April 26, 2008

Twenty-First-Century Courtly Follies

by Jerome du Bois

Time to polish the cliché of the ivory tower.

Hear the glory of the royal art scam through the thin tinny trumpet of K. Vanesian. This woman is a courtier of the inner circle of complacent sycophancy that is ASU's Herberger College of the Arts, a coterie of vanity, pride, and folly. ASU's President Michael Crow plays the distant king, John Spiak a prince or duke, the baton they pass around is called "community engagement," and visiting "artist" Josh Greene is the jester with two jobs to juggle.

The first is for Greene to endorse Crow's community engagement commitment with his silly and insulting "residency," which has checkmark reverberations which satisfy everybody's bureaucratic obligations; for example, the fourth-grade teacher who gets to use a visit to Greene's stupid scene to fulfill the district's requirement for an art outing (and he/she can double-dip and make it a "social studies" outing as well); the artist gets fifty-eight drawings from kids who are required to carry out an assignment no matter how they feel about it; Josh Greene gets all fifty-eight as a certificate, a palpable marker, a credential that he did his part in this daisy chain; the teacher's principal and the district bureaucrats are reminded that the tentacle of ASU/Crow's embrace --expanding yet tightening too-- is welcome, since they get to check off their own bureaucratic requirements --checkmarks up and down the line-- so that finally the legislature is satisfied, turns the spigot, and the money flows. The money must flow.

Josh Greene's second task is to glorify the role of the curator, John Spiak in particular, the role of what passes today as an avant-garde artist (himself), and the role of the art museum in a mutual admiration and legimization ritual as mannered as a medieval court --and just as rigidly separated by class. Vaneisan plays right along. This "Social Studies" rubric, no matter how boundary-breaking and democratic and outreaching and "socially interactive" and relationally aesthetic it styles itself as, is designed to showcase just how special, separate, wise, and superior the artists and curators are, compared to you, citizen, with your flat feet on the street, scratching your head and asking, But where is the art?

Don't let them scam you, citizen. Your eyes, your heart, your ears, your brain --they have not deceived you. You're right: There is no art there. Examine Josh Greene's website, and you'll see that he's simply an operator --he doesn't make anything-- and though he has an academic degree in sculpture, his goal is to empty the world of significance. And more: he wants to flatline the heartbeat of art.

For him, for curators like Spiak and Heather Lineberry and Marilyn Zeitlin, this whole art-and-curating gig is a folly, a shadow play of puppets in cardboard crowns, an aesthetic three-card monte dealt by five-sided comedians laying out the pattern in pleasing, familiar harlequin tessellation. It's fun for them, because they're all getting paid, and paid well, and often with taxpayer money. Why wouldn't they hire a jester? They know he's going to be a safe one, not the like the jesters of old who often ridiculed their own patrons, up to and including the king. Everybody's just having fun.

But it isn't amusing to the citizen on the street, who lives in a world at war, and who looks for signs that we can better ourselves, that we can rise above ourselves, when too many around us take the easy way out, turn to cruelty, or wallow as low as they can go.

By serendipity, I suppose, I've been rereading Christopher Fowler's fourth Bryant & May mystery, Ten-Second Staircase, which includes an impeccable skewering of British art twits who resemble Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and Grayson Perry. The epigraph is by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), and it's sadly apt to today:

The wit of cheats, the courage of a whore,
Are what ten thousand envy and adore;
All, all look up, with reverential awe,
At crimes that 'scape, or triumph o'er the law:
While truth, worth, wisdom, daily they decry--
'Nothing is sacred now but villainy.'

There's more for the interested reader. Let's take a look at the list of Mr. Greene's "completed" projects.

* * * * *

Greene posted a list of fourteen completed projects on the ASU Art Museum's website. I'll take them one by one, with comments. Two "actions" that he had speculated on before do not appear on the list, but they give you an idea of his vibe: a pancake breakfast, and staring contests. Here we go:

Gallery Decoration As Suggested By My Wife

Aww, how sweet, although she has terrible taste, and the setup looks forlorn and pointless. And she's not really part of the Arizona community, is she? How is this "socially interactive"?

Jessie Smithís Selections from the Permanent Collection (see YouTube Video)

Jessie Smith is a woman from Canada (?!) whom Greene snagged and dragged around because nothing else was going on, and she had suggested that he needed some art on the walls. I guess it hadn't occurred to him, even while "residing" in the middle of an art museum. So he made a big deal out of it.

Inequity No More -Ė public restroom intervention

I'll let Vanesian describe this brilliant move:

Reconfiguring other museum spaces has also been a major component of the artist's unorthodox art-making. When he discovered that the men's room in the museum didn't have a couch, as the women's room does, he "equalized" the two restrooms by moving the office couch of curator John Spiak into the men's room.

How did he "discover" that the women's room had a couch? As if I'm interested.

Conversation with a chimp about art ideas Ė-video to come

This shtick goes back to vaudeville and farther. It's got cobwebs on it and it's from hunger.

Mascot / Docent

I don't know. I'm guessing it has to do with dressing up in an animal costume, another dismaying staple of what Vanesian calls "participatory conceptual art."

Thursday afternoons with Legend

If this has to do with that half-pint jumped-up teenage "curator," I don't want to know more.

Itís Not You Ė-staff restroom intervention

This is icky. Vanesian again:

The private curatorial bathrooms are now equipped with CD players immortalizing the unmistakable sounds of bathroom activity, which one can ignore or choose to listen to.

Yes, you read that right. Eeeww. Let's move on.

Serving as an actor in other artistís video productions Ė- video to come

He means students. So far, this residency sounds as serious as recess.

Museum staff audio recordings, their ideas of the Social Studies initiative

And I'm sure many of them spoke on the record that they thought the whole idea was inflated crap designed to please King Crow.

A small tribute to Jarbas Lopes

Lopes was the operator before Greene; he set up a bicycle-repair and customizing shop at the Museum. Green obediently polishes the community engagement baton with this reminder, and gives a thumbs-up to Spiak, too.

AZ 3TV anchor man Scott Passmore as depicted by 58 fourth graders --See Josh interviewed for 3TVís Good Morning Arizona show

These are the drawings mentioned at the beginning of this post. Vanesian provides a revealing glimpse of art snobbism in her sadistic description of Scott Passmore and crew:

"I don't actually make things that often," Greene recently explained to a Channel 3 news crew that seemed completely baffled by Greene's work. "So, a lot of the projects are often inspired by various conversations with visitors to the museum."

News anchor Scott Pasmore was so flummoxed by the whole concept that he ended up nervously laughing and babbling incoherently on-camera.

I couldn't get the video to work, so I can't say if it happened as she describes. I will say that Vanesian seems to enjoy the plague of punking and gotcha we currently suffer in our culture.

ASU Art Museum Curator, John Spiakís office --see YouTube Video

Vanesian again:

Recently, the artist was so impressed by the kinetic chaos of Spiak's office that he moved its entire contents to the gallery, painstakingly re-creating its visual bedlam from photos he took of Spiak's work space. Greene's 3-D vignette dutifully documents books and papers scattered on and under the curator's desk, strange stuff strewn about the floor, including a gigantic deflated bear costume, made-to-scale bookcases crammed precariously with hundreds of videotapes and exhibition catalogs, suspended "walls" plastered with assorted images and a video monitor stacked with crap. Spiak, in turn, posted a video of his new office location.

Here we see the jester paying tribute to the prince, and then, in true narcissistic royal style, the prince paying YouTube tribute to himself. Mirrors facing mirrors! I remember that office, by the way. Catherine and I sat in it back in the summer of 2002, and heard Spiak say that art exhibitions (we were proposing a 9/11 tribute) took at least three years to put in place. And then I read that this Josh Greene thing was ginned-up in three months. Of course, by now I'm not surprised by these people, just sadder and wiser.

An installation of the artwork of the Museumís installation crew

How to win friends and flatter the hell out of people. And easy and safe as apple pie.

Scrapbook tribute by Ellen Medway, mother of artist, with accompanying audio recording

The Good Housekeeping seal of approval. My mother likes my work, okay? You gonna dis my mother? Perish the thought. What could I add anyway? That's number fourteen.

Now Josh Greene's gone --I wrote most of this on April 3rd-- but his ephemera remain until early May. A partial list of what you'll see includes reproduced emails and a bunch of drawings by children, some of the art you'd see anyway at Nelson Fine Arts Center, and a bunch of videos starring guess who.

The follies continue. The jester snickers while bending the knee, and the courtiers laugh out loud. Art suffers.

Posted by Jerome at April 26, 2008 10:05 AM | TrackBack
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