Archive for September 2010
On September 10th Hyperallergic hosted a small panel discussion on the mainstreaming of art, the podcast of which will be available on iTunes. The discussion was interesting, but felt a bit unfocused. This shouldn’t be a surprise (and should be considered a good thing) given the diverse interests and curiosity of the panelists, as well as the lack of a dogmatic agenda. The format allowed the panel comment on a wide range of topics related to Art and the Art world’s uncomfortable relation to mainstream culture, including MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibition and how the comment section of blogs has opened up the discourse about art, but here I want to concentrate on what was to me the elephant in the room: Art’s status as a luxury commodity.
That Art is a luxury commodity not a new idea; panel moderator William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton’s Hashtagclass project devoted considerable time and intellectual energy to turning this idea over. In fact I think the critique of art as luxury commodity is a central concern of their project (just look at the site’s banner graphic). While I think it’s fair that the Hyperallergic panel didn’t use its limited time to address a previously examined idea, especially in relation to the recent TV exposure associated with Bravo’s Work of Art, it still seems like the central problem when thinking about Art’s relationship to mainstream culture.
Sometimes it seems as though artists, critics, and dealers will often treat that relationship just as they would the eponymous invisible pachyderm. It seems no one wants art to be thought of as little more than a collection of designer goods. Art has always been about communication, be it directly with the gods, the church or state instructing the populace, or the individual artist communicating matters of personal feeling or vision; I don’t think anyone gets that from a handbag (even one by Murakami), and the association feels like an accusation of vacuousness; it highlights the mercantile exchange at the expense of aesthetic or cultural meaning. This slight is at the very core of why art has a problematic relation to any formulation of ‘mainstream culture.’ In trying to set itself apart from other luxury commodities it is arguing for a more exclusive place within the cultural landscape, not a more general or mainstream one.
It is a question of access, and just as in any other area of human behavior where there is money to be made, it is the cost of access that is problematic. This is especially true when (say, as with politics) the ideal system is democratic and open and the existing system is revealed to be less than that. As our current global culture allows for increased mobility between economic classes, the boundaries between what is traditionally thought of as high and low culture has become similarly smeared. This smearing leaves us in a consumer culture where many luxury brands are more accessible to more people. This increases the competition for those objects, but also levels the field somewhat (the best, if fictional, example I can think of being Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones yelling at someone because she saw the designer handbag she coveted on the arm of a Midwestern housewife while she was made to wait – shades of Craig Robbins). However, by virtue of its ultimate focus on the unique, Art reinforces its link to the history of the luxury commodity.
From a basic production standpoint, the economics behind the production of a work of art grow out of the centuries old tradition of guilds and skilled craftsmen. Artists today are (generally, for the most part) making work by hand, with high overhead costs in space and materials. The base economic factors of the cost of labor and the time and experience required to meet a sufficient level of technical skill remain as factors that push the price of the handmade object ever upwards. Similarly issues of scale apply to artists and collectors alike. Bigger is seen as more important, more desirable; having the resources to own a non-utilitarian object that takes up a large amount of square (or cubic) footage represents a considerable expenditure of capital. (This is all the more so if the work is in storage, there Art is even removed from even a pretense of having even a decorative function.) Previous attempts by artists to make work that is ‘uncollectible’ have only resulted in changing the taste of collectors, who will still find a way to own the art, sometimes at even greater expense and sometimes without anything material to show for it.
That Art is ultimately subject to the same economic forces as any other luxury commodity is an a priori condition; furthermore it is not possible to divorce Art and its production from rules of economics. Attempts at popularizing access, such as Jen Beckman’s 20 x 200 project, ultimately reinforce this condition, but it strikes me as a similar situation to almost anything else people care about these days; the situation is not ideal, but it isn’t necessarily clear what the ideal would even be (other than that one person’s ideal is probably very different than the next person’s). This is not to say that problems and grievances shouldn’t be addressed, or that options and alternatives should not be explored, only that those who care about art should not lose sight of the cultural and aesthetic values that brought us to it in the first place.
Julie Mehretu, ‘Grey Area’
Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York City. May 14- October 6
That Julie Mehretu’s first show in New York in more than five years is in the Guggenheim is fitting. Since post-Renaissance specialization split Art and Architecture the two disciplines have had an uneasy coexistence. Few contemporary artists address the subject and methods of architecture as directly as does Mehretu; in ‘Grey Area’ she grapples with her own artistic progression inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncompromising space.
Or inside an addendum to that space, which is perhaps appropriate, as one of her core subjects has always been the representation of the baroque topologies that constitute the contemporary city and how they evolve and change. If her recently completed Mural for the Goldman Sachs headquarters in downtown New York represents a culmination of her use of layering and riotous fragments of color, then she has used the quieter surroundings of the Guggenheim to address criticisms that her work has been static, and has not undergone a similar change to the urban environments she sources. These paintings are, if not a new animal, a different breed, offering a space of impressionist atmosphere to stand in contrast to the diagrammatic. The artist has said that after the attacks of September 11th she stopped painting explosions; residents of New York will remember the earnestness and solemnity that pervaded the city in the following days as a grey cloud hung over lower Manhattan. Restraint had become the standard, with exuberant displays suddenly out of place.
But a reading that views these new works as symbolizing a rejection of the excesses of the last few years is too simple. Just as an architect’s office may have multiple projects in various stages of completion, these paintings were produced concurrently with the Goldman Sachs commission. Mehretu’s studio is openly organized along such professional lines and she employs a team of assistants and specialists to fabricate her paintings from her sketches and computer models. Though clearly the result of a handmade process, it is equally clear that the specific hand in question is not of particular importance. Architects are pragmatically free from discussions of the “authentic gesture” that have queered the reception of painter’s productions, and the marks that populate these paintings are fairly anonymous. Whether made by Mehretu or an assistant, they read the same and there is no question of authorship. Closer to drawings than paintings, they are blueprints writ large. Though they describe ruins rather than stadiums or urban maps, the structures are built up with the mechanical lines of technical pen and straight edge. Erasures are prevalent, wiping the drawing to the ground (literally and figuratively) and frustrating connections. The surfaces are unified by flicks and wisps of ink that evoke hanging clouds. Even as the paintings are more ethereal, with mists of yellow and pink floating through paintings like Atlantic Wall, the overall palette in the gallery is what one would expect from an exhibition entitled ‘Grey Area.’
The moral compass of the show (if works of art can profess morality) also aligns well with the exhibition title. Mehretu’s draws inspiration from zones where political power has broken down and is in question. She references not only Ground Zero, but war torn cities the world over. It is not a coincidence that attacks on power are simultaneously attacks on architecture. Its logistics require the capital that power accrues, but it also makes for a visible target. Visually these territories refute Dostoevsky’s dictum of the uniqueness inherent in unhappiness; in their vacancy they all seem alike. Mehretu’s paintings have the remove of photojournalism, their horror is shown in grisaille and removed neutrality.
That the paintings were made in Berlin should not be ignored. It is a city that has had to be rebuilt after the devastation of World War II and further reconfigured after the removal of the wall. It is a first world city that has mimicked the urban change of the third world. The painting that stands apart from the others, Berliner Plätze, repeats the façades of Berlin landmarks Escher-like across different axes of the picture plane. It speaks simultaneously to the preservation of history and the inevitability of reconstruction. Large and calm, the painting intones that we are witnessing events that cycle through history. We do take comfort in their recurrence, but perhaps we can find some small solace in architects and artists being at the ready to rebuild.