The strikingly thoughtful new edition of the venerable edition of the Carnegie International, an exhibition staged eery few years at the Carnegie Art museum, in Pittsburgh, starts outdoors with smart bangs. The first dramatizes a change in public art that has been fostered by big biennial-type exhibitions, which now number about 200 worldwide but were scarce during most of the century that followed the birth of the original, the Venice Biennale, in 1895, and of the Carnegie International, a year later, It involves ‘Tip’, an immense jungle of boards wrapped with scraps of wire mesh, slathered with cement and paint, and festooned with strips of brightly colored cloth by the British sculptor Phyllida Barlow. The work swarms a hundred and thirty one feet across a plaza, almost to the museum’s front doors, passing within inches of ‘Carnegie’, a thirty nine foot high tower of four inward leaning rust surfaced steel slabs, which was created by Richard Serra for the 1985 International, and then acquired by the museum.


‘Carnegie’ , by my lights, is great original art, while Barlo’s Tip is a pastiche of installational foofaraw. But Barlow’s up to date caprice easily mortifies Serra’s canonical dignity, as if dragging a samurai into a pillow fight. ‘Tip’ lacks cohesion and scale; the piece feels both all over the place and scarcely there at all. This is not a failure. It epitomizes an anti-formal sass, often laced with sofr-core political messaging, that has flourished in periodic big shows such as Villar Rojas’ ‘The Day We Reboot the Planet’ at the Sackler Wing of the Serpentine these days.

If you want to interpret the Barlow as feminist versus the SErra as macho, that’s more than allowed. But you can as readily see the juxtaposition, like much else in the exhibition, as a self-aware specimen of festivalist cheek. The curators Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kukielski (and Gabriela Burkhalter, for playgrounds) should have named this ‘What’s Entertainment?’

Where, if anywhere, is the red line between art that pleases admirably and art that only panders? The question arises at a time when commercial art fairs have eclipsed public festivals as the main stages of a globalized art world. What can curators do that marketers can’t? Look at Gagosian at Frieze for an answer and his two Koons’ advertisements of art as art but not much more than that. Sincerity seems schooled out of professional artists these days, the straight stuff of it to demotic work becomes a heart’s oasis. It has been argued of late, most forcefully by Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, that museums should abandon their ostracism of outsider art. if our emotional and spiritual uses for art matter beyond our pleasures in formal sophistication, and I think they do, the point is impeccable. Now that just about anything can be done and called art, let it only be done well. Just a thought.