Carroll: Aspen Art Museum can’t buy this kind of publicity
August 26, 2014
You've got to hand it to the Aspen Art Museum for getting the buzz most artists and museums can only dream about.
Forget all of the local media attention thrown at the $45 million museum and its "Moving Ghost Town" exhibit created by artist Cai Guo-Qiang — a mini-parade of endangered tortoises that had iPads glued to their shells.
The heavyweights also chimed in on the controversial tortoise display — among them are Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post and Huffington Post. The list goes on, and it got longer as each day passed with the museum's refusal to remove the exhibit.
The museum had scheduled the "Moving Ghost Town" exhibit to last until Oct. 5 — that's roughly 40 days from now — and it had become evident that no amount of public pressure would force the museum to yield from its position.
But at 4 p.m. Monday, the museum's board of trustees sent out a statement saying the three tortoises "will all be transitioned to a new home" because of the "current unseasonably cold and wet weather conditions forecasted for Aspen." Museum spokespeople also said public pressure had nothing to do with the closing of the exhibit, which we can only surmise will be replaced with another endangered species to be named later.
But it's indisputable that the museum wanted everybody to know about this exhibit, and guess who it used to spread the word — its detractors.
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Every letter to the editor, every petition, every full-page ad, every blog entry, every protest sign and every social-media posting — and I'm as guilty as anyone — only gave the Aspen Art Museum and Cai Guo-Qiang the attention that no hired PR-gun or marketing campaign could have wished to achieve.
For sure, there has been controversial "art" in the past. American artist Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," from 1987, which was a photograph of a crucifix dipped in an artist's urine, comes to mind. The 2007 sculpture "Miss Kitty," by Paolo Schmidlin, showed Pope Benedict XVI dressed in drag. Heavy-metal artist Ozzy Osbourne once bit the head off of a dove in concert and also relieved himself on the Alamo.
And locally, Aspen Police Officer Rick Magnuson, also a performance artist, made headlines in 2006 when a year-old video surfaced showing him ejaculating into a hole in the Mojave Desert on his 40th birthday. The video garnered even greater attention because Magnuson was running for Pitkin County sheriff at the time.
Another Aspen political candidate, Lee Mulcahy, who's running on the Libertarian ticket for state Senate, has generated publicity for his art, including one of his exhibits at a city of Aspen-sponsored gallery that was supposed to celebrate bicycles in the days leading up to the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge (now called the USA Pro Challenge) in 2011. Mulcahy's piece showed a pair of life-size images of Aspen Skiing Co. owners Jim and Paula Crown side by side pasted onto plywood. The piece included references to war because of the Crowns' ownership interest in General Dynamics, a major arms manufacturer, and other derogatory themes toward the Crown family.
Say what you want about art and these pieces in particular, but they earned their creators ample attention. Criticizing them only validates their work, and the same goes with the tortoise exhibit.
Of course, speaking out against something perceived by some as the exploitation or inhumane treatment of animals is a valid cause. But when the perpetrators consider this to be art, the barrage of criticism simply stokes the flames of the attention they so dearly crave and re-enforces their position that removing the exhibit would be censorship. It's safe to say we played enough into their hands already. Rather than boycott the museum, a more effective strategy would have been to boycott giving the museum's tortoise exhibit this rash of attention.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.