Friday, June 27th, 2008

Dara Friedman: Musical

Gavin Brown’s enterprise
620 Greenwich Street
New York City
212 627 5258

May 22 to June 28, 2008

still from Dara Friedman Musical 2008, video, 60 minutes. Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise
still from Dara Friedman Musical 2008, video, 60 minutes. Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise

If you turn from reading Tim Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life to looking at contemporary art in the galleries, you cannot but be a little disappointed. Who is our Degas, our Manet or our Pissarro- who, that is, displays the hidden political and social dimensions of our public spaces, revealing how our private desires are externalized there? Modernist high art turned inward, leaving this task to mass art. Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain (1952) shows, by comparison, how confined were the explicit social references of Abstract Expressionism. Last Fall Dara Friedman hired sixty people, children, tourists, and workers of all ages, to sing in public without accompaniment. They sang in daylight and at night, in coffee shops, on Manhattan street corners, in museums, and in Grand Central Station. Mostly they did popular songs, with a little opera, mostly lyrics about longing. Some of the performers are very good, a few sound great, but they wouldn’t attract attention in concert. Musical, a sixty-minute large screen, high definition digital video presents these performances.

In New York, you can be pretty eccentric without attracting attention. At one point, someone gives money to the singer. And sometimes bystanders try to avoid walking into the scene. But generally people on the street let the singers be, without interfering.

Being an art critic often is dispiriting. You see the art stars in the upscale galleries, then look at shows of a few, mostly hopeless idealistic kids in the marginal spaces. Pretty soon then you are ready to sit down, have a drink.  But now and then, though this is sadly rare, you have without any warning an experience that redeems this exhausting walking. That happens when you come upon art by someone unknown to you, which stops you in your tracks. Like sexual pleasure, this aesthetic ecstasy cannot be faked. Twenty seven minutes into Musical it was transparently obvious that this video was a masterpiece. Coming from me, here you need some context, this critical judgment needs placing.

A few years ago, Modern Painters magazine commissioned an essay on video. “Most people, myself included,” I wrote,

are much more willing to tolerate boredom in the art gallery or museum than when watching television. In the 1960s and 70s, Susan Sontag and other writers argued that rejecting art because it seems boring marks a refusal to engage with revolutionary artforms. But most videos are just dull. If we had home televisions with such large screens and good sound systems, video art would not attract so much attention. A great movie is worth viewing many times, but few museum videos deserve such attention.

No wonder that distinguished commercial journal rejected my cranky commentary. But as every critic knows, judging art involves responding to immediate experience, which can be entirely unpredictable. Then, of course, one goes home to reflect. I passionately admire Musical because it animates our contemporary public spaces. People do this privately, listening to their ipods. We want, many of us, that music give rhythm to street life. Friedman’s greatness comes in making public this widely felt  desire. In Hollywood musicals, the setting typically is artificial. You know that Gene Kelly is just dancing on a stage set. But Friedman’s singers perform on the very streets you will reenter as soon as you leave the gallery. And so when you exit Gavin Brown’s enterprise, Manhattan looks different. Like the Impressionists, Friedman transfigures the contemporary world. What more could we ask of any artist?  But then, greatness is only another name for total directness