Thursday, October 6, 2011

Are Art Museums Necessary?

Several years ago a friend and I drove to Minneapolis for a day and, among other things, visited the Walker Art Center. The Walker is probably the best repository of contemporary art in the Twin Cities and considers its mission to be a catalyst for artistic expression.

The day my friend and I visited they were featuring a show by a group of Italian artists who were active back when I was in school. This was their interpretation of where the modern art scene had left off. My friend, not an artist or trained in the arts in any way, was literally ice cold to it all, and at the time I ended up writing a brief, harsh essay about the experience, which I reproduce for you here.


In the early part of our century Nobel prize winning author Andre Gide gave a lecture in which he declared that it was a dangerous thing for art to get out of touch with the public. “When the artist no longer felt his public close to him... art did not die, it lost its head.” His prescience has all but been ignored by an art world so full of itself that it is now an expensive (taxpayer supported) joke. Said Gide, “The artist who has lost a sense of his public is not fated to stop producing but rather to produce works with no destination.”

No where can the empty folly of the arts be better witnessed than in the Walker Art Center’s current exhibit “Zero to Infinity: Arte Provera 1962-1972.” The exhibition presents a collection of Italian artists’ works that purports to be significant and serious. The show included an audio-visual introduction to the movement. Not one person was in the room watching the presentation. Nor were there people in the many rooms of the gallery. I counted perhaps three paying guests. It was a Saturday, yet there were more guards than visitors.

A friend and I came down from Duluth to pay homage to modern art. My friend, not from an arts background, called our six dollar admission a “charitable gift to an undeserving beneficiary.” I, on the other hand, had been an art major. I was in fact making art at the very period in which this work was created. And if there was any doubt then, there is none now. Modern art has lost its way.

While visiting the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair I had the privilege of seeing a true art masterpiece, Michaelangelo’s Pieta. What I find remarkable to recall is that we stood in line for hours in order to spend a few moments with this incredible work. Where is the art that people would stand in line for today?
Words like “appalled” and “disappointed” come to mind when I reflect on this recent trip to the Walker. The building could be put to better use. How about as a homeless shelter?

To be honest, the vitriol here was unkind though it does bring into focus some of the problems the arts culture is experiencing as it seeks funding from an indifferent culture. Perhaps I need to write a rebuttal to this in order to locate some kind of middle ground on the matter of museums.

In the meantime, what is the role of art in society? Why do artists make art and who should be funding that?

Till the morrow.

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