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Railing Opinion: WHERE ARE WE GOING?

Image By Gabriel Held

Premise: Art has always followed money and always will. But aside from the snobbery about “old and new” money there is money and money and not every commercial transaction is the same. There is a difference between Marie de Medici paying Rubens and Christie’s knocking down a Schnabel to the highest bidder.

With the unerring instinct of a supremely astute entrepreneur in the realm of chic, Monsieur Pinault has chosen Venice as the place for the most disturbingly prophetic danse macabre of our time. Not Paris! Paris in spite of being the Walhalla of elegance is a tough city populated by shrewd, terre-à-terre inhabitants who are alert to crude reminders of what is happening in the world. Not Paris with rebellion smoldering in the banlieux but Venice where even death becomes fashionable: Venice the most beautiful, the most comforting hiding place for our ostrich heads.

Lest there be misunderstandings, the fearful aspects of “Where Are We Going?” (did the organizers intend the portentous nature of their title?) have less to do with the level to which what is called “mainstream” art has sunk—there are many admirable, deeply moving works on display—than with the very essence and intention of the collection.

First of all there is the question of size. As one critic whispered to me (he whispered because he needs his job and will publish not a review but a panegyric): “Questo non è collezionismo. Questo è bulimia.”

The visitor is overwhelmed by the sheer size, by the omnivorous nature of a collection in which price has become identical with quality. We cannot help but be impressed by such sums being spent on such art. When we are told that what is on display is less than ten percent of the Pinault collection, the question of whether it is possible to be discriminating on such a scale should arise. It should arise but it is carefully kept from arising by the sheer clamor of the displays. There have been other blockbuster collections—and the meaning of the word when used for manifestations in the world of art has been perpetually and maybe purposefully overlooked: blockbusters kill. Blockbusters destroy—there is the Saatchi collection, for instance, which may well be as big as the Pinault. But then, the Saatchi collection was a baldfaced bit of self-indulgence on the part of a publicity magnate who knew that any publicity was good publicity. One went to see bits and pieces of the Saatchi collection with several grains of salt in reserve because it was so obviously a collection dedicated to a what-the-hell kind of fun. Now, given the fact that Palazzo Grassi has become a guarantee for cultural, esthetic and intellectual excellence, we are told that the Pinault collection will earnestly reveal to us where we are going. The promise is being kept…alas! If this is where we are going, we’re not going to like having got there.

It is the frivolity at a time of utmost danger that suggests a Dance of Death. This is no longer the era of the Cold War during which there was a great deal of menace. Yet the menace was always kept in suspense. Today, the cold war has turned hot and men, women and children are being killed and maimed in any number of hate filled causes. During the Second World War, there were many art exhibitions of which only a negligible number had anything to do with what was happening in the world. Yet none of the exhibitions shown then were frivolous. Nowhere but in Venice, our most refined, our most delicious opiate could it be possible to read the morning papers and then go to admire Jeff Koon’s magenta balloon-dog who welcomes visitors to Palazzo Grassi.

We are told by advance publicity and by reviews that much of the art in the collection is “provocative,” “transgressive” buzzwords that have usurped the meaning of currently unmentionable words such as “original” or “meaningful.” But is Hirst and Co. really provocative or transgressive? Their works are so clearly a response to the public demand for quick thrills that they are no more shocking than the latest commercial horror film. Pigs or embryos in formaldehyde? Wow! Let’s turn the corner and see what else is new.

Not a piece in this exhibit couldn’t be fitted into one of the many établissements (let’s be as chic as Palazzo Grassi and not call them shops) by one or the other of the genuinely talented designers employed by our foremost maisons de mode. It is no longer the artist who tries to épater le bourgeois. It is the bourgeoise qui épate l’artiste…the real artist, that is…by the ease with which money can transform glib wisecracks into art. Manzoni’s suicide may have had personal motives but it remains nevertheless emblematic. When the society he was condemned to live in praised him for selling his shit as art, there was no other safety exit left to him.

There is a curious effect of an “allemande around the right” dance figure that haunts the Pinault and other similar collections. Christie’s, Gucci gives its hand to the art market, the art market gives its hand to the collector who takes the hand of Gucci. Each round enhancing the other’s prestige and market value. It probably is a purely fortuitous combination of mercantile circumstances that have led Pinault to own Gucci, Bottega Veneta and other distributors of luxury goods and certainly one prefers collectors such as the late Mr. Bührle whose Manets and Renoirs were paid for by armaments. Yet there is some food for thought in the combination of art and Gucci…. A combination that is corollary to the trend of fashion houses sponsoring lavish art galleries. For several decades there has been a great deal of confusion between installation art, art installation and installation tout court until now it frequently happens that leading museums take their cue from the most prestigious boutiques. Whole boutiques often display their goods with a refinement that borders on art and sometimes even infringes on it. All the more honor to Pistoletto whose “Venere degli stracci” (would “Venus of the Shmattes” be the correct garment district translation?) proves that there is and that there should be a difference between art and fashion.

All this is very worrisome not only because of the implications for our society and our future, but because rejecting “Where Are We Going?” is tantamount to assuming the positions taken by the organizers of the notorious “Entartete Kunst” exhibition and auction. Belonging to a generation that received its moral education and its cultural direction from the need to combat the very concept of “Entartete Kunst,” this is a serious, a fundamental matter. I will not pretend to solve the problem. All I can do is to keep from reminding myself at every turn that what must be indicted is not the artist (or even the pseudo-artist) but the circumstances in which today’s art is nurtured that need to be indicted. And “Where Are We Going?” is the perfect compendium of those circumstances.

Granted, art needs money the way plants need dung. But not every dung will help a tulip to grow, and not every kind of money will encourage the artist to realize what is best in his talent.

Random thoughts:

There is one good thing to be said for today’s Palazzo Grassi and for the Monsieu Pinaut and a very good thing it is, too: he has swept away the arrogant vulgarities of Gae Aulenti and restored Palazzo Grassi to its original dignity. A grateful applause is due to Tadao Ando.

I wonder: If Marcel Duchamp could see this exhibition, would he regret having exhibited his “Fountain”? Would he be indignant at who now presumes to urinate in his urinal?

One of the most attractive but also one of the most disquieting works in the collection is “Drops” by Urs Fischer, created specifically for the atrium of Palazzo Grassi. Seen by itself the composition of floating red drops is delightful. Seen in conjunction with the totality of the collection one receives a shock: don’t those red drops resemble the rain of blood that was one of the plagues of Egypt?

“Where Are We Going?” is what we deserve. But is it what we need?

Maybe the city that was always the commercial, military and spiritual arch-enemy of Venice has the answer. Until recently Genoa was scarcely visible on the international art panorama. Then, beginning with a few blunders from which the responsible authorities learned some hard lessons, the city presented increasingly interesting shows. Now Genoa’s Ducal Palace presents an exemplary exhibition on the theme of Labor. The exhibition may be accused of favoring what could be called imagery over what is generally called art. But are we so sure that this isn’t also the case with “Where Are We Going?”?

There is very little fanfare, very little hustling surrounding the Genoese exhibition. For all of Genoa’s splendid architecture (Via Garibaldi can justifiably be called the most beautiful street in Europe) it is a sober ciy and doesn’t go in much for spectacle. It’s not an exhibition that attracts the merely curious or the publicity-prone. At Palazzo Grassi one sometimes has the feeling that the crowds jostling you would in less affluent times have frequented Mme Tussaud’s museum and got the same satisfactions from her famous wax works. The men and women who enter the Genoese exhibition, on the other hand, are not there because they want to feel a forbidden thrill but because they feel that there is something here worth taking home with them. And they are not disappointed. It is an exhibition that respects itself and respects its audience. Not many exhibitions, no matter how much money is poured into touting them, can say as much.

“Where Are They Going?” may very well pride itself on representing contemporaneity. We can only hope that it does not represent the future and that it is “Labor” that shows us the way to a better goal.


Fred Licht


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

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