Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Archive for July 2011

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