Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Rebuttal: On Jed Perl's "Postcards From Nowhere"

Let it first be said that Jed Perl is here so reactionary that a) He ought to write for The New Criterion rather than The New Republic, and b) He has inspired me--Madonna and Child-loving me!--to write defensively on behalf of contemporary art. Read Perl's article here, and then read my rebuttal.

Let us begin with Perl's thesis, that contemporary artists "replace the there that constitutes a work of art with a nowhere." He is right in proposing that Duchamp is the primary instigator of this "displacement of the work of art," and that, from here, "you can't go home again." He is right in identifying Warhol and Rauchenberg as modern disseminators of the Duchamp gospel, and Koons and Hirst as its contemporary preachers. I don't think that David Salle is remotely important enough to be included in this list, nor is his work appropriately applicable, but that is a small complaint. The larger complaint is that Perl's thesis (more an excuse for a laundry list of complaints than a binding idea) is plainly false. A work on canvas, such as Matisse's Dance, which Perl so fetishizes, is no more a "somewhere" than Olafur Eliasson's Room For One Color—in fact, it is much less so, since it cannot be literally embodied, lacks the intense, immediate, sensory alteration of the audience/participants that the Eliasson piece instigates. Perl mentions the Eliasson piece in passing: "there are lights that turn the space a deep yellow," but that is not what the piece does at all. Because of Eliasson's light installation, the corridor bleaches color from everything you see—in particular, the other people standing around, gaping at the world around them, which has suddenly become the interior of an old photograph, a punk-rock concert handout, or the movie Pleasantville. Everyone and everything is black and white. And when you have finished gawking, and you come out of the corridor, it is indeed like Pleasantville, or, to choose a reference perhaps more of Perl's time, The Wizard of Oz; people look tinted, their color false. It is an incredible mindgame, more than an optical illusion, that Eliasson has instigated. And it's not "nowhere"—it's everywhere, in the corridor, on our skin, in our heads, and lodged in the history of image-making.

Perl next moves to recriminate museum spaces built to house contemporary art. He lambastes the not-spectacular, but neither deserving, New Museum, likening it to an unfinished big-box retailer. I've not seen the BCAM, so I will refrain from addressing it, but he throws, at the end, the SFMoMA into the mix, at which I take personal offense. I have always found the SFMoMA to be the epitome of perfection in museum architecture (not just contemporary spaces, but all spaces). The rooms are of manageable size, as are the floors; the twin spirals that meet at the central staircase limit the rat-in-a-maze anxiety I feel at other museums, where rooms open to two or three other rooms rather than one, and I am uncertain whether I've seen everything, and torn in different directions at once. The New Museum eliminates this problem as well, by only having one gallery per floor. While this type of space served the Unmonumental show poorly, the pieces lacking any grounding or stability on the larger floors, that can be blamed rather on the work shown, not the space, whose warm details, like corner nooks and the inch-wide gap between the floor and the walls, imbue the galleries with much more humanity/craftsmanship than, say, the icy Whitney. That museum, with it's cattle-sized elevator, much more closely approximates a big box retailer; since, however, it has been standing since his younger years, Perl deferentially approves of it.

I haven't been to the Brooklyn Museum for the Murakami show yet (I'm going on Sunday), but I am generally predisposed to loath the man, and I won't speak in his defense here. Koons, however, I will defend, but only because Perl's argument against him is so weak. He states, "Koons and his kind have never been interested in the old avant-garde idea of outraging the bourgeoisie, of shaking up expectations. The possibility that a work of art can disturb us, whether through its style or its content, is at heart a rather traditional possibility, a new twist on the complex emotional exchanges that have gone on between artists and audiences from time immemorial." Unfortunately, Perl has his history of art all wrong (and he should know this, as he compares Koons' monumental post-readymades to Tang Dynasty horses). Art was always made to "massage the egos" of the money- and power-wielding gate keepers—the king, the church, the business tycoons. It was not until the rise of characters precisely like Duchamp that art began to "shake up expectations." And yet, Koons does manage, regularly, to "outrage the bourgeoisie" (Perl seems awfully outraged, and if he thinks he's better than bourgeois, he might need to reread his Marx). What could be more outrageous than Murakami's lasso of cum, or Hirst's diamond-studded skull (which riffs on a very classic artistic and literary motif, in a rather timely way)? A twelve-by-six inch Roman landscape by Corot? Surely, he jests.

Perl, too, is uncomfortable with the commodification of the art object—the making of something initially particular into a kind of "logo"—he here refers to Serra's curling swaths of rusted steel. I wrote recently about Louise Bourgeois' participation in the creation of "logo" art as well—the Spider, of course—and so I am sensitive to Perls' discomfort here. However, dare he say that Matisse's Dance has not become a logo? What about Picasso's Guernica, or Cezanne's apples and pears? What Perl here objects to is the fact that he sees new logos being minted before his very eyes, while he naively accepts the always-alreadyness of logos that were pre-established before his art historical education began.

Perl "wish[es] more museum directors and trustees understood how hungry—and how disgruntled—museumgoers in America really are." Again, I don't think that he could be farther from the truth. Art in America, which has always belonged to the elite, is at long last approaching something that the layperson can engage with and be moved by. One doesn't need to know the trajectory of minimalism to understand Eliasson's 1 m3 Light, although a working knowledge of Tony Smith and friends does deepen its relevance, in the very same way that one doesn't need to know anything about a diaspora to appreciate the bleeding colors and persistent lines of a Kitaj (dare I argue that knowing less here may be more). And yet, because the first is ephemeral rather than concrete, Perl dismisses it as being "from nowhere," and without merit.

At MoMA this past weekend, the Eliasson show was absolutely filled with museumgoers, and they were far from disgruntled. They were, in fact, literally elated, completely engaged and positively vibrant with the endorphine release of pure visual delight. Dizzy with pleasure, they were. Even the grandparents were able to drop their curmudgeonly attitude and wheel about the colored spaces, seeing the world with fresh eyes. I am shocked that Perl was able to shut down his senses and deny himself this pleasure.

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