Jerry Saltz: How Museums became playgrounds

Posted December 8th, 2011

Criticism, Shows

Art critic Jerry Saltz kind of hates the New Museum‘s Carsten Höller exhibition, “Experience,” calling it “arty junk food” and claiming that “nothing provides much in terms of form, social commentary, or the willful transformation of materials” in The New York Mag‘s “The Year in Art”:

“J’accuse museums of bullshit! Of ­bogusly turning themselves into smash-hit consumer circuses, box-office sensations of voyeurism and hipster showbiz. This year, the institution-­critiquing art known as Relational Aesthetics—essentially audience-participation art, often work that moves, lights up, or involves living nude beings—entered its decadent phase. Many museums are drawing audiences with art that is ostensibly more entertaining than stuff that just sits and invites contemplation. Interactivity, gizmos, eating, hanging out, things that make noise—all are now the norm, often edging out much else.

I place the beginning of the end at “theanyspacewhatever,” the 2008 Guggenheim group show of “subversive” critiques that remains the most indulgent act of museum masturbation I’ve ever seen—and I lived through the Thomas Krens years. This year, though, the movement went completely moribund. Take as an example Marina Abramovic’s The Survival MoCA Dinner, staged last month for more than 750 people at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. This piece of mega-kitsch included naked women, supine with skeletons atop them, on dinner tables while attendees ate. (One guest reportedly wisecracked “full Brazilian at six o’clock.”) Shirtless male pallbearers carried shrouded bodies about. Although it was only a fund-raiser, it recalled Abramovic’s silly 2010 MoMA spectacle that made sitting and staring at the artist into the narcissistic endurance art du jour. (A group of art-world scolds, including Yvonne Rainer, Douglas Crimp, Mary Kelly, Rachel Harrison, and John Yau, all signed a peevish letter denouncing Abramovic’s L.A. event before it was staged. That too came off obnoxious—less thoughtful critique than thought-policing. These exhibitions bring out the worst instincts in everyone.)

Right now in New York, there’s the New Museum’s Carsten Höller fun-fair of rides, slides, and flotation tank, most of it restagings of past amusements. The show packs the house; viewers feel pleased with themselves for “getting it”; nothing provides much in terms of form, social commentary, or the willful transformation of materials. It’s arty junk food. Last summer saw Allora & Calzadilla’s unctuous Venice Biennale spectacle, which included U.S. Olympic gymnasts performing atop wooden models of airline seats and a model of Freedom (the statue atop the U.S. Capitol’s dome) resting on a tanning bed. It would be impossible to imagine anyone getting anything from these works, except briefly distracted.”

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Image above: Jesse Untracht Oakner