The Broad: Class Hatred, Concentrated

Originally published on Ediciones Chafa on May 24th, 2016. Here we re-publish it so that it can continue to be accessible for those of us with a critical view on Art and its role under Capital.

by Asmodeus

Eli Broad is a multibillionaire. He made his fortune constructing tract homes, which is to say by pumping hot air into the pre-2007 real estate bubble. Later he moved into life insurance as well. Some of that money ended up bailing out LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) around the time the housing market was going south – the museum had been hemorrhaging funds for years. It was a maneuver that some have described as closer to a hostile takeover than an act of philanthropy. Notably, Broad’s intervention was closely tied to the arrival of a new director – the gallerist Jeffrey Deitch – who fired the museum’s widely admired chief curator, Paul Schimmel, in 2012. Other wads of cash ended up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) – where the donor had Renzo Piano build the quasi-autonomous Broad Contemporary Art Museum – as well as the Los Angeles Opera, which promptly used the funds to stage a full production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. These actions, among others, won Broad a reputation in the art world as LA’s resident Maecenas-cum-Evil Emperor, with Deitch, perhaps, playing the role of a bumbling Darth Vader.

As of September 2015, the city has had a new museum downtown, known simply as The Broad to distinguish it from the edifice at LACMA. It is a clean slate: it exists to display the personal collection that Eli Broad and his wife Edythe have amassed over the previous five decades. The museum’s architecture is by the firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. They are perhaps most famous for the High Line that runs through New York’s blue-chip gallery district in West Chelsea. Having already designed what is arguably the world’s first vaporwave structure (the fog-enshrouded “Blur Building” that was their contribution to the Swiss National Expo in 2002), their work in LA further develops the play of circulation, sightlines, and cladding that has become the agency’s signature. The Broad’s initial aspect is unprepossessing, however: its exterior is a drab box with two of the bottom corners shaved off. On one side of the façade there is an “oculus” that stares unblinkingly at the Colburn School (a well-regarded music academy) across the street, as well as at the Colburn’s next-door neighbor, MOCA’s Grand Avenue flagship. On the opposite corner is Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the completion of which in 2003 was widely taken as a sign of Downtown’s revitalization. (Eli Broad had a hand in that, too.) If one were to draw lines between The Broad and these other monuments, the resulting triangle would, very roughly, point in the direction of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel about half a mile away, where Fredric Jameson once discerned the hallmarks of postmodern space. New, pricey condos have been sprouting up nearby, some of them connected to the more desirable parts of Downtown by walkways that are literally raised above the plebeian street.

Developers’ dreams notwithstanding, this remains a weird and uncomfortable part of the city, nestled as it is between multiple freeways and the massive homeless encampment that is Skid Row. There are few other parts of Los Angeles where the contradictions of capitalist real estate, of which Broad is a Donald Trump-level protagonist, are so clearly on display. Thus the location is fitting. The building itself is encased in a sheath of corrugated off-white webbing that screens the interior from its surroundings. Most of the perforations in fact conceal windows that are oriented to the rising and falling of the California sun, with the result that the upstairs galleries, at least, can boast some of the world’s most luxuriant natural lighting. These subtleties are little apparent from the street, however. A friend points out that the museum looks like nothing so much as the raw material of menudo: tripe, that is. But whereas menudo is a venerable hangover cure, one suspects that The Broad will remain a headache for some time to come.

Visitors enter the museum through either of its lifted corners, where they find themselves in a gray, cavern-like space. (One of its chambers houses Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room, 2013 – the museum’s biggest crowd-pleaser, to judge from the lines.) Goofy sculptures by Robert Therrien and Urs Fischer establish a funhouse vibe. Both this area and the galleries are almost extravagantly well-staffed by headset-wearing attendants. Ascending either by escalator, stairs, or in a Willy Wonka-ish cylindrical elevator, one then arrives at the top floor, only to meet a funereal installation of Jeff Koons’ immense, polished metal Tulips (1995-2004), flanked by no less than nine word-paintings by Christopher Wool (Untitled, 1990). A grander imperial reception could hardly be imagined. In the same space there are equally imposing works by Julie Mehretu, El Anatsui, Mark Bradford, and Marlene Dumas, all of which combine a diffusely political charge with market-friendly scale and format: this is globalization as viewed from Sotheby’s. The art is about, and exemplifies, the workings of capital, the market, and the uneven distribution of violence in the global economy. It might even be read as “critical.” Could it be that The Broad is thinking about its own noxiousness? No, it seems: that feeling soon dissipates.

The problem is the collection in toto. There are no surprises here, although there are some very good pieces. There is not a single artwork on display that would give a hedge fund manager qualms. It is all investment-grade, and it is all nearly equally so. The paintings are big. The sculptures are shiny. That said, there are things worth seeking out. The museum’s top floor is by far its best, due both to the quality of the art and to the influence of the punctured ceiling that rains filtered sunlight into the galleries. There are no permanent walls on this level, but only movable barriers that demarcate the exhibition spaces. Half of the top floor is dedicated to art of the 1950s through ‘70s, with a particularly fine stock of American Pop; there is also a cluster of superb paintings and sculptures by Cy Twombly. The other side contains art from the following decades and almost up to the present day. Some galleries are monographic, while others are devoted to small groupings. One, for instance, throws together Damien Hirst with Andreas Gursky – practitioners who seem to have little in common other than a distinctively ‘90s brand of gigantism. Local heroes such as Chris Burden and Charles Ray are also in evidence, while another gallery boasts yet more works by Koons, who is something like the museum’s mascot. Indeed it is interesting that Koons is at the physical center of the inaugural installation, on the axis, in fact, along which the top floor splits cleanly in half. A roll call of postwar greatest hits lies on the one side, mostly ‘90s-vintage art on the other – meaning art that is often concerned with the politics of race, trauma, and gender. This may suggest that it is Koons who mediates from the one to the other, and thus, that there is no nexus other than the extreme of reification that he represents to link the mid-century to its end. Which would be a defensible if depressing art historical argument.

Things go downhill from here, figuratively as well as literally. Descending through the museum’s midsection, where its storage spaces are visible from two portholes cut out of the stairwell (like windows onto a big cat’s enclosure at a zoo), one returns to the first floor, where The Broad displays, or rather stockpiles, its contemporary holdings. There are large, bland pictures by the likes of Mark Grotjahn, as well as an installation of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, an irrepressibly cutesy nine-channel video from 2012. The largest exhibition space of all – it is directly beneath Koons’ Tulips, if I am not mistaken – harbors a generous selection of manga-inflected works by Takashi Murakami; their cumulative effect is queasy-making. Karl Marx himself puts in an appearance in a fairly execrable piece by the Polish artist Goshka Macuga, which at least stands out for being slightly less warmed-over than everything around it: it is a photo-tapestry that plasters some of Miroslav Tichy’s voyeuristic snapshots of Czech women on top of a view of Marx’s grave. And that is about all that I remember, or care to. Even the John Currin paintings, typically good for a chuckle at least, look more lethargic (read: less perverse) than usual.

It is sometimes difficult to keep in mind that this abundance of very expensive art was assembled by only two people, so doggedly does it resist the detection of any guiding sensibility other than the sheer will to accumulate things upon which the market has left its stamp of approval. Such anomie may have social significance. This is how a class – a very small class – sees; this is how it dreams. And what banal dreams they are. For granting that insight, The Broad has some value. Yet there is a way in which discussing the details of the inaugural exhibition is entirely beside the point. The collection is a placeholder; one has the sense that it might as well be switched out for anything else of equal value, or painlessly liquidated should Eli Broad ever fall on hard times. Whatever their intrinsic merits, the works are significant, here, primarily as tokens of capital’s supremacy. This is true regardless of the fact that admission is free, and also of the fact that LA already has a multitude of institutions that bear the names of other tycoons (Getty, Hammer, Geffen…). The critique still has to be made anew, if only because the building is new, familiar as everything else about it may be. What this museum means has little to do with what it shows, and very much to do with the relations that it materializes simply by being what it is, where it is, and bearing the name that it does. The scandal is not that The Broad is bad, but that it exists.

Guy Debord said that spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes an image. Fair enough, except that it is too easy, when thinking or writing about spectacle, to forget what capital is. Capital is dead labor. It is the abstract form of a trillion instances of suffering. Contra Debord, it need not become visible at all, and in fact capital is perhaps most destructive where the social relation that it objectifies is most naturalized and unseen – in the everyday violence of class, race, and gender; in the omnipresence of money and commodities, which are violent forms in themselves because they distribute life and death according to an inhuman logic. Contemporary art is the obverse of this invisibility. This is why The Broad is a shrine to class hatred. As a sponge for surplus capital – its function as a hedge or investment – art absorbs human suffering; contemporary art is therefore class hatred in one of its most concentrated forms. Art takes upon itself the guilt of those who caused that suffering and who think that art will discharge it. But it does not.