Archive for April 2010
Craig Robins’s lawsuit against the New York gallery of David Zwirner is the new Skin Fruit. It is exposing some of the more unseemly connections between money and influence that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all knew were there, except that this time the concerns of artists, collectors, and private dealers take the place of institutional realpolitik. The artworld blogosphere has done an excellent job covering the fray, with Sarah Douglas, Hrag Vartanian, Greg Allen, and Ed Winkleman providing news and insight.
The legal proceedings and the question of whether or not there has been a breach of contract between the parties is less interesting to me than the sensationalizing idea of a blacklist. Blacklists have an ugly history, almost exclusively of the wealthy and powerful exercising their influence to exclude and marginalize people who thought to challenge their standing or interests. Blacklists have been a brutal exercise of top-down power, and it is easy to see why cultural critics would recoil from them; those who are historically aware know how easily they might suffer under similar constraints.
In this case though, the blacklist is that of the artist Marlene Dumas. Like any other blacklist, hers is about control; she aims to influence how her work moves through the marketplace and into institutions. She prefers that prominent collectors hold her works for a long time and has blacklisted collectors who speculate in her work and flip the paintings on the secondary market for a large profit. This turns the normal power structure of the blacklist on its head, with the wielder of money and power finding himself shut out and unable to find purchase.
A blacklist is a blunt tool, and certainly some of the questions asked about Ms. Dumas’s motives or the lengths she will go to are valid. Hrag Vartanian asked on Twitter “What if she were refusing to sell to minorities?” and Charlie Finch certainly finds the mere existence of a blacklist condemnable. But despite the history of the blacklist, I can’t really find any great fault with Ms. Dumas’s employment of it. She will not see any of the profits on the resale of her work, and she sees value in securing her legacy; if that means that she limits her market and tries to sell her work to people who will eventually donate it to a public collection, I don’t see why (or how) she should (or could) be forced to sell her work to either the first or the highest bidder. In the end it is her right to do as she sees fit with her work, whereas the collectors she is denying have no inherent right to purchase it. Ms. Dumas could possibly harm her market by continued capricious action, but she has probably accrued enough power and influence of her own to make this outcome unlikely. Indeed, from where I sit, that is progress.
Following the scrutiny of Lady Gaga’s designation as an artist, pop culture is again entangling the aesthetician’s turf. This time Roger Ebert has declared that “in principle, video games cannot be art.” As before, I simply do not understand the reflex to exclude media from the possibility to communicate larger ideas visually (which is the broadest definition of art I can think of). Historically photography, performance, and film and video have all been previously ghettoized, only to emerge as media that have supported masterworks. I think it’s a foolish to bet against any media at this point. It may take a great while for the conventions and infrastructure that lead to greater acceptance to emerge, but as the digital world becomes more and more integrated into the fabric of our lives from a younger and younger age, I think the generational timetable that Ebert mentions is greatly overstated.
While I think that a good deal of the exclusionary desire stems from older generations’ comfort with a given technology, the fact that we are talking about games does complicate matters somewhat. Still, there is plenty of art that is interactive or participatory (MoMA’s current exhibition of Marina Abramovic being a prime example); many artists construct whole environments as art; so would the fact that said environment is digital matter? If we can accept total immersion in an environment and participation separately, why does combining them both in a game rule them out as art? Is there something else?
In the end I believe that almost any medium will wind up sprouting little seeds that can best be described as art. Earlier this week I had a brief exchange with @museumnerd about art in Twitter feeds. On the surface 140 characters of text would seem to be a medium that would completely resist visual art, but I’m not so sure. @jennyholzer or @barbarakruger may not actually be the artist in question (or someone from their respective studios), but I feel that their work would work well there (at least as exemplified by these feeds ). There’s something a bit jarring about suddenly encountering their all-caps pronouncements within the discourse, fuzz, and minutiae that comprise my (and probably most people’s) Twitter feed. I feel that the sudden shift to a more serious context within everyday life can give these bytes of data the impact of a more realized art object. Call them the small sketches for the digital set.
Similarly @On_Kawara may even be a program rather than a person, but to me that makes his feed, which gives the same 2 posts, one immediately after the other, day after day, declaring that “I am alive” even more directly a work of art. The entire project, so similar to the artist’s paintings of dates, aligns with his oeuvre so well, just in this small medium. I enjoy seeing them come into my feed and then vanish, surfacing with a comforting, just-off regularity and reminding me of the digital end of the artist as manufacturer with a large workshop. I always wonder about the technical aspects of this project (the way I do with most art; I always stick my nose in a painting), and I wonder if there is some mechanism that will end the feed when Mr. Kawara passes.
Perhaps none of these qualify as masterworks, and masterworks is what the public usually needs to see before a medium is truly accepted. But I don’t think that means that the early attempts should be denied consideration. They can be judged on their own merits, and all we have to remember is that acceptance is different than canonization. Opening up the space will get those works and artists here more quickly, but they’ll get here regardless.
Following a link provided by Hrag Vartanian on Hyperallergic, it appears that David Byrne or Klaus Biesenbach went a bit too far in regards to whether or not Lady Gaga is in fact an artist. Byrne has provided a correction from Biesenbach on his journal, although as Mr. Vartanian noted on Hyperallergic and in the comments here, the overall lack of context to these reports makes it easy to misconstrue the intent behind the comments… or use them as a springboard for our own ends.
We’ll just have to wait with eager anticipation to see what a Biesenbach – Lady Gaga collaboration will look like.
Labeling something art’ or ‘not art’, while a nice gimmick in an iPhone app, has always seemed pointless to me, especially now. As soon as aestheticians can formulate some rules to separate the high from the low there is bound to be an artist that will come along and make some art that thumbs its nose at the division. The most easily recognized demarcation may be by venue, but I don’t think simply being in a gallery or museum is a particularly satisfying or useful definition. I have always worked with a very simple premise: anything can be art, but the issue is whether or not it’s good art. I acknowledge that the second part opens up another debate, but it at least puts everything on the same ground and sidesteps the untenable position of having an object’s definition be determined by its quality (a piece of bad art is still art, it’s not ‘not art.’)
I always understood that the ‘art’ would be made by an ‘artist’, and allowed for a similar laissez faire approach to who could call themselves an artist. If you want to call yourself an ‘artist’, that was fine as long as you were willing to be judged on the merits of your work. My firm belief in the truth of Sturgeon’s Law probably made these premises easier to accept; any nitwit might demand to be accepted as an artist, but it was fairly easy to think of them as part of the 90 % majority. In that regard I’m for a ‘big tent’ approach, especially since today’s multi-media presentations and performance art practices make a point of crossing the same boundaries that painters and sculptors used to. It might be bad, but that’s no reason not to include it. This ‘bottom-up’ approach gives the determination to the artists and other producers of culture, but is getting some push back from the very top of the ivory tower.
According Klaus Biesenbach (as related by David Byrne), Lady Gaga is not an artist, despite thinking of herself as one. I can see why it might be uncomfortable to acknowledge a performer like Lady Gaga, but the artworld seemed to accept Fischerspooner easily enough a few years ago and Laurie Anderson has moved easily enough between ‘art’ and pop that isn’t the art kind. The comparison I keep coming back to is Matthew Barney, and his operatic spectacles. They both have fantastic costuming and props that would be at home in either the art or performance worlds if they were presented anonymously. Certainly no one is going to declare Barney’s films ‘not art’ or say that he isn’t in fact an artist, but I’m wondering what the real difference between them is, and where the dividing line sits (or waivers as the case may be) between various cultural productions. Is all Lady Gaga needs to show (or sell) her props in a respectable gallery? Would a performance at a Biennial or Documenta do it? Biesenbach didn’t offer anything to back up his assertion, but it I think it’s a bit disingenuous to reject one aspect of cultural production, even if it is more ‘Pop,’ while his employer’s current blockbuster exhibition is of Tim Burton props and films. It seems like Biesnbach would be more comfortable if he could simply make a contextual declaration like The New Museum’s Richard Flood did, but hey, that’s just my opinion.
Since my interaction with Jerry Saltz (described in this blog’s last installment), I have been considering how I relate to the collective population defined as people who became artists and just happened to have been born around the same time as me. I’ve never felt that my interests in art necessarily aligned with the people around me, but I also felt that was one of the benefits of being an artist now was that we’d gotten to a point where we could do whatever we want. We’ve already seen the historical end of Modernism and post-modernism’s U-turn out of the cul de sac (followed by the artists that followed Schnable, Salle, et al high-tailing it out of an ugly suburban neighborhood at high speed), so the benefit of being a Post-Post-Modernist was no longer being yoked to the need to drive a historical narrative forward. Just as the Renaissance introduced new tools for representation into art, once they were absorbed artists were able to follow their own ideas. Artists now should be in a similar position, but with even more freedom, as any notions of ghetto or hierarchy by medium should not be taken seriously. This leaves artists with the explicitly personal. This is the proverbial blessing and curse, as freedom to go anywhere can make it awfully hard to pick a destination.
That Mr. Saltz felt that I was cribbing from the Post-Minimalists is certainly fair in that they do form the backbone of my influences as a painter. I still remember walking into the Johnson County Community College Gallery to see a pared down version of Terry Winters Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective and being completely bowled over. Here was someone who understood paint as a physical material but was able to marry it to an interest in science and information. These were my interests; it felt like he was painting directly for me. This was a great experience for a budding artist, inevitably leading to a great deal of imitation and then trying to figure out a way around or through that influence to something that was my own. What I discovered was that I had little interest in brash expressionism; my subject and presentation was going to be restrained and considered. I worked my way back through artists like Donald Judd and early Frank Stella, and found artists that I wanted to rebound off of, that made work that I appreciated on a deeply personal level, but at the same time who did not signal a way forward. While working I paid more and more attention to my process and materials, finding that my handling of paint was not going to change, like handwriting. My corrections, editing, scraping, and sanding were intrinsic to my project, and my surfaces informed my painting’s conceptual structure.
This has me circling back to Roberta Smith’s NY Times columns on Post-Minimalism’s recent pervasiveness in New York City museums and on the future of painting. Ms. Smith (married to Mr. Saltz) argues that we’re seeing too much cool, reductive art in Manhattan museums. Leaving aside the larger geo-social implications of needing to see the work on the island, I was at first a bit put off by her argument. I waited for a long time for the Roni Horn and Gabriel Orozco exhibitions and getting them in short order felt like a bounty rather than a burden. That there was a synergy between institutions to explore a particular period in depth didn’t feel like a bad thing, certainly not as someone interested in that period.
But she was also arguing for painting, for work “that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” It’s certainly something I would like to see more of in galleries, if only out of pure selfishness. This is how I think of what I make. However the examples she presents, especially in the later slide show, are not anything I can relate to. “Made by hand” need not direct the artist to retreat into a clunky folk figuration. I prefer to think of Cash in As I Lay Dying, meticulously planing and fitting the boards for his mother’s coffin. Personal need and the handmade can side with craftsmanship, and reference the body only by measure. The materials used are as necessary. That these concerns are labeled as ‘Post-Minimal’ strikes me as more an issue of the currency and failure of the label rather than my project. That my concerns likely don’t matter to my peers, ‘my generation,’ as a whole doesn’t render them moot, merely unfashionable. That I can live with.