Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the first day of the Avant Museology Symposium at the Brooklyn Museum. It was an experience my wife and I went into with little foreknowledge of the contents. We knew that the general subject matter would relate to the future of curation and exhibition design. I knew that the most inscrutable (least scrutable?) Art History department lecturer from my undergrad alma mater would be in attendance, and I knew there would be some famous curators there. All fuzzy notions. The event happened to fall three days after the United States unexpectedly elected Donald Trump as its next President, and the firmly liberal or left wing audience and speakers at the symposium had not recovered from the initial shock of that upset. In his opening remarks, artist and founder of e-flux (the organization responsible for the symposium) Anton Vidokle quipped that his friends were “depressed and catatonic.” There was indeed a feeling of catatonia or paralysis in the air.
A lecture by critic Boris Groys provided a retreat into the high-minded world of modern art theory, considering the question of whether museums provide art with too much protection or too little, calling up in the process the ghosts of Kasimir Malevich, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, and perhaps most of all Walter Benjamin.
Then the Americans took the stage. Or rather, two Americans and one Briton, though the effect of sudden westernization after two thoroughly Russian speakers was jarring. Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak and Chief Curator Nancy Spector sat on either side of artist Liam Gillick and discussed the (by their admission) confounding results of a 2008 group show at the Guggenheim Museum curated by Spector and featuring Gillick. The show, titled theanyspacewhatever, was a bold decision on Spector’s part to give over the space of the Guggenheim entirely to a group of ten critically acclaimed contemporary artists, with the idea that they collectively would transform the space in ways that challenge the dictates of the institution. Flipping through a slideshow of installation pieces, Gillick and Spector conceded that the exhibition lapsed into a collection of individual works rather than the grand collaborative statement originally intended. There was a wistful, unmoored feeling in the air as these three very established art world figures discussed further curatorial adventures, all the while projecting the feeling that they wanted to burst the bubble of their status and do something. The preview for the panel in the symposium program does indeed use the words “outreach” and “progressive,” but the three speakers, clad all in black and seated onstage on chic modern chairs, appeared comically distant from the America that had a few days earlier so startled and dismayed them. Between them and me lay three rows of mostly unclaimed reserved chairs. The audience, of course, appeared uniformly academic and/or artistic, skewed heavily toward age groups under 30 and over 50. The conversation lurched closer to the present political situation when the panelists called for questions from the audience. I almost spoke up, but held my tongue, cowed by the presence of my inscrutable old Modern Art professor and the knowledge of my own plainspokenness amidst all this abstraction.
The alien atmosphere reasserted itself with the ascent of famed Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist to the podium. Rail thin, the smartest dressed of all, he delivered his prewritten lecture at high speed with head bowed and a thick, not-quite-German accent.
I left the symposium stimulated and happy, but with the firm conviction that the star curators and critics I’d seen on stage could not be further removed from the benighted America they wished to reach out to. They might indeed be actively repellant. It made me sad to realize this, that for all their intellect this critical upper crust could not reach into the center, that they must in fact recuse themselves.
I thought of the election, the moral failure of the liberal elite, the wealthy centrists to blame, and the wealthy people I encounter every day at my fancy restaurant job. Then I realized a directive for the intellectual, artistic class.
My restaurant is owned by a charismatic, creative semi-celebrity chef, married to an artist and friends with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Paloma Picasso. Yesterday, Camille Pissarro’s great-grandson tipped me $10 for fetching his coat. The balance of the customer base, those who aren’t members of the creative elite, is made up of financiers, dentists, and attorneys. They don’t perform academic or creative work, but they are all too glad to express their appreciation of creative and unusual cooking. If they can claim a friendship with the aforementioned chef, even better. My realization is that these people, the plutocrats who so disproportionately dictate society’s course, rely upon the creative elite for validation. They desperately need the friendship, approval, or at least output of the creatively blessed to give their lives texture and meaning. They need to know that when they left this or that Ivy to pursue a JD or MBA, they did not somehow lose out to their friends and classmates who got MFAs instead. They must beat back the encroaching darkness of intellectual oblivion and moral bankruptcy. My recommendation to their more enlightened validators, then, is simply to wield that influence. Withhold validation. Nudge your moneyed acquaintances left, or let them suffer.
On the way home from the symposium, I found my confidence growing, wishing I had spoken up earlier. I decided to take my notes home and send an encouraging, clarifying email to Spector, Pasternak, and Gillick. Then I found that none of their email addresses are publicly available. The end.
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