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Saturday Night At The Met, Oh My!

This Saturday, at 7 p.m., if you feel like paying $30, you can see a performance by the Metropolitan Museum’s “artist-in-residence” DJ Spook, doing “Of Water and Ice: A Concert of Compositions Based on Water and Arctic Rhythms.” A couple of art-lovers have brought this to my attention, thinking it just awful, but I’m not going to get all worked up about it. Roger Kimball, at The New Criterion, has done that for us.

220px-Paul_Miller (2)DJ Spooky, described by The New York Times last October as a “hip-hop turntablist, composer and author,” will be at the Met* doing heaven knows what in his year-long residency. His coming event is advertised this way:

This event is one of several comprising The Met Reframed, an unprecedented, multilayered, artistic partnership with Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid), a composer, multimedia artist, writer, and DJ. His recorded output includes remixes of music ranging from Wu-Tang Clan, Metallica, and Bob Marley to classical/new music legends Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet, and he has performed as a DJ at major festivals, including Bonnaroo and Power to the Peaceful. His work as a media artist has been featured at the Whitney Biennial, Venice Biennial, and Miami/Art Basel; and his first collection of essays, Rhythm Science, was released by MIT Press in 2004, followed by Sound Unbound, an anthology of writings on electronic music and digital media (MIT Press, 2008).

Kimball is incensed. He writes:

…A little investigation reveals that Mr. Spooky is not a composer, artist, or writer in any ordinary sense of those terms. He barely qualifies as a DJ, though he does preside over events where people are subjected to noise at least partially contrived by him. His chief distinguishing feature is command of an academic polysyllabic patois of inadvertently comic pretentiousness, reminiscent in some ways of Walt Kelly’s P. T. Bridgeport….

…Mr. Spooky is one of those performers who likes to deploy the specialized vocabulary of science and philosophy in order to make it seem that his pompous version of aleatoric art is full of deep significance. His “concerts” are really just randomized noise…

…This installment of Met Museum Presents is short but profoundly depressing. Here we have a premier cultural institution, an institution that was created to preserve and transmit the artistic treasures of the past, and what does it offer us? Rebarbative, politically correct nonsense from the dregs of our increasingly senile avant-garde.

Well, not quite. Here we have a premier cultural institution trying desperately to be “relevant” to young people. It’s not the way I would do it; it’s not the way I would spend my money if I were Tom Campbell, the museum’s director. Getting people to watch Spooky in the Rainey auditorium (it’s also being streamed online, for the curious) is not going to get them to go upstairs and see art in the permanent collection. So it’s really just padding attendance numbers, imho.

But let’s keep things in perspective. I found that description above by looking on the Met’s calendar for Mar. 23 — it is one program of 26 events that day. It’s not the end of civilization as we know it. It’s more like a middle-aged bald guy doing a comeover in hopes of attracting hip, younger women. It doesn’t usually work — so why bother?

*I consult to a foundation that supports the Met




  1. I do think Kimball is (as usual) overreacting. (“The cultural sky is falling” is his usual mode.) The actual description of the event on the Met’s website is: “Of Water and Ice is a composition for string quartet and video that evolved out of Paul D. Miller’s large-scale multimedia work Sinfonia Antarctica. Of Water and Ice is a music/video exploration of the composition of ice and water and our relationship to the vanishing environment of the arctic poles.” There’s a 34-second sound clip and it sounds like Philip Glass or Steve Reich (that is, rhythmic and easy on the ears).

    I suspect most of the people who go to the concert will be people who already go to the Met, or at least go to the Met’s music series. There probably is a lot of cross-over between music lovers and art lovers, but I agree with you that it seems unlikely to bring in a significant number of new people who will then want to explore the museum. Assuming the concert lasts an hour (till 8), there would only be about 45 minutes to actually wander through the museum, and that would probably be the Egyptian Wing, where the auditorium is. Of course, a newcomer who wandered into the Temple of Dendur at night might very well find it an experience worth repeating.

  2. That’s right, one event out of 26 in one day’s program at the Met, attempting a bit of experimentation I guess is ok. And the Met is not the only renowned museum to do it – the Tate in London has been doing it for years.

    In today’s fascination with science and the brain, it may actually not be entirely irrelevant. The visual and the auditory cortices are adjacent to each other in our brain and often cross over to help each other. For example, a person who becomes blind will develop a larger auditory cortex and vice versa. Also Kandinsky famously had synesthesia and painted with rhythms he heard in his head though I find those pictures weird compared to his pre-synesthesia paintings. Many contemporary artists have synesthesia, including David Hockney. The Musée de la Musique in Paris in 2011 showed Paul Klee: Polyphonies Klee was an accomplished musician as well as an artist.

  3. I wonder if DJ Spook (even his name could be construed as a joke on us) is just having fun with art lovers in the tradition of Duchamp and John Cage. Surely the latter’s 4’33” was considered a “provocative stunt” by critics, and the composers varying explanations of it, and at least three different official scores, shows that tweaking the noses of the upwardly snotty is a favorite pastime. I admire the Met for enduring his scorn and also offering a gullible public a chance to hear it as well.

  4. Marc Giosi says:

    I say kudos to the Met’s new music programmer Limor Tomer who is actually taking interesting and bold artistic risks and not booking a string quartet for once. As an avid arts-goer in my late 20’s, not only do I find Kimball’s comments offensive, but also detrimental to longevity and viability of cultural institutions to today’s up and coming audiences. It’s not like Campbell is replacing the institution’s collection of Monet’s with random street graffiti. It’s one residency: get over it. And if it doesn’t sound like something that you would enjoy? Then don’t go!

    What I really took away from his comments? A verbose and pretentious critic basically saying: “these darn kids and their rock and roll!” I wish that I still lived in New York; I would gladly give the Met $30 this Saturday night.

  5. The backlash sounds a little “Get off my lawn!” Maybe the way DJ Spooky is integrated into the Met’s programming is not the best strategy for bringing in newer, younger audiences, but I know from experience that he is a thoughtful, provocative artist who’s worth paying attention to.

  6. Sasha Hnatkovich says:

    I met DJ Spooky when I was in college, we let him take over our punk radio show to warm up for a concert he was doing later that already late night. Spent about an hour with him, and still have a strong memory and impression. I think Kimball should interview him. Then we’ll see just who is the pompous blowhard “in command of an academic polysyllabic patois of inadvertently comic pretentiousness” and who is the incredibly giving, open-minded, thoughtful and intelligent performer and artist.

  7. “Why bother? you ask. Because truth matters. Because integrity matters. It matters, for example, whether what Spooky does is “art” (it’s not) as the Met’s name implies it should. It matters if, as I argue in an article next month, Thomas Campbell sold his tapestry scholar’s soul to the avant-garde artworld when he became the museum’s director a few years ago (he did, as this latest venture demonstrates).

    I agree entirely with Roger Kimball’s critique of Spooky, though it’s ironic that he’s so certain about what he says. A dozen years ago, he opened his review of ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (the review was published in The Public Interest and reprinted in his book, ‘Art’s Prospect’) with a remark dripping with sarcasm. “Certainty is a marvelous thing,” he wrote, followed by digs at Ayn Rand and co-author Michelle Kamhi and me. He had “thought about this when contemplating the title of [our] book.” “Certainty” is a virtue, it seems, only when possessed by Kimball (search for his name on our website) or someone he agrees with.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is’ (2000)

  8. DJ Snooky is just the squall before the storm. The storm will come when the Met opens “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” mounted by the Costume Institute, on May 9th. There’s an interview with Andrew Bolton, the curator, in The New Yorker dated 3/25/13 in which he says, “”In the first gallery we’ll try to evoke CBGB, with loudspeakers blasting the Ramones. Some of punk’s visual codes originated in New York–the swastika armbands, the safety pins, the torn shirts.'” This look was then taken up by the couture houses, and we’ll get to see it in all its trashy (and expensive) glory at the Met. In the very decorous description on the Met’s website, we read “Presented as an immersive multimedia, multisensory experience, the clothes will be animated with period music videos and soundscaping audio techniques.” For the heralds of cultural doom, like Kimball, this will no doubt be the open mouth of hell. It should be fun! It’s guaranteed to be box office gold.

  9. I appreciate the thoughtful comments and blog post. I am thrilled that the Met’s concert series is generating this type of conversation. I don’t remember any sort of discussion or comments-good bad or indifferent-around the Met’s series in prior decades. And this type of conversation is important, and it matters.

    Also, I’m wondering how many of you have had a chance to attend one of Paul Miller’s performances at the Met. If you haven’t yet, I can tell you that the audience is meaningfully different from the audience that the performance series has seen in the past, and that coming to the Met is new to many of them. Of course there’s no way of knowing whether they’ll return, but at least the Met is now on their cultural radar. And I think that’s important.

    Finally, it’s also important to remember that the 4 auditorium performances that Paul is giving as part of his residency are a tiny fraction of his activities and involvement at the Met this year. Just last Sunday he was on a panel with Met curators and specialists on Art and the environment, in the context of the Met’s collection of Hudson River School paintings; this Wenesday he is part of a conversation between artists and scientists, around art/science collaborations; a couple of months ago he gave an amazing public gallery tour of the Met’s Oceanic galleries, in tandem with the curator of those galleries. Throughout the year he has been working closely with the Met’s Digital Media lab on various projects; and in a few weeks he will be working with a group of K-12 educators. In other words, he has been coming in contact with a broad range of groups that interact with the Met (concert goers being only one of those groups) and infusing the Met with ideas and perspectives from his field, and at the same time, enjoying access to the Met’s collection and staff (curators, educators, scientists, etc), which hopefully enriches his own creativity.

    Whether you approve of his performances or not, this is an exciting opportunity both for the Met and for Paul, and an incredibly rewarding pilot program for me.
    Thank you all for the good and thoughtful comments!

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