August 17, 2012

Elite vs Populist

(Image Source)
In her column in Gallerist NY, Sarah Douglas asked for responses to the statement by Margo Levin Gallery partner Wendy Brandow on the occasion of the closing of their gallery in West Hollywood. ?People are approaching art differently today. They?re not seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions. ? The exhibitions have been such an important part of what we do, and they are no longer valued as much by the public.? The substance of Brandow's statement has become fodder in the growing fight between people in Los Angeles art scene (and Manhattan, as far as I can tell so far) who are choosing sides between intellectual quality (Paul Schimmel and the artists once on the board of MOCA LA) and populism (Eli Broad and Jeffery Dietch). I had been watching this fight brew for weeks, hoping that it would become a mere blip in the news cycle. It seems to be more than a passing quarrel, so I felt compelled to vent a bit:

I don't buy the premise of the split between quality or intellectuality and populism, even though this meme has been promoted by both sides of this nascent civil war within our art world: Schimmel, Levin, Baldessari, Ruscha, Broad... There is no conceptual substance to this meme, not after Pop Art, Sontag, fifty years of Postmodernism, Baudrillard and more. The high and the low have interpenetrated many times over in the humanities of several recent generations.

If there is a root of this problem, if there is a cause of this schizoid split, I would guess that it at the very least consists of the following interlocking complex: the stress generated by spotty history of management within MOCA LA, the extended drought of our economic recession, changes of scale in terms of population and commerce within the art world itself and the sheer youth of Los Angeles despite its status as a world class city. In simpler terms: there is very little money to work with in this situation. While I am an impulsive champion of the the exemplary legacy of Paul Schimmel (in every Schimmel show, one can be certain to find a provocative thesis that must be grappled with, this sadly atypical), it must also be said that all of the stressors listed previously have been addressed dynamically by Eli Broad and denied dynamically by the various putative agents of intellectual quality.

We are back biting each other over scarce resources. This is a neurotic behavior, it borders on madness. We must stop.

I am not a fan of wrapping ourselves with the intellectualist flag because i don't think this is an intellectual strategy. It is reactive and ultimately self defeating, it transforms an avant garde into a rear garde, it is a species of conservatism. Every charge of shallowness can be met with indictments of obscuritanism. It fences off and cedes a huge intellectual territory that had already been settled and domesticated previously. It is vanity itself. It seeks to browbeat its adversary into surrendering filthy lucre while denigrating them for generating it in the first place.

Since there are very few philanthropists in the SoCal region, ticket sales becomes a natural recourse. For those of us in the art world community who are wary of the alienation of general public from the overall art discourse, three solutions present themselves: either seek to educate the public in an attractive (entertaining) manner, further discover intellectual loam in populist themes, or fund the Magister Ludi with populist exhibitions. All of these solutions require a capacity of empathy, a desire to seek resolutions to conflict, and a willingness to overcome the alienation of "the other". If these qualities are some of the ways we describe ourselves, shouldn't we also demonstrate them as well?

Art requires the time and money that remains after food and shelter have been secured. Art museums require people of means (million/billionaires) to voluntarily underwrite their existence. If it is lamentable to some of us that Jeff Koons has been chosen by Eli Broad as the standard-bearer for the Postmodern epoch (?), then where is the billionaire who would articulate a more complex and "intellectual" alternative to headline a museum program anywhere in the world, much less in Southern California?

Posted by Dennis at August 17, 2012 8:15 AM

Leave a comment