While MOCA is Punished for Populism, LACMA Pleases the Masses

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has quietly taken the lead in this city as the most interesting art museum. The Norton Simon still has, picture for picture, by far the best collection. The Getty still has the most money. MOCA and the Hammer are in a tussle for the hipness crown.

On one side, the Hammer's strategy is to show any garbage produced from one of five clubby academic cliques. Meanwhile, MOCA's director desperately tries to extricate his institution from the cult-like art world beliefs that an artist's MFA is more important than his or her art and that a curator needs more credentials than creativity.

Amidst this turmoil, LACMA director Michael Govan has done what no other Los Angeles museum can do, and that is, appeal to the public with contemporary art exhibitions that are ten percent conceptually rigorous and ninety percent crowd-pleasing populism.

MOCA's Jeffrey Deitch is scorned by the art world for whispering the word populism. The Hammer's Annie Philbin privileges the Byzantine world of art academia to protect her museum from ever hosting a crowd-pleaser. The Getty and the Norton Simon have cornered the architecture and old master attractions so thoroughly that they don't need to probe deeper into the Warhol meets PT Barnum temptations of contemporary art.

How does Govan shamelessly give the people what they want without suffering the slings and arrows of anti-regular-people art world whiners? I really stumbled upon the museum to get out of the heat wave that gripped Los Angeles in Mid-August. I came for the air conditioning but left understanding how a museum director can give the people what they want without stepping down to the status of carnival barker.

The James Bond Exhibit prominent at the first floor entrance to LACMA's Robert O. Anderson Wing.

On the ground floor of the Robert O. Anderson building was a tribute to James Bond movie opening montages. Every film was played; headphones allowed viewers to listen to the song associated with each movie. In the context of the deeper art world, watching Afro-Caribbean women artfully fetishized in the nude with Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die playing in the background, was territory neither Kara Walker nor Hennessy Youngman could get away with.

Despite all the feminist theory and post-colonial rhetoric inculcating educators throughout the academy... there they were, naked and dancing in all their raging 1970s glory, followed quickly by Carly Simon's The Spy Who Loved Me reminding us that nobody does it better. Makes me feel sad for the Deitch. Michael Govan gives Hollywood what they want while all MOCA gets is crap from the art world when they trot out James Franco to merge art and the film industry. And the 007 exhibit was crowded with people waiting for a chance to get at the headphones. Regular people, not the denizens of the art opening and panel discussions.

Far from the Wine and Cheese mixers that dominate the art world, ordinary people and their families enchanted by contemporary art at LACMA

Of course, LACMA presents serious, accomplished contemporary artists. Consider the radical persona of Chris Burden. Few artists have a name that personifies edginess. His Metropolis installation is only the latest in a long line of giant homages to mechanized power. Consider some of his greatest post-performance sculptures. His Big Wheel had a threatening ominous nature of everything careening out of control. His Samson threatened to knock over the institution. Even his static pieces Exposing the Foundation of the Museum and All the Submarines and The Reason for the Neutron Bomb delivered an awe-inspiring sense of menace.

METROPOLIS by Chris Burden needs no garbled artist's statement to hold the viewer and provide a mesmerizing viewing experience.

So with Metropolis II, does Burden continue this deep attack on the sense of the viewer's safety amidst an epic frenzy? Oh, I am sure there is a great theoretical rationalizer around to insist this monumental piece is a critique of late capitalism or of industry or of blah blah blah. How much hot air do you need when you have a throng of the general public mesmerized by the movement and majesty of an artwork? As Chris Burden nears seventy years old, he is less washed-up than any artist who was in the recent Hammer Museum's youth and academia-heavy Made In LA biennial exhibit.

For all the lip service that bad artists and conniving administrators give to art education, I saw more children engrossed with a single running of Chris Burden's Metropolis II than at any single art function of note or substance in my three decades in the Los Angeles art world. Michael Govan takes the lead in justifying the exhibiting of a Los Angeles art legend not by some phony art degree or pretend scholarship that assures you it is rigorous as long as you don't look behind the bank teller's curtain. He justifies it by drawing people to the museum, art elite be damned or forced to simply mingle and be awed as well.

Michael Heizer's LEVITATED MASS in LACMA'S Northwest Court

And then there is that stupid rock.

Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass is an unsculpted boulder lodged above a dipping sidewalk on a back patio of the LACMA campus. Sure, it has all the scholarly street cred of Earth Art and even a link to minimalism as it rigorously deconstructs the whole "art and objecthood" crowd. These qualifications meant it appealed to sixty art historians out on a nerdy fringe of twentieth century art. Art like this can be the toughest sell; the inscrutability of it all puzzles even those who want to like difficult art. But you wouldn't know that by the droves of touristy types eagerly making the trek to LACMA's desert landscape back patio. This multimillion-dollar acquisition, transport and construction of its permanent home has paid off in a popularity boost to rival any recent LACMA exhibit.

Michael Govan played the press like a fiddle in transporting Heizer's boulder from out in the boondocks all the way to the west side of L.A. as every news station covered the slow hauling of the boulder through the streets of L.A. county on its way to a new final resting place on Sixth and Fairfax. The TeeVee coverage, the interviews with "ordinary folks" on the street as the LACMA convoy crawled thru their burbs at 3 MPH, the cloying vox populi "debate" about the meaning of art among the normal people - the LACMA media push was the manifest antithesis of everything held sacrosanct by devotees of Heizer's. No scholars beyond this point. The LACMA brand-building turned Levitated Mass's outlier fringes of aesthetics into the most Facebooked culture-related goof pose this side of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Even artsy types who should know better, like fine art photographer Fernando Galvez pictured here, strike "The Pose" when visiting Michael Heizer's boulder at LACMA (courtesy of Mr. Galvez, via FaceBook of course)

And there sits poor MOCA, ostracized for wanting to appeal to the masses. The asps of the critical establishment wait for Jeffrey Deitch's hand to reach for another fig while Michael Govan is hailed as the conquering Caesar who got Eli Broad to build him a wing without handing over the lease to the public's museum. We have two museum directors committing their institutions to appeal to a larger swath of the L.A. Art World than the five hundred grad students who crammed the Hammer Museum's Made In LA biennial. One director is mocked by the local media and the other applauded. A little exhibition rigor and a good publicist seem to go a long way in L.A.

Oh, and these shows were no anomaly, populism is a pattern... my girlfriend just asked me if I wanted to go see the next two big LACMA blockbusters... Stanley Kubrick and Caravaggio. 

...Is James Bond ran thru September 9, 2012.
Metropolis II is ongoing
Levitated Mass will be in its current location until it is swallowed by the tar pits 100,000 years from now.