Pill Spill is a new work by Beverly Fishman at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Each pill is handcrafted in glass; each pill is unique. (Photo/Aaron Burgess)
On life support since its public and private funding dried up, the DIA has been waiting for an economic transfusion for years. The recent millage approved by voters in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne Counties gives the Museum a new lease on life. I can't help but think that Beverly Fishman's Pill Spill, a glass installation that has been on view since July 11, anticipated the Institute's now hopeful prognosis.
Visitors have flooded the Museum since it waived the entrance fee for Tri-County residents, and I expect that at least a few recent visitors have imagined a connection between Pill Spill and the DIA's miraculous recovery. Indeed, the millage is like a wonder drug that will save one of the city's most iconic buildings. But art lovers know that it's the art inside that heals the soul. Pill Spill makes the comparison between art and medicine explicit. But what does it mean to stage a "pharmacy" within a museum? As philosophers from Plato to Derrida attest, this is a much more difficult question than meets the eye.
The word pharmacy comes from a Greek word that has opposing meanings: it can mean medicine or drug, but it can also mean poison. Beverly Fishman must be aware of this irony. When visitors first look at her installation, they seem awestruck. It is brilliant, after all, and is as inviting as a large bowl of candy. But with a closer look, many readings become available. Is the artist, for example, arguing for "better living through chemistry?" Or, is she offering a critique of our drug-driven culture, in which Prozac nourishes our nation and Ritalin quiets our kids? Perhaps Fishman is getting more at the role of the artist. Is the artist like a pharmacist, dispensing a curative to the public, or is she more of a drug pusher, hooking us on decadent hallucinations? And if we choose to vilify the contemporary artist, as so many have done, are we just setting up a scapegoat for our own intolerance?
As they look even closer, visitors will notice that the glass pills are all empty, which raises another riddle. Where is the cure? Is it inside the capsule or outside? And by extension, does the source of art's meaning lie within or without? Does art's potency come from the art object itself or from the mind of the viewer? On many levels, Pill Spill raises some of the most unsolvable problems in the philosophy of art. For instance, each one of these glass pills is unique and handmade, but not by Fishman's hands. She worked closely with a master glassmaker, who realized her initial concept. Like conceptual art, Fishman's work brings up the debatable role originality plays in setting the value of art. (For me, it doesn't matter if the artist makes it herself or farms it out, just like it doesn't matter whether I take a brand name prescription or a generic copy -- they both work fine!)
We may never solve these conundrums, but one thing is certain: by passing the millage, we will all have the opportunity to keep Detroit's art conversations alive and well. Thoughtful discussion -- now that's medicine we really need.
John J. Corso teaches art history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He strives to write criticism that is 'partisan, passionate, and political.'