Tag Archives: MoMA

A Discussion on Facebook About “Occupy Museums”

This morning artist Noah Fischer posted on Facebook an announcement for Occupy Museums:

Occupy Museums!

Speaking out in front of the Cannons

 The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities. We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken a consciousness that art can bring people together rather than divide them apart as the art world does in our current time…

 Let’s be clear. Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital. The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.

 For the last few decades, voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money. To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool. Such a critic was a sore loser.

 It is time to end that silence not in bitterness, but in strength and love! Because the occupation has already begun and the creativity and power of the people has awoken! The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market. Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!

Day 1, Thursday Oct. 20th: Revised Schedule:
3:00 Meet at Liberty Park
Teach-in about the museums we are going to occupy
4:15 Livestream- read document in front of 5000 viewers.
Occupy the 4 train
5:00 Occupy MoMA
hours: 10:30-5:30
11 W 53rd street New York, NY
Occupy the M3 Bus
6:00 Occupy Frick Collection
hours: 10:00-6 PM
1 East 70th Street, New York, NY
Occupy the 6 train
7:00 Occupy New Museum
Thursdays 6-8 free
235 bowery
Via: Noah Fischer, Occupy Museums organizer.

[For further details see Noah Fischer’s Facebook page or mine.]

***

I found that this proposed action gave me pause and it seemed like a good topic for a Facebook discussion, which it has proved to be. I appreciate everyone’s point of view and engagement in the issues. Because not all my friends are on Facebook at all or look at FB that much, and during the day I got an email from Naeem Mohaiemen about where other than Facebook the discussion could be followed [he noted that as luck would have it will be showing a video at the New Museum during the planned protest]. So I thought it would be interesting to repost the conversation that took place today here, with the permission of my Facebook friends’ who participated, since a monologue on my part without the context would miss the point of the conversation.

This following is the conversation from about noon today to 6:30PM:

Mira Schor: I have some ambivalence about this, I’m not sure why. Yes museums have been sucked into the money entertainment mode with corporate corruption, where edge & marginality either commodified or taken out altogether, and with entrance fees prohibitive to the general public. The trend towards the corporate and the art and entertainment market has been especially damaging to the New Museum’s legacy, and especially hurtful for me as a viewer at MoMA, the favored haunt of my youth, where a private relation to art is now hard to come by (though a private relation to an individual art object is something equally critiqued by the current vanguard of social engagement art)…yet some good work is done there as well. I picketed MoMA when it reopened in 1984 with practically no women in its reopening show (see pictures at bottom of this post from that demonstration), but now I don’t feel a visceral response that this is something I can do even though it might be politic or dare I say it , fashionable, to appear to be at the cutting edge of political rebellion. But I’m open for discussion & would love to hear what some of my friends think of this Occupy Museums gesture

Richard Worthington-Rogers: my favorite targets are banks not museums

Mira Schor:  well they are linked, major big city museums’ increased engagement in the out of control capitalism that has infected all parts of life is a tangible problem for all art and I understand that young artists would want to make their mark on that part of the profession

Richard Worthington-Rogers: I understand…perhaps i’m just old school and would rather lob a rock through a bank window than a museum….additionally, if the Koch Bros are funding the opera at lincoln center then action should be taken at the opera NOT a museum.

Amy Sillman: here’s how old I am: I wish they’d spell canon right.

Mira Schor: Amy..I feel the same way about the Bell Hooks poster making the rounds of Facebook with chauvinism misspelled as chauvanism

Mira Schor: re the Koch Brothers and the opera, yes !

Amy Sillman: down w/ the koch bros, but up w/ opera.

Amy Sillman: ‎(i didnt mean that like “i’m down with” but as in, bad koch bros)

Chris Kasper: I’m on the fence too. And I like the issue you raise regarding “rebellion fashion”. I think there is some of that at play here. However, museums have become more and more, extensions of banks and other corporate institutions…Moma and other museums high entrance fees keeps what it has too offer for an audience of a certain demographic ,that excludes blue collar citizens (including many of those with mfas) The coroporate culture in museums is echoed in the fear and intimidatiom common in their employees, and breeds nepotism and sychophants. This extends out to many, if not most artists who have not established themselves yet. While I think some of what you raise is totally valid, I do lean more to liking the occupy museum idea more. With the exception of a less puritanical set of values with regards to having embraced gay culture long before it was fashionable, the artworld is still quite conservative in that it favors white males as who it holds up as successful (this is one issue I agree w J Saltz on). If it is better in the artworld for women and people of color than other industries, it isn’t much better. Especially for the people employed by these institutions. We should’nt pat ourselves on the back for being a progressive field at this point. Ask the mostly men who are moving crates and installing the massive works, or the mostly women at the desks with the pressure to dress way out of their salary level at 17.9% apr how progressive an industry we are.

Mira Schor: Chris what you say is true, interesting, much to think about, and only 24 hours to think about it [actually there is no date set on Noah’s original post]…as for who has critiqued the white male content of museums first best, or with most risk….but yes, no illusions as the progressive nature of the mainstream art world

Brian Sg: occupy art school, the biggest rip off there is

Amy Sillman: hey Brian Sg: did you go to art school? which one? i’m just curious because I teach at an art school (Bard MFA) and i’m not sure if they think it’s the biggest ripoff there is! I’ll ask the students, though.

Betty Tompkins: do any of you know the recording about the mccarthy era called “the investigator”? this is starting to remind me of that.

Lori Ellison: Not sure if the museums are the right focus.

Martha Willette Lewis: a lot of museums have suggested donations and I balk at the idea that what they charge (excepting MoMa- that really is extortionate) is too much: going to the movies costs a lot now, cable tv costs a lot , all of these electronic gadgets costs a lot as does wifi- the museums NEED this money. I am sad to see them pander to popular tastes but they are doing it to attract audiences, stay relevant and stay in operation. I don’t think I can support this- museums have given me hours of pleasure, taught me, entertained me. why not “occupy art auctions”instead?they seem much more directly culpable…

Lori Ellison: There was a protest at an art auction several weeks ago.

Martha Willette Lewis: this makes me really, really sad…

Mira Schor:  The museums are a probably as legitimate a focus for demonstration as any other in the sense of getting a discussion going..it’s all in the timing. There were people demonstrating against MoMA when the new building opened and the director Glenn Lowry was utterly dismissive of the demonstrators (artists/activists), I can’t remember if he had them arrested or simply mocked them

Amy Sillman: I think since OWS is about BANKS AND MONEY AND WALL STREET as much as anything else, then the suggestion to occupy art AUCTION HOUSES is really interesting!

Betty Tompkins: almost all museums have a free evening. While I admire the energy of the occupy everything everywhere movement, I do have to wonder why they have not focused on governments that allow all this. i also wonder why huge job fairs have not been organized at the park.

Mira Schor: that’s already happened a bit Amy, some demonstrations recently .

Steven Nelson: Museums are intertwined with money and our current corporate mess, but it’s not museums that got us into the economic and social mess we face today. On MoMA admission, it bears noting that one can go there for free on Fridays after 4pm.

Amy Sillman: well, I’m going to stand on my pedestal today and say that what should be occupied is Sothebys, Phillips de Pury, etc. these are places where NOTHING GOOD happens at all. I’d LOVE to go out and protest the whole system of auctioning the work of living artists.

Oriane Stender: This Occupy Museums thing is misguided. It would help if the writer were more articulate. “Speaking out in front of the Cannons”? Beyond the misspelling, what does this mean?

Mira Schor: I think that there is a generation of young artists who were caught up in the intersection between the corporatization of education as of museums, and actually expected to enter the art market and succeed, financially, and I’m sorry were perhaps not sufficiently critical of any part of that. Now they are hugely in debt and of course most artists never make enough from their art or any other profession associated with art to pay back that kind of debt, so they are angry. I was on a panel at Cabinet last year about art education put together by Colleen Asper and Ad Hoc Vox.

The most interesting thing to me that cold winter night was the audience, which was packed to the rafters with thirty-ish Brooklyn-based New York artists, all seemingly wearing black–it seemed like everyone had a two day stubble, also black, and heavy eyeglass frames, also black– fixing those of us on the panel with the most intense and angry expressions on their faces, hoping we would explain to them why their incredibly expensive educations were worth the debt they had incurred.

Art has been just as shaped by the economic boom and the highly reactionary politics of the last 30 years as any other part of our culture. Although I still go to MoMA, I feel like the place where I spent my youth in a close personal private relationship with art works in an intimate space rather than a tourist destination, that space is no more. I’m sorry for those who never had it. Perhaps it is just more of a betrayal when suddenly the rose colored glasses come off and you realize you’ve been sold a bill of goods that can’t sustain you as an artist, literally and spiritually. For me, it helps to have never “believed” in art market essentialism even though that never helped me economically but perhaps that’s precisely why I find this demonstration odd, because it seems to admit to a belief that has been disappointed.

Carol Salmanson: If the target is corporate money taking over museums, then the focus should be corporate money, not museums. Otherwise everyone’s energies will be scattered all over the place, while the corporate money will continue its deliberate and strategic placement, without accountability.

Oriane Stender: I’m not thrilled about corporate money having such an influence in museums, but since arts and culture get so much less government money than they used to get, corporate money keeps the institutions alive, so it’s not altogether a bad thing. It’s complicated. I’d rather the corporations give this money to museums than some other places they could put it, like right-wing think tanks or California’s Prop. 8. Yes, the $ comes with strings attached. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Etc.

Mira Schor: I don’t know if he will participate here, but Noah Fischer who posted this says he is glad if we are having a discussion, so I think that like everything about Occupy Wall Street, they are taking the chance of acting boldly, if not overtly programmatically, to provoke discussion, and the attention they are getting for that discussion will get media attention that perhaps earlier critiques did not get. The corporate structure and backing of MoMA will not be altered by any demonstration in the long run. I think the New Museum is more ripe for a critique, given the honorable countercultural, counter art market direction of its founding mother, Marcia Tucker, much altered by the cold glitz of the current institution and the amusingly repressive reactions it has on occasion had to internal efforts at institutional critique.

Noah Fischer:  Wall Street is a symbolic Altar of Greed: a fitting place to start this movement, but the movement is much bigger than banks and packaged debt and bailouts. To me, its fundamentally about waking up from a bad dream in which our society has lost cohesion- the country doesn’t work for most people- people have forgotten how to work together. And while this has gone on, the wealthiest 1% have walked away with the government..and the culture- witness an era of luxurious art fairs while millions are losing home and jobs. So much about museums today reflects a top-down society where the rest of us are supposed to be mesmerized by the glamour at the top. We Occupy the big museums as both real ties to Wall Street fraud money and as symbols of a culture thats been stolen from the 99% by the elites. When we Occupy Museums, we’ll be announcing and demonstrating a new era of culture that is for everyone.

Noah Fischer: We can Occupy Auctions next week!

Oriane Stender: Re Mira’s observation about the anger young people have about their student debt: Yes, the MFA diploma mill is a giant ponzi scheme. But you are all college-educated and smart people. Did you really think, after the number of people attending art schools kept increasing, that there would be enough tenure track jobs for everyone? Galleries and collectors enough for everyone? This is exactly why I didn’t get an MFA. I did the math (and I’m no math genius). Go into debt to get a degree that a whole bunch of underemployed people have? No thanks. Sorry you drank the Kool-aid, guys. But it was labeled.

Goran Tomcic: If I remember correctly, more then a decade ago there was a huge issue with Whitney and Phillip Morris, i.e. should a tobacco company be a sponsor of the arts. Now we have Deutsche Bank being a major sponsor of Frieze Art Fair, and it had borrowed its name to the Guggenheim in Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim even has a bank logo on the building facade. I recently closed my Deutsche Bank account as I felt I was not treated correctly and because the bank sucked a lot of money from me in enormous fees just to keep my debit account open. I moved to another bank with less fees and now I am not one of those sponsoring Frieze or Deutsche Guggenheim. As per art schools, I think this is a misplaced call for an action: I went to the above-mentioned Bard MA program and didn’t have to pay as there are scholarships, etc. I believe the art schools need to be left out of this story.

Mira Schor: Noah et al, I’d like to recommend people take a look at the information about The Woman’s Building, now the subject of one of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, “Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building. It was the most radical and complete experiment in a self-run politically directed education, really admirable.

As a faculty member in an MFA program, I’m torn, my students come in recent years not because they think they are going to make it, for the most part, but because they want to be in a central place where they can be exposed to new and challenging ideas (ideas that challenge their previous beliefs). Even though I feel increasingly confined by the situation, and miss terribly the atmosphere of creativity and freedom of the school I went to at the time I went to it, most of them feel that they get something for their education (though some, those who did drink the Kool Aid) also later feel terribly embittered by disappointment) and when I try to imagine alternatives to the MFA, as I discussed at Cabinet last year, you can see how rapidly necessities of institutionalization reconstruct themselves (after the first flush of experimentation, you need a space, you need money for rent, you need insurance, people need to be paid for their labor in teaching or maintaining etc…)..that’s why The Women’s Building was such an inspiring model.

Kate Kretz: Haven’t really thought about this. I am much more concerned/dismayed at the corporatization of higher education… I think that it’s going to transform this country, and makes me want to bail out to live in a place where education is the priority.

Oriane Stender: I would love to bail out. Anyone in Sweden want a middle-aged mail order bride??

Rocio Rodriguez: this whole thing is well intended but frankly…it waters down the real message…which in my view should start in occupying the capitol both houses of Congress. Once you start down this occupying street hell u can justify occupying anything. I say focus on what and who has created the problems and put us in the present economic situation. Start w/our ‘elected’ officials and demand an accounting there. A lot of $$$ passes through those halls, campaign contributions, lobbyists…they spend more time raising money for their next election than working on the country’s problems.

Goran Tomcic: Let me go back to my past and look at the former socialist countries education. It was required, grand and open (yes, it was open and they way to escape the system), and yet by the end of the 80’s there was nobody left who wanted to live in socialism and receive free education or free medical care. Now you go back to those former socialist countries and the first thing you notice is the luck of an education, nobody is reading the Classics any longer, and now we are just like the rest of the West.

Mira Schor: Rocio, I hope there are enough people to go around to focus on the multiple aspects of the culture and work in specific areas where they can have an impact, however momentary. In that sense I think it is worth doing, because the financial system needs critique, the corruption of the electoral process by money needs protest, and the art world and education are areas of culture that many of us here occupy. It’s a long term process and many contradictions. Revolutionary movements sometimes don’t have the time for contradiction until it takes them over, alas.

Ree Dykeulous: See W.A.G.E. |working artists and the greater economy. Fully budgeted/hugely endowed NY museums exploit cultural workers- aka their content providers

Rocio Rodriguez: Yes I agree with what you have said Mira the multiple aspects…they are all connected. I suppose that one only has so much time/resources to devote to protest and I see Washington as a central player to all of this and for me areas of culture are secondary (and I am an artist-who is totally dedicated to my profession) to the very present needs of many people who don’t have jobs, can’t pay for health insurance, and are worried about keeping their house. In any case its a mess all around. thx for the discussion.

Betty Tompkins: one of the huge differences in art/art education is that when I was a student we were told flat out that we should not come to NYC with the expectation of making it big or even making it small very quickly. we were told that it takes time to mature as an artist and that you did this on your own, outside of the gallery system. Today’s grads think an mfa is the same as an mba. It is not.

Mira Schor: here are some views on Hyperallergic to add to the mix. “Is Occupying Museums Misguided?” “A protest is slated for tomorrow that intends to “occupy” the Frick Museum, MoMA and the New Museum, but why?”

William Evertson: My only observation is that museums seem to be a symptom and wall street excess is a cause. I can certainly relate to the desire to expose the corporate hand that is driving these cultural icons. I wonder what the alternatives look like? With people in such need throughout the country how many would support any cultural activity?

Mira Schor: re. the Hyperallergic piece, just to play devil’s advocate for a minute , while I am wondering about this occupy museums plan, isn’t asking “what a museum of the 99% would look like and who/what would fund it” as Hrag Vartanian does on Hyperallergic the same as saying that occupy wall street hasn’t articulated specific demands>>>they have gotten people talking and put somethings on a wider agenda, so perhaps this can’t hurt either even if it seems a bit elitist in relation to the 99% meme

Sean Capone: Just do it, what do you have to lose! Keep in mind a lot of people won’t care about this action and it underscores the derisive notion that OWS is a bunch of liberal arts majors with worthless degrees. If art is for the people then go make art for the people. Or if this makes you feel better about yourself–do this. The museums aren’t the ones keeping arts funding out of the ‘people’s’ hands–you should go OccupyTheNEA. By the way, the New Museum had their Ostalgia ‘peoples art’ show all summer and the people didn’t go see it. The people want graffiti art and Tim Burton shows. Was burning a flag of dollar bills at the OWS art show a good example of art for the people? (did that really happen?!) As one of the 99% I would have rather put it in the donation box.

Betty Tompkins: ♥ hrag.

Ree Dykeulous: Debating whether the culture industry and all of it’s tethered institutions are unethical and participatory in an exploitative inhumane financial scheme is nonsensical- it is. The pay scale and disparities in non-profit institutions (directors and board members alike) directly reflect the inequity in other industries so it’s time to ask the museums why, esp. since, (1) they don’t distribute payment to artists but rather act as representatives of commercial galleries & auction houses, (2) act as representatives of the industries from which their monies derive. See Major Earners in the Cultural World for details. Museums absolutely DO keep payments out of artist’s hands b/c no oversight is required regarding the distribution of institutional funding by public-private partnerships (whether the monies come from granting organizations, foundations or private monies). So being as the system is at this present moment, it’s inequitable, unethical and unjust in it’s relationship with the visual artists, performers, arts writers and independent curators with whom they choose to work, and from whom they are gaming with cultural capital known as “exposure”.

Grace Graupe Pillard: I remember when I first studied art – never having gone to Art School – and discovered the wonders of art – the length and breadth of its history at MOMA and the Met and the Frick…I went there for free almost every week or more to study and discover artistis and how to paint, and how not to paint, and what I considered good and bad painting. One helped me see the other.

This can no longer be done – Now we pay – and we pay – particularly at the Guggenheim, New Museum and MOMA – yes we lucky artists can get an Artist Pass at MOMA but the Guggenheim does not even deign to allow that. I am ambivalent and really do not know why – something inside of me feels uneasy with occupying Museums. Old habits die hard. So this discussion is refreshing and making me consider and re-consider the issues.

Judith Rodenbeck: Fluxify museums; occupy the Supreme Court.

Nato Thompson: As far as I can tell, the idea of occupying everything makes sense to me. If people occupy the institutions for which they are direct constituents (artists occupying museums for example) that certainly makes a lot of sense. I think people are feeling too defensive for museums. I used to work at one and we would have embraced a conversation around audience and funding. They are public institutions accountable to a public. It would be good to have the 99 at their door. It’s like feeling defensive for a government because the people show up to vote. That is the point. If anything, I think of this is a reminder of a mission statement. Of course artists like art, they are artists. So of course they have some sympathies for museums as an idea. I don’t think this needs to be thought of as a protest so much as an opportunity to consider who art is for, how it is funded and how is it accountable. It is the same question of wall street, governance, etc. Who can disagree with these basic questions? Funny that hyperallergenic article dismisses the idea and then goes on to pontificate on why not start a museum that supports the 99 (the article asks)? Well, isn’t that what the missions statement of all non-profit museums are? And finally, art is a place where these ideas should be embraced and shared. It is about free expression and our institutions are there to embrace that. That is their role. We should think of them as an infrastructure accountable to the public and use them as such. To dismiss using them seems almost as though we have given up on them.

Betty Tompkins: I actually have the record of The Investigator, the original and i had a cd made of it as it is really rare. The actual story is quite close to what my parents told me when I was a kid…I grew up with this record.

Rocio Rodriguez: I am not sure that I fully understand Nato Thompson’s comment above. “(museums).. ‘They are public institutions accountable to a public.” Accountable? What exactly that you want them to be accountable for? Who is giving them money? Remember Jesse Helms? He wanted to make institutions that received public money accountable for the art that they showed. The following excerpt is from a Huff post article —“According to a 2006 report issued by the American Association of Museums, since roughly the late 80s museums have registered a 15% drop in reliance on public funding. Over the same period, museums almost doubled the amount of private funding they receive, counted as a percentage of their operating income. In recent years, half of American museums have shown growth in their endowments, while museums running deficits have decreased by one third. Business is private, and business is good (notwithstanding the real perils involved when museums get too cozy with corporate interests).” This was published in ’08. Maybe private contributions have dropped since the economic downturn. But I get a little concerned when I hear the word ‘accountable’ applied to ART or art institutions. It brings up the culture wars of the early 80s. Bottom line here is that museums are non-profits and they have to get money from somewhere–via government or corporate, private donors. Frankly, I happily hand over my 25$ when I visit the Met. It’s the Art, I care about and that is what I am supporting.

Betty Tompkins: excellent point Rocio.

Rocio Rodriguez: correction: I meant to say the culture wars of the late not early 80’s….one more thing…that quote from the huff post article was in direct relation to Jesse Helms effect on govt. funding.

Betty Tompkins: it was a disaster.

Rocio Rodriguez: we still feel the effects of it today.

Mira Schor: Rocio: when I was a teenager I stopped at the Met often on my way home from school. It was free. I could go in there to get lost, on purpose, and see what I would see, I could go to look at one painting. If it had cost the equivalent of $25 I would had gone much less frequently. Luckily the Met has a pay as you wish category, though most tourists don’t notice. But that is very expensive and contributes to the notion that art is only for an elite.

Rocio Rodriguez: Mira, I hear what you are saying. Yes it’s expensive even for me…but I guess I’m a sucker for art and I feel that it is my responsibility to support it.

Ravenna Taylor: what a great discussion. I love museums, almost any one of them is like a house of worship to me. I agree with so much of what each of you has said here; in particular I like the way Steven Nelson put this: “Museums are intertwined with money and our current corporate mess, but it’s not museums that got us into the economic and social mess we face today.”

I posted this same link this morning, and acknowledged having my own doubts about some of the content and the language.

But I really am terribly excited to see questions posed, with expectations of answers, and large numbers, young and old, contemplating meaningful change in the ways that our society functions, at all sorts of levels. This is truly hopeful, for me. I may not agree with everything that might happen or be proposed, but I’m just glad to celebrate an end to complacency and fear.

Rocio Rodriguez: Last time I was at the Met, I asked the guy who was selling tickets, how many people pay 25$ ?(because I was curious and the two tourists in front of me opted for a smaller donation which is fine) and he said…actually quite a few. I was surprised and glad.

Oriane Stender: The general dissatisfaction/anger at OWS makes sense. The financial industry, taxes, investments, loans – that whole world is very confusing and many people (including me) feel lost in it. But that same vague distrust and anger doesn’t make as much sense when directed at museums. Being angry at high admission fees AND at corporate sponsorship doesn’t make for a focused argument. Corporate sponsorship reduces the admission fees the general public pays. NEA funds and other government funds used to finance museums to a larger degree. Now corporations and private money has to fill that gap. If we just show up to Occupy Museums and protest “the system” we will look like simpletons.

Ravenna Taylor: for some reason I am resentful when I pay admission to the Guggenheim, and I only go there if there is an exhibit I know I want very much to see. But I don’t feel the same way about MoMA or the Met, and I have memberships there so I can walk in as often as I want…My own argument has long been: less taxes to support war action; more taxes to support culture. Then we could have government support for cultural institutions instead of war industrialists, and not have to hear the Toll Bros plugged while listening to Met Opera Broadcasts.

Ravenna Taylor: My own argument has long been: less taxes to support war action; more taxes to support culture. Then we could have gov’t support for cultural institutions instead of war industrialists, and not have to hear the Toll Bros plugged while listening to Met Opera Broadcasts.

Cole Robertson: Not sure if this came up in the 70+ preceding comments, but here’s my take: corporate support of the arts is almost invariably a corrupt enterprise. It either serves to boost the market value of the corporation’s art collection, is a PR stunt to rehabilitate a tarnished image, or is a tax dodge. Either way, nasty.

Oriane Stender: Cole, other than a soup kitchen, what would be a non-corrupt enterprise? Pretty much everybody expects to get paid for doing what they do.

Ravenna Taylor: Money is never clean. The super-rich corporations like Toll Bros or Koch Ind. could, if philanthropy were their object, make their donations and not demand they be acknowledged multiple times in multiple ways. It’s not the way the world works of course; but as an idealist I feel I must point out, it is one of the options, to donate without the need to use the donation as advertising. Considering that they are surely writing the donation off if they are paying any taxes at all, using it to promote their businesses and their images is something that shouldn’t even be permissible. Just the opinion of a crazy idealist.

Cole Robertson: For starters, eliminate tax breaks for increasing the value of private collections. You wanna advertise the art you own to make it more valuable, Charles Saatchi-style? Fine. Just don’t do it with taxpayer money…Ravenna, exactly. We’re underwriting their PR budgets, and it’s flat-out wrong.

[…]

Kathy Schnapper: Slightly off-topic: OccupyMuseums is reawakening all of the ambivalence within me about issues of class and the practice of Art History. Remember the first time that I read Sir Kenneth Clark’s autobiography. He wrote about his early exposure to the finer things in life and how it was essential to his development in connoisseurship. My background was blue collar, and that idea continued to haunt me and make me feel inadequate.

Recall when PASTA first organized the MOMA staff. My family were early union organizers, but somehow I felt uncomfortable with the idea of museum workers in the same union with mere laborers (of course, I grew up quickly from that absurd position).

And then there was graduate school at Columbia: At the time I had a day job working with abused and neglected kids. James Beck told me that I could not be a serious art historian and continue to do that. So for years, I never mentioned it.

Bringing all of this up, because the legacy of these experiences continues to tug at my emotions and colors some of my rational response to #OccupyMuseums Glad that they have opened up this important area of discussion.

***

I appreciate this conversation, it’s been useful to me and I hope to anyone catching up on my blog. I thank everyone who participated, and since I  suspect the conversation will continue, I will update it if necessary. so, more later. Any comments to this blog post should if possible be directed to the conversation on my Facebook page so I can pick them up from there. A similar conversation on this subject took place on Stephen Nelson’s Facebook page.

And for fun, here are some pictures I found of a demonstration held in front of MoMA June 14, 1984, when the museum reopened after a major renovation with an exhibition which included almost no women artists.

Lucy Lippard and May Stevens, demonstration in front of MoMA, June 14, 1984, photo: Mira Schor

Rob Storr, Nancy Bowen, & Barbara Siegel, demonstration in front of MoMA, June 14, 1984 (Rob became Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA in 1990 (to 2002).

 

Demonstration in front of MoMA, June 14, 1984

Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose: in recent years MoMA has had special funding from Sarah Peters to focus on their collection of works by women artists, designers, and architects, has hosted a number of symposia on the subject of feminism and art (I’ve commented on these on this blog and, along with other women artists, on M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online), and major women artists have had exhibitions and installations in the Atrium, and yet the majority of retrospectives, of works exhibited, and of women included in themed group exhibitions has by far remained skewed towards work by male artists… this is only to say that change is slow and hard at any major institution, and museums are perhaps even more impervious to change than governments! It is an ongoing battle of which Occupy Museums will be a new stage.

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The fault is not in our stars, but in our brand: Abstract Expressionism at MoMA

The necessity of being perceived as having a brand at first glance seems to be specific to our time: in politics you’ll hear that President Obama can’t do such and such because it would go against “The Brand.” Brand Obama or Brand Brad Pitt can’t be altered without entering into a Bermuda triangle of non-recognition by the media. A few years ago the New School University advertised a symposium called “The Brand Called You,” highlighting the current necessity of self-cultivating the contemporary version of the Homeric epithet, the one high concept identity feature which defines you and to which all your actions and products must conform to, since the audience, political and cultural, cannot appreciate contradiction, variety, subtlety or change. [And see where that has gotten us.]

This has always existed, by any other name, for does not Cassius ask in Julius Caesar:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:(145)
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus, and Caesar: what should be in that Caesar?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;(150)

To have a “fair name” has always involved a recognizable style (+ some kind of compelling persona – being a self-destructive alcoholic or drug-addict is way up there in that department). But “Brand” suggests a more comprehensive and more restrictive commodity, whether applied to a politician or an artist.

Abstract Expressionism/the New York School is a movement whose history and ideologies began to self-consciously and deliberately create a canon to define it in contradiction to European art, and this canon has become canonical and has acquired generations of canonical texts and institutions, of which MoMA is central. Because it was for decades the canon that dominated art discourse and education, it’s also a movement whose beliefs have been seriously challenged from many subsequent ideological positions which, in some parts of the art world and academia today even make referring to this period in teaching seem like contraband (dead white men, America, New York, painting, aura).

But like all canons, it has also proven impervious to major revision, particularly to the reinsertion or reappraisal of artists considered lesser at the time because of gender or certain aesthetic characteristics. Nevertheless established reputations have risen and fallen over time.

Abstract Expressionist New York at MoMA doesn’t do much to alter one’s understanding of the canon, its canon, significantly in terms of including in the master narrative so-called “minor” participants: I’ve just assigned a group of students the transcript of Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 as the script of a play in which each person will take on the roles of two or three of the artists who attended those historic sessions, and now they must also experience vicariously something they may well experience in their own lives as artists: the vagaries of inclusion and exclusion from a movement of which you are an active participant; the reduction of a vibrant cultural field to a few branded individuals and images; the continuation of critical and institutional favoritisms that extend long past the life of the original participants.

[Note: several of the artists who participated in the Studio 35 sessions are sculptors, including Louise Bourgeois, David Hare, Herbert Ferber, and Richard Lippold, whose work is included in a subsidiary exhibition at MoMA, Abstract Expressionist New York: Rock, Paper, Scissors. This is in itself a curatorial decision that maintains the canon rather than transforming it by recreating the complexity of an art movement: the artists around the table at Studio 35 questioned whether they were in fact part of a community, and there was an uncomfortable silence around the dominance of painting, but sculptors and painters, as well as future stars and so-called “minor artists,” before history had fixed that determination, were around the table. Now they have been separated—on what ground we can’t know, since one sculptor at least, David Smith, is in the main show (though that show significantly is subtitled “The Big Picture”). If one, why not others?

For a much livelier, intimate, and challenging revision of the New York School, look to Action Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976, the excellent catalogue of an excellent show, held at the Jewish Museum in 2008, curated by Norman Kleeblatt where the aesthetic programs and critical approaches of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were used to frame the intellectual and aesthetic ferment of a period and a place. In an appropriately more intimate space were great examples of many of the same artists now in the two MoMA exhibitions, sculpture and painting together, with ephemera presented with greater moment, and critical text, so important to the period, used as the fulcrum]

What the MoMA exhibition does do is engage in some significant acts of what looks like retribution: as I walked through the show I couldn’t help but take notice not just of who was in it, but how each artist was placed and represented.

This led me to think about the work through the lens of the Brand. At first this seems to contradict approaches to art-making that are characteristic of the period, such as the picture plane as the arena of existential search. But of course most of the artists in the first two generations of Abstract Expressionism became known for a particular stylistic brand: drip (Pollock), zip (Newman), stroke (de Kooning), chroma (Rothko).

Here then are some major case histories from the main exhibition.

Case History I: Barnett Newman
The most glorious room in the exhibition devoted to an individual artist contains the paintings of Barnett Newman. At the threshold you are confronted with Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), a huge painting seen, as I think it should be, on a wall that does not dwarf it but rather allows the viewer to experience her own scale. Newman wrote: “I don’t manipulate or play with space. I declare it,” and “One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there. And one of the nicest things that anybody ever said about my work is…that standing in front of my paintings [you] had sense of your own scale.” To enhance this experience the Museum has placed The Wild (1950) on the next wall, to the right of Vir. One isolated vertical paint stroke, only one and half inch wide but the same height as Vir, The Wild is the opposite of all-over painting as espoused by one of Newman’s champions, Clement Greenberg: it is sculptural, it is even theatrical, but the two works create a pincer movement that assert or challenge the viewer’s sense of proportion, dimensionality, and measure just as Newman wished.

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis and The Wild, Installation view, MoMA

Newman’s work is well served by the proportions of the room, which are as close to perfect in relation to the scale of the work and the experience of the viewer, not too big, not too small. For Newman’s 1951 show at Betty Parsons Gallery, in which Vir Heroicus Sublimis was first exhibited, Newman tacked the following statement to the wall,

“There is a tendency to look at large paintings from a distance.
The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.”

This statement is significant because as the show progresses, the proportions of the rooms lose cohesion and the viewing experience takes on a more alienating sense of wandering through vast cold halls filled with works with sometimes uncertain, sometimes overdetermined relations to each other, and less authentic or effective relation to the scale of the viewer. But more on that later.

Barnett Newman, Onement III and Onement I (right), MoMA installation view

The best part of the Newman room though is visible when you turn your back to Vir and see Onement III and Onement I (1948) framing the doorway. Newman spoke often of Onement I and much has been written about it, and I highly recommend all of it: Yve-Alain Bois’s essay “Perceiving Newman” in Painting as Model is a terrific account of Newman’s discourse on figure/ground with one paragraph in it in particular one of the best I’ve ever read on a single painting, on how it achieves what the artist wished to achieve, but himself had to take time to understand that he had achieved. And in what turned out to be his last interview, filmed two months before his death, by Emile de Antonio for his essential art documentary, Painters Painting, Newman spoke of the meaning of his first Onement.

“I recall my first painting –that is, where I felt that I had moved into an area for myself that was completely me—I painted on my birthday in 1948 [young artists today take note, Newman was then 43 years old].  It’s a small red painting, and I put a piece of tape in the middle and I put my so called “zip.” Actually it’s not a stripe. Now, the thing that I would like to say about that is that I did not decide, either in ’48 or ’47 or ’46 or whatever it was, “I’m going to paint stripes.” I did not make an arbitrary, abstract decision. … I was filling the canvas in order to make that thing very, very viable. And in that sense I was emptying the painting by assuming the thing empty, and suddenly in this particular painting, Onement, I realized that I had filled the surface, it was full, and from then on those other things looked to me atmosphere. … I feel that my zip does not divide my paintings…it does the exact opposite,: it unites the thing. It creates a totality.” (from Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews)

Barnett Newman, Onement I (1948), detail, oil on canvas and oil on masking tape, painting dimensions 27 1/4″x 16 1/4″

Given so much language surrounding it, so many claims for its importance to the history of painting, Onement I offers an important lesson. A work that the artist and art history recognized as a major gesture in the debate over figure/ground is in the flesh a small, intimate, almost touchingly modest work, according to my definition of modest painting (in my essay of the same name in A Decade of Negative Thinking) as not necessarily painting that is small (although Onement I is small) but which is ambitious for painting itself, beyond the ego ambition of the individual artist. By the standard established by Pollock and by Newman in works like Vir, and even in comparison to Onement III, it’s tiny, its surface is fragile, the orange zip dry and crackled with time. It could not be a more contingent work. The work that established the Newman brand itself is itself unbranded, it has the freshness and tenderness of a first dance as much as it is, and was intended to be, an aesthetic manifesto.

I assume Newman would despise the idea that his manifesto, his conceptual and physical gesture in the history of art, embodied in the “zip” might ever be seen as a brand, but the paintings hold together and hold forth. They retain their difficulty yet exude a minimalist beauty they have helped to teach us to appreciate. Brand Newman worked for him as a metaphysical stance and it still works.

Case History II: Mark Rothko
Rothko’s floating rectangles are as identifiable as Newman’s “zips” or Pollock’s “drips.” And in this exhibition the paintings that make up the Rothko brand are given a big room but in it the more familiar “Rothkos” are overwhelmed by a huge, gloriously colored painting, No. 1 (Untitled) (1948), one I had never seen exhibited at MoMA before, an expanse of glowing yellows, salmon, with relational marks in some cases almost like bits of color tape, with a free-flowing composition and less didactically reduced visual program than what we know as “Rothko.” In the light of the dark depressing minimalist black and grey late Rothko hung at the end of one of the later rooms in the show, [Untitled, (1969-1970)] you can begin to get the idea of how having a brand can be a lethal prison for the artist and for the audience too.

Mark Rothko, No. 1 (Untitled), (1948), oil on canvas, 8′ 10 3/8″x9′ 9 1/4″

Mark Rothko, No.1 (Untitled), (1948), detail

I bet we don’t get to see this lovely off-brand, pre-brand painting again for a long time.

Jack Tworkov (represented in the exhibition by The Wheel, 1953) spoke in an interview about Rothko, for whom he had great respect and personal compassion: “Rothko, in one conversation, said that it was a very great struggle for him to find himself as a painter and that he risked something in developing this new form that he had. And when he had it and finally an identity and it was his, he just couldn’t let it go. And towards the end he admitted tremendous boredom. He was bored and yet did not know how to make a change. And change might have meant a kind of impairment of his identity. And he was going to hold on to that…for the Rothko image. […] He did. In some way, it’s admirable and another it’s kind of tragic.” (from The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov)

It’s always dangerous to fall into the biographical fallacy but seeing the last Rothko in the show, it’s hard not to wonder about chicken vs. egg: did Rothko paint depressing, formally and chromatically evacuated paintings because he was suicidally depressed, or was he suicidally depressed because he had painted himself into a dead end for his painting? No.1 (Untitled) (1948) is undoubtedly a “transitional work”  but scrolling back to that work and scrolling forward to the final paintings, you begin to wonder what other stories might have been possible.

Cast History III: Willem de Kooning.
At the opening I felt that de Kooning had been utterly screwed by the show, given neither a room of his own, nor a grouping of work. Woman I (1950-52) is given a wall, but the spot it occupies in the narrative marks the point in the show where the installation becomes confusing, loses concentration,and where large rooms turn into vast halls where even great works seem like orphans (the scale of the David Smith and Franz Kline room does these artists a disservice as the temperature drops and the corporate quality rises although the same works in another context would feel very different).

Considering that de Kooning was one of the dominant figures of the period, he is surprisingly marginalized. His richly surfaced yet austere black and white oil and enamel abstraction Painting (1948) is tucked in next to a great big elegant programmatic Bradley Walker Tomlin. Valentine (1947), a tender small painting is nestled near Arshile Gorki’s large mounted work on paper,  Summation (1947), marking Gorki and the Master, as perhaps he was, leading his younger friends towards serious art practice and abstraction in the early years. Nevertheless…

Arshile Gorki, Summation and Willem de Kooning, Valentine (both, 1947), MoMA installation

It turns out that MoMA just doesn’t own that many major works by de Kooning –in her New York Times review Roberta Smith refers to “the institutional bias against de Kooning.” They may own the brand: for better or worse, de Kooning’s brand is Woman I more than any other painting. Reams of text will tell you why and MoMA’s imprimatur is part of the story, it creates Brand. But, although it had never occurred to me before, maybe de Kooning doesn’t really have a brand, you can’t say zip, drip, floating colored rectangle, black on black. Sticking a cut-out smile on a semi-figurative expressionist painting is not the same as a brand. What makes de Kooning such a great artist may be something far more subtle, far more interior to painting itself and perhaps expressed best in his earlier works, those that are, again, often described as transitional, from figurative works of the early 40s to even abstractions such as Painting, Attic, or Excavation. But the judgment of the market makes even de Kooning’s biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, seem to subscribe to the idea that de Kooning’s earlier work including his “men” series and his early 40s portraits of women were in some way transitional, therefore, subtly, lesser. Yet that’s what I have always loved about these paintings, that you can see classical representation being wiped away and then, in the early abstractions, expressionism contained by a deeply felt sense of formal discipline. But interiority and brand don’t mix.

In order to see a better representation of de Kooning as a painter, with a greater range from the figurative to the classically abstract, as in Attic (1949) to large scale brushwork abstraction, visit the Metropolitan’s collection: for one thing the Met did not discriminate against de Kooning’s earlier more traditionally representational paintings.

Case history IV: Jackson Pollock
Pollock’s work is perhaps the most famous brand of the Abstract Expressionist movement (here include the whole package: the work itself, so absolutely uniquely recognizable, and so consistent with the ideology of both major critics of the period, and the man–rough-hewn inarticulate Westerner, tormented Orphean drunkard).

Hans Hofmann, Spring (1944-45), oil on wood, 11 1/4 x 14 1/8″, proving that one man’s brand is another’s one-off experiment [see also the work of Janet Sobel

Pollock has his own room with a chronological range of work but something feels wrong with the room: it is too vast, so that One: Number 31, 1950 (1950) is placed to the far right of a very long wall. Its magical and magisterial effect is best achieved if treated like Vir Heroicus Sublimis, on a wall that just accommodates it and places the viewer’s body in direct confrontation and meditation. It’s not that this painting isn’t beautiful no matter what, but even a very large and great painting can turn into a postage stamp in the wrong circumstances. Here it is subtly undermined, seemingly in order to accommodate the sight-line pairing of Pollock’s smaller but bold and rough Number 7, 1950 (1950),  hung unusually high on the wall, with David Smith’s linear steel sculpture Australia (1951). Also in the room are post-“drip” works such as Easter and the Totem(1953) that are generally seen as problematic, the point where Pollock seemed not to know what to do next. Though bold graphic works, they are off-brand.

But so is the first painting you see in the show, Pollock’s She-Wolf (1943), a strong Picasso-influenced painting although Picasso would most likely have defined the animal with a strong black outline which in the Pollock is obscured by a turbulent painterliness which prefigures Pollock’s last works, which are also seen as off-brand (tragically so, instead of, as in She-Wolf, developmentally), although it suggests a move towards materiality, mass, and perhaps even an atavistic need to return to some form of representation, in a way which Guston was able to pursue, when he became dissatisfied with abstraction.

Case History V: Guston
You reach the Guston paintings either by drifting past the truly awful Frankenthaler–it’s so bad I’m beginning to think it might be the most contemporary work in the show! You can also arrive at the group of Gustons just after you’ve hit rock bottom in terms of the loss of concentration of the installation, having passed classic period Ad Reinhardt (he is not rock bottom, don’t get me wrong, but he would spit at being hung without his own space and to have de Kooning’s big, blue splashy, broad-stroked landscape-based abstraction, A Tree in Naples and his own Abstract Painting (Blue), (1952) visible together in a sight-line no doubt chosen for the occurrence of blue in both works. Reinhardt made no secret of his contempt for de Kooning’s expressionism and one of the best bits of ephemera in the MoMA show (see obscure positioning of ephemera on 4th floor stairway landing) is a letter he wrote to MoMA curator Dorothy Miller about how he’s OK with being included in one of her group “Americans” exhibitions so long as “the show is free of Greenberg’s “Heroic-Pop-Artists-Pioneers” of “Abst.Exp.” or Hess’s “Swell-Fellows-&-Old-Masters” and “free of all the “KootzandJanis-Kids” now in their fifties and sixties, seventies and eighties,” i.e. pretty much everybody except himself and especially not de Kooning), and Rothko’s dark end of the soul.

Ad Reinhardt, Letter to Dorothy Miller, 1963

Willem de Kooning, A Tree in Naples (196o) and Ad Reinhard, Abstract Painting (Blue), 1952, MoMA installation sight line

The exhibition includes two beauties from Guston’s Ab Ex period, Painting (1954) with its close knit, highly sculptural web of glowing salmon and pink small strokes, and The Clock 1956-57) where the similar strokes, in darker tones, gathering into a central area, leaving the all-over and beginning to congeal into the suggestion of form. Guston’s Edge of Town 1969) may represent what now is known as the Guston brand, crudely outlined, cartoon-influenced figures and still-life objects, but what makes Guston so meaningful to contemporary painters is that he didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. He believed in painting more than he believed in Abstract Expressionism or even than in his own beautiful contributions to that movement. He ditched Brand Guston I, but he held on to paint, reached back to the past of his early interest in political representation to paint in the present of contemporary politics and to apply the meaning that oil paint could create to the humble details of daily life, a nail, a book, a shoe.

Philip Guston, “Painting” (1954), oil on canvas, 63 1/4 x 60 1/8″

Philip Guston, “Painting” (1954), detail: when a guard noticed me taking close-up pictures of this painting he approached me and instead of telling me to step back, he said, “this is the best.”

Philip Guston, Edge of Town (1969), detail (painting: oil on canvas, 6′ 5 1/8″x 9′ 2 1/2″)

The problem with looking at artwork through the fulcrum of Brand, is that you aren’t really looking at the artwork itself. The specificity of an individual artwork holds visual and intellectual information and each such work should define the artist, rather the brand ending up masking the work, stifling the artist’s progress, and potentially killing the artist’s soul as well as the soul of the viewer who is truly looking.

Barnett Newman, The Voice (1950), egg tempera and enamel on canvas, 8′ 1/8″x 8′ 9 1/2,” with viewer, MOMA

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MoMA Panel: “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now”

The overall atmosphere of Friday’s symposium at MoMA, “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now,”  was more low key than the 2007 MoMA symposium The Feminist Future: Theory in Practice in the Visual Arts. Although the museum claimed the event was sold out, the auditorium never seemed completely full and the overall sense of buzz was subdued, curbed also perhaps by a certain atmosphere of self-censoring professionalism and politesse that was one of the underlying threads of the event in keeping with its focus on art institutions — art institutions in general and MoMA in particular.

MoMA Curators on the Modern Women's Project, May 21, 2010

This was summed up in the third and last event of the day when eleven women curators and Associate Director of MOMA Kathy Halbreich sat at a long dais, with curator Connie Butler and others joking it looked like the Last Supper. Halbreich quipped that however Judas was not invited! She seems like a big personality, warm and funny, with a little looser sense of how things could be done. She noted that 24 out of the 35 curators at the museum are women. For several years women curators working with the encouragement of the Modern Women’s Fund established by benefactor Sarah Peter have been meeting on a regular and intensive basis to reevaluate the collection, go through the museum’s archives in order to discover what work by women artists the museum does own, seek out the gaps in the collection, target acquisitions, and organize exhibitions of work by women artists in all media in an effort to normalize the display of women’s participation in the history of modern art in an incremental manner rather than in a one-shot total museum square footage WACK! or elles@centrepompidou model, to reassess their own canon on a longer-term basis (see my recent post, Stealth Feminism at MoMA).

According to Roxana Marcoci, Curator, Photography, these curatorial discussions and initiatives emerged from a desire for greater transparency within the institution; she described the participants’ organization as non-hierarchical and cross-generational. The nature of this feminist work had forced departmental boundaries to be breached  as researching work by women forced a greater transdisciplinarity. Marcoci said that. before, “departments functioned like Federations,” and Barbara London, Associate Curator, Media and Performance Art, said that before this women’s initiative they were bureaucratized by medium but now there was much more interdepartmental engagement. I wish there had been more time to develop this point further, that is, why looking for women in the collection would impose the necessity to transcend departmental fiefdoms and to what extent now common ideas about collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and the non-hierarchical are part of the legacy of feminism’s critique of monolithic patriarchal power. Marcoci also noted that the curators involved in these weekly meetings “didn’t have the power of governance but of thinking,” and that they “created intellectual capital for the institution to redefine canonical narratives.” I think she was the one who said also something funny, that it was no longer a “become like me and I’ll respect your difference” kind of  situation but something more open.

The curators noted the importance of Kathy Halbreich’s role in emboldening them in their efforts on this project and in “creating peripheral vision broader than vision.” But Halbreich’s response disclosed part of the problematic of women striving to insert a feminist discourse and investigation into a major institution: she said that when she first arrived she had gone around and asked each person “what do you want to do?” and then, leaning in, “what do you really want to do?” She gleaned from this exercise and reported to museum director Glenn Lowry that there was “a lot of self-censorship going on in this organization, do you want to keep it this way?” She said that he gave permission for her to give permission. That feminist activism is often dependent on permission from a more or less enlightened or benevolent individual or set of individuals in an institution is one of the well-known ironies of the history of feminist art in this country certainly: you have the example of Dean of the School of Art at CalArts Paul Brach inviting Judy Chicago, working with Brach’s wife Miriam Schapiro, to bring her feminist art program from Fresno State (Chicago’s Fresno program enjoyed an aberrant degree of autonomy for a state institution) as well as the counter example of the Women’s Building which Chicago co-founded with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven precisely to create an institution where women would do everything and owe nothing to male power or agency.

This question of permission is both the positive and negative side of the whole story: better to get the permission — which can only come from an activism brewing from below anyway — than not get the permission. But any freedom or rights based on patriarchal noblesse oblige or realpolitik can be withdrawn when it serves the institution, which is why continued vigilance and activism are always necessary. Some might take issue with the idea that it is better to get that permission and get some feminist action in a dominant institution such as MoMA but I think it all has to happen all over all the time and over and over again (over and over because feminism has tended not to have a good institutional memory, even if you take into account that we live in an ahistorical time).

Nevertheless, despite the notion of needing institutional permission for feminist activism and clearly having to work within the rules of a large and uniquely important and self-important institution, it was evident that things really had changed in terms of the institution’s sense of responsibility to women artists’ contribution to the history of modern art, in all fields. Here was a cohesive group of highly capable, intelligent, dedicated women who were involved in a long- term concerted development project.

On the other hand there were also indications in the three panels that some things don’t change, that many struggles for and within feminism are ongoing.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Frankfurt Kitchen, Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt, Germany (reconstruction). 1926–27. Various materials, 8’9” x 12’10” x 6’10” (266.7 x 391.2 x 208.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art.

Even on the panel of curators, I occasionally wondered how much history of feminist art was in play (or how much rediscovery of the wheel in the midst of sophisticated curatorial practice) when the curator of Architecture and Design Juliet Kinchin was speaking about a show opening next fall Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen. The kitchen was a contested site, she said, a space of projections. Her enthusiasm was so great the other curators teased her about it but the first major scene of Johanna Demetrakas’ 1974 documentary film Womanhouse came to my mind, the participants talking in 1971-72 about their consciousness raising sessions on the kitchen as a gender-coded site in preparation for a collaborative installation within the actual former kitchen of the house, during which the diverse and conflicting associations the kitchen evoked were discussed in order to develop artworks: for some it was the site of domestic warmth, for others a locus of primal hostility and danger. The kitchen is a contested site, well yeah …

Robin Welsch et al, Womanhouse, Kitchen, detail, 1972


As further evidence of how little has changed in the world of feminism, several speakers mentioned the continued problem posed by the very term feminism, which mostly boils down to the fact that other people don’t like it, therefore it unfairly ghettoizes women who have the justifiable ambition to be seen as operating on as broad a field as anyone else (the male universal where true success exists). On the first panel, “Collections and Exhibitions,” Camille Morineau, curator of elles@centrepompidou, made it clear that the show was accomplished despite considerable resistance from her male colleagues and superiors. She said that despite the fact that French feminist theory (de Beauvoir, Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous et al) has been so important outside of France, “the word feminism is still completely taboo in France. ” Thus a certain amount of deception about the goals of the exhibition had to be built in to its planning: in fact, it was a guerrilla process, “a feminist gesture that could absolutely not appear that way.”  (As an aside, the show by March had clocked in over a million visitors!). Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society, pointed to reluctance on the part of Asian women artists to being associated with feminism or women’s issues, despite clear evidence in their work, at least to western feminist eyes, of engagement with just such issues as well with many of the tropes of feminist art — the body, nudity, woman as sexual commodity, personal experience, domesticity —  — not all that different than the many women in the US who will say they are not feminists but who support many of the elements of what might be considered a feminist agenda and certainly no different than all the women in the western world who do not want to be considered feminist or even women artists but just artists.

Tania Bruguera began her talk on that familiar note, “I am not a feminist artist.” Marina Abramovic began her talk at the 2007 Feminist Future with the exact same statement, different accent, so my ears pricked up . But Bruguera walked that statement back and forward in a vivid, smart and funny way. She had the audience roaring with laughter, which is so great and so feminist, just the sheer joy of seeing things as they are and speaking out fearlessly. Her comments and her activism are always contextualized and her presentation of her various decisions was hilarious: she announced that she had developed a list of career rules, the first was that she would never sleep with a curator — big laugh– well she did once in 1995 — bigger laugh; never sleep with married men (a recent decision — another big laugh); would try to acquire power — said she does not want to react to power but create power; would do the work she wanted to do without thinking of what it meant for feminism. She made the decision that it was more important to be a strong feminist woman rather than a feminist artist. She asked all the men in the room to stand up. About 5 guys stood up in MoMA’s largest film auditorium. If they were straight, they should sit down. That left about 2 guys standing. How many were there for other reasons than having worked on the forthcoming MoMA publication, Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art? I think that left no man standing. “I’ve made my point.”…  And she is right about that: for the thousandth time, why is it that most men think anything regarding feminist art is of no concern to them? Since so much contemporary art by men owes such a debt to feminist/women predecessors, in terms of content, form, and materiality, and so much now fashionable institutional critique has its roots in less fashionable feminist critiques of power, the question becomes ever more absurd.

Other good presentations included Catherine Lord’s very interesting statement on queering the classroom. I look forward to this being online, which I assume it will eventually, perhaps on ArtOnAir.org, which archives many MoMA events. However, fair warning, the afternoon panel “Pedagogy and Activism,” on which Bruguera, Lord, and Indian performance artist Sonia Kuhrana appeared was derailed [warning, we’re going negative for a minute] by a performative but, to my mind , manipulative and self-indulgent, action by Michelle Wallace, who was to be the final speaker on that panel, who was not there when her turn came (and the Oscar goes to, —- … awkward silence, anxious whispered discussion amongst the hosts … —- could not be here tonight so the Academy accepts the award for —-) so the audience was treated to a twenty-minute long silent, amateurish Powerpoint presentation about Wallace’s family and her mother Faith Ringgold‘s work, at the exact end of which, surprise surprise, Wallace wandered down the aisle, and was then given the opportunity to ramble on further (she was “late” because she was so moved/upset/something by a show at the International Center Photography that she had overslept — it was 3PM). ..One thing crosses gender borders: the bad boy or girl always gets more attention. Proof of that, some younger women thought it was the best thing. (I walked out briefly but am glad I went back in to hear the curators’ discussion.)

The photo curators had mentioned that for the first time they had been able to organize a comprehensive survey exhibition on the history of photography solely through the work of 120 women photographers in the collection of the Museum, perhaps because from its inception photography was a more democratic medium and thus more accessible to women (and most likely also, because of the relatively lower cost of acquiring photography, easier to acquire in depth particularly in the earlier years of the institution). There are indeed many wonderful photographs representing major movements in the history of photography in Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, including this self-portrait by Ilse Bing, the woman artist in the act of looking at herself looking, owning and refracting the gaze.

Ilse Bing. Self-Portrait in Mirrors. 1931. Gelatin silver print, 10 1/2 x 12" (26.8 x 30.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Stealth Feminism at MoMA

Next Friday May 21, there will be a symposium at MoMA on Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now (where “an international group of artists, writers, curators, historians and activists discuss the impact of recent debates about art and feminism on exhibitions, collections, pedagogy, and cultural politics.”). This continues a series of major feminism-related events held at the museum including The Feminist Future: Theory in Practice in the Visual Arts, a highly charged two-day symposium  held at MoMA in January 2007. To hear some of the panels and presentations from the 2007 symposium: in addition to the material archived on MoMa’s website of that event, there is a comprehensive  audio archive on ARTonAIR.org (you have to scroll down but will find the entire conference). Next month will see MoMA’s launch of its publication Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art. In addition to these events at MoMA, what sounds like an interesting, interactive program will take place at the Brooklyn Museum on May 22, Making Ourselves Visible, with participants including Hilton Als, Emily Apter, Johanna Burton, and others.

There are currently several small one-person and group exhibitions of women artists and installations of discrete works by women artists  scattered around MoMA although perhaps secreted might more accurately reflect the stealth approach to the serious engagement with curation, presentation, and acquisition of works by women artists that the museum is currently engaged in. There is a lot of very good work by women artists on view at MoMA right now, although aside from Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, you would hardly know about many of these shows from the signage  in the lobby, and certainly would not know to look for or understand the import of some individual installations.

Wall signage, MoMA Lobby, May 6, 2010

The shows include Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now, Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense, Performance 7: Mirage by Joan Jonas, and Pictures by Women: A History of  Modern Photography, (and look for Experimental Women in Flux, opening in August).

The way I became aware of these exhibitions had an Alice in Wonderland Secret Garden feel to it that reflects the stealth approach.

First, during one recent visit, I noticed a large painting previously unknown to me, hanging in one of those out of context, no-man’s land spaces near the escalator bank, on the 3rd or 4th floor.

Lee Lozano, Untitled, 1963. Oil on canvas, two panels, 7' 10" x 8' 4," Collection The Museum of Modern Art

There is some ironic justice to the isolated presentation of the Lozano work: her decision to “boycott” women, taken in the late 1960s and maintained for the rest of her life, is legendary so being placed in the context of women artists would be anathema to her. In fact the painting presents an object lesson of why you can’t assume the gender of the artist from an individual work, since it has every sign of what generally would be consider the epitome of masculinity: the subject, the size of the work, the scale of the image, even something boldly un-ingratiating about the dry paint application. But anyway, there was the Lozano painting, and why had I never seen or at least noticed it before, and what was it doing there?

Then, another day at MoMA, as I was making my way to the Cafe on the 2nd floor, I noticed a curator I know slip into an exhibition hall. Curious, I followed her, sort of  like following Alice down the rabbit hole, and I found myself in a large room (where Monet’s Waterlilies were earlier this winter).

Yayoi Kusama, Violet Obsession, 1994. Sewn & stuffed fabric over a rowboat and oars, 43 1/4" x 12' 6 3/8" x 70 7/8", collection MoMA, in Mind and Matter

In the center was a full size row boat made of purple silk phalluses, unmistakably a Yayoi Kusama, there were elegant minimalist works by Gogo, an embroidered patchwork cloth book by Louise Bourgeois.

Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, (2002). Fabric book with hand-embroidery and lithographed cover, page (ea. approx.): 11 3/4 x 13"

Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, (2002) detail

Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, cover, (2002). Fabric book with hand-embroidery and lithographed cover, page

The artists were all — women? Where was I? I went outside again to check the title, “Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now,” but  nowhere in the introductory wall text is there any indication of the fact that all the artists in the show are women although of course it is evident from the list of artists.

Mind and Matter, Alternative Abstraction, 1940s to Now, MoMA wall text, May 2010

I was particularly struck by a strong artwork in the show by a Polish artist I was unfamiliar with, Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973). The work, Belly Cushions (1965), made of 5 polyurethane foam pillows molds grouped on a low pedestal, has a strong presence: the dark rich color and leathery patina drew me across the room and then there is something compelling and yet strange about the shapes:  the scale is indexical, yet the torso truncated so that sexual indicators are lacking — the work has the intensity of one of Nancy Grossman‘s torso sculptures from the same period without as overt tropes of sexuality —  and the flat back of each form repels a unitary reading of these as molds from real bodies.

Alina Szapocznikow, Belly Cushions, 1968

Why are these particular abstractions alternative? Because the artists are all women? OK — positive thinking — I won’t go there. For more alternative abstraction, look to Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense on the fourth floor, in an open space between an entrance to Painting and Sculpture II and a view of the museum garden.

Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1980–98. Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, wire, and grommets, 7 x 8 x 6'. MoMA © 2010 Lee Bontecou

The centerpiece of the show is an untitled hanging sculpture that Bontecou worked on for nearly twenty years. It has an eerily uncategorizable quality, in addition to being extremely difficult to photograph: it is an ethereal, jewel-like, surrealism-inspired curio — the connection to surrealism links it to many of the works in Mind and Matter: the utility of surrealism as a matrix for work by women artists is an important subject of modernist and feminist art history (though on the other hand the resonance to works by Calder or Tanguy puts into some question the subtitle of Mind and Matter — Alternative Abstractions — in relation to a women artists only grouping).

The most interesting work for me was the least branded. These are beautiful soot drawings. My snapshots could not capture the soft surface, I really recommend spending some time with them: Untitled, 1958, Soot on Paper is a very minimalist exercise in darkness, a black field divided by two central barely lit horizontal lines, one straight across and hard edged, the second curved and soft. Bontecou’s use of soot came from her quick awareness of the aesthetic usefulness of an accident in the mechanics of sculptural process: “While on a Fullbright Fellowship on Rome in the late 50s, Bontecou accidentally made what became one of the most crucial discoveries of her career: she adjusted the oxygen levels in the blowtorch she used to weld sculptures, and  soot poured out. She began to draw with the torch, moving it across paper and canvas. ‘I finally got the black I wanted and a kind of landscape or “worldscape,” she said.”

Untitled ,1963, soot and aniline dye on muslin, is another beauty, much less overdetermined than some of her other more illustrative and instrumental drawings for sculptures. It would be very interesting to see this work next to one of Myron Stout’s works in the collection, such as Number 3, 1954: on a black ground, a series of ochre and white ovals frame a black center, with one very thin black line cutting through the concentric rings but not penetrating the last white band closest to the center. The ochre and white dye appear on the muslin in such a delicate fashion because of the muslin’s fine weave, and the use of dye rather than pigmented matter is such that the surface approaches the uncanny. The black created by the soot is absolute.

Mind and Matter and these other exhibition and incidental installations of individual works are part of an ongoing initiative among women curators at MoMA to delve deeply into the permanent collection in order to find out what works by women artists they already own and then see how gaps in the collection can be filled through acquisitions, with assistance from the Modern Women’s Fund. Mind and Matter is organized by Alexandra Schwartz, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings, and Sarah Suzuki, The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr. Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books; Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense is organized by Veronica Roberts, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture. Performance 7: Mirage by Joan Jonas is organized by Barbara London, Associate Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art; Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography is organized by Roxana Marcoci, Curator; Sarah Meister, Curator; and Eva Respini, Associate Curator, Department of Photography.

The women involved in this ongoing initiative decided not to follow the example of the Centre Pompidou which in the exhibition elles@centrepompidou filled the entire museum with a one-off, blow-out installation of work by all the women artists in their collection. Instead, the group at MoMA is attempting a more gradual, incremental, and infiltrative approach which, in the long-term, may well be potentially more effective at redressing the balance of representation of women artists in the entire museum.

There is a kind of self-effacing anonymity to the whole enterprise that aligns it with Virginia Woolf’s proposition in A Room of One’s Own that “Anonymous was a woman.” But I think it is important to draw attention to the work of the women artists on exhibition due to this initiative and to the women curators whose efforts should be recognized and supported, since I think one can take as a given that their efforts occur in a context of resistance, based on previous histories from all major museums.

In my essay, “Generation 2.5,” in A Decade of Negative Thinking, I go into some detail about the gender distribution of major retrospectives at MoMA since the mid-1980s (the men’s room is very crowded) and I note that in general it has been my experience or at least my supposition based on observation, that most women curators who want to curate a major exhibition of women artists, never mind of feminist artists, are likely to get just one such opportunity in their careers, if their institutions and funders are amenable. If the ongoing MoMA Women’s Project’s incremental, small scale and stealth approach results in their having the opportunity to organize many more, though perhaps often modestly scaled exhibitions, then their strategy is a good one!

I look forward to the conference on Friday, when these issues will be discussed from many practical, professional, and theoretical points of view.

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Looking for art to love, MoMA: A Tale of Two Egos

It’s weird, I wanted to write about a moment of inspiration and instigation I felt in front of one of William Kentridge’s films but for the moment Marina has crowded him out. It’s rare that a woman’s ego trumps a man’s, particularly in the context of one-person retrospectives in a major museum. My title therefore was first intended to highlight the battle for attention between two major artists. But, as this blurred picture suggests, that battle has been won.

Marina and William

But Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is itself a tale of two egos: downstairs, that of the individual living woman whose body you can witness and potentially engage with at some level, and, upstairs, the projected ego of the woman who has hijacked curatorial common sense, whose many incarnations are screaming at you in an unpardonably cacophonous, unedited installation, who has created a kind of Disneyworld of the Spanish Inquisition through her use of re-enactors in stressful situations while rewriting the history of performance art so that she exists sui generis, without any historical context.

I plan to stay downstairs with the living woman but the wall of noise that hit me at the door of the first room in the upstairs show, the trembling naked re-enactors, and the lack of historical contextualization in the wall text will stay with me as well. I will continue to wonder why the museum has not provided visitors with any information about international performance artworks that would seem to be of immediate relevance to this work, from contemporary women performance artists such as Gina Pane and Valie Export, and Action artists such as Herman Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. The tableaux vivant re-enactment of Nude with Skeleton (2002-2005) is for me haunted by Frida Kahlo’s The Dream (or the Bed) (1940). Women artists, nudity, and pain are recurring thematics of feminist art as well as personal obsessions of individual performers. It would be useful to offer that context even if Marina denies it.

Frida Kahlo, The Dream or The Bed, 1940

Even before you get up to the level of the spectacle taking place in the square arena marked by a line of the floor, guards, warning signs, and four stands of film lights, the bright white light from the atrium is already beautiful and enticing seen from the lobby below:

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, from the lobby MoMA May 2010

The first time I went to see the show, April 29, there was still a table installed between Abramovic and those sitting opposite her. I was with Susan Bee. We have seen many exhibitions together over many years and I always value her insights. We circled the square, surveying Marina from all sides — oops, I’ve lapsed into something that is against the rules of scholarly writing: you do not refer to artists by their first name, you do not talk about what “Pablo” was doing in Guernica, but I’ve noticed that a lot of women artists and art historians, whether they know — Marina — personally or not, are referring to her by her first name, sort as if it was her only name, like Cher or Madonna.

I found some of the visuals distracting, especially Marina’s red ecclesiastical garment, which one friend has compared to one of those snuggies, the blankets with sleeves advertised on TV. Many women viewers are concerned about how Marina pees: one artist is absolutely persuaded that the (I’m told it’s a Prada) dress is designed like an astronaut’ s suit with special receptacle panels and some catherization going on in there, another is as certain that she pees into the chair (if you visualize this in further detail it would mean there’s a big hole cut out of the back of her dress, which somehow I doubt).

Nevertheless as we circled the scene with interest, Susan’s comment, after a short while, that  “it’s sort of dignified in a way” echoed my own thoughts: perhaps we had come with a bit of snarky attitude about the hype surrounding the show and were surprised at our response once we were standing there (we did not chose to sit and in any case would never have made the effort to get there early enough or pulled enough strings to score a privileged spot at the head of the list to face Marina).

There is something hypnotically appealing about the whole scene, the lights, the square, the faces of both participants,  the strange shift between proximity to and distance from the two seated figures — it may be an optical illusion but you definitely feel closer to the figures and see the details of their faces and skin in better focus from the South side of the square even though the chairs appear to be centered. The hypnotic atmosphere must also emanate from the artist who is presumably present, intent on each viewer — that is after all the premise of the work —  yet undoubtedly self-hypnotized.

I’m not sure she is responding to the viewers any more intimately than Queen Elizabeth on a receiving line — if anything, the Queen may feel more duty bound to work a display of connection. Yet Marina’s face has a melting blankness which is quite fascinating and there must inevitably be a mirroring that takes place when two beings face each other for any length of time in silence.

This week the scene was visually reduced: the ecclesiastical garment is white  and the table is gone, which exposed both participants to each other and the audience. Since photography is forbidden despite (or because of) the fact that the whole thing is a photo-shoot set, I did a quick sketch of the scene:

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, seen from the North side of the atrium MoMA May 6, 2010

I’m amused that the artist’s effort to control documentation of her work forced me to turn to that old representational technology, drawing. And through the act of drawing, I experienced a strange apprehension of the scene, a perception that I might not have had if I had just held my camera up and waved it in the general direction of the subject. As I drew, I felt that I recognized a familiar form, something about the white dress, the slumping body, the prominent nose:

Jacques-Louis David, sketch of Marie Antoinette on the way to the Guillotine, October 16, 1793

I was not sure of the orientation of Marie-Antoinette’s face in the David drawing until I got home, but meanwhile I walked around the room to draw the scene from the other side.

Mira Schor, sketch of Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, from the South of the Atrium, MOMA, May 6, 2010

I draw no meaning from this coincidental resemblance between an exhausted looking Marina and a doomed Marie-Antoinette although there is certainly a generous dose of violent martyrdom on view in the work exhibited upstairs! If, despite the self-hagiographic-monarchical-ecclesiastical set-up of The Artist is Present, there is “something dignified” about Marina’s effort not to fall asleep in her chair and keel over, and something eerily pleasant in wandering around a light flooded public square, I don’t feel there is anything either dignified or interestingly desublimated about the spectacle of a woman pinned high on a spotlit wall, balanced on a bicycle seat, her arms held up in a pose of crucifixion, trembling with pain.

….

Meanwhile in the back room … see my next post about Kentridge and creativity.

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