Pleasing crowds and disappointing critics

A comment on an earlier post says, regarding Santiago Calatrava, “There must be equivalents in music, art, and literature–somebody help me name them!–the ones who give great pleasure to multitudes and earn the contempt of their betters…”

As if on cue, the New York Times has a review on Friday of the Olafur Eliasson show at MoMA and P.S. 1, which is the expansion of a show that delighted visitors to San Francisco’s MoMA over the winter. I saw the smaller version at SF MoMA, and enjoyed it, and two separate people recommended it to me out of the blue, not knowing that I had already seen it (people almost never recommend art shows to me). The Times reviewer, Holland Cotter, accurately calls it “audience-pleasing.”

Eliasson’s work plays with perceptions and space in ways that remind me of Richard Serra’s sculptures or some of Bill Viola’s video works — rather than merely situating the artwork in a given space, the artwork seems to alter space itself by the use of lighting, sound, or changes in the actual shape of the room. For example, the photos below show a circular chamber that is set up in the middle of a room. You walk into the middle of the circle, and you realize that the wall of the circle is slowly growing lighter or darker, and changing color as well. (It wasn’t my favorite work, but it translates into blog form more easily than the ones that involve sound or water.)

The Times review is not negative by any means, but Cotter criticizes Eliasson for being too crowd-pleasing and safe:

And how radical is Mr. Eliasson’s art? How market-challenging or expectation-shifting? In the end — so far — not terribly. “Take Your Time” looks anomalous enough in an object-fetish moment, and in MoMA’s galleries, where you don’t find moss murals, or dripping water everyday. At the same time the work is too intent on appealing to our appetite for passive sensation and too readily adapted to corporate design. (Mr. Eliasson’s architectural and commercial projects include proposals for BMW.)

Cotter explains his critique by contrasting Eliasson with a female performance artist who walked around with an “I Am A Man” placard, “a sign that originated in the civil rights protests in the 1960s but to which she gave multifold new meanings.” (Edgy! Ceci n’est pas une femme!) The review then ends with the following:

Mr. Eliasson’s art is, of course, of a different kind and deals, some would say, in a different kind of activism, a politics of enchantment. Enchanting the work certainly is, and spacious, evanescent and intellectually stimulating. In these ways it offers a model for a future art beyond the present rummage-sale glut. In others ways, though, it reminds us how far in the current decade art has not come.

“Enchanting,” “evanescent” and “intellectually stimulating.” If only we could say the same for most contemporary art!

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3 responses to “Pleasing crowds and disappointing critics

  1. Great post!

  2. See the review in this week’s The New Yorker, or just read the first sentence.

  3. That New Yorker review is pretty good. Schjeldahl puts Cotter to shame.

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