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Critic's Notebook: At MOCA as in culture, a celeb versus serious issue

The museum's ouster of curator Paul Schimmel and the celebrity-art interplay pursued by director Jeffrey Deitch is indicative of a greater, ongoing cultural conversation.

July 23, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Senior Culture Editor
  • Jeffrey Deitch became MOCA director in 2010.
Jeffrey Deitch became MOCA director in 2010. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Flash versus substance. Celebrity versus artistry. Popularity versus integrity.

Contemporary art often reflects larger social themes, but this time it's an internal conflict, rather than exhibited works, that offers a mesmerizing image of more universal struggle.

The recent firing of the Museum of Contemporary Art's longtime curator Paul Schimmel was quickly followed by the resignation of the four well-known artists from the museum's board. Each cited opposition to the direction the museum is taking under director Jeffrey Deitch, a successful New York gallery owner hired by MOCA two years ago to help bring a higher profile, and financial stability, to the institution.

Schimmel, an artist favorite, is seen as a champion of ambitious, intensely researched exhibitions. Deitch gained his reputation by creating buzzed-about events that often drew on youth culture. In Los Angeles, he quickly staged exhibitions that revolved around high-recognition names, including Dennis Hopper and James Franco.

"What concerns me is seeing the museum embracing more celebrity and fashion," artist and resigning board member Catherine Opie told The Times' Jori Finkel. Artist John Baldessari also quit, citing Deitch's plan for an exhibition exploring the effect of disco on art as one of the reasons.

There is something deliciously satisfying about a street fight shattering the illusion of white-walled order and sacrosanct hush of the museum ethos.

But in this particular instance, the fascination has as much to do with resonance as theatricality. The sound and fury expressed by the artists and critics are instantly recognizable because this is a conversation everyone everywhere is having pretty much all the time.

In a world where Kim Kardashian is not just a star but a corporation and pop-culture maven Tina Brown runs Newsweek, where supermodel Christie Brinkley recently starred in "Chicago" and "Today" is hoping Ryan Seacrest will pump up ratings for the Summer Olympics, it seems increasingly difficult to achieve success without surrendering to the demands of a 24-hour celebrity-centric social conversation. A conversation often conducted in 140 characters or fewer at volumes high enough to clear the techno beat of omnipresent ear buds and the tapping keys of jittery young multi-taskers.

Now, it seems, even the nonprofit world is experiencing the same conundrum: If you're not willing to leverage stars and gossip and youth culture (whatever that is), how do you get the attention of a generation known for its collectively short attention span? Inquiring minds want to know.

The old models don't seem to be working, and artists, writers, journalists, entrepreneurs, producers, corporations, educators, politicians are all trying to figure out where "outside the box" becomes cultural swampland.

The most powerful people in the world now show up on Comedy Central and late-night couches. Lena Dunham, all of 26 and with one feature film to her credit, is now a triple-threat Emmy nominee and the darling of HBO. Even the pope has a Facebook page. Previously fringe events like Comic-Con and Coachella have gone mainstream because they offer corporate America those coveted and elusive 18-to-34-year-olds, all in one spot. So make your pitch, make it fast and make it flashy.

Say one thing about Deitch: He didn't take MOCA to Comic-Con. Yet.

MOCA is not the only artistic institution hosting celebrity versus significance face-off. Theater has been at it for years; Broadway not only remakes big, successful film musicals, now it takes on flops ("Newsies") and indies ("Once") while bemoaning the lack of original plays. The publishing industry, like the film industry, increasingly relies on big names and ready-made franchises (particularly if those franchises translate to film), trawling the Web for the next "50 Shades of Grey."

And Hollywood is at such a loss that it just remade "Spider-Man"for no other reason than the folks at Sony/Columbia thought it would put people in the seats. (They were right.) Meanwhile, journalists, their papers and news shows collapsing around them, chase TMZ reports and Twitter trends the way they once chased sirens. The Huffington Post just won a Pulitzer, and the most trusted news anchors are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, comedians who have built their careers making fun of news anchors.

The problem has become so epidemic that it is not unusual to turn on the television and see celebrity hosts discussing, with their celebrity doctors and celebrity guests, the horrifying nature of celebrity culture. It's become a go-to theme, an adult version of "don't worry about the popular kids, just be yourself." Except everyone is obsessed with the popular kids, one way or another.

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