How to get people to look . . .

Jeffrey Deitch

The New York Times this morning published a great, balanced overview of the farcical tempest that’s been brewing over the tenure of Jeffrey Deitch at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. A couple months ago, a friend urged me to write about it, but I demurred, expecting someone more informed to do a much better job. Of course, as usual, that someone was the New York Times. As its story lays it out, the financially ailing museum had recruited Deitch to come in and turn things around, which he proceeded to do, by organizing shows and events, working outside the usual curatorial channels, bringing more people and more revenue through the doors, but alienating many supporters with big names. It would appear that Deitch believed getting people into the museum was more important than providing substance over style—for example, by hosting a show about Hollywood curated by Hollywood, meaning a James Dean exhibit curated by artist/actor James Franco, for example. However, he was doing his job. In short order, Deitch increased public awareness of the museum and lured people into the building. Once inside, the public was free to wander around and check out more substantial work. It’s a museum after all. That’s what these places do: offer anyone willing to pay admission a glimpse of ostensibly great art, if you’re willing to find your way to it. (Bread crumbs might work at the Metropolitan, which is always a challenge, though I’ve never tried it.) Long story short, Deitch infuriated a core group of highly-regarded artists and curators who “constitute a crucial faction here,” as the Times put it. Things reached a boiling point with one particular show:

“Particularly controversial was Mr. Deitch’s decision to cancel an exhibition of paintings by Jack Goldstein, an obscure California artist whose seminal work nevertheless remains a touchstone for artists here. Mr. Deitch dismissed criticism of the decision. “I made a reasonable curatorial judgment,” he said, adding that the Goldstein show duplicated material in (a previous show) . . . .”

That first sentence is a classic: a century of art relies on the implications of it. The article quotes Stuart Krimko, director of the David Kordansky Gallery. “There’s a guild-like system of artists in L.A. He made a slight P.R. miscalculation with that one, and it blew up.”

There were resignations. There were cries of outrage. Will there be blood? (Undoubtedly, if only in some exhibit down the road.) I find it interesting and at least a little amusing. People who once had power discovered that it was called into question with the arrival of a new organizational order, so they tossed their cards into the pile and left their ante on the table. Yet beneath and behind the local controversy is something more interesting: the question of whether or not a museum, a gallery, an artist, a particular work of art, needs to please people. Does it need to lure and seduce its audience or viewer with qualities that make it irresistible, or at least arresting and pleasure-giving, or is art something that requires your appreciation. It’s good for you, but you’re looking forward to the moment when it’s over, when you’ll feel good about yourself for having gone through the ordeal and at best, let’s be fair, have more insight into some particular issue or worldview.

That’s a bit of hyperbole that recapitulates Dave Hickey’s argument in The Invisible Dragon, where he outraged quite a few people with his assertion that beauty and pleasure need to be the social initiation fee for membership in the club of art.  He went on to suggest that beauty and pleasure could also be an end in themselves, the sole purpose of a particular work, though that wasn’t his point. A work could convey quite a few nasty, unpalatable lessons about human life, such as some of Bruegel’s political paintings, and yet, even so, looking at those particular paintings is enormously gratifying and pleasurable. (There are exceptions of course, such as Bruegel’s Slaughter of the Innocents, which is a horror you force yourself to view. But it’s a rare exception.) Hickey’s thesis was meant to ruffle feathers—which is funny in itself, since prior to modernism, mostly it would have been taken for granted as a truism.  (Art is beautiful. Of course!) In fact, Hickey’s thesis came to him as an unpremeditated outburst in a gathering a couple decades ago, where he was asked what he felt was going to be important in the world of art, in the coming years. Without thinking and without any agenda, he said, “Beauty!” He spent much of his time after that trying to figure out what he meant, making sense of his own intellectual reflexes. He succeeded, if you ask me.

Hickey took his rule to an extreme by saying, at one point, if work doesn’t sell, if it can’t find its place in the market, then it shouldn’t be put on the life support of public funding, grants, and other means of keeping it going. Wonderful art that doesn’t sell is all too abundant. The fact that it doesn’t sell doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get made. Art doesn’t need to find a buyer in order to be good. Van Gogh. Enough said. Yet I’ve always found Hickey’s notion an interesting counterpoint to the ongoing myth that great art goes unrecognized in its time and is understood and celebrated when it’s too late for the artist to enjoy a good life on the basis of his art making. (I’m nostalgic for that myth myself, actually, in a time when art stars make money early on and enter the One-Percent in your thirties or forties, living like an investment banker from then on. It’s a career plan!)

Seems to me Deitch realized the art in his organization needed to be seen, and he tried to bring people into the premises by the most obvious means available, to tap the hottest resources of his region: Hollywood. It may be nothing more than shallow, superficial fun, as a lot of Pop Art was meant to be, in its day, but it got the job done. It got people interested in what was happening inside the walls. Which was and is his metier. As the article puts it:

No one who ever attended a Jeffrey Deitch party—whether in the mosh pit street fair spun out of the Shepard Fairey show that marked his New York farewell in May 2010 or the annual Art Parade he sponsored in SoHo, which returned to the increasingly suburbanized streets of downtown elements of living theater-style revelry—would mistake them for the usual rubber-chicken fundraisers. “Are you kidding?” said the photographer and arts patron Lisa Eisner. “He turned this town out.”

Turning the town out was the mission. Mission accomplished. The problem is that “turning the town out” hasn’t been the mission of contemporary art for a long, long, LONG time—except with blockbuster shows at big museums, such as the Tim Burton show at MOMA. (Sound familiar?) The result of his success on the path toward making MOCA financially viable? Big name artists have abandoned Deitch, leaving MOCA supposedly vulnerable to the influence of a “market-driven” collector, Eli Broad. The Times quotes its own excellent Roberta Smith: “His financial rescue of the museum four years ago gave Mr. Broad a dominance on the board that caused some trustees to leave and suggested to many people the possibility that the bailout might someday morph into a takeover that would merge the museum’s exemplary collection of art with his own more predictable, market-driven one.”

The article sums up:

“(Deitch’s) success in righting a listing institution whose endowment had been drawn down before his arrival to a sum lower than the price of a single Jeff Koons sculpture seldom comes up anymore in conversation. Whether he will still be in Los Angeles a year from now does.”

Buried in all of this is that dichotomy between high art and market-driven art which Hickey was attacking in his book and through his general outlook on the art world. Whether there’s any lasting worth in the particular “market-driven” art in Broad’s collection, in contrast to the “exemplary” permanent collection at MOCA, is another matter. But what would be the harm in buryiing Broad’s collection inside the museum’s higher-quality one?

This ostensible crisis at MOCA, though, embodies the fundamental impasse of art in the past century and a half: is it possible for art to be great and also actually be something more than a few people want to look at. And by few, I mean tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. That’s a needle in the haystack of human consciousness. Movies reach millions. When someone like Koons begins to get rich, the nay-sayers emerge and dismiss him as commercial—I admit it, I’ve been one of them, even though some critics, like Schjeldahl, have praised his skill. The Deitch controversy is bound up in this attitude that creates the dichotomy between “good” and “people pleasing” to begin with, and continues to justify the making of so much art that sells for big money and yet remains lifeless and empty. Do art and the organizations built around it need to be accessible and interesting and somehow please whoever comes to take a look in order to stay vital, even and especially when they are ultimately delivering something more profound than mere pleasure? Or can art be frustrating, obscure, off-putting, condescending and fundamentally unpleasant—in other words, can it offend you or alienate you as part of its intellectual mission, with the blessing and support of the few who hold the power over what gets shown and supported by those “in the know.” It’s the most significant issue facing anyone making or showing art, unless you want to resign yourself to what Roberta Smith herself predicted in one of her reviews a few years ago: that art may find itself and probably already has settled into the same intellectual ghetto as poetry. In other words, it can be exceedingly good, and hugely worthwhile, but only a few are really giving it any attention. (Hint: there’s a LOT more money in art than poetry, kids, if you’re trying to make up your mind at this point what sort of cult figure you want to grow up to be. But with art, that money gets distributed the way it does in the economy at large as well as in the lottery. In other words don’t quit your day job . . . when you finally actually get one. Good luck with that as well. But that’s another story.)

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