Contemporary Art

So, on Monday, June 30, our supervisor took the four of us on a little field trip to the LA Times to meet an art writer, Suzanne Muchnic, and then we walked over to MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) to meet with the director of their education department, Suzanne Isken.I am not particularly fond of contemporary art. Most of it elicits a noncommittal shrug, and an “Eh, I don’t get it.” Some I find visually unappealing and aesthetically displeasing. For some reason, contemporary art never “hooked” me, and my viewing of contemporary art has often left me feeling baffled, an outsider looking into an exclusive club whose members speak a dialect that sounds familiar at first, but is ultimately incomprehensible.While touring the new Marlene Dumas exhibit at MOCA, I came to a conclusion about why the general public shies away from contemporary art:Contemporary art museums are elitist. I’m sorry, but they really can be pretentious.The Dumas exhibit came with absolutely no explanatory text; the wall labels contained the bare minimum of title, date, and credit line. This is an exhibit that features grotesque and disturbing imagery; expect to see malformed babies, dead bodies, and sexually explicit paintings. It would have been nice to have some frame of reference as to what the artist was trying to accomplish. A few labels contained a phone number that guests could call on their cell phones and hear a recorded message of Marlene speaking about her work or reciting a poem she wrote in conjunction with the painting. That’s it. Oh yeah, and there’s also a catalogue.I asked Suzanne Isken why MOCA chose not to print out and put up Dumas’ poems, so that people who were visual learners, like me, could read them instead. Also, Dumas is known for basing her paintings off of other works and photographs, so why didn’t MOCA put up small images of the original photograph that inspired a particular Dumas painting? Isken responded by saying that MOCA is known for having very little on the walls and that visitors could always consult the catalogue or call the recorded cell phone message. After all, she says, This is L.A. Everyone has a cell phone.And so we begin the elitism. So what if MOCA is known for its minimalist white walls? A small panel of black text on white walls would hardly distract from Dumas’ works. To even assume that everyone has a cell phone is elitist. I know plenty of people who do not have cell phones, and even if people did have one, why should they waste their minutes calling for information that should already be provided in the entrance fee they already paid? Or what if they had no reception? In any case, we tried dialing the number. It didn’t connect. After getting back to Scripps, we tried again. The call went through, but big surprise, the sound quality was wretched, and Dumas’ accent difficult to understand. While listening intently in a vain effort to decipher what she was saying, I thought, “There’s nothing wrong with my ears, and I’m having trouble understanding. What if a museum guest was hearing impaired?” In a day and age where institutions can be sued for not being handicapped accessible, MOCA chooses to put their information in a format that excludes the deaf? Whose brilliant idea was this? And now we come to the catalogue. Yes, it’s full of all the information one could possibly want about Dumas and her paintings. It is also a behemoth of a book, and not very many people are going to want to fork over $45 and then lug a 288 pg book with them as they go around the gallery.Let me direct you to Dead Marilyn. It’s an oil painting of a woman’s face in repose, a woman who is presumably, according to the title, dead. The woman is also, apparently, Marilyn Monroe. Huh. Who’d have guessed that? Very few people, that’s who. The painting bears very little resemblance to sex icon Marilyn Monroe…which is exactly the point. The painting is based off a morgue photograph of Monroe, but I only know this because I read a gallery guide that our supervisor handed out the day before. The gallery itself tells the viewer nothing about the painting’s origins, so all it seems to be is an oil painting of a not-very-attractive woman. And how are viewers supposed to suddenly connect that to Marilyn Monroe?I understand that MOCA wants the viewers to come to their own conclusions about artwork and to engage themselves with the paintings and not allow wall text to dictate their interpretations. But if the museum does not give guests some starting point, some frame of reference, most viewers will leave frustrated and vow to never waste another $10 on “ugly” art ever again. I’m trying to find the “meaning” in a work, but all I have are bare, blank walls that stare silently back at me. It’s as if the museum is saying, “You will never understand these works of art; you’re lucky we let you in to see them in the first place. That’s right silly mortal, behold the work of genius!”