Somewhat related to the previous post, today's New York Times has a special section on museums. My favorite part is the essay titled Leaving Room for the Troublemakers by Holland Carter. Here are some excerpts.
Now, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the stock-market plunge that brought the art market to its knees, money is again in truly fathomless supply. People think about it constantly, about how much there is of it, spilling out of pockets, oozing from hedge-fund accounts.
Curators find themselves enlisted as personal shoppers to the collectors who swarm through the art fairs. Museums hope these guided purchases will end up on their walls; collectors hope they will serve as tickets to higher ground on the art-world social terrain.
When the painter Brice Marden was interviewed in The New York Times before his recent MoMA retrospective, he talked primarily about real estate, about how many houses and how much land he had bought, or was buying thanks to his phenomenal sales. What else am I going to do with all this money? he asked.
In fact, the more successful a museum grows, the more elitist it tends to become. Social distinctions based on money and patronage can assume the intricate gradings of court protocol. At street level, admission prices climb, reinforcing existing socioeconomic barriers. Programming grows more cautious. If youre laying out $20, you want to see the best art, which often means art that adheres to conventional versions of beauty, authority, genius (white and male) set in a reassuringly familiar context.
An extreme spin on museum populism came into vogue not too long ago, with exhibitions of nonart materials: motorcycles at the Guggenheim, hip-hop ephemera at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Critics surprised themselves by raving over the Guggenheim show. Custom-made bikes, it turned out, are High Design. On the other hand, the hip-hop material, most of it mass-produced, inexpensive and readily available, was dismissed as mere merchandise. What was it doing in an art museum?
It was illustrating, among other things, Andy Warhols canny prediction that all museums will become department stores, and vice versa. Sure enough, here we are and we have to ask the question: Whats the difference between a top-of-the-line Harley, a Tupac poster and a Marden abstraction? Fundamentally, none. They are all brand-name items distinguished by different price tags. Populist or not, they are products of corporate marketing, of the money holders.
One thing it can do that museums can do is clear an alternative space in that culture, a zone of moral inquiry, intellectual contrariness, crazy beauty. In this space, artists can simultaneously hold a magnifying glass up to something called America and also train a telescope on it: probe its innards and view it from afar, see it as others see it. From these perspectives, they might come up with models of a cosmopolitan, leveled-out society for a country in solidarity with the world, in contrast to the provincial, hierarchical, self-isolating one that exists today.The common wisdom of the moment, however, tells us that carving out such a zone is no longer possible. The market, that state of manipulated consensus called freedom of choice, is so omniscient, so all consuming, so universal that there is no alternative left, no margin; no outside, only inside.