(Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
(Vincent Van Gogh Foundation)

In 1935, when MOMA in New York hosted the first major American exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh, prankster extraordinaire Hugh Troy pulled a startlingly courant-sounding feat of creative museological intervention when he surrep-titiously placed a vitrined, velvet-lined box containing an ear molded from chopped liver alongside the canvases, bearing an elaborately authoritative label reading, “This is the ear which Vincent van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888.” It was several days before Troy’s unsolicited contribution came to the attention of the museum, and only then because of the huge crowd that hovered around it at the expense of the paintings. Troy had presciently stumbled on both the art of institutional subversion (a keystone of contemporary academia) and the future melding of exhibition and exploitation in the form of Barnumesque spectacle — a form that has since become a powerful art medium in itself.

Last week, with the Los Angeles Coun- ty Museum of Art hosting the first major West Coast exhibition of works by van Gogh in 29 years, I found myself caught in a ragged but elaborate choreography with many hundred others, scuttling crabwise to edge an inch closer to our ostensible common focus. Toes were inevitably trod upon. The wheelchair-bound were backed into. People were generally polite, as behooves a guest in a fortress of high culture, but there was an undercurrent. Pack that many primates into a space so heavily insured, and the pheromones get pretty thick. Tensions run deep. I kept expecting the crowd to erupt in some J.G. Ballard orgy of violence and sexual abandon, but everyone just kept shuffling and muttering — “His light ones are better than his dark ones,” “They made a good choice when they picked Kirk Douglas to play him in the movie.” What were these people doing here? What was I doing here? Critics don’t have to wait in line, but most of these people had real jobs and had waited in formation for hours.

We had all come to LACMA West to participate in the experience known as a “blockbuster show.” Prefigured by such riotous events as the French salons, the armory shows, the Nazi “degenerate art” exhibit and the opening of Andy Warhol’s 1965 retrospective at the ICA in Philadel-phia, the blockbuster era began in earnest with the hypedelic King Tut exhibit of 1978 (also at LACMA). Nowadays, the packaging and hustling of blockbusters is an industry unto itself, replete with rival multinationals duking it out, venture capitalists betting the farm on “Treasures From the Moscow State Museum,” and sleazy borderline museological booking agencies pitching dubious (but possibly profitable) exhibitions like “Treasures From the Moscow, Idaho Museum.” At its worst, the blockbuster is a form of curatorial franchise: slick, authoritarian, and disempowering to more regional and idiosyncratic visions. At its best, however, the blockbuster can mobilize vast populations of the citizenry into mass ritual pilgrimages in pursuit of aesthetic revelation.

In the ’60s and ’70s, artists seeking to reconnect art to its roots as a much more physical and social collective tribal activity, with the attendant political and formal revolutions implicit, tried to find forms that would simultaneously attract a mass (literally, as in physically present) audience and engage it in a collective artistic gesture: a passion play, a protest march, a Fluxus concert, a beehive, a love-in. From the Living Theater to the Grateful Dead, from R. Murray Schafer to Baader-Meinhoff, countercultural instigators sought to re-configure the transformative Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece along contemporary post-McLuhan frequencies. For the most part, they tried in vain. Large slices of society were not so easy to come by, and artists such as Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch wound up organizing reassuring tableaux vivants for the already converted, which turned up in art magazines and “Out of Actions,” but hardly impacted the Global Village. It just seemed to be impossible to motivate huge populations to participate in stressful ordeals for the sake of art. Until the blockbuster.

What our most qualified artists could not bring about, commerce did. Keyed up by hype, charged 10 or 20 bucks and forced to run a noisy, crowded gauntlet, hordes of people began willing themselves to experience a meaningful group aesthetic experience, and succeeding. The structure, while prohibiting a traditional contemplative engagement with the artworks, succeeds in supplying a surrogate atmosphere of high-pitched delirium. Depending on the qualities in the work, the buzz can sometimes match that of a snake-handling service. And viewed from such altered states of consciousness, visual art becomes exponentially more powerful, slipping past everyday screening mechanisms and achieving a deep psychological impact.

“Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” is one of a small, elite category of blockbusters — shows that are so special and expensive that they tour only a handful of venues (in this case just two). Like the Vermeer show before it, insurance and logistics will probably make this a once-ever chance for those not frequently in the ’Dam to see this particular body of work. And while there are a certain number of omissions, a certain amount of filler and a few odd side paths that maybe the artist shouldn’t have pursued, van Gogh is one of those painters whose work, no matter how many times you’ve seen it reproduced, takes on entire new dimensions in the flesh. Quite literally, as the topography of van Gogh’s surfaces can be dizzying, even nauseating to contemplate at close quarters. (In a crowd of a thousand, it’s easy to circumvent the “two feet from the paintings at all times” rule.) Strange biomorphic blobs and frantic areas of crosshatched grooves simultaneously occupy the same space as a depiction of a country lane or a forest floor.

Some of the paint seems to have been squeezed from a syringe or scraped from the studio floor and glued on in some arbitrary corner of the picture. The toxic luminosity of his palette is simply untranslatable through photolithography, and the incredible chances he took with his art — that is, the number of works that by all reason should be failures but somehow manage to triumph — are reiterated with an arrestingly physical presence. You’d think that after a century of artists trying to imitate him, his images reproduced on every possible surface in quantities that boggle, his tabloid lifestyle even more widely disseminated and his technical innovations debased into the stuff that formulaic TV landscape painters excel at, van Gogh’s work would by now be inaccessible through the cloud of cultural associations that surrounds it. Not entirely so.

But people don’t spend much time looking at art anymore. Our brains are hard-wired for the shifting flatness of the TV and movie screens, and the video-arcade windshield vistas of freeway driving. Yet we’ve been told all our lives that art is important and meaningful, even spiritual and transformational. If you’re already primed for and open to an exemplary fine-art experience, you could probably walk into any anonymous gallery and see van Gogh’s paintings for the great works they mostly are. For the rest of us, we depend on this symbiotic harnessing of the most powerful art form going — advertising — combined with the ages-old power of the controlled mob consciousness, to successfully convince us that we’re having an extraordinary experience. And not only is there nothing wrong with that, it’s a more honest account of how art can move humans in the contemporary world than most of what the art world offers. Plus, it pays the surprising dividend of permitting the citizenry to encounter great art again in a mass, public, almost religious ritual performance that threatens, but never quite manages, to overshadow the iconic objects it is “about.”

Not bad for $17.50.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.