Saturday, March 18, 2017

Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's library card


With Y, I saw the show "The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin" at the Jewish Museum today. A few of the contemporary works were well worth seeing, but the show as a whole was disappointing. Benjamin's unfinished project The Arcades assembled a miscellany of quotations and commentaries based on a principle and a purpose. The principle was represented by these iron and glass vaulted shopping malls in Paris, the cultural capital of the nineteenth century. The purpose was to mount a critique of capitalism through an examination of the materiality of experience. Both gave Benjamin's project its coherence and interest. The principle of the museum show was Benjamin's text. Its purpose was to put up a museum show. As such, the selection of contemporary art works, from various times, places, and artistic practices, failed to illuminate any particular time, place, or practice. Worse, they failed to illuminate Benjamin's text, using it merely as a convenient way of organizing a show. The wall signs included Kenneth Goldsmith's annotations of the artworks with appropriated texts that purportedly extended Benjamin's reflections on Paris to New York, the capital of the twentieth century. As the TLS reviewer of Goldsmith's book remarked, the poet's collage speaks ultimately about ... the poet. There is a whole chapter devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, Goldsmith's archetypal avant gardist artist. Such self-regard, in Goldsmith's work and in the museum show, restricts the potency of Benjamin's work and of art and poetry in general. Still, I'm very glad to have seen, among other works, Andrea Bowers' "The Triumph of Labor" (2016), a work of marker on cardboard reproducing a woodcut that celebrated Labor Day. It gives to labor the dignity and beauty of an arras. The Pierre Charaeu show on the ground floor was beautifully and tastefully designed by Diller Scofidio and Renfro.

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