the artist is a wanderer

Damien Hurst diamond skullH. and I went to the MOMA several months ago.   It feels like a mall, he cautioned, a cynical assessment that turned out to be true.  I don’t like malls, and I didn’t like the experience of the MOMA that day.  I found myself wanting to maximize the experience, judge the work, mark my progress as I walked through the galleries from the top floor down.   It was an exercise in analysis rather than an experience in the realm of the senses.

What is a gallery for, we could ask. A repository of things deemed great with hours during which people may go to admire and inspect them? Or a sanctuary in which people confront and are transformed by the minds and work of great artists?

In his essay Laissez faire Aesthetics Jed Perl makes a case that our museums and galleries – and the art in them – are repositories, not sanctuaries. He describes our art as undisciplined, unimaginative, lacking conviction, contextless, questioning, incomplete, a spectacle, uncertain, disappointing and confusing. All this comes, he says, from laissez faire: the belief that if you leave it alone it will turn out better.

So perhaps we could turn our repository galleries into sanctuaries by putting a nail in the laissez-faire coffin.

Here is Perl:

Drop into the galleries for an afternoon and you will probably find yourself amused. I do. But when I go back to the galleries week after week and month after month, I find that my impressions become increasingly unstable. I feel uneasy. And I know that I am not alone. Although gallery goers are stirred by contemporary art and museumgoers are having extraordinary experiences, there is a widespread feeling that nothing really adds up—either for the artists or for the audience. No matter how eye-filling the encounters that people are having with works of art, these experiences can end up somehow unsatisfactory, stripped of context and implication. For inveterate gallerygoers the art world has come to resemble a puzzle to which nobody really has any solution. And why is there no solution? There is no solution because too many of the pieces are missing. The shared assumptions about the nature of art that ought to bind together our variegated experiences are nowhere to be found. Look behind the art world’s glittering collage of a façade and you find a pervasive uncertainty, a culture adrift in sour disenchantment. There is so much disappointment and confusion around the very idea of art that even when the art does not disappoint, people find themselves backing away from the experiences they have.


What laissez-faire aesthetics has left us with—in the museums, the galleries, the art schools, and the art magazines—is a weakening of conviction, an unwillingness to ever take a stand, a refusal to champion, or even surrender to, any first principle. More than anything else, what laissez-faire aesthetics threatens, with its insistence that anything goes, is the disciplined imagination without which an artist is rudderless, a wanderer in the wilderness.

Laissez-Faire Aesthetics, Jed Perl, Magicians and Charlatans


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