Art history 101

Legendary arts educator Philip Yenawine talks about the effrontery of art collectors, irresponsible artists and the willful ignorance of the average American male.


Danya Ruttenberg
October 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

For legendary arts educator Philip Yenawine, witnessing the art world's feeble response to the continuing "Sensations" imbroglio is like enduring a lover's clueless, self-destructive patterns: He's seen it before, he'll see it again; but he cares too much to not try to fix what he can.

Yenawine is co-editor of the new book "Art Matters: How The Culture Wars Changed America" (NYU Press, 1999), which details the ways in which the arts funding crisis of the '80s and early '90s drastically reshaped our culture. With essays by Lucy Lippard, Andrea Fraiser, Lewis Hyde and others, it chronicles a major shift in the role of visual art in public life, and examines how that shift has altered our understanding of censorship, democracy and indeed all of pop culture.

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During that pivotal era, Yenawine was director of education at New York's Museum of
Modern Art (MoMA) and one of the most powerful champions of controversial art that
few were willing to embrace. As head of the nonprofit Visual AIDS, he helped launch
both the now-ubiquitous red ribbon project and "A Day Without Art" (which is still observed by most art institutions each Dec.1). During the censorship/funding crisis of 1989 and '90, Yenawine testified on behalf of the NEA before the House of Representatives, and later was an expert witness for the artist David Wojnarowicz when he sued the American Family Association for wrongfully representing his work as porn.

In a rare interview, Yenawine explains why protecting "freedom of expression" won't
save contemporary art, and why it's the art world that has failed the public -- and themselves.

In your forward to "Art Matters," you criticize the "dominant
conservatism of the art world" that made "museums, art historians, and
critics ... very quiet" during the culture wars of the late '80s/early '90s.
Yet the "Sensation" controversy affects museums quite directly; how does the
response of these institutions rate this time around?

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I think the silence of most museum people -- their refusal to come to
support in any way -- indicates the position to which museums have retreated.
It was the same story in the late '80s -- there's too much self-concern.
This time around, it's particularly egregious when even institutions that have no
city funding, like the MoMA and the Whitney, stay silent. [MoMA director]
Glen Lowry came up with an article last week, finally, but it's very belated. Originally, he just sent out a statement refusing to comment. Museums are now part of the problem; they're so disinclined to support each other.

[Cultural critic] Lucy Lippard pointed out that socially engaged art is the
first to get trashed, and the art world is the first to join in the chorus.
Underneath it all, the art world is basically quite conservative. Artists
will continue to make their work; they'll never shut up. But it's gotten
and will continue to get harder to find venues to show it. Thank God for
the effrontery of collectors, who don't care which politicians they piss
off -- because they can help preserve this stuff.

The differences are few -- a lot of things haven't changed. Some people in the
art world have spoken up more this time than in the past. What should
happen is that the people who care about this stuff should stop capitulating
to those that don't. It's not like acquiescing has produced great new sources of funding. The NEA got cut way, way back, and its budget is still low. As a result of [the art community's]
gutlessness, the pot of money from the government is smaller. If [former NEA
chairwoman] Jane Alexander had said, "I want to educate people, not capitulate
to them," we might have seen some differences that now aren't there. So the art world continues its outrage against philistinism, but does nothing to change it.

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But really, what could the art world have done -- then or now -- to make a difference?

If museums had aggressively taken on the notion of art education in the
schools -- to the point where it became a common understanding that art is
designed to make you think -- we could have already seen an awful lot of
people coming out of school who see the stuff differently.

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An attempt should have been taken to educate journalists -- who have a chance
to pontificate, punditize -- and there should have been massive re-education of
our legislators about what art is, what it does. It's not to say we would
definitely succeed, but I know for a fact that no attempt has been made.
Let's say the NEA wanted to tackle this problem -- had brought together the
heads of major foundations like the Rockefeller, Ford and the Pew -- and said,
let's fund some really in-depth seminars somewhere irresistible, like at the
Aspen Art Museum -- a lot of things could have changed.

If I had been elected chair of the Endowment, I would've called up people in
Hollywood who've made a serious commitment to contemporary art -- Lily Tomlin,
Steve Martin, Madonna, David Geffen, Barbra Streisand -- and said, Let's do
something with insight, respect, humor, and get legislators and/or the
general public to see where the likes of [performance artist] Karen Finley
came from. Let's look at where "Piss Christ" came from, not only in
terms of [artist Andres] Serrano, but in the history of the depiction of Christ.

That kind of thing would have been immensely popular on TV, too. There could have
been more effort to produce programs about art, and there's nothing. I bet
there's not one single program -- besides Sister Wendy -- devoted to contemporary
art. In the '80s there were some, but it's just gone by. There are plenty
of places where real change can happen, but no one, since '89, has educated
people to start thinking differently about art. That's first.

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Most people seem to think that Mayor Giuliani's just making
a calculated
political move
with his battle against the Brooklyn Art Museum, that it has nothing to do with what he thinks of the art.

I think Giuliani would have backed down if it had been a ploy to lure
voters; he learned immediately that New Yorkers are horrified by his
actions. There is a kind of knee-jerk aspect to this. Giuliani, in a lot
of ways, represents where most people are with contemporary art -- he knows
enough about art to know it's supposed to be comfortable, tradition-based
and beautiful, and acts as if the artists we love today have never had a
history of controversy. There's a particular kind of American male who
takes the know-nothing stance and defends it to the barricades, never
thinking about the fact that this has happened before and will happen again.
It's willful ignorance.

The point the art world hasn't gotten across is that even great art of the
past is meant to be looked at and thought about -- not just glossed over. Art
has spent too long living in the ivory tower, and there has been no serious
attempt to educate people about how it functions, or about the history of
aesthetic challenges that date back to the Renaissance.

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What's been missing from the media's discussion of the current
controversy?

There has been more of a clamoring from voices in the art world, but most
enjoin freedom of expression, rather than defending the artist's right -- not
just to free speech -- but to the thoughtful reinterpretation of whatever
subjects they choose.

[New York Times art critic] Michael Kimmelman has been rather
patronizing; he, like a lot of the media, makes it out as if artists are
overgrown adolescents whose only intention is to shock. Really, almost none
of them are in it for the shock value; the art that they make is full of
information -- about both the real world and ... all the art that came
before.

Americans -- even those who should know better -- disparage contemporary art and
artists almost categorically. We're so used to the 6 o'clock news, to
predigested information, that we balk whenever anything actually asks something of us.

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Even just hearing about Chris Ofili's work -- I've never actually seen his
stuff -- offers up some really thought-provoking stuff. What is it about
representing the Virgin as African that's so compelling? What about the notion
of her sexuality, which has not been left out of the equation? How does
this version of sacred/profane play into the classic Madonna/whore dichotomy? How does his take on the Madonna/whore thing refer back to literature, or to feminism? Each one of these questions could keep me busy for a while. What is it that we haven't communicated to people, that the fun we [could] have grappling with these issues never occurs?


Danya Ruttenberg

Danya Ruttenberg is author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She was named by Newsweek as one of ten "rabbis to watch" and by the Forward as one of the top 50 women rabbis in America.

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