A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art reveals the underpinnings and negotiations for an exhibition (Summer, 1971), more completely than we have ever gleaned before in a catalog, or from hearsay. It comes to us almost as if it were sensitive material suddenly declassified. Readers are given to understand, quite correctly, that all the deals, researches, and compromises, all of which usually stay behind the scenes of a show and are now revealed, hold more importance than the art eventually displayed. They compromise the real subject and true interest of the event.
The outstanding feature of the program was its experiment in patronage. How novel for a museum to have dispensed with the gallery system, the erstwhile cohort that had for so long acted as the storage depot and screening agency for new art. And just as unusual was the spectacle of a museum that acted publicly (rather than covertly) as a broker between what it unilaterally designated as the patron — the giant American corporation — and the artist. Having secured the prior consent and funding of the patron, the museum directly commissioned a number of artists of its choice to create work with the resources and the actual plants of the industrial firms. Entirely new ground had to be explored in the area of contracts, payments, work allocations, and property rights, for this was an enterprise conducted in the spirit of research and development, whose guidelines had never been established, and whose results could not be predicted. It is impossible to imagine the affairs between any individual artist and collector to be as elaborate and protective as those at Los Angles. The artist became a nominal, if semidetached and temporary employee of a company. His status resembled that of an industrial intern. The museum assumed for itself the role of agent and impresario, rather that conservator, of art. And the corporation had to think for some months that any of its precincts might be used as a studio for useless dreams.
To what purpose were all these innovations fomented? Since the mid-sixties, it had become evident that artists had more than flirted with business and government patronage, but that no genuine rapport existed between the two parties. A case could be made for the sense of the artists’ work as a weird celebration of American corporate activity, its effects and often enough, its processes. Yet, a piecemeal and sporadic courtship had never been consummated. The convenience of the partners was served at a distance. It was under the conviction that he was fulfilling an historical destiny, that the most creative ideas might result, both in art and technology, that Maurice Tuchman, the museum’s Curator of Modern Art, conceived of bringing them together, legally, for a special occasion. It was he who engineered the meetings and coddled the sensibilities of the artists and the executives. He, it was, who had to wheedle the “dowries” singlehandedly, and secure the cooperation of trustees and board members of every imaginable persuasion. If advanced science and art, for this one sustained instance, could be kept intimately on tap for each other, the old breach between them might be closed, and the progress which each represents might blend in an emboldened confluence of mutual discovery. It happened instead that everyone got screwed.
For the show even to have been imagined, there were three necessary preconditions. The first was a subsidized corporate economy, what has been called only recently, a “socialism for the rich” replete with tax write-offs, a bull market, hyped-up consumerism, bailed-out cost overruns, limitless credit and expense accounts. In other words, that phase of late capitalism in which there no longer exists any plausible relationship between profits and production, or clear distinction between big private enterprise and the state, because government paternalism has underwritten an increasingly inefficient business system. As described by Andrew Hacker, in The End of the American Era, it is a state of affairs is which any vestigial concept of the public interest subsides in the general momentum of indifferent, relentless turnover. . . . The second precondition was the weakening of the radical morale as well as formal conscience of an artistic avant-garde that was becoming enticed by a feckless experimentalism. Despite the war protests and peace auctions, the decrepitude of its social alienation was acute. Many artists did not understand that they had grown to be licentious at the cost of their independence. They wanted the opportunity to create with the help of, but really to fall back on, exotic and costly technical systems, not realizing that the means of production — and hence, control — could forever remain in the hands of the ruling classes who owned them. . . and lastly, the third precondition, correlating with the first two, a psychological confusion about true priorities and needs that springs out of the national dedication to waste. All these preconditions obtained in 1966-67, though somewhat less obviously than today. Back then it took a certain genius, whether conscious or not, for Tuchman to have recognized them as the fair signals of go-ahead.