Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Going to MOMA the other day and, especially, noticing the crowd at the Brice Marden show, revived one of my perennial complaints/issues: To the extent--however arguable one thinks it is--you can correlate certain varieties of abstract visual art (here, let's concentrate on early 60s minimalism) with contemporary eai, why is the "market", ie, the number of people interested, so much larger for the former than the latter?

I'd guess that, at the time I was there, there were about 200 people milling about the exhibit. Over the course of the day, I think it's safe to say that well over 1,000 people attended (probably much more, but let's say 1,000). Let's say that 100 out of this 1,000 were actually seriously looking at the paintings, not just in attendance beacause it was hip to be there, dragged by their girlfriends, etc. I don't know how long the exhibition is running, but if it's two months and that's the average, you're talking 6,000 people seriously looking at and appreciating very "difficult" paintings, art that deals with issues that are at least tangentially relate to those raised by eai having to do with space, extended time, placement of tones, subtle variation, etc. (of course, many different aspects as well). 6,000 is far, far in excess of the number of people likely to pick up, say, the upcoming MIMEO release on Cathnor (one, interestingly enough, based on--possibly apocryphal--ideas of Cy Twombley). And that's just people who happened to visit MOMA in NYC.

The obvious question is: Why isn't a substantial fraction of that 6,000 listening to music that's at least a rough equivalent, aesthetically speaking, of the visual art they're admiring? Forget eai, I have a tough time believeing they're going home and turning on Cartridge Music or Pithoprakta or Four Systems. Why this vast disconnect between the so-called avant-garde in music and visual art (or music and any number of art forms with an enormously greater audience)?

Always bothered me. The most likely answer I've come up with is that it's simply a matter of time and how much of it the average person is willing to spend to come to grips with--or, crucially, to appear to have come to grips with--a given work. You can stand in front of an Agnes Martin for ten seconds and claim to have "seen" it. Now, while I grant that there exist people with far greater visual/esthetic acumen than myself, I have a tough time believing anyone's really seen a Martin (or any other decent visual work) in ten seconds, really grasped what there is to be grasped. But you can say you did and move on. To even maintain that pretense about, for example, Rowe and Nakamura's "between", you have to devote a couple of hours to actually listening to the music-and that's just once! As before, there's no way (imho) that a mere single listen is going to do more than to peel away the uppermost layer of the music, but it's at least a minimum requirement and one that necessitates some 720 times more seconds to accomplish, an investment I just think most people aren't willing to make.

A parallel question is raised: What do these artists listen to? I'm afraid that the answer might not be far different from the guy in the gallery with My Chemical Romance on his IPod. I happened to catch a little profile of Brice Marden on PBS the other night--not terribly impressive. But I bet the, if you'll excuse me, "quality percentage" is higher.

The thing is, in my experience it works in reverse rather well. Fans of AMM, say, aren't likely to be found drooling over the latest Leroy Nieman lithos or waiting in line for Dan Brown to sign copies of his new book. And yes, I think these yokels are the rough equivalents of whoever's the flavor of the week in corporate pop.

Rant over. For now.


Anonymous said...

it's simply a matter of time and how much of it the average person is willing to spend to come to grips with--or, crucially, to appear to have come to grips with--a given work. You can stand in front of an Agnes Martin for ten seconds and claim to have "seen" it.

I used to feel the same way about the New York theatre crowd. They weren't really interested in being engaged or challenged (or purposely irritated/annoyed) by a particular play so much as they were eager to go into the city, get a Playbill, and go home to report who they saw in something and where they ate afterwards.

Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

Brian, you've been on a great tear of late.

I think one of things that can't be overstated here is contained in the first few words of your post: MOMA's imprimatur gives the whole experience, regardless of the artist featured, a pre-approved, almost mandated cultural cache. It's not like a majority of these folks are trolling galleries on the West Side, or even making the scene at Dia on occasion. I realize you are making a larger point here, about overlaps (or not) between the avant gardes of different artistic media, but MOMA isn't the analogous setting for eai, now, is it? I think the equation is more like MOMA = Blue Note.

I have no idea what the art world equivalent of eai might be, mind.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that's an accurate analogy either Prof. I'd say MoMA is more like the Knitting Factory, and it'd be the Met that I'd compare to Blue Note.

As for Brian's initial query, well I think you more or less nailed it. Art is something you can walk around and spend a few minutes with. It's an activity, something you go out and do but is pretty much entirely under your control. Music you have to sit and pay attention to to get much out of it. "Difficult" music doesn't really work as background music so it comes down to putting in the time. Live shows of course demand this attention - the only real level of control you have is to walk out.

There is always a poseur element in any "scene" who really just want to say they were at something or saw it. Avant stuff attracts even more of this I would think (even more so in America) as it lets one establish outsider status or being particularly independent minding.

Brian Olewnick said...

Good to see you here, prof. It's not so much that MOMA = Tonic (even the trendy Tonic) but more that a place like MOMA exists as prominently as it does, showing work that, to one arguable degree or another, is analogous to adventurous music, be it Cagean, post-Cagean, eai or what have you that commands a tiny fraction of MOMA's audience.

Had I been writing this thing a couple years ago after I finally (way belatedly) visited Dia Beacon, I would have ranted then. More so, in a sense, as the percentage of "serious" viewers going to Dia is, I daresay, greater than that at MOMA. You had, the afternoon I was there, a couple hundred people looking at a fantastic Agnes Martin show, Smithson, Beuys, Serra etc. If 20 of them were *really* looking, 100 a week, 5000 a year--well, Dia's closed a few months, say 2,000 a year--that alone is about four times as many people who are going to buy the next Erstwhile release.

Ah well....

Moandji Ezana said...


I assume you met Frank Oteri at the show? (http://www.newmusicbox.org/chatter/chatter.nmbx?id=4920)

Brian Olewnick said...


Ha! No, I think I would've remembered that silly hat. Good to see that the general issue bothers someone else, though.

Anonymous said...

I maintain, as I answered elsewhere to this query of yours, that besides the time aspect, you are dealing with substantially different processing parts of the brain. Whatever similarities you note between the two media, you shouldn't forget that. For me, that pretty much negates an a priori assumption that similar qualities should lead to similar appreciation.

Brian Olewnick said...

I imagine that's an annoyingly good point, Vince.