Thursday, November 8, 2007

For Art's Sake

I spent the better part of today sitting in a conference room that overlooks the sculpture garden on the roof of The Milwaukee School of Engineering's new Grohmann Art Museum. The museum and the collection were donated by Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, an MSOE regent and area rich dude. The collection is titled "Man at work" and features sculptures and paintings from a wide range of styles and time periods that all focus on industry and labor. It strikes me as fitting for an art museum at an engineering school. I haven't visited the museum yet but I'm pretty sure that a lot of the paintings in the collection used to hang in MSOE's library. A while back, I was researching some shit about welding for a fire case I was working on and I noticed that the paintings on the wall at MSOE's library were really great. I spent a half hour walking around looking at paintings there. Lots of glowing molten stuff and people swinging hammers and axes and shit. Don't worry, I didn't bill that time. I'm anxious to check all this stuff out in it's new home at the museum.

Recently this completely private museum that is opened to the public and charges no admission fee and was built due to a multi million dollar gift from a generous man has come under attack by some crusty old art snobs. It started with this old lady named Whitney Gould who chastized the museum because the building is a refurbished warehouse and because the collection contains a bunch of paintings that were commissioned by the Third Reich. She starts with this:

But not to point out its shortcomings would be dishonest. Those shortcomings start with the building itself: a remade garage and former check-processing facility now capped with a heavy, Kaiserkopf dome and a ring of monumental bronze statuary perched along the roofline. The effect is rather like Old World Berlin as reinterpreted by Walt Disney.

And continues:

As my colleague Mary Louise Schumacher and I reported recently, one of the artists most heavily represented in the collection, with 81 works, is Erich Mercker (1891-1973), who was commissioned by the Third Reich to record its muscular infrastructure: bridges on the Autobahn, one of Adolf Hitler's proudest achievements; shipyards building U-boats; factories churning out steel; quarries producing stone for the Chancellery in Berlin, seat of the power in the Reich. At least two other artists in the collection also had Nazi ties. And, according to one of the art historians whom we consulted, some of the figures portrayed in paintings from the war years likely were slave laborers.

What a snotty bitch. She basically says that the Museum has some sort of duty to explain every painting in its historical context or some crap like that, as if a reasonable person couldn't guess that a German artist painting U-Boats being built in 1938 couldn't guess that the commission had some sort of tie to Hitler. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board echoed this sentiment too.

Ms. Gould and the MJS editorial board strike me as being tremendous tools. I'm admittedly a left-brained person so I really don't "get" art in the same way that many people do. I definitely try to pay attention to art and get some culture now and again, but this kind of thought process--that the meaning or the context needs to be known for the artwork to be enjoyed - drives me bonkers.

I few years ago I read an article about this artist named Christo, who is famous for doing these major outdoor art projects. For example, he wrapped the Reichstag in plastic and placed like 2000 yellow umbrellas along the California coast line. At first I thought Christo sounded nuttier than a squirrel turd, but after I thought about him a little more, I thought he was pretty cool. I'm obviously no expert on Christo, or art in general, but what I liked about him was that whenever he was pressed to explain why he created a particular work, he seemed to respond by saying something like, "because it's beautiful." Nothing pretentious. No cause or symbolism or reason. Just because he thought it looked cool. And usually it did.

I think this bird from the MJS needs to lighten up a bit. When people see the Great Pyramids at Giza I assume they say something like, "Holy shit, that's a big, cool, old building. Nobody says, "there should be a plaque explaining that these were built by slave labor." Just like nobody made Christo put up a sign explaining his umbrellas. This is a museum at a school of engineering. If she wants to be a useful art critic, she should tell us whether or not the collection looks cool.


Anonymous said...

hah, the pyramids were built in large part by farmers who worked ("voluntarily") in lieu of paying taxes. Not quite slave labor.

I think you are correct though. The art itself should fall or stand completely on its own. If there were forced laborers in the painting, and the painting suggested it was ok as long as the bridge was built, then critque that. But the fact that some of the laborers pictured could have been slaves is not a critique of the art.

Danny from Milwaukee said...


I consider taxes to be slavery.

Anonymous said...

No you don't.