Saturday, February 20, 2010

Art: Tino Sehgal's "This Progress" at the Guggenheim

I've had more conversations about "What is Art?" than I care to recount. In fact, sitting here writing my previous entry, I was just engaged in a conversation on precisely that topic by the person sitting next to me, who turned out to be a filmmaker. He asked about my blog, and said that he, too, had one. He had started it as a way to talk about his movie, and was surprised that, ultimately, people used his movie, and his writing about his movie, to connect with other people and talk, not about the movie, but about themselves. He was a bit surprised that his art was more a vehicle for human connection than a direct communication from himself to an audience.

This didn't surprise me much at all. I asked him, really, what was the purpose of art if not to enable people to connect with each other? There were certainly periods of high culture in which art was something very rarefied, very elite, very top-down, but that unilateral communication isn't fashionable these days, probably because it isn't very potent. The intensity of an experience is dependent on the degree of the participant's investment. It's hard to feel anything when you're standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting, you here and it there, wondering what the big deal is. But, if you engage with the artist's intoxicated dance, lock in on a line with your eye and follow it, walking back and forth, your eyes zooming up and down, swinging with the paint and letting it lead your tempo, not only do you instantly "get it," you are elated.

But even Pollock is a pretty elitist artist. If no one tells you to engage with the work this way (and trust me—no one will) the painting will continue to hang on its wall, totally separate from you and your life. This is why Tino Sehgal may be my new favorite contemporary artist.

I walked into the Guggenheim knowing nothing about the artist, the piece, or what to expect, which is the ideal way to experience it. (And so, if you are reading this while the show is still up, and you are here in New York, stop reading, go see the piece, and then resume reading. I would hate to ruin it for you.) As I turned the corner at the bottom of the ramp, still rather excited about the smaller piece he had staged on the museum's circular central floor, a red-haired boy wearing taped-up glasses came up to me. "Hi! I'm James!" he said, and shook my hand. I said hi back, shook his hand, told him my name. "This," he said, "is a piece by Tino Sehgal." "What is?" I asked him. "This," he said, making a sweeping gesture with his hands. "This?" I asked pointing to him. "Yes, this," he said, pointing to himself with his thumbs. "This?" I asked, pointing to the tape on his glasses. "Well, not really that," he said. "Anyway," he said, "Would you like to come with me?" "Sure," I said, and he began to walk me up the museum's spiral ramp.

He asked me how I would define "progress," and I said "Hmm. . . Movement. Forward. Or upward." He engaged me in a conversation about this. I said that we were progressing along the ramp. He asked whether progress was inherently good. I said yes, definitively, because of the meaning of the prefix "pro-."

We were shortly joined by a 20-something man. Our child-guide introduced us, quickly recapped our conversation to him, and passed us off. We continued to climb up the ramp, talking with this new guide about progress. He was trying to help us problematize the concept, inviting me to comment that, certainly, if I have something, that's something he doesn't have, so that my personal progress might come at the expense of someone else's progress.

We began to be shadowed by another man, bearded, who joined our conversation for awhile before the 20-something man left us (they all introduced themselves, but I cannot remember their names). This man continued to nudge the conversation; we spoke about the importance of individual responsibility, and what an education system would look like where this kind of mindfulness and compassionate responsibility was taught (for I argued that our current educational system teaches people to be obedient, to accept the status quo, because compassion can be "dangerous," insofar as radical love upsets the status quo. I worried about how I would explain to my children (when I have them) why there are homeless people on the subway, who smell. I asked him what I'm supposed to do when I get on the train with a homeless person who smells. I confessed that sometimes, when I'm feeling very human, I see them and want to hug them, long and hard, even though I know I can't really do that. I asked him what I am supposed to do.

He suggested that the thing to do is to stay on the train, and tolerate them for awhile. I said, "NO—tolerating is exactly the problem. Tolerating doesn't change anything. Tolerating is the status quo. What is needed is radical, violent loving." We had to walk past a pole, and he let me go first. I was just saying something about Jesus Christ when I turned around and saw that he was gone. "Where did he go?" I asked.

And then an old man approached me, and introduced himself. He said that he had been reading an article about the growing middle class in China. He asked me whether I thought it was a good thing that the middle class was growing. I told him that it depended. I told him that, generally speaking, the middle class consumes too much. There's nothing definitively wrong with middle-class-ism, but the Chinese middle class is modeling itself after the American middle-class, and there is something definitively wrong with that. Now, every middle-class person in China feels entitled to a car, as every American middle-class person has one. I told him that the American middle-class out instead follow the Chinese middle-class, and ride bicycles. I told him that the American middle-class eats too much, shops too much, hoards too much stuff. He asked whether I could think of anything positive about the middle class. I told him that I was grateful that, as an American middle-class woman, I had been entitled to an education, and free to make my own living, so that I could marry a man I loved, rather than be given by my family to a man for financial reasons.

The old man asked whether I thought there was any universal thing that all people needed to be happy (aside from food, shelter, etc.) I thought about it awhile but wasn't sure. Love, I suppose now, but at the moment, I was stymied by the concept of universality. My friend suggested "self-confidence," or the feeling of being accepted, and I joked, "the envy of others," which had been suggested in a novel I was reading at the time. Our guide, though, liked these ideas, and said that, in his long life, he had thought quite a bit about it, and had decided that the only thing we did universally need was positive human relationships; connectivity with others. He asked us whether we thought it important to human happiness to satisfy goals. We both vehemently argued against the strategy of goal setting; arguing that, if one sets a goal and achieves it, one often feels disappointed by the results, and the lack of drive after that achievement, and further, if one doesn't achieve the goal, one feels dissatisfied with one's abilities. Our tweedy old man seemed a bit taken aback by our answer, but rather liked it. As we were by that point at the very top of the museum's spiral, he bid us good bye and good luck, and sent us on our way.

All this time, we hadn't much noticed that there were no art-objects hung on the walls. Looking down the museum's spiral, we saw clusters of people, in groups of two and three and four, deep in conversation, looking ahead, or thoughtfully down at the floor, or into each other's eyes, gesturing with their hands. The museum was empty and white, a treadmill for the mind.

My friend, who had "seen" the piece a few times already, and who knows my taste fairly well, had thought that I would hate it. Indeed, conceptual art usually leaves me cold, because I'm hungry for a visceral, physical, aesthetic experience, not just a puzzle for my mind. But, though Sehgal had created no beautiful objects on which to focus, he had invited us to focus on the beauty of the interaction of human minds and hearts. This sounds a little gooey, and I apologize for that, but it was truly elating to go the the museum and connect in meaningful conversation with other human beings, both my friend I'd arrived with, and the strangers who had served as our guides. This is why we go to museums—to think and feel and share—but we so often forget that, either going alone and allowing ourselves to feel isolated in our emotions, or going with our friends and gossiping about the minutiae of our lives, occasionally remarking that we do or don't like something, and rarely talking about why.

The filmmaker next to me suggested that, possibly in the future, films would be pure aesthetic experiences, because the audience would evolve beyond needing characters or plot to talk about, being more engaged in applying film's sensation to their own lives. But I disagree. I think that films are more appealing to the general public than museums because of the human connectivity—the plot's invitation to us to connect with the characters. If museums continue to progress in this direction, art will again mean something. And that is deliciously "dangerous"—an invitation for radical loving.

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