18 August 2013

Canon Fodder, Pt. I: Institutionalized

Truly groundbreaking work: Bern, 1969

Simon recently pointing in the direction of a couple of curious art-related items, via his Retromania blog...

The first being Holland Carter's recent NYT piece about the Fondazione Prada’s recent restaging of the watershed "When Attitude Becomes Form" exhibition, originally curated by Harald Szeemann in Bern, Switzerland in 1969. Cotter tries to situate this event in the context of what he asserts is an emerging trend in the artworld – that of a backward-looking "epidemic of re-enactment fever," pumping the allegation up to near-crisis proportions in the opening paragraphs:

"...Young painters are working in styles that were hot half a century ago. Yesteryear’s performance art is being re-performed. Exhibitions that have been done and done — on Matisse, Picasso, European abstraction — are being done again.

"Has the art industry, noted for its nanosecond memory, suddenly become history-conscious? Is the art market, like Hollywood, nervous about anything but proven brands? Is art just plain out of ideas?"

The re-performance claim we might be a dig at Marina Abramović's recent re-staging some of her "greatest hits," as well as other recent examples. The claim about young painters is baffling due to its vagueness and the arbitrariness of the timeline cited.1

Exhibitions of Picasso, Matisse, et al – museums have always done this sort of thing, usually attempting to mount at least one mega-show by some big-name blue-chip master per annum. If these numbers are up lately, then there may be some sociological factors that account for it. For instance, the recent swing toward re-urbanization over the past decade and a half. With the populations of certain major cities growing (or at least demographically shifting), museum attendance numbers have correspondingly increased, as more people see paying a visit to their local cultural institutions as being part-and-parcel of cosmopolitan living. Many of these institutions have responded in turn by mounting exhibitions that will lure more residents and tourists through the turnstiles. This would account for art exhibitions where name recognition (Degas, Renoir, Da Vinci, etc., etc.) plays a large role, but also for the proliferation of other types of mass-appeal shows that we’ve seen in the U.S. over the same span of time – the art of Norman Rockwell, the art of Versace, the art of motorcycle design, the wardrobe of Jackie Onassis, the art of the Pez dispenser, etc..2

Has there been a recent profusion of exhibition re-stagings? If so, I’ve failed to pay close attention or connecting some scattered dots. The only one that leapt to mind was the Whitechapel’s (somewhat ironic) retrospective of the Independent Group’s 1956 "This Is Tomorrow" paradigm-shifting extravaganza a few years ago, as well as a partial recreation of the IG's "Parallel of Life and Art" at the Royal Academy of Art a few years before that.

I'm inclined to think that if this sort of thing signifies anything, it has more to do with the "cult of the curator" that emerged back in the early 1990s and has stayed with us ever since. And perhaps the curatorial class’s hailing or enshrining its own legacy by commemorating a few grand moments from the past – those occasions (infrequent as they were) when an ambitious, zeitgeist-defining exhibition actually succeeded in corralling a corpus of work which would not only define its moment, but point in the direction that art would (in one way of another) be taking in the years that followed. (Perhaps, then, this might considered the manifestation of an underlying anxiety among some curators -- about an inability to undertake any similarly decisive endeavor in the present-day global art field?) 3

So I'm not so sure about Cotter's diagnosis that this is all indicative of a pervasive condition or trend, as his argument seems to be threaded on an attempt to braid several diffuse dynamics into a master narrative. Perhaps these things could coalesce into a condition of stasis, nostalgia and ouroboric self-cannibalization (a theme which, it seems, Cotter has been rehearsing for some years now), but only time will tell.4

Secondly, there's Simon's other post, which cites two texts. One of these being Dieter Roelstraete's essay "The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art," which appeared in an edition of e-flux some 4 years ago; the other being Claire Bishop's more recent "Digital Divide" essay from last September's issue of Artforum. Each/both of which navigate far more choppy waters, deal with more complicated considerations. Which will have to wait until a Part Two follow-up post.

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1.  Meaning what, exactly? That there’s been a flood of new-gen painters doing work that looks like Frank Stella? Or Jules Olitski? Mel Ramos? Richard Diebenkorn? Wayne Thiebaud? Larry Poons? Ed Ruscha? Alex Katz? Bridget Riley? David Hockney? Richard Lindner?...
2.  This sort of quasi-populist approach is what some critics not-too-long-ago referred to as "The Krens Effect." Add to all this that, during this same period in question, some of the top institution have gone global -- and you have to fill all spaces with something, y'know?
3.  Which is why we're unlikely to see a remounting of, say, of MoMA's 1965 "The Responsive Eye" show.
4.  Admittedly, Cotter includes a qualifier with his choice of the term "art industry," which at least acknowledges that economic factors are at play in some of this. But given the state of the current art world and its markets, such forces are pretty much a given.

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