Site Specificity: Art & the Mainstream Part 2
Recently the overseers of Versailles announced that it would no longer be showing contemporary art within the French monument to extreme opulence. My first thought was of the Jewish Museum, and how it was eventually forced to return to its institutional roots rather than continually mounting exhibitions of avante-garde art. Of course the difference is that the “offending” artists at Versailles were not young upstarts turning prevailing aesthetic trends on their ear, but established art-stars. My second thought was that it was too bad, because certain artists, like Koons and Murakami, looked really damn good installed in gilded extravagance. Or at least the photos of the installations looked great (I confess to not having made it out to the suburbs of Paris to check them out in person), but the pictures I’ve seen are much more striking than the images of the same artists works in conventional gallery settings, or even seeing their work live and in person in the white cubes of Manhattan.
It leads me to believe that however much the superficial surface of fashion and aesthetics may change from day to day, the deeply underlying cues and codes imparted by extreme wealth probably have not changed that much in the last couple centuries (and possibly for a milenia). It helps that both Koons and Murakami are directly engaged with the codes and representation of the luxury commodity as a subject; where Versailles is the ultimate luxury background, shows by these artists would seem to unify the setting with the object. This unity is ultimately deeper than their busy shining, glittering surfaces. The art in question foregrounds the same expressions of power through capital that Versailles was built to express and house.
The backlash against the Versailles exhibitions connects quite directly to a thread brought up in Hyperallergic’s Mainstreaming Art panel. When addressing the mainstream in relation to Art one needs to be very particular of noting the ground (however metaphorical) one is standing on. It is all too easy to consider the Art world as a series of overcrowded fiefdoms isolated in broad swaths of open geography, but that is only the case if you only follow the money attached to the top one percent. The concept of Art will mean very different things to people in locales away from New York, or other urban centers where artists tend to congregate. Addressing Art for the mainstream means defining which mainstream, which site artists and viewers expect Art to operate in, and by extension how they choose to define what Art is.
I get the feeling that the French traditionalists who so object to Murakami probably have a great deal in common with American cultural conservatives; neither group seems particularly tolerant of trends in contemporary art that are dominating the art scene or attendant consideration of ideas about equality by gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation that accompanies the discourse (I’m also left to wonder if the larger outrage over Murakami as opposed to Koons has more to do with ethnicity than has been previously admitted). While either group probably has little overlap with the larger centralized art world of their respective nations, it may be fair to say that by sheer numbers they represent a block of the population that may rival those who would count themselves as ‘in’ the art world. In my opinion such an example makes it a dicey proposition for the Art to try and claim a relation to the mainstream of the broader public based on straight populism.
As with policy and politics, the number of people interested in art is not limited to insiders only. If people inside the art world were the only ones interested in art, the rising attendance figures reported by galleries and museums wouldn’t be possible. However where the consequences of ceding mainstream discourse in politics can be immediate and severe, the stakes within culture are subtler. While the broader culture’s omnivorous lack of direction can easily consume any small attempt at revolution and spit it back out as a processed and easily consumed commodity (witness Work of Art), the question becomes how to expand the site of the art world so that it can be more inclusive while avoiding the inevitable confusion and cacophony that adding more voices to the discussion causes.
If there are solutions to this problem, they will be specific to the individual and will lie in recognizing that the art world is not a single site, but multiple sites occupying the same geography. Just as the modern city overlays and intermingles political, economic, utilitarian, and various cultural infrastructures, those engaging with Art will have to navigate between sites and situations as diverse as the ivory tower and the bazaar, the palace and the thieves den. How one enters and negotiates the various sites, and at what cost, will be determined by what they hope to accomplish. A young artist will necessarily need to navigate a different terrain than an established curator, who will be not be on the same footing as the moneyed collector. They will intersect at various points and share common ground, but there are significant gaps between their experiences.
These gaps represent the fragmentation of the art world that mirrors the increased fragmentation of the everyday populace. In this regard Work of Art establishes the same link from the art world to the mainstream that TV does to the broader population. It is not that there isn’t interesting and challenging work being made either as art or for television, it’s that amid such fragmentation of audience the only way to profitably address the mainstream is to present a product that is broadly bland and simplemindedly inoffensive so as to fill in the gaps between members of the audience. As the art world represents so many different interests and points of view, the more appropriate question is to the worth of spackling over the idiosyncrasies of its different sites to produce a simple map that can be easily read by the mainstream; how much does Art want to be like TV?