Monday, June 28, 2010

Art as Entertainment

Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant, Ken

Last Friday I saw the play Red. It was about Mark Rothko's struggle to keep his art from being compromised.  Rothko was working on a major commission for the very upscale Four Seasons restaurant in the then new Seagrams Building. He hoped the work would be so powerful it would "ruin the appetites" of the rich patrons, and overcome the Philistines. After a visit to the restaurant, he realized he was being naive. He refused to allow his paintings to be used as decoration and returned the money. This was a moral triumph, but a sad revelation.

Rothko and the other Abstract Expressionists of his generation believed their art was too tough, too profound, to be accepted by the public.  They believed that the few financially successful artists at the time had sold out. When acceptance and success eventually came to them, they became alienated from each other, and alienated from their own selves. Many years after the Four Seasons fiasco, I believe Rothko came to realize there was no hope of keeping his art from being trivialized, and this, plus his alienation, contributed to his suicide.

One of the great traumas of my early art education was attending a party (a "gala”) in Beverly Hills for winners of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) “Young Artist Award.”  The curator of LACMA at the time was Maurice Tuchman -- a Freddie Prinze look-alike who was smart, did some great shows and should have known better. He kept going on about how "cool and trendy" the work was -- treating the art like entertainment, and the artists like stars. The Beverly Hills ladies ate it up, but most of the artists were cringing or, like Alex Smith, snuck out. I realized then that no matter how tough or rigorous the work was, approached in this manner, it was dead.

Mark Rothko despaired of people ever understanding his art, but the thing is, these ladies weren't stupid, and they obviously showed an interest in art. All they needed was education.

Museums are trying to be more accessible. They need to show politicians that they have the numbers and diversity to justify their government funding. Museums now have singles nights, rock concerts, nice restaurants, comfortable places to sit and hang out, and many other ways to attract a new audience. That's not necessarily bad, except when they confuse art with entertainment and dumb down their exhibitions (like when the Dallas Museum trivialized their King Tut exhibition by pairing it with belly dancing. I guess they couldn't afford Steve Martin).

Rather than dumb down they should educate people about art like the Getty Museum did with a recent, terrifically illuminating, exhibition: Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils -- Telling The Difference . Here, from the exhibition website, is an example of the kind of things they presented in the exhibition:

Nicolaes Maes, Dutch, about 1655, Red chalk, Frits Lugt Collection, Institut NĂ©erlandais, Paris, France,
Maes was especially receptive to the Rembrandtesque subject of old women. His image (above) is drawn with less energy than in Rembrandts drawing, which is rendered with forceful lines that change directions. Maes's fine handling of the face and headdress is only slightly more delicate than the finely spaced strokes of thin, parallel-hatched lines of her dress, creating a more uniform finish.
Rembrandt, Dutch, about 1640–1643, Black chalk, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute of Art

Basic stuff, but it gets you to look at the drawings and see subtleties that might otherwise be missed. It was one of the few shows where I noticed people talking excitedly about the art rather than spewing inanities about the frame, cost of the painting, sex life of the artist, etc.

Museums need to be careful. They're fooling themselves if they think they can compete with real entertainment.  If they don't educate the public, if they don't create true art lovers, when the admission price increases too much, or when art is no longer cool, or when the public simply gets bored, museums will lose them.

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