Every day I walk by Gehry’s Stata center, which overall I have to admit is one of the more interesting and visually appealing modern buildings. The “centerpiece” of the building, however, is this bit of architectural self-abuse:
The building cost almost half a billion dollars to make, and over 15 million dollars went to the architect, Frank Gehry. It was intended to be a masterpiece on the vanguard of modern architecture, representing MIT’s engineering audacity. Upon its completion the head of MIT’s campus development proudly boasted of the genius of the building, breathlessly noting the way the snorkel of the central section playfully echoes and mocks the radar dish at the top of the neighboring Green building. The head of the computer science department waxed poetic about the way the light interacts with the angles and the “spaces.” This kind of guileless, sychophantic adoration by intellectuals in the academic community is revealing of the culture in which contemporary art manages to flourish despite its near general popular rejection (in NYC, the attendance at the Met is five times that of MOMA). [Update: As pointed out by a commenter, this may be a specious argument to use.] What’s most telling is the self-conscious way the praise must always be justified in (pseudo) intellectual terms, as they try to hitch their ego to the train of the artist.
If the Stata Center represents anything, however, it’s the gullibility and vanity of MIT’s former president, Charles Vest. Determined to leave a visible legacy as if he were a French King, he was blinded by the glow of yet another celebrity architect and wanted to shine a little on himself. But it was a fast burn, and the love affair soon cooled when MIT, under a much more level-headed President Susan Hockfield, decided to sue Gehry when it was discovered that the state of the art in modern architecture doesn’t apparently include proper ventilation or drainage. The lack of discipline inherent in such a $300,000,000 travesty, committed by a celebrated giant in the field, no less, should be a source of shame to the profession, or at least Gehry.
But if modern art is one thing, it is shameless. An honest person would be deeply embarrassed to use the kind of mealymouthed hyperbole that passes for discourse in architecture these days. But today the main product of the art world is not the work itself, but the post-rationalization; that pseudointellectual theoryspeak that goes in the gallery brochure, or in the building press release, or in the concert liner notes. An example, pulled from the website of MIT’s List art gallery:
Throughout his body of work, Robert Mapplethorpe interrogates classical notions of beauty…
Without this blurb, I guess you’d just have a guy with a bullwhip up his posterior. But now that you know he’s “interrogating classical notions” you have the satisfaction of getting it, which is really the only stock in trade of much of art. Too often contemporary art is not so much something we are trusted to percieve for what it is, as it is something that is dictated to us by intellectuals on gallery blurb sheets. But in the majority of cases, I think they protest too much. The obtuse theoryspeak is a diversion, a guilty wave of the hand so you don’t notice the smoke and mirrors and meaninglessness of it all. How much did Michelangelo feel he had to write or say about the Sistine Chapel?
I’m quite certain Gehry spent less time concieving the “snorkel” than our campus planner spent deciding how to appear enlightened by writing about it. And I’m equally certain that the appeal of the building will be shorter in duration as well. The Stata Center is a concept first, and a building later. And as a building it will not stand the test of time. (In fact, it should probably be considered an architectural design rule that anything clad entirely in reflective aluminum will not.)
In making these arguments, I can’t avoid having to rely on unsubstantiated notions of beauty. I would love to be able to make a compelling case for the worthlessness of Gehry’s shining aluminum pod using erudite sounding theoryspeak of my own. But there is no honest verbal way to explain or justify aesthetics, and thus no sufficient way to discuss lack the thereof. As they say, you know it when you see it. And that may be pretty much all that can be said with any itegrity. Of course beauty is subjective, but the fact that people will not be uniform in their visceral reaction should not discount it as the major goal of art. But to admit this would be to put the lie to the idea of art as an academically viable subject and democratize something the elites have worked so hard to claim for themselves. The favorite canard of academics that “all art is political” is really just an excuse for why it is so unsatisfying under their control.
I think the basis of the decline of visceral appeal in modern art and architecture is the intellectuallization of something that can not, and should not, be treated as such. Somehow, insecure academics were allowed to take the arts and distort them into psuedo-sciences, replete with jargon and self-conscious convoluted rationalizations. They try to intellectually own the unspeakable, and in doing so shrink and diminish art to fit in their contrived intellectual frameworks. Like school children catching butterflys, they kill what they are trying to study. By replacing the true but inarticulable beauty of real art with the falsely eloquent self-referential theories of academic art, they break it free from its inscrutible but nonetheless real basis: visceral human reaction. Thus detached and adrift, art has become ripe fodder for charlatans. We are left with stunt art: candy wrappers thrown on the floor as scupture, emotionless atonal noise as music, and desk sculpture scaled up and masquerading as architecture. It’s somehow unsatistfying and dehumanizing. The problem is, we can’t quite explain why.