Mr. and Mrs. Buce took in the Richard Serra show at the San Francisco MOMA today and it stimulated some thought on the past and present of modern (if they still call it that) art.
Specifically, start with audio. SFMOMA provided helpful and instructive audio (and some video) to provide guidance for the viewer, much of it in the voice of Serra himself, as undertook to explain what he was trying to do and why.
Does this surprise? Should it? Perhaps not "surprise" exactly, but it may be worth reflecting on how much has changed in the table stakes for this kind of game. Fifty years ago, if you went to a "modern" art show, you were pretty much on your own--left to guess what and why. For the cognoscenti, this was no problem but the common ruck was left more or less bewildered, without so much as a point of reference to know where to begin. This bewilderment yielded a lot of belligerent backchatter of the "I don't know art but I know what I like" variety--and truth be told, I think the insiders rather liked it: part of the fun of doing art in those days was the way you got to look down your nose at the yokels.
But the flat truth is that a lot of what passes for modernism simply does not explain itself; it needs interpretation if you are going to engage with it. Take a simple example: there's a Serra piece called "heir." Unless you are previously plugged in--or an extraordinarily good guesser--you are bound to find yourself muttering "un hunh" and wondering (sotto voce), "so who's the heir? And to whom? And of what?"
Serra does a perfectly adequate job of explaining: he called it that because he felt he was working in heirship to a certain influential forebear. Well, fine. And interesting and helpful. And like I said, you just wouldn't have guessed. Indeed, so it went through the whole show: Serra (and others) talking about how he did what he did, and why. It was all "engaging" in the strict sense that it allowed you to engage with the material in ways that the artist might well have wanted you to engage.
But next point. The corollary is that a show like this winds up being almost entirely about process: why I chose this kind of material, where I got my stuff, what I was trying to accomplish with it. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with process but I must say this is at least a radical departure from what art used to be. How would our museum trip be different if Michelangelo (for instance) whispered into our ear, telling us where he found the marble, why he chose this piece rather than that, why lavished so much attention on the torsos of young males and suchlike. I'm not trying to mock this approach; maybe our experience would have been worse, maybe better. But it certainly would have been different.
And a corollary. It seems that one of the perks of being stipulated an "artist":in our world is that you get to talk about yourself in almost infinite duration while others stand by in respectful awe. Really, does life get any better than that? Wouldn't every one of us just love to have an attentive auditor, willing to absorb any amount of detail about our internal ructions (or whatever?). Indeed that in itself might be reason enough to be an artist: the sheer thrill of being listened to, all the time and on demand.
A final point, which I will try not to develop at too much length. At one point, Serra remarks, of a particular installation, that "the viewer becomes the subject"--or at least that such is his hope. When you stop to think about it, wouldn't you say this is always the way with these artist-fellers--they are always messin' with your head? I don't suppose there is anything really new here: I suppose Michelangelo again wanted to thrill, to awe (etc.)--messin' with your head is a venerable craft. And as I think if it, I suppose that most occupations, at least most social occupations involve messin' with your head to some extent (think: teachers, priests, used car salesmen, lawyers, politicians, whatever). I just can't remember hearing it stated with quite as much directness and sophistication before.
I note that I haven't really talked about the show itself here, so much as the meta-show. Suffice to say it's worthwhile on its own terms, as an exploration of work by an artist with his own tastes and concerns. Perhaps the most interesting thing you can say by way of substance is to note that Serra, by his own account, worked as steel worker in San Francisco in his youth--that must have been the early 50s. How many people could make statement today? I know...
So, worthwhile, although I have to admit that at the end of the day I still feel a bit of the old insecurity; a bit of the sense that if I take it with undue solemnity, then all of a sudden Peter Sellers will rip off the mask and I'll find myself standing in the middle of a circle of my friends as they sing "Happy Birthday."