In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum

In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum

by Matti Bunzl

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In 2008, anthropologist Matti Bunzl was given rare access to observe the curatorial department of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. For five months, he sat with the institution’s staff, witnessing firsthand what truly goes on behind the scenes at a contemporary art museum. From fund-raising and owner loans to museum-artist relations to the immense effort involved in safely shipping sixty works from twenty-seven lenders in fourteen cities and five countries, Matti Bunzl’s In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde illustrates the inner workings of one of Chicago’s premier cultural institutions.

Bunzl’s ethnography is designed to show how a commitment to the avant-garde can come into conflict with an imperative for growth, leading to the abandonment of the new and difficult in favor of the entertaining and profitable. Jeff Koons, whose massive retrospective debuted during Bunzl's research, occupies a central place in his book and exposes the anxieties caused by such seemingly pornographic work as the infamous Made in Heaven series. Featuring cameos by other leading artists, including Liam Gillick, Jenny Holzer, Karen Kilimnik, and Tino Sehgal, the drama Bunzl narrates is palpable and entertaining and sheds an altogether new light on the contemporary art boom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226173955
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/16/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 307 KB

About the Author

Matti Bunzl is professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is the author of Symptoms of Modernity: Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth-Century Vienna and Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Hatreds Old and New in Europe.

Read an Excerpt

In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde

An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum

By Matti Bunzl

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17395-5



It's a night for shiny objects and beautiful people. One of Chicago's particularly brutal winters is—now, at the end of May 2008—finally forgotten. And the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is throwing the party of the year. The long-awaited show by Jeff Koons is opening, and hundreds of museum members have come to revel. There is free food, a fabulous bar, and general merriment. Even a celebrity shows up, Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction, in town to organize this year's Lollapalooza. Koons, himself, is there too, chatting with admirers, gamely posing for photos, and generally exuding the conviction that art, particularly his own, is bliss.

All this is happening amidst dozens of Koons's iconic pieces. They are split between the MCA's two main galleries, large and cavernous spaces that, in contrast to most other occasions, are left undivided. On the right, Cracked Egg (Magenta) dominates the landscape, its surface glistening, a deliciously oversized Easter surprise. It is flanked by smaller items like Rabbit and Lobster, faithful renditions of inflatable objects that helped establish Koons's popularity. The sculptures, in stainless steel, aluminum, or porcelain yet somehow warm, approachable, and lifelike, are surrounded by paintings repeating their motifs.

On the left, the same kind of visual exuberance, with the massive Balloon Dog (Orange) holding court amidst dozens of other ravishing articles. And in the atrium, floating above the crowd munching on greasy eggrolls, the pièce de résistance: Hanging Heart (Blue/Silver), suspended from the museum's ceiling some fifty feet in the air. It is all quite magical—what Willy Wonka's factory might look like if he were in the toy business.

As I survey the scene, it's clear that the habitués are enjoying themselves. Conversation is animated and even addresses the work on display, not something that can be taken for granted at art openings. I overhear discussions on the longevity of vacuum cleaners and the pros and cons of encasing bourbon in stainless steel. As I line up at the buffet, I overhear a woman rave to a friend: "Finally! A good show!" Talk about a double-edged compliment, I think to myself. What was not to like about other recent exhibits—the career-spanning survey of Richard Tuttle or the hard-hitting show of conceptual art from Mexico City? Then again, this is a different order of crowd-pleaser. Prompting giddy excitement and frequent chuckles of recognition—Michael Jackson! The Pink Panther!—Koons's gleaming concoctions even prove useful to patrons in need of a reflective surface to check and adjust their hair.

* * *

Chicago has the glitz of Koons. But the MCA is far from the only museum anticipating blockbuster crowds for contemporary art during the season. At the very time of the Koons opening, three similarly sensational shows are on display in New York. The Guggenheim is presenting Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's I Want to Believe, which actively defies belief with such pieces as Inopportune: Stage One, nine seemingly exploding cars suspended in the museum's rotunda, and Head On, a sculptural crescent of ninety-nine life-size wolves leaping high into the air and crashing into a glass wall.

Some forty blocks south, meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art is featuring Take Your Time. The show is a survey of work by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist whose aestheticization of nature became an international hit in 2003 when he illuminated the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with an artificial sun. The MoMA show, which has traveled to New York from San Francisco, is a veritable wonderland of optical gamesmanship, with eerily coruscating waterfalls, tunnels of spectacularly altered light, and cleverly concealed moss walls. It, too, features a piece that hangs from the ceiling—a fan whizzing about the vast atrium in undulating motions, both elegant and somehow threatening, a triumph of low-tech wizardry.

But New Yorkers have to wander across the Brooklyn Bridge for the effort that most resembles Chicago's Koons show. There, they can find © MURAKAMI, which has come to the Brooklyn Museum after its spectacular debut at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Often hailed as the Japanese Warhol, Takashi Murakami aims to thrill his audiences with whimsical sculptures and colorful paintings in his Super-flat style, derived from manga and anime. His retrospective is sheer visual overdrive, with room after room of smiling flowers and cute comic characters, often installed on Murakami wallpaper featuring more of the same. And, for good measure, the exhibit has a functioning Louis Vuitton boutique, a nod to the artist's design work for the luxury label as well as a sly send-up of institutional critique, the earnest movement seeking to interrogate the complicity of art museums with things like capitalism.

* * *

New York's critics are decidedly ambivalent about it all. The shows, they decree, are just too easy, all about entertainment, and full of questionable aesthetic choices. Cai Guo-Qiang is "driven by spectacle," Roberta Smith pronounces, reminding her readers that the artist was chosen to orchestrate the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Eliasson's work, meanwhile, is "too intent on appealing to our appetite for passive sensation and too readily adapted to corporate design"—this assessment courtesy of Holland Cotter, Smith's colleague at the New York Times. And © MURAKAMI is little more than a "sleek, stylish and sometimes silly survey" (Smith again).

In Chicago, Jeff Koons receives generally good press. But the local newspaper of record, the Chicago Tribune, runs a pair of pieces with decidedly different tones. One of them, published just before the opening, is an ironic take on the artist as retail phenomenon. The "Koonsumer Price Index keeps going up and up," the Trib quips, noting that a version of Hanging Heart recently sold at auction for $23.6 million and that a limited-edition Koons monograph is now priced at $9,000. But it is Alan Artner, the paper's art critic, who really tears into the exhibit. His review describes Koons's career as a multidecade sellout, characterized by ceaseless pandering to market tastes. The resulting objects may charm "casual viewers," but they "fail every known test for quality," making Koons's "widespread institutional recognition," and the MCA's retrospective in particular, a veritable sham.

Ultimately, Artner's diatribe isn't all that surprising. By 2008, America's art critics have turned wary of attempts by the country's great museums to stage ever more populist spectacles. Around the turn of the millennium, the Guggenheim Museum scandalized them with the BMW-sponsored The Art of the Motorcycle and Giorgio Armani, a large-scale retrospective that followed awkwardly close on an eight-figure pledge to the museum by the designer. MoMA shows of the animation studio Pixar and filmmaker Tim Burton, mounted a few years later, fared little better. And with that, it became a critical commonplace to decry museums for their "dismayingly corporate posture," chide them for "acting like the world's longest store window," or diagnose their descent into "popular entertainment hub[s]" (Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter on MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively).

* * *

Behind such skepticism was a widespread argument about the art world that has, since the 1980s, steadily gained ground among critics and scholars. It holds that the avant-garde is under siege because the foremost art institutions have abandoned it. In an influential book-length essay of 1984, Suzi Gablik posed the issue particularly forcefully. Has Modernism Failed? ("yes," the implied answer) was written at a moment of irrational exuberance. The retrograde aesthetic of neo-expressionists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle was taking the art world by storm, prompting Gablik to worry about the possible "death of the avant-garde" at the hands of a market evacuating art's moral authority. Many more treatises followed in this vein, including fiery enjoinders by Donald Kuspit. For a while, the art historian opened his books with dystopian pronouncements like "Art is at a loss: the avant-garde is over." This was before he went on to declare The End of Art altogether.

Notions like modernism's failure or the end of art suggest that there was a moment prior to the fall. Indeed, for the lachrymose chorus, such a moment did exist, and it was glorious. It occurred in the middle of the twentieth century when cutting-edge institutions like MoMA and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, soon to be renamed Guggenheim, fought the good fight for progressive and challenging art. No one has captured this time with greater flair and nostalgia than Jed Perl, the art critic for the New Republic. His New Art City is a paean to a long-ago era when artists, curators, and philanthropists collaborated, albeit never without tensions, to carve a niche for the avant-garde and defend it against that mortal enemy: kitsch.

This, of course, recalls the defining formulation of Clement Greenberg, who, along with MoMA's Alfred Barr, figured as America's foremost prophet of modernism. For Greenberg, the avant-garde was that which was "genuinely new." Kitsch, by contrast, strategically reused the material already available in the culture. "Mechanical" and operating by "formulas," it produced "faked sensations" and "demanded nothing of its customers except their money." Kitsch, Greenberg concluded with disdain, could be enjoyed "without efforts"; the avant-garde, on the other hand, demanded careful attention and close scrutiny. It was difficult, and that was its merit.

For folks like Perl, it all started to go downhill in the 1980s. Art, they argue, lost its seriousness of purpose, becoming ever more market-driven. Museums, meanwhile, began to abandon the difficult for the amusing, trying on a little corporatism for size. And then, it only got worse, right up to the Greenbergian nightmare we now face. Surveying the museum landscape in 2008 and singling out © MURAKAMI and Eliasson's Take Your Time for special opprobrium, Perl only finds kitsch—"aggressive kitsch."

It is, as I noted, a widely held position. By now, in fact, there is an entire shelf groaning under the weight of critical and scholarly disappointment with the state of our museums. Some of the commentators,like Julian Stallabrass, Paul Werner, and Chin-tao Wu, proffer more or less overtly Marxist positions. This is reflected in such titles as Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art, Museum, Inc.: Inside the Global Art World, and Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s, all of which take the art world to task for its ready complicity with the tenets of global capitalism. Others are less sweepingly political and concern themselves, first and foremost, with the museum as a public good. In that group, we find titles like Kylie Message's New Museums and the Making of Culture, Mark Rectanus's Culture Incorporated: Museums, Artists, and Corporate Sponsorships, and Bill Ivey's Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.

* * *

All of these critiques are powerful and not altogether wrong. They focus attention on the many difficulties—economic, political, cultural—faced by today's museums. And they helpfully identify corporate influence, transformations in the art market, and changing audience demographics as major factors in the life of these organizations. But they do have a major flaw. They suffer, generally speaking, from an exaggerated sense of institutional and personal responsibility. Unfettered capitalism has taken over and the public good lost, we are told, because museums and their administrators willfully abandoned their old commitments.

The resulting accounts recall nothing so much as morality plays. When Paul Werner, for example, opens Museum, Inc. with the sentence "Actually, I kinda liked Tom Krens," it is easy to see who is cast as the villain in this tale of corporate delirium. Indeed, it is the Guggenheim's long-term director who single-handedly destroys the museum's glorious legacy with his mad dash toward global art domination.

Curators don't fare much better. In The End of Art, Donald Kuspit accuses MoMA's John Elderfield, its erstwhile chief curator of painting and sculpture, of ravaging the museum's patrimony with Modern Starts. The show, mounted in 2000, reconceptualized the permanent collection by replacing Alfred Barr's teleological vision of art history with a multi-directional account. Ventriloquizing Frank Stella, Kuspit sees the curatorial move as nothing but a "fashionable act"—a form of "commercial entertainment" that, in eschewing judgment and hierarchy, "banalize[s] modern art" and resembles nothing so much as the "weekly promotions at Macy's." In such accounts, the end of the avant-garde is essentially a failure of nerve, suffered by administrators and curators who should know better than to sacrifice their institutions' heritage at the altar of corporate culture.

I don't disagree with the basic premise of the existing critiques. Like other scholarly commentators, I see the avant-garde as under siege. But I reject the pervasive moralism characterizing so much of the literature. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don't reproach individual actors, be they museum directors or curators, for the current situation. Nor do I accuse museums of willfully betraying their principles. On the contrary, I regard the current developments in America's contemporary art museums as an ineluctable response to the challenges of the day. Where others diagnose a failure of nerve, I thus see a set of strategies devised to persist during a particular economic and cultural moment. If the avant-garde is dead, the museum is not to blame for killing it.

* * *

How would I arrive at such a contrarian notion? I had the chance to see it all firsthand. Other scholars have had to content themselves with observing museums from the public galleries, thwarted, if they even tried, by institutional reluctance to grant behind-the-scenes access. I had the good fortune of being admitted into the fortress by a gutsy organization that was willing to take a chance. And I was there for quite some time. At its core, this book is based on five months of ethnographic research conducted at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art—the MCA, as everyone in the art world calls it—from January until May 2008.

It was, quite simply, an anthropologist's dream. Maybe not of the traditional variety. My discipline, after all, took shape in the faraway corners of colonial empires, places like the Trobriand Islands, where Bronislaw Malinowski and other titans of early anthropology codified the ethnographic method in studies of gift exchange, primitive magic, and the sexual life of savages. Much has changed since the early twentieth century. We renounced our ancestors' ethnocentrism and stopped speaking of primitives and savages. And we ventured beyond the global south, claiming the entire range of human experience—whether in the West or the rest, in villages or megalopolises, at folk festivals or the rarefied institutions of high culture—as legitimate sites for our research.

What has remained, however, is our commitment to fieldwork, a mode of research that privileges face-to-face interactions. It is hardly a perfect method. Our results, for one, are by nature subjective—how could they not be with a research instrument as erratic as a human being? But at their best, they can shed a unique light on the motivations and actions of individuals and groups, allowing for an immediacy that could never be captured through surveys or the examination of printed sources.

Every anthropologist has a slightly different sense of what it means to do ethnography in practice. I like to think of it as deep hanging out. The phrase, whose origin has receded into anthropology's endlessly self-mythologizing past, conveys the charmingly oxymoronic nature of a venture that combines impromptu witnessing with systematic reflection and casual conversation with analytic rigor. And it beats another definition, participant observation, which, while no less oxymoronic, never struck me as quite so charming.

So there I was, in 2008, deep hanging out at the MCA.

* * *

My home base was the curatorial department. Located on the museum's fourth floor, adjacent to the galleries typically displaying the permanent collection, it is concealed behind a tantalizingly closed door that conjures a magical realm where art's future is being augured. The reality is rather more prosaic. A large common area with cubicles is lined with an endless row of file cabinets on one side and a half dozen street-facing, glass-enclosed offices on the other. It looks ample enough, but, in actuality, space is at a premium. The curators share the suite with the education department, forcing several of them to double up in their rooms.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself in my own, private office. Francesco Bonami's, actually. The international super-curator, who had masterminded the 2003 Venice Biennale, was in a moment of transition. Just prior to my arrival, he had left his position as the MCA's senior curator and moved to New York. But since he was still involved in several projects that necessitated his periodic return, he retained his office for the time being. Interns, meanwhile, were beginning to pack up his many, many books. The process would take up the entirety of my stay, the gradually disappearing library lending a vaguely Borgesian air to my surroundings. The state of disposal was never lost on the curators, who were eyeing the soon-to-be-vacated office. Ethnography, I was reminded, is always a two-way street. A famous photograph of Malinowski shows him typing away under a canopy as the Trobrianders look on with intent. He knew he was under surveillance. But he got on with his work, too.


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Table of Contents

Two Jeff Koons ♥ Chicago
Three Fear No Art
Four The Gift
Five Untitled (Curation)
Six Ren

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