Monday, June 25, 2012

Pleasing the Crowd

...Therefore, art-amusement must be simple, amusing, upretentious, concerned with insignificances, require no skill or countless rehersals, have no commodity or institutional value.
The value of art-amusement must be lowered by making it unlimited, massproduced, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all. 
-Manifesto on Art / Fluxus Art Amusement by George Maciunas, 1965

Alison Knowles, Proposition #2, 1962

In 1965, George Maciunas penned Fluxus-Art-Amusement, a counter to what he saw as the alienating and elite nature of art in the 1960s. He called for a breaking down of the barriers between art and life with the utopian goal that eventually art would be made by and consumed by everyone. Fluxus artists generated works using simple materials and everyday experiences to short-circuit the complexity and pretentious nature of high art. For instance, Alison Knowles’ Proposition #2 (1962) engages everyday props of the kitchen as she performs a common cooking ritual: “Make a salad.” Proposition #2 could be performed for a small audience or for hundreds and always ends with the communal act of sharing food.

While Fluxus artists did call for “play” in art, they still maintained a rigor and dedication to conceptual and creative goals. Their work is accessible, but not “dumbed-down” for a mass audience. Years ago I encountered the friction between art and entertainment while discussing the performance of a John Cage piano work with a group of undergraduate students. It was a lengthy work and we all struggled with how to speak about it. One thing that kept coming to the surface was the issue of pleasure. In the process of our discussion, it became clear to me that the difference between art and entertainment is the level of the audience’s engagement. In entertainment, the audience can remain passive as the work washes over them. Art requires committed engagement, in the case of a Cage work, active listening.

My students chafed against anything that wasn’t immediately “entertaining” and I realized as a teacher, it was my duty to help them learn to experience and think about challenging works of art outside of their comfort zone. I lament that hasn’t been the goal of many recent museum exhibitions. Carsten Höller’s 2011 show, Experience, transformed the New Museum into a fun house, complete with a giant slide, mirrored carousel and over-sized mushrooms. This notice on the museum’s website echoes the amusement park nature of the exhibit:
Please note: Visitors must be a minimum height of 48 inches to use Untitled (Slide) or Mirror Carousel. Visitors under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Due to increased attendance, after 4:30 PM, we cannot guarantee that visitors will have time to use Untitled (Slide) or Giant Psycho Tank. No refunds or return tickets will be issued.

 New Museum installation of Carsten Höller’s Mirror Carousel

While the exhibit promised “experience” it seemed the most pervasive audience action was that of waiting in line. There was the long waiver-signing queue before one even got to wait in the extensive line for each “ride” (just like a regular amusement park). There were also patrons stumbling around the museum wearing Upside-Down Goggles. Being trapped in the elevator with a group of them felt like being the only person at the party who wasn’t stoned, as the space echoed with gasps of “whoa man, everything is upside down.”

patron's experiencing upside-downness

The Höller exhibit was the most well attended show in the New Museum’s history. The same is true of Art in the Streets, MOCA’s 2011 show on street art, which attracted 201,352 visitors. MOCA’s very recent Transmission LA: AV Clubfeatured a multi-media food and arts extravaganza “curated” by Beastie Boy, Mike D and sponsored by Mercedes Benz. In a video interview on Nowness, Mike D says he wants the show to be a “grown up theme park, a six flags for adults.” His “curatorial” vision hinges on what he likes, what would make for cool home décor if you could get all of your art and music buddies together to reinvent your space.

While I like the Beastie Boys as much as the next person, it’s shocking and embarrassing that MOCA's Director Jeffrey Deitch turned the Geffen space over to a completely inexperience curator. It’s an obvious attempt to put on a crowd pleaser with the added bonus of music celebrities and a car show (Benz premiered it’s new Concept Style Coupe at the show).

It is important to get people into art museums, but content shouldn’t be sacrificed for the immediacy of entertainment. We already have lots of escapist distractions in theme parks, movies, malls and the like. Museums need to maintain their role in preserving works of cultural significance and should be investing in education, in finding ways to make challenging works accessible to a wider audience.

No comments:

Post a Comment