Parsing Cacophony: Art & the Mainstream Part 3
As I continue to look at potential models for Art’s interaction with mainstream culture, it becomes clear that the central consequence of increased exposure to the broader population is the addition of ever more bodies and voices to an already overcrowded site. Just as the population at large continues to grow, the sites of art fill up and expand. During the 1950’s and 60’s it used to be possible to for everyone in the tiny New York art scene to know everyone else, but that is clearly not the case today.
As capital exerts a gravitational pull on resources, including labor, the art world has seen immigration just like any other site of accumulated wealth. Its expansion occurred in conjunction with increasing enrollment in higher education, especially among women and minorities; as these people moved out of the lower levels of academia and into the art world they also brought the germinating seeds of progressive multicultural movements with them. Even as these artists encountered a glass ceiling within the art world, the value of their (often unheralded) contributions became apparent as critiques of privilege and power indicated a way forward beyond the prevailing historical narratives. Clement Greenberg projected a slow heat death of recycled formalism for art, and the first conservative spasms of postmodernism in the ‘80s proposed an endless recombination of previous styles. Both ideas are severely limited, presenting myopic sense of the future possibilities of Art.
If Ideas are the DNA of Art, biology illustrates the dangers posed by population extremes. A small population limited to a small site will inevitably face extinction; by contrast a rapid expansion results in increased competition for and conflict over resources. For Art the value of reaching out to the mainstream is akin to a species expanding its genetic and territorial diversity. As I noted in my previous post, the rising attendance figures in galleries and museums indicates that more people are interested in Art, and the benefit to the art world proper lies in drawing more people in to contribute resources, capital, or production as viewers, collectors, dealers, critics, curators, teachers, artists, or assistants and support staff. Most likely people in the art world are filling many of the above rolls and contributing to a diverse and roiling ecosystem.
If Bravo’s Work of Art represented mass culture’s attempt to mine the art world via mountaintop removal, reducing that ecosystem to an easy to navigate slab, then to extend the metaphor it is the job of critics and curators to act as conservationists, supporting and nurturing artists who might otherwise disappear. And make no mistake about it is a jungle out there. The common charge leveled at large survey shows (like the Whitney Biennial) is that they either lack focus or do a poor job of illustrating contemporary trends. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, the institutional weight associated with such shows makes them (rightly or wrongly) a target for anyone whose agenda is countered or not satisfied. For how long did we see references to the 1993 Whitney Biennial?
It would seem that the large art fairs have usurped the roll of surveyor, stripping oversight from the process in favor of the whims and trends of the market. While fairs offer an amazing amount of art for viewing, most are curated on some level, even if it is only at the level of which dealers are invited. This works to a degree as dealers have, by the necessity of managing their own brand, come to fill a curatorial function. In this regard it becomes necessary to acknowledge that if curation is the engine that drives the art world, introducing new artists and advancing their work, then the majority of this work will be done by galleries (and alternative spaces) rather than museums and academia.
This is not to argue that curators have been marginalized and are unimportant in the face of the vast amount of money that moves through the art world, rather it is to expand the agency of curation to the people within the art world who provide the basic organization. That the act of organization will marginalize some artists is inevitable, but necessary. Sites that lack any curatorial direction will suffer at the expense of signal to noise.
Consider the large group shows put on by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition; occupying a large warehouse in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, the exhibition space may be comparable to the Whitney Biennial or the Armory, but each show is essentially uncurated. Any theme suggested for a given exhibition is broad enough to apply to almost any work, and work is brought to the installation ready to hang, most often without the organizer having seen it. The most that can usually be done is to choose where to hang the works. There is no shaping or directing of aesthetic voice, and no point of view beyond what may self organize out of the crowd. The din of such pure aesthetic democracy effectively neutralizes the opportunity for a broader artistic statement. Instead of being amplifying what is being said, the noise cancels out any conversation, any subtlety of statement.
The ultimate result of any organizing effort is that some work will be discarded as the wheat is separated from the chaff. While no artist wants to wind up as “chaff”, the counter balance in empowering curation would be a reduction in noise and more focused arguments for artists and art.
I think the internal model many have for a curator is someone akin to the cool hunter Cayce Pollard in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. As a character she was blessed with a preternatural skill at identifying cultural success, and attempted to mine cultural production at its very roots, doing the dirty work of looking for the back streets and rough neighborhoods where trends and art germinate. Indeed, an industrialist she works for notes that her focus on all aspects of culture causes her to “curate” everything about her life, down to the clothing she wears. This is a comforting myth for artists to embrace, as it plays to classic ideas that they will be ‘discovered’ and quickly set on the path to recognition and aesthetic and financial success. I think the practical side of the character, that she made her (not substantial) living searching for origin points of cultural production so as to give it and its creators it’s first established venue point towards a more practical avenue, where everyone ‘emerging’ in the art world bears a responsibility for its curation. Artists need to recognize that there is hard and dirty work being done outside their studios that is just as valuable to the ecosystem as what they are doing in them.