It’s often confusing to people why museums collect what they collect. Wherever I’ve worked, well-intentioned individuals have sought to donate works that they personally value and that are admirably made, and the museum has rejected them. Why? With art created before World War II, the answer can be found in a work’s place in art history; that’s something people often understand and appreciate. In the realm of contemporary art, the criteria are more elusive. This is partly because there is not just one art world, but in fact many. Each has its own self-defined boundaries and set of critical standards by which art is produced and judged. Carnegie Museum of Art, and most museums like it in the US and abroad, belongs to what I call the international art world. But there are others: the world of Western art, which focuses on the mythologized landscape of the Western US; the world of craft, which sometimes intersects with the international art scene; photography, which often overlaps with it; and countless others. Even in this post-modern era, the international art world remains predicated on modernist values, which embrace novelty and invention. This explains why a classically drawn contemporary nude might be rejected by curators, while something that expresses irony and even formal awkwardness, eliciting the cliché “my kid could do that” (they never really could), may speak more to the cultural moment and be accepted. The cultural dynamic that determines the success of an artist is, however, far more complex than simply an embrace of the new. Artists, critics, curators, academics, collectors, and enthusiasts are involved with a series of continually changing, multifaceted discussions about art, culture, philosophy, history, and society. These discussions both reflect and help shape artistic trends that are in formation. It seems to me that an artist’s success has everything to do with his or her capacity to anticipate and give voice to these trends as they are developing. Contrary to common wisdom, artists cannot manipulate or fake this relationship, although they can certainly maximize or undermine their own impact. Consider, for example, Andy Warhol’s early understanding of the power of celebrity culture back in the 1960s, and the way his art, and creations like Interview Magazine,helped form the world we live in today. You could never achieve that through calculation—you literally had to be Warhol to accomplish it.
Renowned artists who fall out of favor sometimes return to prominence. For example, following a retrospective exhibition curated by renowned artist Robert Gober, there has been great interest in the visionary US watercolorist Charles Burchfield, who was not much talked about in recent decades. At Carnegie Museum of Art right now we have an exhibition of the work of Paul Thek, who had a major career in New York and Europe in the 1960s and early ’70s but was largely forgotten. He is being resurrected because his work (which combines the spiritual with the erotic, the lyrical with the base) and his approach (which included attention to craft and openness to collaboration) suit our moment. This is about fashion in the most profound sense: We are all buffeted by the shifts in values that pervade culture, and artistic discourse can provide insights into the construction of that dynamic. At Carnegie Museum of Art, we have programs that can help you find a way into the discussion. On February 19, for example, sculptor Paul McCarthy will discuss Paul Thek’s work, illuminating the role artists have played in keeping Thek’s legacy alive. Please come and see for yourself. Until next month,