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).
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
While in Philadelphia to see the Barnes collection a few weeks ago, I popped over to the Penn Museum to take in a new exhibition devoted to the Maya. The exhibition is billed as an examination of the supposed Maya doomsday prediction, which is all the rage in the darker corners of the Internet. That’s a bit pop-culty for my taste, a strawman that the curators indulge only to repeatedly knock down. But the museum does a good job with something more fundamental, immersing visitors in the complicated visual world of Maya carving, and the even more dizzying calendar systems that underpinned their political and philosophical world. It’s worth visiting, and may have particular appeal to younger audiences.
This story got lost in the Sunday mix (even I had a hard time finding it and I know how to search). But I reviewed the new building and installation of the Barnes Foundation collection in today’s Sunday Post. I think the new facility is beautifully done, even with the pall of controversy that hangs over the entire project. Here.
I took a brief vacation earlier this month, a chance to drive from L.A. to Las Vegas, visiting my alma mater on the way. In Las Vegas, I spent an afternoon at the new Mob Museum. It’s better than I expected. But why are Americans so interested in museums devoted to violence, aggression and death? In this weekend’s tranche of stories I wrote about the museum, and a very good exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, devoted to art by French women painters from 1750 t0 1850.
When the creators of the original main exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were gathering artifacts in Eastern Europe, much of the material was acquired on a long-term loan basis. Several of those involved in the negotiations say they believed those loans were essentially permanent. But in the case of material gathered in Poland, it turns out the loans were for twenty years and the museum must now renegotiate them. In many cases, that means material must be returned to Poland, and sometimes replaced with similar or equivalent pieces. But what to do about the barracks from Auschwitz, which is a major part of the museum’s “experience”-based exhibition? How can it be returned? And replaced with what? The problem is now vexing the museum, as I report in a piece in today’s The Washington Post. Near the end, I ask the obvious question: Why are the Poles enforcing the legal details? Is it a symptom of yet more Polish discomfort with their awkward historical relationship to the Holocaust? Or, perhaps, something else:
The Polish insistence on the return may also reflect an evolution of its relationship to the past. Museum officials say that Polish conservation and stewardship of Holocaust sites and material have never been better.
The Poles may simply be adhering to what they view as their legitimate conservation obligations.
Warren Rosenblum, a professor of history at Webster University who studies the Holocaust, said there has been “a cultural awakening” in regard to the Holocaust in Poland, including more openness and professionalism in how the country deals with the subject and the material remnants of the genocide. But with that comes “a new kind of self-assertion and pride,” he said, and the sense that Poles want to “be in charge of this history, take ownership of it, be true to this legacy.”
I think the damage done by celebrity photography is much more grave than the mere pollution of magazines, newspapers and other media that favor this form of entertainment. Fetishizing the celebrity class overemphasizes the role meritocracy plays in creating and sustaining wealth and privilege. The traces of genuine humanity, humility and intelligence are almost always leached out of the celebrity photograph, replaced by self-satisfaction and a vacant sense of entitlement. Not all, but most. No surprise then that I’m not a fan of Annie Leibovitz’s work. Her most recent show, “Pilgrimage,” is no exception, even though it doesn’t focus on living celebrities. It begins this way (and can be found in its entirety here):
Annie Leibovitz photographs the 1 percent, the rich, beautiful and famous, conspiring with the apparatus of celebrity and capitalism to make the lives of successful people feel even more glamorous and alluring. The Library of Congress has officially declared her a “Living Legend,” and despite a few financial problems awhile back – a massive home-renovation project in Greenwich Village contributed to the setback – she has joined the same rarefied ranks of privilege that she has so diligently served throughout her career.