CultureGrrl alerted me to her follow-up post on Mass MoCA's Tree Logic exhibition (I mentioned her first post on the topic approvingly here.) It consists of a joking response to her complaint from Joe Thompson, the director of the museum. I wrote back a version of the below to her in response (I've edited slightly for clarity):
I can understand his one serious point--that the work has become
well-known and a calling card of sorts for the museum--but I don't
think that really holds up. If anything, the surest way to stir audience
interest is to have changing exhibitions. We always hear that as a lament
when considering the plight of ignored permanent collections, but why not embrace
that fact when the opportunity arises and it makes sense? The
alternative, in the long-term, is stagnation. It's depressing to think
that Tree Logic will be staying in the Mass MoCA courtyard indefinitely.
That doesn't touch on the perhaps wussy, but nonetheless real, ethical or philosophical
concerns. I hate the spuriously academic-speak the show justifies
itself with ("raising questions about what the nature of the natural
is" and all that again.) That, as you wrote, the question has been
answered, removes even that weak support. Thompson's joking reply
should indicate, in any event, the seriousness with which he, at least,
considered the work's ostensible focus.
On a side note, Ed Winkleman has been discussing (in relation to Artnet's Kuspitpalooza) what it means to call some instance of art, especially contemporary art, decadent. I've been meaning to write something in response, especially as Kuspit's most recent installments have moved to more interesting ground, but all that aside, I think I would call Tree Logic decadent. Not only in its continued persistence after any original reason to exist has gone, but in its fundamental conception. Against nature indeed. I'm somewhat ambivalent on the broader topic Ed's talking about, liking some ideas or forms of decadence myself, but I've spent too much time reading Erazim Kohák to go along with this particular instance.
So as part of its fiftieth anniversary celebration, the Clark has had a year-long installation, The Clark: Celebrating 50 Years of Art in Nature, and has singled out via audience votes fifty works from the permanent collection as favorites. These get special "50 favorites" labels, with the usual sort of art historical text replaced by a personal statement from someone, whether a museum staffer, notable figure, or average member of the public, saying why its their favorite. The top vote-getter, it turns out, was John Singer Sargent's Fumée d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), a worthy choice. And what special treatment did this favorite among favorites receive? Well, pride of place as the first work one sees entering into the permanent collection galleries, for starters. But what else did it receive?
What's so bad about the Clark Art Institute on a summer afternoon? The crowds, of course, the crowds. It had been a long time since I'd gone to a major Berkshires institution during peak tourist time. Last time I was at the Clark, for last year's David show, was in early June, before the season really started, and it was wonderfully empty. I didn't expect it to be that way this time, but I wasn't prepared for the wall-to-wall people one normally associates with blockbuster shows at the large urban museums. My normal practice at popular exhibitions--especially when many are being led by the audio tours attached to their ears--is to be opportunistic, darting around the galleries to look at whatever may be free at that moment. Saturday afternoon, that generally wasn't feasible--there simply weren't enough paintings not surrounded by a crowd three-deep to see. At times it wasn't even possible to get into a gallery without waiting for the crowd to ease slightly as some visitors slowly moved on.
And I do mean slowly. For the one way in which the visitors differed from those that one might see elsewhere was in their age. Back in 1999 the New York Times had an article on the graying of the arts audience in the Berkshires. Close to a decade later, the only thing that seems to have changed has been the progression from graying hair to white hair. There were very few young people (aside from children brought by parents, most of whom seemed well into their mid-forties), or even thirtysomethings. I'm happy to see older folks getting out and enjoying themselves. But a large crowd with a distinctly doddering component did not make for ideal viewing conditions.
We gave up, and decided to return the next morning when the museum opened. At 10 Am, parking lot was empty, and we were able to get a good view of The Clark Brothers Collect and the permanent collection before lunch and a visit to the Williams College Museum of Art. I'll be saying more about all this but a couple of brief notes:
- First, on quick inspection, the catalog is an impressive piece of work, but I wish it had a checklist of the exhibition, in particular one that noted which, if any works will only appear at the Clark or the Metropolitan when the show moves there. As far as I can tell, it doesn't have one. There is a checklist at the website, but it doesn't clarify the question of any changes to the exhibition--perhaps because there'll not be any, but nevertheless, it would good to be clear on the point.
- After an introductory room introducing the Clark family and some of the works they owned, the exhibition begins on the second floor with two paintings offered as a comparison, Renoir's The Onions, owned by Sterling, and Cézanne's Still Life with Apples and Pears. Is it too much to say that they tell the story of the entire exhibition? Well, yes, but the two paintings contain a lot of what gets shown and argued in the coming rooms nonetheless.
- On another topic, we didn't make it to Mass MoCA this time, but I'd like to fully endorse this post by CultureGrrl on the long-standing Tree Logic exhibition. I don't mean to sound too sentimental, but the state of the trees as described in her post makes continuing the installation, to leave aside starting it in the first place, seem an act of cruelty. Not the most significant one in the world, to be sure, but perverse and unnecessary all the same. The justification of "raising questions about what the nature of the natural is" offered for the piece becomes, if it's possible, only even more banal in light of the need for replanting the trees. As CultureGrrl says, it's over--time to do something else.
"I even discovered the key word of American culture, namely 'Why not,' starting with the traditional invitation such as 'Why don't you have dinner with me tomorrow?' and ending with a declaration of love such as 'Why don't you sleep with me tonight?' Europeans do things due to emotional or rational reasons that speak for such an action whereas Americans do things when nothing seems to speak against such an action. That explains the admirable activity and hospitality but also the lack of purpose and taste to be found in America, as well as the horrible cuisine in this country. Pineapple and mayonnaise--why not? There are, of course, reasons against this combination but there will probably be no longer any Europeans capable of explaining these reasons until the average American will be able to understand them."
You know, earlier today I realized that I had been remiss in not noting that Charles Giuliano has developed a new site, Berkshire Fine Arts, in addition to his Maverick Arts website. While the subject of the former may seem self-explanatory, I'll note that it aims to cover all types of art and cultural happening in westernmost Massachusetts, from food to dance, in addition to the expected visual arts fare. So check it out. And what reminded me? The fact that I've spent the weekend out in North Adams and Williamstown, taking in what's at Williams College and the Clark Art Institute. More to come, but for now: pity the traveller who drives for hours, only to arrive at the Clark in the early afternoon of a summer Saturday. I'm happy to say that it got better from there.
Two columns by Gary Schwartz made me want to post a little when I first read them, and since they're still in my mind, why not now? The most recent tackles what he calls "cultural asymmetry":
Half my teachers in high school and college were first- or second-generation immigrants from Europe. At New York University many of my fellow students were ex-GIs with tours of duty in Europe or Asia behind them. These were powerful experiences for millions of young Americans, leaving them with memories of foreign places and knowledge of foreign languages that they brought back not just to sophisticated New York but to its three-by-two-thousand-mile large hinterland. Few Europeans or Asians of their age had first-hand knowledge of America.
In the decades that followed, those savvy Americans established a Pax Americana and made use of their foreign street smarts to sell their films and music, goods, services and politics abroad. Compare that to the world of a mere fifty years later. From a Dwight D. Eisenhower to an American president who had never been out of the country before he was elected, congressmen who cannot travel abroad because their security cannot be guaranteed, a passportless populace. All the savvy now belongs to millions of young people abroad who have spent time in America.
As an émigré from America, Dr. Schwartz probably is more attuned to this dynamic than many of us back at home, and if there's a bit of simplification involved--it is a newspaper column--his story still rings true. I'm reminded of one of the points that Arnaldo Momgliano makes in Alien Wisdom: for all their intellectual achievements, the Greeks never bothered to learn the languages and ways of those peoples who didn't take the trouble to learn Greek and explain themselves within that language. In the end, the Romans, who did learn Greek, knew and understood the people whom they conquered, but the Greeks never really knew them.
A curator in an Amsterdam museum told me recently that the manager had
actually forbidden his curators to work on what he called
“collection-related” projects. The writing is on the wall.
While jaw-dropping, I don't doubt this troubling anecdote. I'm not entirely sure it represents the wave of the future, however, or at least, not exactly in the form (special exhibitions vs. permanent collections) offered. Loan exhibitions, especially ones involving multiple venues and works with high insurance values, are a rickety business themselves. The costs of insurance and shipping are skyrocketing, while the payoffs are often uncertain save for the most solid of prospects. Outside of the biggest institutions and certain sure things, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the coming years exhibit a certain retrenchment on the part of museums. Collections-related projects that can be made into exhibitions may come to be all they can afford. Which isn't an entirely happy thought either, but such is the world today.
Having disagreed in small measure with the column, let me say that I think Dr. Schwartz is spot-on when he writes that
People really do not always know what’s good for them. I have never
gotten over the shock of the complete disappearance of ocean liners on
the North Atlantic route, which for the price of a few nights in a
hotel offered a quality of experience that can never be matched by the
airplanes that replaced them.
I really, really wish it was still possible to travel to Europe on an ocean liner, and not only because flying scares the heck out of me. It just sounds like the best. And would it be too much to note that the English language edition of The Rembrandt Book will be out in October, and can be pre-ordered now? An excellent reading choice for the last months of the Rembrandt year, if I may say so. Amazon should update their info, however; Form Follows Dysfunction hasn't existed for some years.
Tell me: someone else out there also looks at the installments of Donald Kuspit's A Critical History of Twentieth Century Art that Artnet's been running biweekly and thinks, "I really should be reading that" followed by "Nah." Right?
The smart thing to do probably would be to pass over it in silence, but I can't: this sounds like a bad idea and looks like a worse painting. Admittedly I'm making that judgment based solely on the small, hard-to-see image provided. But ugh: a neo-academic classicizing allegorical painting? Of course, it's one of those situations in which even offering a negative judgment, however unavoidable, makes one feel in the wrong; according to the New Britain Herald, the work was purchased in part by the family of someone who died in the World Trade Center, and, as the painting's subject shows, is intended as a memorial for him and all who perished that day. There's little to do but hope that the work brings solace to those who need it--and remember that for all that art matters, it doesn't matter all that much. I don't have the book handy to get the exact quote, but I recall Peter Fuller making much of how what we choose in art reflects on us, on our moral and intellectual worth. Thinking about the painting in New Britain, I'm inclined to see the limits of Fuller's point right now.
Having opened a can of worms, let me end by noting what a weird world can be found by Googling (whether the whole web or an image search) on Graydon Parrish. I've no complaint about figurative art and spent more time than most contemplating classical and neoclassical art, but he's got a very freaky scene going on, and not to my taste at all. For that matter, who the heck thinks studying and emulating (especially in terms of sentimentality) Bouguereau is a good way to learn anything about Old Master painting? I know the academic tradition thinks of itself as the inheritor of the art of the past, but really--by that point, you've lost most of what can be found in the seventeenth century. At least idolize Ingres, for heaven's sake. I will allow that, while still cold and often wrong, much of this stuff gets more palatable when limited to drawing rather than painting.
UPDATE: I can't get the real page to open properly, but this cache of something called "Classical Realist" has a somewhat better (though not great) image of the painting. Yikes.
I'm planning to get things restarted here real soon--a little this week, I hope, then a little more the next, and back to a more regular schedule after Labor Day. Providing some good blog fare should be this weekend's upcoming trip to Williamstown to finally see The Clark Brothers Collect before it closes, as well as the Pollocks at Williams College. Should be good for some late summer fun, I think. After all what a thrill last year's trip to the Clark's David show was! And who was that man on the lawn of the Clark?