Saturday, December 27, 2003

The need to Talk about (and buy) High and Low Art


As I mentioned yesterday, there were a couple of articles of note in the New York Times. First Holland Cotter reviewed a bunch of Nativity scenes around New York (after all it is the holiday season). The thing that caught my eye was this:

Value-laden distinctions between high and low, elite and popular art are old and persistent. Traditional museums like the Met deal primarily in high, though low is constantly sneaking in, often in a non-Western context.
Although elite still rules in big museums, it no longer determines what is art and what is not. A vertical, upstairs-downstairs picture is being replaced by a horizontal model in which culturally related forms with different, sometimes conflicting social histories run on parallel tracks from which they often veer and intersect. Despite obvious contrasts in formal polish, the Met and the Brooklyn Nativity scenes are equally ambitious in concept. And, depicting the same religious image, they share a basic view of the world and its meaning.
There is no better place to catch these dynamics in action than in a great high-low city like New York. And in no genre is that action more transparent than in religious or devotional art. In the examples surveyed below, elite and popular stay apart, switch places, meld together or just disappear, leaving all easy distinctions in confusion, which is not a bad way to start a new year. - link

He's right of course. Montr�al is not a "great high-low city." It isn't even a great "high city" nor is it a great "low city." It attempts to be a "high city" but ends up failing miserably. In order for it to be great in either one of these endeavors, there needs to be a whole lot more focus from the Museums in town. How often does the Met, or MOMA bring in touring shows? How often do their shows go out on tour? Right now MOMA has four touring shows, the Met five. The Musee des Beaux Arts has one as far as I can tell, and the Musee d'Art Contemporain is offering seven shows up (they seem to cost about $4,000 plus shipping and insurance and other hidden fees). Of the seven, three are touring to such hotbeds of culture as Fredericton, Guelph, Whitehorse, and Sainte-Foy. And the other four seem to be stuck in Montr�al.

If the MACM wants to proselytize about Canadian and/or Qu�becois and/or Montr�al art then it needs to get things out to better places. If they want to shout about how high Montr�al is culturally, they need to be shouting it in places where they care; London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Buenos Aires, etc. Or perhaps they need to get low (down and dirty), but until somebody actually comes in and replaces Marcel Brisebois it is going to be tough to see if they are making any progress on either front.

Thankfully the MBAM seems to be getting the idea, although Hitchcock and Art, and Global Village were and are flawed, they are nice steps for a museum to be taking to start.

Then we get to the second article in yesterdays Gray Lady, which talks about the new curators at MOMA. The interesting lines are as follows:

"Much of the job of being a curator is going between: whether between collectors and the institutions, a dealer and an artist, a work of art and the viewer. You're always in the role of this middle person, seeing that as the art of your work."
"When I hear someone say I do my installations all myself, I think, `That's why their installations are so terrible,' " Mr. Elderfield said.
Yet he has not reached his position by being a wimp, and he expects his curators to defend their ideas. He fondly recalled a three-month stint at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where he participated in weekly seminars in which curators presented their work and then endured a frank discussion of it.
Mr. Elderfield, whose enthusiasm for structural analysis reveals a fondness for corporate-style flow charts, wants to divide the curatorial tasks, though everyone is currently occupied with preparing for the reopening. He has placed Ms. Temkin in charge of acquisitions, put Ms. Umland in charge of display and given Mr. Pissarro responsibility for research and publications. His plan is to rotate the positions, he said. - link

Nothing terribly earth shattering as far as news, but nice to hear that discussion is going to be a major focal point, and that the folk chosen for the positions all come from a wide variety of backgrounds. My take on the MACM (and I could be very wrong) is that discussion is not something that is looked upon favorably. I've been trying to get in touch with a bunch of the members of their Board of Directors and it has proved somewhat frustrating to say the least � nothing like not returning phone calls and emails to foster a good discussion.

Then we get to the latest and greatest - in today's Globe and Mail John Bentley Mays interviews Ydessa Hendeles. And beyond the brown nosing and sycophantic behavior by what passes for Canada's National Newspaper, there is a very interesting point that Ms. Hendeles makes:

"But this personal backing has not translated, so far, into enlarged interest by Canadians in the nation's creative culture. "The arts don't have a priority here," Hendeles says. "You don't need to see an art show to go to your next dinner party. You do in New York. Whenever you're pioneering something in Canada, you're pretty much on your own."
"As a dealer for eight years at the Ydessa Gallery, I knew what was missing here. It was money. Unless you have people up here who are buying art, the dealers are not going to come here because there's not much motivation. The ecological system of the art world demands all the components. Not just brilliant artists, brilliant curators and brilliant writers. It needs the whole system -- buying art, too.
"But there's this problem in the country. Become interested in contemporary art, and you can get shot down for it. It is a lot easier to buy a fetal heart machine for a hospital, because you're celebrated for it. If I wanted celebration, I wouldn't be doing it in the arts." - link

Or in other words everybody wants to defend their turf, violently if necessary. I never knew that I would have to possibly wear a bulletproof vest to come into work.

Thankfully there are folk out there like Ms. Hendeles, Stephan Aquin, Dave Liss, otherwise I suggest that one easy way for the Martin government to save boatloads of cash would be to shut down the Canada Council for the Arts.

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