Vernacular, in an academic or art-speak context, is a word worthy of healthy suspicion. It is used to designate populist styles, to suggest a common language that bubbles up from below rather than a discourse dictated from on high. It’s generally freighted with ideas about authenticity: vernacular styles are authentically of the people, while hierarchical or received styles are illegitimate impositions from cultural authorities. A vernacular urban design is way cool, kind of anarchic, funky, eclectic and free; as opposed to older ideas that are associated with disreputable forms of cultural or social authority. Here’s a classic usage in the catalog to a great new show (originally from the Getty in Los Angeles) at the National Building Museum:
[Reyner] Banham upended this old-world notion of what defined true urbanity, arguing for Los Angeles’s inclusion within the canon of great cities by virtue of its democratic brand of urbanism, which rejected orthodox urban hierarchies in favor of a sprawling vernacular landscape that upheld the values of an affluent consumer society…”
It’s worth stopping every time you see the word and asking yourself: Is the thing that is supposedly vernacular really functioning like a language? Is there a real give and take of communication? I tried to do that in my review of the fascinating and ambitious “Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990” exhibition. Thus:
Calling the sprawl of cheap suburban cookie-cutter houses and trashy commercial signage a “new vernacular” misuses the term vernacular, suggesting that this was a language involving genuine back-and-forth communication. It wasn’t a language at all, or even an architectural style; rather, it was a jumble of commercially dictated architectural styles aimed at gaining and holding consumer attention. Mostly people adapted to it. If they now embrace it, it’s because it feels familiar and they have few other options.
That’s no reason not to see the show. But better to give L.A. it’s due as a great city despite its failures of urbanism, rather than attempt to elevate sprawl to something like an admirable, democratic vernacular. Ugly is ugly, and environmentally unsound, too.
Not easy to find this review today, but it did run. The show is excellent and both a lot of fun and rather disturbing. I spend much of my review on the morality and the ethics of embracing destruction as actual artistic praxis, but there’s a lot more to the show than that. This YouTube clip shows an installation view (from another exhibition) of Pipilotti Rist’s deliciously subversive video, “Ever is Over All.” Fast forward to the 45-second mark to get a sense of the video as you’ll see it at the Hirshhorn. In a way, this work undermines much of what I say in my piece, showing destruction without moral significance, just pure fun and sexy, as if the Nike of Samothrace went out for a walk on the wild side–and who would dare to stop her? Not any old policewoman.
Last week I wrote a short piece about a carpet known as the Armenian Orphan Rug, woven by orphan refugees of the Armenian genocide, given to President Calvin Coolidge, and now too hot politically to be taken out of storage. The White House responded to my request for comment with the usual non-comment statement that answers and explains nothing. The World picked up the story and chatted with me on the Friday program.
I’ve also reviewed a couple of shows, the Byzantine art exhibition at the National Gallery (many beautiful things) and the Latino Art exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (also many beautiful things, but a poorly conceived show).
Two recent Washington Post pieces were somewhat hard to find on the website, so I post them here. One deals with the controversy in Detroit over the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts may have to sell paintings as part of the city’s larger bankruptcy crisis. I think this is disastrous, but not unexpected given larger cultural trends. Thus:
This is about dismantling the public commons: There are things we hold in trust for the common good, places and institutions such as libraries, museums and public parks that are meant to be held, enjoyed and passed on to future generations without regard to their monetary value, immediate cost or other inconveniences presented by their maintenance.It is about the fraying and ultimate destruction of a social contract built on the robber-baron philanthropy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the progressive movements that championed education and political reform in the last century and the ideals of equal access that emerged in the civil rights struggles since the 1950s. If you believe there is nothing more to the social contract than the inalienable right of all men to thrive or perish in the market, then museums are an obnoxious example of irrational collectivist thinking.
And then there was a review of a new MOMA show devoted to Magritte. Nugget:
On a purely visual level, Magritte’s art still appeals today because it is spare, clean, and mostly empty. His people may be ciphers, living in apocalyptically empty rooms, but today empty is looking pretty inviting. The clean, precise lines of architectural modernism haunt even the most old-fashioned of his interior spaces, and while many of them are stage settings for dark and disturbing messages, they remain strangely appealing places.Magritte’s paintings also do one, limited kind of artistic work very well. They begin one place, then take you to another, with a satisfying sense of unraveling or unlocking the meaning. They reduce artistic looking to an almost addictive level, with a clear and rewarding payoff for a small amount of study.
I was elated when it was announced the Corcoran wouldn’t be leaving its historic home on 17th Street NW. But still, what does it say about the institution that they even considered the idea? With the recent announcement that the Corcoran will seek some kind of partnership or alliance with the University of Maryland, there’s an understandable sense of skepticism about how that will play out. In this Sunday’s The Washington Post, I talk to several people who will be deeply involved in the project. And I come away with a tiny glimmer of hope, so long as the Corcoran opens up the process and allows full transparency as it goes forward.
An article by Kriston Capps in the City Paper sets up the next few months as critical for the fate of the Bloomberg Bubble, the proposed temporary inflatable event space for the Hirshhorn. I like the bubble, and explain why on the Post Style Blog.
The new Walters Art Museum show, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, is worth a trip to Baltimore. It isn’t a huge exhibition, and much of what is on display offers more intellectual interest than pure aesthetic delight. But the history is fascinating, the detective work engaging, and you get the sense that there’s a more-than-ample kernel here for a major show sometime in the future. I recommend it in today’s Washington Post.
Image Courtesy the Walters Art Museum, Annibale Carracci, attrib., ca. 1580s, oil on canvas, 60 x 39 x 2 cm (fragment of a larger painting), Tomasso Brothers, Leeds, England
I used a column in Sunday’s paper to examine how the Corcoran’s curatorial history, its identity as an institution, and an all-too-frequent failure to capitalize on success has led it to its current financial woes. But there’s nothing there that can’t be fixed by passionate, enlightened, dedicated leadership. The Mapplethorpe controversy of 1989 played a role:
When case studies are written about how to blow up a nonprofit institution, the Mapplethorpe controversy is key among them, a classic map that prefigured controversies such as the implosion earlier this year at the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure (which suddenly appeared political after trying to deny funding to Planned Parenthood), the 2010 censorship of an exhibition of gay and lesbian portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the current power struggle at the University of Virginia. In all four cases, institutional leadership seemed unaware of the basic human capital invested in the organization, unaware that the people who keep the institution alive view it in essentially familial terms, not bureaucratic or organizational ones.
But the current leadership’s willingness to throw the entire museum into limbo while they pursue the horrible idea of selling the building could well be the death knell for the institution:
Yet at a critical moment, when the Corcoran desperately needs people to rally behind it, the board of directors has indicated that it is seriously considering a move that would further alienate supporters of the museum. Board Chairman Harry Hopper, in an interview with Washington Post reporters, said he and the board “weren’t out pounding the pavement on behalf of the institution” until they have “a plan that makes sense.”
Not “pounding the pavement on behalf of the institution” at the moment? I was gobsmacked by that when I first heard our reporters recount their interview with Hopper.
Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. I wrote up a few thoughts I brought home from my time there at the Post’s The Style Blog.