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TED2008: Thomas Krens and the remedy for boredom

Thomas Krens, legendary art curator and President of the Guggenheim Foundation, invites us to consider some fundamental questions:

Is beauty perfection? Is that conditional?
What is culture?
What is art?
What is truth?

He considered showing us a hundred images that illustate either the absurdity or accuracy of the premise that beauty is truth – he ends up showing a couple dozen: an Egyptian sculpture, an Aztec mask, Michalangelo sculpture, Matissa, Reubens, Brancusi, Xian warriors, Andy Warhol’s electric chairs, Richard Serra steels, Donald Judd boxes. He ends with the image of the Guggenheim New York transformed by lining the ramp with motorcycles, “lining the building with shining chrome and steel.”

“Beauty and truth do not reside in the object themseles, but rather in the nature of the exchange between the object and the viewer,” he tells us. The museum, a place for this exchange, is an antique – an “18th century idea in a 19th century box.” The idea is the encyclopedia, the idea that we want one exemplar of every work. The box is a “recycled palace”, a public building to preserve precious works. He quotes Andre Malraux – “Our museums conjure up for us a Greece that never existed.” The greek statues we know were meant to be colorfully painted, not to be naked and white in a clinical atmosphere.

Krens believes that there’s a political dimenson to art museums. “It’s incumbent on art museums to act responisbly as agents of agitation, social information and cultural change,” as well as maintaining their function of preserving and maintaining art. But “art is for the masses” which means that museums must be populist. Putting art on display subjects art to risk, but it’s a risk that must be taken.

The long-term goal for the Guggenheim is to “imagine memory without experience, a museum without walls.” He gives us a rapid tour – the amazing campus in Bilbao which gets more than a million visits a year; a Rem Koolhaus structure that shows works of art against rough steel walls. He also shows us some amazing failures – a Frank Gehry structure that would have dominated New York City waterfront, “whose fortunes crashed with the World Trade Center.” There are amazing, and perhaps impossible, ideas, like Enrique Norton’s proposed structure for Guadalajara, a fifty-story glass tower aside a huge ravine.

The view under the canopy proposed for Abu Dhabi’s cultural district

The current proposition is “Bridges to the Middle East”, a project proposed for Abu Dhabi. He reminds us that this state has grown from a dusty street to an amazing city inless than sixty years. Now the city is expanding to occupy Saadiyat Island, a territory half the size of Manhattan. It will be connected to the existing city via two ten-lane highway bridges, and will be built in separate districts, all at once, for the sum of $120 billion. Guggenheim is responsible for the cultural district, which will include a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a Louvre, a university campus run by Yale, an art fair, a Venice-inspired bienale, a world cultural forum. The plan includes a grand canal through the island, fronted by 19 pavillions. A huge part of it will be covered by an Islamic-inspired canopy, designed to make the district “feel like being in a casbah.”

It’s audacious and a bit outrageous. But as Krens reminds us, Joseph Brodsky said, “Passion, above all, is a remedy against boredom.”