Fine Art vs. Pop Culture in L.A. and Cincinnati

An interesting battle about the future of contemporary art — and what should be shown in museums devoted to it — is occurring in Los Angeles right now, where the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art is accused of leaning too heavily on pop culture/

Aug 8, 2012 at 9:39 am
click to enlarge Keith Haring
Keith Haring

An interesting battle about the future of contemporary art — and what should be shown in museums devoted to it — is occurring in Los Angeles right now, where the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art is accused of leaning too heavily on pop culture/celebrity trendiness for his shows. 

And it has ramifications here, where Contemporary Arts Center has been in the forefront of presenting shows devoted to youth-oriented street culture and entertainment forms like music videos. In fact, CAC probably has done more than any institution to popularize street art and related youth subcultures with 2004’s Beautiful Losers, guest-curated by Christian Strike and Aaron Rose. (Strike and Matt Distel, one of three others who helped with the curation, went on to found Country Club, which Distel has since left.)

As The New York Times and other publications have been reporting, the battle in L.A. concerns MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel’s unexpected resignation after conflict with the recently arrived (in 2010) director Jeffrey Deitch, whose background is in the New York gallery world. 

Since Deitch’s arrival, MOCA has tried to pump up attendance with shows like Art in the Streets; a survey of actor Dennis Hopper’s paintings and photographs; and Rebel, a James Franco-curated show about James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause. An upcoming show planned by Deitch, exploring disco culture, was one reason the artist John Baldessari resigned from the museum board. Baldessari protested to The Times against — in the newspaper’s words — “an embrace of pop culture with too little distance.” (Three additional artists have since resigned from MOCA’s board: Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha.)

But Baldessari, who is 81 and along with Ruscha, a painter and elder statesman of L.A.’s contemporary art world, also told The Times something very telling: “It also makes me think that I’m a dinosaur, and Jeffrey Deitch and his ideas may be the future. But I don’t like it.”

In my five years of seeing and reviewing art in L.A. in the 2000s, nobody put together more intellectually challenging, visually provocative museum shows than Schimmel — his ECSTASY: In and About Altered States was both culturally daring and profoundly artistically meaningful (and beautiful to boot). And to show his pop-culture awareness, he titled this year’s great show about L.A. art in the 1970s-early 1980s Under the Big Black Sun — taken from an album by X. So he’s hardly a square.

On the other hand, I saw a Dennis Hopper retrospective at L.A.’s Ace Gallery — admittedly not a museum — and his work, especially his photography, is worth seeing. And Deitch, by the way, contributed an essay to the Beautiful Losers catalog, so he takes street art seriously, not just as a way to draw youth to an art museum. 

Has it really been 22 years since Kirk Varnedoe — chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art — set off an art-world storm by organizing High & Low, a show that challenged the notion that there was still a wall between fine art and pop culture? 

Is there even such a thing as “fine art” anymore? Cincinnati’s Fine Arts Fund changed its name to ArtsWave; Miami University’s School of Fine Arts just changed its name to School of Creative Arts. It’s becoming an antiquated term for the way we create now — a false, pretentious line that separates art from life. 

By the way, whatever misgivings we may have had about graffiti as art (as opposed to vandalism) have been changed by excellent museum exhibits devoted to two who got their start on the streets, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. The CAC’s terrific recent Keith Haring: 1978-1982, co-organized by its director, Raphaela Platow, did much to show the serious intent and origins of his work.

Yet, I have to say, Baldessari’s concern about keeping a distance from pop culture does resonate. My favorite CAC shows haven’t been the pop-related ones: Tara Donovan’s sculptural installations and Maria Lassnig’s soulful paintings. On the other hand, amid the celebration that accompanied CAC’s 2010 Shepard Fairey exhibit, Supply & Demand, for instance — the poster artist’s traveling retrospective — I found a boring redundancy to his work. And I’ll confess to not getting the artistic point of CAC’s current Spectacle: The Music Video at all. 

I think we should be game for any kind of contemporary show that curators can think up. They’re curators, after all. But rather than running to celebrate the pop-culture-oriented ones as cool or hip, let’s be prepared to fight about their worth. That’s good for art — and for us.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN : [email protected]