Small art for narrow minds is what happens when identity politics take precedence

Small art for narrow minds is what happens when identity politics take precedence

We’re sorry, this feature is currently unavailable. We’re working to restore it. Please try again later. Terms such as “social justice, equity and inclusion” can mean replacing one set of prejudices with a different but equally narrow variety. A change is always an opportunity and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art is set to begin a new chapter with the departure of long-term director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and senior curator Rachel Kent. Yet, the transition has been complicated by two years of pandemic, and the impending opening of the Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern – a new wing that will duplicate much that goes on at Circular Quay. The pressure is on the new director Suzanne Cotter, an Australian who has worked in Luxembourg, Portugal, the Middle East and the UK, to quickly come to terms with the nature of the museum and its audience. In her first few weeks, Cotter has said all the positive things one might expect from a new incumbent and raised a few warning signs. She has spoken of the need to implement “urgent reforms with respect to social justice, equity, inclusion, and now COVID which has had a particular impact on the financial models of museums.” In theory, nobody could object to such goals, but terms such as “social justice, equity and inclusion” can mean replacing one set of prejudices with a different but equally narrow variety. When we try to understand how this translates into attendance figures, sponsorships and patronage, there is a danger of principle outstripping practicality. It’s indisputable that public museums and galleries have historically favoured male artists over females, but does that mean today’s museums should deliberately reverse the trend? The same applies to Indigenous work, which was often treated as amateur or folk art. Should museum collections now give precedence to Indigenous art over more cosmopolitan expressions? Move too far, too fast, in the direction of affirmative action and the museum runs the risk of alienating more people than it attracts. There’s no consolation in feeling virtuous when your paymasters are asking why attendances and revenues are down. In countries such as France and Germany, the arts are taken seriously by a more cultured set of politicians. In Australia, with a few notable exceptions, our MPs are rank philistines who see the visual arts as part of the tourist industry. For the average politician, who would probably prefer arts funding to be handled by the private sector, the quality of a show is judged by its attendance numbers. Corporate sponsors are equally keen on the big numbers when it comes to deciding how they distribute their largesse. When a museum has to reconcile a commitment to social justice with the need to raise revenue, the “financial models” are more complex to navigate. Cotter dramatised this dilemma when she was quoted in The Australian as saying: “Today, if you are a white male artist, you are not so interesting… It doesn’t mean to say you’re not a great artist – I think it’s more that this isn’t what is ­relevant for people now. You have to think in a timely way.” This sounds like bad news for white male artists, but it also raises the question of “relevance”. All contemporary institutions act as tastemakers, imposing their ideas about what’s relevant, fashionable, politically correct, etc, on their exhibition programs. But what a curator believes to be “relevant”, may be completely contrary to the views of the average gallery-goer. The museum needs to strike a balance, avoiding populism without venturing too far into the realms of the esoteric. It needs to recognise minoritarian concerns, but pitch exhibitions to the broadest possible audience. In recent years the MCA has got its best results from projects with a touch of the wow factor. I’m thinking of solo shows by artists including Pipilotti Rist, Cornelia Parker and Sun Xun. Neither should we discount major retrospectives by David Goldblatt and John Mawurndjul that may not have been crowd-pullers but deserve the highest accolades. Sun Zun, Cornelia Park and Pipilotti Rist (clockwise from top) shows are among the MCA’s recent highlights. There have been plenty of occasions when the museum’s choices failed to connect with the public or the critics, but if I had to assess how the MCA was travelling pre-pandemic, I’d say the standard of exhibitions had been steadily rising. The Art Gallery of NSW, in comparison, has been haphazard in its displays of contemporary art, and less willing to publish significant catalogues. It remains to be seen whether this will be corrected when the long-drawn-out saga of Sydney Modern is finally concluded. It’s almost impossible to say which institution may claim to be the world’s first museum of contemporary art. In the 20th century, museums styled themselves as “modern”, with the term “contemporary” only coming into vogue as a catch-all for whatever came after Modernism. At the time the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opened in October 1967, Modern art was breaking down into Conceptual Art, performance, political activism, and a range of “anti-art” gestures. With its militant attachment to “the New”, the museum was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and scepticism. In an essay titled Museum of the New, critic Harold Rosenberg pointed out the obvious contradictions of a museum devoted to the avant-garde project of dissolving the boundaries that separate art from life. Exhibit A was Allen Kaprow, the pioneer of “happenings”, who saw the museum as “a fuddy-duddy remnant from another era” and called for such institutions to be turned into swimming pools and nightclubs. Kaprow’s iconoclasm didn’t prevent the Chicago MCA from including his work – or at least documentation of his work – in its opening display. It’s a gesture that has been repeated countless times in the decades that followed: the artist who declares that art and its institutions are either dead or deserve to be killed, is celebrated and collected by those same institutions. The logic is explained in Chicago’s mission statement of 1966: “A museum of contemporary art is different from the general art museum where the values of the past are enshrined. Instead, it is a place where new ideas are shown and tested.” But if the “new idea” is that museums must be abolished, how can this be reconciled with a bricks-and-mortar institution caught up in the familiar round of exhibition and collection development, fund-raising, tourist initiatives and public education? Perhaps the only option is to invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Following Chicago’s lead, museums of contemporary art mushroomed around the world. Sydney’s version opened in 1991, with two inauspicious exhibitions: TV Times and Caravans of the Future, which may have been ill-judged attempts to reach out to a popular audience – breaking down those barriers between art and life. Today, the frantic worship of “the New” that distinguished the launch of the Chicago MCA has given way to a more realistic assessment of the role of the museum as a prestigious showcase rather than an arena for revolutionary activity. It is a safe space where conceptual bombs may be detonated without anyone in the outside world ever noticing. In the late 1960s the idea of an avant-garde was still very much alive, which meant that much of the work being shown implicitly challenged the museum’s raison d’être. There was a belief that artists should no longer simply make “objects” such as paintings or sculptures that could be sold as valuable commodities and support the capitalist system. As a movement, Post-object art was never destined to endure. So long as there is a market for objects there will always be artists to supply them. As Rosenberg noted, the museum that adhered to the logic of the avant-garde would soon cease to exist. By the end of the 1980s while talk about “art as commodity” still lingered, a booming art market had established itself as the supreme arbiter of institutional taste. Today we’ve proceeded to the point where reputations are made by high-end art dealers and swallowed by museums, with most critics acting as a cheer squad for the artistic heroes created by the marketplace. One of the MCA’s less-heralded missions may be to resist the more brazen coercions of the commercial art market. Although Cotter says the museum has a vital role to play in relation to “environmental and social justice movements”, it’s important that the exhibition program is not so driven by issues that groups such as “white male artists” are automatically excluded. Allow ideology to take precedence over art, and an institution will only address a small group of like-minded souls. If a new-look MCA is to assert its relevance in a post-pandemic world a focus on identity politics may be far less important than some old-fashioned showmanship. A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. Sign up to our Culture Fix newsletter here.
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