Friday, June 24, 2011

Get These Dead People Outta Here: a Good Hard Look At Institutional Nearsightedness

It is always a pity when a influential institution decides to keep sticking its head in the sand, but it a common occurrence and not worth getting upset about.  Institutions are sand-seeking by their very nature and should be tweaked for it only because, in doing so, they waste valuable resources, manpower, and wall-space.  These things are all very dear and should have a more dynamic function.

I allude to the Virginia Museum's acquisition of more dead artists to supplement a collection that has more than enough of them. 

Before I go any farther, I want to talk about the necessity of the dead, even as the living clamor at the gates.

I grew up on dead people and am glad they were "around."  They honed my appetite for the sort of living experiences without which painting and sculpture cannot be made.  Furthermore, they made sense.  If you start with dead people, you'll be curious about folk who walk around and make funny noises.  They get your feet wet, give you a little heads-up on things, and high-five you into the future.  People who value artwork as a living expression of human needs and aspirations are nourished by the dead - at least for a while.  But the dead must eventually be put away - though, like any keepsake, we should trot them out now and then and see that they look all right in their coffins and don't get ghoulish on us.  A reliance on the dead - which is endemic to most institutions - smacks of necrophilia.  In art, necrophilia takes on a strictly academic form, in which the qualities of ancestor worship and scholarly gravitas are deftly (if dumbly) mingled.  Fortunately for worshippers of the dead, the dead are already encased in mausoleums, which favor such kinkiness.  Yet living impulses cannot be contained - even in a police state.  They will come out along the edges, surface in the cracks, and insist for their right to be heard no matter how many bayonets are pointed at them - or jail-cell pillows plumped and no doubt scented against the arrival of renegade heads.

Not to say that prisons and art institutions are synonymous.  Museums make me queasy whereas prisons can provoke the gag response in its entirety.

I grew up on the greatest dead people imaginable.  I had Titian, I had Rembrandt, I had Rubens, and I had Michaelangelo.  Pretty good company for a nerdy kid who liked nothing better than to sift through art-books and wonder about the people in them.  Eventually, I got to see the occasional painting by these heroic personages and it was, to quote a far better text, good.  I would even risk saying that works by these dead, but still-powerful, creators was a heady experience from which I have yet to recover.  (I except Michaelangelo, who's played "hard-to-get" to a greater extent than these others.  But we all know that and have learned to accept his meagre presence here in the U.S.)

Through the work of The Dead, I was able to tap into transcendental experiences that would have otherwise been denied me.  I remember first encounters with paintings as a prurient teenager, thinking of more lustful events, remembers. . .well, never mind that.  They're both vivid experiences neither of us are willing to relinquish.  There was a Tintoretto at the Brooks Museum.  It was big and full of swirling, pre-Baroque energy.  Everything in it was alive - after nearly five centuries.  I couldn't get over the fact that something so old could have such a grip on me.  And yet it did.  And I wanted more.  Fortunately, the Brooks had enough depth in its collection to allow for greater ephiphanies and continuous grace.

Since that time, dead people have been my spirit guides and reality counselors.  If I'd thought of it before now, I could have posed this WWVD? ("What Would Velasquez Do?") question with a straight and searching face.  Dead people are indispensable.  They were not only there before us all, they confronted similar challenges, met obstacles head on - or at least sideways - and got on with the business of doing their work amidst constraints and limitations we, the living, don't have to fool with.  They're the role models that step in when parents and mentors fail.

And the work they did!  We need to see it again and again, initially because we need its clamors and comforts, but ultimately because we have to learn to be done with it and make - or at least appreciate - our own.  If you grant that life is a circle - which, by its nature, is always coming back on itself - the dead fail to complete it; they dangle a piece of it out to us, who have to keep it going.

But back to "them" for a moment; I can't be done just yet. 

I remember seeing my first Rembrandt, and then another.  And, finally, a whole slew of 'em.  There were so damned many, I had to keep going back in order to do justice to them all.

I started with the great sombre artifice of "Artistotle Contemplating a Bust Of Homer."  Its dazzling richness was not showy.  Its behind-the-figure depths could not be plumbed.  Its overall dignity was so crushing that everything else seemed trivial.  And that was just the first. 

How could one measure up?  And is that even a valid question?  With Rembrant behind you, you can be cheerfully mediocre and not worry about it.  Why torment yourself with the burning, if doomed-to-fail, need to walk in the footsteps of greatness?  Just do some nice little pictures, make some money, and die without having ever experienced the negative capabilities that were Rembrandt's soul-elevating companions.  If what you think you ought to have is unattainable, it frees you to be yourself.  And, in the face of greatness, we all have to scatter and assume our secondary roles in its shadow.  It's just "what is."

It's hard to understand greatness in the living.  We know these people and see their flaws too closely.  We know what they have for dinner and wish they'd stop eating meat.  Greatness in the dead, however, can hit you like a bolt of lightning.  In a sense, we need for our great artists to be dead, so that we may revere them without any opposition from them or anybody who happens to sit on the wrong side of history.  They pose no obstacles for us.  They can eat meat if they care to; we are not watching them.  All we see is what they've left behind.

Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michaelangelo.  It's good to have these guys steading you.  Without them, you might see the glass ceiling too often, slip through a squishy spot on the floor, confront a sea of mediocrity and have no frame of reference.  Without them, that sea of mediocrity crashes just as hard against the shore, gobbles up as many ships, and throws temper-tantrums that prompt spontaneous evacuations and pantheistic wonder.  With them, that sea is just an oversized pond tended by frogs and dragonflies.  And it doesn't heave against anything; it just sits there and reflects the sky - a passive role if there ever was one.

But what about the average "deadie", the shade inadequate, the moonbeam, as it were, that doesn't carry far enough.  Well, there's a lot of that.  And the Virginia Museum went out and decided to get some of it.
And why?  Well, there's that thing I already said about institutions.  They just don't get it.  They lag behind because they're listening to a langorous beat and sultrier rhythms.  And because the people who run them don't care much for living anything, in which case dead artists - so long as they have a pedigree - don't have to perform Rembrandt's function.  All they've got to do is reflect the short-sighted agendas of the institution itself.

I allude specifically to the Virginia Museum's recent purchases: of a Tissot, a Bouguereau, and a few other doggie-treats.  I happened to be browsing the museum's minutes one day and came across a board meeting in which the Bouguereau was discussed in a seemingly desultory fashion - and purchased, for the tidy sum of a million dollars.  (And if they didn't end up paying that million, whatever they paid, beyond fifteen bucks and shipping charges, was too much.)  I think almost anybody who cares for 19th-century painting would not choose Bouguereau to represent that restless and tormented period in art and politics.  After his popularity waned, he went into the basement, where he has been mouldering for the past seventy-five years.  He belongs there, along with his fellow academicians, and should not be disturbed - particularly to the tune of one friggin' million bucks!  Bouguereau and his minions are cautionary tales.  They tell us to step back, there are pretty naked people here that don't resemble the tawdrier naked people in real life.  Furthermore, these naked people are in Greece impersonating gods, nymphs, and satyrs.  I'll grant you the women look pretty good.  Their breasts are perky, their come-hither looks can that little thing a-goin', and they seem to dance pretty well too.  And for gay guys, there's some beefcake that probably won't settle their hash, but might remind them of the sort of hash they're after.  There's also the sappy stories - but who cares about them?  What we want to see is T & A, as the snickering Salon boys wanted us to see it.  (T & A should be plural, but it doesn't sound right, does it?)

Too bad the 19th-century didn't have real pornography.  There would have been no need for the likes of Bouguereau, Dagnan-Bouveret, Cabanel, and slews of others who titillated the appetites of the haute-bougeoisie and made a nice piece of change into the bargain.  What we need to do to with Bouguereau is to keep him where he belongs.  Among the dead.  I mean, the dead/dead.  Who should never rise again. 
Tissot is another cutesy sort of painter who titillated with domestic bliss, particularly as it involved over-corseted women who had nothing to do except sit around and be ogled.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it might have an affect on women today, who do stuff besides wanting to be parlor-furniture.  Even if "women of today", upon seeing such fluff, don't give a damn about it, there are far more compelling images of 19th-century women.  Bouguereau - in spite of what *Winslow Homer said about him - could paint reasonably well.  Tissot doesn't measure up in this regard.  His is a fussy realism that fails to understand the big shapes, upon which one may embroider.  Compare his pictures of bourgeois comfort with Eakins' and you'll see what I mean. 

I don't know how much the Virginia Museum paid for the Tissot, but any amount of money is too much.  It's dead painting by a dead person - which is the very worst kind.  Great painting by dead people, as I was attempting to explain earlier, sustains the spirit and is capable of launching revolutions in one's mind and heart.  If you can't see the difference between this kind of crap and a Rembrandt - who is admittedly out of most small museums' price range - you might as well poke your eyes out.  Or just go to the museum cafe and talk about what everybody's wearing.

In embracing the dead/dead - the dead who are beyond our ken and cannot help us - The Virginia Museum sends a message about what is culturally desirable and it is deadly.  If the curators haven't looked - as they probably haven't - there's a new generation of figure (I loathe the word "figurative" and won't use it except to say I'm not using it) painters any museum might scarf up for a bargain, considering the price tag on the VA's Bouguereau.  Lordy, people!  You could fill the whole museum with vital specimens of the human figure and have money left over for a swell bash.  But, no, you are interested in pedigree.  You are also lazy and will not go out and find these "vital specimens" because you're not aware that they exist.  And if you were aware of it, it probably would do nothing for you.  You not only traffic in dead people, you've grown accustomed to their faces and would not care to see any live ones if you could possibly help it.

Yet in Richmond alone, there are a handful of figure painters who deserve to be seen alongside of the prosperous and life-giving dead.  And you could get them for a song - though it would be fairly good money for them.  Money they'd used to enrich a culture you're not even aware of.

It is beyond shameful for an institution that presumably represents The State (the State of Virginia in this case) does not have the best interests of its charges in mind.  It buys what it wants, hangs its favorites, votes its aesthetics, and says to hell with other possibilities.  The fiscal mismanagement is appalling enough.  Even if the museum passed on the "vital specimens" I was talking about, it could spend the money on public programs that could bring people in instead of keeping them out.  Who would want to see a Bouguereau with all the great pornography we've got?  If the curators want to argue that such a painting represents the apex of academic stylization, they most certainly can.  But it's a rather crappy argument.  Did anyone express a need for such a thing?  Is it essential to have this expensive ornament about so that, if anybody started complaining about a lack of academic stylization, a docent could point that person to the Bougeureau and say: "Don't worry. It's here!"  (I confess to sexism.  I have never seen a male docent at the Virginia Museum of anyplace else.)  We can all do without smirky pornography, academic stylization, and all sorts of other "luxuries" just about anytime.  And yet the Virginia Museum insists that we not only acknowledge them, but consider them appropriate in a museum setting - which is to say, among a lot of good dead people who might well be turning in their graves.

Of course, they're right.  They've made a museum that does not reflect life as the ordinary person knows it.  He/she gets high-falutin' stuff from the 19th-century and are told it's shinola.  He/she gets hogwash from the 20th and, because it was purchased by local businesspeople, it gets a pass because you shouldn't speak ill of the monied.  And he/she are beginning to get skunked here in the 21st century with overblown Picasso-style exhibits because the museum can't contain its delight over being one of two or three places that gets - and pays dearly for - them.

At the very least, the Virginia Museum should re-brand itself as the sort of institution that reflects the dead-zone mentality of all institutions and not even pretend to serve the public - about whose needs and wants it cares not at all. 

The difference between somebody in Carver who's never heard of Bougeureau and somebody in the West End who is correspondingly ignorant consists in the West Ender's willingness to go along.  Carver people would look at the Bouguereau and wonder who was kidding whom. 

Which is what we should all wonder about The Viginia Museum.

*Winslow Homer said he wouldn't walk across the street to see a Bouguereau.  And this guy lived in a pair of hiking-shoes.

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