"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Death Of High Culture

It has been obvious for a long time that attendance at classical symphonies and ballet performances is getting greyer. Older audiences, schooled with proper respect for Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, and perhaps with some academic or studio training, still appreciate the classics.  It doesn’t matter that they have heard each piece many times – orchestras tend to have similar, familiar repertoires – and they find pleasure in noting the subtle differences between one conductor’s interpretation and another.  They are the old guard, and the staunch defenders of tradition and proven greatness.

Younger people flock to rock concerts in Golden Gate Park, fill Madison Square Garden to hear Romeo Santos, stand in line for BeyoncĂ©, Lady Gaga, or Justin Bieber.  The more cerebral and classically-minded turn to Indie bands and alternative folk-rock.  None of them are buying $100 tickets to the Met.

Theatre is different, although bold new plays which appeal to both younger and older audiences are produced in New York – if not on Broadway, then off- or off-off. There are more reruns and remakes than a serious theatregoer would like, but the offerings are still worth a look.  Theatre attendance, of course, is nothing compared to movies which along with rock music are America’s indigenous pop culture.  Theatre is not dying like classical music and ballet, but producers still have to pay attention to demographics and film.

In a sorry and ultimately failing attempt to make Shakespeare more ‘accessible’, producers are adding pyrotechnics, modernizing sets, costumes, and delivery to create a more modern experience.  The words of the Bard are not enough for younger audiences who are used to spending money for a show. I have seen productions by reputable Shakespeare Companies that totally distort Shakespeare’s meaning. Shylock, in one, had none of the tragedy, anger, and pathos of the original; and was reduced to a laughing Jew.  Othello in the hands of a Washington director had plenty of bombast and pain, but the first scene – not in the original – shows Othello and Desdemona in bed.  Critics have felt all along that Othello never consummated his marriage with Desdemona, and placing them under a flowing canopied bed at the beginning of the play does a disservice to the playwright.  Yet, it is modern, and producers can take plenty of liberties.

We come now to art, and in an interesting article in the New York Times (8.11.13) Judith Dobrzynski has described how museums, faced with declining revenues and poor demographics, are becoming more ‘hands on’, interactive, and participatory.  It is no accident that many museums of contemporary art are filled with interactive installations – a room filled with balloons, for example; or electronic walls that react to hand gestures. Artists know that such glitzy works sell and are told as much by museum curators who in turn are read the new mission statement by management.

Not only are museums favoring installations which visitors can touch, walk through, hear, and smell, they are transforming the experience of viewing traditional paintings, i.e., embedding interactive displays in their painting galleries. “They are gamifying them”.

They are even inviting the public to participate in curating – a kind of PR outsourcing:

I’ve seen museums offer people the opportunity to participate in curating exhibitions, choosing which artworks from their collections should be sold to raise money, deciding whether an altered painting should be restored to its original condition, advising on the design of gallery installations and more. Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history? 

Visitors to classical art museums like the National Gallery or the Metropolitan head for the most famous paintings on exhibition, then snap smartphone pix to show that they were there. Not enough, say curators and management:

As Alexander Bortolot, an art historian and the “curatorial content strategist” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, told me last year, younger people want museums to connect them to the creative economy. They don’t want to listen to some art historian flown in from New York; they’d rather network with members of the local arts community and take part in a conversation.

I have sat through many windy, overly-academic art lectures that dissect, deconstruct, and reduce paintings to the level of car maintenance manual drawings; and have wished that art history could once again return to a more comprehensive and meaningful discussion of trends, influences, and genius.  Yet, I hate to see what inevitably will be the dumbing down of art. Interactive displays of Vermeer will certainly focus more on what his paintings are worth, where they have been exhibited, the number of visitors seeing the works.  They might touch on the artist’s life, focusing where possible on gender and class; but they will not require an intense, intimate look at the paintings themselves.

Not all curators are rushing to interaction:

After the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon in April, Thomas P. Campbell, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, reached out to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with the offer to lend three paintings, all dealing obliquely with contemplation, for a special free exhibition there. At the time, he said, “Great museums are places of solace and inspiration, particularly when tragedy strikes a community.” When so many people go instead for an experience, that aspect of art museums — a key part of their identity — is at risk

This is still too purposeful for me.  I would still prefer quiet contemplation without social context or meaning.  Just me and the paintings.

1 comment:

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