I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look.
Some old friends of my wife, an artist and her museum manager husband, came to New York last week to tour the galleries and museums. Naturally, my question to them was, "What did you see?" Well, the Dutch painting show at the Met was "all about the history of collecting." The Met’s new Greek and Roman atrium was "too crowded with objects." Richard Serra, finishing up at MoMA, was, apparently, a heavy experience.
They didn’t get invited to Aaron Young’s idiotic cyclespew at the uptown armory, but published reports were full of noise and smoke. Rirkrit made a jungle gym somewhere, lame-os stunk up Deitch Projects with B.O. In sum, the art experience in New York continues to be one of narrative, as opposed to solitary looking, at least among the elites and their tourist victims.
Looking is an act of innocence, contingent on spontaneity and surprise. It has often been followed by contemplative thought. But, for a long time, our world of art has robbed looking of its wonder. Is there a more sinister and Puritanical slur than "the male gaze" with its injunction to blind Oedipus Rex and his sons again and again? So much of the contemporary canon exists to annihilate looking: Warhol’s single takes of kisses and sleep, Paul McCarthy’s vomitoria, Richard Prince’s masturbatory appropriations.
The mind is already made to decide, the eye is not invited in, the spectator blindfolded from room to room. Just as one cannot turn on a ballgame without hearing endless droning about salaries and steroids, one cannot go to a museum without wall texts, backstories and tales made of money. Single out that object, folks, instead, and look at it often.
I’ll give you one I like a lot: it’s a life-sized statue of "The Little Flower," Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, just north of Houston Street, near NYU and placed on a granite base a bit above eye level. Look again at this wonderful man, or, at least, his image, who examined everything with brio and led New York out of the Depression. We could use a thousand of him now, in all walks of life, but especially the art world.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).