The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is an interesting place in that it plucks you out of your comfort zone, and places you squarely upon the lap of the absurdly avant grade, otherwise known as Contemporary and Modern Art. Nothing wrong with that you might think, for an establishment such as this. Cylindrical in nature, hovering above the ground just off of the Mall in Washington DC like a space-craft from a 1950s B movie, replete with garden sculptures of huge killer bacon rashers, and odd-bods parked upon chairs in the nude – good thing they don’t feel the cold is all I can say, otherwise we might have had more of a display of artistic expression than our frozen eyeballs were prepared for!
The building itself is a testament to architectural artistry, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft some sixty years ago, who was exacting strict orders apparently, as given to him by the Smithsonian Institute staff that this new building should befit the modern art collection that it was destined to house. Lots of very renowned names have their fireside niches there now, from the likes of Picasso, to Rodin, and every shade of 20th Century modernist painter in between that you can shake a stick at.
Bill and I love to discuss the pointlessness of this museum, and the interest that that in itself gives rise to. The Hirschhorn in my mind strikes me as a place where art hangs upon the very fringes of the artistry it is trying to evoke. I left after my first visit back in the idling temperatures of February 2014 feeling somewhat traumatised by the exhibits that I had witnessed, not because I hadn’t understood them, but because I was left wondering if it wasn’t just an indulgence in the negative shit of life, for the sheer sake of indulging in shock tactics masquerading as art. I mean, there was a 20 minute film (an approximation), on the destruction of a room and a grand piano within it, actually played backwards (un-destruction maybe), that appalled me. What…? I’m a pianist, I consider such a thing pure sacrilege!
However, a number of the exhibits were a fascinating insight into the existentialist approach that many artists of the previous century were happy to adopt and foment through their work, particularly around the late 1950s and into the 1960s when modern psychology was in its infancy, and a raft of ‘isms’ began suffusing the english language for the first time with an unprecedented vengeance, labelling and categorising every kind of behavioural malady and twitch conceivable within the human psyche. These new insights into the human condition were readily absorbed and expressed through the auspices of the Hirschhorn Museum and the works within it, that I’m sure were designed to bolster a sense of optimism and neutrality. They were supposed to be significant sociocultural statement pieces, that bore testament to the modern and the cutting-edge of a world newly free from the manifold casualties of a global oppression that had spanned almost a half century prior. These were gifts to an unwitting public, who in their nascent innocence were meant to stride ahead with their new economic and cultural investments into the bright light of a positive future. A public who were still secretly reeling from en masse cultural PTSD, and who were far from healed. It’s this sentiment that I felt was still very tangible within the artistic installations that were meant to expose and thus free us yet further from the dark unknown, and the lurking shadows within.
The question that framed my troubled mind upon my emergence from this experience was: Does the avant-garde, or the ‘contemporarily modern’ necessarily have to be depressing as heck in order to be cutting edge, and evocative?
Was this really ‘true’ art in the modern sense of the term, or had they just very naively misunderstood the premise of art and got it wrong?
The perhaps ‘romantic’ but quite incorrect existentialist assumption that we begin our lives with a blank canvas upon which we then apply layers of experience, like paint over the course of our creatively expressive trajectory, is what infuses the heady high and lowlights of this overindulgent den of maudlin psychedelia. We begin with nothing and end with nothing, and somewhere in between hang it up on a wall, or fill a space with it for all to admire and vomit on. Exactly how I felt, and how Bill has felt on previous visits to the acclaimed Hirschhorn Museum. However, as I expressed quite clearly in my previous blog post, my own belief is that art by definition is a collaborative affair, one that is designed in order to evoke an emotional response, both for the persons producing the works and those appreciating it. So, if that response is not a positive one, does it make the work more artistically relevant, and worthy of the social accolade that it has oddly acquired? Must it shock you like a cattle prod in the back side in order for you to feel like you are witnessing something innovative and different from the norm?
Or, is it just another rouse designed to indulge us in the misery and trauma of life in a way that is more socially acceptable than admitting that the people behind such art were just in a dark place, having had all hope beaten out of them by a period of history that was cruel and harsh for so many?
You know, it’s ok not to like this kind of art. Personally I could appreciate the level of dedication and work involved in producing the sculptures, films and paintings that you can now find resting peacefully within the confines of the Hirschhorn Museum. Producing any work of art takes a huge amount of highly creative and positive energy, and I say this based upon my own experience, and testimonials of other artists I know and have known. This tribute to modern art then, this grounded spaceship of a building, is a place of catharsis, not for us, but for those to whom it was originally gifted. We, from our modern day vantage point, the bright futurists that those original patrons were aspiring to be, may look upon this monument of artistic torment and feel awkward, bemused, affronted even, at the controversial echoes of a time long gone, except we are the ones who continue to define its artfulness. The art isn’t in the objects there, the art is in the people who have collaborated, and are still collaborating in its existence. The interplay of patron versus physical space and form in order to create a notion of artistry that will only ever exist in the mind, and perhaps only for the briefest of moments. Who can tell, and ultimately, does it even matter?