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Column by DeWitt Cheng

Carsten Höller, ''Untitled (Slide),'' 2011, plastic slide installed at the New Museum, New York, 102 feet long.


In the third Indiana Jones movie, the intrepid archaeologist/adventurer, fighting to regain The Cross of Coronado, claims, “That belongs in a museum!” As the ship (named the SS Coronado, incidentally) sinks, his adversary smirks, “So do you!” 


As a writer of a certain age (63), I occasionally get similar responses from young contemporary artists — although usually not so cleverly written or delivered — who are exploring ideas about art that I cannot wholeheartedly endorse, and about which, occasionally, I even have serious misgivings. These areas of contention include “social relations” and other forms of participatory art, politically correct perhaps, but not displacing much water, aesthetically speaking. Nothing much to see here, folks; move on. This lack of affect is considered proof of moral virtue — not catering to wealthy collectors and art-world ”courtiers.” I would gladly consign myself to the ranks of traditional museum types, votaries of culture as mild and benign as the narrator of Fellini’s "Amarcord," teased by the Italian teens of Rimini, were it not for the fact that such veal calves, to use Fellini’s term (the great auteur as a youth was called a vitellone by a disapproving elderly woman), are appearing in greater numbers in the sanctums of art, wooed by management with an undisguised single-mindedness reminiscent of PBS pledge nights. Target demographics are target demographics, and museums need to remain relevant, but still. One shrugs with the best Old World wry humor one can muster, one really does.


This week, a kindred spirit dared to demur with business as usual in the pages of The New York Times. Judith Dobrzynski wrote in ”High Culture Goes Hands-On,” that digital culture affects how we participate in the older, analogue forms of communication — in art, traditionally, the handmade object imbued with aesthetic value (however we define that polymorphous term). She laments, “We text and get texts wherever we are ... We constantly post what we’re doing and where we are ... Even in Europe’s old cities of culture, some people might stop in at the Louvre or the Uffizi, but often just to snap a few pictures on their cellphones ...” While acknowledging that museums cannot remain mired in the past, she wonders if it has gone too far, especially art museums, with their participatory experiences, a far cry from the sedate museum-going of yore, leisurely strolls through cultural “treasure houses filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal” offering beauty and even spiritual solace: luxe, calme et volupté, to quote Baudelaire. She cites Carsten Höller’s corkscrew slide at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and Marina Abramovic’s one-on-one staring contest (my words) at MOMA as especially problematic and typical of the new breed of spectator involvement born of marketing and branding, essentially institutional rather than personal, and wonders what future art museums can have in such a climate, one that I see as entertainment-based, anti-intellectual — even, perhaps, anti-art. Responses to the article varied.


Blogger Jason E. Kaufman considered Dobrzynski’s concerns dispassionately: "Audience engagement is not to be feared, but promoted. We don’t want museums to become amusement parks, but ... occasional hands-on “experiences” won’t ruin the places."


DeCordova Museum director Dennis Kois began his meta-critique by slamming the Times piece as just latest in a series of “anachronistic screeds that have appeared for as long as there have been art museums, and maybe for as long as there has been art, bemoaning the current state of affairs. New “experiences” in art museums, the Dobrzynskis have always groused, aren’t as worthy of contemplation as good, old-fashioned objects.” He concluded, “[O]ne type of art does not cheapen the other ... The very kinds of social experiences, connections, and participation Dobrzynski laments may yet turn out to be this generation’s 'Waterlilies' or 'David.' The rest will be sorted out by curators, critics, public reaction, art historians, collectors, the public and the passage of time.”


Traditional object-based, connoisseurial types like Dobrzynski and myself will have to stop worrying and learn to love “the bomb” of experiential art, or at least to acknowledge its validity. (A while back I was presented with the opportunity to ride a zip line while wearing multicolored fairy wings; I demurred at the lack of aesthetic distance.) The new audiences will bring new energy and enthusiasm (and financial support) to the museums. But I wonder: how will the new-tech society of the spectacle — remember when this term was pejorative, not so long ago? — develop a critical aesthetic sense about cultural artifacts. These are, in the words of Havelock Ellis, “the stored honey of human experience gathered on wings of misery and travail.” What if the spectacles that so many enjoy uncritically become, in a decade or two, predominant? Is art is danger, as George Grosz asked, satirically, nearly a century ago? Anti-art entertainment, new and shiny, seems to have a bright future. And, yes, some masterpieces may emerge, indeed some already have, but they come from thoughtful, passionate human creators, not Pinterest vitelloni.

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