Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Museum Versus the Artist

I write this in the spirit of some of my past posts (such "Branagh Versus Shakespeare" and "The Competition versus the Music"), in which I have tried to examine the opposition of forces that, by all rights, should be pulling in the same direction. In this case the artist is Dale Chihuly; and the museum is the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, currently providing (at a charge beyond normal admission) the exhibition "Chihuly at the de Young." A negative review in the San Francisco Chronicle by Kenneth Baker "polarized reader response as nothing else I have written for The Chronicle ever has," as Baker put it. Baker's "response to the response," so to speak, give a fair account of what provoked this polarization:

Quite a few people found the tone of my review ugly. I agree, which is why I reserve that tone for occasions, such as this one, when I see fraudulence or some other real public disservice afoot. As a practical matter, nothing I or any other critic can say will slow the juggernaut of Chihuly's success. In all likelihood, as experience suggests, such a damning review will bring more people, not fewer, to the exhibition.

In my own opinion Baker's "defense" of his position rests of sound principles, not unlike those I try to bring to my own writing about the performance of music:

In today's culture, people need not merely critics to tell them what art is, but also artists, curators, art historians, art dealers, collectors - and the viewers' own education and sensibility.

In the consensus as to the art status of a piece or a body of work, each such participant has something to contribute, and each type of contribution has to be valued differently.

The critic owes his readers not reassurance or even judgment, but a point of view, and thus, an example of how a point of view forms.

Hence, my practice of comparing one artist's works with those made by others. Art is made of connections - connections available to any informed observer - not just of materials and good intentions.

Personally, I rather enjoy what Chihuly does. I was delighted with an exhibition of his work that I saw in San Jose about ten years ago; and I have equally fond memories of a documentary about him that I saw on the (now defunct) Ovation channel. On the other hand, having now seen "Chihuly at the de Young," I rather wish that Baker had directed at least some of his ugly tone for the museum, rather than focusing entirely on the artist. As I see it, the real problem with this exhibit is that "the juggernaut of Chihuly's success," due at least in part to the promotional efforts of the de Young, have pretty much annihilated any chance of a visitor forming a point of view, whether or not that visitor has been informed (or misinformed) by any art critic.

Ultimately, the greatest damage done to the artist in this case is the inability of the museum to deal with its success in attracting a high volume of visitors. Visitors are herded like cattle into a confined space on the basis of assigned half-hour intervals. One barely has room to observe, let alone reflect on one's observations. Can anyone really expect a visitor to form a point of view in such a setting? Furthermore, since Chihuly's setting is glass, often in very large forms that still appear highly fragile, one is haunted by the possibility that one will become a bull in a china shop, a further inhibition to forming a point of view.

In fairness, however, I would probably argue that this particular exhibit is more symptom than disease, the real disease being the tendency of "institutions of culture" to alienate those who come with genuine curiosity. Such institutions are founded to offer a service; but, as I have, from time to time, observed about the "customer-facing" activities of the San Francisco Public Library, alienation rises when the "service business" goes pathological. There is something pathological about the way the de Young handles its visitors, particularly when they come in large numbers, which is, of course, the time when attitude towards their presence should be least alienating. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this matter because it always seems as if the San Francisco Symphony has set a high standard for making the prospect of one of their concerts a highly inviting one. If they can do this sort of thing for a commitment to sit still for a couple of hours, why can't a major art museum be just as inviting?

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