What Art Is For

Seduced by ever-bigger exhibitions and corporate sponsorship, have we forgotten what the point of art is in the first place? A dispatch from the galleries of Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek state history museum

Bishkek state history museum

Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a small Central Asian city set under five thousand metre peaks and sandwiched between the vast steppes of Kazakhstan and the deserts of Tajikistan and Western China. As of the mid-nineteenth century, Bishkek was little more than a collection of huts, a way station on what remained of the silk road, dry and dusty, and bitterly cold in the winter, but thanks to the Soviet Union’s predilection for gigantism, the city’s boulevards and plazas are now vast, it’s air a haze of sweet coal smoke pumped from the smokestacks of a generating station.

The State Historical Museum is set in the middle of the endless and almost always empty Ala-Too Square in the city centre, in front of which is a glassed-in booth with two perfectly motionless soldiers in long great coats and jack boots; during the changing of the guards they exit with high, puppet-like goose steps. Nearby is a statue of Manas, the furious nomad warrior of the national epic. The museum itself is a massive poured concrete cube, columns along its sides, in a style that is a hybrid of Islamic mausoleum architecture and brutal Soviet modernism, and inside, above the sparse smattering of relics of Kyrgyz history, are soaring murals that depict the Russian Revolution and chaotic, bloody tribal raids. Behind the museum is a statue of Lenin, displaced by Manas from its original place at the front, donning his signature worker’s cap and defiantly pointing toward the future—or rather, toward nowhere in particular.

One of the remarkable features of the State Historical Museum, as well as the grimly monumental Kyrgyz Museum of Fine Arts, is that there is almost never anyone there. Like the sprawling boulevards and squares, which by evening in winter are dark and desolate, the museums seem to represent the idea of a country that never really existed and has little to do with the city’s rag-tag, multi-ethnic population of Kyrgyz, Russians, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Koreans, Kazahks, and Chinese. In this conservative, nominally Muslim city, the parks, littered with statues of shamans and Asiatic warlords and Marx and Engels, largely serve as private, secretive places for young couples to make out.

This is the world of evidence-based policy, of economic accountability, and of cultural life as consumption, entertainment, and diversion.

Cultural institutions in out-of-the-way post-Soviet countries like Kyrgyzstan with little or no tourism pay no heed to whether their exhibitions and collections are attractive to the population or whether anyone actually shows up. There are no marketing and publicity departments; there are no education departments; there are no billboards or television advertisements. At institutions across North America like the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Alberta, and the Art Gallery of Ontario almost the exact opposite is the case: saddled with debt from landmark new buildings (or plans for constructing landmark new buildings), these museums devote disproportionate amounts of their budgets to figuring out how to bring great crowds of paying visitors to flashy, five-star exhibitions through their revolving glass doors. This is the world of evidence-based policy, of economic accountability, and of cultural life as consumption, entertainment, and diversion. In a twenty-first century, conservative Canada, with purse strings for perceived indulgences pulled tight, sexy exhibitions like Van Gogh: Up Close at the National Gallery of Canada or Frieda & Diego at the Art Gallery of Ontario, or even the biennale at the Art Gallery of Alberta, all bringing with them to varying degrees significant shipping and insurance costs, not only need to pull in visitors, they require the financial participation of companies like Sun Life Financial, Aeroplan, Scotiabank, and the Bank of Montreal. The going euphemism for such funding is “partnership,” but it’s about money.

The press conferences for such exhibitions are always illuminating, and more or less identical. The director of the museum will remark on the groundbreaking importance of the exhibition, and then lavishly praise the various corporate sponsors. A representative of the sponsor will reinforce the importance of the new or ongoing partnership, and make a few nervous remarks about the art itself (which often enough was made by modernists committed to the violent destruction of capitalism). After sputtering, largely ignored remarks about methodology by the curator, the director will usually return to the stage, visibly embarrassed, to pump the products available in the gift shops. While private philanthropists can and do provide funding for exhibitions out of generosity, or as a tribute to the society that has richly benefitted them, we all know, despite the love-ins between museum directors and sponsors at press conferences, that companies like Scotiabank and the Bank of Montreal are involved in these exhibitions because they expect a return on their investment: they are disseminating a brand, and such exhibitions are advertisements.

Prado Museum in Madrid

The Prado Museum, in Madrid.

The value of big money and corporate involvement in the arts, in North America or anywhere else, might seem not only inevitable but something of a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want to have regular programming of major artists in Canada, whether it’s Caravaggio or Van Gogh or Picasso or the Chinese conceptual artist and activist Ai Weiwei, especially for those of us without the means to hop from show to show in New York, London, Berlin, or Shanghai? Otherwise, many of us would never get to see such art, or only on rare occasions, and young people will get to see it during their formative years. In this context, it would seem to hardly matter that large companies are ultimately interested in proliferating their brands or promoting an image of corporate responsibility; the benefits are simply too big to worry about that.

Few people in the arts are thrilled about the fact that corporate logos have come to dominate the art world in much the same way (and for the same reason) as they have come to dominate professional sports; it is widely regarded as a necessary evil. But this cost-benefit analysis—if we want increasingly big, international exhibitions, then we have to “partner” with corporations—may be confused. Maybe there is, in fact, something wrong with what we want. Maybe, seduced by the prospect of ever bigger, more elaborate exhibitions, we’ve forgotten what the point of art was in the first place.

Corporate money in the arts has encouraged two insidious trends regarding the visual arts as a form of wholesome, educational entertainment (so people can feel good about themselves because they didn’t stay home watching reality TV) and art as part of the global celebrity system in which the draw of an exhibition is less the art than name recognition. Again, such exhibitions, relentlessly promoted, almost certainly allow more Canadians to see more historically important art than they otherwise would, but, ironically, it might lead them to have even less of a relationship to art than they had before. There is such a thing as great art (and the difference between great and minor art is clarified when one becomes familiar with permanent collections like those at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, and the National Gallery of Canada), but the importance of art for the individual in no way depends upon great art. Having an intimate, ongoing relationship to works of art whatever their ultimate quality is more important than seeing major works; it is far better to see a minor painting often than a great painting once or twice. What is important about art is the imaginative project it proposes and the relationship to the world it insists upon. Art isn’t about the moment in which one contemplates it, about the object in and of itself; it’s about everything else.

Art ultimately dies when it is a special occasion requiring a dedicated trip downtown and a $25 ticket

We should try to imagine an art world without the troubling, and compromising, influx of corporate money. There would be few if any big-ticket exhibitions that (at least occasionally) bring in large crowds, so ticket sales would decline precipitously. The curators and administrators who oversee such exhibitions would probably lose their jobs. Marketing and publicity departments would largely disappear. Gift shops would be pointless. Exhibitions would rely on the creative use of permanent collections and national and regional artists: in Canada, this would be a far more provincial and insular world, disconnected from the trends in New York, London, and Berlin. This downsizing would not exactly compare with, say, the collapse of the auto industry, but even in Canada, art is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it should give us pause.

But the question is, would it actually be harmful to art and our relationship to it? Would this be a bad thing? I think not. Sustained by tens of millions of dollars in corporate money in Canada alone, the globalized art world has neither produced better artists than at any other period of history, nor has it created better, more self-conscious viewers, or for that matter stronger communities: people flocking to exhibitions of what they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be great art leaves them as they were before, in part because, unlike corporate brands, they can partition the art off from the rest of their lives.

Think about what our actual, mundane, everyday experience of art is like. You drift into a museum, gallery, or even a coffee shop with art on its walls during the course of your day. You find yourself more or less at random in front of a work of art by someone whose name you don’t recognize and who may or may not be well known: it might be a painting of a landscape, a photograph of a riot, a looping web of strings and objects. You are held there for a moment, sixty seconds, five minutes, for reasons you may or may not understand. Then you leave, pulled back into the rest of your life, and while you will most likely instantly forget the name of the artist and might not even be able to describe the work, you might well remember fragments of it—a gesture, a line, a swatch of colour—and these fragments begin to intertwine with everything else you look at and think about. Doing this once might not have much of an impact, but by doing it every day, unselfconsciously, as a matter of course, the fragments accumulate and evolve along with you, and suddenly you are seeing the world in new ways. This process in no way depends upon great art; it requires intimacy, allowing art to become part of life, allowing the boundaries between art and life to slowly dissolve. Art ultimately dies when it is a special occasion requiring a dedicated trip downtown and a $25 ticket; it needs to be indistinguishable from ordinary life.

On the other side of the park from the State Historical Museum in Bishkek is the Dubovyi Park Museum (it translates as Oak Park Museum), a small, well-maintained exhibition space devoted to contemporary art in Kyrgyzstan. The building itself has an interesting history. Originally an orthodox church built in 1870 when Tsarist Russia first asserted its presence in the region as part of the diplomatic brinksmanship with western Europe usually called “the great game,” the building was in the process of demolition, its onion-shaped dome already torn down by the Soviet government, when an urgent message was sent to Moscow that Kyrgyz artists needed a place to exhibit their work. Currently it’s showing an exhibit of photographs taken in nearby western China, home of the Uyghurs, a persecuted Muslim Turkic people with close ethnic and cultural connections to the Kyrgyz. In the spring of 2013, there will be a show of the well-known local painter Sabidjan Babadjanov—mostly depictions of local people and the villages, high meadows, and mountains one encounters less than an hour from Bishkek.

These artists will never exhibit in the great museums or galleries of the world; even here, few people here will visit the show or even know it exists. But those who manage to drift in and out of the exhibit during the course of the day, when they wander back into the dusty streets of Bishkek—the market with its bins of yak meat, the cab drivers pulled up to alley kiosks downing water glasses of vodka, the Afghanistan war veterans begging on street corners, the Korean gangsters in power suits and hot pink ties, the old women with headscarves sweeping the gutters with long wicker brooms, the beautiful young women with hats that look like gutted snow leopards set on their shining jet-black hair, the mountains presiding over everything—they will do so in a world completely continuous with the art. The economy may be global, but art isn’t because we aren’t. Art exists only in the thoughts and conversations we have at a particular time and place. We don’t need Scotiabank for that.

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