12.20.2007

On "Two Aesthetics"

When I discovered late Sunday evening that the celebrated American literary scholar Stanley Fish quoted my review of the New Museum's Unmonumental exhibition in a post for his New York Times blog, I was dumbfounded. I was shocked that Fish found me in the first place, little ole' me, and then I saw that he cited one of my more descriptive passages, one that I happen to like. OK, fine, even if he used the quote to stand in for our different aesthetics in regard to the New Museum. This is exciting, I thought, but I have other posts on my agenda. I'll ignore it and move on. Yet, as the days passed, something bothered me.

In Fish's post titled "Two Aesthetics," the blue-highlighted hyperlink that brought many visitors to the site earlier this week was the phrase "a description from a reviewer who loved it." That's the phrase that bothers me. Yes, the reviewer is me. But how does he know what I love? Did I draw big red hearts around my words? Did I hug one of the assemblages? I think not, and I would characterize my review as an "appreciation" rather than a love letter to the curators on the Bowery. Actually, I can see how some of my phrases such as "dirty dishes piled up in the sink" may have offended artists and museum personnel alike. Sorry. I also wrote of my concerns about future exhibitions.

When I visited Unmonumental, I had two questions in mind. First, would I be comfortable in the new space and inclined to visit the museum on a regular basis? Second, what did I think of the relationship of the New Museum to the surrounding Bowery? That was a big concern, as I had recently completed a series of posts related to the changes on the Bowery, ones in which I expressed fears of an art-led gentrification. I came away feeling somewhat relieved on both issues. I didn't enter the museum with a fixed set of aesthetic rules, and maybe I need to work on that. I'm sorry Fish "hated every moment in the museum" (his words, not mine). He criticizes the exhibit for its engagement in politics, but I must see the relationship of politics to art in a different way. I'll save that discussion for later.

I like to think I'm open to many art experiences, and studying contemporary visual culture as well as my peripatetic routine has enlarged my sense of the visual. I'm prepared to see beauty walking in everyday life and in my "favorite messy friend's place." If you asked me, though, what museum exhibition I really loved this year, more than just one I appreciated, I would answer without hesitation Georges Seurat: The Drawings at MoMA. I would draw big red hearts around it.

I have mixed personal feelings about Fish's citation of my review. On the one hand, I admire Stanley Fish's intellect, and I am flattered that he directed traffic here, even if he set me up as someone whose opinions on the New Museum stood in opposition to his own. As someone who devoted years of early adulthood to a graduate program in American Studies, the authority of Professor Fish looms large. I am also happy to introduce new readers to Walking Off the Big Apple, a site mixed with serious writing, practical advice, whimsical commentary, and sheer frivolity. I also would like to think, although I do not presume too much, that Fish and I could enjoy some of the same things. Given his discussion of The Fugitive, maybe we could find something on TV.

But when visitors arrived so suddenly this past Monday, courtesy of the link, I felt as if hundreds of people had burst through the front door of my home for a holiday open house, one I hadn't even planned, took a quick look around and then left. I didn't know quite how to respond. I think I hid in the pantry. Fortunately, there's not much to clean up, and I'm regaining my sense of balance. That's good, because I need my equilibrium in order to keep on walking.

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