Real Life, Art and Immersion
And, goodbye to a Basquiat?
Last night, The Middlebrow accompanied The Scholar Wife and Renaissance Son to Christie’s, where we were all to see Jean-Michel Basquiat’s portrait of Harlem boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, alongside other contemporary stunners by Christopher Wool, Salman Toor, David Hockney, George Seurat, Jasper Johns and Anna Weyant. By all means, read Natasha’s essay about the Basquiat because nobody in the world writes about his art with equivalent skill and passion. The Middlebrow will muse on another issue — the fate of these art works when the sale closes in November and the seemingly unrelated rise of the immersive art experience.
These art works are all part of the estate of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (and not, as the Middlebrow imagined part of the estate of the late Paul Allen from American Psycho, murdered by Patrick Bateman during a monologue about Genesis, Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston). Depending on who buys them and why, they may never be seen in public again. Their images will still circulate, of course, and some may find their way to public museums, but others might leave public view entirely. Some buyers will purchase for love of art and culture, others will view the paintings as financial assets — they will serve as stores of value to diversify away from stocks, bonds and real estate. These paintings might even go into secure storage, never to be seen again. Or they might be purchased by people who live in repressive cultures, solely to be used as an asset that cannot be seized at the whims of dictators or royals. The works might even be purchased by dictators or royals, for use as pomp and insurance.
This is how art has always worked. Museums serve the culture but private collections define tastes and set values. The big money collector is the original influencer and if that means that a Picasso gets gashed by a hotel magnate as he sells it to a hedge fund manager, well, that’s life. Fortunately, we have a lot of online images and art books so that if originals are lost, their shadows remain.
Speaking of the shadows, The Middlebrow has also been following The Scholar Wife and Renaissance Son to fun and trippy “immersive experiences,” including a display of Gustav Klimt, an Alice in Wonderland-themed building, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb, and two trips to Artechouse.
Each immersion is unique. The Alice show was the artiest of them all, in that the interior of a midtown building was painted and lit as a walkable work of art. Of them all, it relied the least on digital projection and had the most elements of painting, sculpture, and live theatre. The Klimt exhibit was all about projections, as is Artechouse, which is a bit like buying a ticket to get inside of somebody’s NFT. The King Tut exhibit mixed projections, museum reconstructions and a virtual reality headset experience. The Middlebrow enjoyed them all but has some worries about this “new” form of museum-going.
The first problem is that, to The Middlebrow, an art gallery or museum is also immersive. So are movies in the theater. So is live theater. Any experience is immersive if you allow it to overtake you.
Middlebrow Musings is never virtual, but always immersive.
An advantage of the immersive experience is that they can be duplicated and are portable. You don’t need to gather, transport and hang all of Klimt’s originals when the virtual experience can run in locations around the world, simultaneously. The King Tut exhibition has a feel-good element in that it relies on no artifacts taken from Egypt — everything is a replica, leaving Egypt’s heritage intact. King Tut started in Boston and then opened in New York. Here, it’s competing with the extensive Egyptian exhibition at The American Museum of Natural History, which has a pay-what-you-can policy for trial-state area residents, compared to a triple digit ticket price for the virtual Tut experience. New York’s natural history museum probably has little to fear here, but what about smaller, public museums around the country that will have to compete for dollars and attention with these glitzy digital displays?
In that sense, the “immersive experience,” is connected to the fine art auction — both can push original works and artifacts from public view, leaving images and recreations behind. That’s at least worth thinking about.