Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘art world

More Questions: On Criticism and Political Art

In the wake of underwhelming critical response to Creative Time’s fourth summit on artistic activism, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert released an open letter to critics writing about political art on their Center for Artistic Activism website. While I begrudge them neither the use of art to maximize the effect of their social activism or their appeal to political consciousness to aid them in finding an audience for their art, I think they oversimplify the intersection of art and activism, how art is seen, and how it is understood. The “art world” is too varied to define so broadly[i]; the interests at play from the various sites are too different. This variety extends to the interactions between criticism, activism, artists, and the body politic. The danger with rendering such simplistic generalizations is that if they ultimately undermine art as a tool to affect the change they seek.[ii]

Creative Time sees the artist as telling truth to power, and there is a long, laudable tradition of such statement within the arts, but such actions do not require inclusion within the bounds of artistic practice. After all many, many artists have participated in political actions[iii] or made work that engage with and challenge social issues[iv], and critics have not found any of this work impossible to address. One may certainly ask if they approached the issues with the same interest and understanding that originated with their aesthetic concern, and that in turn may make it more difficult to assess if the ideas raised have merit.[v] But that then begs the question as to why seek the attention of art critics, instead of more general media coverage that would go farther in promoting their agenda? If their goal (or the goal of any artist – activist) is to effect change, and the form of the work must be promiscuous in order to facilitate that goal, why is it necessary to be art? In laying out their premise it seems that despite Duncombe and Lambert’s claims to the contrary, efficacy becomes a central issue. How do the causes supported by activism benefit from the intervention of an artistic practice? If the “art” is not adding something to the message, it both demeans the art and artist[vi] and obfuscates and lessens the political point.[vii]

A fundamental issue is that if artists are going to entertain the notion that art can address any sort of discourse with the broader world, then the critics who write and think about art must be accorded a separate expression. Work by journalists, poets, philosophers, ethnographers, and even artists may be grouped under the rubric of ‘criticism.’ The term can be taken as any thinking about art and the understanding of its structure, but my reading of Duncombe and Lambert and their desire to make the critic (at least partly) responsible to the work’s social efficacy[viii] reduces such thinkers to mere cheerleaders. It would be a separate matter if they were calling for better or more thoughtful criticism.[ix] I think they would have a hard time finding anyone ready to defend the broad state of current art writing and its interaction with the market as the pinnacle of critical thought, but that does not excuse a call to press criticism into blind service to the goals of the artwork.[x]

The critic is only necessary if the work in question is to be treated as art, rather than activism; the latter finds its apotheosis by its ratification or rejection within the political system, but the former is a set of ideas and relations forever in flux. Whether working for short or long term social gain, activism has a specific and visible political end. On the other hand the point of art is a continual engagement and dialog about the work and the structures around it. Criticism is necessary to further a substantial dialog, but is much less useful within the political organization necessary for successful activism. The revision, doubt, constant examination at the heart of artistic discourse is at odds with political action.[xi]

The new critical tradition they call for would take the “art” out of the discussion of the work of “artist – activists” in favor of a pragmatism more amenable to politics. What is lost with the “art” is the disparate individual interest that drives people to become artists[xii], and for critics to interact with them and their work. Just as it is important to allow for art that embraces the political, space must also be defended for work that does not. Ultimately in asking for an “art that intends to change the very way we see, act and make sense of our world” Duncombe and Lambert have articulated the goal of (nearly) every artist, whether they work politically or not. Similarly, what is needed is not new standards, language, and traditions for critics and thinkers, but only a more careful application of the ones they already have; if the discussion is bigger than art, it’s probably not really a discussion about art.


[i] See my essay Site Specificity: Art & the Mainstream Part 2 for a discussion of the intermingling of various sites within the art world.

[ii] Starting with their assertion that the audience for most art is critics, and through the discussion on tradition, medium, and mastery, the stereotypes and generalizations run thick without any corresponding real world examples. If critics are the audience, then doesn’t the blame ultimately lie with artists for making that work?

[iii] For example, consider everyone who contributed to the Peace Tower, despite its genesis in a period where vanguard art rejected any outward reference beyond pure aesthetic experience.

[iv] Think of the work of Goya, the Mexican muralists, Guston, Golloub, Spero, Chicago, Keinholz, Kruger, Holzer, Wojnarowicz, Weems, Hammons, Steinbach, Saul, the Gorilla Girls, the Art Guys, Gonzalez-Torres…

[v] Another implicit argument is that the political goals and beliefs they espouse are the ones to be championed. Especially in an election year, that seems obviously wrong.

[vi] As they are reduced to the attention grabbing schtick of good advertising.

[vii] As the confused viewer is more concerned about figuring out what they just saw, rather than why it was important.

[viii] One cannot state that questions are good, but then qualify as to the purpose, or speak to the need to aid political art without implicitly drafting critics into their own political ranks.

[ix] After all, who ever really wants to defend critics?

[x] It would be just as unthinkable as forbidding comment or criticism on certain work, and ultimately no different than a state dictating the terms of discussion. In calling for “a world in which artists work collectively in an embedded engagement with society.” Duncombe and Lambert are effectively asking art and criticism to support societal engineering on the scale appropriate to Gandhi or Goebbels.

[xi] Which may be why the Occupy movement had trouble gaining traction with a political procedures based on artistic process.

[xii] Instead of teachers, community activists, or social workers. Just because the interests or job titles overlap is not a reason to collapse them all together into a single pile.

Written by Brian Dupont

November 1, 2012 at 6:55 am

Future Maps for these Territories

 

The New Year’s holiday inevitably brings about remembrances and prognostications. 2011 saw me celebrate a decade in the same studio, and as I sat around looking at works in progress and planning for the New Year (figuring out new works, and considering the more daunting task of trying to resolve what’s already been started, discarded, or just left sitting around) I was also considering my New Year’s day trip to the art openings in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I started thinking more and more about the (very) long-term affects of changing economic conditions, and how the seemingly continual search for space affects artists, and where that search may lead.

In a year that saw the birth and subsequent suppression of the Occupy movement focus attention on corporate machinations, it is hard not consider the footprint of corporate interests in finance, real estate, and art when considering any such potential future. The early fiction of William Gibson seems to particularly apply, with his simultaneous exploration of the corporation as quasi-governmental power[1] and interest in art and design. Any attempt at articulating a future will be more a snapshot of the author’s present[2] more than the future[3], but Gibson’s Sprawl fiction[4] presents a future for art that is in some sense already here.  Artists are measured in a stock market-like system of fluctuating points, up and down. The actual works of art are purchased by reproduction[5], and then safely crated away in secure storage, possibly never to be seen before being resold. Scholarship is privatized as well[6], with the heads of the new oligarchies serving as patrons (and also demanding favors) in a model reminiscent of the medieval kings. His setting for the market of the art world is likewise eerily prescient. Marly Krushkova[7], the disgraced owner of small gallery for emerging[8] art contrasts with Picard, the international gallery manager who treats art as any broker would their preferred commodity. Setting aside motivation, the contrast between the power and wealth available in the realm of the blue chip as compared to those working from purer motives is stark.

By comparison his artists Slick Henry[9], Rubin Stark[10], and the artificial intelligence discovered at the end of Count Zero[11] are represented in a romanticized fashion that make them seem more outsiders than careered artists. Their creative drive is an unsullied internal need. (Only Stark has representation, and fully engages the market for his creations. In this sense he actually comes the closest of the three to representing a successful artist working within today’s art world.[12]) Aside from their collage based practice and their affinity for cast off materials, these characters share an affinity for living and working in repurposed industrial spaces. These are a future version of the light-industrial lofts that became the new model for the artist’s studio in the Post-war art world.

Whether the size of these new spaces allowed or caused artist to dramatically change the scale of their work[13], what is evident is that the work produced in these spaces is peculiarly of these spaces:  just as the scale and materials of pre-war modernism seem particularly suited to a Parisian garret, the paintings of the New Yorks school swelled to match the space available in an urban center with a surplus of raw, light-industrial space. Contemporary art has seen the loft space institutionalized as grad studios in MFA programs and this as affected how the art is made. Construction is an ad-hoc affair with considerations of craft in construction[14] giving way to a direct and immediate engagement with the work that assumes that problems of logistics, transport, and storage can be solved after the fact. Artists will be keenly aware of their own space, and often build work that just fits in or out the door by a matter of inches, but these measurements are unlikely to consider future doors in different neighborhoods that the work may need to get in.[15]

I’ve always considered the migrations[16] of artists in New York to react like quicksilver to pressures relating to the cost of space.  Artists[17] form the leading edge of gentrification in the city, following the arteries of transportation through to under-used (or under-capitalized) light industrial spaces that could be taken over for idiosyncratic ends. The post-war bohemia of Greenwich Village was pushed into Soho and from there into (generally) Tribeca and lower Manhattan and out to Dumbo and through to harder to access areas like Red Hook or the Navy Yards. Another tack flowed to the East, from Village and out into Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City and into Bushwick.[18] It appears that artists are following the subway lines to anywhere there is cheap space, which was usually “the next stop out” from a popular neighborhood. Established residential neighborhoods formed a natural bulwark to an influx of artists, providing the rents were high enough. If the neighborhood tended to be lower income, or zoned for mixed-use, it was only a matter of the next financial boom until the indigenous residents who didn’t own found themselves forced out, soon to be followed by the artists who couldn’t afford the rising rents. Leaving aside the contemporary socio-economic implications and looking to the future, what sort of changes and evolutions can we expect in art and the art world as economic pressures continue to exacerbate the problem of a finite amount of urban space?

Gibson’s artists find themselves in extremely out of the way locations[19], but are able to interface with culture and patrons virtually via technology. Presently artists still feel the need to gather[20], but space is becoming more and more limited and the influx of new, young artists into the same limited, urban territory will eventually subject the makers of objects to evolutionary pressures that will affect where and how art is made. Artists never left working in their apartments, and post-studio and conceptual practices may become increasingly popular urban practices to accompany works at a more modest scale.[21] Another avenue would be a longer, more desperate migration that can be observed in other species struggling with dwindling local resources. Other smaller urban areas connected by similar transit options are one option[22], yet will face the same pressures from outside industries. These factors will only increase as rural populations contract, but with a retreat to urban centers new spaces will open to colonization by artists. Strip malls and abandoned big box stores of the twenty-first century will present similar floor plans possibilities to their light industry counterparts of the twentieth century. With a proliferation of mobile connectivity and social media artists will be able to take advantage of cheap real estate as working space trumps the ability to grab a drink or quick meal with a fellow artist.

Looking back on the crowds that crammed into Norte Maar or spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of Storefront on New Year’s Day, the implication (or threat) to artists is probably greater to the underrated social community that surrounds long hours alone in the studio rather than any specific need for space; after all artists will still find a way to make things under the most pressing limitations. Nevertheless I can already envision a future version of Loren Munk, traveling so far that he’s nomadic and without time to paint, his work documented digitally via GPS and JPEG like a cyberpunk Richard Long, trekking out to and mapping the remains of a Walmart that was once home and studio of a now famous artist…until he or she was priced out and now the space is occupied by a bohemian descendant of Sam Walton. Even in the future, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 


[1] Gibson’s future is the ultimate in corporate privatization, with national governments collapsed and corporate conglomerates wielding their own private armies. Nevertheless there must be some organizing and mediating principle, as evidenced by the wild global urban infrastructure his characters must navigate.

[2] Gibson acknowledges as much, writing that “Nothing acquires quite as rapid or peculiar a patina of age as an imaginary future” in the introduction to Burning Chrome.

[3] The Sprawl trilogy seems rather light on smartphones, and the graphics available to his cyberpunks and the animations that represent the web belong more to Atari than one where the imaging of Avatar is out of date. In this regard Neal Stephenson grafted the appropriate bandwidth onto Gibson’s corporate future in his novel Snow Crash.

[4] The novels Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the stories collected in Burning Chrome.

[5] Gibson’s holograms are a sexier antecedent to today’s JPEGS.

[6] In the future of the sprawl there seems little room for museums, and I imagine that community outreach programs were cut when the government fell.

[7] In Count Zero.

[8] In Gibson’s world, this means dealing with original works, presumably by living artists. There is little money in it, unless one gets extremely lucky, but there is the visceral, direct appeal.

[9] In Mona Lisa Overdrive.

[10] In ‘The Winter Market’, included in the Burning Chrome collection of stories.

[11] Spoiler alert.

[12] Although his work and character seems like a precursor to Slick Henry, as if the more career savvy artist had to be tamed to get along with his new neighbors and relations in the subsequent novel. Also of interest is that he has an agent, and not specifically gallery representation.

[13] Like any other nature vs. nurture argument the answer is probably “a bit of both.”

[14] Speaking generally, and certainly not of larger projects fabricated with the aid of specialized technicians, who generally need to have their shit straight to survive working with artists…

[15] This is a benefit to the much maligned practice of art going directly into storage after it is bought. Artists are at least free to make anything, and sell it, without worrying about where it is going to fit. In my experience far fewer collectors have huge garage-style roll  up doors into their residences than you might think.

[16] Or, if you prefer, relocations. The constant movement of artists has a whiff of refugee movements about it, in a distinctly first-world way of course.

[17] In this case, young or emerging artists working to establish themselves. Older artists who have consolidated their position within the art world will probably have similarly consolidated their position in real estate. Likewise they are more likely to have family commitments that keep them from the young person’s game of pioneering.

[18] And of course some also headed West to New Jersey or North into the Harlem and the Bronx, and individual outposts or colonies thrive almost everywhere, but migrations are a matter of populations, not individuals. Chelsea remains an interesting outlier as artists have been there since at least the 1940’s or 50’s (deKooning had a studio there for awhile), but despite its proximity to Greenwich Village* it has never really had a status as an “art neighborhood” until the galleries moved in. If some future historian is looking to pinpoint where capital and galleries bifurcated away from artists, this is probably the point.

* Despite the rallying cry of the time, artists did head above 14th Street. Hipsters are notoriously unreliable that way, and of course there wasn’t an art museum that far south anyway.

[19] Low Earth orbit, or New Jersey.

[20] Following the split noted between the populations of artists and galleries in #18, it is interesting to note that galleries are exhibiting the same behavior, just within their own “species”, rather than with artists.

[21] Mira Schor’s call for an new intimate art may become a reality in light of working and exhibition space reducing (which can be seen a bit in smaller spaces on the Lower East-side downsizing from the blue chip Chelsea hangar). See “Modest Painting” in “A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life.”

[22] Potentially leading to a version of Gibson’s Boston – Atlanta Metropolitan Axis.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Manners on the Ground

The sentiment that the expansion of the art world is detrimental to artists is not exactly a new meme. Exposés and biographies of the art world past often contain a throw away lament about how things have changed, and not for the better. However for as often as anyone claims how much better things were in the “good ol’ days” it is never addressed that their halcyon time was being similarly decried by someone else who saw it as further evidence of a slow descent into an abyss. While Jerry Saltz and Mira Schor understandably garnered the most notice for their critique and response to the Venice Biennale, a similar sentiment was also expressed by Joerg Colberg in his look at how advanced technology and amateur practice are affecting professional photography. Even collectors can’t help but get in on the action, as Mickey Cartin weighed in on the increasing difficulty of finding art he likes. You can practically cut the condescension and generational bias with a knife.

What strikes me about these arguments is just how much blame for the art being exhibited and the state of the market is being laid at the feet of artists and their education. This seems particularly troubling in light of the fact that the first three are teachers within the current system that pushes young artists to get an advanced degree and incur similarly advanced student loan debt.[1] The complaint that young artists emerge from their education looking like polished, inoffensive professionals who are unwilling to rock the boat of the commercial system is the flip side to the critical trope that young artists start showing too soon and don’t mature enough before engaging the market. Both positions privilege the elder critic’s position in the art world, alternating between ease of digestion and a respite from the blandness it engenders. The irony for these teachers to address then is that their students are emerging from their classrooms with looming loan obligations that paid their own salaries. To then complain that these artists are far too historically aware[2] and that in trying sell their work they are compromising their critical faculties is tone deaf at best, and hypocritical at worst.[3]

While to his credit Mr. Saltz lays some blame at the feet of the curators and institutions that present the work (after all the artists were selected to be in the Venice Biennale), it is a stretch to turn the conventional acceptance on show at the “State of the Art World” as an indictment of the adventurousness of young artists. Just as the site[4] of Venice is circumscribed, any artist showing there is established to a certain degree; this is not a place to find notes from the underground any more than you would expect to find rumblings of uncertainty on a greatest hits album.

That art is going the way of dog breeding and is refining itself into an aesthetic cartoon of academic discourse relies on a negative characterization of Mannerism that ignores its value within art history. [5]  Mannerism is the necessary counterbalance to and consequence of artistic freedom divorced from prevailing requirements for art. The first Mannerists reacted to the technologies that established naturalism within Renaissance painting and sculpture, laying the groundwork for future expressionism. This cycle is replayed within the narrative of Modernist progress as photography freed painting from the necessity of utilitarian representation. The new Mannerism comes out of the end of Modernism’s progress of formal reduction and an embrace of the possibilities inherent in Post-Modernism. If artists are freed from pushing a historical narrative forever forward they may instead focus on individual interests. The risk of such terrain[6] is that there is little in the way of landmarks for artist, critic, or collector to aid navigation between what will last and what is merely fashion.[7] Such uncertainty portends a large degree of floundering in both production and discourse, but also provides fertile ground for new and unexpected directions to emerge from[8]; it becomes the responsibility of the critic and curator to tease out threads and trends that are suddenly much less apparent. Just as the “death of the author” corresponded to the “birth of the reader”, the passing of the Modern and immediately Post-Modern into a new Mannerism portends an era where art is not yoked to past narratives, and the new ones will be constructed by artists free to move in any direction.

But this freedom necessarily means that old revolutions will be carried forth haphazardly at best. Ms. Schor’s complaint that “the farther you get from the generative decade of the 60s and yes the 70s, the worse it gets” echoes the frustration of other first generation social activists and feminists that those that followed them are not getting with the program as they laid it out. So while social justice and a commitment to progressive or radical political causes may remain strong within the self-identified arts demographic, why should these artists be expected to shoehorn such issues into their practice? Surly the historically aware students in Ms. Schor’s classroom are aware that a lot of bad art was (and is) made when political content trumped aesthetic concern; that such art achieves far less in the way of real-world impact than direct action would naturally lead pragmatic, organized professionals to compartmentalize any political labors where it would be expected to do the most good and focus their time in the studio on work that is personally fulfilling.

Similarly, young artists will have seen that the market is capable of commodifying any practice or output[9], and that the previous generations of artists who have made supposedly “uncollectible” work now have objects, relics, documentation, or certificates to sell[10]. Critique of the market has turned into another subject that an artist may engage with as they would gestural abstraction in painting, the machined surfaces of Minimalism, or the media construction of gender. As with other movements and interests in art, the first generation to tackle these interests stands rather tall; unless a young artist is personally invested in critiquing the market (or its attendant systems and structures)[11] they will be working well trod ground with little reason to do so, and less conviction. If the hand wringing that accompanies a Mannerist field of operations in art is the product of a profound uncertainty of how to apply judgments, then the worst course for artists to follow would be to engage with their physical or conceptual material halfheartedly.

While Mr. Colberg’s critique focuses on photography, which as a medium moves between “high” art and commercial assignment, his bias is not dissimilar to Ms. Schor’s. He eschews any gross condemnation in favor of a well-rounded analysis of the market forces acting on the supply of images but ultimately suggests that an emerging photographer should consider the earning potential of his or her more established peers as they try to establish themselves within the professional ranks. [12] Young artists[13] are navigating a new market and simply do not have the luxury of taking the same path as their elders. The ground has shifted.

Where the others approached from the point of view of the education system that feeds the art world, Mr. Cartin’s starts at the final destination, the gallery spaces at its epicenter. His concerns of how a surplus on the supply side of the art market can drag down the overall quality contained within[14] smartly meet Mr. Saltz’s concerns about the final product but Mr. Cartin is maddeningly vague about just which artists and galleries are pushing soulless art onto ignorant “consumers” (one can assume that it is the art someone else may happen to value or love[15]). While education remains a wished for panacea, it is not likely to correct for taste and systems of value which is what ultimately “ails” the art market. So as the terrain for production and criticism has been leveled to Mannerist smear across many potential sites, so has the market; the genteel market where a few self-styled in the know intellectual elites all attended the same openings has been replaced by the boisterousness of the bazaar[16] where competing worldviews are made neighbors by commerce. The inherent value of the current system resides in the multiplicity of viewpoints available, where many voices can be heard and different tastes (no mater how extreme) may find their own space in which to operate. The consequence for viewers of art is that the overall space of the market becomes extremely cluttered and confusing. More work is required to finally stand in front of art that was worth the effort to find, and because it’s more work, the work needs to better to validate that investment. This sets a near impossibly high standard for entry[17]; only Athena came forth so fully formed.

The central issue then is not of the privileging the judgment of critics (these, or any other others), but in not recognizing that the art world has undergone a tremendous change and growth to its fundamental structure that is leveling points of view.[18] My concern is not in limiting the scope of criticism[19] but in challenging the expectations that artists, especially those young and emerging, will limit themselves because of it, and especially when it comes from a position of another’s self interest. If there is a petite revolution in the emergence of a new Mannerism it lies in expecting that everyone involved (artists, critics, curators, and collectors) accept that no matter how dear their point of view may be, there is an equal and opposite measure that may and will be argued; what has turned is that this is a strength, rather than a limitation.


[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I’m still paying off the loans I took out during the course of my MFA studies.

[2] It should go without saying that if said artists did ignore recent art history in their practice they would be excoriated for that, too.

[3] Everyone wants a funky, messy art world that’s full of characters until they’re responsible for the financial planning of said characters later in life. It’s pretty easy to say that someone else should get out and man those barricades.

[4] In such a limited and sinking geographic space it is impossible to complete a representative survey, especially when that is not the intention to start with, and Venice as a site doesn’t have the flexibility of space for emerging artists to set up their own parallel or counter programming in a meaningful way. See my earlier essay ‘Site Specificity’ for a more complete explanation on my use of the term ‘site.’

[5] I do love me some Pontormo.

[6] You really could call it a desert.

[7] Although this risk is always evident; one only need go back to the last chapter of any published history of the art world’s recent to (then) current history to find that the number of artists mentioned who remain relevant or important falls off dramatically.

[8] In thinking of the fertilizer content of any such ground, please reconsider Sturgeon’s Law.

[9] I mean if Tino Seghal has a saleable commodity, come on.

[10] You don’t see a lot of aging coneptualists making ends meet working construction.

[11] See the work of Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida.

[12] To be fair this applies more to work for hire arrangements that do not have an easily analogous counterpart with in the art world,

[13] And Mr. Colberg’s position vis-a-vis the market for photography does correspond quite nicely to the complaints being leveled against emerging artists and the sector of the market that supports them.

[14] At least I think this is his general concern. Most of his essay is spent leveling a generic complaint about some corner of the art market (young artists, galleries, other collectors, art consultants) and then saying that he really can’t fault them for their behavior.

[15] Perhaps the greatest leveling of the post-modern age is to reduce the ‘other’ from a discreet coding of separation based on race, gender, or sexuality into a judgment on the quality of one’s purchases. As it turns out the joke is on Barbra Kruger.

[16] Boisterous in point of view, if not in actual market dealings; everybody has a back room after all.

[17] Mr. Cartin is comparing emerging artists to exhibitions by Sol LeWitt, Louise Lawler, and Picasso after all.

[18] If not the influence of established power structures and money; some things still fall at rates more closely associated with astronomical gravity.

[19] In the desert I propose all things are equal, even if in truth some things are more equal than others.

Written by Brian Dupont

July 13, 2011 at 6:44 am

Bracketology

Although I am not a basketball fan, the NCAA tournament has always represented the turning point where winter turns to spring. I have no interest in March Madness or associated workplace gambling; my sport is baseball and the annoyance posed by my co-workers trying to get me to go in on the office pool really only means that opening day is around the corner…

This is the second year Tyler Green has given his readers a set of brackets ostensibly for the art world. Last year he pitted the America’s abstract painters against one another (Cy Twombly beat out Ellsworth Kelly for the crown), but this year’s version is a bit more problematic. He aims to present a tournament of the greatest post-war works of art, but has instead managed to expose just how ingrained some of the systematic biases that haunt art and its attendant institutions can be.

Looking at his selection of 64 works of art, you’ll find only 3 works by women: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the other hand, most of the (very) old white males of the art historical canon are represented multiple times. Ruscha, Serra, and Judd are found twice; Richter three times; Johns, Rauschenberg, DeKooning, Pollock, and Barnet Newman four times; and, perhaps fittingly for this kind of popularity contest, Warhol leads the pack with five works. That’s more than half the total bracket represented by only 10 (white) men.

Mr. Green did not generate the list of works himself; he amalgamated a seeding selection from five guests (two of whom were women) to get the final brackets, but the process is his, and despite facing complaints from myself and others (on Twitter) he has chosen to defend these results as given by the process he set up. I have suggested (in an exchange on Twitter) that such results may point to a flawed process and that as the organizer he could have made some changes, but his response was “Why on earth would I presume I’m so smart I should overrule the five other (distinguished) people I invited to contribute?”

An exercise of this sort, intended to be lighthearted and in good fun, is bound to contain most of the works that populate the very end of a mammoth art history textbook. The broad outlines and movements of post-war and contemporary art will be illustrated with a few key works, as space allows. If women and minorities are not well represented, whose fault is that? The makers of the list only picked personal favorites and had them compiled after all. If Joan Snyder, Helen Frankenthaler, Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, Ana Mendita, Anne Truitt, Agnes Martin, Lee Krasner, Lynda Benglis, Carolee Schneemann, Judy Chicago, Howardina Pindell, Elizabeth Murray, Dorthea Rockburn, Mona Hatoum, Yayoi Kusama, or Louise Bourgeios (to name just a few of the notables from the same time period as most of the works on the list off the top of my head) weren’t the favorites of these critics and curators, why is that necessarily a problem within the context of this harmless little game?

The answer is that because Mr. Green’s game has managed to illustrate quite succinctly how easy it is to exclude women and minorities and still have everyone involved remain blameless. Whether it be a small lark of a bracket or the larger art world, it is too easy to point at a system or process as an excuse without actually examining who set up the system or how. It may be “just a game”, but games allow us to distill and process some of life’s messier and complex interactions into a simpler form that is more comprehensible for its abstraction. In short, they make it easier to see what is fair, and I think it becomes very clear that the system as devised is not (either in the brackets or the art world).

At least in the case Art Maddness II, the problems are easier to identify and fix. Looking at the list I think it is evident that there are shifting evaluations based on lax guidelines. If it makes sense to consider Cindy Sherman’s entire Untitled Film Still series and Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings as a single entity, why does Jasper Johns need three different flags? Is Three Flags really that different from Flag? Similarly, how different are the DeKooning Women or any of the Newman zip paintings? Is the point to consider groundbreaking work or major statements? Isn’t Vir Heroicus Sublimis so closely related to Onement I that context that they can be discussed in the same breadth? Pollock’s individual drip paintings are different enough, but isn’t their scope related to the collective breakthrough they represent?

Lest I be accused of not presenting an alternative, I find that I only need to look at another rite of spring, one that relates to my own sporting interest and would not require any great investment to change. Every spring Baseball America ranks the top 100 prospects in baseball’s minor leagues. It is every bit as contentious as any other interested battle of minutiae, and their process is remarkably similar to Mr. Green’s. Each of their writing staff compiles a list of their opinion of the top prospects, and the results are compiled in a spreadsheet. However instead of that being the end of it and having the final list generated by having Jim Callis hit ‘print’, the writers get together to look at the raw results and debate and argue for them. They curate the list, revising and reconsidering so that there is, if not consensus, then at least a sense that the biases and idiosyncrasies that arise from such a small sampling of opinion can be removed and that the final list is stronger. Mr. Green could have had a simple conference call with Michael Auping, Kristen Hileman, Dominic Molon, Ed Schad, and Katy Siegel to see where duplicate works that present the same idea could be reconciled, and to see what deserving works that may have been left off could take the place of the duplicate.

To be inclusive may have been a bit more work, but it is disappointing that a writer who purports to hold himself to high standards and certainly holds others to similar account did not make the effort. The tournament hosted by Modern Art Notes is a small offense, but the reason to speak out against such minor infractions is to hold the larger system to account. That “it’s just a game” shouldn’t be an excuse if we don’t want “it’s just art” to be a similar refrain.

Written by Brian Dupont

March 22, 2011 at 8:56 am

Site Specificity: Art & the Mainstream Part 2

Recently the overseers of Versailles announced that it would no longer be showing contemporary art within the French monument to extreme opulence. My first thought was of the Jewish Museum, and how it was eventually forced to return to its institutional roots rather than continually mounting exhibitions of avante-garde art. Of course the difference is that the “offending” artists at Versailles were not young upstarts turning prevailing aesthetic trends on their ear, but established art-stars. My second thought was that it was too bad, because certain artists, like Koons and Murakami, looked really damn good installed in gilded extravagance. Or at least the photos of the installations looked great (I confess to not having made it out to the suburbs of Paris to check them out in person), but the pictures I’ve seen are much more striking than the images of the same artists works in conventional gallery settings, or even seeing their work live and in person in the white cubes of Manhattan.

It leads me to believe that however much the superficial surface of fashion and aesthetics may change from day to day, the deeply underlying cues and codes imparted by extreme wealth probably have not changed that much in the last couple centuries (and possibly for a milenia). It helps that both Koons and Murakami are directly engaged with the codes and representation of the luxury commodity as a subject; where Versailles is the ultimate luxury background, shows by these artists would seem to unify the setting with the object. This unity is ultimately deeper than their busy shining, glittering surfaces. The art in question foregrounds the same expressions of power through capital that Versailles was built to express and house.

The backlash against the Versailles exhibitions connects quite directly to a thread brought up in Hyperallergic’s Mainstreaming Art panel. When addressing the mainstream in relation to Art one needs to be very particular of noting the ground (however metaphorical) one is standing on. It is all too easy to consider the Art world as a series of overcrowded fiefdoms isolated in broad swaths of open geography, but that is only the case if you only follow the money attached to the top one percent. The concept of Art will mean very different things to people in locales away from New York, or other urban centers where artists tend to congregate. Addressing Art for the mainstream means defining which mainstream, which site artists and viewers expect Art to operate in, and by extension how they choose to define what Art is.

I get the feeling that the French traditionalists who so object to Murakami probably have a great deal in common with American cultural conservatives; neither group seems particularly  tolerant of trends in contemporary art that are dominating the art scene or attendant consideration of ideas about equality by gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation that accompanies the discourse (I’m also left to wonder if the larger outrage over Murakami as opposed to Koons has more to do with ethnicity than has been previously admitted). While either group probably has little overlap with the larger centralized art world of their respective nations, it may be fair to say that by sheer numbers they represent a block of the population that may rival those who would count themselves as ‘in’ the art world. In my opinion such an example makes it a dicey proposition for the Art to try and claim a relation to the mainstream of the broader public based on straight populism.

As with policy and politics, the number of people interested in art is not limited to insiders only. If people inside the art world were the only ones interested in art, the rising attendance figures reported by galleries and museums wouldn’t be possible. However where the consequences of ceding mainstream discourse in politics can be immediate and severe, the stakes within culture are subtler. While the broader culture’s omnivorous lack of direction can easily consume any small attempt at revolution and spit it back out as a processed and easily consumed commodity (witness Work of Art), the question becomes how to expand the site of the art world so that it can be more inclusive while avoiding the inevitable confusion and cacophony that adding more voices to the discussion causes.

If there are solutions to this problem, they will be specific to the individual and will lie in recognizing that the art world is not a single site, but multiple sites occupying the same geography. Just as the modern city overlays and intermingles political, economic, utilitarian, and various cultural infrastructures, those engaging with Art will have to navigate between sites and situations as diverse as the ivory tower and the bazaar, the palace and the thieves den. How one enters and negotiates the various sites, and at what cost, will be determined by what they hope to accomplish. A young artist will necessarily need to navigate a different terrain than an established curator, who will be not be on the same footing as the moneyed collector. They will intersect at various points and share common ground, but there are significant gaps between their experiences.

These gaps represent the fragmentation of the art world that mirrors the increased fragmentation of the everyday populace. In this regard Work of Art establishes the same link from the art world to the mainstream that TV does to the broader population. It is not that there isn’t interesting and challenging work being made either as art or for television, it’s that amid such fragmentation of audience the only way to profitably address the mainstream is to present a product that is broadly bland and simplemindedly inoffensive so as to fill in the gaps between members of the audience. As the art world represents so many different interests and points of view, the more appropriate question is to the worth of spackling over the idiosyncrasies of its different sites to produce a simple map that can be easily read by the mainstream; how much does Art want to be like TV?

Written by Brian Dupont

October 21, 2010 at 8:27 am

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