Strand Book Store, NYC

 

Books About the Art World

 

Many art lovers and collectors have faith that museums of contemporary American craft and design have created an accurate record on contemporary American fiber art.

Unfortunately, no such accurate record has yet been initiated.  The lack thereof has raised many concerns in the current “New Market Dominated Economy.”

So many that, for example, in August of 2000, in the aftermath of a number of serious controversies regarding conflicts of interest in the dealings of art museum researchers and art speculators, the American Association of Museums suddenly issued “New Ethical Guidelines”.  And it seems appropriate that quotes from that striking document should introduce the book review section below.

The problems have grown so serious that a growing number of books have now been published probing how art is really considered for significance and curatorial “research” by museums today.  Again, if you have an interesting book about the contemporary art world and current art research, please do send in your recommendation for consideration.

 
 
New Ethical Guidelines by the American Association of Museums
Whose Muse?  Art Museums and the Public Trust ed. by James Cuno.
Art of the Steal, Christopher Mason.
The $12 Million Stuffed Shark:  The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson.
Eyewitness:  Reports from an art world in crisis by Jed Perl.
Tales from the Art Crypt:  the painters, the museums, the curators, the collectors, the auctions, the art by Richard Feigen.
Culture Incorporated:  museums, artists, and corporate sponsorships by Mark W. Rectanus.
Exhibitionism:  Art in an era of intolerance by Lynne Munson.
The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe.
 
 

New Ethical Guidelines; Washington, D.C., Association of American Museums: 2000.

First, let's begin with something that is not a book, but is important to understanding the recent scandles arising at museums of art.  The AAM’s very own words certainly seem to say it best:

“As society has come to rely more on museums for education about, as well as preservation of, its cultural heritage, it has also come to expect more of its museums-more accountability, more transparency of action, and more leadership in the community.”

“Museums in the United States are grounded in the tradition of public service.  They are organized as public trusts, holding their collections and information as a benefit for those they were established to serve.  Members of their governing authority, employees, and volunteers are committed to the interests of these beneficiaries.”

“Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability, they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically.  This Code of Ethics for Museums, therefore, outlines ethical standards that frequently exceed legal minimums.”

For additional information on this, see Past Problems in Research posted on the Publications page of the Library.

 

Whose Muse?  Art Museums and the Public Trust, ed. by James Cuno, with contributions by James Cuno, Philippe de Montebello, Glenn D. Lowry, Neil MacGregor, John Walsh, James N. Wood, and Anne d’Harnoncourt; Princeton University Press, Princeton and Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge:  2004.

This book is a thought-provoking compendium of essays by eminent art museum directors with a concluding discussion by them.  The contributors were selected by the editor for their relatively similar concerns for “the public trust” in art museums in the U.S. in the aftermath of an increasing number of ugly controversies and scandals.  The book is rich with ideas and is clearly recommended reading for fiberists interested in how art museums formulate their judgments regarding what to exhibit.

The focus that binds all the chapters together is a relatively abstract issue, the “public trust,” before which all the selected contributors repeatedly genuflect.  Unfortunately, public trust is never really candidly defined, and by the end of the book, the beating-around-the-bush tends to become conspicuous.

This book claims to be a formal professional response to aggressive promotional and commercial policies of an increasing number of U.S. art museums.  One primary target of the contributors is the Guggenheim Museum whose exhibitions were becoming increasingly indistinguishable from market promotions for corporate sponsors, and whose global expansion reminded many of the mushrooming of mall empire chain stores.

All contributors to this book concluded that the historic mission and future survival of art museums are inseparable from maintaining the “public trust” which has been severely shaken by these controversies.  The book is a probing investigation of whether art museums are preserving or plundering cultural patrimony; prioritizing the educating of the public or the entertaining of the mass market; etc., and risking the public’s trust by their current practices.

The contributors use “public trust” in various ways.  In general, they address it as the public’s confidence that art museums in the U.S. are safeguarding our cultural artistic treasures, acquiring additional ones fairly and legally, and appropriately exhibiting them for the public’s appreciation.

Strangely muted, however, seems to be clear emphasis in concrete terms that the loss of “public trust” by art museums can mean the loss of considerable public funding.  How much public funding is going into those institutions?  Well, that’s not discussed.  And the unaddressed specter of the loss of government financial supports from the public haunts this book.

The participating directors wrote about the public importance of historic art in ways that are truly enlightening and moving.  And they roundly criticize the policies, public statements, and programs of other art institutions focused brazenly on market shares and maximized ticket sales.  An example again would be their focus on the Guggenheim for its aggressive promotion of commercialism, its jarring financial conflicts of interest, and its relative lack of research and education.

In truth, most of the public has not been permitted accurate reporting on the real problems of some of these better known controversies.  Consider the case in 1999 of “Sensation” produced at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  The tabloids and the TV news programs presented this uproar to the public as a dispute regarding a feces smeared madonna deemed by some as art and viewed by others as sacrilegious, blasphemous, and excessively offensive.  Even the museum itself presented the controversy as yet another First Amendment dispute in the art world.

But the editor maps out the real issue, which is entirely different and characterizes most of the recent controversies:

“Over time it was revealed that the exhibition had in fact been underwritten in part by the collector, even though the museum director had at first denied this [under oath in a Court of Law].  Then it was revealed that the collector was making what some saw as excessive demands on the museum to show his work a certain way and the curator in charge went on record asking that the museum get ‘a bit closer to the driver’s seat — or at least [that] we can all have a hand on the steering wheel.’  Commercial houses got involved with galleries representing artists in the exhibition donating money and with Christie’s auction house, through which the collector had recently sold more than one hundred works by artists represented in the exhibition making its ‘most significant financial commitment to an external exhibition to date.’  The museum even provided a link on its Web site to the pop star David Bowie’s Web site, where one could find mention of the exhibition; see an image of painting Bowie made with Damien Hirst, one of the celebrated artists in the exhibition; join Bowie’s fan club; buy fan club products; and even use his online banking service.  The museum seemed desperately and intimately connected to a network of for-profit ventures seeking to capitalize on its exhibition.  It didn’t help that one of them, Christie’s, was at the time involved in a high-profile federal anti-trust investigation for allegedly fixing the prices it charged to buyers and sellers.”  (p. 14)  (Also see below Christie's price-fixing in Christopher Mason's Art of the Steal.

So the next time you cannot fathom why an art museum is featuring a particular exhibition, remember the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s secret backroom wheeling and dealing.

In no way was “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art primarily a Freedom of Speech dispute.  It was primarily a dispute over how much public funding should be used unaccountably without public disclosures to hype and jack up the values of art recently bought by an extremely skillful, wealthy, advertising mogul before he resold it for his own enormous private profit.

When exposed, that type of wheeling and dealing behind closed art museum doors is obviously a grave threat to “public trust”.  Not the “public trust” of museum visitors with warm, fuzzy feelings about erudite museum directors as repeatedly pitched in this book.  No, this is the threatened “public trust” of losing major public funding upon which art museums depend greatly for their economic survival.

This book focuses a lot on how art museums present their exhibitions to the public.  In contrast, there was comparatively less focus on curatorial research and education.  That too is a lamentable deficiency.  Without more sunlight on how some art is selected for praise and display while other work is not even examined preliminarily for consideration, corrupt “research” like that at the Brooklyn Museum of Art can easily threaten to tar innocent and guilty museums alike.  Without more clarification of the curatorial selection processes, the public can increasingly worry that only major investors can attract curatorial research and display.

For the field of contemporary American fiber art, this is a particularly serious deficiency.  This field is characterized by an absence of discussion of defective curatorial research practice imposed upon it.  And considering the questions raised in the field of fiber art about the curatorial research practice at the Chicago Art Institute, an art museum with which two of the directors in this book are intimately affiliated, fiberists should read this book with a particularly critical and discriminating eye -- and with a heightened guard against possible hypocrisy too.

 

Art of the Steal, Christopher Mason; G.P. Putnum's Sons, New York, NY:  2004.

The dramatic prologue of Mason's recent history of the famous art auction houses, Sotheby's and Christiesbook, details a joyous celebration at Sotheby's on the evening of January 11, 2000.

The prologue of Mason’s history of recent art auction house criminality is very dramatic.  It describes a joyous celebration at the famous art auction house, Sotheby’s, on the evening of January 11, 2000. One thousand guests were there to celebrate the launch of Sotheby’s Internet auction site.  The party was hosted by Sotheby’s CEO and president, Diane (“DeDe”) Brooks, who was reputed by many to be the most powerful woman in the art world.  Also attending was Sotheby’s chairman, A. Alfred Taubman, the wealthy shopping mall developer who purchased Sotheby’s in 1983.

Inauspiciously, when computers were turned on for the guests to see the launch of Sotheby’s new website, the servers malfunctioned and no website was to be viewed.  Worse, earlier that same day the Antitrust Division of the United States Justice Department had issued subpoenas to three Michigan-based companies under Taubman’s control, demanding documents since 1992 relating to Taubman’s responsibilities as an owner and director of Sotheby’s Holdings and relating to his contacts with principals of any other auction house.

Mason’s riveting prologue ends, “It was the beginning of the nightmare that would engulf Taubman and give rise to the most devastating scandal ever to befall the art world.”

In broad strokes as reported in the New York Times, as early as June of 1997 “Justice Department investigators have subpoenaed truckloads of financial documents from more than a dozen prominent Manhattan art dealers and from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the world’s largest auction houses, in what appears to be a wide-ranging antitrust investigation. . . . art dealers said they believe investigators were looking for the possibility of collusion and price fixing among art dealers buying at auctions.”

Then by July 2, 1997, “under a harsh spotlight, the art market is sweating: dealers and auction houses are terrified as federal investigators ask about their private realm.”  And “[t]he rarefied and secretive world of Manhattan art dealers has been shaken by a Federal investigation into possible price fixing.”  “As details come to light, what appears to be a wide-ranging antitrust investigation looms larger than dealers first imagined, and some worry that basic ways of doing business are being called into question.”  “[T]he business of fine art has always been considered insular, if not elitist.”  The art marketplace is “a field that tended to make its own rules until the early 1980’s, when the NYC Dept. of Consumer Affairs began imposing consumer-protection regulations.”

In writing his book after all of the criminal trails and sentencing transpired, Mason was able to interview most of the parties and had access to much more documentation then the earlier newspaper coverage.  And the greatly detailed tale he relates is absolutely stunning.  Taubman was a real estate developer who was one of the key originators of suburban shopping centers.  While he loved art, he had no formal training or knowledge about it.  Brooks came to Sotheby’s from Citibank and was on the board of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.  Apparently she too had no training or knowledge in the arts either.  But apparently “Dede” was supposed to have such a keen head for numbers that she was credited with being able to calculate auction totals faster than Sotheby's computers.

So this is a story about the major art marketplace where one of the most powerful principals is a shopping mall magnate and the other is a banker; and neither knows much about art.  But then it is money, not art itself, that drives this art story and so many others.  It seems merely coincidentally, that the world’s best art is what these two principals sold most profitably.  More likely, it is the other way around:  What the two of them sold most profitably thus became the world’s best art.

Just nine months after Sotheby’s huge party described by Mason in his prologue, the New York Times reported that U.S. Justice Department prosecutors would conclude a “three-year criminal investigation focusing on evidence that the two auction giants stifled competition by colluding on a host of business practices.”  “The world’s largest auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, agreed yesterday to pay $512 million to settle claims that they cheated buyers and sellers in a price-fixing scheme dating back to 1992.”

More than half a billion dollars!

In October of 2000, Brooks, agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to violate antitrust laws in collusion with Christies.  She was sentenced to six months house arrest, followed by three years’ probation, a fine of $350,000, an obligation to serve 1,000 hours of community service, and an agreement to return stock options worth $10 million, plus the $3.25 million in salary she received as Sotheby’s CEO.  At the end, Mr. Taubman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and fined $7.5 million.

Incredibly, Christie’s received conditional amnesty purportedly because it cooperated with the Federal prosecutors and because Christie’s refused extradition from Britain to the U.S. for trial.  (Also see above “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Christie's back room dealing in James Cuno’s Whose Muse?)

These are just the basic facts of the recorded half billion dollar price fixing scheme. Mason’s riveting detailed history provides a wealth of details and insights to how these facts intertwine and how this could happen in an art market, fueled with egos and fortunes, and grossly deficient in both accountability and sunlight.

Mason’s book is clearly required reading for every American craft artist who has ever voiced concerns about how his or her artwork is being reviewed and evaluated.

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The $12 Million Stuffed Shark:  The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Don Thompson; Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY:  2008.

This book is highly recommended for anyone trying to figure out what madness is occurring in the world of contemporary art.  Here is an impressive attempt to view the insanity through an economic and financial lens.

Economist Don Thompson, a collector of contemporary art, has taught marketing and economics at the London School of Economics, Harvard Business School, and York University in (Toronto).  And the task he undertakes is to explicate how, as a primary example, a shark immersed in formaldehyde can separate $12 million from a collector deemed intelligent — even after the shark begins to rot and has to be replaced.  To explain this as skillfully as he does, Mr. Thompson refers to the incredibly high prices on art made with feces, blood, garbage, and even art composed of a jacket tossed into a corner.  He also refers to unbelievably expensive art that is completely replaceable, and quite often is.

He is successful because this book is a rich and thorough exploration of the economic and emotional elements all at play, many of which sound unethical if not illegal.

The focus on Damien Hirst's shark is a primary guiding light in this book, since Hirst's art was catapulted into marketing success by one of the worlds most important collectors of contemporary art, Charles Saatchi, who coincidentally just happens to be an advertising mogul.  Could there possibly be a relationship between selling art and advertising?

Needless to say, the story Mr. Thompson tells is largely comprised not only of promotional advertising skills, but also notoriety, secrecy, and unbelievably large gobs of money.  Yes, this is also the same Charles Saatchi involved with the controversial use of public tax funds at the Brooklyn Museum of Art to promote his private art collection and escalate it prices.  That was the controversial show, "Sensation," which ultimately led to the New Ethical Guidelines of the American Association of Museums in 2000.  (Also see above “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with Christie's back room dealing in James Cuno’s Whose Muse?)

Mr. Thompson proceeds step by step to detail the mechanics, starting with "branding," which elevate mere art into precious icons of almost heavenly importance and pricing.  He details how the primary auction houses manipulate what is available, how it is presented, and how collectors are drawn into bidding against one another.  Much of it sounds like mass hysteria.  He details pricing machinations and complex financing that sounds very similar to the complex sub-prime mortgage backed instruments that have recently brought down the world economy.  And yes, these auction houses are the same ones involved with the criminal pricing fixing earlier in the decade that resulted in huge fines and criminal imprisonment.  (See above, Art of the Steal.)

He includes chapters on dealers and critics, writing that the role of both is growing less and less central.  He details how reviews in art periodicals correspond more to the purchasing of advertising space than to any considerations of inherent merit.  And he explains how art fairs now play a major role in all this.

He probes the role of the art museums and their trustees, including stunning conflicts of interest and the manipulation of holdings and acquisitions, all assisted with the benefits from the public taxpayers.

Thompson writes, "The art trade is the least transparent and least regulated major commercial activity in the world."  And he asks how a poorly constructed piece of contemporary art can command the same prices as a fully fitted jumbo jet liner. 

He also casts a harsh and revealing light on claims that contemporary art is purportedly a wise financial investment for a collector.  He points out how the Mei/Moses Index, developed by researchers at NYU to measure the investment performance of contemporary art, does not accurately reflect reality because the index does not include the value decreases in the common practice of auction houses refusing to sell works that have lost their financial luster.  That's done secretly.

This book is so rich in its analyses that it is impossible to begin to do it justice to it here.  At the end of this book's 368 pages, a couple of concerns can remain particularly disturbing.  Obviously, Mr. Thompson's descriptions of the manipulations lifting the highest flying contemporary artists, leaves the reader with a very bad taste, and not only with the major marketers and financiers.

But the nagging question that remains is that about current art scholarship, art education, curatorial research, and art writing.  What role do they all play in making this economic madness possible?  It all raises very troubling questions about the ethical responsibilities of our educational institutions including our university art departments, our museums' curators, our periodicals' editors and journalists, etc.

On Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert says tongue-in-cheek, "It must be good, because the market says it is."  Is that the ethic that has been guiding our researchers, our professors, our writers, and our editors while all this has occurred?

 

Eyewitness: Reports from an art world in crisis, Jed Perl; Basic Books, New York, NY:  2000.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.  Although the core of the book is visual art criticism which might seem somewhat far afield from craft art principles to craftspeople, Perl does focus on key issues of craftsmanship.  Furthermore, the context in which Perl sets his comments constitutes a rare, intelligent discussion on key issues of primary concern to fiber artists and craftspeople.

One of the key problems confronting fiber artists and craftspeople is that the very “art experts" who draw upon limited public funding purportedly to research, record and judge contemporary fibe r work actually seem to know little and care less about its details details which are an inseparable part of the work.

“Every couple of months, I hear an artist or an art historian announce, in a voice suggesting both amazement and frustration, ‘Nobody knows how to look anymore.’  . . .  They believe that a lot of people are robbing themselves of a tremendous experience.”

“If there has been one sure rule in recent years it is this:  the more that an artist asks us to look at a work over a period of time, the more a work drops beneath the radar screens that criticism has set up to track the contemporary scene.”

Fiber art and craft entails unusually great attention to both the composition and the materials used.  When one considers that the term “subtle” comes from “subtilis” and literally meaning “beneath the weave,” it is easy to understand the research distortions that arise when most contemporary craft curators, having little training in fiber, simply gloss over the work.

Perl writes about the signs of diminishing opportunities for serious work to be seen and discussed.  “In an article in the Art Journal published by the College Art Association, which is the professional organization for artists and art historians, the painter Philip Pearlstein has discussed a kind of censorship that is not often even recognized.  Pearlstein tells of sitting on art panels at the NEA and other institutions where the basic assumption is that certain styles in which the public art world isn’t interested can simply be excluded from consideration.”  He notes that “in recent years, most grant-giving processes have become hopelessly tied to the market values of the public art world.”  This is exactly the situation that results in the “unexpected distortions” in research on contemporary American craft.

Perl’s most dramatic thrust is where he details how this is “the Age of the Deal Makers.  This is the apotheosis of context, the final annihilation of content.  Of course the deals are often designed to keep the art stars’ reputations alive.  The deal makers include some commercial dealers, along with some curators, some museum directors, and some collectors who not infrequently double as museum trustees.   . . .  If you’re a deal maker, you will find an artist’s work interesting because you think it will look good in a certain space; you want to fill the space so you can get press attention and bring in the crowds; and you want to bring in the crowds so that donors will decide that yours is the hot institution and give money for a building expansion.”

Perl raises an interesting challenge for fiber artists and craftspeople:  “I can understand why the big museums are unable to respond to all the dissatisfaction out there; they’re basically in thrall to the money interests, to the deal makers.  But I do wonder why we aren’t seeing more innovative programming in the smaller museums, where there may still be some independent curators and trustees left.  And what about the colleges and universities, which have their own network of galleries and small collections?”

Perl continues, “. . . most of the artists to whom I talk believe that we are living in very dark times.  If artists and audiences can confront the full extent of their alienation, maybe then people can begin to shake off that sense of hopelessness and things can start to turn around.  If this is going to happen, it will involve a lot of small acts of courage, all of them animated by a willingness to reject conventional taste and conventional wisdom all along the line.  The artists who are most deeply committed to what they’re doing in the studio have to reestablish contact with the audience that hates the hype.”

 
Tales from the Art Crypt, Richard Feigen; Knopf, New York, NY:  2000.

Richard Feigen is one of today’s most influential art collectors and dealers.  Whether or not one agrees with the assertions in Feigen’s book, weavers will certainly recognize and appreciate the book’s complex woven structure.

It is a series of engaging stories and histories woven together by a number of themes.  Some of the stories are biographical; some are detective stories; many are founded upon strong opinions that seem to encourage challenge and controversy.

One major theme is the question of what will become of the kind of museum we had known for the past 100 years?  Another is the importance of having an “eye” for art — part instinct and part appropriate training and study.  And a third is the rise of the corporate culture that has turned “the museums into box office palaces.”

Feigen literally weaves together an engaging and forceful case against the new art museum culture.  The lines he draws are certainly not blurry.  “The old connoisseur museum director felt it his mission to show and teach people what they did not necessarily yet know about, to surprise and excite them with new images and ideas.  He seemed to respect the public’s intelligence.  The new breed, groomed in management and fundraising, lures the public with the familiar, with gold and jeweled objects, with fashion.”

He refers to the bumpy transition under the “corporate takeover” as “museum wars” and provides extensive thumbnail histories on many major art museums.  The end result, he concludes, is that there is no longer a focus on the art object itself.  In addressing the extinction of this focus, he says “This kind of atmosphere, this concentration on the qualities of an object — would now, even at Harvard, be deemed elitist, irrelevant, politically incorrect.”

Feigen’s book is strong stuff, sometimes controversial, but certainly always interesting and informative.  But his heartfelt argument — that museums are morphing from educational institutions to entertainment mass marketers — is independently corroborated nowadays by a wealth of reports and exposés in newspapers.

And that crucial point should be of importance today when we attempt to understand why there is so little curatorial research on the field of contemporary American fiber by the art museums that claim to have expertise in contemporary American craft.

 
Culture Incorporated: museums, artists, and corporate sponsorships, Mark W. Rectanus; University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis:  2002.

While the field of fiber art in the U.S. discourages open discussion about professional problems, the rest of the world is discussing these issues freely!  This book on growing problems with art museum research was discussed on Charles Osgood’s radio program, not once, but on two different occasions.

In the review on the back cover, James Twitchell author of AdCult USA:  The Triumph of Advertising in America wrote that:  “Culture Incorporated is a compelling look at the next stop of commercial branding — the colonization of public space and voice.  While it may be fashionable to be aghast at the intensifying linkage of cultural capital with economic capital, this book shows it is more productive to be knowledgeable.  Why is it happening so quickly? . . .  Mark Rectanus shows how the marketplace of ideas is every bit as up for grabs as the soap aisle.  Like politics and education, the concept of art is just another venue of marketing.”

Perhaps this book is a bit too scholarly and dense for leisure reading, nonetheless it is an extremely important investigation of the factors that conflict with the accuracy and reliability of art museum research.  It maps out with detailed examples the recent changes in museum priorities, funding, ethics, and perspectives.  This information is necessary if artists are to begin to understand how their field is “researched,” explicated, recorded, and presented to the public.

This book traces relations among corporations, artists, nonprofit cultural institutions, foundations, governments, and audiences.  For example, Rectanus refers to the controversial Saatchi art collection exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 as “The museum’s solicitation of funding for Sensation from sources that could profit financially from the media exposure provided for the artists (i.e., from the Saatchi Collection and auction houses, such as Christie’s, presenting the artists), as well as conflict-of-interest issues relating to David Bowie’s use of the Sensation exhibit on his web site (at no cost to his Internet company) and a subsequent contribution to the museum.”

What distinguishes today’s art research from corporate advertising?  In describing how radically things have changed in recent years, the author quotes the former Smithsonian head (I. Michael Heyman, 1998) describing sponsors who like to fund the Smithsonian, that is, “pairing our identity (or ‘brand’) with that of a corporation (‘co-branding’).  In the corporate eye, our well-known identity bespeaks ‘American,’ ‘integrity,’ ‘familiarity,’ ‘family,’ ‘history,’ ‘technology,’ ‘art’ and similar concepts.”

“Whereas corporations once insisted upon the placement of their corporate logos on advertisements for sponsored projects, the institution’s logo is now transferred to the corporate advertisement of cultural sponsorship as a stamp of public approval and legitimacy.”

And this is the major point of the book:  “that these politics increasingly fuse cultural representation with social agendas, not only to ensure and validate legitimacy, but also in order to insert corporate interests within local and global contexts.”

He illustrates this further by referring to “blockbuster” sponsorship as “participation [of the interested public] reduced to consumption rather than critical engagement.”  He writes that the promotional value and economic success becomes much more important than a blockbuster’s actual content.

In another example, he details the use of the Guggenheim name for merchandising and he documents how the Bilbao museum reflected the local government’s desire to promote a positive regional image to attract foreign investors and tourists.  And he then describes the “triangulation” of artists’ promotion of museums for the artists’ own promotion.

He concludes with the interesting advice that less affluent donors “must attempt to assert their interests collectively.”  “Yet an organized action by even 20 percent of the ‘average’ donors would indeed evoke a response from [a] museum board or its director.”  Considering that public money provides about that same figure, the author’s implication is that the concerned public could assert as powerful voice as an “average donor” in this new equation.

For a true democratization of cultural institutions, the author calls for more than just full disclosure of all of the financial arrangements involved in the museum projects.  He also calls for “individuals and communities, including artists, [to] assume a greater responsibility for and [to] demand a voice in the institutions of culture.”

 
Exhibitionism: Art in an era of intolerance, Lynne Munson; Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, Chicago: 2000.

Lynne Munson is an analyst and research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, a right wing think tank.

From the onset, it is clear that Munson’s detailed and investigative book does not arise from a passionate love of art, as do the books of Jed Perl or Richard Feigen.  But her research is thorough, the facts are utterly sobering, and she acknowledges the polarized extremism feeding the controversies of past decades:  “The dispute over the [National] Endowment [for the Arts] was marked by the outspoken opportunism of its critics and defenders — one side crying blasphemy, the other claiming censorship.”

It is precisely this horrible polarization and the loss of a reasonable middle ground that characterizes a key problem in the art world today.

As to the goal of her research:  “I hope to set the tone for a new art discourse which does not exploit the public square but instead fills it with facts.”  Like Perl and Feigen, she too argues persuasively that “post modernism was accompanied by a culture of intolerance” favoring “cutting edge” with political content over traditional styles.  This “bias has placed narrow limits on what type of art it has been acceptable to fund, to exhibit, to study, and to make.”

In discussing the infamous controversy at the Brooklyn Museum of Art of the art investor having undisclosed curatorial control over the art exhibition (see Rectanus above), she asks “Wasn’t this more likely a case of bad stewardship than censorship?”

She tracks the birth and life of the National Endowment for the Arts in great detail, and provides statistics showing how the NEA bureaucracy grew far faster than actual benefit to artists.  The facts are arresting.  “Just one artist sat on most panels.  During a twelve-year stretch, from 1975 to 1987, artists only twice constituted the majority of Visual Arts Program panels.  The NEA’s ’peer panel,’ as they were increasingly being referred to, were now dominated by non-artists.”  By that, she meant by critics, influential curators, and program directors.

She detailed the problem of reuse of panelists and the problem of how certain recipients repeatedly received grants — as many as twenty five grants over eighteen years in one case!  She also detailed pre-screening practices and the changes in criteria.  James Melchert, Director of the NEA Visual Arts Program in 1977, “excluded any artist who conceived of his task, even in part, as learning from and building on the art of the past.”  She quotes artist Philip Pearlstein who sat on an NEA panel in 1976 citing it as “an example of ‘censorship on stylistic grounds’, where artists working outside the strictures of postmodern academic taste were cast off, regardless of the quality of their work.”

Like Feigen, Munson details the extreme changes that occurred in Harvard’s art history program.  Where Harvard had been long renowned for its classic “object-oriented approaches to art”, it had converted to “theory driven art history."  She states, “Today’s Harvard art history Ph.D.’s have a somewhat infamous reputation for lacking any tangible knowledge of art objects.”

Munson too focuses on the changed role of art museums:  “And many of the institutions entrusted with the task of assembling the art historical record are today driven by concerns that undermine objectivity.”  “From start to finish, block busters are designed to inspire shopping and socializing but often fail to provide an environment that is conducive to the close examination of art objects.”

Unfortunately, the benefits we enjoy from her analytical eye, are counterbalanced by puzzling aesthetic pronouncements.  Most germane, she argues mysteriously that the public support provided by the NEA should only help painters and sculptors.  She specifically rules out craft art as meriting support.

But then she specifically praises the wood sculpture of H.C. Westermann:  “By contrast, Westermann was an eccentric, known for his seamlessly crafted objects.”  “As the viewer ponders the mixed message, he also cannot help but wonder how Westermann managed to carve the entire work from a single, unseparated piece of wood.”  “. . . Westerman’s objects merged a magician’s sensibility with an artist’s eye.”

Clearly, she has a significant confusion here.  But then, she does not claim to be a trained art expert:  She is an analyst.  And the statistics her research reveal should be highly instructive to anyone exploring recent controversies about art museums and art research.

 
The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe; Bantam Books, New York:  1975.

The Painted Word is the oldest book on this list, and it is the most fun to read.  Wolfe too illustrates how the modern art world depends not upon careful, trained examination of objects, but upon controversy, sensationalism and publicity to dominate both the public and academic stage.

One of the most important points Wolfe illustrates is how modern art has always asserted itself as the unjustly censored underdog fighting the good fight against the oppressive, evil establishment.  And then Wolfe reminds us that the Museum of Modern Art is hardly anti-establishment.  It was started over seven decades ago in John D. Rockefeller’s own living room on 53rd Street — “mother’s museum” as Nelson Rockefeller called it — and how modern art has been comfortably institutionalized into the establishment ever since!

In pointing out how very “establishment” the world of Modern Art actually is, he also details how very small, exclusive, and autocratic it is, despite its purported concern for democratic principles.

Wolfe also details the way in which each predominant movement in Modern Art has established itself as the only true art and then aggressively censored all other competition in its critical writing.

Wolfe’s slim volume is delicious when cutting through the art hype.  He begins with a 1974 quote from Hilton Kramer, the “dean of the arts” at the New York Times:  “Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory.  And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial — the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.”

Upon reading this in the Times, Wolfe’s mordant response was:  “There and then I experienced a flash known as the Aha! phenomenon. . . .  In short:  frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting. . . . Modern Art has become completely literary:  the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”

Hence the title of his book, and hence the plight of contemporary American fiber.  Of course, that begins to explain exactly why craft curators sincerely believe that it is not important to survey or examine fiber work when passing professional judgment on it.  According to the dominant Post-Modern art theory, it’s only the explanations and writing that actually count and not the artists’ art work itself.