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Not Everything That Does Not Glitter is Not Gold
Bolívar's letters, Bitcoin, soap operas, Ninja Turtles and the crown of thorns.
Today I will introduce two concepts that are very familiar to all of us in the art world, but for which we do not have a formal term (until now).
This week, a Facebook friend posted a meme making fun of contemporary art— something that in Mexico has become common pastime. The meme says, in Spanish, “I have a friend who works in a contemporary art museum where they have a cleaning lady that every day asks them: is this art or should I toss it?”
The meme generated a steady stream of the usual cliché comments about how contemporary art is elitist nonsense and all of it should be thrown out. I no longer engage in threads like these but thought it would be useful to take this case as a departure point to touch on the first term: apparent value.
First an anecdote on the subject:
About five years ago I was in my studio, going through a number of boxes of book donations for my non-profit project Librería Donceles, an itinerant used Spanish language bookstore and social practice project. I usually get donations from all over, including libraries, individuals and more, some of which are anonymously dropped off at the bookstore. I found a rather large leather-bound book that appeared to be a facsimile letter by El Libertador Simón Bolívar, the founding father of much of South America. I was overwhelmed with a lot of books that I felt would not be of interest to our readers and was also running out of room in the studio, so I decided to toss that book along with others. Later that same day, however, I remembered that I had noticed an auction house letter inside the book but had not given any thought to that fact. I had second thoughts. When I retrieved the book I realized that I had trashed no less than an ORIGINAL letter by Bolívar himself, which was inside the plastic sleeves of this leather volume. It is a historic, museum-worthy document.
In recent years we have also learned about individuals who have lost their passwords to their Bitcoin accounts, in particular the case of Stefan Thomas, who has been now permanently locked out of $220 million in Bitcoin. He is not alone: it would seem incredible to fathom that a password written on a piece of paper —if he ever wrote it down—would be worth that much, so if anyone were to find that password they would likely never guess what it was for.
A similar thing happens with the many relics associated with Jesus Christ. There are innumerable chips of wood ostensibly originating from the cross where Jesus was crucified (so many that Erasmus once wondered about the amount of buildings that could be built with such wood pieces); there are at least 30 holy nails and purported remnants of the crown of thorns, now at the Louvre, and of course the shroud of Turin, which supposedly was used to wrap the dead body of Christ and is revered as a sacred relic, although over the years has been proved to be a medieval fake. Whether these objects are authentic or not, they are revered as sacred by millions. But should one of these objects ever find itself out of place for any reason, they would likely be summarily thrown to the trash as they would look to the average person like an old dirty cloth, a bunch of old rusty nails and a collection of insignificant, little dry branches.
My point in bringing up all these examples should be rather obvious (although perhaps not to people who hate contemporary art): value is not always apparent. This is different from the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, because in art subjective taste cannot be equated to collectively constructed value: museums, for instance, don’t exhibit works that only any random person liked, but instead works/artists that have risen over critical and curatorial scrutiny and consensus. But for those for whom that collectively constructed value is not apparent (i.e. the general non-expert public) good art is only good if you can easily identify skill or craftsmanship, or if the work depicts things that we traditionally associate with conventional notions of beauty.
For those who are not happy with this response I would invite them to do a simple experiment: let a cleaning person walk into their house or apartment and decide —without their involvement at all— about what things need to be trashed and get rid of them forever. I do not have a written bitcoin password for a $220 million account at home, but I definitely have a lot of notes, drawings, and sentimental value objects that, should someone throw them away, I would be devastated to lose: an old paper mâché figurine that belonged to my brother, a little clay figurine made by my daughter when she was little, and so forth.
Sentimental value, which is a form of non-apparent value, is a phenomenon I have written about before (referencing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self), but you can also see it in action these days in the morbid reality TV series Hoarders on A&E. Each episode, which features one or two hoarders, consists in documenting an intervention where family, a therapist and a deep cleaning/organizing team help a hoarder clean their house. In a recurrent scene on every episode, the hoarder is presented with an outdoor layout of the massive amounts of things they have and asked to select only the most important things they have. Inevitably, the hoarder is almost never able to choose: everything is important to them. To the family and practically everyone around them, this is absurd: everything looks like, and is likely, trash. But the hoarder sees possibility in almost every single item they own. They continue resisting the reality, not only that the object is trash, but that the idea that it can ever be used is nothing but delusion. Their eventual admission that this is the case is the most heart-breaking moment of each episode, because their hoarding almost always comes from a need to emotionally compensate from some lack or fear, and at that juncture the hoarder is forced to confront the true reason for their compulsion.
The same puzzlement and disapproval that we would have against a hoarder (how can this person not realize that this or that object they are keeping is actual garbage??) is likely the very same one that people not familiar with contemporary art would have at seeing our interest or fascination with a conceptual work. It is a question connected to the second term, one which I will present as “narrative familiarity”. It relates to what I learned from studying the history and structure of the Latin American soap opera.
Soap operas have storylines that unfold over the course of hundreds of episodes, sometimes over many years (one of the longest-running soap operas ever is the British serial Coronation Street, which launched in 1960 and has now surpassed 10,000 episodes). Those who are foreign to a particular soap opera might think it is overdramatic and cliché (when I started working on this subject, many curators rolled their eyes). But for those who are regular watchers of these stories, they get to know the characters with a level of detail that would be close to a relative that they have known for many years. As a result, the slightest gesture from a particular character in a scene can be deeply meaningful to a loyal viewer because they can see it against the background of the whole character’s wide set of experiences.
And the same is true of art: certainly many great artworks produce immediate, visceral reactions that engage the senses and generate awe; others require narrative familiarity: they speak in code. Sometimes we call them artist’s artists.
The common mistake is to see works that do not speak to the inexperienced viewer as ineffective or elitist. Some argue that art simply could not be subject to an art appreciation treatment — in other words, we can’t make every art work understandable to everyone. This is something implicitly, but not really openly, agreed upon: when giving guided tours of exhibitions, we often stop in front of the most crowd-pleasing works or those that are fertile conversation pieces, while discreetly skipping those that might be more problematic, be it from being controversial, cryptic, or something else. To assume that we can make every art work palatable, or even understandable, to everyone is an illusion. I learned this the hard way one time circa 1997, when I was given the task to give a tour to a wealthy donor group at the MCA Chicago that would be followed by a reception. Because the tour was set up months in advance, we just decided that the group would get a preview tour of a solo project by artist Jorge Pardo. Donors showed up in elegant evening attire (I remember fur coats and ostentatious jewelry), but the show, which did not open and I did not get to see until the day of the tour, consisted in only three letter-size drawings of Ninja Turtles made by the artist’s 7 and 8 year-old nephews, each hung at the center of 30-foot exhibition walls. I did my very best to discuss Pardo’s project, but the show — a conceptual prank, really— did not really give me almost anything to work from. Most of the donors were furious and as I recall wrote letters the next day to complain that they felt insulted and that we had not given them what they expected. In that instance, the error had been no on the artist nor on the donors’ side, but on ours: we had assumed that the exhibition would offer enough material to chew on that we could build a whole evening around it.
This was an instance where us, the museum experts, became victims of our own narrative. Yet I picked up the pieces of my pride and, instead of throwing my profession to the trash, I carried on, hoping one day would be worth a bit more than its apparent value.
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