Thursday, August 28, 2008

Women on Trial

The next thing to discuss is my going to hear Karen Finley discussing Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim.
I had no idea what to expect, but basically I saw "Karen Finley" and "Louise Bourgeois" in the same sentence and knew instantly that I had to go.

--I believe this image is Mapplethorpe, actually: SFS

We signed a waiver and the whole thing was videotaped, so if it's ever released, you can look for me.  I'm the one with the mustache.

I need to first discuss the Guggenheim, however.

--Photo credit there in the photo

Let it be known that I have the most profound respect for Wright, on so many different levels, and also that this is probably one of the single most exquisite buildings on the entire planet.  It's also kind of really wonderful to be there for an event like this, after hours, when the whole place is completely empty and silent aside from the 30-or-so of us.

Unfortunately, it's one of the worst environments to view works of art that I've ever had the displeasure to visit.  The slanted floors and ceilings make orthogonally shaped paintings seem weird and awkward.

But their curatorship is some of the worst I have ever seen in my life, especially when it comes to sculpture.  If they advertise a show of anything three-dimensional?  Don't even bother.  Newsflash, Guggenheim: the whole point of three-dimensional works (and I'm including their motorcycle show, which was brilliant in its selection of moments in industrial design, otherwise), is that you be able to walk all the way around them.

Not only do they put sculptures up against the back wall, so you can only see, at best, three sides of them, but they also have some of the most irritatingly militant guards overcompensating for inadequate egos and relishing in their little power trips.  

The Bourgeois was unbelievably worse.  They actually have some of the entire gallery spaces roped off so you can't even go inside them to look at the work.  Completely unacceptable, as far as I'm concerned.  I'd rather just not see the work at all than have to look at it from twelve feet away, and not even interact with it.

To be fair, I asked one of the employees about the ropes, and evidently visitors HAD been touching the artworks, so they felt it was necessary.  Who ARE these morons who go into a museum and TOUCH the artworks, ruining it for everyone else?

But that's just the icing on the cake, anyway.  The Guggenheim is a chronically pathetic place to view sculpture, in both the architectural environment they have to work with and the way they choose to arrange the pieces in it.

While I have the most profound respect for Finley, I've often been very conflicted about her work.  A society as ruthlessly Capitalist as ours is no more conducive to the progression of the arts than the Communist one it so adamantly derided.  Capitalism favors art that's "pretty" and the works that have had the most profound influence on the evolution of art have seldom been considered "pretty."  Quite the contrary, most of the seriously influential movements were rejected by the status-quo.

For this reason, the government subsidy of the arts in this country is extremely important.  And after we took the baton from Paris in the 1940s, we had a responsibility to the entire world, really.  Then in the mid- to late-80s we get Mapplethorpe retrospectives scandalizing Cincinatti, Andre Serrano pissing on crucifixes, Annie Sprinkle displaying her cervix to the world, and Finley.  Along with Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, her work so purposefully challenged the conservative views of those who had influence over the NEA that from that point forward, progressive artists could no longer be subsidized by the government program.  I consider that somewhat counter-productive and self-defeating in some ways--in a way totally irresponsible.

Well, Finley addressed the subject from the very beginning.  She knew exactly what she was doing when she staged those performance art shows.  It was a deliberate attack on the institution of the NEA.  While I'm still not sure if I agree with it, I have come to respect what she did tenfold because it was completely planned and intentional.

It also came to light very near the beginning that Bourgeois had asked Finley to accept an award for her when she was physically unable because she felt that what Finley was doing was the next generation of her own explorations of the nature of gender in the art world.

All in all, Finley had some incredibly profound things to say about Bourgeois' work that I was grateful to have heard.  A true performer, she also recited a number of Bourgeois' poems--she wrote various poetry from the 1930s until her death--in a highly dramatic manner that seemed to impress some of the other audience members.  I was impressed by Finley's intensity, also, but felt that her readings were a bit harsh and confrontational, and lacked a certain sensitivity and self-reflectiveness I'd have expected from Bourgeois herself.

--Photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian
Finley's insights into the misogyny of the art world institution were extremely illuminating.  She'd ended her talk in front of one of the spiders, which she pointed out, was a female member of the natural world that creates art, by spinning webs.  One comment, that Bourgeois' turn to softer, folk, craft-based materials late in life was the result of her inability to work in stone, and that somehow, the idea that stone was superior and that her choice of materials displayed a deficiency in her craft was, in itself, a misogynistic reading, made a huge impact on me.

Over a glass of wine at the end, amidst a group of most probably lesbian fans of Finley's (just got the feeling) where I felt conspicuously and unfortunately male, having gathered that she was very firmly in tune with the Feminist issues in the art world, I asked her if she might suggest some good Feminist writing for my reading list.  She seemed strangely uncomfortable about the question, which surprised me a bit, to be honest.

But she recommended The Pink Glass Swan--Selected Essays on Feminist Art by Lucy Lippard, who wrote Six Years--The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, which I've been wanting to read ever since I heard about it from one of my coworkers at Rock Center.

I told her that my 12" single of SinĂ©ad O'Connor's Jump in the River,  on which she appears being disturbingly and deliciously offensive and which I suspect is somewhat rare, is one of my most prized possessions (so true).  She seemed slightly surprised but more or less unimpressed.

In any case, I'm grateful.  I feel that I now have a much deeper understanding of Louise Bourgeois' work, and of how female artists struggled to make their way into the world of New York's 20th-Century art scene.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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