‘Why not a Kandinsky, a Mondrian and a motorcycle show?’

Arts institutions are giving up on difficult work, argues critic Jed Perl.

Tiffany Jenkins

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‘The magic of the museum is lodged in what is actual, real, concrete. To argue, as some postmodernists do, that the world as seen in museums is all illusion is a mistake.’

Jed Perl, art critic for the American magazine The New Republic (1), was in the UK to speak on ‘Contemplation and Magic’ as part of the Oxford Slade lecture series. Perl says he is passionate about the empirical side of art, the objects and things, as well as the romantic side, the emotion that art evokes. ‘I am a romantic empiricist’, he declares.

‘The experience of art is grounded in what we are actually seeing’, Perl told me. ‘The romantic side of it is that I think art inspires great feelings – it carries you away beyond yourself.’

Perl is turned off by those who write about art while ‘remaining distant’ from the objects themselves. ‘I don’t like to call it a “theory”, but there is a kind of distant theoretical approach that sometimes looks like a reaction to other theories, rather than to the work itself. I am interested in how theory relates to what is actual.’

But today, with so much emphasis on people’s ‘different interpretations’ of art and everyone’s ‘equally valid’ views, how can we understand what is empirical?

‘There are things that are actual and real in the object beyond the historical fact’, says Perl. ‘Works can, and sometimes do, mean different things to different people. Two people could stand in front of a painting, and one of them is admiring the clarity of the composition while the other is saying it doesn’t have enough expression to it. Those two people are talking about the same thing but they have different ideas about it. That’s how it should be.

‘But discussions where people are not even looking at the object or not seeing what is there, that disturbs me. I don’t accept this idea that there is no there there.’

Perl’s most recent book, Eyewitness: Reports From an Art World in Crisis, explores the development of a self-justifying theory within the art world, which is increasingly separate from the artworks themselves (2). ‘We are at a point where context is in danger of swamping content’, he says.

Take Cindy Sherman – the trendy American photographer who deconstructs images and representation. ‘Art stars like her…have distorted the art scene’, says Perl. ‘Their exhibitions don’t give public expression to private feelings so much as offer canny responses to market pressures.’ According to Perl, Sherman’s work is a ‘phenomenal success precisely because [it] is all about the cultural context’ – unlike ‘the painter Joan Snyder, whose wonderfully extravagant presentations of high-flying emotions ought to give her work a wide appeal’. Unlike Sherman, however, Snyder has never had a significant New York show.

‘We have always been fascinated by the relationship between the context in which art is experienced and the content of art itself’, says Perl. ‘But when an editor tells a critic that it doesn’t matter if you like the work or not, just so long as you report on what everybody is saying about it, my alarm bells go off.’

Perl worries that we are losing faith in the power of art. ‘There is a disbelief in the fact that art can work its magic. But these things do have a magnetic pull. Leave them alone to do their magic and it will happen.’ The problem today, says Perl, is that ‘most of what the galleries show and most of what people talk about repels curiosity’.

This is something he explored in detail in Eyewitness – the idea that art should be instantly accessible, and not difficult or demanding. ‘And the art that gets the attention satisfies that need for quick satisfaction’, says Perl. ‘It’s all up front – there are no nuances or mysteries to unravel. It never takes you out of this world.

‘People seem to have an idea that to look at art in a sophisticated and up-to-date way means not looking at it very long or very hard.

‘What people are no longer prepared for is seeing an experience that takes place in time. They have ceased to believe that a painting or a sculpture is a structure with meaning that unfolds as we look…. The essential aspect of all the art I admire the most, both old and new, is that it makes me want to keep looking.’

In his Slade lecture, Perl referred to the ‘new funhouse museums’, where ‘there is a sense that the total package – the building, the surroundings, the ambience – is more important than the art on display’. ‘Often the art is overwhelmed by the building’, he says, ‘and the shops, and the cafes. It is art as a sort of wraparound, all-in-one spectacle. The museum-goer’s ability to have his or her own experiences is compromised, if not nullified.

‘Art museums, especially museums that are focused on contemporary art, are turning into darkened interiors full of moving images. They are starting to resemble what we think of as the archetypal forms of democratic entertainment – the movies. The insistence on giving the museum a pop culture allure violates the kind of democratic experience the museum is so ideally suited to provide.

‘The disappointment I feel with most moving images in museums is precisely because they are so paltry beside the experiences I have had as a moviegoer. I think the movie experience goes against the very nature of the museum-going experience.’

For Perl, going to a museum is about having ‘a one-on-one encounter with a work of art – an encounter that, as it deepens, puts you in touch with a sense of art as tradition, which is also a kind of contemplative communal experience…. The funhouse museum confounds contemplative experience – and doesn’t replace it with anything of substance.’

Perl thinks that work that is difficult or which demands more than a quick look is being avoided by those who run arts institutions. ‘At the core of the Guggenheim is the difficult modern art, like Kandinsky or Mondrian. This is tough work. The wealthy donors at the Guggenheim think hoi polloi can’t get Kandinsky, so they almost hide it. But really I think the donors themselves can’t and won’t really try to get it.’

So instead, the Guggenheim shows the The Art of the Motorcycle (2001) – an exhibition of motorcycle technology and design which, of course, places the motorbike within a cultural and historical context…. (3)

According to Perl, those currently calling the shots in museums may be collectors, ‘but I frankly think they know very little. So when Thomas Krens gives them a motorcycle exhibition they are relived. They are actually relieved to have motorcycles.’

‘When the Museum of Modern Art in New York was set up by those rich ladies and when founding director Alfred Barr bought artworks for them, they didn’t fully understand but they let him give it a go – thinking that maybe there’s something there that is hard to understand or mysterious, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Today, not only are they dumbing down for the audience – they also don’t want things that are a reach for them.’

‘The motorcycles are gorgeous’, says Perl, ‘and it’s a nice show. But I am disturbed that you get all these things and nothing else. Surely in a wealthy society we have room for a Kandinsky, a Mondrian and a motorcycle show?’

Perl is from a generation of people who thought they were going against the grain and challenging society. ‘I am Sixties person, we were anti-war and all. But now I find my age group conformist in many ways. It’s like we have to have motorcycles shows now.’

Perl is concerned that institutions now only treat latter avant garde art as important – flagging up art that once went against the grain but which is now mainstream. When I spoke to Perl, the Andy Warhol show was on at Tate Modern in London and hundreds of schoolchildren were going to see it. ‘If they like Warhol then fine – but are all those kids seeing other things? To understand Warhol you have to understand what he was bouncing off.’

‘It’s a bit like college professors explaining rap music to kids’, says Perl. ‘God, let them find it themselves, and let the professors explain Chaucer.

‘Why give people what is readily available? Why not give people a bit of reach? If I wanted to see pop culture, that’s on in a lot of places. I don’t think it is so terrible that there’s a place down the street for a room of Sienese paintings also. In a rich and varied society let’s have both.’

Jed Perl’s book Eyewitness: Reports From an Art World in Crisis, is published by Basic Books, 2000 (buy this from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director at the Institute of Ideas

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) See the New Republic magazine

(2) Eyewitness: Reports From an Art World in Crisis, Basic Books, New York, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(3) See the Guggenheim exhibition The Art of the Motorcycle

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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