10 quips from Robert Storr

by in Society & Culture.

Robert Storr.

Robert Storr.

To hear celebrated scholar, curator, and Yale School of Art dean Robert Storr speak, even briefly, on the subject of culture is a privilege. So we thought it would be unfair to keep his remarks at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit on Wednesday September 25 — rich, entertaining, and quippy as they were — to ourselves. Here, without further ado, are our picks of Storr’s top ten zingers during his keynote address, “The Value of Culture.”

1) “Culture sets off alarms. It is not in fact a comforting word except for people who like to be comforted by way of abstractions, and such people are never to be trusted.”

2) “One possible argument for the exponential growth of art schools and the whole art system is that at least we keep a certain number of these people off the streets. They continue to fail, but they fail with some cushion so at least we don’t suffer the damage of their realizing how truly terrible they are.”

3) “Culture is not an additive. It’s not something you put into something else to make the original thing better. Like, it’s not the yeast you put in yogurt, nor the yogurt you put in the sourdough bread.”

4) “I love the polemical perversity of [Matisse’s] argument that a good painting was like an armchair into which a businessman could settle at the end of the day. I have been privileged to know a lot of businessmen with a lot of good paintings and they’ve been generous in allowing me to sit in their armchairs and look at their work…. I think Matisse was fundamentally wrong. Culture is not something you are rewarded for in consolation for something else.”

5) “Culture is not a step up from our normal entertainments and distractions. The Masterpiece Theatre idea of culture, the Downton Abbey idea of culture is not my idea of culture, frankly. We had a revolution for a good reason, and we have forgotten a good deal about our own revolution and why we had it. I think that the recurrence of nostalgia for the Britain that we are not is an interesting cultural phenomenon but it is not culture per se. If we are going to be interested in culture, I would recommend Breaking Bad as a preference.”

6) “Ugliness doesn’t get its due. Ugliness is one of the main qualities of art. Key examples would be Goya and Picasso.”

7) “Peter Schjeldahl and Dave Hickey knock any kind of art that is didactic, or conceptual, or difficult on the grounds that that is not truly art. Has it occurred to them that maybe some of the art they admire once was difficult and the fact that it is no longer difficult for them doesn’t mean that it will not be difficult for someone else? As to the question of didactic, there’s no artist on the planet more didactic than Jeff Koons.”

8) “I’m puzzled by radicals, men and women, with a stubbornly materialist point of view who decry the commodification of culture as if this were a recent development of ‘late capitalism.’ As if art was once an economic virgin. We’re not in late capitalism. We’re in late socialism. I don’t celebrate this, I just note it. Art was never pure.”

9) “The inner aesthete in me, or the Ernst Lubitsch which needles the moralistic Ingmar Bergman in me, flinches when it comes time to say culture should not be entertaining.”

10) “It seems self-evident that culture is active not passive. It is not something you deliver to people. It’s something they come to get. The museum world sees itself as delivering a “museum experience” to viewers when in fact that’s not what they want and it’s a highly undemocratic attitude to think that that’s what they want. You’re not servicing the public in order to get the money. You’re trying to create a form in which art and ideas can meet. And the best museums are run when the people who run them get out of that interchange as fast as they possibly can.”

Bonus zinger: Speaking of cultural products that say “important things, but in a charming way,” Storr pointed to a projection of Felix Gonzalez Torres’s work “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), which is a pile of wrapped candies: “These are candies that you can suck, and they are bittersweet. This is an installation the National Gallery, and that to invite a whole lot of people in the middle of the culture wars to come to the museum to suck was an interesting polemical gesture.”