"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 November 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Ars Attacks


[while talking on the phone, do you not wonder what the other person is doing, that is besides talking to you?]

Hey, I've got an idea! Let's
build a museum!


We can put all sorts of cool
stuff in it, stuff we think is
really cool!


Frankie can design it. Jimmy can
paint the pictures. And Ricky
can make one of his big metal

But all the stuff in it has to
be, like, really cool.

Right. Like, in an important way.


All the flubdubbery about two

chic new warehouses for the

exquisitely useless has left

entirely untouched the question

of how (or whether) "high" art

functions in the public sphere

nowadays. People may be going to

museums in record numbers, but

the spectacle of throngs filing

mutely past Impressionist

masterpieces, herded by border

collies disguised as docents,

hardly paints a vital picture.


Indeed, if you believe the NEA's

report, entitled "American

Canvas," you may wonder why

Americans go to museums at all.

"If we look, we will find art

all around us," reads one

portion of the report, "in ...

quilts, knitting, rawhide

braiding, pie-crust designs,

dinner-table arrangements,

garden layouts," etc. The point

of the report is supposed to be

that Americans remain somehow

unconvinced that "elitist" art

is of use to them - and that the

NEA, therefore, must remain in

existence to reach out to them.

Yet the report also states we

attend more art-related events

than sporting events every year.

So which is it - do we want the

lady or the Tigers?


Maybe the confusion stems from

the that fact many folks don't

have much stomach for most

modern and contemporary art. But

then why build such

extravagantly eccentric temples?


[i am often caught typing away while on the phone - i know that i am listening, but my friends seem to think i am not paying attention to them.]

Which brings us to the new kids

in town. As the for the

structures themselves, they're

so postmodern they're

postrecent; to begin with, the

materials out of which the new

museums are made overtly violate

all modernist notions of form

following function. The new

Getty is built out of

preposterously pricey Italian

travertine (US$1,000 per square

foot), while the Guggenheim in

Bilbao is made out the

absurdly expensive titanium,

which the Russians seem to have

dumped at bargain-basement

prices in order to scare up a

little cash for Red Kamels and

Big Macs. This isn't form

following function, it's

materials making a milkshake out

of modernity.


Then there's the fact that many

museums and galleries today are

filled with anxious objects that

don't even know if they're art

or not. While this doesn't apply

to the stuffy old collections at

the Getty many curators

and critics are smitten

these days with the tropes of

failure and the pathetic. This

is all well and good - it means

more pageviews for us, after all

- but it probably means the

average museum-goer leaves

feeling the only art she's seen

is the building itself, with

the installations and

wall-hangings just so many

admonishments to keep quiet and



[which leads me to wonder about the times when i really am not paying attention to them ... like when they cll me at 8:30am on a Saturday and i am still sleeping, or, err, whatever else you do in bed on a Saturday morning ... ]

We don't much care where we get

our culture - or even much what

it is - but after long days in

our cubicles, we do long to

mingle with each other, to

experience some vague semblance

of togetherness. So despite the

objections to the big

blockbuster shows in recent

years, the problem isn't that

museums are now malls. This

seems at once inescapable and

also not entirely undesirable in

an era in which the whole notion of

third spaces has been either

largely discarded or left to

real-estate poachers and

impervious cover cultists. The

problem is that we can't run,

shout, or munch cookies, and

there aren't any blacklight

posters in the gift shop.


Instead of heckling, arguing

with, or hounding artists out of

town, we consume their art

passively, by listening to their

curatorial intermediaries on

headsets and overpriced tours.

And as for contemporary art, it

is (in Andreas Huyssen's words)

"delivered to the museum in the

manner of in-time production,"

the better to feed our

insatiable desire for new,

exotic things to look at. Worse,

the interpretive framework

offered at the really big shows

is invariably intimate and

personal, psychologizing to a

fault the idiosyncracies of

historical context.


[i know for sure that i have been the sole source of bathroom entertainment for some of my friends, i mean, can't they find a magazine to read?  i vote for hearing the typing rather than the tinkling any day ... ]

As Komar and Melamid have shown

with their extensive polling

data, an art whose "democracy"

resides only in such personalism

is usually terrible art. If

there's anything we should

understand by now, it's that art

is a public, impersonal creation

intended to provoke not merely

intimate personal experience,

but also voluble give-and-take.

Cultural memory doesn't mean

much - even if it is stored in a

lovely holding facility - unless

it transcends the logic of the


mass media. What makes us

experts? We've got America's

most wanted painting right next

to our Dilbert wall calendar.

courtesy of the LeTeXan