The Guggenheim celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday by offering free admission to all visitors.
The online world got in the spirit, with “#Gugg50” hashtags popping up on related tweets; the physical world celebrated too, with the Empire State being bathed in red to celebrate this most beautiful of cultural anniversaries. For fifty years, the Guggenheim has contributed to the international dialogue on art, culture, life, and the connections therein. It’s inspired millions, and confused just about as many too. Over on my Facebook wall, there’s a comment beneath the link of the Guggenheim news story reminding those who weren’t aware (me) that Saturday evenings are pay-what-you-can at the Gugg; the poster has also added that he didn’t think the museum was “worth” the $18 admission price. No, I wanted to respond, because what’s in there is priceless.
Just like religion, we want a revelation from culture -a lightning bolt of genius, a flash of pizazz, something to wake us up and give us a knock in the knickers. At the same time, however, there’s a push-pull between the known and the known; we’re hungering after a purely transcendental experience, but in so doing, we don’t want to be confronted with things we don’t understand -things that might be bigger, wider, stronger and more formless than we’re comfortable with. We want culture to conform to our very individualized, and very personal, notions around art. But this isn’t what culture is about -sometimes it takes patience, persistence, and a change in perception to really see the value of something -and to recognize what’s priceless to us may be worthless to another, or, more frequently, vice-versa.
I was reminded of this watching Herb and Dorothy on PBS recently. The documentary, done via Independent Lens, is a fascinating look at Herb and Dorothy Vogel, two unassuming New Yorkers who wound up amassing one of the most important collections of modern art in history. Some of the pieces they collected were indeed, quite unusual. The documentary includes a hilarious old clip from 60 Minutes, featuring a befuddled Mike Wallace staring at one work (by Richard Tuttle), and exclaiming, in exaggeratedly serious-journo tones, “But it’s a piece of rope…” Dorothy and Herb patiently, excitedly, explain their love of the work -they’re not patronizing, but equally they’re unapologetic in their passion. They don’t justify why they love the work, or why they amassed so much of what many might consider to be idiotic, meaningless canvases filled with blobs, streaks, scribbles, or indeed, nothing at all. They love what they love, and for them, art doesn’t have a worth past their own personal experience; it, and their passion, requires no justification to anyone. That, to me, mirrors the spiritual experience versus the religious one; it’s what Karen Armstrong is on about in her new work, and it’s something many thinkers (and artists) through the ages have sought to grasp, even as it slips away: a vast, bigger-than-us unknowability that requires neither justification nor classification, only acceptance. The intersection between the profound and the profane is fine; the one between art and religion even finer. We hate accepting what we can’t understand, and we hate ascribing value to something we deem has none.
It was through their massive, near-obsessive collecting that the Vogels not only experienced and participated in a truly gargantuate cultural moment (however accidentally), they also formed meaningful relationships with the artists they bought from. This connectivity enlivens the collection, and indeed, changes our perception of it. The canvases, installations, and all else becomes a living body of relating and sharing; just as “the word is God,” so is, it would appear, whole collections that express cultural moments and impulses. Their value is past our reckoning. It’s perhaps for this reason that The Vogels eventually gave much of their work away. Yes, gave. They didn’t (don’t) believe in profiting from what they love, and wouldn’t take money for their own personal experiences with both the art and the person who made it. Worthless? Priceless? Go to the National Gallery and find out for yourself. And while you’re at it, start engaging -with dancers, singers, poets, painters, writers, performers -the ones whose work you don’t understand or may not even like. Start thinking. Start asking. And, to quote a past post of mine, start embracing the questions. The next time you’re at the Gugg (Saturday night or otherwise) remember those questions, and thank God you -and they -are there.