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A Railing Opinion


Petronius, oddly enough, was appointed to Nero’s “arbiter of taste”, from which position I assume he observed the court, and wrote Satyricon—a masterpiece depicting, among other curiosities, the orgy, or rather, the banquet, at the home of a nouveau riche joker called Trimalchio. It was in very bad taste indeed.

As a watcher of institutional bad taste, I could not help thinking of Petronius when I read in The Times of the “First Friday” party at the Guggenheim. It packed in 2,000 people—the young set characterized by its members as a downtown crowd—madly gyrating to rock music. This “scene” is surely worthy of Fellini. But it is getting to be customary in our museum world to rent out the hall. MoMA does it too. Even the Metropolitan is available for private parties, which are sometimes staged in the Temple of Dendur.

The Metropolitan, once a shelter from the boom beat, is now in the process of charging up its contemporary art act, with an eye to box office. The curator of modern and contemporary art was recently quoted: “We’re very much trying to bring down the median age.” This is in keeping with the founding of the Met, when its sponsors had in mind to keep the children off the streets.

Meanwhile, downtown at MoMA, the curators have announced recent acquisitions. They used to say, during the Renaissance, that truth is the daughter of time, but don’t tell that to MoMA, which can’t wait. Breathless with the latest news, MoMA likes to accumulate as much as possible of the hottest numbers around, characterizing each artist as either “among the most important European artists working today” (Gerhard Richter), or “among the most influential artists of his generation” and “foremost heir to the legacy of Richter” (Luc Tuymans). Richter is alive, so why talk of a legacy. MoMA has added twelve new paintings to the twenty-three they already own. Tuymans adds two new paintings to the two they already own, as well as nine drawings. Why is MoMA overstocking the boutique with works by these artists when there are glaring lacunae in the collection? Interesting question. Probably a sociologist or political scientist could find the answer which I’m sure does not lie in the realm of taste or esthetics. The fact is that curators have taken on huge new powers that are all to rarely challenged by the public they are meant to serve.

But perhaps these are minor cavils. There is something a lot more serious going on and it is not at all those Trimalchian banquets in Miami, Basel, Venice and New York at the many bazaars called art fairs. Curators have powers to erode the confidence of serious viewers, as they are in charge of shipping out our patrimony at will. The most egregious example comes from the venerable National Gallery that has been circulating an abominable exhibition of studio leavings by poor Mark Rothko. I saw this miserable parody of a retrospective in Mexico City, where local audiences had no works of Rothko to compare this show to and thereby correct this total misrepresentation. These were largely works left behind in Rothko’s studio that the artist had either not finished (Did you ever see a Rothko with scrub marks or large provisional brush marks?) or that he had had doubts about. If you knew Rothko, as I did, you’d know he often had doubts and wrote off paintings he felt were failures, though like many other painters, he left them lying around. Everyone—curators, family, museums directors, and critics—then conspires to declare them lucky finds, and sometimes, as in the case of very late deKoonings, suggest that they were the best work of his life. Question: can a man non compos mentis paint a masterpiece? I think not.

The Rothko exhibition, which was already seen in Russia, where connoisseurs were sorely disappointed, will now move on to Hong Kong and Korea, and continue to misinform people who have heard about his prowess. Here, the decision to send around this exhibition either shows that curators have no eyes, or that they have other reasons to send these poor creatures on the road, or that they no longer understand the nature of responsibility.

Quis custodiet ipso custodes: who will keep the keepers themselves? —Juvenal

—Dore Ashton

Railing Opinion is an open space for dialouge on the current art world. We invite critics, art historians, artists, and viewers to participate.

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Dore Ashton


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2006

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