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You Say You Want a Revolution
December 21, 2005

Art by Karl Gerstner

Karl Gerstner, "There are five revolutions that must take place either simultaneously or not at all: a political revolution; a social revolution; a technological and scientific revolution; a revolution in culture, values and standards; and a revolution in international and interracial relations. The United States is the only country, so far as I can see, where these five revolutions are simultaneously in progress and are organically linked in such a way as to constitute a single revolution. In all other countries, either all five revolutions are missing, which settles the problem, or one or two or three of them are lacking which relegates revolution to the level of wishful thinking."--Jean Francois Revel, Without Marx or Jesus, The New American Revolution, 1971. From the series Great Ideas., 1973, pigmented nitrocellulose lacquer on laminated plastic, 45 x 44 3/4 x 2 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Container Corporation of America, 1984.124.103

On a flight recently I saw so many people reading books by Malcolm Gladwell—three reading Blink (myself included) and one other reading The Tipping Point—that I began to suspect it was a new Federal Aviation Administration security mandate. (At least I would have been on the right side of the law.)

Anyway, there’s a point in Blink that applies to a question raised previously here: whether there’s anything to be gained by introducing more people to art. (New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl says no.) In Blink, Gladwell discusses an album, television program, and chair design that each earned early, enthusiastic critical support, but were met with lukewarm and even negative responses during market testing phases. Gladwell writes:

Market research isn’t always wrong, of course. If All in the Family had been more traditional—and if the Aeron had been just a minor variation on the chair that came before it—the act of measuring consumer reactions would not have been nearly as difficult. But testing products or ideas that are truly revolutionary is another matter, and the most successful companies are those that understand that in those cases, the first impressions of their consumers need interpretation. (pp. 175–76)

Keeping Gladwell’s point about interpretation in mind, let’s consider the art sphere. What bothers me about the declining influence of art biennials is that they serve to introduce the public to art in context. And I think it’s clear that much, if not most, contemporary art has no organic audience outside the immediate art world without that context, that critical mediation.

Take Gladwell’s example, the Aeron. The buggy, skeletal Aeron chair defied the expectations of a plush-loving public. But those tastes changed; ugly was deemed acceptable and the bar for function was raised. Herman Miller benefited from strong support for his design, which allowed it to weather a lukewarm market reception while critics made the case for the chair.

What buffer does the same job for new art that’s difficult (or revolutionary)? Fewer and fewer newspapers employ art critics, who write fewer and fewer inches on art as newspapers shrink. Some say that alternative weeklies face life-threatening financial pressure from the loss of revenue from advertisements and classifieds to online publications and sites like Craigslist. On the curatorial side, biennials  are met with declining enthusiasm; the art world overwhelmingly favors unmediated art fairs like ABMB as the way to survey new art. That’s fine for insiders, but ideally some mechanism still needs to provide an interpretive umbrella to the layperson.

Maybe the case isn’t so dire. Terry Teachout writes convincingly that art blogs make up the gap on the critical side. Christo and Jeanne Claude’s The Gates was a watercooler topic if ever there was one this year—an impressive feat even for sculpture so monumental and visibly situated. And, again, maybe Schjeldahl is right, and art doesn’t need to seek public tolerance to grow and stay relevant.

Whether that’s true or not, the viewing public is bound to feel some distance from contemporary collections if museums aren’t accommodating. Contemporary art is harder than All in the Family, and its strategies can be much more off putting than trying out an ugly chair. I see why so many say the biennial is as dead as a doornail, but I don’t think curators should give up the ghost.

Posted by Kriston on December 21, 2005 in American Art Here


"[I]deally some mechanism still needs to provide an interpretive umbrella to the layperson."


McSweeney's tried something interesting in their last issue. It addressed some of the points you're making. They included a dozen or so high-quality reproductions of contemporary art in with the rest of the issue (oversize postcard-sized), explaining that they were trying to broaden the audience, for the selected pieces at least, since their impact would ordinarily be rather limited. While they didn't include commentary, which is a large part of helping people to "get" art, it does seem like an effective way of reaching a whole group of people who wouldn't otherwise get to see the works.

Excellent post Kriston.

From my standpoint, it's all about the museums... specifically museums that offer free entry to the public like here in DC. As a former layperson with respect to the arts, I would have never found art had it not been for the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. I was free to wander around and let the art speak to me.

To the layperson blogs may do the same thing. You can scour the dozens of art blogs on the net and find a voice that speaks to you at no cost to you other than time. Print critics are harder to work with for the layperson. The layperson isn't their audience and it usually takes some upfront cost to read.

I agree with you. Curators are the doormen for contemporary art. Thank God for places like the NGA, Hirshhorn, and SAAM. They allow anyone to tackle art. Same for blogs. Funny, this site brings the two together wonderfully!

Are you saying that the public isn't well equipped to appreciate a given artwork -- especially edgy, thoughtful artwork -- without critics first providing them with background on the piece and/or the genre and a critique of the art at issue? Isn't that another way of saying that the public doesn't know what's good until elites in the art world tell them what's good?

Don't misunderstand: I'm not making any value judgments here. It might be 100% correct to say that the public needs to be told what's good. I just wanted to be sure I understood the point of your post.

Incidentally, I think the new blog is great and your writing is outstanding. Good luck with it.

Tyler: Because art is hard, and laypeople are disinclined to prefer inaccessible work, but it's important for art (for the benefit of artists, for visual literacy in society) that its audience continues to grow. Of the different models for promoting that growth—commercial pap shows or bloated biennials and so on—I'm willing to accept a few handholds for the sake of a more rigorous show.

The Hirshhorn's "Gyroscope," for example: Lots of curated rooms that bring together themes and concepts, almost like mini-exhibitions. I think that's a decent compromise between the presentation for the viewer who knows what she wants to see and that for the viewer who can't name five living artists.

Isn't that another way of saying that the public doesn't know what's good until elites in the art world tell them what's good?

I think there's a difference between contextualizing, which is the job of good critics, and telling someone what's good. I read magazine articles on artists I normally wouldn't make a point to go see in order to learn what their work is about, and if I might be interested, look closer. I don't read them to simply find out what other people think is good.

This may be unnecessary or redundant in light of Kriston's most recent comment, but:

"[I]deally some mechanism still needs to provide an interpretive umbrella to the layperson."


I'd answer by flipping Kriston's statement on its head. Ideally some mechanism would not be needed. And for the sort of person who spends their time reading and writing comments on a site like this one, that ideal may be close to reality. But given that, for a broader audience, such a happy state of affairs does not obtain, the critical/curatorial role of providing context for the interpretively unfamiliar remains a fundamental one.

The biennial vs. art fair question gains currency mostly in the context of bloated examples of the former that don't seem to offer much in terms of interpretation other than "here's a bunch of stuff out there now", or strained, obtuse themes. In those cases, it's easy to see why someone might prefer the more straightforward and expansive presentation that the major art fairs (as I picture them - very much the outsider here) can offer. I like Kriston's suggestion of the Hirshhorn's series as a counterbalance.

But none of the rooms within the Hirshhorn's "Gyroscopre" are even given any explanation or context. Would three lines of wall text explaining the reasons behind the layout be all that difficult? Without explanations of the thought process behind the installations aren't curators getting off too easy? The average (or even the well-informed viewer) doesn't need a dissertation but some context would be nice.

Museums (especially those in DC) are institutions that exist for the general public and they need to realize that most of their vistors want to learn something and may need a bit of guidance especially with challenging contemporary art.

In response to KT's post, and I hear where he/she is coming from, I believe the curators have contextualized their work. Meaning, they placed three pieces in a room together. That is their job. I think even the general public understands that the placement of the pieces isn't random. The curators didn't put the names of thousands of pieces of art in a hat and draw out three names... voila, an installation! We know there is a reason why a Judd stack is next to Steinhilber's hangers next to Warhol's painting.

I've seen far too many times visitors find wall text and go read it first. Then, as they exit the room, they give a quick glance at the art and move on. Why look when you've already been told what it's about?

The most successful approach to art that I've seen is going to see it with friends. I've had many friends (not art nuts) ask to go with me to a museum. We enter a dialogue about the work and we all learn from it. But, it requires looking.

I like the idea of putting wall text in a handy brochure that someone can take with them. Once they're home they can pop it open and read about the work they saw earlier. Wall text ultimately becomes a distraction. I really enjoy the Hirshhorn's approach.

J.T. makes a good, if discouraging, point. Today's casual art viewer expects wall text - or some other form of explanation - to provide her with a quick summary.

A friend of mine - a biology teacher and high school football coach, who is not at all interested in the arts or literature - recently visited the Whitney. When I met him for dinner that evening, he talked excitedly about Julie Mehretu's paintings. After listening for several minutes, though, I realized he had hardly spent any time looking at the paintings themselves. He was feeding me lines, almost verbatim, from the curator's essay.

Unfortunately, the lively exchanges described by J.T. are increasingly rare, not only because most people aren't initiated in Art World doings, but becuase our critical/analytical abilities have been "dumbed down" over the past half century. Today, most museum goers don't trust themselves enough to look, much less judge.

To answer Tyler's question about why the public needs interpretation with a real-life example: when my mother saw the Ghost Clock at the Renwick, her first response was, "What's so special about a clock with a cloth over it?"

Obviously, if that was indeed all there was to the piece some might still consider it good art. But for her there was an "ah ha!" moment when I told her to read the label and she learned that "the cloth" was made of wood.

There is a distinction here with the role of labels: they can enhance understanding, not aesthetics. In other words, reading the label won't change my mind as to whether I like looking at the piece. But it can help me appreciate the art in the context of the artist's ideas and the place and time in which it was created.

Given the drawbacks to wall labels, I think new technology like blogs both provides an alternate media for presenting interpretation as well as stimulating the conversation between people that J.T. cites as so important.

To paraphrase the old real estate adage: the three most important words in the early 21st century are: context, context, and context.

The reason we need "interpreters" is because many don't think they know enough to make judgements or critical statements about art (as in "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like.").

In order to do away with these gatekeepers, people need to feel confident they can make their own judgements and to connect the art they are seeing with their own experiences.

As long as art is seen as peripheral little attention will be paid to encouraging critical thinking about the context of artworks. And we will continue to rely on interpreters.

Hi KT: I think that teasing out the associations between artworks in a room is one way to come to understand them. (And sometimes the way that works are paired up can have a negative effect on the viewing experience, too.)

What I think is specifically novel about Gyroscope is that the well-done rooms prepare viewers to ask the questions that will lead them to some new understanding, other similar artists, etc., without dictating a solution to them. I'm also no great fan of wall texts in exhibitions and much prefer to take down names and dates and hit up Google later.

The modern art critics of today should also not forget that there are many "online galleries" of the comtemporary artist of today. These online galleries of the contemporary artists are often overlooked. There needs to be some sort of "art review" for just this type of site.

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