Cultural Aspirations

I’ve been keeping my new year’s resolutions: I’ve only bought one book, Cook’s Illustrated 2002 in a beautiful leather-bound edition, and I’ve managed to be more cultural, because as all Proust devotees know, there is nothing more important in the world than CULTURE.

A few weeks ago I went to the Natural History Museum’s First Friday, in hopes of hearing the side-project of Deerhoof frontman known as Atlas Sound. I guess in thinking I was somehow being a cunning in the know person, I managed to get outsmarted by every hipster high-schooler in the LA vicinity. They knew to arrive early and not wait in line for 20 minutes just to enter the museum. They had come in droves, wearing the appropriate indie/alt clothing, and managed to find the one friend who could drive. There’s nothing more uncool than being dropped off by your parents and then having to be home by a certain time when you are 15. [Of course, when I was 15, I had no idea about any of these rules and can remember being escorted in a minivan of indescribable color. The events were always at the local movie theatre.]

By the time I finally entered, they were not letting anyone in the actual hall where the bands were performing. However, you could still hear the music on most of the first floor and the only particular downside was missing out on the back-lit taxidermied animals staring from their shelters as the ambient folk-electronica of Atlas Sound circled round.

Wandering through the halls staring at dinosaur skeletons, gin and tonic in hand, by no means was an experience to regret. The high school kids did not seem to want to venture up any stairs, so the upstairs full of historic discoveries felt like my own private museum. My co-explorer managed to narrate excellent descriptions of the displays of California wildlife (we both were shocked by the pedantic and down-right dumb descriptions on the displays). In my half-tipsy wanderings in the dark museum, I was struck by the memory of always having wanted to live in a museum. The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler might have had some influence on my young imagination, but even before I read that book, I had a whole game plan for the day that I got lost and had to spend the night at the Huntington Library. There had to be a bed somewhere on the upstairs floor and even now I’d be happy eating stolen goods from the tea room kitchen for the rest of my life.

Yesterday, I went to MOCA in downtown LA. After having read an article in the LA Times profiling the new director, I was curious to see what the museum was all about. I somehow had never been there, which was strange considering that my entire life has been filled with every kind of museum, and to make it more perfect, their current retrospective details the history of modern art and the development of MOCA’s collection both as a major art gallery and a preserver of Los Angeles art.

The current exhibit of their permanent collection is laid out somewhat chronologically, placing artists of similar styles together. I had always heard about the enormity of their collection and how as a modern art museum, it deserved greater recognition in the international art scene. Irregardless of whatever politics dictate modern art and its curation, I found the museum extremely underwhelming. While I felt it was important for my education to know of and to have seen various works by Pollack, Rothko, and whomever else is considered an art giant, I was left unmoved by the majority of pieces. The only items I felt were worth more than a cursory glance were the photographs. I also enjoyed the postcard collection that was addressed to John Baldessari by a fellow artist, who’s name I can’t remember for the life of me. Actually the gift store seemed to have more interesting things than the museum, but that’s another matter.

I think the problem was that a majority of the pieces were done by conceptual artists and I have fundamental problems with any work that does not engage until you read the artist’s accompanying description. Whatever the style of art is I want it to challenge my perspective and evoke a response, even if I hate it. The art on display was stagnant and mostly uninteresting, and because of my general feeling of disinterest, I began to wonder how art becomes defined. Proust answered that eventually in his tomes, but I also wonder what he would have thought of some of the stuff I saw. One of his particular geniuses is the fact that he can take a sentence three lines long on the most boring subject matter and make it brilliant. As you read the words, you can feel something overtake your own thoughts and power of understanding. I felt the same thing when I saw a German opera in Munich, Der Freischutz, and could not understand a word. The thematics also delved into the spiritual and occult, which made it even more frenetic and impossible to understand. But none of that mattered. The sheer beauty of the music and the beauty and cleverness of the staging made me not care that I had standing room tickets. For four hours, I stood and watched, patient, knowing that I could not lose a second of whatever this moment was.

On the other hand, the worst exhibit I have ever seen was at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. There was a giant open room (the building has an industrial feel) and in the direct center, there lay a pile of lumber covered with a pile of dirt. The only response I felt was “How can I get someone to pay me to do this and also get them to call it art?” There was no transcendence, no inner self responding to its symbolism. I read the three paragraph long description by the curator and it was then that I felt the most emotion I had in all the exhibits – how could something be art when the curator had to spend three paragraphs telling me how I should engage with the artwork? I did not need their thesis to know that this was a piece of marketing, the shroud to make me believe in something that was lacking in the first place.

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