Talkin' Museum-Talk Blues
"The exhibition will ... interpret the blues as a mode of expression and affect relevant to a broad spectrum of visual art practice. 'Blues' is guided by a revisionist impulse ... The exhibition will be organized around a set of topics ... : the ubiquity of repetition; the performance of abjection; ecstatic and cathartic expression; ... and metaphors of hauntedness." How do you take an exciting art exhibit about the blues and turn it into this? If, in fact, Robert Johnson is in his grave, he's rolling over.
I've been hearing forever how the audience for public arts is aging its way to oblivion and must be replenished with a younger, more diverse cohort. Why, then, do museums continue to speak the impenetrable, eggheaded argot of the academy? If they just want to attract art-history majors, great — but what about the diverse crowds they purport to crave? I DID study art history and can barely make it through the "blah blah blah" above.
Judging by this cool blues show (among many others), the curators are walkin' it, but the museums aren't talkin' it — partly because the curators are charged with writing the marketing copy aimed at getting bodies into galleries. Highly educated folk, curators tend to work in an esoteric, abstract headspace, which is appropriate since that's where many artists reside. That is not, however, where most potential museum visitors live.
Here's a description of an upcoming Dennis Hopper throw-down — yes, Dennis Hopper, the late movie star, who also happened to be a prolific photographer, painter and sculptor.
"The exhibition will be organized in several sections reflecting the cyclical and serial nature of the artist's work. The layout will bring together various groupings of work emphasizing Hopper's interest in Duchampian appropriation of common objects and the dialogue between pop and progressive culture. It will also highlight the ways in which Hopper has utilized a range of styles — from abstraction, the ready-made, and pop art to conceptual and performance art — to further his investigation into the 'return to the real.'"
Why not return a little "real" to the marketing language? Granted, this copy is not "the performance of abjection," but can we at least get a link to a definition of "Duchampian" or, better yet, to a brief biography of Duchamp?
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch is reaching out to an audience that doesn't "differentiate much between stimulating visual art and a new Quentin Tarantino film."
And while I'm at it, once you — I'm talkin' to YOU, Major Cultural Institutions — get the people within spitting distance of the art, why not provide them with some context for what they're seeing?
I recently took in an exhibit of Carl Gustav Jung's "Red Book," which the New York Times called "The Holy Grail of the Unconscious." Who knew Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology, was such a gifted visual artist? I immediately wondered if he'd had any formal training in drawing or painting. The curator of this exhibit apparently didn't think it was important to convey that information.
Nor was there anything biographical indicating why Jung may have been driven to create the intriguing content filling the pages of the "Red Book." I had to look him up on Wikipedia. Jung believed that the human psyche is "by nature religious" and the "Red Book" is full of (gorgeous) religious imagery reminiscent of that found in illuminated manuscripts. As it turns out, Jung's father was a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church. (It might also have been handy to know that his mother was "an eccentric and depressed woman [who] spent much of the time in her own separate bedroom, enthralled by the spirits that she said visited her at night.")
I hasten to add that the copy accompanying and promoting these shows doesn't have to be dumbed down; it simply has to be made accessible to the vibrantly variegated audiences whose participation will increasingly determine the relevance of said Major Cultural Institutions. For that matter, future funders of these august organizations may not have graduated cum laude, as did, say, super-patron Eli Broad. They may well be tech-world millionaires who rose to "major gift" status by sheer dint of ingenuity and timing. It's probably best to talk to them, too, in a language they actually speak.
"A very important part of my excitement now comes from the museum's potential as a platform for engaging a broader public." He went on to namecheck "a whole new audience for visual art, with an entire countercultural communication system of tags on doorways and stickers on mailboxes ... an audience of people who [don't] differentiate much between stimulating visual art and a new Quentin Tarantino film or a band like Animal Collective ... an audience [with] a much more intuitive grasp of visual culture than people had when that term was first used decades ago." He then confided, "As a gallery director and soon a museum director, I am adapting to this new audience and the artists who come out of it ..."
Deitch concluded by saying: "For me, art will never be something just for a rarefied elite; it's not just about understanding the philosophy around how an Abstract Expressionist composes a picture on canvas ... It's all about the development of a community around the museum and making people feel themselves to be truly part of the institution ... And to me, this isn't about getting people in the door to pay fifteen dollars. It's part of an idealistic mission. Art enhances people's lives. I believe there is great reward in presenting art that will stimulate people and maybe even change their consciousness."
Words to live by. Let's hope the communications and development pros marketing and raising funds for museums are as inspired by this sentiment as I am.
Robert Johnson image by Eric Marshman.