Described in 1994 by Los Angeles Times Magazine as "always two steps ahead of others...the least recognized, most influential thinker in America," Stewart Brand's answer to Hans Ulrich Obrist's question: What is your formula for the 21st century? Your equation? Your algorithm? seemed especially relevant to me this week in light of buzz around the announcement of Jeffrey Deitch's appointment as the director of MOCA.
A gallerist as the new director of a major Los Angeles museum has triggered debate far and wide - from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, LA Weekly, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal to Artforum and Modern Art Notes. The discourse is mostly about the symbolic breaching of the barrier between nonprofit institutions and the market, but the blurring of these boundaries has existed beneath the surface of the art world for a number of years, and perhaps it was time for them to bubble up.
If the role of the contemporary art museum is to create an image of our present, we must acknowledge that our reality has changed dramatically in the last 30, 10 and even five years. It seems that a paradigm shift is occurring in the movie industry as well. Peter Jackson, in piece in Newsweek about James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar, remarked:
There's no doubt that the industry is in a weird position. It's not just Hollywood - it's international. The loss of the independent distribution companies and the finance companies, and the lack of ability to get medium-budget films these days. The studios have found comfort in these enormous movies. The big-budget blockbuster is becoming one of the most dependable forms of filmmaking. It was only three or four years ago when there was a significant risk with that kind of film.
Museums by necessity move slowly - people say they are like glaciers. As Christopher Knight wrote in the LA Times, Deitch's stamp on MOCA's "exhibition program won't begin to be felt until 2013," but his challenge will be to find a balance between the primary role of the museum, protecting the scholarship happening within its walls, while at the same time engaging the culture outside, whose attention is harder and harder to hold. It is interesting that some of the biggest mass culture stars seem to know how to leverage the power of being an artist more effectively than many cultural institutions. As Maria Lassnig says: "Every genuine artist is contagious."
James Franco called his appearance on General Hospital performance art, and Lady Gaga, entertainer of the moment, considers herself an artist. Details about Bravo's art reality show were also announced this week, symbolizing this larger conversation. The main characters, including China Chow, Simon de Pury and Jeannie Greenberg, have strong roots in the realms of commerce and fashion.
Museums must adapt - as MOCA's dire financial straits a year ago proved - but at the same time must not forget their missions. The recent Consumer Electronics Show was dominated by third generation devices embedded with the ever-ubiquitous presence of Facebook and Twitter. The idea that people will engage more if they can share what they think, becoming a part of the conversation, reflects an interesting problem for institutions. It is time that institutions engage in the dialogue about the most fundamental questions - What is art? Is art important? - using 21st century tools. Museums are struggling to maintain continuity in an increasingly fast-moving world, which is something Brand was at the forefront of visualizing. (His Two Cybernetic Frontiers on Gregory Bateson and cutting-edge computer science was the first use of the term "personal computer" in print and the first book to report on computer hackers.)
Brand, perhaps best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, How Buildings Learn and The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (MasterMinds Series), provides a framework for thinking about a healthy ecosystem for the support and presentation of "art for art's sake" that has balance. One thing is for certain - the audience for and the appreciation of art must expand to keep up: Art for All, All for Art.