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Mat Gleason

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How to Argue with a Deitch-Basher

Posted: 08/10/2012 7:50 am

The Los Angeles art world is populated by a large number of rigorous intellectual rationalists whose reason for existence is to kill any notion of romanticism or sentimentality in art, be it through irony, deconstruction or outright mockery.

But mention the current coup at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and this reliably aloof subset of LA Arties is suddenly the most maudlin sappy bunch of an abandoned citizenry pining for the good old days that exists this side of a Jerry Falwell tribute. They become Deitch-Bashers and there is no arguing with them.

It isn't exactly Fox News delivering nostalgia-dipped diatribes, but the editorializing against MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch sure paints a wistful picture of what never was. We are told about the good old days of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art as smoothly as Ronald Reagan waxed about the shining city on a hill. We are reminded that MOCA was where scholarship and rigor abounded. The names of past curators are spoken with a reverence that Presidents reserve for Billy Graham. These old time conservatives contrast the present situation as despicably integrated compared to the purity of the institution's segregated past, when only art world players and art students felt comfortable sitting in the front of the MOCA bus. The vocal Deitch-bashers claim that they want MOCA to stay an elite institution and that the triumphs of the past are reason enough to continue operating the museum in a manner that serves a small elite set of art rationalists, the self-appointed priest-craft plutocrats of culture.

The premise of their argument is: everything that was glorious about MOCA is being ruined by Jeffrey Deitch. Even among artists who make a living asking tough questions, questioning this conservative old guard is not allowed. Ask them if their version of MOCA's good old days resembles the plantations where the elite stayed in the house/museum and the general public toiled in the fields, totally banned from visiting "civilization." The Deitch-bashers will insist that MOCA exists to allow the art world elite to bask in the glow of the scholarship and rigor that should never be watered down for the general public. And yet the greatest curatorial achievements at MOCA are still celebrated for breaking down barriers and bringing in the general public.

But just like a staunch Republican will insist that low taxes on billionaires creates jobs that boost the economy, a Deitch-basher will be quick to point out that the popular shows that burnish MOCA's legacy were the trickle down economics of art institutions - that the rigor and scholarship of the MOCA curators in 9 out of 10 art world elite exhibits made the ten percent of crowd pleasers possible. How do you argue with supply-side scholars? If MOCA is taking public money, it really is the people's museum. MOCA should not host a show by and for art world elites of art that enriches the few with no connection to anyone outside of a cloistered insiders club. Every conservative who is against populism sure wants the imprimatur of representing the people, and hence culture at large.

I don't make a habit out of reading the editorials of conservative pundit Pat Buchanan. They tend to posit that America is going downhill because of pluralism and a host of other ills that sprouted in the civil rights era. I recommend you ignore Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight for pushing the same agenda: Pluralism threatens institutional purity in Knight's paranoid world-view, and the critic is reflexively anti-Deitch. A risk-taker with no compromised positions among the old guard of institutional culture like Jeffrey Deitch would never pass muster with Knight any more than the John Birch Society would have hired Woody Guthrie to serenade their get-togethers.

If you are bent on getting into an argument with Deitch-Bashers because you believe that a public museum belongs to the people and not to an art world elite that prefers art to be about art instead of life, understand that, like many on the conservative political spectrum, Deitch-Bashers are highly religious. You think you are talking politics and can rationally prove a point and suddenly you realize that this person's basic articles of faith are under siege.

You cannot win a religious argument. If the Deitch-Bashers believe that former curator Paul Schimmel possesses a messianic ability to curate and that the stigmata marks on their Helter Skelter catalogue are proof, pointing out that those are just burn marks from a bong will only make the converted more set in their 1990s fundamentalism about the way a museum congregation needs to accept things. You have to gingerly walk around these faith-based conservative beliefs. Be it a college of cardinals who refuse to operate with transparency or an academic bureaucratic labyrinth that churns out curatorial acolytes who adhere to the fiefdoms of totally dull aesthetics, the conservatives who champion yesteryear worship their leadership with a loyalty that any pol or gallery owner would envy.

There are simple arguments in favor of the direction MOCA is taking, though, that despite all the fundamentalist hysteria, ring true. You can make these arguments to open-minded people, those who are not convinced that Christopher Knight is fair and balanced:

1. The days of the monied rich dropping big donations without strings attached are over. The super wealthy are opening their own museums to exalt their collections and family names. Give your own museum money and you can tell it what to do. In the past, if you donated it to a museum, the idea that the institution could not partake in a conflict of interest on your behalf allowed your money to possibly be used to finance someone else's conflict of interest. So MOCA needs to do outreach through nontraditional channels. Even if Deitch is making this up as he goes along he is at least looking for solutions that work as opposed to sticking with what doesn't.

2. Given that the fundamental structure of art institutions is changing, Jeffrey Deitch's plan to make a museum focus on art of interest to a broad (lower case "b") public might turn out to be quite visionary. To not give Deitch a chance seals the fate of MOCA as the L.A. Museum of Art By Anyone Who Hung Out With the Right Crowd in the Nineties (The L.A. MOABAWHOWTRCITN has a nice ring to it). To give him a chance allows a contemporary vision to flourish.

3. In the absence of evidence, the charge that MOCA has abandoned scholarship and rigor has yet to be evinced, but you can look at many years worth of MOCA exhibits that were laughable in the paucity of scholarship and rigor (Schimmel's Murakami retrospective is of course at the top of the list). If they were not brimming with conflicts of interest, favors and nepotism, well they really should have been. At least someone would have benefitted, because Los Angeles was never culturally advanced by the slew of insider shows of pompous dry bloodless text and product masquerading as art.

Like conservatives who write pleasant histories that ignore segregation and child labor, Deitch-bashers speak of the good old days at MOCA that were more insider and downright icky than most anything old Mitt Romney could be hiding.

 

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