Modern Art: Adjacent Words With No Relationship

The Kansas City Star has a little contest every Friday in their entertainment section called Rant and Rave. The perfect place for me to vent, and I have done so plenty. Sometimes I get printed. Sometimes not. But the pleasure of composing three well-crafted paragraphs (and occasionally winning a nice prize) is real. And having people I know tell me they read my rant last week is a pleasure as well.

Last week, the question referred to Bobby Knight returning his pay for a sub-standard year. They asked who in the entertainment/art world should return their pay. I had no immediate answer, until we went to the Kemper Museum that night, to the opening reception for an exhibit called The Attenders. Thirty seconds into the gallery, I had an answer:

There is no place where The Emperor's New Clothes Show is performed more often than in the world of modern art. Some of the work being produced today is good, a small percentage is wonderful, but the vast majority is stuff that no one would want voluntarily. If the "art" on display in most museums and galleries could not be sold for big bucks, no one would look at it again. It has no intrinsic value, and no other value either, other than that experts have declared it priceless (or at least pricey).

We had a perfect example of this on Friday night. The Kemper Museum is to be congratulated for daring and perplexing exhibitions that amuse, challenge, or please. But the current exhibit, Sharon Louden's The Attenders, is the worst I've seen there. It is a collection of various shapes and sizes of fishing line (the exhibit calls it monofilament because that is a big word, fishing line is not) suspended from the ceiling. It is without grace, beauty, or interest. A few of the visitors spoke the proper talk, but most attendees walked through quickly and without much of a glance. OK, not the end of the world, another make-pretend artist getting paid for more make-pretend art. But at the Opening Reception, Ms. Louden spoke about her achievement (while mentioning twice she attended Yale, in case we weren't sure whether she was a real artist), and told us the line and the labor to assemble it were donated.

So this "artist" supervised the bundling of a bunch of free line by volunteers, and came to Kansas City and spent a week hanging them from the ceiling. The real work was done for free. The pretend work, was, I am sure very well compensated. Give it back Sharon! Give it back!

Here's the museum's description, from their website:

In her site-specific installation created especially for its debut at the Kemper Museum, Sharon Louden uses hundreds of thousands of strands of thin black monofilament to create beautiful bundles that look like hair or some other natural fiber. Hanging from the gallery's ceiling or crumpled on the gallery floor, the bundles force the viewer to adapt to an altered gallery space. By using an industrial material that the viewer can smell and touch, Louden questions the preciousness of materials (most things in a museum cannot be touched) and asks the viewer to join her in an experiment in changing an environment. Sharon Louden is an artist in residence. This is her first solo museum exhibition.

The wonderful thing is that I saw two people chastised for touching it--it's fishing line for God's sake!!!! Smell?????

Several months after posting the above, I received this message from the artist:

Regarding your post about my exhibition, "The Attenders," at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, there are some things that you wrote that are not factual. For your information, your "donation" comment (...and told us the line and the labor to assemble it were donated.") is incorrect. Much of the material was donated, and then much of it was also purchased by me. We did receive funding from private individuals for this piece and I did work with a team every day (who were paid and did NOT volunteer) on this piece for three months making it together. I do not understand your comment saying, "The real work was done for free." That is completely false. In fact, the research and exploring the idea of the piece started in April of 2002, and then worked on throughout the year, with much of the physical labor occuring for three months time until it was installed which was one week before the opening reception. Also, I had no problem with people touching the piece -- it was part of the concept where people could walk through it and touch it.

It's a shame that you did not enjoy the piece, however, I'm quite flattered that you were affected by it so much that you made an effort to express your views. Obviously, it affected you in some way.

Sharon M. Louden

I replied:

Hi Sharon,

Sorry to be so long replying. Busy, you know all that excuse stuff. Thanks for taking the time to let me know about how you felt about my piece on The Attenders.

In my essay, I conveyed my impressions of what you said at the exhibit. You described Boy Scouts and some other volunteers putting the stuff together. When I got your note I asked my wife, and her impression was the same. That is what she and I took away from your talk. So though it may have been inaccurate, that is how it sounded to us. And while you may have wanted people to touch the stuff, while I was in there a guard reprimanded two ladies who were walking inside one of the hanging parts. I heard it.

Art is a pretty touchy issue; we like what we like and that's that. You liked it. The (I believe former) curator liked it. Who am I? Just a guy with opinions. You got lots of positive feedback that evening; I saw people pouring it out. So I didn't like it. So what? There are lots of official artists of the 20th Century I don't much like either. All it is is an opinion.

>Obviously, it affected you in some way.

I am not a fan of the idea that any response means the thing generating the response is valid. I thought it an unengaging exhibit. The paper provides an outlet for my opinions. So does the web.

I will be happy to post your reply on my web site, though I have to admit very few people look at it (in fact I'm amazed you found it.)

Good luck.

I sent the original piece to my editor, demi-muse, and overall champion feedbacker Bill Adams, who will allow me to print his reply, as he loves to see his name in print, even on pages where few readers will stumble across it.

It is 1962, probably March. I am a senior in high school in Trenton. Our class takes a trip to NYC to visit the then-new Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art. The building is the last by Frank Lloyd Wright, but I am not mature enough to realize how way cool it is. To me, the Metropolitan Museum is a much better building, just because it is large and looks classical. Our class enters the Guggenheim lobby underneath elongated and colorful mobiles and we are confronted by some welded sculpture thing made of junk metal items. Somehow we get to the top floor (one is supposed to walk down through the building via circular ramps which form the gallery walls...have you been there? This is actually a cool idea to me now, but seemed dumb back then.) On the way down, all we see are canvasses with a few straight lines of varying colors, or circles of colors, etc. I think now this was probably a minimalist painting exhibition, not the museum's permanent collection.

Finally, we hit the most minimalist of all, I suppose. A Japanese artist had taken a board the size and shape of a typical painting, probably three feet by two feet, and hammered a large-headed nail in the upper right quadrant until it protruded about one inch from the board. Then he stretched canvas over the nail and the rest of the board. Finally, he painted the canvas flat white. So what we saw was a white surface covering a small bulge in one corner. I guess it was a good painting, because I have remembered it for 40 years, and I recall no other single work we saw that day. However, the classmates who were with me and I agreed that "modern art" was a scam. We knew that every one of us could have made the same thing in our school wood shop in less than a one-hour class period. I suppose the "art" of it was that WE didn't think of it, and the Japanese guy did.

I love "art" but I think the world was better off before the government took tax money and subsidized so much of it that no one not insane would purchase with his own dough. And your Kemper catalogue is wonderful..." This artist lady makes you reconsider your notions of gallery space by dropping fishing line on the floor and making you walk around it. She protests against so many museums who won't let you touch their exhibits, but asks that you not touch hers, either, because you might kick it out of the way, and then the whole concept of making you reconsider your stale notions of gallery space will be moot, and we'll have to admit we were fools to pay her to come here."

There is a large and fairly new criminal class in American society...painters and sculptors, poets and playwrights, novelists and musicians, who live off of "arts grants" and college "teaching" jobs and interviews on NPR and PBS. They sell to towns who are forced by law to spend one percent of the costs of creating government buildings on "art." The subsidized poets and musicians and writers give concerts or readings attended only by others in the same racket, or the naive, or the coerced. And to be fashionable, they produce art that insults or offends the taxpayers who provide the funds, or poems and books which attack the government which upholds their living. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs wrote lots of songs attacking the flaws in society and government, but they didn't take a government or school check while doing so. How must that woman artist you met rationalize her life-------"I make artsy things no one wants to buy, but I use grants to go around and at least make them look at my idiotic ideas anyway."

Kemper Museum Web Site Essay (now moved here, since it is no longer available there) demonstrating George Will's quip: "An iron law of avant-garde art is that theorizing expands to fill a void of talent." Lots of familiar words in this essay, but what exactly do they mean? A sentence at random: "Altering, dividing, and reestablishing the gallery's proportions with utilitarian material is in turn aggressive and modest. Louden's materials dominate the space, but they are usually delicate looking and manufactured for common use." Can anyone translate that into prose that is comprehensible, rather than merely readable, to someone without an MFA?