By HOLLAND COTTER, The New York Times ( www.nytimes.com )
LAST May, a 30-something American curator named Chris Gilbert stormed off his job at the Berkeley Art Museum in California. He left in a dispute over a word.
He had just organized a show called “Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process,” about the leftist revolution in progress in South America. In a wall label, he described the exhibition as being in “solidarity” with that struggle, and museum officials balked. They wanted him to use more neutral wording, like “concerned” with the struggle. An ideological standoff ensued. Mr. Gilbert quit, posting his resignation letter, which was also a political position paper, on the Internet.
Two concepts of what a museum should do — and be — crystallized and clashed, with Mr. Gilbert’s view by far the less traditional. To him, art is an instrument for radical change. The museum is a social forum where that change catches fire. The curator is a committed activist who can help light the spark. The goal is to transform the values of the culture that had created the museum. If in the process an obsolete museum went up in flames, a new one would rise from its ashes.
Whatever your thoughts about Mr. Gilbert’s politics, it is hard to deny the commitment and excitement of his vision of the museum as an ethically charged experience, a psychologically fraught encounter, a stage for disruptive, possibly dangerous, ideas. It isn’t just a place where you go to look at old things, but a place where you see in fresh ways.
This vision can seem especially dynamic when set beside recent events in New York museums. Last fall, the big-ticket items at three of the city’s major institutions all mined the same surefire marquee draw, Pablo Picasso, in boilerplate group shows: “Cézanne to Picasso” at the Met; “El Greco to Picasso” at the Guggenheim; and “Picasso and American Art” at the Whitney.
None gave a challenging take on its subject. “Picasso and American Art” was, basically, a deluxe version of the small-budget show “Picassoid,” which the Whitney put together in 1995 with easy-to-get loans and accompanied with an inexpensive brochure. The three fall shows had costly loans and lavish books, but their museums arguably saved money just the same. How? By using the opportunity perhaps to pass up a major scholarly show on other kinds of art: African art, Latin American art, Islamic art, South Asian art, Oceanic art and Native-American art, among them.
Africa, after all, is not Picasso.
Now, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the stock-market plunge that brought the art market to its knees, money is again in truly fathomless supply. People think about it constantly, about how much there is of it, spilling out of pockets, oozing from hedge-fund accounts.
Curators find themselves enlisted as personal shoppers to the collectors who swarm through the art fairs. Museums hope these guided purchases will end up on their walls; collectors hope they will serve as tickets to higher ground on the art-world social terrain.
When the painter Brice Marden was interviewed in The New York Times before his recent MoMA retrospective, he talked primarily about real estate, about how many houses and how much land he had bought, or was buying thanks to his phenomenal sales. “What else am I going to do with all this money?” he asked.
Talking about money in public is fairly new to an industry famous for its strategic discretion, its insistence that “value” means beauty, not bucks. Not that the sudden candor should be mistaken for some kind of ethical turn of mind. Wealth is so common that it’s now the norm, not a sign of selling out to “the establishment.” Money is like white noise, so there that you forget it’s there.
A similar trick of illusion surrounds the vaunted populism of museums. Every American city, to be a proper city, now needs to have its own jewel-box art museum. Any existing museum anywhere needs to be expanded expensively. Thanks to all this stretching, art and its institutions have, we are told, grown increasingly democratic, more accessible to all.
In fact, the more successful a museum grows, the more elitist it tends to become. Social distinctions based on money and patronage can assume the intricate gradings of court protocol. At street level, admission prices climb, reinforcing existing socioeconomic barriers. Programming grows more cautious. If you’re laying out $20, you want to see “the best” art, which often means art that adheres to conventional versions of beauty, authority, “genius” (white and male) set in a reassuringly familiar context.
An extreme spin on museum populism came into vogue not too long ago, with exhibitions of “nonart” materials: motorcycles at the Guggenheim, hip-hop ephemera at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Critics surprised themselves by raving over the Guggenheim show. Custom-made bikes, it turned out, are High Design. On the other hand, the hip-hop material, most of it mass-produced, inexpensive and readily available, was dismissed as mere merchandise. What was it doing in an art museum?
It was illustrating, among other things, Andy Warhol’s canny prediction that all museums will become department stores, and vice versa. Sure enough, here we are and we have to ask the question: What’s the difference between a top-of-the-line Harley, a Tupac poster and a Marden abstraction? Fundamentally, none. They are all brand-name items distinguished by different price tags. Populist or not, they are products of corporate marketing, of the money holders.
A good many people, including some who benefit from the current boom, are critical of this state of affairs. I would guess that Mr. Gilbert, whom I have never met and know about only third-hand, would have trenchant things to say about Mr. Marden’s plight, suggesting inventive ways for him to dispose of his surplus capital.
I would also guess that Mr. Gilbert, like certain other idealists, is at heart an optimist, if an intensely critical one, when it comes to the subject of art in the social sphere. Optimism is a useful attitude, because cynicism is so exhausting and pacifying. It can wear you down. After a while it starts saying: Relax. Lighten up. Life is just like that. Give the art world a break. It can’t help being a miniature version of the culture that made it. What can it do about that?
One thing it can do — that museums can do — is clear an alternative space in that culture, a zone of moral inquiry, intellectual contrariness, crazy beauty. In this space, artists can simultaneously hold a magnifying glass up to something called “America” and also train a telescope on it: probe its innards and view it from afar, see it as others see it. From these perspectives, they might come up with models of a cosmopolitan, leveled-out society for a country in solidarity with the world, in contrast to the provincial, hierarchical, self-isolating one that exists today.
The common wisdom of the moment, however, tells us that carving out such a zone is no longer possible. The market, that state of manipulated consensus called freedom of choice, is so omniscient, so all consuming, so universal that there is no alternative left, no margin; no outside, only inside.
Well, yes and no. There are, in fact, still many artists “out there”: out of fashion, out of sync, out of touch, waiting to be rediscovered or discovered or not. “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an international survey of 119 women artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, includes a number of them.
The show is, among other smart things, an indictment of what happens when the market is left to write history: much of the good stuff gets left out, and the task of finally bringing it in is overwhelming. When I visited the exhibition I saw not only a panorama of fascinating art and radical sensibilities, but also 119 books — doctoral dissertations — begging to be written, and as many retrospectives waiting to be organized.
A few of the artists have already been, or will be, picked for commercial enshrinement. They have earned the attention they receive. Others will be shunted back outside. What is most moving about the show, though, and is most likely to inspire young artists in the decades to come, is the record of collective creativity it represents, a creativity generated by the lived politics of 119 committed artists who were outsiders in their time.
A good number of artists today self-consciously position themselves both inside and outside the mainstream. This is true of many new collectives, clusters of artists who have formed their own creative environment, their own audiences and distribution systems, even — very important — their own economy. Unsurprisingly, they have historically had an indifferent reception from museums and the market in thrall to the “genius” cult. So, by design and by default, they maintain a maverick way.
And, finally, there are art-world figures like Mr. Gilbert who simply, conscientiously opt out. While his legend has been growing online, he seems to have been in Venezuela (at least as of a few months ago), doing I don’t know what. Supporting a movement of radical social change. Building the alternative people’s museum of the future? Treating the two jobs as one? What I do know is that in the world he has left behind, such movements and such museums feel a very long way off.