Museum As Medium And Content

September 18, 2015
The Broad

The Broad Museum is opening this weekend here in L.A., which is the epitome of SoCal cause célèbre. It’s flashy, opulent, divisive, privately financed by billionaire Eli Broad, and immediately demands attention on the world stage. It houses a vast collection of modern and contemporary art, with the likes of Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Roy Lichtenstein, and so on and so on. It’s also free. So an all-around boon for downtown L.A., and for the city on the world cultural map as well.

Despite the impressive, voluminous personal art collection on display, the building itself grabs even more attention. The façade features a soft latticework over a trapezoidal container that seems to gently lift up a single corner to invite patrons to descend into its cavernous galleries. It’s a building that is as striking, if not more so, than the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall it neighbors. Designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it is immediately every bit a work of art as the art it houses.

However, it got me thinking about what place a museum — the most offline, analog, and molasses-slow form of cultural consumption that exists in our ADD, ever-connected, Snapchat-a-verse — could possibly have. The building itself is a monumental achievement, but it’s also something that can be experienced like any staggering work of Internet ephemera: skimmed at arm’s length and never truly, deeply digested or lived. I can look at pictures, after all, or even drive by the museum. That should be more than enough for me to gush about it at my local $15-a-cocktail bar or even, gasp, write a blog post about it.

I will go (promise) but the fact of the matter is that most people in L.A., no matter how culturally aware, simply won’t. At the end of the day, no matter how significant, it’s just a low-tech museum.

To me, that feels close to why the museum was designed in the way it was: The museum as an object of consumption itself has to be groundbreaking and prodigious. You don’t have to look much further than the effect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum had on Bilbao, Spain. However, it’s also an acknowledgement that the museum has ceased, in part, to be a distribution channel for the amazing content (read: art) it respectively houses, and has started to become the content itself.

Architecture has always been storytelling. The Palace of Versailles, for instance, was an attempt to tell the greatest story money could ever tell. But The Broad, like the concert hall it neighbors, is instant consumption. Like content on the Internet, it can be made short-form for conversational purposes, even though there is a bounty in diving as deep as possible.

But what about the art is houses? Most of the articles, critiques and discussions that have come out recently don’t even touch on the art it houses. Take two monumentally important visual works on display in in L.A. currently. The first is Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour bricolage of time-centric clips from cinema cut together in one continuous film. That is, you can watch the film in “real time” — whether for a few minutes or an entire day.

Then there’s Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament, which is a grueling six-hour “excremental, cloacal, mephitic” film based on an equally grueling Norman Mailer book, Ancient Evenings, that’s also accompanied by almost 85 sculptures by the artist. If there were ever works that resisted the current view of intensely, immediately consumable internet content, it is these two. They are works that demand not just time, but also emotional, intellectual and spiritual stamina of the highest order. They are not Matisses, Rembrandts, or even Warhols — art that can easily be strolled by. These new pieces demand attention and determination of will.

Which means they will get very few people to consume and experience them.

Does this devalue the works in the “eyeball economy”? Or does it make them intensely more enduring?

I think they’re all significant, and all demand attention. They are truly great works — both the building and the art it houses. However, when we think of art in the Internet age and we think of museums as institution, we must understand the unusual contexts they’ve established. The building, once utilitarian, has become the flashy beacon, a siren call but also consumable at its surface. By contrast, its art has become ever more inscrutable, epic and lasting. Both demand their own legacies, even if they are shouting to very few — unheard against a deafening deluge of content in the Internet slipstream.