This stuff was not for me, yet it did share the “outsider” theme and highlighted the Achilles’ heel of the concept. New York’s American Folk Art Museum recently lost its building, perhaps because this type of work just isn’t all that interesting in the end. That it’s “outside” the system doesn’t make the work good; it’s just another marketing hook, like dubbing it “primitive” or “naïve.” I hate to sound old-fashioned, but a museum of everything ends up being a museum of nothing.
Back at the Biennale, lots of people were frustrated by Mr. Gioni’s exhibition—they felt like they had come a long way and didn’t get the art fix they were entitled to—whereas to the regulars, those who have “seen it all” and “done that,” Massimiliano’s choices were sophisticated and refreshing. He made a strong curatorial statement that challenges both the art dialogue and the art market of today. Reflecting on the experience, I realize now that not many of the individual works stuck with me, and perhaps that was the point. When there are so many artists most of us have never heard of, it’s no longer a show about individual works. The notion of “outsider” art becomes really interesting to me when some of them succeed in penetrating into the “inside.” If they don’t, it’s mostly forgettable. Art with a capital A is all about the context, and understanding a cultural system. But inserting “outsiders” helped frame the ultimate questions: what is the purpose of the Biennale today and who is its audience?
These queries didn’t need answers for anyone who saw Venice’s blockbuster, “Manet: Return to Venice” at the splendid Palazzo Ducale. This amazing and extensive exhibition featured one room that silenced all questions. Here was the artwork that Mark Twain once dubbed the “greatest painting in the world,” Titian’s Venus of Urbino. To my absolute delight and amazement, the painting Manet based on it, his über-famous Olympia, was hanging beside it. The pairing of these works, separated by 300 years of art history, trumped the rest of what Venice had to offer. In his day, Manet was controversial and subversive, an innovator whose work challenged, and eventually defeated, the system. Experiencing these two jaw-dropping masterpieces in this setting was the end-all for me; there was nothing more I needed to see.