Sm{art}: MOMA Curator to Gaga: ur sooo not an artist.


Say what you will about Lady Gaga (she's important for feminists, she's anti-feminist, she's just downright confusing, etc.) but you have to admit that she knows how to put it out there. Her whole existence in the public sphere reads as a giant performance piece (the costumes! the bizarre behavior! the rumors! the extravagant videos!) so it's no surprise that she considers herself a performance artist. Well, Klaus Biesenbach, MOMA and P.S. 1 curator, has news for her: She isn't one. (Yes, apparently it is up to him to decide.) According to a very lengthy essay from David Byrne (isn't the art world funny?) Biesenbach attended a dinner party with Gaga and the following exchange took place:

At a recent art world dinner Biesenbach mentioned to me that he'd crossed paths with Lady Gaga, who said that she felt she was a performance artist — or an artist of some sort. Biesenbach responded that she was not, and reportedly she was a bit taken aback and stunned at his reply. Biesenbach didn't exactly detail as to why in fact she wasn't an artist, but by way of a sort of explanation he related that Susan Sontag had pronounced to him, "All we have is our opinion."

So David Byrne, Klaus Biesenbach, Lady Gaga, and Susan Sontag walk into a bar... What annoys me about this exchange isn't that Biesenbach doesn't consider Gaga to be an artist (maybe telephone hair just isn't this thing), rather it's that he feels entitled to tell her that she isn't one. When he says "our opinion," he is clearly referring to those who hold positions of power in the art world. His opinion counts, and hers does not. Sure, he's a curator at MOMA, but isn't anyone who wants to consider her/himself an artist free to do just that? Isn't that, in part, what art is about? Self expression and exploration? Byrne's essay continues:

Well, her [Sontag's, as quoted by Biesenbach] opinions were always backed up by extremely well-written and thought through arguments, and Biesenbach's opinions now carry the weight of MoMA — so while some opinions are qualified, some have more resonance and repercussions than others. On the interweb everyone has an opinion, but most of it doesn't matter. There's no pretence of equal opportunity or democracy in the art world — which is probably fine.

Maybe it's because I'm not an "artist," but that smacks of so much self-satisfied elitism that I don't know what to do with myself. (Ugh! The masses should not be allowed to define what art is! Only curators and famous artistes can do that!) Should all art cater to every person? No, of course not. But does that mean that art that doesn't appeal to a MOMA curator (but does appeal to literally millions of fans on the "interweb") not count as art? No, of course not. And this might be me getting my feminist hackles up here, but this incident reeks of The Patriarchy to me. Especially considering that the MOMA is currently hosting a Tim Burton exhibit. Burton's pop art is worthy of a retrospective, but Gaga isn't even allowed to refer to herself as an artist in the presence of a MOMA representative without being told to shut it? Bogus. In my interweb-based opinion, Lady Gaga is a performance artist no matter how you slice it. Biesenbach might not like her art, but that is completely beside the point. Exhibit A:

Update! Margaret Doyle at MOMA sent me an email titled, "correction on Lady Gaga story"! Here it is:

Dear Kelsey, Regarding your post , Sm{art}: MoMA to Gaga: ur sooo not an artist, I wanted to correct and clarify a couple of things. The David Byrne blog entry was not entirely accurate, and has been much repeated and tweeted. Klaus Biesenbach praised Lady Gaga for her performance, and certainly considers her an artist (he never said she wasn't). Here is the text of the note he sent her once he became aware of the misquotation on David Byrne's blog: dear lady gaga, yesterday I was confronted with a misquote of mine that is seemingly circulating the internet. as you might remember after your amfar presentation, I was backstage and you in a casual manner asked "wasn't that a piece of performance art?" and I spontaneously said "no, but it was a stunningly beautiful performance." as you personally know I only made this differentiation to start a more precise discussion about collaboration and a closer dialogue. I recently introduced the idea in several interviews to replace the term contemporary art with contemporary practice because of course as you know, I do think filmmakers, designers, musicians, performers, architects do have their creative, innovative artistic practice as artists and i would like to find a way to connect this closer to the presentation of visual arts, per se. greetings, in admiration, klaus I also just want to note that while Klaus is a curator-at-large at MoMA in addition to being Director of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, MoMA did not and would not identify any performer as being an artist or not an artist, as your headline indicates. I hope you will run a clarification of the story. Thank you, Margaret Doyle

Art world drama! Of course, we haven't yet heard from David Byrne on this (email me, David Byrne!) but it looks like there is more to the story than we originally thought. Oh, and I did change the title of the post to read "MOMA Curator" instead of "MOMA," because that is in fact more accurate. So what do you make of this update?

by Kelsey Wallace
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25 Comments Have Been Posted

I agree with you.

This article could have been about anyone. It doesn't matter that it was Lady Gaga. No one who ever considers themselves an artist should be told that they are not.

I am, yes, a Lady Gaga fan, and I do think she is an artist ( a fantastic one, at that.)
I don't think it's fair that her creative efforts (her entire Monster Ball tour concept, the work she does on her videos, her costumes that are made by a group of her friends and herself, and the fact she writes all of her own lyrics) are not considered art.

But who am I to say, right? I'm just another person on the interweb who's opinion doesn't matter.

Well hardy har har, three cheers for you

Man this whole MOMA art world bullshit is bullshit, tell Gaga she's A-OK in my book!

Lady Gaga Amazes As Performance Artist, Flame Biesenbach & MOMA

Panty Buns to Klaus Biesenbach: You soooo don't know <b>anything</b> about performance art. After reading in your post about what Klaus Biesenbach said One thing is apparent: He's a pompous ignoramus with absolutely no taste and is a blight on the reputation of anyone who ever considered hiring or listening to him. <b>CALLING ALL LADY GAGA FANS: FLAME HIM BUT GOOD!</b>. Your posting of VMA multiple Award winner Lady Gaga's stunning performance of Paparazzi at the Video Music Awards refutes his ignorant statement nicely. I'd add that <a href=" rel="nofollow">Lady Gaga was MTV News' Woman of the Year.</a> Perhaps if Susan Sontag really did say that all they had was their opinion, it can rightly inferred that MOMA doesn't have all the things other than opinion, i.e: The taste, knowledge, intelligence, and credentials to work or be listened to in that field.

Oh, please.

If Susan Sontag were alive today, she would be ALL OVER Lady Gaga. Trust.

Trust. She won't.

Trust. She won't.

Oh, the highs and lows of art

This is just another case of high-ism vs low-ism, elite vs populace, etc. etc. etc. In the 1920's as films began to replace opera and theater as a source of entertainment, aristocrats barked at the mention of Hollywood and its stars. The century before that Impressionists were laughed at. Examples like these flood art, theater and film histories. 30 years ago, the MOMA wouldn't have considered performance art for a major exhibition and now look at them: Not only do they have a huge retrospective on Marina Abramovich (one of the biggest performance artists ever) but they also have Tim Burton up. Maybe in another 30 years Gaga will be up with Bowie at a MOMA retrospective on music and costumes. You never know. You know what the real art here is? That this David Bryne character was able to write a lengthy essay on this bizarre encounter. Can we have a link to that.

I agree that Biesenbach's

I agree that Biesenbach's comment was annoying and opaque, and his whole rational for backing up his opinion sounds fairly tool-ish. Down with the patriarchy, etc.
It seems to me that this article sidesteps the question that Klaus's comment brings up: what is performance art, and can Lady Gaga REALLY stake a claim in that territory, instead of simply being a very good entertainer? Yeah, she wears wildly inventive costumes (which other people design) and does some dramatic stuff on stage, but does that make it PERFORMANCE ART, especially when her music is quite conventional (if catchy)? While (for example) Madonna made a point of exploring sexuality in her music and performances in a provocative and intelligent way, I feel like Gaga's act notably lacks content - it's really just about bombarding the senses with a lot of shiny things.


Good questions! First of all, I am no authority whatsoever when it comes to the art world, so I am admittedly shaky when it comes to the true definition of a "performance artist." I guess I just define it as someone who makes an artistic statement using performance as her/his medium of choice (please jump in, anyone who has a better definition).

To me, then, using that definition, Gaga is a performance artist. She makes (or attempts to make) statements about celebrity culture and the notion of the performer/fan relationship through costumes, dance, staged appearances, etc. This statement may be lost on many people, but Gaga claims it is deliberate and there are also a lot of people out there who claim to "get it" in some way.

However, I think what it really comes down to here (again, IMHO, so please jump in other people who have different opinions) is that Gaga chooses to call herself a performance artist, and she backs that up by actually performing. She may indeed be a bad performance artist, but does that mean we shouldn't let her call herself a performance artist to begin with? I'm inclined to say no, but I am also easily distracted by shiny things, so I could be way off base here.

lady gaga should become james franco

i agree mostly with the poster previous to Kelsey. And Kelsey (no offense, I love you and your posts!!!), I'm glad that you say here that you are no authority when it comes to art... It is interesting how with art, people who do not have a specific background or even that much art-historical education can hold a strong opinion, whereas with say... science or something, people would not yell "That's not science!" in a science museum. Not trying to be mean, just pointing out how art is particularly prickly sometimes.

Plus, I think lots of people in the art world would disagree with Klaus Biesenbach's assessment, as Lady Gaga seems to have a pretty socially distinguished position there. For example:

HOWEVER! The art world is totally rampant with sexism, and I definitely agree that this smacks of patriarchy and a phenomena I like to call in my head the "sure you are" artist. When I graduated art school at UCLA in 2008, the undergrad department was 75 : 25 women to men. Yet on the graduate level the ratio is back down to 50 : 50, with some recent years even more men than women. ...Why? And if you look through any art magazine you will see an absolutely incredible imbalance: I feel like with women there's more of a battle for legitimacy, to prove they're Real artists, fighting against an implicit "i'm an artist!"/"Sure you are."

What *really* pisses me off is that while Klaus Biesenbach can dismiss Lady Gaga as a performance artist, to my knowledge nobody comes out to call the bluff of stupid JAMES FRANCO when he decides he is a performance artist. THIS ANNOYS ME SO MUCH. I don't know how I found this video, but the fact that he can seemingly waltz up to the chair of my department, bypass us 75 of the 75 : 25 who are vying for cultural legitimacy and suddenly become an artist because he is a studly celeb... Ugh. What's even most frustrating about it is that he is actually sort of well-informed and not that stupid so I feel like I can't just dismiss him entirely:

Okay sorry I got completely off-topic.

Thank You!!

<b>"It is interesting how with art, people who do not have a specific background or even that much art-historical education can hold a strong opinion, whereas with say... science or something, people would not yell "That's not science!" in a science museum. Not trying to be mean, just pointing out how art is particularly prickly sometimes.

Plus, I think lots of people in the art world would disagree with Klaus Biesenbach's assessment, as Lady Gaga seems to have a pretty socially distinguished position there."</b>


As someone who spent a lot of time and money getting an art education, as someone who is a practicing artist using photography and performance, here's my opinion: <b>Lady Gaga is (sort of) a performance artist. Lady Gaga is <i>not</i> a good performance artist, and nor is her work that creative or original.</b>

Just as intersectionality (is that a word? it is now!) is fast coming more to the forefront of contemporary feminism these days (feminism + race, class, gender, etc.), the very same is happening in the art world. Especially in Los Angeles, where I live and work. This is one of the reasons I would much rather be a practicing artist here than in New York; men like Biesenbach abound there, and I would much rather not deal with the institutionalism and isolationist attitudes so early in my career.

Like Jaymee says, I think the real problem is Biesenbach's personal and unexamined sexism rather than him reflecting the views of the critical art world at large. I used to work for Artillery magazine and I'm still really good friends with the editor in chief, and we were talking about this a few weeks ago - how that certain circles of artists in the critical art world to this day make work and espouse theories that presume that the individual artist lives in a vacuum, and the backgrounds of others don't matter. A year and a half ago, she had the magazine host "art debates" discussing issues just like this, and she's doing it again this coming Sunday (I highly recommend you go if you're in LA, Those exclusionist circles are fast becoming extinct within the art world, and I'm glad for it. I'd like to thank more enlightened professors for that.

So, back to Lady Gaga. Even though her image isn't entirely her own, and even though the content of her work is mediocre and unoriginal, I'm more than willing to qualify her as an artist, just not a good one.

Respectfully disagree.

If you're a person who believes that Lady Gaga is only distracting us with shiny objects, you have not yet taken the time to discover what she is really about.
Is art not art just because it has glitter?

Either way, if you look at her interviews about the concept of her recent tour (Monster Ball) it is actually a quite in-depth story of the creation, birth, life, death, and after life of a "Monster"
Monster being whatever form you want it to take (person, fame, drug, sex, ect)
She had multiple videos in between and during the songs which all had different meanings. I, for the first time ever at a pop concert, sat and wondered what exactly she was saying in her videos. What did they mean? One, for example, was a very interesting view on the destruction of beauty. I am a film major, and not only were these videos interesting, but they were done well (concept, direction, cinematography, ect.)

Also, yes, a lot of her costumes are made by designers, but actually a good majority of them, and all of the ones she started out with were designed by the Haus of Gaga. A group of her friends from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She, as well as the Haus, are the main creative team in all of what is Lady Gaga.

People may not like what she does, or agree with how she does it, but there are tons of things in the MoMA I feel that way about. The difference is I'm not going to stand there and say it isn't art just because I don't like it.

(note: I wasn't going to put my name on this because I thought it sounded a little pretentious, but I feel like I made a valid point, therefore I am no longer anonymous. )

the author is important

Is Lady Gaga simply a vehicle through which designers and music video directors and songwriters (etc) have their creativity heard? Because if the answer is 'yes', and the authorship of Gaga's ensembles and music and choreography (etc) is not her own, then I'm not sure she can be called a performance artist (that'd be like calling Picasso's canvas the artist), though she could be called performance art.

Lady Gaga writes all of her

Lady Gaga writes all of her own music. Not just the lyrics, but the music. She has been classically studying piano since she was 4 years old. Went to both Juliard and NYU for music.
As Danii stated earlier, the majority of her costumes are her own and those designed by the Haus of Gaga.

sorry, also

She comes up with the concepts of her videos, and Mae West- style co-directs all of them.

A recent New York magazine

<p>A recent New York magazine cover story on LG talked about how she had really made a conscious decision to emulate Andy Warhol -- reading his diaries, patterning Haus of Gaga after The Factory, etc. It's an interesting read, and sheds a little light on the construction of LG's identity. Warhol has always been a contested figure in art, so maybe whether you think of her as an artist or not depends how you feel about his kind of art (and, obviously, his kind of fame).</p><p></p><p>&nbsp;</p>

the superficiality of elitism

My title basically explains it all.
The art world should be about everyone, for everyone, to everyone. Art is whatever was inspired, is inspiring, it is everything! I make art out of everything. Art is whatever you want it to be, whatever you make it out of.
The art world's elitism is shameful.
Lady GaGa's performances are astounding, and completely unique. Her music videos are so beautiful, it is like a living painting.
You may not like it, but it doesn't matter. You may not like Lichtenstein or Picasso either.
It's all a matter of opinion.

Please just remember...

While it is pretentious and elitist for an MOMA curator to define what is and is not art, keep in mind that Lady Gaga, though very talented, has made millions of dollars. Anyone with large quantities money carries their own unique brand of pretentiousness/elitism and thus sounds more legitimate when it comes to labeling what is and is not art. It's alot easier for us to support Lady Gaga's title as an artist when she has money, reputation, and probably several employees who are paid to sculpt her public image (makeup, publicist, costumes). Would we feel the same if she were still some chick playing guitar in a club? probably not.

Not trying to take away from any talent she might have, but she IS still a celebrity. Someone is still working behind the scenes to make her look good and give her credibility AS as "artist."


I'm confused as to why you think celebrity status and fame (or lack thereof) defines whether someone can produce art. Sure, it's easier to be acknowledged for the production, but I don't think having a "team" negates her contributions as a performance artist.

On my last trip to MOMA (forgive me, it was a few years ago), I saw an exhibit that featured common objects that were gorgeous and phenomenally designed, leading them to be deemed art. I'm not saying whether they should or should not be considered art, but I highly doubt that Target's innovative pill bottle was designed by one person from start to finish. I imagine it had to go through many brainstorming sessions, revisions, and approvals to be deemed appropriate for the market. And I'm sure that wasn't done by one person.

I guess my point is that very rarely does anyone do anything alone, be it designing a pill bottle, painting a portrait, or even dancing on stage in revealing outfits with enormous shoulder pads (way to bring them back, Gaga!). The fact that someone is working behind the scenes to "give her credibility" is the situation of any artist with an agent. That's their job. And that's why artists have them.

"teams" can't make art

uh... Bauhaus?


If she's an artist, she's a bad artist. She is completely missing the conceptual side of making art, which is why people (like you) described her as "confusing." She sends mixed signals because she doesn't understand what it is she wants to do, what kind of statement she wants to make. All she knows is that she "looves fashion." You can appreciate aesthetics without having any idea how to work with them or make some kind of artistic aesthetic statement. Read my posts on her (just search her name on my blog). I deal with this topic a lot and the best name I have for her so far is Arty Spice (coined by Joanna Newsom, a real artist).

Wow, that's breathtakingly

Wow, that's breathtakingly arrogant. She has a well-considered set of questions for those who can hear them: perhaps she is using a palette or style that does not appeal to you. There are certainly well loved artists that I find incoherent - they do not speak to my condition.

She is great artist,love her!

She is great artist,love her!

Gaga needs more designing, less posing to be concidered serious

The art world is not the mass media. I believe many do not see gaga as a fine artist because she is not the soul designer of her overpriced stage design and costume creation. Many of us have a even harder time calling her a musican when she is not producing her own beats or music. Really she is a glorified singer surrounded by bombast, and shock tactics invented by real artists hired by her record company. Real art movements consist of redefining concepts of previous ideas that bulid in a meaningful way to reconstruct new perspective outlooks. She is simply latching on to the hackneyed stereotype of the left out artist, and cheeply playing off teenage alienation to build her fan base from. Then she says a few cryptic things to avoid explaining why the designers made the choices they did (she dosent know she's hopped up on coke and ego). I personally feel she is a more expencive less meaningful Madonna. Take away all the help her record label gives defining her image, and gaga disappears into thin air.

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