Content should matter
August 18, 2010
Part-time Aspenite Marion Fox has written to cite the “ugly” art displayed by the Aspen Art Museum as a reason to object to the proposed new downtown museum. This longtime Aspenite can only agree, though I would substitute “empty” for “ugly.” I have saved as a perverse treasure an invitation to an opening last spring, which depicts a plugged-in boom box in front of an unfolded cardboard box. That’s the entirety of this featured work titled Keep On Pushing.
I made a point of attending the artists’ explanations of the works in this summer’s exhibition Restless Empathy, including pieces scattered around town. I was interested in the meaning of a large photograph of Aspen Mountain on which was printed, in caps, AMERIKA. Words over photos may be found in most of the ads in the newspaper you are holding, so artistic technique was not in play. My own association was of that spelling being used to protest the Vietnam War, linking the United States with the Third Reich. Was its use here saying that Aspenites were Nazis? Literati might have seen the title of a Kafka novel. The artist’s explanation revealed it to be the spelling Goethe had used, and we all know what Goethe means to Aspen. A later inspection of the piece’s backside did reveal a Goethe poem with America in the German spelling, but the reason for this mix remained opaque.
Another artist explained that he had encased one of the museum’s outdoor sculptures in a metal cage spray-painted graffiti-style with a quote from, again, Goethe, so that the viewer would experience a sense of revelation when the cage was removed. More such works, he said, stood around town. I had forgotten that threat when I took foreign visitors to see one of Aspen’s hidden artistic gems, a contemporary version of an ornery, a medieval model of the solar system, which stands in back of the Center for Physics. The piece was encased in gratified sheet metal, leaving me feeling ripped off by the Aspen Art Museum, and when the blockage was removed after my guests left, instead of an epiphany I felt more like someone who had recovered a stolen watch.
Restless Empathy’s signature piece was a life-size sprawling hippo on which volunteers were to sit reading a newspaper and blowing a whistle when they encountered injustice. This, of course, is dada, an art-nonsense movement that began in 1916 and of which critic Theodor Adorno wrote a half-century ago that it was getting old. Relabeled “thought experiments,” this viewer is more reminded of that parody strip number, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” These works prove that the philistines are now on the inside, and Marion Fox is right that the significant art is now in the commercial galleries (assuming you pick your gallery), and artist Michael Cleverly is also right that art administrations come and go, while buildings remain.
The point of these details is that as Aspen debates a possible new downtown art museum – a view-blocking hulk whose possibly elegant lines will be hidden by criss-crossed planks that turn it into an unflattened cardboard box – the discussion should include the museum’s potential content so that Aspenites may be proud rather than embarrassed.
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