The new art season is upon us, bringing with it packed openings, ridiculous gossip, and the latest scandal d’jour. For artists it also marks new cycle of applications for grants and residencies. Everyone is back from vacation and programs and exhibitions can begin in earnest, just like the transition to serious movies and the end to summer popcorn fun at the movies, most artists will turn (or at least divide) their attention towards offers of space, funding, or some sort of patronage that they won’t find within the market place. This weekend the flood gates are officially open, and the Brooklyn Museum launches GO with the stated mission to having the community interact with and discover the art being made around them within the one territory that is more densely populated with artists than any other.
The question becomes, why is everyone so eager to mash art and community together? In this day and age of diminished arts education and funding, a seemingly ubiquitous requirement of grants these days is that the art and applicant to also provide some sort of service to the community.[i] This is usually left rather vague and up to the artist, but the fact that the requirement is there at all either privileges work that where the conceptual underpinnings are rooted in activism or requires the artist to contort their practice into some sharable event of dubious utility. While there is nothing wrong with the former (after all such work is much less likely to find a base of private collectors that will support it), that kind of practice is much less common among the general population of artists. The effect in demanding community service from artists is that it ultimately distorts the perception and demand of what sort of art is being made, the same way people claim that the art market does.[ii] It also effectively states that the art itself is not of sufficient utility to the community, something that I think is baldly wrong.
My suspicion is that as public education has been cut back more and more, and as the arts have been the first programs on the block, political and arts non-profit leaders have tried to help replace or otherwise shore up the decline. But the final commitment becomes only a less effective vestige of what we should see in our schools every day. The responsibility falls on community leaders, and ultimately on to the community themselves[iii] but is passed on to artists[iv] to lead the community back to art. Interest in art appears on the rise[v], and art has always been a part of the community[vi] that communities are reaching out to their artists is a good thing. The problem arises when the art becomes subservient to the whims of that community. Michigan’s Artprize turns art into a political campaign, which in the end leaves it as a mere popularity contest and there can be no mistaking that a popular vote is not a friend of serious aesthetic investigation. Consider the careers of Leroy Neimann or Thomas Kinkade, or the attendance numbers of Paul Schimmel’s fantastically scholarly MOCA exhibitons in the face of Jeffery Deitch’s Art in the Street. What is good for art (and is good art) and what is popular with the community are not usually the same thing.
GO seeks to combine the voting structure of Artprize with the grass roots, get-out-and-meet-your-neighbor spirit of any good old fashioned open studio event. If there is something worse than the populist demand of Artprize, it is the equivocation and lack of effort that is put forth by the Brooklyn Museum. A quick glance at the rules shows that the community is only nominating artists for studio visits. Those that receive the most nominations will have a studio visit with the curators of the Brooklyn Museum, who will curate a show from what they see, including those artists into a group show. A lot of work is being put into GO on organizational and technical levels, and both artists and voters have to jump through quite a few hoops in order to participate in what is an outsourcing of the curator’s job by the curator themselves, who could (and should) just as easily be out looking in artist’s studios.[vii] GO relieves them of a great deal of legwork and responsibility, and will simultaneously provide a huge trove of contact information that the Museum can use for future membership drives.[viii]
Art has long had function to serve the information and propaganda needs of those in power. Perhaps the greatest achievement of art history is the slow unyoking of art from the whims of the elite, a project that is nowhere near complete. GO is ultimately an attempt to co-opt grass roots methods for institutional advantage, but it also asks the community to do something good: go look at more art and think about it. That in itself is enough benefit and doing anything more isn’t really being done for artist or art.
[ii] … and to be clear the market causes the same distortion. Money around art is like a large gravitational mass around light; it bends and distorts its path. The money available in grants is far less than the art market proper, but the effects will still be there.
[iii] Who have ultimately voted for this structure in one way or another
[iv] Who are only too happy to take it on; some funding is still better than none.
[v] Witness museum attendance rates, the volume of the art market, and even reality TV getting in on the act.
[vi] What did you think those cave paintings in Lascaux were for, anyway?
[vii] And seriously, does anyone think it would be so hard for the curator of any museum to get an invitation to the studio of an emerging artist?
[viii] This likely the real reason for the museum to put so many rescources into what is otherwise a minor publicity stunt. If you are registered to vote, you are sure to get a great deal of email from the Brooklyn Museum. Some of it will certainly pertain to the exciting results of GO and invite you out to the museum to see the work you helped curate, but even more of it is probably going to be asking you for money.