Punching ‘The Clock’ at the MFA

I love a good debate about the arts in the public eye, even when the combatants end up with proverbial black eyes — we don’t discuss art and its public role enough anymore. It’s been a good month for this so far: Last week, Stephen Sondheim and Diane Paulus went at it over Porgy and Bess, and this week, there’s the nasty turn taken over the MFA’s big party unveiling of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art and its showpiece, Christian Marclay’s The Clock. The whole thing is a perfect venue for examining the role money plays in determining how elite art should be.

To recap: The MFA paid a reported $250,000 to be one of the few museums to show Marclay’s work, which won the Gold Lion for best artist at the Venice Biennale this year. A MassArt alum, Marclay is known primarily as an audio-video collage artist dating back to the late 1970s. His video work has always turned heads, and perhaps none more so than The Clock, which the Guardian called “a masterpiece of our times.” It’s a 24-hour looped video that shows fragments of the entire cinematic history, where each minute of each day is represented somewhere in film. Yes, this means thousands of clips intricately edited together and synchronized to real time. Watching the entire thing for 24 hours sounds like a thrilling marathon.

But here’s the hiccup: The unveiling of The Clock coincides with the unveiling of the Linde Wing, which means that the first viewing of the 24 hours will be seen only by the ticketed few who go to the party on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. and the after-hours soiree at 11 p.m. The unwashed masses only get to see it when the free Community Day starts the next day, Sept. 18, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. And by the way, the tix to see it first are $200, meaning that only those with the largesse to pay will have a chance to see The Clock in its 24-hour entirety.

As the Globe’s Geoff Edgers reported this week, local gallery owners and art history professors have called this venal plan “revolting” and “not the wisest choice.” Marclay himself wrote into the Globe, expressing his dismay, who wants his work “equally accessible to all” and wants it to cost no more than the general admission price of the museum. In the same article, MFA director Malcolm Rogers responded:

“The article implies that in order to see Christian Marclay’s artwork, The Clock, visitors must pay $200. In fact, the ticket price is to attend the opening party celebrating the MFA’s new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. … It has always been our plan for The Clock to be on view during regular MFA hours (7 days a week), with no incremental fee. … The Museum [will] be hosting a free 24-hour screening of The Clock later this fall, which will take place on Columbus Day weekend.”

Though Rogers has a point, it’s true that he’s being too cute by half. That $200 is mandatory if you want to see the whole artwork — not just the seven hours of the museum’s regular day — even if that ticket price is for the party, not the work itself. Now, $200 may be peanuts for a lot more fun when compared to political fundraisers, but it’s still a threshold that keeps out most of us.

That being said, in many ways I find this whole debate disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst:

First, take Marclay: His whole career has been fascinating and brilliant, but not necessarily user-friendly — he and many other artists like him would have to struggle mightily without kowtowing at times to Mr. and Ms. Moneybags. To think otherwise is naive.

Then the disgusted critics: Yes, $200 is a good wad of cash, but this is a ticketed event, not an exclusive invite-only affair. If you have it, you can still save up your money and go. And if you’re concerned about the larger message about this amount of money, then why not complain about the $22 regular admission fee, which is out of the range of too many Bostonians? Perhaps because you can afford the $22, or get discounted? At least the MFA is opening up the entire museum for free the next day to let everyone and anyone in — and with musical guests and kid-friendly activities — and at least they’re hosting a free full-day screening of The Clock just a few weeks later.

But the MFA doesn’t get off either: The idealistic, egalitarian part of me says this may not be “revolting,” but it is galling, especially since the Los Angeles County Museum of Art premiered it for free. When Boston becomes more velvet rope than L.A., we have a problem.

In the end, though, the pragmatic, cynical part of me remembers that the MFA was not gifted this art, but shelled out a quarter of a million dollars for it. The money came from wealthy people, who need to feel special, and this event’s emphasis on cool is aimed squarely at drawing new generations of donors to keep the institution flush with funds. Besides, contemporary art has been as pricey and elitist as any art in any time, from Studio 54-era Warhol, to the SoHo scene of Basquiat and Schnabel, to the Saatchi-bred bubble called Damien Hirst. The fact that the biggest player in this liberal town is engaging in the same flashy behavior is certainly disappointing, but perhaps we’re just waking up to what it means for Boston to join the big leagues of today’s contemporary art world.