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. Back at MoMA, Carlito Carvalhosa’s fossilized-on-arrival atrium installation included sound, hanging microphones, and a meaningless labyrinth of material hung from the ceiling. Viewers walked through this thing as numb as cows in a Temple Grandin chute, led into psychic oblivion. (MoMA is also now showing the defining work of Relational Aesthetics, a re-creation of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 feeding-the-audience piece, though I love this work and don’t begrudge its return. Unlike the others, it still ignites the mind, the space, and seemingly all who partake and interact there.)
Some observers respond that blockbuster shows are all broadly appealing: “Monet and Cézanne are as easy to like as Allora & Calzadilla.” I’d respond that Monet and Cézanne are not at all easy to like, and that they complicate your life, in the best way. Allora & Calzadilla, et al., go down smooth and just make your life simpler, in the worst way. It’s a vacuous vicious circle, ostensible populism masquerading as collectivity. All of it says that too many museums now equate happy crowds with quality and experimentation. These shows serve the museums, curators, and trustees. They no longer serve art. In fact, this sensationalism implies that many museums have now fallen behind art.