Sunday, February 14, 2010

On progress

It’s Valentine’s day and, in lieu of my usual Sunday morning econoblogging (coming soon), I grab a friend, cross the park and get to the Guggenheim for a live re-enactment of Rodin’s “The Kiss.”

The “installation” is the work of Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal, a 34-year-old with a conceptualist-fundamentalist approach to art that has managed to stir a fiery mix of hype and controversy around his name.

Beyond the hype though, my personal excitement about the exhibition has an added twist: Bylines on Sehgal’s work will often make mention of his studies in political economy (jointly with dance), so I’m curious to see how economics can inform the creative process of (apparently) one of the most cutting-edge artists of my generation.

“The Kiss” lies right at the center of the ground floor, and is “framed” by Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling rotunda (which has been emptied from every “thing” for the occasion and looks magnificent). It’s a man and a woman, in tight faded-black jeans and t-shirts, lying on the floor in various poses of fondling—some of which supposedly emulate famous sculptures like Rodin’s Kiss.

Whatever our views on the piece, it’s fair to say that it’s clearly not meant to explore the interaction between economics and art. So we keep an open mind and move up the spiral to “experience” the next piece (“This Progress”).

A little girl introduces herself to us with the question “What is progress?” To my positive surprise, my friend’s pretty macabre response (“death”) leaves the 9-year-old unfazed and, indeed, provokes insightful questions seeking elaboration. But that’s where the positive surprise ends…

Soon enough, the little girl hands us over to a teenager, whose role is to take the earlier conversation to a “higher level”—and I don’t just mean our walk further up the spiral. Problem is, the reactions we get this time are of the “Man, you’re deep!” variety, which makes me wonder whether there is a subtle message here about younger generations’ progress in linguistics.

The next stage in our “conversation experience” involves a male humanoid in his 30s, who begins to describe how he overcame his fear of sharks (by being attacked by one) and then asks us about our own fears and whether they are permanent, overpowering or useful. At an even higher level, the “experience” continues with a 71-year-old lady in a confessing bout, listing her unfulfilled dreams and stressing that “having dreams is very important.”

And that’s it. That’s. It!

We began to look for meaning as we spiraled down towards the exit. OK, maybe there is an economic undertone to this.. After all, economics (like life!) is about constrained optimizations: Individuals having to choose between alternatives in the realms of family, work, morality, etc, in the presence of trade-offs. So if a conversation can help reveal the interlocutors’ dilemmas and preferences, it could turn out to be to a fulfilling exchange.

But where’s the “art”? I decided to do a little experiment on my way down the rotunda… stopping a couple of visitors at random and offering them a quote from Hayek:

“Equality in material wealth can only be achieved by a totalitarian government.”

I admit that this is probably the Seghal-exhibition equivalent to breaking a 500BC amphora at the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries… but, guilt aside, I discovered in the process that I, too, am a piece of art! Only that it doesn’t always seem to work: My earlier reproductions of “Fooling With Strangers” in the streets of New York (often involving elevated doses of alcohol) have failed to stir a similar type of artistic appreciation…

Or, could it be that a conversation with a complete stranger can be less bound by inhibitions, allowing an honest revelation of values and the self?

My friend was quick to kill the idea: “I can meet as many strangers as I want on Twitter, and have as many conversations. And, unlike in Sehgal, if I think my interlocutors are dumb, I can un-follow them”.

But probably the clearest answer came from the art itself. In discussing “progress” with our teenage escort, I threw a question back at her:

“What do you think, is this art work progress?”

“What do you think?” she responded.

“I asked you first”, I fired back.

“Well, it’s different”.

“But is it progress?”

I get giggles... Nope.

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