Critic’s Notebook: At MOCA as in culture, a celeb versus serious issue

Flash versus substance. Celebrity versus artistry. Popularity versus integrity.

Contemporary art often reflects larger social themes, but this time it’s an internal conflict, rather than exhibited works, that offers a mesmerizing image of more universal struggle.

The recent firing of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s longtime curator Paul Schimmel was quickly followed by the resignation of the four well-known artists from the museum’s board. Each cited opposition to the direction the museum is taking under director Jeffrey Deitch, a successful New York gallery owner hired by MOCA two years ago to help bring a higher profile, and financial stability, to the institution.

Schimmel, an artist favorite, is seen as a champion of ambitious, intensely researched exhibitions. Deitch gained his reputation by creating buzzed-about events that often drew on youth culture. In Los Angeles, he quickly staged exhibitions that revolved around high-recognition names, including Dennis Hopper and James Franco.


“What concerns me is seeing the museum embracing more celebrity and fashion,” artist and resigning board member Catherine Opie told The Times’ Jori Finkel. Artist John Baldessari also quit, citing Deitch’s plan for an exhibition exploring the effect of disco on art as one of the reasons.

There is something deliciously satisfying about a street fight shattering the illusion of white-walled order and sacrosanct hush of the museum ethos.

But in this particular instance, the fascination has as much to do with resonance as theatricality. The sound and fury expressed by the artists and critics are instantly recognizable because this is a conversation everyone everywhere is having pretty much all the time.

In a world where Kim Kardashian is not just a star but a corporation and pop-culture maven Tina Brown runs Newsweek, where supermodel Christie Brinkley recently starred in “Chicago” and “Today” is hoping Ryan Seacrest will pump up ratings for the Summer Olympics, it seems increasingly difficult to achieve success without surrendering to the demands of a 24-hour celebrity-centric social conversation. A conversation often conducted in 140 characters or fewer at volumes high enough to clear the techno beat of omnipresent ear buds and the tapping keys of jittery young multi-taskers.

Now, it seems, even the nonprofit world is experiencing the same conundrum: If you’re not willing to leverage stars and gossip and youth culture (whatever that is), how do you get the attention of a generation known for its collectively short attention span? Inquiring minds want to know.

The old models don’t seem to be working, and artists, writers, journalists, entrepreneurs, producers, corporations, educators, politicians are all trying to figure out where “outside the box” becomes cultural swampland.

The most powerful people in the world now show up on Comedy Central and late-night couches. Lena Dunham, all of 26 and with one feature film to her credit, is now a triple-threat Emmy nominee and the darling of HBO. Even the pope has a Facebook page. Previously fringe events like Comic-Con and Coachella have gone mainstream because they offer corporate America those coveted and elusive 18-to-34-year-olds, all in one spot. So make your pitch, make it fast and make it flashy.

Say one thing about Deitch: He didn’t take MOCA to Comic-Con. Yet.

MOCA is not the only artistic institution hosting celebrity versus significance face-off. Theater has been at it for years; Broadway not only remakes big, successful film musicals, now it takes on flops (“Newsies”) and indies (“Once”) while bemoaning the lack of original plays. The publishing industry, like the film industry, increasingly relies on big names and ready-made franchises (particularly if those franchises translate to film), trawling the Web for the next “50 Shades of Grey.”

And Hollywood is at such a loss that it just remade “Spider-Man"for no other reason than the folks at Sony/Columbia thought it would put people in the seats. (They were right.) Meanwhile, journalists, their papers and news shows collapsing around them, chase TMZ reports and Twitter trends the way they once chased sirens. The Huffington Post just won a Pulitzer, and the most trusted news anchors are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, comedians who have built their careers making fun of news anchors.

The problem has become so epidemic that it is not unusual to turn on the television and see celebrity hosts discussing, with their celebrity doctors and celebrity guests, the horrifying nature of celebrity culture. It’s become a go-to theme, an adult version of “don’t worry about the popular kids, just be yourself.” Except everyone is obsessed with the popular kids, one way or another.

“Your business model has become irrelevant,” a coldhearted record producer tells Connie Britton’s Grand Ole Opry-loving country music icon in ABC’s upcoming “Nashville,” right after she’s been asked to open for the hot young Auto-Tuned voice du jour. “We’re going to put on a news show that’s smart and popular,” Emily Mortimer’s crusading producer announces against all odds in HBO’s “The Newsroom,” allowing creator Aaron Sorkin to directly address the issue that Opie and Baldessari put so succinctly.

We are all concerned about the increasing embrace of celebrity and fashion, about using the past as a quick paint job on the present in the hopes that it somehow passes for the future.

It’s not a new issue, of course. The old guard has been fussing about the shallowness and cheap tricks of the upstarts since, no doubt, some young thing in the caves of Lascaux suggested that a little color might not be amiss among all the blacks and grays, and what about handing out bison-branded leather satchels to neighboring VIPs? Playboy cradled serious journalism and real literature between the breasts of bare-naked ladies andJohn F. Kennedyredefined president as rock star.

But the recent technological revolution — free WiFi for everyone! — has cranked the volume, the speed and the stakes. Now everyone has something better to do — why bother going to a movie when you can live stream Netflix? Why go to a museum when you can view the art of the Louvre online?

With so many people paying so much exquisite attention to ratings and box office, trends and predictions, the natural reaction is panic. To declare that the prime-time drama is dead so we might as well surrender all to reality TV, as NBC did a few years ago to its possibly permanent detriment. In our panic we often overlook a few important things. Like: A lot of what the new models are bringing us is actually good, especially in the arts, where the wall between those who create and those who experience hasn’t been so porous since the days of Shakespeare. Who managed to produce some pretty good stuff, including a play called “As You Like It” that embraced and spoofed his own brand.

At the Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel is managing popularity and importance quite nicely, proving year after year that the fine arts can be sexy and accessible and still true to themselves. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, director Michael Govan just beckoned the multitudes by rolling a rock from one place to another, an idea that seems, and is, utterly insane, but in a wondrous, magnetic way.

And, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with having Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert deliver their version of the news (though it would be nice if they acknowledged, or possibly endowed, the folks who actually reported it).

Who knows what the long-term effect of the changes at MOCA will be. Deitch may not have been the answer for MOCA, and losing the respect of artists is never a good sign for a museum. But neither is he specifically the problem. He’s just one more example of our struggles with the increasingly ubiquitous Go Big or Go Home mentality. It’s tough to reach a wide and distracted audience without losing the depth and contours of what you were offering people in the first place, but it can be done. We’re all just still figuring out how.