Thursday, July 25, 2013

Should Detroit Sell Its Musty Art?

It's rare when a respected art critic takes a position "against" art. I put "against" in quotes because in this case Peter Schjeldahl isn't really taking a position against art per se, but rather a position that I have endorsed before: why do we continue to romanticize art and its function? Why do we continue to inject an aura into the art object?

In Schjeldahl's view, art-is-art, or better yet, the Detroit Institute of Art's collection is plop art--art whose meaning remains the same regardless of context.
At any rate, they are hardly altered by inhabiting one building rather than another. The relationship of art to the institutions that house and display it is a marriage of convenience, with self-interest on both sides, and not an ineluctable romance.
In other words the DIA collection isn't site-specific art. We're not talking about the Spiral Jetty or Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument. In fact, Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument is a perfect example of why the DIA should sell its collection: there's a difference between having access to art making and culture and having an art collection that attracts tourists (if that) yet ignores the local citizenry.

Hirschhorn's monument takes place on the grounds of Forest Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, New York. Here's an edited description of the project via The DIA Art Foundation website.
Constructed by residents of Forest Houses, the artwork takes the form of an outdoor structure comprised of numerous pavilions. Gramsci Monument will offer a daily program of lectures by philosopher Marcus Steinweg, a children's workshop run by artist Lex Brown, a radio station, happy hour, and a daily newspaper. Weekly programs include a play titled Gramsci Theater, Gramsci Seminars led by international scholars, Poetry Lectures and Workshops led by poets and writers, Art Workshops led by Hirschhorn, open microphone events coordinated by the community, and field trips organized by the project’s “ambassador[.]”
Similar to Hirschhorn's project, I believe that what the city of Detroit needs is hands-on culture-making; not hand wringing. No, not every person should have the chance to see art or to live down the street from it. Rather, they should have the chance to create their own version of art and culture and not one dictated by those who read the New Yorker or those who blog about art simply to create cultural capital.

However, I do part ways with Schjeldahl in his belief that museums bestow a sense of identity and self-esteem "even on people who never visit them." In this regard, Schjeldahl continues to romanticize and idealize the so-called "power" of art institutions while perpetuating archaic and pernicious ideologies of Western culture.

In the end, not everyone "gets"museum art, art criticism or art history. As Mike Kelley once said, you can't foist art on people. If the people of Detroit don't care about art, don't want access to it, don't want to live down the street from it, or simply don't get it, then what's the loss?

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