When a work of art disgusts you, is it wrong to avoid it? When an artist prefers “disturbing” and “challenging” you to displaying beauty and refinement, what does this say about the function of art? When the audience for art accepts assaults on taste and on aesthetic achievement, what does this indicate about our culture? This summer, I went to the Venice Biennale to find out.

My story begins with Robert Storr, an art-world impresario whose career raises these very questions. While maintaining his appointment as Dean of the Yale University School of Art, Storr came to Venice to share with the world his vision of art in the twenty-first century. As the director of the 52nd Venice Biennale—the sprawling international event’s first American-born curator—Storr mounted an exhibition called “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense.”[1] Featuring the work of one hundred contemporary artists, hand-picked and displayed by Storr in two massive venues at the heart of the Biennale, it was his largest and most far-reaching exhibition to date.

The show has set attendance records. An unpalatable indulgence in violence and pessimism, it is also unapologetic and trendy, forestalling criticism by labelling its critics “traditionalists” out for “pure aesthetic reductivism.” Why this cycle of recrimination should be so common in the world of contemporary art is one of those questions I may never be able to answer.

At the end of the last century, as part of a series of events on its history and collection, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition that first interested me in Storr. Titled “Modern Art Despite Modernism,” the show had a worthwhile goal: to acknowledge artists who had made contributions to twentieth-century art out- side of modernism’s avant-garde. Subjects ranged from “Depression Era Realism & The American Scene” to “Latin American Figuration.” Artists included Andrew Wyeth and John Graham. The exhibition set out to demonstrate the “exceptional catholicity of taste” in the museum’s founding father, Alfred Barr. In this regard, it largely succeeded. Robert Storr, then the senior curator in the museum’s department of painting and sculpture, put it together.

Storr’s own apparent “catholicity of taste” well-suited him for the job. Since arriving at the museum in 1990, Storr had organized exhibitions of the works of Chuck Close, Robert Ryman, Tony Smith, and Bruce Nauman—two very different painters, a sculptor, and a dandy. In the years following “Modern Art Despite Modernism,” Storr went on to mount exhibitions of the works of Gerhard Richter, Max Beckmann, and Elizabeth Murray—a postmodernist, a figurative painter, and a pop sculptor. All along, his interests remained unpredictable—whether motivated by a sense of the next art-world trend or some greater aesthetic, it was hard to say.

Although a member of the board of the College Art Association’s Art Journal from 1985 to 1995, Storr wisely sought to rise above the trappings of the academy. He knew to avoid the dogma that had bogged down art discourse in the past thirty years. He was never much of a stylist, but he steered clear of the theory-speak and unreadable prose that are the hallmarks of so much contemporary academic work. Instead, he wrote criticism for the popular press. An air of knowingness and the promise of contemporaneity contributed to the popularity of his arguments. He was a hyperlinked workaholic with connections extending far beyond the walls of the museum. While not exactly warm, his inquisitive personality endeared him to the art world at large.

Storr’s essay for “Modern Art Despite Modernism,” written seven years ago but still characteristic of his work today, exemplified the nature of his approach. While acknowledging his distaste for much of the “antimodernist” art in the 2000 show, he wrote that “I do not regard the disturbance it causes as a verification of the work’s unredeemable nullity but rather as a useful challenge to my habits of mind and eye.”

Faint praise, perhaps. But his willingness to reserve final judgment was welcomed by many as a new spirit of openness that appeared to rise above the culture wars of the previous years. He dismissed Marxist utopias on the left. He called Hilton Kramer “pessimistic” on the right. As the twentieth century came to a close, with the darkness of history apparently coming to an end, he sounded an upbeat note: “At the present, the fences, walls, and glass houses around modernism are down. Wildflowers have invaded its gardens and conservatories; hothouse flowers are trying their luck in the open fields. Hybrids abound.”

Storr had good reason to sound upbeat. In 2002, he left the Museum of Modern Art to occupy a newly endowed chair at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Four years after that, he moved on to become dean at Yale. Emerging from the ranks of mere curator, he has quickly become a leader in the world of art.

Storr knows how to play art politics. He well inhabits the role of kingmaker—a curator who understands the many benefits that come from preferring the right art at the right time and place. For the artists he likes, Storr can be doggedly loyal, a gallery’s and collector’s dream, parading the same people time and again. Ordinary careerism perhaps, but Storr has not become popular merely by being a careerist. Which brings me to the show he mounted in Venice.

Storr’s press conference and the preview of his latest exhibition went off just as I arrived in early June. Storr addressed the international audience in English. With his khaki suits and floppy hair, Storr presents himself as the earnest American—straight-talking, decidedly un-slick, a workhorse.

“Think with the Senses” occupies two facilities in the Biennale: the Arsenale, the long shipyard buildings of the once-mighty Venetian navy, and, within walking distance, the Padiglione Italia at the corner of the Giardini, a park that also contains many of the permanent national pavilions.

“It is not a political show,” Storr promised at his press conference, but a “sober show at a time that lots of people are intoxicated by cash. The cash will go away some day. I hope the works in this show will not.” But in fact, Storr has put together a very political show, of a very particular sort. The Arsenale, which houses his exhibition’s less-established artists, comes off as an assemblage that luxuriates in violence and sloganeering. Here, one of the first rooms is dedicated to the theme of crashing airplanes (by Charles Gaines and León Ferrari). There is a work that explores the “politics of flowers” (by Yto Barrada). There are machine guns (by Nedko Solakov). There is a meditation on the Pinochet coup (by Melik Ohanian). There is a video of a child playing soccer with a rubber model of a human skull in the bombed-out ruins of Belgrade (by Paolo Canevari). There are portraits of tenured radicals like Edward Said and Eric Hobsbawm (by Rainer Ganahl).

In his catalogue essay, Storr preempts criticism of his selection by deflecting it back at those who launch it: “Such exhibitions are not for people who experience uncertainty as an ordeal. Indeed, those for whom doubt, inquisitiveness and effortful self-questioning are exceptional or unbearable should spare themselves the disorientation and discomfort of a situation where precisely these states of mind and spirit are required.”

Storr continues, “Looking at, and thinking about, contemporary art demands appetite and a tolerance for things that may cause irritation as much, or more than, they do taste [sic].” By discounting taste, Storr not only insulates himself, he also provides a convenient excuse for the tasteless, the outrageous, and the unrefined. Only someone with a perverted sense of priorities would rush to embrace the violent rather than flinch and escape from it. To resist images of brutality is, after all, not to censor reality but to rebuff what debases it. Perhaps the only person who would choose to “think with the senses, and feel with the mind” is the one who cannot think with the mind and feel with the senses.

For anyone who likes art that ennobles life, Venice has little to offer. Instead what we find here is art that diminishes us. The perfect example of this phenomenon is the work of Raymond Pettibon. In one corner of Storr’s Padiglione Italia, mixed in among the same oil-on-canvas warhorses Storr has spent his career promoting, this California artist has embroidered up a room with a diatribe against America. “American loves (adores) Israel,” “Hillary Clinton, Hillary Kristol, Hillary Kramer: Post-op or same person” and “Alan Dershowitz, David Horowitz” are scrawled besides sketchy images of the Star of David. Here angry clichés are fired by anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic sentiment. No further explanation for this work is given in the exhibition, but Storr does find occasion to write about it in his catalogue: “the origins of Pettibon’s dystopian vision can be found in the dismal corruption and collapse of [the] Counter Culture of the 1960s and 1970s when Hippiedom’s aimless, impotent Flower Power ended in revolutionary zealotry’s mindless, destructive Days of Rage… . [Who] will paint Hell on Earth? Pettibon is just the man.”

That sounds like praise to me. Now consider these further examples. In Storr’s own words, one artist in the Arsenale reminds us of “coils that are used to create flesh- tearing barriers between countries and communities” (Adel Abdessemed); another references “the many sided conflict between narcotics gangs, their paramilitary adversaries and sometimes competitors, politically motivated death squads and the army of Columbia [sic] where the artist lives and works … flesh and blood and stump” (Oscar Muñoz).

“Flesh and blood and stump.” That’s ugly stuff—but, for the unimaginative, praiseworthy, because it requires little sense of aesthetic discernment and no more than a passing acquaintance with Nicholas Kristof’s column in The New York Times to understand it. Yes, you read that article about the plight of sex workers in Swaziland. Now you can see the art inspired by it. Robert Storr can be particularly adept at scouring the galleries for work that fills just such a role.

Storr has an eye that is focused on—I might even say blinded by—“the present tense.” Storr’s practice as a curator leads him to follow what is trendy, but it also encourages him to elide the distinction between art that defines an age and art that merely reflects it. Some might suppose that Storr’s popularity justifies his approach, but his acceptance really bespeaks confusion in the culture at large.

Here is one frightening example. Storr presents the withholding of judgment as a strength rather a weakness. One area where this approach becomes most suspect is in his indulgence of violence. A self-described member of the “Generation of ’68,” Storr has a sweet tooth for terror that goes back years. Take his embrace of a series of paintings by Gerhard Richter, “October 18, 1977,” featuring portraits of the terrorists in the Baader-Meinhof gang. Storr organized an exhibition around these paintings in 2000 and again in the Richter retrospective of 2002. Hilton Kramer called Storr’s interest in this work “tendentious in pretending to find problematic what is plainly evident to the naked eye: that Mr. Richter has produced a series of paintings that attempt to aestheticize the politics of terrorism.”

Storr well knows the disgraceful history of modernism under Mussolini, most notably the Futurist F. T. Marinetti’s embrace of fascism. In fact, he seeks out such connections. He writes that the design of the Padiglione Italia is “a monument to the conflation of Italy’s modernist and Fascist aspirations.” He says of the history of Italian extravaganzas like the Biennale, “Fascism in its modernist guise produced many innovative examples.” A “monument”? “Innovative examples”? Is this meant as criticism or a justification? For Storr, the answer may not really matter. What interests him is art that “is intrinsically a critique of the ugliness of so much of reality, of mediocrity in all its manifestations, and of high-brow as well as low-brow kitsch.”

But little prevents these “critiques” from themselves becoming part of the ugliness and mediocrity of so much of reality. When they do, Storr does nothing to prepare his audience to reject them. He expects a “tolerance for things that may cause irritation” and demands no further committment in return. Moreover, the sort of “challenge” posed by moralizing the conflicts depicted in Storr’s art shifts responsibility away from judging the art as it is presented. It is far easier for Storr’s audience to come down against the Pinochet coup, which they already revile, than to release their imagination to beauty and wonderment, or what Storr derides as “complacent delectation.” When Storr rationalizes that “artistic beauty does not condemn true artistic ugliness,” I beg to differ, but many now happily agree, which may go a long way towards explaining his popularity.

In his “Salon of 1846,” Charles Baudelaire suggested that “the life of the city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects … but we do not notice it.” Storr clearly sees himself as a curator of modern life, but he too has fails to notice the poetry in it, bringing little in the way of marvelous subjects to Venice. Here he has also promised a show that “focuses on areas of current art activity that hint at what emerging patterns might be without presuming to map or foreshadow them in their entirety.” But no one can suppose that Storr’s selection of prim political art in the Arsenale represents anything close to a cross-section of current art activity, or that the work in the Padiglione Italia represent all that’s left of the modernist tradition.

Jerry Saltz, in his review for New York magazine, got it right: “if I were in my twenties or thirties, or even (alas) my forties, I can imagine being impressed but also a bit let down and oppressed by it.” A Generation of ’68er, Storr has become a part of the problem and not the solution.

Seven years ago, Storr concluded his essay for “Modern Art after Modernism” with these words of Picasso’s: “All I have ever made was for the present.” In Venice, this city of the past, the present tense now makes its case. Here you can forego the art of the future in favor of the images of the present. You can substitute a “catholicity of taste” for the abandonment of taste. Rather than encounter fresh experience, you can find art that is a flattering—but also warped—mirror of your own assumptions.

 

Notes
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  1. “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense” opened at the 52nd International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale on June 10 and remains on view through November 21, 2007. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by Rizzoli (736 pages; $85). Go back to the text.

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