High Art Brought Low By American Idol
This is a detail from "Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo Sembumbulu", a room-spanning oil painting by Meleko Mokgosi, who has been announced as the winner of the Hammer Museum's Mohn Award. That's a new $100,000 prize given to one of five L.A. artists shortlisted by a jury of curators, and then winnowed to a single winner in a vote by museum visitors.
Now I wouldn't want Olympic wrestling to be judged by a crowd of art critics. And I wouldn't want curators choosing Surgeon of the Year, or Top Hot Rod 2012. It seems obvious to me that you want people who know an activity, deeply, to figure out what counts as doing it, best–and then to share their deep knowledge with all the rest of us. That's why the Olympics come with all that color commentary, done by former athletes and coaches.
So I can't figure why the Hammer – one of my favorite institutions – thought it made sense to get all and any comers to award one of the art world's newest, biggest prizes.
Ann Philbin, the Hammer's director, who has always been known for her standards and seriousness, told ArtInfo that the prize is "borrowing a model from popular culture — the American Idol syndrome". But don't visitors come to a museum looking for some kind of alternative to the syndrome of market-driven culture? Don't those visitors – most especially the least expert ones – expect curators to make choices about what matters and what doesn't in art, and then help them understand why some artworks have been chosen as better than others? (Not having seen any of the five entries in the flesh, I won't comment on where Mokgosi sits in the mix. I defer to the Hammer's experts on that - or would if I knew what they thought. For local reaction to the award, read the excellent essay by Carol Cheh.)
American Idol acknowledges that it's just there to entertain, and never pretends that it actually chooses what's best. Last I checked, museums had higher aims - and I'm absolutely certain that the more they lower their sights, and the more profoundly they pander, the worse they'll do in the long run. (It can't help that the prize funder Jarl Mohn built his career at E! and MTV – just the latest example of how the purely corporate values of a museum's donors can dilute the cultural values of the institution.)
If wrestling deserves the attention of experts, I don't see why art deserves less.
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