I expect there will be more than one post here on LACMA's The Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures, on display on the middle floor of the BCAM at LACMA through April 19th. The show is very good, and worth multiple visits. Before I type on the art proper, I want to comment on the construction of art history by Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator of Modern Art, LACMA, and co-curator Dr. Eckhart Gillen, Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH.A Detail of Eli Broad's Haacke donated to LACMA
Quite often (at its worst) we are presented with a domino theory of art history, like the first chapter of Matthew where Abraham and a long line of begets end in a baby Jesus: we are given a narrative of isms that culminate in our post-modern selves. This is not the fault of a lax curatorial process as much as it is the architecture of language and our brains. The world is made of objects and concepts--these exist, act, or are acted upon; narratives are intrinsic in our descriptive mechanisms. We may feel a smug superiority to ancients who saw a geological feature like a volcanic eruption as the wrath of the gods, but even today when presented with parataxic clauses, we will insert our own story.
Stanley Fish points this out in his piece on Obama's inaugural address, where he uses the museum-as-metaphor:
"The opposite of parataxis is hypotaxis, the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward. One kind of prose is additive – here’s this and now here’s that; the other asks the reader or hearer to hold in suspension the components of an argument that will not fully emerge until the final word. It is the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you."In The Art of Two Germany's we are not presented with a narrative that ends with capitalism triumphant, nor a simple series of artistic movements. The exhibition is bookended with newsreel footage of Dresden, a conventional-weapon precursor to Hiroshima, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But whether the artists have chosen to turn away from events with the tropes of abstraction or confront it with social realism, the art was made in that context. For the artists of the FRG eager to rejoin the contemporary art conversation, there may have been little that referenced the war years. But this could be seen as consciously turning away, or like the history of exhibitions since 9/11, the conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan depicted at LACMA are by Genghis Kahn not George Bush. In either case the dearth of contemporary context in the art on display can be read as a conscious (or unconscious) aversion--or not. The move towards abstraction could be seen as a turn away from the representational idealism of the Nazi era. Likewise, the turn to social realism in the GDR can be seen as a byproduct of the fact that most contemporary artists left when labeled degenerate during the war. Those who stayed behind were mostly illustrators.
In Barron and Gillen's history of the two cold war cultures, the narratives constructed by LACMA's visitors may say more about the viewer than it does about any curatorial agenda. So stop for as long as you like at each picture, and make your own developmental arc.