28 September, 2010

28 September - Untitled the Movie

LAUNCHPROJECTS - Ben and I just watched Untitled (the movie) again. The film is a brutal satire of the contemporary art world and the first time I watched it, as the former curator of the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) and as a current curator of LAUNCHPROJECTS, it hit me to the core of my contemporary art conundrums. It was almost too painful to watch, and I seriously contemplated hating this film. To add to my pain, previous to watching it I had accepted the dubious honor of introducing it for audiences at the CCA. I nearly called CCA's Film Director to back out of the deal. But then I thought about it. And this is the introduction that I gave (omitting the welcoming preamble).

This movie is too true, to painful to ignore. The protagonist of this film creates brooding new music that brings to mind “art bands” such as internationally celebrated artist Mike Kelley’s band “Destroy All Monsters,” and John Cage’s 1952 composition 4 minutes 33 seconds of which three minutes are performed without a single note being played. Installations in Untitled’s fictitious gallery include Maurizio Cattelan style taxidermy sculptures (pictured above, right) and contemporary ready-mades a la Marcel Duchamp such as post-it notes, blank walls, and push pins. A light bulb installation immediately calls to mind Martin Creed, the artist who won London’s prestigious Turner Prize in 2001 for an installation of an empty gallery with a pair of flashing lights.

These are all real art objects, real art starts. The pressing question became HOW do these artist become famous, important, and valued? Matthew Barney covers the walls of the Guggenheim in vasoline and scales the museum, Tracey Emin presents her slept-in (and horrifically dirty) bed, Felix Gonzalez Torres places a pile of candy and a string of lightbulbs in an exhibition space, Marcel Duchamp obtains a urinal, signs and titles it Fountain. All of the above are celebrated as paradigm-shifting moments in art. How did this happen?

It is admittedly hard to accept challenging art. I remember a few years back, standing in front of a Richard Tuttle installation at the Museum of Modern Art asking myself, HONESTLY, as a curator, if Tuttle had submitted a proposal to me as an unknown artist, would I have given him a show?

The contemporary art curator often translates into exhibitions objects that have yet to be defined, much less understood. As Betty Parsons, the first dealer to promote abstract expressionism, described “You can’t put something that’s just been done into history; you’ve got to talk about its creative impact for the moment. A new work by a new artist is not history. It is the present”.

In this movie we see Madeline, the sexy adventuresome art dealer, convincing collectors to purchase seemingly farcical and ridiculous objects of art. While laughing at the absurdity, however, my mind strayed to Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings—drawings he never himself executed. The collector buys instructions, sometimes detailed, sometimes not, and the drawings are carried out by other artists or art students. Talk about a tough sale, but LeWitt is one of the most prestigious and sought-after artists in the world.

The fact is, as an art collector, museum curator, or dealer, it is tough to distinguish innovators from charlatans. Innovators challenge what we believe art to be in such a way they can easily look like pretenders. Charlatans with the right backing and publicity can make it to fast notoriety—smashing and popular success.

Marcia Tucker (pictured above) was the first female curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art and was fired for her innovative approach to the arts and for her solo exhibition of Richard Tuttle. Audiences complained bitterly that it was not art. Tucker went on to found the New Museum, one of the most important contemporary art museums in the world. She forged a career of challenging audiences, and receiving excruciatingly bad press all the while.

Tucker once made an observation that I will leave with you as we turn to the film. “If cutting edge works of art were truly devoid of significance, why should the world of artists, critics, writers, argue, swear, and fight over them? The question answers itself; the trouble is the works do possess significance. They are significant of the spirit of change that within and about us, the spirit of unrest, the spirit of striving". This film, I would argue, is a silly yet shrewd continuum of that debate.