PRINT September 2012

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Max Kozloff on his “The Multimillion Dollar Art Boondoggle”

Spread from Artforum 10, no. 2 (October 1971). Max Kozloff, “The Multimillion Dollar Art Boondoggle.”

WOE TO THE CRITIC who lets fly with absolutes! I occasionally did that, decades ago, alarmed that some then-current artistic tendencies might lead to repellent outcomes. A specialist in worry, I was capable of turning lamentation into kvetching, vitriol, and rant. Such was the case with “The Multimillion Dollar Art Boondoggle,” a piece I wrote for these pages in October 1971.

In the event you don’t remember or never heard of an essay published forty-one years ago, let me say it was in protest of an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a show that presented the results of an experimental program that fostered a brief interaction between artists and industrial corporations. “Art and Technology,” as it was called, was curated by Maurice Tuchman and displayed works made by John Chamberlain at RAND Corporation, for example, and R. B. Kitaj at Lockheed Martin. One could not help noticing the misunderstanding and confusion experienced by both parties—artist and corporation—in that unnatural juncture, as reported by the museum’s catalogue. Certain of my complaints about government bailouts and limitless credit enjoyed by big business were maybe prescient, but were too scandalized to impress anyone living now in the era of mortgage derivatives and hedge fund skullduggery.

That’s the trouble with writings that go so far as to reflect on the future—they either imagine too much or not enough of the worst that is to come. Yes, change was—and is—inevitable, but of what magnitude or consequence? In the 1970s, we had Star Trek, VCRs, and Polaroids; today we have iPhones, apps, and geeks. Earlier, the United States dropped napalm; today, our military deploys drones. If these technologies had only a brief shelf life, it was attributed to market demand and technical sophistication. As for their longer-term effects, I refer to durable cultural fallout. Even our increased national life expectancy is a cultural phenomenon as much as it is a scientific one.

You see people walking around now, spending much of that life apparently speaking to themselves. Their devices have taken them away from your ephemeral company and put them in touch with that of others not there. As it has altered our sense of public space, the device has become addictive. In his 1965 science-fiction film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard shows Paris looking normal, except that at every twenty feet people are popping pills into their mouths. With Facebook, a major new addiction, an individual’s filtered private affairs can be made available for any person to share. Can there be a more presumptuous acknowledgment of how little we do share than the gratuitous familiarities of Facebook, which allows for intimacies from people one has never met?

The boundaries between public and private space have blurred to a point unthinkable in the 1970s. Personal messages are sent without assurance that the receiver cares to get them, and passersby are turned into involuntary eavesdroppers. Nothing is more common today than transmission between unconnected parties, who buy things at distances and express themselves in short formulas. I think these conditions are bound to hollow out the content of work by artists who can now wield as much power via laptop as was once available only in the headquarters mainframes of giant corporations.

It was out of an underlying concern that art should count for those who elect to look at it that I wrote the “Boondoggle” essay. The thought occurred that through the mechanization of culture, a museum was offering artists and their publics an easy way out of that heated encounter. Many of the companies involved were in the armaments industry. Many of the artists recruited and shown in the museum produced work in a derisive mode, which I judged at the time to be frivolous and self-indulgent. I now think that such derision was indirectly critical of the whole enterprise. In retrospect, it was the way for them to go.

Max Kozloff, a New York–based writer, was executive editor of Artforum from 1975 to 1977. His latest book, Vermeer: A Study, was Published by Contrasto in 2011.