Last fall, a Yale University undergraduate decided to become Art, and a friend of his was going to be his curator. He wanted to make a stand for the place of art in everyday life. They sent out a manifesto, declaring that for five weeks his life would be on view, providing the viewer checked it out first with the curator. The University authorities said that if he was art, he could have a term credit for letting people watch him. He invited his fellow students to watch him smoke cigarettes, attend lectures, even sleep. He hoped that by doing so, they would be forced to reconsider their own view on the relationship between art and life, to recognize the aesthetic decisions they made everyday, and to speak Out against mediocrity and for ethical considerations.
Well, even if no one was going to rediscover art by watching him take a bath, perhaps the student had a valid point. The removal of art from life, the divorce of aesthetic and ethical decisions from the mundane has reached its zenith. We are a society which has given over the keeping of our aesthetic judgements to professionals: museums, art historians and critics. We go to visit actual works of art in museums almost as an act of homage.
Underprivileged youths in New York have long used graffiti on building walls and subway cars for a dual purpose - getting at the ‘establishment’ and adding an aesthetic dimension to otherwise colorless surroundings. The New York art world discovered the power of these images, and the result was the immediate rise to fame and fortune of Keith Haring, a graffiti artist. Media attention and gallery shows made his work art instead of graffiti. The removal of those images from brick walls and subway cars to pristine gallery walls removed the artist from the ranks of humanity and placed him in a pantheon reserved for those with visual ‘genius’. Instead of being another angry kid on the streets of New York, he is now a rich painter, and his work hangs in museums.
My least favorite museum in the world is the Metropolitan in New York, and my usual metaphor for describing it is to compare it with a medieval road church, built to hold huge numbers of ambulating pilgrims. Large museums seem to emulate those churches in scale and purpose. The Metropolitan covers an entire city block in New York and is more confusing than Bloomingdale’s during Christmas season. Visitors (pilgrims?) come from all over the world to gape and adore and spend their money. The museum feels that its chief duty is to impress its visitors and make them feel insignificant. Even I, a trained art historian who has been there countless times, still feel overwhelmed and a little frightened when entering.
Most of the visitors come for one of the string of blockbuster exhibitions which have become ever more popular since the huge success of King Tut. Like the pilgrimage road church, these exhibitions have a prescribed one-way route to allow the largest number of paying customers possible to walk through the show. The media hype of these blockbusters brings huge numbers of people willing even to line up in a snow storm for the chance of catching a glimpse of such ‘sacred’ objects. Unfortunately, the large attendance they draw is rarely from minority and less privileged sections of society.
Artistic masterpieces have seldom been part of the everyday lives of everyday people. Until recently only the wealthy or powerful could collect art or study it. The press which promotes blockbuster exhibitions and brings in hordes of visitors also seems to dictate their response. If an image is reproduced in a review, that object invariably has more viewers than any other object in the room. If an object is on the recorded tour, it collects a crowd of viewers.
Recorded tours represent the depths to which experience of art has sunk. Visitors are told exactly which objects they should look at and exactly what to look for. Their only positive choice was in deciding to come at all. After that, they are herded through the prescribed course with every reaction and every thought dictated by an artificial voice blaring in their brains. So completely have we given up our aesthetic rights that we welcome enlightenment as if we would be incapable of seeing without such verbal mediation.
Another side-effect of the removal of art into museums is an increase in the perceived worth of objects. The very hugeness of the buildings seems to add to their value. Romanticism taught us that all artists were tortured geniuses living in garrets and totally dependent on inspiration. Because of that inspiration, they are infallible. The creation of a work of art is the modern equivalent of St. Mark writing the Gospels with the Lion at his feet guiding every word. Works of art are perfect. Hogwash! Even artists of great ability have ‘off days’ and a painting is not great simply because Picasso did it. Artistic expression is very simply repeated approximation to some goal or ideal; and there is no such thing as perfection in a work of art. Isn’t it amazing that I actually have to put that into words?
Turner or Rembrandt are simply equivalents in the visual arts of Louis Pasteur or the Wright Brothers in the sciences. The process of making art must be demystified in order for the objects themselves to be admired but not adored; once that happens, museums would give up their place as temples of alienation.
When we walk in a National Park we never think of field biologists and the scholarly articles they write; but we feel inadequate in front of a work of art unless we bring a certain amount of art historical knowledge with us. Most people do not know what to think about a painting until they have read the label.
But we all have aesthetic senses, which we exercise daily. The colors of our clothing and cars and walls of our houses are assertions of artistic judgement. Such choices stem from the same impulses as made men draw on the walls of their caves 20,000 years ago or ghetto children adorn subway cars with graffiti or Cezanne paint the same mountain over and over again.
Perhaps it was recognising this which drove the Yale student to try and bring art back into the lives of his fellow students. The real tragedy of his project was that he could only conceive of doing so through the mediation of a curator. It was the curator who would make all the choices about who could watch him and when and what he would be doing. The underlying assumption of their manifesto - that art could only be available, even in everyday life, through that mediation turns his performance from something silly and arrogant into something very sad. Perhaps he made a true statement about art and modern life after all.
Linda Cabe is an art historian living in London.
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