Sunday, September 23, 2007

Curators And Scholars Deathmatch!!!

I was going to title this post “Institutional Critique And Its Discontent,” just to prove to the random graduate student who may stumble on this blog that, I, too, master the lingo. Pfew ! Dear readership, you escaped something.
Full disclosure, for those of my inadvertent readers on the scholarly side who may think I don’t know what I’m talking about: I do. I swear, I do!

What prompted this post was an encounter with a former colleague at a very cool party, a few weeks ago.
My friend had left the museum world almost 3 years ago to attend a Ph. D. program in art history in one of LA’s region local universities. No, I’m not going to tell you which one. The best one of them, yes. She’s terrifically smart.
During the course of our conversation, after I asked her if she was happy with her program, she turned to me and said: “You know what? These art historians, they are not like us”. What??? Did she mean they ate little children for breakfast? Or ignored the use of deodorant? (I'm afraid some of them do).
So I pressed her on, and she continued by saying how academics didn’t care for the art and its interpretation the way curators (and generally speaking, museum people) do.
I was a bit startled, not by her reflection but by the fact that I felt something similar too. I had dismissed my feelings as essentially another proof of my inherent restlessness and my ever-present ability to get bored very, very quickly.

I was fascinated by this conversation because the dichotomy between Academia and museum people here seems so acute I had trouble to believe it when I came back to continue my career in sunny California. I couldn’t understand how people kept on asking me what I was.
Was I a critic? A curator? An art historian? A teacher? A writer?
I still don’t understand why I would have to choose and why I couldn’t be all of the above? I mean, in Europe it’s routine to wear many hats in the art world, if only because art jobs pay so little it is impossible to survive without having several activities. No one can pay the rent by being an art critic alone, freelance curating certainly doesn’t bring as much money as the amount of work that goes into mounting an exhibition should be worth, and all teaching jobs tend to be part-time. None of these separately can cover the insane rents charged in Paris or London, for instance. So everyone does everything and the quality of the work doesn’t seem to otherwise suffer. Actually, Euro art critics (they all teach and some of them curate) tend to be more educated, well-rounded and interesting than their US counterparts. Daniel Birnbaum, Isabelle Graw or Jan Verwoert come to mind.

So I never, for the life of me, even thought I had to make a decision and stick to just ONE of these activities. Also, I am used to the ongoing dialogue in Europe between academics and art people. In Paris I routinely saw Sorbonne instructors and professors alike at openings or simply gallery-hopping. Many museum people attend public lectures by renowned academics. In fact most museums in France routinely schedule conferences, symposia and lectures in the “expanded field” (to borrow a term from Rosalind Krauss). These tend to be free, but most importantly they are part of the regular programming at museums, where it is believed the general public can round up its intellectual education, in addition to aesthetic pleasure provided by the art. Indeed, both are inseparable in everybody’s mind.
There isn’t that much of a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture either and many academics don’t feel threatened by popular culture the way they are in the US.
It is true Euro-Academia tends to be conservative, but there is a little bit more openness and leeway in Europe I believe. For example my friend Jessie Bi wrote his Ph D. dissertation on “Silent Comics” and he didn’t have to flee the Art History Department for some improbable Cultural Studies or Linguistics one.
In addition, at my second (don’t ask) Alma Mater the Ecole du Louvre, roughly 90% of the faculty is composed of curators and/or museum people. It is in fact a school requirement that the teaching body as a whole should have a real art world credential/job/work experience. And everyone publishes, whether it is art criticism or scholarly articles. In fact the Pompidou publishes one very distinguished learned journal, Les Cahiers Du MNAM (a cross between October and Art Journal, but less dogmatic than October), and the Louvre publishes La Revue Du Louvre (sorry, no direct link). So all in all I never really felt there was that much of a gap between the two worlds, with the exception that academics are generally not that much up to date on contemporary art, but they should be given credit for trying.

I had a first inkling of how different things were in the US when SoCCAs organized an event at LACMA called “Institutional Critique And After”. For my 2 non-art readers, Institutional Critique (IC)* is some highfalutin name given to a branch of conceptual/post-conceptual art that finds nothing better to do than interrogate art institutions practices embodied by The Museum In General (not the art schools and the art history programs, incidentally). It’s been developed by artists, most famously Daniel Buren in France. In Southern California the best-known artist is Michael Asher, and in NYC that would be Andrea Fraser, though some think only Hans Haacke is the real deal. IC started as a reflection on the “White Cube” (the always white physical space of the contemporary art galleries) but soon enough branched into a critique of the art institutions themselves, collectively dumped into the The Museum category .
Why The Museum, dear non-art reader? Well, because all artists want to show there and become part of the collections. They don’t critique commercial galleries that much because they know no art dealer would ever be coerced in feeling guilty about not showing them (ha!), nor do they blame Academia because in many cases, they are part of it, and if not they know that even though Academia is where art history is written, it is not where their potential audience lies.

I didn’t participate much in the organization of the symposium itself for family reasons, but Rita G., Da Best Curator In This Town, did work on it quite a bit, but I watched from afar, mostly. I must say I found it funny how an academic organization approached the museum when looking for a host, as they pretty well knew the museum wouldn’t have said no or we would have passed for a bunch of conservatives nitwits unwilling to review our own institutional flailing. Thus being cornered into graciously blocking an auditorium, getting the cost of the symposium organization shouldered more than partially by our institution, the thing had to pursue it course. Didn’t they need us, these Institutional critics!

[In all fairness I'm speaking more generally about the documents I read prior to the symposium than about what went on there, as I have almost no recollection of what was said then and since I don't have the book handy, I'm drawing big generalizations about IC, rather than reporting anything specific debated about at the symposium]

In any case I was a bit taken aback at some of the swipes against The Museum As A General Category Representing The Institution At Large, when really the collective enemy, if there really has to be one, should have been either The Unbridled Market (usually defended by Dave Hickey, absent there) or maybe The Absence of Political Consensus To Support The Arts.
Don’t most artists want to be represented in museums collections or have exhibitions there? Yes, I thought so too. Selling is good for the wallet, but it doesn’t bring in any prestige, let alone historical status. As far as being only recognized in the pages of October or Critical Inquiry, well , that’s pretty much the only place where someone like, say, Silvia Kolbowski has some recognized existence. Not sure she has something going on elsewhere, no?.

Another encounter with a large congregation of academics drove the point home when I attended the CAA annual meat market fest in Boston** in 2006. (Note to Mike and Annie: no, not that CAA. This one. As dreary as the Century City Death Star-looking building, but far less moneyed). Granted, I was still in a catatonic state of shock, owing to a very spectacular car crash on the day where I had to fly in, but even if I make abstraction of it, I still made this astonishing discovery: US academics are NOT funny. But really, really not.

It was winter,snowing and cold, OK but :

a) no one had any fashion sense, regardless of gender and/or sexual orientation (FYI male art historians have an overwhelming tendency to be gay, with maybe the exception of photo people when they specialize in photojournalism).
b) everyone took themselves soooooooo seriously.
c) most people seemed to walk as if they had a broomstick stuck up their a…..
d) no one seemed to care about art itself. Just the discourse about it.
e) conversations were dreadful, boring and generally tense.
f) the gala party was one of the gloomiest, bleakest, dreariest, ghastliest affair I have ever attended, and God knows how many social functions I have been to in my professional art life.

I did stick to my fellow museum colleagues and friends because they seemed so much more real than all these newly minted Ph.D. hunting for tenure track positions. There were a few exceptions, like people from Williams who seemed normal and nice and to enjoy food and partying. Like us art people.
But I never really felt at home until I met with MIT curator Bill Arning who kindly told me about the Giant Art Party there, and when we got there Austen and I ran into Michael Smith! Aaahhh, relief. Smith had just made a new video, where he was taking this MIT online course to become an air traffic controller. Hilarious, as usual. Hurry, someone to give him a well-deserved retrospective! I hadn’t seen Smith in about 8 years and it was nice to see what he was doing. Plus, he is in person a very agreeable fellow. And he has the BEST eyebrows in the entire artworld, and probably the rest of the universe too.

Anyway, what I gathered from these encounters, lectures and discussions at CAA, and at the IC symposium, and from this discussion with my former colleague, was that US academics despise museum people, and more generally tend to consider us as a bunch of largely under-educated retarded trust-fund babies who can’t distinguish between Identity Politics and Post-Structuralism. Not that it is very useful when fundraising to mount a Tacida Dean retrospective, mind you.
My former colleague told me they went as far as telling her how surprised they were at the quality of her work, “given where she was coming from”. Never mind she had an MA, spoke several languages fluently, and hey, she’s smart too! Like, they got her into their program to rescue her from a miserable life of obscurantism in the museum world?
Not only this, but museum staff must be amongst the most over-educated, underpaid demographic on the planet. You would never believe the number of people who routinely hold MA.s at every level: secretaries, registrars, technicians, etc.
The fact that to be a curator in most museums nowadays you have to be at least an ABD, and many, many of us hold Ph.D. doesn’t seem to have registered in Academia. And, oh, you know, these language exams you have to take when doing your coursework? You know what, in museums we have to use foreign languages ALL THE TIME. Most of us are fluent in 2 or 3 languages. We SPEAK them when we go abroad. No, we don’t get our graduate students or TA.s to translate essays and articles for us, we’re grown-ups. In clear, we come from the same world as you, you boring nitwits. We even read your obscure and often poorly written publications, in case we’d like to give you asylum in our catalogues. Yes, that catalogue essay paid for your nice mid-century Danish dining table and chairs. If we were not so busy doing fundraising, maintaining our collection, deaccessing, we would write the essays ourselves.

What strikes me the most with his huge gap is the way US art historians tend to forget that art is object-oriented, even when it’s conceptual (see the upcoming Lawrence Weiner show at MOCA). Duh. It’s very nice to publish stuff about the theory of the gaze or the scopic impulse, but if there wasn’t an art object in the first place, what would be the subject of your savant musings? Art as idea as idea, maybe so, but even Kosuth’s thoughts are embodied in a physical dimension.
Not only this is an evidence (or it should be), but another one is museums are the places where art is physically cared for.
Art doesn’t exist only in the virtual world of slides or jpegs, no matter what Walter Benjamin wrote about mechanical reproduction. Maybe the aura was destroyed in your scholarly minds (and only there, mind you)***, but if you were doing your art historian job correctly, you would bother to check some inessential things such as: size, color, scale, volume, small details, etc. So you wouldn't state gross mistakes because the color on your reproduction is off.For example.

But really, aside from the fact that many, many museum curators are scholars in their own right and often curate groundbreaking exhibitions, what I find compelling is the absence of academics roaming around town to look at the art (with the huge exception of Thomas Crow, who has now departed the Getty for NYU. Tom, we miss you). You almost never see any of the art history various local faculties at openings or even contacting museums to bring their classes and look at the art in person. It seems they all believe art is better viewed in dark classes, watching slides or PowerPoint presentations. I almost never run into scholars when gallery hopping or visiting various museums, with the exception once again of the Getty people, who operate in a research center linked to a museum and not in a degree-granting university.
Lastly, most exhibitions curated by scholars suck. I can name two on the top of my head: L’Informe, in 1996 at the Pompidou, curated by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, which as a totally rigid, formalist, dogmatic installation, totally betrayed the Bataille “concept” (of formlessness/shapelessness) they were trying to demonstrate. And Voici, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (in 2001 I think) curated by someone I like very much and under whom I have done research, Thierry de Duve. It was so poorly installed despite great artworks I felt really terrible for de Duve, who is such a kind and nice man in addition to a first-rate Duchamp scholar (and wrote great things about Jeff Wall too!).
Sadly, art historians tend to be text-oriented as opposed to visually bent. If art history was solely left to them without us**** museum people, it is likely very little art would ever appeal to the public in general. Because you cannot hang art works with ideas and chronology alone: it looks terrible.

Anyway, I’m past 2,500 words and counting, so the result is: academics, you bunch of hypocrites, be more respectful of us or else we’ll boycott your essays in our catalogues. You will have to find something else to pay for your next vacation in Tuscany. And please try to take yourselves less seriously, you're not really fun to hang out with. Maybe that's why you despise us in fact: you are secretly envious of our parties!

*In passing, I find it funny how IC was meant as a critique of The Institution, but its name could as well mean the critique has become an institution itself, as in the Mexican PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party.
** Dear DLC, if I ever have to go back to Boston, please let me know where I can get great espresso. I was miserable the whole time there and I’m sure it’s because I didn’t know where to look. Thanks in advance!
*** a real ambitious scholar should revisit this essay in the light of the 70 years of history that have passed and see how it has stood the test of time. It’s pretty obvious to me that despite some marginal cases of sellout (Magritte, Dali, Impressionists) the iconic quality of the artwork remains.
****I’m including myself even though I’m not working in a museum at present, but I’ll get back home as soon as there’s some room for me.

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