This week I saw the exhibit Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In that large museum the art works stretch out over three floors and many galleries and include not only Warhol’s famous pictures but also some of the films that he and his associates produced.
For me it was a reminder of my first glimpse of the Warhol world back in 1966. We were living in New Jersey then, near Rutgers University and tantalizingly close to the glamor of Manhattan just a few miles away. The university was a lifeline that gave suburban housewives like me a glimpse of that glamor. I remember the evening when a friend and I went to a Warhol event on campus (our husbands stayed home with our preschoolers) to watch some flickering films and see a new group called The Velvet Underground.
We arrived to find a crowd waiting at the door. A heavily made-up girl in a floppy brimmed felt hat was taking moving pictures of the audience as they entered. A long-haired, paunchy man followed her around while she aimed her camera to take close-up views of the people’s eyes, faces, lips. At one point she sat on someone’s lap to photograph a face.
When the audience had settled in, the films were shown. One was Vinyl, which featured the beautiful actress, Edie Sedgwick. Undergraduates hooted and made rude comments as she appeared on screen drinking glass after glass of wine and finally ended the film crouching over a toilet.
After the movie, the Velvet Underground went on stage. Some of the performers played, one sang, a couple danced at the side. The loudspeakers were turned so high that the music was deafening—our seats vibrated with the force of the sound. Behind the singers, the movie screen showed flickering pictures of the performer’s face, hair, lips, eyes…
All this was new and eye-opening to us and to most of the audience in 1966. My friend and I went home with headaches from the noise, but satisfied that we had caught a glimpse of the future with Andy Warhol and his fabulous friends.
One advantage of living a long life is having a chance to discover how often what seems to be a foreshadowing of the future turns out to be a dud, while other startling changes affect our lives for years to come. Warhol’s influence has certainly not diminished. His paintings brought daily life into the realm of art. We started looking at everyday objects with new eyes. And his films and music have changed the way we have listened and looked at entertainment for more than half a century. Seeing his work now reminds us of how much he meant to all of us.
Museums sometimes seem out of the mainstream, preserving artifacts from places, cultures and times that may seem distant. But the moments they preserve are vital to understanding how the world changes. I for one am eternally grateful for museums and the people who work in them. They increase our knowledge and broaden our view of the world.
I recently read that some museum staff members in many cities are unionizing amid complaints that they do not get paid enough for their work. All of us who care about preserving our society and enriching our lives ought to support funding for museums and their workers. They make our lives better by showing us where we have been and how we got to where we are now.
Who Owns Art? Blog
One piece of good news in San Francisco this week was the announcement of the reopening of the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art scheduled for May 14, 2016. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new museum, which has been under renovation for three years, will be the country’s largest museum of modern art.
While art lovers are waiting expectantly to see the new building and new collections, they may ponder whether any of the art displayed will cause a controversy like those that have caused problems for so many museum. For the most part, modern art pieces have not been around long enough to inspire questions about who made them. And in future there may be even fewer fears about forgeries and mis-attributions if a new scientific technique for giving art pieces permanent DNA markers comes into common use. Martin Tenniswood, a lead scientist on the project, spoke on NPR (National Public Radio) about the technique which will be able to put a tag on individual art works that clearly identify it. Just as the DNA of a person cannot be faked, so too this marker should end the fears of collectors and museums that they might purchase a forgery.
Historically, of course, it is not only forgeries that have caused trouble. There is also the ongoing arguments about whether Western museums have the right to collect and display the art of indigenous people, and whether the urge to protect art in
war-torn countries is justified. One of the first acts that started these arguments was the removal of the Elgin marbles from Greece to England. Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the sale of the Elgin marbles to the British government. They are one of the major attractions of the British Museum and are seen every year by more than five million people.
If you want to read a fascinating account of the background of how the Elgin marbles were purchased by Lord Elgin, using the money of his extremely wealthy Scottish wife, and shipped to England at least in part because Lady Elgin was able to use her charms to persuade the Sultan of Turkey as well as the British Navy to help her, I strongly recommend the book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles by Susan Nagel. A series of events, helped along by a clash of personalities, led Lord Elgin to appreciate the value of the marbles, but eventually also to the breakup of his marriage. Would Britain ever have owned the marbles if Lady Elgin hadn’t rebelled after bearing five children and declaring that she refused to suffer through another childbirth? Would Lord Elgin have agreed with his wife’s wishes if he hadn’t been driven by the desire to have enough sons to ensure his name was carried on? Today as we look at the marbles, unchanging and austere in their dedicated gallery, we can think about the human passions that led to their being available for our viewing. But the arguments about whether or not they should be returned to Greece continue to rumble on.
Perhaps we will never settle the question of who has the right to own and display art. Is it better to have art preserved, even
far from the place of its origin, or to let it remain unmoved no matter how challenging the circumstances of its homeland? Does art belong to all people in the world who take care to preserve and maintain it, or should it remain with the group who created it no matter whether it is destroyed or not? That is a very difficult question to answer. Who has the right to judge?