people than the backstory about Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington, is regularly covered in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Consider only the last few months, when the major offerings at the Museum of Modern Art have included the work of Marina Abramović, a performance artist whose retrospective includes reconstructions of her own earlier pieces, with dancers hired to fill certain roles; and of Tim Burton, the Hollywood director, exhibiting drawings, paintings, and models related to his movies; and of William Kentridge, whose work includes films and stage designs. And even a social history of art that takes into account all these factors could still fail to answer the most important question, which is how such developments are affecting the way artists approach, discuss, and understand artistic experience, which in turn affects what they choose to create.

The social dimension of art, always significant, has nearly swamped the reflective or contemplative aspects of art. In New York this season, with the Abramović retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” at MoMA and an exhibition by the performance artist Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim, it could be said that social dynamics are the alpha and the omega, so far as the public and the press are concerned. The history of art threatens to become little more than a history of social interactions. At MoMA, Abramović, who was born in Belgrade in 1946 and now lives in New York, has put on what amounts to a stunt, sitting on a chair in the atrium all day, every day the museum is open, as visitors sit down in a chair across from her for as long as they like. This is a non-digital form of “interactivity,” but the crude principle is the same.

My impression of the people sitting opposite Abramović is that they were not contemplating her so much as they were stepping out as the stars of their own art show: Jane Doe Meets Marina at MoMA. The important point is that audience reaction has itself become the central subject, so much so that The New York Times devoted a front-page story to what some at MoMA were characterizing as the inappropriate behavior of a few museumgoers. When a visitor touched one of the naked performers in Abramović’s Imponderabilia and told the male dancer, “You feel good, man,” the visitor was banished from the museum. The reporter found no irony in the puritanism of the avant-garde, which invites museumgoers to move through a narrow passage, with naked performers on both sides, and dictates that it is okay to brush against them but not to reach out and touch them.

Nobody has gone further in getting the general public into the act than Tino Sehgal, who was born in London and is now in his mid-thirties. I have listened to people who went through “This Progress,” one of two Sehgal events at the Guggenheim, describe the experience of ascending the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp as paid performers of various ages came up to them and addressed them with a series of pre-arranged questions and responses. It is clear that these museumgoers felt that they were themselves being showcased. I have to confess that I did not see Sehgal’s exhibition. I dreaded the prospect of walking into an empty museum where a schoolchild, trained by Sehgal for the purpose, was going to ask me, “What is progress?” I did not want to be dragged into what amounted to a social experiment. I go to museums to have private responses to something that somebody else has made, not to become part of their shtick. In defense of what some will regard as a dereliction of duty, I can say only that I was unwilling to find myself in a situation where I might end up venting my annoyance at a child. These children were in my view already victims of a sort, pawns in what amounted to one of the biggest snow jobs the museum world has ever seen. On the sidewalk outside the Guggenheim, somebody ought to have been handing out copies of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

There are now art events in which artistic experience is beside the point. And indeed it is arts reporters and feature writers, rather than art critics, who have discovered an apparently limitless supply of ideas in the life and work of Abramović and Sehgal, although their productions certainly appeal to some intellectuals. (Arthur Danto wrote one of the essays in Abramović’s MoMA catalogue.) Abramović’s work is finally about her theatrical chops, her star power. Imponderabilia—the performances with two naked people standing in a doorway, realized at MoMA sometimes by two men, sometimes by two women, sometimes by a man and a woman—was originally done in 1977 by Abramović and Ulay, the stage name of Frank Uwe Laysiepen, who was her creative and romantic partner for about a decade. Many of the performances they did during those years can be seen on video (transferred from film) in the MoMA show.

Whatever ideas about human relations these films may mean to explore, I doubt anybody would care about Abramović and Ulay if they were not so attractive. In her younger years, Abramović had the dark, bold, rather exotic looks of one of Picasso’s mistresses. Ulay, with a lean, defined physique and chiseled features, was the Eastern European intellectual lover boy. They suggest a pair of lovers in a Kundera tale: Daniel Day-Lewis and Lena Olin in the movie of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Abramović and Ulay are essentially people of the theater. This is of course no bar to pursuing one’s career in the museum, nearly a century after Duchamp declared that anything that happens in an art space is an art work. But once you have granted that Abramović and Ulay have every right to appear in the museum, you are left with the problem that their work does not amount to much as theater, either. The thin absurdism of the actions—spinning around together, brushing against each other, and so forth—leaves me longing for Buster Keaton.

The expectation that awork of art is a stable fact to which the audience freely responds has been replaced by the assumption that a work of art is a speculative act meant to trip up or divert or otherwise grab the attention of the public. While some conservatives will tell you this is what happens when you bring elite culture within the grasp of a restless and ungrounded democratic audience, what is now going on in the galleries and the museums reflects not the will of the people so much as the whims of the elite: a few curators, dealers, and collectors. “Skin Fruit,” the exhibition that Jeff Koons curated at the New Museum this spring of work from the holdings of the Greek mega-collector Dakis Joannou, proves nothing except that a moron with money can see a New Age Michelangelo in an artist’s re-imagining of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Aside from the work of Robert Gober, whose Duchampian rigor looks like purebred classicism in this context, the show is a monstrosity, featuring a prehistoric woman with hair on her breasts by the team of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, an eight-foot-high businesswoman by Charles Ray, and a couple of live performances, one by Pawel Althamer involving an actor impersonating Christ on the Cross, the other by Tino Sehgal featuring a performer singing (as well as I could tell), “You know. You know. This is propaganda.” (We know. We know.) There are also some paintings at “Skin Fruit,” and they too are not a matter of form but of format, such as Tauba Auerbach’s Crumple VI, which appears to be a photorealist image of crumpled paper executed on a large canvas. Such a work is meant to stop you in your tracks and make you do a double take, nothing more. This is trompe l’oeil without anything for the eye.

“Skin Fruit” raised a considerable kerfuffle in the press, with the New Museum accused of bolstering the value of works owned by Joannou, who happens to be a New Museum trustee (in addition to running his own foundation in Athens). As far as I am concerned, Mr. Joannou can go to hell and take most of his collection with him. But too much can be made of the argument that in mounting “Skin Fruit” the New Museum somehow endangered the social or even legal contract that binds the museum and the public. I would not have been any happier with “Skin Fruit” if the decision to present Joannou’s collection at the New Museum had been the result of a referendum in all the five boroughs. (Maybe Staten Island is hungry for Jeff Koons.) The real problem is that sociology has obliterated sensibility. Discussions about the social place of art, whether we are talking about a Greek tycoon’s collection showcased on the Bowery or an Central European performance-art star ensconced in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, have trumped any discussion of quality or qualities. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that social quality is the only quality left.

What nobody is willing to discuss is the extent to which social dynamics are transforming the way art is understood by the people who create it. There are fewer and fewer art schools and art departments where the fundamentals of artisanal endeavor are taught as a stable discipline. I am told that most college-level teaching jobs for artists now expect some expertise in digital or other electronic media. Painting or drawing is no longer enough, even for a painter. A sophisticated artist can no longer get away without having an opinion about Abramović’s and Sehgal’s performances, and those opinions must somehow be held in one’s mind alongside one’s opinions about the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly and Joan Snyder. The rapidly shifting social settings in which art is experienced necessitate a kind of mental gymnastics. One must be able to think about paintings and performances more or less simultaneously.

The result is that the freestanding value of art, by Kelly or by Sehgal, ends up as another performance-art value. Ringing in my ears all this spring has been a sentence in a little catalogue essay that Alexi Worth, a painter and critic, wrote for the show at the Betty Cuningham Gallery of new paintings by William Bailey, who has for decades been revered by artists and critics as a steadfast defender of classical values. Bailey, Worth wrote, is “committed exclusively to two of the least promising pictorial formats—still-life and the nude.” Least promising! How on earth could this artist who has cared so deeply for Balthus and Morandi, for Ingres and Cézanne, permit still life and the nude to be described in this manner in the catalogue of his own show? Is Bailey apologizing (or allowing Worth to apologize) for the now-dubious status of still life, that most contemplative of all genres, in a meet-and-greet art world?

To make a particular work of art is now less important than adopting an attention-grabbing attitude about the making of art. A self-consciously slapdash style of painting, especially popular in the past few years, has all the fashion-forward appeal of a thirtysomething arriving at a black-tie gala in a pair of deftly distressed jeans. The old masters of this down-with-painting brand of painting are the American Mary Heilmann and the Belgian Raoul De Keyser. Luc Tuymans’s bleached-out renderings of photographic images have earned him a traveling retrospective with a catalogue that contains a worshipful essay by the art historian Joseph Leo Koerner. What worries me is the hyper-intellectualized superficiality that may discourage younger artists from exploring the possibilities that are implicit in a medium. In the abstract paintings and constructions that made up Julia Dault’s first New York solo show at Blackston, in March, this artist was reaching for the eloquence of extreme simplicity, with lengths of Formica pressed into graceful curves and a canvas, Magic Hour, filled with feather-like brushstrokes. I felt an artist’s eye and an artist’s intelligence, but also a tendency to strike a pose about painting or sculpture rather than to paint or to sculpt. Is there some fear that if you give yourself over to an artisanal discipline you will be perceived as merely making art?

In the past few years another younger artist, Greg Lindquist, has made a name for himself with paintings of deteriorating industrial buildings, many of them in Brooklyn, where he lives. It appears that when it came to putting together his show at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery this spring, paint on canvas was no longer enough. Now Lindquist is combining his paintings of run-down commercial buildings with large box-like concrete forms that are strewn around the gallery, perhaps suggesting fragments of columns or walls removed from those buildings. In principle I have no objection to the melding of two- and three-dimensional works, but in Lindquist’s case the effect was to make mere props of his canvases. The urge to take one’s stand between several genres sometimes seems more than anything else like an effort to attract the attention of several different audiences simultaneously, thereby maximizing the number of people who are going to take an interest in your work.

In an interactive art world, neither the artist nor the audience can risk staying put for very long. Thus we have art that must be kinetic in one way or another, and art fairs so enormous that nobody has a chance of covering the terrain if they stop for more than an instant to look at any particular thing. On the closing Sunday of the Armory Show’s five-day run in March, I surveyed the more than 250 booths representing art galleries and art publications mounted on Piers 92 and 94 on the west side of Manhattan. What astonished me were the crowds, with young couples on dates and families with children moving through the endless aisles, then collapsing in lounging areas for a snack or a drink. Since it was close to impossible to get up close and personal with any particular work of art in what amounted to a perpetual pedestrian traffic jam, it was the crowd itself that became the thing to consider: sixty thousand art lovers in search of a work of art.

The 2010 Whitney Biennial was yet another blur, a business-as-usual mix of videos, installations, drawings, and so forth. This Biennial has inspired not one bit of excitement, among the people or among the press. The New Museum, with its striking setting in a not-yet-entirely-gentrified stretch of the Bowery, is the place where New Yorkers now like to go—and which the critics now deem important enough to hate. No wonder the Whitney has been working so feverishly to set up its own downtown outpost, with on-again, off-again plans to build in Chelsea. The spirit of restlessness that the Whitney has over the years done so much to encourage has rendered the Whitney Biennial old hat. I left the 2010 Biennial with a clear impression only of Jesse Aron Green’s video Ärtzliche Zimmergymnastik, in which sixteen men stand on sixteen platforms in minimal gym dress, performing a series of calisthenics derived from a nineteenth-century text by the German physician Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber. The result is a geometricized dance composition, with suggestions of Oskar Schlemmer’s choreography at the Bauhaus. You do not have to read the commentary on Green’s video to see that he is fascinated by the interplay of anatomy, geometry, physicality, and sexuality. The disciplining of the body takes on erotic, symbolic, and psychological dimensions. Filmed in a straightforward documentary style, Ärtzliche Zimmergymnastik is matter-of-fact magic. 

Moving images arehere to stay in the museums, whether the Whitney, the New Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art. For museumgoers who lack the patience to unlock, by means of careful looking, the element of time inherent in a painting or a sculpture, experiences that are kinetic give high culture an Everyman allure—and few artists are more adept at this brand of seduction than William Kentridge. For years Kentridge has been photographing his drawings as he works on them, and then stringing the successive images together to create rough-hewn animated movies. “William Kentridge: Five Themes”—which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a year ago and was at MoMA this spring—includes Kentridge’s early explorations of two middle-aged everymen, Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum, and works related to productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Shostakovich’s The Nose (recently mounted to great acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera).

Kentridge’s gruff, serviceable graphic style has a 1930s Social Realist look, except that the old themes of social alienation are given an existential Beckett-ish glamour. He is an ingenious, seductive artist. Kentridge gives you a lot to study; he plays with your expectations. In his animations, he likes to erase the images that he has just inscribed, as if to suggest that his ponderous protagonists are only phantoms. In the room at MoMA devoted to the Magic Flute project, he arranges benches before a model theater, and visitors quite naturally sit down and wait for a performance to begin. But part of the action, a video projected on a blackboard casually set on an easel, turns out to take place to the side, so you have to pivot in your seat to see what is on: a lesson in expecting the unexpected. The gallery devoted to The Nose, with videos on four walls, is a collage of old footage of Shostakovich playing the piano, of Kentridge’s renditions of Russian Constructivist art, of fragments from Bukharin’s interrogation at the plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1937, and of many other things, all adding up to an exploration of the Soviet soul or an experiment in radical chic—take your pick.

I was beguiled by the antiquarian charm of Kentridge’s toy theaters and the artisanal vigor of his animations. He is an entertainer, no question about it. In the end, however, I was overcome by the suspicion that always afflicts me when I see Kentridge’s work, which is that he is pandering. He plays a cat-and-mouse game, with Kentridge as the big fat tabby and those of us in the audience as the little mice, teased by his unfolding stories that never really go anywhere. Here a little Mozart, there a little Soviet history. Now you see him, now you don’t. It is a cat-and-mouse game that has earned Kentridge an ardent following among museumgoers around the world. I was a little surprised at how sparsely attended his retrospective was on the afternoon when I visited, but I did not have to wonder for very long. After leaving the Kentridge show I almost immediately found myself in the thick of the Tim Burton show, which was as crowded as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

William Kentridge may be pandering when he offers the museumgoing public his homemade movies—but then what is the Museum of Modern Art doing when it devotes a show to drawings, paintings, and models by Tim Burton, the creator of Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland? Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, imagines that he is responding to precisely this question when, in the catalogue for the Burton show, he observes that “the Museum of Modern Art has been presenting the art and artists of cinema in its galleries since May 1939, when it opened ‘George Méliès: A Film Pioneer.’” Oh, come on. In 1939 Méliès was not exactly the household name, or the box-office gold, that Tim Burton is in 2010.

The Tim Burton show has been a huge hit for MoMA. How could even Kentridge compete with this exhibition that is every artsy adolescent’s wet dream of his own MoMA apotheosis? Walking through the Burton show was like spending some time in a geeky-creative kid’s bedroom, where you find, among the dirty socks and old pizza boxes, his favorite record albums, the monsters he doodled on his unfinished chemistry homework, and the painting of a girl with stitched-up blue skin that earned him an A in his ninth-grade art class. Burton, who is perhaps too famous to need to put on airs, comments in the catalogue that “there wasn’t much of a museum culture” where he grew up in Southern California. “I occupied my time going to see monster movies, watching television, drawing, and playing in the local cemetery. Later, when I did start frequenting museums, I was struck by how similar the vibe was to the cemetery. Not in a morbid way, but both have a quiet, introspective, yet electrifying atmosphere.”

Burton is anything but a fool. I can see why he would want to make this hipster flip on the old idea of the museum as a graveyard. He is telling us that the museum is a groovy graveyard: although this is where the old masterworks go to die, they have some life in them yet. The irony is that the Museum of Modern Art would be a lot closer to the model of the museum that Tim Burton is describing if Tim Burton were not the subject of a show at the Museum of Modern Art. The Burton retrospective is an insult to the “quiet, introspective, yet electrifying atmosphere” that Burton himself says he wants to see in the museum.

Everybody knows that Tim Burton has produced big grosses for the Museum of Modern Art—but the more complex exchange goes in the other direction, and it involves the elevated social status that Burton receives from the museum, where he can now be discussed in the same terms as Picasso or Pollock. This, too, is an aspect of the social history of art. And this brings us back to where we began. There comes a time when social values threaten artistic values and a line must be drawn, with social experience on one side and visual experience on the other. If the true social history of art in our day is ever going to be written, one that traces the losses as well as the gains, it will require a historian with an appreciation for the limits of social experience.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. 

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