Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Andrea Fraser, Frank Gehry, Ada Louise Huxtable, Art, Artists, Urban Renewal, Mega-Monpoly And The “Barclays” Arena

Andrea Fraser in center, from her performance art work that reacts to Frank Gehry mythos, on each side of her, Gehry's two proposed "Ms. Brooklyn" designs for Atlantic Yards, the first on the left and the second on the right
Andrea Fraser is a performance artist whose work seditiously deconstructs and calls attention the implicit societal rules we follow, by which various works of art get `consensually’ elevated to agreed upon stature.  Part of the tension of her work is that you can hardly remain unaware of how Fraser bites the hand that potentially feeds her as she consciously reacts to art-world art as inherently commercial.  A wandering, problematical guest, she violates the etiquette of her host’s home, surfacing themes about the hemming dimensions of that world wherein intermediaries manage with politic correctness an expected order that includes reinforcing implicit bargains about relative caste.

The Whitney Museum’s site says that Ms. Fraser is, she believes, confronting fundamental conflicts and contradictions about this curated art that “have intensified along with income inequality.”  It continues:
Fraser writes, participants in the art world who perform these operations in art discourse “not only banish entire regions of our own activities and experiences, investments, and motivations to insignificance, irrelevance, and unspeakability, we also consistently misrepresent what art is and what we do when we engage with art and participate in the art field.”
Andrea Fraser Addresses Frank Gehry
Andrea Fraser was brought to my attention by a young artist who fathomed quite correctly that I would be interested in her video performance work “Little Frank and His Carp” (2001) which targets the sensational promotion of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  The Carp?: There is a fish-shaped tower at the center of the Museum hall plus explanation in the video via the museum’s recorded audio guide.  (Click on the link to see the video.)

In a 2005 interview, quoted on UbuWeb on which the video can be found Fraser discusses Little Frank and His Carp:
What struck me about the audio tour for the Guggenheim Bilbao was the explicitness of the seduction....The audio guide promises transcendence of the social through a transgression: the always forbidden touching of art—or here, architecture-as-art…. The tour distances the museum from the difficulties of “modern art,” claiming that the building’s sensual appeal “has nothing to do with age or class or education.” Freed of social/symbolic restrictions, we can make ourselves at home in the sensual, caring arms of the (mother) museum.
Frank Gehry’s starchitecture is an apt target for Fraser given his positioning as a premium, deluxe artist pitching to an appreciative elite.  She gets extra mileage out of her choice in that Gehry, who often does museums and institutional settings for the presentation or performance of artwork, is often thought of as a rule breaker, and Fraser’s performance is about stripping down to essentials what rule-breaking actually is (I suppose that’s a pun).  The video was filmed with hidden cameras without the prior knowledge or permission of the museum.

Notions Of Architectural Responsibility Via Ada Louise Huxtable

In directing her attention to architecture Fraser has considered an art form that is not and cannot always be evaluated solely by the standards of art.  In this regard a paragraph in last week’s Times obituary for Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable caught my eye for the crucial point it made that architecture has to be in service to other essential goals:
Though knowledgeable about architectural styles, Ms. Huxtable often seemed more interested in social substance. She invited readers to consider a building not as an assembly of pilasters and entablatures but as a public statement whose form and placement had real consequences for its neighbors as well as its occupants.
(See: Ada Louise Huxtable, Champion of Livable Architecture, Dies at 91, by David W. Dunlap, January 7, 2013.)

Along these lines, one interpretation of Fraser’s “Little Frank and His Carp” is that the architectural dominance of modern gallery spaces does not always serve the display of the art within nearly as well as it should.  Other criticisms of Gehry’s work is that the resources invested in its forms can be wastefully functionless and that it can disregard its relationships with and `consequences for its neighbors.’   But Gehry design does have intended functions which it is intended to be in service to . . . more on this later in this piece.

Reading the Times obituary for Huxtable, I was struck by the way that it made absolutely no explicit mention of urbanist Jane Jacobs, a fellow critic of the city’s shaping and development with whom Huxtable had much in common.

The Times obituary is extremely laudatory of Huxtable as it ought to have been and thus, in a way, self-laudatory, because it was the Times that hired Huxtable as “the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper,” but the article gives no hint how likely it was that the Times hiring of Huxtable in September1963 was motivated by Jane Jacobs’ very influential 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”  In contrast, the Observer’s very brief obit for Huxtable mentions Jacobs as background context to Huxtable's appointment.  Indeed, it turns out that Huxtable mentions Jane Jacobs and her book in October, writing the month after starting her stint at the Times.

Certainly there was a shared similarity of style, brook-no-fools attitude, and also themes in the writings for which each of the two women was esteemed.  Does this from Huxtable’s obituary not sound like it’s describing Jane Jacobs?:
She had no use for banality, monotony, artifice or ostentation, for private greed or governmental ineptitude. She could be eloquent or impertinent, even sarcastic.
Another similarity is the notion that with both Jacobs and Huxtable architecture and city planning became more accessibly egalitarian as they demythologized the professions, with the Times obituary for Huxtabel saying of her something that might strike a resonant chord if Andrea Fraser were reading it: “she opened the priestly precincts of design and planning to everyday readers.”

Huxtable’s very first work for the Times, before she was hired as a regular critic, was a 1958 Times Magazine article: The Art We Cannot Afford to Ignore (But Do); The Art We Cannot Afford to Ignore (But Do) (May 04).

That first Times article introduced a theme Huxtable was expressing perhaps even better years later (on the Leonard Lopate show in 2008), architecture’s importance because we inescapably must live with it:
(Architecture) is the art we must live with. If you want to experience painting or sculpture it’s an option. But there is absolutely nothing optional about your experience of architecture.
At the end of that 1958 article it sounds as if Huxtable made her own case for creation of the job the Times eventually hired her to fill:
The press which regularly reviews art, literature, movies, music and dance, ignores architecture, except for building news on the real estate page.  Architecture as a standard feature is virtually unknown, in spite of the direct and inescapable impact of architectural production.  Superblocks are built, the physiognomy and services of the city are changed, without discussion, except in a few of the more specialized or sophisticated journals.  Unless a story reaches the proportions of a scandal, architecture is the stepchild of the popular press.
Urban Renewal Failure

Superblocks and the transmogrification of the city’s physiognomy and services without public understanding or input?  What did Huxtable think of the urban renewal of the 50's and 60's?  On Lopate in 2008 she said:
That was the biggest mistake in the history of urban design. That was . . That grew out of the total ignorance of what was being lost. Urban renewal required total clearance. There was no provision for saving anything and that was how we learned how valuable the things were that we lost. . . .

 . . . There was no consciousness. That consciousness had to be found and raised; that the environment, the built world was a rich tapestry of time and style. We just didn’t know!
That too sounds like Jane Jacobs.

Similarly, in 1966 she wrote scathingly of urban renewal for the Times in “Project, Planned 10 Years, Has Been Called Unsound; Work Starts on Total Renewal Project” which is retitled  “How We Lost Lower Manhattan” in her 2008 collection “On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change”:
    . . . it will erase all traces of the past in one of the most historic sections of the city. . . . A total bulldozer plan, as were all of New York’s early renewal efforts. . . . just at a time when the city has officially renounced the bulldozer approach. . .. Some buildings were in poor condition others were well preserved.  Land uses were a mixture of business and residential.  New York’s artists’ colony, priced out of fashionable Greenwich Village, was finding its lofts and atmosphere hospitable. . . . a compendium of of just about everything that can go wrong in the renewal process. . .  a negative object lesson for the large renewal programs now planned or in process. . . Developers were awarded the sites of their choice on which they carried out their own plans, not the city’s. . .  Lack of an overall plan. . The project has no relation to any of the surrounding downtown developments directly on its borders . . .  The Streets themselves will disappear under skyscrapers and superblocks.  There are no celebrated monuments to save, but there were scattered stands of homogenous brick and stone street architecture of the early nineteenth century that knowledgeable observers prize for pleasant proportions, as disappearing vernacular Georgian style, and historic associations. . . . Preservation and rehabilitation retain the city’s historic fabric and neighborhood character.  It also keeps older housing and commercial spaces operative.  New construction provides improvements and modern facilities.  Together, the two create the elusive synthesis known as urban character.
When there was an effort that included three separate museum exhibits launched in 2007 to rehabilitate the image of Robert Moses, the grand master of urban renewal, Huxtable wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal, the paper to which she had by then moved, “The Man Who Remade New York.”  It disabused the revisionists of certain notions saying that “the rehabilitation of Robert Moses is not an easy walk down memory lane.”  Huxtable said with respect to the revisionists:
The acknowledged purpose here is to add balance to a story in which the brilliant restructuring of the public realm has been obscured by projects that rode roughshod over history and neighborhoods with unfeeling arrogance of epic proportions that lingers in the collective mind.
Huxtable accused New Yorkers of suffering from “planning amnesia” and concluded that it was fortunate Moses was stopped.  She juxtaposed Moses with Jacobs:
Planning in the early twentieth century was broad and paternalistic. . . Moses’s agenda was a perfect match.

The more intimate, humanistic view of planning as a small-scale, socially sensitive awareness of the street, the neighborhood, and individual lives had its catalyst in Jacobs’s 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which became the bible of the planning revolution.  This approach would have no appeal for Moses even if he understood it.  
Architectural Hats In The Ring

In that first 1958 essay for the Times Huxtable called upon architects to be various things, including, one expects, socially sensitive and responsible.  She refers to the architect as a “man of a hundred hats,”  assuming a different purpose with the donning of each hat: as a “practical man” providing shelter and physical necessities but as “an artist” providing the desire for beauty and “sociologically” giving form to the “living and working patterns of society” and “spiritually” creating “a setting for faith.”

So it was that she critiqued the building of the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building), focusing on social responsibility grounds.  From her Times obituary:
Rather than aesthetics, Ms. Huxtable focused on how the tower would alter the scale of Park Avenue, adding “an extraordinary burden to existing pedestrian and transportation facilities.” She continued, “Its antisocial character directly contradicts the teachings of Walter Gropius, who has collaborated in its design.”
The pro-development view at the time was, of course, different: Said William F. R. Ballard, the new chairman of the city planning commission, in an interview with Huxtable: “I can’t think of a better place to have a big building. . .  I don’t think concentration is such an evil. . . It’s the essence of cities. . . . Nobody’s been trampled yet.”

Huxtable Veneration For Gehry

Our discussion here has gone on at length about the calamities of urban renewal and the importance of social responsibility on the part of architects and those who shape the city, intending to come round again to Frank Gehry.  Ada Louise Huxtable, and this is important, adored Frank Gehry.  On Leonard Lopate’s 2008 show she said that Gehry was a “great architect” exempting Gehry from her criticism that there has been a lot of  “wow” in architecture “for effect, and for show, and for status” that she said she had “very mixed feeling about” for which she partly blamed the press.  She said:
The “wow” buildings. Don’t blame it all on Frank Gehry. Gehry is legit; what he did at Bilbao is superb. He showed us how to marry all the arts in our time. But the lesson taken away from it was: We need something that looks “iconic,” that’s going to put our city on the map.
By 2008 Huxtable had virtually adopted Gehry.  In the June of 2001, Huxtable wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Frank Gehry is the most staggeringly talented architect that this country has produced since Frank Lloyd Wright.”  (See: Architecture: The Bold and Beautiful— a Tale of Two Franks.)  This also appears in her 2008 collection “On Architecture.”  Her 2001 praise of Gehry could have been important because around that time (according to court records: before the summer of 2002) the Forest City Ratner company was conceiving of its Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly, part of which conceit was the anointing of architect Frank Gehry as integral part of its goal of selling the mega-project to the public and New York’s power elite.

Atlantic Yards, an eminent domain-assisted land-grab for the Ratner real estate organization, was essentially a retread of old style bulldozer urban renewal.  By enlisting Gehry developer Bruce, Ratner almost certainly hoped to have a leg up on the critics.  The Times obituary for Huxtable observes:
Her exacting standards were well enough known to be a punch line for a New Yorker cartoon by Alan Dunn in 1968. It shows a construction site so raw that only a single steel column has been erected. A hard-hat worker holding a newspaper tells the architect, “Ada Louise Huxtable already doesn’t like it!”    
No doubt the Ratner hopes were that before even such a single steel column was up Ms. Huxtable and those with influence like her would be on board liking it, or at least quieter in their criticism, despite the project’s failure to meet the social responsibility standards that normally might concern them.

Huxtable wrote repeatedly about Gehry, particularly his Bilbao museum, with extraordinary positiveness.

In 1997 she wrote “The Guggenheim Bilbao: Art and Architecture as One.”  Notably, the index of her “On Architecture” collected essays book treats the essay as being in part about the “urban renewal” of Bilbao, though Huxtable actually only uses the term “revitalizing projects” to describe what the once wealthy Spanish industrial city was doing when it commissioned the museum to replace old waterfront warehouses with the Gehry building.  (See also: “Hot Museums in a Cold Climate”- 1998 and “Museums: making It New”- 1999.)

Wary of Gehry Superblock Gargantuana and Profiteering Inside Development Deals?

A Gehry design would not necessarily cinch things with Huxtable or mean that her support was a done deal.  In the June 2001 essay where she called Frank Gehry the most talented architect since Frank Lloyd Wright she expressed mixed feelings about the Guggenheim’s proposal to build a Gehry-designed 400-foot-tall building on Piers 9, 13 and 14, south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan, a proposal, which due to financial problems and a weak economy (and perhaps lack of support), was cancelled just months later.
What a Gehry-designed 400-foot-tall building Guggenheim’s Museum south of the Brooklyn Bridge could have looked like.
Ms. Huxtable commented that the proposed Gehry-design museum should get “brownie points for honesty” in that it did not “fudge its size and impact with doctored renderings” but that with its superblocks and “street closings” hearkening back to the “urban renewal era” it would take a “swath of land or water that could house a superliner.”  Calling it a “Godzilla Guggenheim” she expressed mixed feelings and “nagging suspicion that thus may be a baroque Brontosaurus or a waterfront barricade at is present scale.”

It is interesting then that Huxtable never criticized, or even critiqued Gehry’s Atlantic Yards vision.  In January of 2008 she took aim at the in many ways similar “Hudson Yards” on Manhattan’s West Side with objections that would, like most objections to that big project, be as easy to level at Atlantic Yards.  She said it was too big, too dense and no doubt the result of Machiavellian deal making “that will make someone very, very rich.”   The 26-acre Hudson Yards (Huxtable’s essay refers to it as 28) is only slightly larger than the 22 acres constituting what is officially called “Atlantic Yards” but is actually smaller than the entire 30+ contiguous acres that Forest City Ratner is effectively treating as a single development site.

Likewise, in November of 2008 Huxtable, being interviewed by Philip Lopate (Leonard Lopate’s brother), said critically that everything in this city is totally developer driven, though not mentioning Atlantic Yards as the most conspicuously developer-driven project of all.

By early June of 2009, when it was announced that Gehry was being dropped from the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment by Forest City Ratner, any criticism by Huxtable of the mega-project originally publicly unveiled at a press conference December 10, 2003 would have appeared awkwardly belated.  Further, more than a year prior, Nicolai Ouroussoff, then holding her former job of architectural critic at the Times had said that Gehry should walk from the degenerating Ratner project.

As it was, one of Huxtable’s well-aimed snipes at Hudson Yards from the prior year turned out to be accurate for the Ratner mega-monopoly as well since Gehry’s departure from Atlantic Yards entailed a wholesale revision of that huge project’s designs: “The only thing we can count on is that whatever is eventually built there will bear very little resemblance to what we are being shown now” as did another “Historically, the amenities have a way of fading away or being relegated to reduced, fringe status later on.”   

Hitching to Architects

The point is that on many levels the Forest City Ratner anointment of Gehry as Atlantic Yards architect may have had exactly the effect intended, including silencing Huxtable’s usual calls for social responsibility.

When Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable were both writing in the early 60's who knew whether they would grow more similar sounding (as I think in many ways they did) or different.  Jane Jacobs, though she commented on architecture, was never an architectural critic.  In the six more books Jacobs went on to write (she had two more books planned that didn’t get published. . . one, “Uncovering the Economy,” she expected to publish in 2006, the year she died) and in her continued activism she concentrated on examining economic underpinnings to what works and the way the structures of society evolve and function.  Yes, like Huxtable, she was very much interested in morality* and the choices people should be making in the world (“Systems of Survival” -1992).
(* It is heartening and fitting that Huxtable’s last column, “Undertaking Its Destruction,”  published in the Wall Street Journal on December 3, 2012, addressed the plans to gut the historic, uniquely functional interior of the New York Public Library, extraordinarily “reducing the accessibility of its resources,” a plan deserving laceration that is driven by the city library system's new focus on turning over its real estate to developers.)
Jane Jacobs was not against new buildings or modern architecture, although in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” she made it clear that she favored functionality over the superficial pursuit of pleasing appearances (“a city cannot be a work of art”. .  “confusion between art and life are neither life nor art”) and chastised artificial architectural exhibitionism (weird roofs and stairs- attempts to appear unique and different from their similar commercial neighbors in spite of not being special).  Unlike Huxtable, Jacobs did not seek out or look to champion architects she liked.  The Times obituary for Huxtable suggests that being able to praise triumphs rather than mistakes animated Huxtable.  One might suppose that Jacobs’ rigorous skepticism was less susceptible to being undermined because Jacobs did not identify her ideas with the endorsement of particular architects.

Art Of Audience Selection?

This takes us back to the themes surfaced by Andrea Fraser of art as commerce, with an exploitation of class, status and income disparities.

Andrea Fraser’s work reactive to Gehry must be accepted as also a work of satiric criticism.  Her work and Huxtable’s architectural criticism both tell us something about to whom Gehry’s designation as Atlantic Yards architect was intended to appeal.  While Fraser in “Little Frank and His Carp” plays at mimicking the reactions of the consumer targeted for awe by Gehry’s designs, in other works Fraser has adopted the role of authoritative museum docent knowing what the public should like.  Whether right or wrong and however earnest in her pronouncements, this was a role that Huxtable inescapably on her pedestal could not sidestep.

Early on, near the beginning of this piece, I noted that I would return to discuss other intended functions of Gehry acritecture. 

Gehry is very good at selling himself.  Some artists are. . . Damien Hirst is another name that comes readily to mind.  They raise their profile by calling attention to themselves.  That skill on Gehry’s part translates into a transferable ability to call attention to and sell his clients.  It’s branding, at the core of which is the the intrinsic commerciality that typically constitutes branding’s foremost purpose.

Though never built and therefore concretized, Gehry’s branding in service to Ratner was selling urban renewal, 2.0.

Gehry’s architecture derives partly from the architecture of Los Angeles (where his office is).  The eclecticism of designs in that city may challenge categorization but I would say that Los Angeles architecture is largely defined by Los Angeles being car oriented; Its architecture is meant to call attention to itself from a distance, specifically the distance of the road or highway, with the perception of scale being set (in effect reduced) by the speed at which you are passing it.  It may be seen has having its antecedents in the likes of Wilshire Boulevard’s whimsical Brown Derby, designed to attract your attention from afar and call you in from the road.

The style's habit of clamoring for attention from a distance, seeking to promote its client’s brand over that of the competition, is about asserting itself over its surroundings: dominance, not community interrelationship.

The SHoP Architects design for the arena that was substituted when Gehry was disinvited from the Ratner team, albeit hastily contrived and therefore entailing certain problems (and solutions that may only be fully in place temporarily while the current configuration lasts), does a creditable job in achieving much of what Gehry-style Los Angeles architecture could have achieved in terms of branding and calling attention to itself.  Positioned at the convergence of three main traffic byways it gives one the drive-by experience advertised.
SHoP achieved its effect almost entirely with the lattice wreath, including television screen “oculus,” of weathering steel encircling the structure that is reminiscent of, but probably considerably cheaper than, the pasting-on of the flourishes now typically used by Gehry.  The rusting steel is actually a little like early Gehry work that used corrugated metal and rough, fresh-out-of-the-hardware-store unfinished surfaces and materials.

To say that the SHoP-designed building fails to fit into its surroundings is a worthless comment because a huge arena is never going to fit in amongst brownstones.  The colors are maybe a bit more subsdued: Had it been Gehry’s work there’d be the reflective sheen of more silvery and shiny surfaces, titanium, glass, whatever.  

As it is, the devloper/subsidy collector's segue to the new set of architects was seized upon to emphasize a strategic rebranding; that with the addition of its rusty steel panels the arena is an expression of genuine Brooklyn’s muscular grit rather than its eradication.   Gehry was calling his tallest glitzy tower “Ms. Brooklyn,” but rusty steel is maybe more convincing.  While anyone can buy into them, it is important to note that these conceits are being peddled up the income ladder and across the river.

While the arena as effectuated and managed is certainly intended to make money for its owners (something that should be easy to do given the extent to which it has been subsidized), the arena must also be interpreted, much as Gehry’s original appointment as architect was meant to function: as a sales pitch to allow Ratner to keep exclusive control of his vast government-aided monopoly directed to those whose decisions will ultimately matter.  Don’t worry; at the same time they will also be selling the message that “it’s not about class.”

The Ratner announcement of Gehry as project architect was not intended as a ploy to sell the project to the typical residents of Brooklyn or those in the surrounding community. . . It was more important to address the sales pitch to an elite, probably mostly found in Manhattan, more likely to have influence over the decisions to be made: The Gehry creation was what that elite might like Brooklyn to look like, perhaps to partake of and drink in the vision of it on the day of a stimulating visit.

The developer-oriented design for the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly proposed a project that obliviously disregarded the scale and any interrelationship with the surrounding neighborhood into which it would be shoe-horned.  Similarly, as many may have noted with the opening of the so-called “Barclays” arena that has unblinkingly been named after a plundering bank in an era of banks gone wild, the marketing of the “Barclays” arena has been pitched more toward the upper end of the income scale than might have been expected of a basketball arena, more toward hoity-toity Manhattan clientele than surrounding neighborhood residents or regular Brooklynites.  It is certainly not pitched to the people evicted from the site by eminent domain abuse.

With $4.50 water, it is an expensive place to go, far more expensive than what it replaced.  Community residents complaining about the a flood of idling black cars and limousines the arena brings through their residential brownstone neighborhood point out that “the Barclays Center marketing plan . . .heavily promotes the venue’s luxury seating and dining options” with much of that clientele no doubt coming from Manhattan or other upscale areas outside the borough.


It is hardly an exact equivalent but around the era of Prohibition whites would travel up to Harlem to go to clubs with all-black revues like the Cotton Club to get a taste of another culture.  It was sometimes referred to as “slumming.”  The taste of that culture obtained was inauthentic in that the Cotton Club, even though it featured many of the greatest black entertainers of the time was a white-only establishment, meaning that it was off-limits to patronage by same performers who performed there.

The Barclays arena was plunked down in a somewhat mixed neighborhood where an appreciable amount of gentrification was taking off no doubt shifting the color mix towards white, but it does sometimes feel to me as if there are echos of this “slumming” in a new generation of intracity  tourism.  The other day a wide-eyed couple speaking very good English but with stilted Europan accents emerged from the Williamsburg Savings Bank Building subway entrance to ask me and my companion where the “Barclays” is.  I assured them that it was big and very easy to find, telling them that it was a contiguous extension of the Ratner mega-monopoly, of which the shopping mall they were already standing right across the street from (I pointed) was a part.  They would find the “Barclays” arena, I said (pointing again) right around the corner.  I explained that the city taxpayers were subsidizing their tickets with a huge amount of money, information they seemed to take in with surprise but no understanding.  It didn’t tell them that many of us simply won’t go to the arena, that we treat it as off limits or any of the reasons this is so.

Theme Park Brooklyn

Inside the arena, much as was the case with the Cotton Club’s Negro revues, the arena owners, Bruce Ratner from Cleveland and Mikhail Prokhorov oligarch from Russia, are inauthentically selling their visitors the taste of “Brooklyn” that comes with “Brooklyn” brands packaged theme-park style therein.

Commissioned art angling for and receiving art-world style praise has been enlisted to enhance the effect as can be seen in this review of works by  José Parlá and Mickalene Thomas, both displayed at the “Barclays” arena: Heather Graham, KAWS, and More Turn Out for Jose Parla Painting Unveiling at Barclays Center, January 10, 2013.

The review of the work, which could echo in the mind like the satiric tease of an Andrea Fraser work, credits both artworks saying they “connect the gleaming, glowing” (pirate treasure!) of the new arena to the “surrounding community.”  Each work is extolled for how it represents “Brooklyn.”  To wit:
Thomas’s untitled enamel and vinyl work references the august architecture of Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Museum . . . . and Brooklyn’s brownstone townhouses. It articulates a vision of the borough as a great American city whose built character and civic landmarks are on an equal footing with those of its smaller but better known neighbor, Manhattan.
Parlá’s work named “Diary of Brooklyn” is similarly suggested to `embody’ the borough:
During last night’s unveiling Parlá explained that his goal was to capture “what it means to be urban,” because “Brooklyn embodies that.”
We are told that the Parlá’ mural was “inspired by the James Agee essay “Brooklyn Is”*
(* the 1000 word essay was commissioned by Fortune Magazine in1939 but unpublished until it appeared in Esquire in 1968, years before Mr. Parlá’s birth.)
As such we are being soothingly reassured that both the artworks somehow embody with verisimilitude the Brooklyn that the arena and the Ratner mega-monopoly are displacing.  Not dissimilarly, the Brooklyn Museum is now featuring merchandise in its gift shop designed by illustrator Claudia Pearson celebrating the charm of brownstone Brooklyn even though the Brooklyn Museum had a key role in bringing about the Atlantic Yards mega-project which is resulting in the substantial the destruction of such neighborhoods.  (See: Wednesday, December 5, 2012, A New York Magazine “Best Bet”: The Brooklyn Museum Offers Its Love Of Brownstone Neighborhoods, The Savaging Of Which It Lauded.)

Why did the Brooklyn Museum support Ratner and his project despite the deleterious effects in store for the community the Museum served and apparently still likes to celebrate?: Ratner was donating substantial funds to it, enough to put Ratner people on its board!

Above real Brooklyn buildings, including Freddys', torn down for Atlantic Yards, flanked by Ms. Pearson's Brooklyn musem gift shop designs (left) and Ms. Thomas's mural (right)
The brownstone image in Mickalene Thomas’s work is particularly similar to the Brooklyn Museum current gift shop items.  Maybe it is no surprise then that Ms. Thomas currently has, as the review tell us, a “solo show” at the Brooklyn Museum.  Going to the museum’s website page for Ms. Thomas we learn that:
Generous support for this exhibition was provided by Forest City Ratner Companies
This Brooklyn-substitution silliness reminds us how the Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, a Ratner supporter, once suggested the way to fix-up the mega-project was to have the Gehry design incorporate into the mega-project “Brooklyn-style stoops at the base of some of the towers” for more of a “brownstone feel.” 

The harm to Brooklyn doesn’t go unmentioned in the fawning review of the two artworks: Twisting mention of this into an advantage, the review at its conclusion acknowledges the arena to be a building that “many Brooklynites find inherently antithetical — if not downright dangerous” in order to assert that this “only makes the commissions more compelling.”

Art’s Oldest Professional Concerns

Rarely do we tend to forget that architecture is, at its core, functional.  Ms. Huxtable would hardly want us to.  (With Jane Jacobs holding that art is actually distant from architecture's true importance.)   Further, Ms. Huxtable would want us to appreciate that things don’t boil down to a simple dichotomy, function vs. art: That it is inevitably more complex as her early description of the architect as a “man of a hundred hats” suggests.

When she made “Little Frank and His Carp” Andrea Fraser dealt with the art of architecture, recognized to be a `functional’ art, but her overall interest tends to be art’s unrecognized functionality, particularly the web of underlying social contracts whereby art commercially sustains itself.  And recognizing that artworks have such functionalities in the world raises the prospect of accompanying moral implications, the kind that Ms. Huxtable might seize upon.

Andrea Fraser isn’t a scold.  She is actually far from it.  But she does make it very uncomfortable for those who would prefer to think that art can be safely compartmentalized as just art, existing neutrally apart from the moral dimensions of its functioning.

Fraser has often used her body to titillate, potentially shock and to up the ante of her work.  She is thereby certainly capable of making a point.  In a brutally confrontational, risky work about the intersections of commercialism, art and morality Fraser blurred the line between art and good old fashioned prostitution virtually as far as it is possible to blur that line: She created a 60-minute performance piece in which a patron or “collector” of that art work paid her $20,000 and had sex with her.

Fraser’s work mostly unfolds in the high-toned milieu of the fine arts world.  I suspect that Frank Ghery would not have suffered the embrace of her her lampoon had the work she was addressing not been a fine arts museum or if Gehry’s `rarefied' aesthetic were not so attuned to and well-integrated in that world. The denial of underlying commercialism may be especially pretentious in that particular world; nevertheless, the themes Fraser raises of commercial interrelations are very easy to apply to the other arts.

Hip hop artist Jay-Z was given a small fractional interest in the ownership of the “Barclays” arena, plus other financial inducements to act as a promotional front man for the developer’s arena and Atlantic Yards project.  When Barbra Streisand, a superb artistic singer and famously self-proclaimed activist, performing at the Barclays arena (her concerts very heavily subsidized) mutates the lyrics of Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” to compliment Jay-Z mere days after Jay-Z performing there has invited his audience to give the finger to the community that opposed the Atlantic Yards real estate land grab, Streisand ends up subverting her art to support that land grab just as Gehry was hired to do.

Whatever criticisms were leveled at Gehry for being socially irresponsible for promoting the Atlantic Yards project throughout the time he spent associating himself with it, there are those who still believe everything would have been absolutely well and fine in the end if the mega-project had been built according to his designs. . . .  that the only real tragedy is that Forest City Ratner ultimately jettisoned Gehry (saving money by finally going with a less expensive experimental modular design). . .  .

. . .  If Gehry's designs had actually been built can we not imagine that interested visitors to Ranter’s 30+ acre mega-monopoly would have been handed audio guides assuring them there were seeing “uplifting” achievements, refreshing to the spirit and, to quote the words of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum audio guide, we would be told, “its warmth, its welcoming feel” make “you feel at home so that you can relax and absorb. . . .”

With luck there would be someone like Andrea Fraser available in the cultural wings to help interpret exactly what the public was supposed to “relax and absorb.

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