Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Edvard Munch at the Centre Pompidou (Against Curators, pt. 1)

The Edvard Munch exhibition currently showing at the Centre Pompidou, "Edvard Munch: L'Oeil Moderne", collects paintings, drawings, and photographs from the middle and later stages of the Norwegian painter’s career. In the exhibit program, the curators declare their intent to offer viewers a new view of Munch which highlights his modernity (fair enough, although it seems like a bit of a straw-man argument to say the Munch is generally considered otherwise), by illustrating the ways in which his work concerns itself with the major questions of 20th-century modernity, such as intermediality, self-representation, and the reproducibility of the work of art. As H. and I moved through the exhibit admiring Munch’s works, we constantly came up against a blockade of human bodies, gathered around what one thought would have been a Munch painting, but was actually a large block of text printed in French and poorly-translated English at the entrance to each room of the exhibition. While I was content at first to just ignore the texts, which at first glance seemed to offer nothing of substance or import, and form my own conclusions from the developments of Munch’s style easily observable in the paintings when one is aware of their historical succession, I was eventually forced to take a serious look at the wall texts, as the selection of paintings in the individual rooms ceased to have any recognizable ordered affinities. For example, the room entitled “Rayonnements” informed the viewer that “Munch was part of a generation of artists for whom the imaginary was marked by a culture of radiation.” I forget exactly which paintings were gathered in this room, but I know there was one of his striking paintings of the sun, while other works portrayed geometric circles, and there may have also been some experimental photographs.

Edvard Munch, "The Sun" (1916)

I was certain, however, that none of the works collected in the room had anything to do with radiation, or a "culture of rays," and were more obviously products of Munch’s life-long involvement with questions of light and form, which are indeed the same questions that guide the work of every painter in the early-20th century. Observing the perplexed, searching faces of my fellow exhibition-viewers, I felt with renewed clarity a sentiment that I’ve often had in the past few years, namely that the art world is suffocating under the malignant influence of the curator.
I’ve seen numerous art exhibitions of contemporary as well as older artworks, whose entire conceptual organization rests on a half-baked, hare-brained conceptual framework designed by a curator. Although designed to emphasize certain aesthetic trends in a group of artworks, these curatorial concepts constantly impose their own pop-philosophical concept onto a collection of unwilling participants, uncomfortably forcing a reading which has very little to do with either the artwork or the artist who created it. Not content with traditional curatorial themes such as “good works of art from a certain region/period”, “works of art of a certain kind from a certain artist”, or “works of art from artists who knew each other,” today’s curators attempt to construct impressive-sounding conceptual frameworks on which to hang works of art, as one hangs decorative baubles on a Christmas tree. The result is not only misguided, but misguiding. The basic aesthetic qualities of an artwork, often obvious to even the least informed of art viewers, are misrepresented through the funhouse mirror of the curator’s theoretical approach. Worse still, the pseudo-intellectualism of such theories can convince the viewer that he or she doesn’t actually understand the work of art in question, since they don’t quite see how the work relates to question of the ontological subjectivity of the body in its (post)colonial state of inverted reflexivity. I should really start a scrapbook of some of the explanatory texts written by curators to explain their curatorial intent; among them there are, without a doubt, examples of some of the worst-written and least-helpful writing produced in the past decades.
Such curators are undoubtedly products of academia, and are in the worst-case scenario failed artists themselves. Today's curators are individuals who come of age within the milieu of art and art history, who want to be part of a creative action within the art world, while lacking either the talent or the courage to make art themselves. They content themselves with a destructive act of theoretical framing which is designed, by the way, to promote simplistic art while ignoring works of complexity or mysterious beauty, since works which lend themselves to the most simple, uncomplicated interpretations are precisely those which fit most easily within the curator's theoretical framework. Furthermore, it is not only the representation of existing works of art which suffers from the curatorial menace: young artists are coerced into creating simplistic works of art based on easily-legible, untroubled and untroubling concepts, so that they may be included in exhibitions, the most prestigious of which always seem to be curated by complete fools.
While the Pompidou’s Munch exhibit is not so egregious in its theoretical indulgences, it still produces some clangers. For example, pointing out that, while Munch is considered an introspective painter, “his painting is very taken up with the outside world.” What’s this, an introspective painter that paints pictures of the outside world? Quel paradoxe modern! It’s also stated that Munch’s habit of painting self-portraits is a “perfect response to the Norwegian Bohemian literary agenda that was in place at the end of the 19th century.” True, only such a historical situation could lead a painter to do something as unconventional as paint a picture of himself! I now see that Munch was, indeed, truly modern! Thanks, curators!

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