“Skin Fruit,” an art exhibition selected entirely from Greek Cypriot industrialist Dakis Joannou’s art collection now at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, is badly flawed. The problems with the show are only tangentially related to the art-objects on view: Critics, myself included, have objected to “Skin Fruit” because it replaces probative curatorial inquiry with the institutional glorification of a collector — and New Museum trustee — who has a vested interest in the art in the show. [Image: Maurizio Cattelan, All, 2007.]
That’s problematic, but the “Skin Fruit” controversy should also be considered in the context of why art and artists are important to a democracy and what role museums play in presenting that import to the public.
Writer Rebecca Solnit has described artists as the people in our society who ask the biggest questions. We love art in part because we value people who communicate with visuals and not data sets, what they can show us about our world, about the environment, war and peace, or the centuries of cultural creation that came before them. Artists encourage us to think about issues in ways that go beyond our usual left-right, he-said-she-said discourse. Art invites us to think; it does not require us to decide.
Art was not always about such. For centuries, especially in Europe, artists worked mostly in service to wealth. Royal families and wealthy patrons bought art not because they cared about the artist’s insights into his world, but substantially because they knew that if they patronized the right artists that they could glorify themselves. Often the import or fame of a work of art was closely related to who was in the painting or who paid for it. Court painters such as Peter Paul Rubens worked in service to monarchs. Monarchs did not support Rubens because he challenged their world-views.
In the 20th century, modernism gave us the primacy of the artist’s voice: Picasso grieved for Guernica, Nancy Spero questioned America’s wars, Bruce Nauman has examined torture and a generation of artists made work that was part of the vanguard of the environmental movement. As part of this transformation, the importance of individual works of art has been determined through a kind of meritocracy: through contextualization, historicization and scholarship, all independent of a single, originating patron.
Art museums, especially those that show today’s art, should be places where the public can participate in that conversation with artworks, with scholars, curators and with each other. Museums are the most public, accessible place where art is put into context, where experts present arguments for why objects, ideas and artists matter.
With “Skin Fruit,” the New Museum is rejecting all that. “Skin Fruit” is the New Museum’s exercise in returning to a pre-modern era, an institution’s attempt to reduce the importance of art and artists. Today art is no longer important just because a particular person bought it — except, ironically, at New York’s only museum wholly dedicated to the newest art. ‘Shopping list’ should not equal ‘museum exhibition.’
It is always disappointing when art museums with the capability to present art in thoughtful contexts choose not to and instead simply hang art because one person bought it. It’s especially disappointing when a contemporary art museum does it. A free society needs its contemporary art museums to be engaged in demonstrating that art matters because of what artists are examining. Contemporary art museums should be the place where artists and curators make the argument for why art, this art here, matters now.
A section of the New Museum’s own mission statement puts it even better than I can: “The Museum is guided by the conviction that contemporary art is a vital social force that extends beyond the art world and into the broader culture.” By showing Joannou’s collection the museum is rejecting the “social force” of art in favor of the glorification of a wealthy patron.
New York art critic Jerry Saltz has wisely called New York the art world’s trading floor. With this kind of show, the New Museum is bidding to becoming the trading floor’s go-to place for shopping list validation. The New Museum is letting us down when it presents art merely because it was– or is — a commodity.