Urban Scrawl 005: The C in MOCA: Community, Condescension, Cash, and Chutzpah (aka What a Deitchbag!)
Last week there was quite a kerfuffle here in town, when MOCA sent out the press release for Soap at MOCA: New Performance Work by Artist, Actor, and Soap Character James Franco. I basically fell off my chair in a dizzying vortex of outrage and disbelief. The backstory: James Franco plays a serial killer/artist named “Franco” on General Hospital. Fake Franco uses real Franco’s paintings on the show (aka he uses his own); real Franco sometimes hangs paintings at Deitch Projects. Here’s what happens next. Fake Franco scores a solo show at MOCA; fake Franco suicides off the PDC; MOCA sends out a press release NOT for the filming, but for the July 22 air date of the “very special episode,” spinning the entirety of the hideousness as a legitimate performance art event—the first in a series that they’re supposed to be all excited about; the LA Times swoons from the heat of the genius. There is no irony, no knowing wink, no clue about how this might be received here. You’ll have to read it all for yourselves; I can never seem to make it all the way through without feeling a bit seasick. As an aside, when I was growing up, “very special episode” meant eating disorder, rape, and/or learning disability. I’m just saying.
I tossed it up on Facebook and people pretty much freaked out. That same weekend I was due to finish up my part in the Herculean efforts of the entire Art Squared Gallery committee to get things ready for Neighborhood Day in Pershing Square, plus the amazing City Listening party the night before, which truly anticipated the variety and beauty of experiencing art and architecture in this town. Looks like I’ll be presenting at the next one, so stay tuned for more on that. But I digress. Also right around this time, I realized that one of my friends (and favorite American painters) is on Work of Art on Bravo—the painter Peregrine Honig from Kansas City. She’s shown in LA, with Acuna-Hansen a few years ago, and she owns an artisanal panty boutique called Birdie’s. I keep meaning to join their Panty-of-the-Month Club. But more saliently, KC is legendary for its bold and well-funded public art program and availability of private funding for local artists, many of whom are world-class talents. And, perhaps even more saliently, the show is doing well. Why is that important? Well… Who else remembers Deitch’s failed TV show Art Star? I guess he just really wants to be on TV. If so, fine, do your thing, dude. Many others before you have made the pilgrimage to LA to score a TV gig. But please, please, quit it with the Marie Antoinette routine on the “mass appeal” tip. It’s not working for anyone…
So with all of this coming together at once, naturally I couldn’t help but wonder… What does it mean to be part of a community? Normally I am suspicious of that word, especially in an art context. But civic and political concerns seem to be dovetailing more and more these days; not to mention the increasingly hard-to-spot borderline between fiction and reality. We all know, or think we know, how little so-called reality TV has in common with, you know, reality. But when something like this happens, it seems like the TV version is in the lead. That’s profoundly meta, but not in a good way this time. On the other hand, the opportunities for quality pun-making are endless. Doctors without Boundaries? Wash your mouth out with Soap-at-MOCA? I’m not an artist, but I play one on a TV show about doctors? Moby Dick: The Blue Whale. What a Deitchbag!
The truly sad thing is that not all Franco’s paintings are the worst things ever, but that has now become quite beside the point. It’s the conceptual spin, the blatant pandering, the lowering of the bar, the assumption that great art isn’t enough to get people in the door. Maybe people stay away because this is the kind of laugh-track gruel they are fed. How can they expect any of us to take them seriously if they won’t even take their jobs seriously—and clearly aren’t taking us seriously? I bet the marketing people are having heartburn right now, because they know better than anyone the fraud they attempted to perpetrate on the LA art community. They are confirming our worst fears, and inventing new ones. It’s upsetting as a critic, but besides that, it’s really condescending toward “the public” in general and LA in particular. Does he really think that’s what it takes to get people in the door? What’s the aesthetic or taste-based link between soap operas and museum-going? Dennis Hopper, okay. Blatant but nearly legit, or at least one could make an argument in favor of the photographs. But honestly what gives? MOCA, if Mohammed can’t get to the mountain, the old saying goes, bring the mountain to Mohammed. It does NOT say, make the mountain stupid.
In the middle of putting all these thoughts together, my dear friend, the poet Rich Ferguson, sent me a new piece of writing posted at his website, the Nervous Breakdown. With his permission, I’ll share a few lines of “Mowing Satan’s Lawn” with you now…
“What’re you waiting for?
Get your ass up outta the gutter.
Move through life. And when you do,
do more than just imagine the lives of others.
Breathe their breath, beat their hearts.
Wear their faces.
Let your words be theirs, and their words yours.
And when you speak, speak loud and clear.
And when you speak,
speak only of strength, promise, and love.”
Speaking of getting my ass up, it’s time to check back in with our neighbors back at Pershing Square. See, we all figured people were smart enough that they deserved the most interesting art we could find. And we brought it right to the people, to Pershing Square—the center of the city, and it was awesome. People loved it; they stopped to ask questions, they participated, they took their pictures with it. And then on Monday they launched a fresh initiative supporting the state’s Art Lovers license plate—also a fine way to bring it to the people where they live—in their cars! Did you know that the California Arts Council is 60% funded by these plates? Check out this amazing math: one million cars with these special plates would equal $40 million in arts and arts education support for our public schools. Think about that, it’d only be 20% of LA, not even including the rest of the state. I don’t drive, but I’m thinking of ordering a pair anyway! I’ll put them on my bike, and ride over to the park.