Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

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.

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Written by Brian Dupont

March 22, 2011 at 8:56 am

13 Responses

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  1. The enterprise is about artworks; you’re responding with artists. The point of the enterprise was to consider masterworks, not mere lists of (worthy) names. It’s easy to list names. It’s a lot harder to pick works and to put them in the given context.

    Tyler Green

    March 22, 2011 at 9:11 am

    • I agree to an extent; within the context of a bracket tournament, I can see the charm in putting Autumn Rythm head to head with Spiral Jetty.

      My specific disagreement is that you already allowed some series (Richter, Sherman) and some of the individual works are more important as parts of larger artistic statements (John’s flags, Barnett Newman). Even from a tournament standpoint, what fun is it in having Flag go up against 3 Flags?

      The idea of the masterpiece gains power by the work that was made at the same time; Autumn Rhythm wouldn’t be as meaningful as a one-off experiment; it’s more impressive for the context of the other large drip paintings. Similarly I think some artists, like Hesse have a number of works that could easily have been chosen as individually representative, and it seems to easy that female artists are saddled with label of having an even production. I think this happens to a certain extent in your list already; Richter, Johns, and really most of the artists who are listed multiple times with similar works could easily be satisfactorily represented with fewer, opening up spots for more artists.

      Hell, you could have played that into a “Selection Sunday” type debate that I’m sure would’ve been fascinating.

      Brian Dupont

      March 22, 2011 at 10:49 am

      • “Untitled Film Stills” was created as an explicit series, a project. The Newmans weren’t.

        This is addressed in the original post as well.

        Tyler Green

        March 22, 2011 at 11:09 am

      • Tyler, your original post doesn’t so much explain the difference between Sherman’s series and Diebenkorn’s so much as set the difference as an a-priori condition. At least Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings are limited and concise; Both Sherman and Diebenkorn explore a narrow range of media theme and effect (I think it could be argued that Diebenkorn’s series is actually more narrow despite Sherman’s not taking as long).

        Brian Dupont

        March 22, 2011 at 9:36 pm

  2. Saying “the enterprise is about artworks” continues to, as the writer states, “illustrate quite succinctly how easy it is to exclude women and minorities and still have everyone involved remain blameless.”

    Elizabeth

    March 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

  3. Pretty simple – there are more great white male artists than women/minorities, in spite of all the histrionics / hand-wringing / strident exhortations to the contrary.

    EdwardSzabo

    March 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    • Whether it’s singular works or broader artistic statements, I think you’re suffering from selection bias and confusing an opinion (if popularly held) with a determined aesthetic fact. The effect of the marginalization of other voices from canonical narratives is that the work is ultimately not seen and can’t even compete on equal footing.

      That more white male artists are recognized as “great” is indicative of structural biases in the system that doles out recognition and reward. The larger issue for me isn’t the historical precedents, but that they can be so easily perpetuated.

      If you want to consider how women and minorities can wind up being marginalized, I’d point to the examples of Howardena Pindell and Jack Whitten (check out the WMAA catalog to High Times, Hard Times). Pindel made some fantastic minimalist/ post-minimalist paintings and later sculptures that ultimately never found an audience, and I don’t think there’s any valid aesthetic reason for this. Similarly Whitten (and David Diao) were making squeegee paintings that beat Richter to the punch by over a decade. If the art world was a sheer meritocracy any minor changes Richter made to Whitten’s work would not merit the fantastic accolades and rewards he’s reaped.

      Brian Dupont

      March 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm

  4. “Madness” not “Maddness”
    Just saying!

    kolkas

    March 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    • Fixed. I loathe typos, but am both a poor speller and typist, so these things do slip through when I rush.

      Brian Dupont

      March 22, 2011 at 9:24 pm

  5. As good as the women that you mentioned are career wise. None made a work that could remotely be considered the greatest artwork of the Post War period and that isn’t because theyre women.

    M

    March 22, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    • Another issue that I think relates to the focus on Tyler’s brackets (as a microcosm of problems that I and other perceive in the art world) is that the issue is not “winning”, it’s about being allowed to compete. Tyler’s last tournament did have quite a few interesting head to head match-ups, but there was a broader sense of inclusion. Ultimately this sort of competition is going to favor the highest seeds (last year it came down to Ellsworth Kelly vs. Twombly); it’s about removing systemic bias so that more varied voices can contribute (compete in this case).

      Some of the works included really seem like accidents of the system used to devise the brackets; and I think a more thoughtful look at the art considered might find a work as influential as Eva Hesse’s a bit more relevant to contemporary sculpture than John’s Ballantine Ale Cans.

      Brian Dupont

      March 22, 2011 at 9:22 pm

  6. I followed the discussion as it happened on Twitter and continue to do so through the various blog posts that have popped up as a result. My only input will be a suggestion for future endeavors. The NCAA doesn’t just pick 64 teams to play in the tournament, teams are admitted by winning their conferences as well as by winning at-large bids. So why couldn’t there be something like a women’s conference or a diversity conference to add a little bit of variety into an extremely white, male dominated bracket? Guarantee the selection of a certain number of minority artists, and if some power conference like the Big East or the ACC or the Andy Warhol or the Jasper Johns conference wins a couple extra at-large bids then at least other people aren’t being overlooked. Seems like a simple solution to acknowledge contributions by all artists to the pretty arbitrary designation of “greatest post-WWII masterpiece.”

    Tim McCool

    March 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

  7. Tried to post this here before. Here it is again:

    I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. A team of experts assembled by Mr. Green has determined that women have only made about 5% of the greatest artworks of the past 65 years. The rest were made by white American men. Certainly this must be true. The “seeder” team even had women on it!

    If you’re unhappy about the gender disparity, remember Mr. Green is only responsible for 16.67% of the determination. Why bother attacking him for bringing together a team to illustrate the gender inequity we’ve been scrambling to remedy in relatively recent re-estimations of the “Post War” canon (not “cannon”).

    These statistics are all extremely important. After all it’s statistics (and democratic voting) which determine any artist’s success with a particular work.

    Of course I’m making a lame attempt at some satire here, but really isn’t this only a slightly distorted reflection of the gender balance in art historical discourse of those same years (or at least the first 20 of them)?

    I do blame Mr. Green 100% for being a hypocritic. This whole thing makes a mockery out of the artists’ work. The competition is an irrelevant and peurile way for Mr. Green to draw more attention to himself, his blog, and the company that pays him.

    I’d also blame Mr. Green 100% for being just plain rude to people I admire and respect. Seeing his petty quibbling over semantics to “win” arguments with the likes of Jennifer Dalton (@Jen_Dalton) and other thoughtful artists and writers reminds me of the times he’s done the same to me. He’s disrespectful, bratty, and obnoxious.

    As for me, I’ll stick with Sharon Butler (@twocoats) and abstain from taking part in the ranking of artworks on Mr. Green’s blog. http://www.twocoatsofpaint.com/2011/03/tyler-greens-art-madness-promts-outrage.html Arguing with him just plays into the aim of the whole thing which is to garner cheap web hits.

    P.S. Interior Scroll should’ve been on there… and probably The Dinner Party (even though I’m personally not a fan)… and Repetition Nineteen III… and Untitled (I shop therefore I am)… and Suicide of Dorothy Hale (wait, that’s 1939, so a later self-portrait)… and Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass and anything by Lee Bonitcou (I’d pick this one at Whitney: http://whitney.org/Collection/LeeBontecou )… and what about Gego, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape … and cetera … and cetera.

    MuseumNerd

    March 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm


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