I don’t like the phrase, and perhaps that’s incidental to the several pleasures of a small but rewarding new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. “Staging the Self” focuses on six Latino artists who are all representing a sense of themselves, through painting or photography, often heavily dependent on a cast of characters from their past, their family or their community. Art Speak is full of well-worn cliches, and the sense that theater, or staging, or theatricality somehow makes things more complicated, more multivalent, more substantial is one of them. It’s fairly simple, isn’t it? To the extent that we have an identity, it is sum of many parts, drawn from our past, our friends (through imitation) and enemies (through repulsion), and of course heavily dependent on our many shifting loyalties to ethnic, religious, sexual and gender subgroups. That’s all.
But don’t think that sorting through all of this, or even “staging” it through art, is going to get you any closer to knowing who you are. At the end of my review I quote James Agee, who understands the frustration well:
…and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
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).
Now the government shut down is over, the Phillips Collection will have to compete as usual with the National Gallery and Smithsonian museums. I wrote this review of a new exhibition devoted to its Van Gogh “repetitions” exhibition during the two-week window when the museum was the only game in town. A worthy 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.
Yesterday I won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. The news was announced almost simultaneously with the first alerts coming out of Boston. Many of us weren’t aware of what was going on until after the gathering around the main news desk broke up, perhaps an hour later. By the time I did a quick video interview for the Post, and a few brief conversations with journalists from the AP and The New York Times, the images flashing on every screen and monitor throughout the building made the ugliness of the bombing–the panic, the wounded, the urgency of first responders–feel almost too familiar, even as the tragedy was still unfolding.
People asked if it was strange to win on such an awful day. Yes, it was very strange, and I have family in Boston (who are all safe). But it was a thing of wonder to see the newsroom with all hands on deck, to see it do what it does best. Arts critics survive in newspapers not because we help the bottom line, but because enlightened editors and publishers see art as an essential part of the picture of the world that newspapers deliver everyday. It’s news that makes newspapers vital and relevant, and there wouldn’t be a working arts critic in America if people weren’t first hungry for the work of reporters covering breaking stories with depth, perspective and passion.
Art, on the other hand, is entirely essential to the survival of the world itself. That fact, that necessity, isn’t universally acknowledged, as the events in Boston give sad witness. Creation is the opposite of destruction.
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.