Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Out of Time (Part 1): ‘Forever Now’ and the New Landscape of Painting.

Painting has had it rough lately, it’s as if constantly dying and being reborn has really taken something out of the medium. For better or worse it has been yoked to the very definition and expectations of what art is, and painters have become accountable not only on formal but also economic grounds. Hatred of “Provisionalism[1] has given way to similar reactions about “Zombie Formalism[2] where a good deal of the criticism hinges not on the work but on how it is being made and just who is buying it. The new crisis of criticism in contemporary painting hinges on just how slippery the medium is and how its relations to the constantly shifting ground of the art worlds[3] have been exposed.

Forever Now, MoMA’s first new painting survey in 30 years, gives critics a good deal to try and grab on to.[4] From the beginning the show stakes a claim on the key feature of our time being an internet derived “atemporality”[5], with information easily accessible with a few clicks leading to a deluge of historical reference that can effectively remove art from historical place. However, the hip nod to William Gibson[6] and the technological present disguises the broader import of the show; in mapping out a space for painting where the entire wealth of history and aesthetic investigation is open (and constantly re-opened) to use[7] curator Laura Hoptman has marked our present circumstances as unequivocally Postmodern. A better pop cultural reference would be Morpheus stepping back to reveal the desert of the real to Neo[8] at the beginning of “The Matrix.” Coming from the gleaming skyscrapers and clear blue skies of high modernism, the scorched earth and sky of the truth of reality is a foreboding sight. It would seem a landscape of exhausted strategies and unintended consequences where survival will take more work than before, but it also allows for broader interactions and a greater degree of possibility.[9]

For artists this desert is terrain where the hierarchies of how to make art and what to make it out of don’t apply. Freed from the need to worry about pushing forward[10] or heralding an agenda, the artist may make what they want out of whatever material will mesh with their formal, conceptual, political, or aesthetic ends. Simply making something “new”[11] is too transient a glory and no longer laudable; the novelty of invention wears off too quickly and everyone’s sources are easily discovered.[12] This end of progress is also the end of avant garde; one can’t be at the forefront of a movement if there is no front, or if looking backward in reflection can’t be labeled as merely retrograde. This is ultimately disorienting for all involved as the criticism of any given work requires a careful approach on its own terms. The old signposts aren’t necessarily relevant, and the headstrong critic will find themselves revealing more about their own bias than the work’s. Likewise the artist must be acutely aware of what s/he stands for, and how they relate to the shifting context that surrounds their work lest they loose control of it. The lack of supposed progress raises the stakes because responsibility falls on the individual, it can’t be easily deflected to a group or movement. This is the cost of the freedom wished for by artists in bygone eras.[13]

Once we accept that atemporatlity is synonymous with Postmodernism[14] it can bee seen as a crutch to lay responsibility at the feet of the internet. Digital technologies have rapidly increased the flow of information, but Postmodernism predates widespread integration of digital networks into the fabric of our culture.[15] The first Postmodernists were analog artists, researching in libraries and archives, and collating physical objects, artifacts, and documents into their work. The inherent speed of all art was the same, but if painting has been slow to accept and accelerate into the new terrain of Postmodernism it is because it is a medium of material and individual gesture it does not lend itself to quick dissemination.[16] Painters are figuring out how to integrate the history of their medium into a continuum that more recent, easily digitized media were born into; but as those media aspire to the status and economic benefits enjoyed by painting more possibilities are opened as the boundaries blur.[17] Postmodern painters are finding their way; the work on view in Forever Now, or any other show of painting being made today, should not be seen as an example of living in the wreckage, but the slow start of a new beginning, of building a new frontier.

 

The essay continues in Part 2 and Part 3.

 

 

[1] Or “crapstraction” if you’re being kind of rude about it while simultaneously trying to come up with something punchy. This isn’t a label that one would apply if you were also to admit to liking some examples of the work under discussion.

[2] A term coined by Martin Mugar and subsequently introduced to mass appeal by Walter Robinson.

[3] I subscribe to a “many worlds” view of the art world as a way to simplify our understanding of something that is otherwise too complex to entertain. In short individual interactions overlap with geography and economies so that upon a microscopic view the connections and networks form webs that are too dense to separate, but upon pulling back to an extreme macro view the interactions separate into clusters of mass. How these clusters relate to influence and wealth, and just how shared they are is probably what is leading to a certain amount of critical disgust with painting overall.

[4] My favorite being Jason Farago’s review in the Guardian.

[5] Quoted from the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition.

[6] The reference to William Gibson seems more like trendy name dropping than anything else

[7] With that use swinging between stewardship and strip-mining.

[8] A wide-eyed and well groomed protagonist fresh out of art school with his MFA if ever there was one.

[9] You just have to look out for the giant killer robots, which we’ll discuss in part three.

[10] And presumably continuing the modernist drive towards some sort of purity.

[11] A value that nevertheless seems to be widely mourned in the reviews of the exhibition. See Peter Schjeldal in the New Yorker, among others.

[12] If not advertised as loudly as possible.

[13] In technical parlance, these circumstances aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

[14] Taking the red pill as it were.

[15] I take my historical cues from Danto, and put the emergence of Postmodernism with Warhol’s Brillo boxes.

[16] An image of the painting can be shared easily enough, but it is different from an actual painting; the materials must still be reckoned with in a way that is not required to simply print a digital file.

[17] The specter of the monetary advantage that rides on the definition remains sobering; the economic implications of tearing down boundary walls and opening up art’s discourse is the ground that will pit the upper reaches of the art market against it’s broader population.

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Written by Brian Dupont

December 30, 2014 at 12:08 am

Provisional Criticism and the New Mannerism

No matter whom you ask the concept of the provisional is likely to start an argument. This is all the more interesting not as it illuminates the work, but for what it reveals about the discourse surrounding contemporary abstract painting.[1] I have already written on my view that Provisionalism[2] represents a trend in art that has snaked through a good deal of modernist history; that its roots have tended to be ignored within larger established narratives has only broadened its connection among a diverse set of artistic practices. As it has emerged on the scene (again!) in the work of younger painters[3] it has found itself the object to both legitimate criticism and off-hand derision. If this this is the first real “new” movement in abstraction in some time[4], and the jeers appear as retrograde calls for “moving forward”, then perhaps it is time to reconsider our thinking on direction and the ground art is traversing.

Alan Pocaro’s Three Hypotheses claims to be searching for a way forward, but ultimately offers little more than condescension born of running in circles, before giving up. The introduction starts by planting a field of straw men[5] and continues on to try and figure out just what is Provisionalism’s “inexplicable appeal to artists and writers alike.” The first hypothesis is that provisional painting is something writers have created, trying to tell a good story.[6] The second states that the artists who make the work are little more than poseurs, dashing off minor efforts and propping it up with complicated theory and discourse.[7] His third hypothesis has artists mining a dead history out of nostalgia, turning backwards because of the impossibility of describing something new.[8] In truth, if there is enough art being made in a similar vein that can be grouped into a trend or style, a writer who isn’t trying to make “the evidence fit into a preconceived narrative” should probably be able to come with more varied ideas about its popularity. From a critical standpoint this is a limited set of options that betrays either an unwillingness to consider either a different point of view or an unimaginative assessment of the inherent possibilities of painting. His conclusion turns back on writing, claiming that any “disquisitions” will only support anachronistic theory. This likewise betrays a very limited sense of the possibilities of art by means of limiting its discourse to the sound bite and the press release. Refusing the utility of careful looking and thinking, and communicating the results of those investigations will not do painting any favors.

What stands out in Pocaro’s essay is the assumption that the painting in question is self-evidently “bad”[9] and that the author’s unstated biases towards art history, theory, and technique are obviously correct; I would argue that it are these assumptions that are the real problem. While they are not directly stated, we can infer that he, like many critics, want to see more work in painting, “sweat on the brow” that showed a dedication to craft and skill. Echoing Greenberg’s lament about the lowering of standards ignores the hierarchies of privilege that come with being the arbiter of those standards. Provisionalism did not remove the need for manual skill in art (that ship has long since sailed), but as it has become a focus in the practice of young artists it has become threatening exactly because it challenges the need for skill and craft within painting. This is the last high ground the old academies and hierarchies have. Appealing to a silent majority to refute aesthetic challenges harkens back to the tyrannies of the past rather than looking towards a more egalitarian (we hope) future.

There is no small irony in defending the Pre-Raphaelites from dismantling by Roberta Smith as “highly skilled.”  The Pre-Raphaelites tried to save art by looking backwards to better days, using empty displays of technical accomplishment to do it. But it, as Smith writes, “the Pre-Raphaelites seem to have made some of the first so-bad-it’s-maybe-good modern art” then they are strangely linked to artists interested in a provisional approach; both made or make art without care for what they were told art had to look like, had to be. If the works of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are valuable to contemporary artists, it is because they showed that there was value in striking out on one’s own direction, to make the art and painting that they wanted to see. Smith notes that the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is not necessarily of individual celebrity, but is embedded as a strain of DNA across wide swaths of visual culture. I believe that Provisionalism is another such trend, perhaps more recent, but also more attuned to our times.

It is pointless to decry criticism, theory, and just plain writing about art; you may just as well complain about talking about it. Every Modernist movement has had its theorist, from Baudelaire’s championing of Manet and Delacroix to the ‘bergs Stein and Green each advocating for different facets of the New York School. Artists being able to write cogently about the issues that they deal with gives a voice to the makers of the work, which is a point of view often missing from the writings of historians.[10] I think this is particularly lacking in the discussion on Provisionalism; for a painter who has been given a dry foundation instruction on stretching and priming canvas and properly mixing colors, why has no one considered the excitement that it must bring to rip up that structure and just play with the materials, to add in elements from the street and hardware store[11], to explore with one’s hands in the studio?  If the art is made, it can and will be talked and written about and if artists do not lay out their own ideas someone else will certainly fill the void for them. . That “the old arguments of modernism and post-modernism are worn-out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century” is an argument for the status quo… and would cede authority back to the Established power structure by default of not allowing for an alternative. The last thing that’s needed is another silent majority.

Readings of history are subjective. The nexus between and Modernism and Post-modernism and their interrelationship with critical theory need not be fixed for each viewer.[12] Artists are free to take what they can use from any given intellectual site before moving on and continuing to explore; the ones who become too loaded down with the ideas if others are the ones who will become immobile and stagnant. The artist is not to prize novelty, but to place the focus in being true to one’s own interests, My reading of western art’s history has the Modernist project reaching a singularity where the art object breaks down at the arrival of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual art.[13] Post-modernism was born out of that singularity as art is indistinguishable from the common material that sits beside it that is not art; context and intent became as important as matter. The early days of Post-modernism saw a similar wild expansion just as Modernism did, with Feminist and Multicultural practices gaining recognition, and proliferation of new approaches: appropriation, pastiche, the Pictures Generation, Neo Expressionism, Neo-Geo. After the initial explosion the art world has continued to expand, but the initial influences of those first conglomerations exert a lesser gravity of influence.

The new Post-modern landscape of the art worlds[14] is now akin to a near infinite desert where no mode or medium is off limits and any aesthetic is viable for new work or reinvention. This is already being likened to a new Mannerism[15], and while I find the label fitting, my view that what I do not share is the pessimism for contemporary arts on this relative turn of events. I ascribe to the model of the desert in that there is near-infinite possibility to move and ultimately it is that freedom that eclipses any other detriment. Any sort of directional movement is no longer distinguishable from another; what would “forward” mean in such a context? Depending on the position of the viewer it may be an awkward tangent and to another the work will be heading backwards (and likely right through their own ideas of progress). To say that this is a perfectly fine state of affairs (let alone something desirable enough to fight for) is not to suggest that everything is just OK or that there is no use for critical thought, but the terrain of art will be constantly changing and more subtle, more difficult to read. One’s approach to looking at and thinking about art must allow for this, considering that the artist may have a radically different frame of reference. Of course a great deal of the work will be bad, some of it will just be “bad”, but some small bit of it will be good.[16] The work necessary to find art that is good[17] can hide the fact that it is a positive thing that it was made, however now it must be judged on individual merits and accomplishment, not the category it is assigned to. Categories are only generalizations; what is important are the specifics of the artwork and the relationships in question.


[1] I think it as at least safe to say that the majority of work under discussion is abstract, although there are certainly exceptions. Perhaps not all the work is “painting”, but it is at least the medium that most of the discourse centers around.

[2] And yes, I’m keeping the “ism.” It’s just easier that way.

[3] Perhaps therein lies the distinction between “Provisionialism” as a broader stylistic trend like “abstraction” and “Casualism” as described by Sharon Butler; “Casualism” has become much more specific to a time and place, and focused on a specific generation of painters. See her ‘The Casualist Tendency’ for her response to Pocaro.

[4] I am not sure that it is, but it is often treated as such.

[5] The only “massive realignment” I’ve noticed that is underway in the art world is the shift that focuses more money and attention on fewer artists through a few dealers dueling at the very top of the market. I haven’t noticed that very many (or really any) of these artists are labeled as either “provisional” or “casual”; the only people I’ve noticed lavishing the attention on it that would otherwise indicate that Provisionalism represents a new “flagship abstract style” are those going through the trouble to vociferously condemn it.

[6] This makes it seem as if the category has been created from whole cloth by fictioneers, rather than writers who focus on the history, theory, and criticism of art and painting. Raphael Rubinstein and Sharon Butler were responding to work they were seeing in studios, galleries and museums; taking the work as evidence and fitting it into a narrative is not an example of “trying to tell a good story,” it’s an example of scholarship.

[7] While it’s always nice when an erstwhile educator speaks derisively of his students in a public forum, and always enjoy making fun of how people different from me dress, I think the greater critical flaw in this argument is that takes the weakest possible work, student painting that is not even being offered for exhibition, and assumes that criticism of it and its makers is a suitable stand-in for the category as a whole. One may as well pull any fourth generation Abstract Expressionist out a West Village garret and hold their work up as a repudiation of Pollock and deKooning. (And I bet he’d be dressed funny, too. I bet you could find someone with a beret.)

[8] Given the direction it seems most of Provisionalism’s detractors would like art to go, complaining about it not being forward thinking enough is highly ironic.

[9] Granted, Provisionalism is sometimes labeled as purposefully “bad”, but I think Pocaro’s meaning here is limited to only a qualitative judgment.

[10] I’m reminded of a discussion I had with an art history student on the occasion of deKooning’s recent MoMA retrospective. We were talking about the relevance of the newspaper transfers in his great urban abstractions of the mid-Fifties; but the historian saw them without realizing they were an accident of trying to keep his oil paint wet on the surface, not anything he was purposefully trying to do.

[11] It is worth noting that a great many artists are working day jobs that require “sweat on the brow” and are typically surrounded by the tools and materials of manual labor.

[12] Just as they are not for scholars and historians.

[13] Yes, it is heavily influenced by Arthur Danto’s writing, especially “Beyond the Brillo Box” and subsequent texts on ‘the end of art.’

[14] There are plural art worlds, and it is possible to occupy a small niche or spread out and move between a wide strata of socioeconomic, intellectual, and aesthetic orbits. I use “art worlds” to indicate that spheres of interest and influence can be so different that there is no universal focus of those who operate around art. One cannot ascribe something to “the art world” without inherently limiting the frame of reference under discussion; art certainly also contains the opposition.

[15] I was already thinking of this framing when I heard Mark Staff Brandl articulate it on Bad at Sports. More recently it has gained even greater currency with Jerry Saltz’s latest lament on what ails contemporary art.

[16] I still believe in Sturgeon’s Law as a guiding principle when looking at art.

[17] Again, from one’s own point of view.

Toward a New Aesthetic: Winning and Losing the Object

The advance of history is (and always has been) intertwined with technology, and as much as new developments in technology and materials have driven aesthetic consideration, the objects one finds in galleries and museums would often not seem out of place in exhibitions from another century. Even as technology has made aesthetic advances possible[1], scholarship has often ignored the material art is made of. New technologies have been slow to find acceptance, if not by artists, then by the structures that guard and perpetuate the canon. It is no small irony then that the most profound innovation in technology has removed the necessity of the object altogether. Just a few years ago it seemed that discussion of the New Aesthetic was everywhere, but whether it was art or design or engineering or history was an open question that fit into the shifting projects found in the hacking culture of digital freelancers and start-ups much more easily than it did for art. Its history[2] is a strange collection digital epiphany and tech curiosities that are difficult to reconcile into a broader aesthetic movement, but nonetheless have managed to focus ideas about the employment of digital media to create art.[3] While digital art already existed[4], the framework of the New Aesthetic is important as the first digitally based aesthetic movement to gain mainstream traction. It posits an aesthetic framework (an “ism” if you like) that goes beyond mere tools of production to aesthetics, theory, and philosophy.

My own consideration of what the digital might bring to art started over beer, and with Greg Borenstein pounding on a bar table declaring that New Aesthetic and new media “would win.”[5] As a painter I am by definition invested in one of the oldest of technologies, and with the curious case of Wade Guyton’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum[6] freshly opened at the time I was very curious as to what “winning” would mean. Left unstated was the time table for the conflict and the ultimate terms of art’s surrender, but when one considers a more nuanced approach to the consumption of media and assimilation of technology, the definition of “victory” is likely to be more glitch-gray than black and white.

For the New Aesthetic to function as an aesthetic description or foundation for the production of art, as opposed to just a broad description of the interaction between culture and technology, it must define a framework that affects human understanding and consciousness at a deep level.[7]  Quirks of technology are easily assimilated and then forgotten or ignored; too often descriptions of the New Aesthetic resorted to an engagement with novelty[8] rather than attempting to assess the primary kernel of its import. Bridle posits the possibilities of an omnipresent digital network as a scaffold on which to frame and (more importantly) construct human interactions as what is fundamentally ‘new’ in the New Aesthetic[9] and this rings true; the evolution of digital networks stands as a shift that may define the transition of one epoch of history to another.[10] It also separates genuinely new ideas from the general explosion of technological advancement[11]: the network (as posited by Bridle) allows for a near infinite speed of transmission and dissemination of data that effectively reduces distances to zero[12], but a mere glitch in a scanned photo or rendered map is not effectively new[13]; robotics and drones allow for the application of work and force by means of data transmission, but machine vision is merely a further extension of previous augmentation of human sight.[14] There will always be endeavors that overlap classifications and defy any set boundaries, but making the effort at taxonomy is a first step in placing the New Aesthetic in a historical framework.

Charting the New Aesthetic’s course from nascent network to digital aesthetic reveals a narrative that mirrors the interaction between photography and the emergence of Modernism. This may be surprising given the New Aesthetic’s emergence in the post-modern, digital era, but it has roots in the photograph’s mechanical expression of vision.[15] Photography was present at and arguably drove the birth of Modernism by assuming[16] the burden of everyday representation from painting. Likewise, the Arpanet was coming on line as the Minimalists and Conceptualists zeroed out the trajectory of the Modernist narrative. Where the Modernist artwork slowly reduced aesthetic investigation to pure form at the hands of a singular genius[17], the networked Postmodern art object grows out of a multiplicity of viewpoints and historical narratives; feminism, multiculturalism, and the histories of different geographic centers allow for the realignment of aesthetic ideas just as packets of data are switched around the network and reassembled into a useable whole. The restructuring of the pathways of interpretation away from a direct circuit is analogous to the (also Postmodern) theory that posits a shift of privilege in which the reader’s primacy in interpretation (and thus creation) of a work becomes paramount. Meaning emerges from the interconnectedness and interaction of the nodes in the network, i.e. the audience, instead of being dictated from on high by the artist. The ramifications for the artwork have been appropriately manifold, but the sea change lies in the relationship between the production of the work and how it is ultimately seen. A hallmark of digital technology in general, and the New Aesthetic specifically, is the possibility of near limitless[18] distribution via digital transmission and (one would eventually assume) production. However an object that is limitless is also by definition common, and therefore working outside the economic strictures of a unique object that propels the current art market. It would be foolish for those building fortunes within the art world to assume that their sale of a unique object will save them from digital encroachment on their business model. The limitations are essentially only of bandwidth; Hollywood movie studios should have seen the threat posed by the digital transfer of content coming as soon as it started to affect the record industry. As the underpinnings of photography’s false scarcity are challenged, the idea of an object that can be instantly copied via a suitable amount of code and an appropriately complex 3-D printer[19] has the potential to turn the concept of unique work of art into a forensic exercise rather than a matter for discerning connoisseurship. This should not be seen as a giant and unimaginable leap; artistic practice is already often turned over to assistants and fabricators, and non-unique works can easily set auction records.[20] The only question is if the change in methods of production will ultimately change the channels of distribution or if the entrenched interests of the market will assimilate new avenues proposed by advances in technology.

Historical precedent follows from art’s service as a tool of communication prior to the elevation of the status of the artist in the Renaissance. Church decorations to instruct and cow the faithful serve the same purpose as works by contemporary art, if a different master. Even as images were usurped by text and printing[21] for basic communication, art maintained a utility for conveying ideas to mass audiences. The history of church decoration gave way to traditions of mural painting, and the ingrained century’s old value of art to a mass audience evolved as the artists themselves supplied themes and direction. The Bauhaus took the evolution a step forward by incorporating industrial production as a theoretical vehicle to reach the masses; that the Bauhaus had a much more holistic view of the potential for integration of diverse media into a cultural movement set a precedent for the rise of the New Aesthetic, as does the fact that both movements feature many designers among their ranks.

A closer antecedent to the potential for the use of industrial fabrication by individual artists can be found in the work of Donald Judd and the Minimalists. Not only did they work with ‘off the shelf’ components of commonly available industrial materials and hardware[22], they were able to operate at a remove as they were able to fabricate their work via plans that could be sent by telegram or placed by simple phone call.[23] Those plans can be seen as Paleolithic versions of the code that will underlie (near) infinitely (re)producible 3-D printed artworks. The mature work of the artists associated with Minimalism brought sculpture to the same ground photography already occupied; the sculpture was no longer an object consisting of specific materials skillfully manipulated by the hand of the artist, rather it became possible to read the necessity of the object as the result of the execution of instructions, plans, or code. Born of common industrial materials, the existence as a set of basic instructions also allowed for the possibility of peculiar manipulations of time and space, with the artwork able to exist or not as needed, to be transmitted easily from place to place, or even to exist simultaneously in two places at once.[24] That the Minimalists recoiled from any of the inherent possibilities their practice opened up ties them to the terminus of Modernism and its exaltation of the singular object, and instead left it to the Conceptual artists that followed closely on their heels to inaugurate the Postmodern object within art. [25]

Where photography’s restructuring of the expectations of how what is “real” really looks is one legacy, another more subtle adjustment lies in simultaneously replacing the artist’s unique facture with a mechanical process that provides a seamless surface and infinitely repeatable image. The challenge was not only to aesthetic ideas and ideals, but to the market that distributed the images. The greater consequence of photography to the salon lay (and still lies) in the correlation of price to aesthetic value where the traditional signifiers of artistic scarcity have been removed. The technology associated with the New Aesthetic cannibalizes Modernist photography’s claims to truth and reality[26] and throws its full weight behind digital, infinitely repeatable manufacture.

In looking at photography’s past as the New Aesthetic’s prologue it is important to note that art and its markets ultimately assimilated photography, and that photography hewed closer to the conventions of painting as commodity rather than effecting a dramatic change in the sale of images.[27] Whatever aid the emergence of photography provided to the birth of modernism, that project was ultimately carried forward within art by painting and the impressionists.[28] In the meantime photography was “ghettoized” as a medium for art, struggling for its technological application as documentation to not hinder its aesthetic potential; furthermore it is debatable if its novelty as collectible object was actually responsible for aesthetic prejudices against the medium.[29] Of course the market for art did not slow down during the interim of photography’s growth and the salons evolved into the current gallery system. Even more fraught for the emergence of the New Aesthetic is that it has arrived on the scene as that system has metastasized along with current rapacious trends in capitalism into an arena where intellectual property is fiercely contested and the distribution of opportunity skews to the very top of the market. If there is a fight within art now, it is not over the aesthetics of the object, but its economics and status as commodity.

In the aftermath of the 1970’s and conceptual art this approach to the art object has only been intermittently implemented. When subsequent movements or generations of artists have engaged with the possibilities inherent in such a “limitless” Postmodern object, they have mostly done so within the gallery system established by the art market. When Felix Gonzalez Torres radically undermined the uniqueness of the object, to the point of giving it away en masse, the artwork somehow remains collectible and valuable; the artists who drastically and most successfully challenged the limits of the art object now have blue chip representation. Art has maintained production and distribution systems that have not changed markedly, even as networked digital technologies have radically altered how most other cultural productions are made and consumed.[30] Despite the theoretical shift to Postmodernism, the production of the art object has largely remained stubbornly Modern: where the modernist artwork is defined by its position as a singular material expression of the artist’s vision[31], the postmodern object decouples the static artwork from any specific material[32] and instead is (theoretically) free to be transmitted, copied, hacked, and recoded. The promise of the New Aesthetic is the marriage of the artwork with the network such that the artist’s output[33] may become as simple, widespread, and easy as everything else that happens on a computer and across the internet.

In the face of such easy facility, with the continuing promise that it will only get easier, the central question (especially as it pertains to “winning”) becomes will enough artists shift to these new materials so that the New Aesthetic becomes the dominate aesthetic? I believe that the greatest factor will be the internalization of these tools by artists, such that they are drawing with code as easily and naturally as they mark a flat surface. Where artists think in terms of process and material, they will continue to doggedly produce discrete things[34] and treat the computer in the studio as just another tool that aids in the making of paintings, photographs, and sculpture. The art market’s ability to assimilate challenges to its hegemony[35] should not be underestimated; So long as artists are producing these things, the market has something to sell. This is a benefit to the artist[36] but it also ties art into the economic structure of capitalism, and compromises the potential of digital art and the New Aesthetic by reinforcing the economic status quo.[37]

As the first draft of art history turns more and more to promotion and discussions of sales figures and auction costs rather than aesthetic discourse, the work that is seen and discussed is work that can be sold and is selling. Perhaps instead of looking at this development in thought with scorn, writers, aestheticians, and theorists should consider if this development heralds a larger coming change in how art is made and distributed. The New Aesthetic has been popularized as the infrastructure of the network has been developed to accommodate global traffic, and that development has largely been driven by capitalist enterprise[38] so it only makes sense that as the population of artists continues to increase they will look for new avenues to show and exhibit their work.[39] The question for artists and the New Aesthetic is what sort of object are they putting on the pedestal, in the window, or on the screen? The emergence of the network portends that it may not be the same as what we have all come to expect, but the inevitable change will mean how the work goes from artist to audience has been completely rethought.


[1] From the importance of tube paints to the development of Impressionism to synthetic polymers and acrylic making color field painting technically feasible, art history tends to favor aesthetic discussions of a philosophical bent.

[2] The name comes from a Tumblr started by James Bridle and blew up with Bruce Sterling’s article for Wired discussing a SXSW panel. If you start following the links you’ll find Bridle’s essay on the same panel and can work your way back through discussions by Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope and Russel Davies that smartly dovetail the New Aesthetic with broader digital concerns in a variety of media and contexts.

[3] After 2 years since its heyday we can see Doug Aitken’s ‘Station to Station’ project linked to Bridle’s terminology, and as that project winds down the auction house Phillips de Pury has made the first foray into auctioning digital art. While the sums were small in relation to what normally constitutes the auction market, this sale represents a major step forward in digital art entering the mainstream art market.

[4] One can go back as far as Manfred Mohr’s experiments with computer generated art. More recently terms like new media art and net art have been used to describe digitally based production. All of the terms seem more descriptive in describing the medium (i.e. akin to “painting” or “photography”)  rather than descriptive of a school of thought (i.e. “Abstract Expressionism” or “Minimalism”).

[5] It is fun to think that artists can still get together and argue the way we imagine they did back in the days of the Cedar Tavern. In addition to Borenstein, the group included artists Kevin McCoy, John Powers, and William Powhida, as well as Joanne McNeil of Rhizome and Bridle himself.

[6] And seemingly caused no small amount of consternation in the digital arts community. Much of the rancor seemed to stem from the assumption that Guyton was an electronic or digital artist who was poorly representing his roots and concerns. However Guyton’s work comes out of a conceptual reaction to painting, and his relation to the technology he employs is much more akin to prior generations’ use (and abuse) of screen printing and other basic tools of mass production; his employment of digital tools is merely a matter of utility.

[7] This may be as close as I ever get to trying to pin down and define the amorphous and variable production that gets labeled as “art.” On one hand this definition feels so incredibly weighty that almost any individual work would not be able to support it, and in that regard it should be pointed out that this applies more to movements consisting of many artists working simultaneously within a single cultural context; on the other hand this definition probably applies to the ‘80s Neo-expressionist painters, so maybe it’s not such a high bar after all.

[8] For instance, the aestheticization of the glitch is hardly new. Richter and Ruff’s respective smears have entered the canon, and rely only on the language of abstraction to raise it beyond a mere error in representation. The revolutionary aspect of misregistrations in digital representations of real space lies not in the error, but in the existence of the underlying system that makes digital mapping and transcription possible in the first place.

[9] One could argue that these interactions go further and facilitate the beginnings of human ‑ machine interactions, but I think that this ascribes a consciousness that is lacking in our silicon counterparts; Sterling is correct in pointing out that such descriptions are essentially fanciful, and obscure the greater focus on what emerging machine processes or “vision” might mean to human consciousness.

[10] The turn to the machine age was largely a measure of a definition of the increased capacity for work. I will leave the political implications of this to the remaining Marxists out there, and instead rely on (very) basic math to indicate the scale of the shift: where work is measured in horsepower, there is a huge transition in the amount of production, but not in the fundamental scale of the measures used. Simply put, a person riding a horse at 30 mph increased their speed tenfold, but the move to a steam locomotive only roughly doubled that (it’s just that the train is now carrying over 100 people and a whole mess of heavy things, and is traveling hundreds of miles without stopping). We’re still only looking at modest jumps in scale that human cognition can easily assimilate. The advent of digital networks shifts the definition of work to the generation and movement of information. In this regard we are seeing jumps in speed (microseconds) and mass/ volume (exabytes and beyond) that are vast orders of magnitude greater. The historical shift represented by the New Aesthetic can be compared to the difference between Galileo walking down the street in Pisa to the Space Shuttle entering orbit to fix the Hubble telescope.

[11] I would argue that this may be an effect of the New Aesthetic Tumblr being more of a search for possible ideas and observations than a tightly curated presentation of such.

[12] Consider how understanding of the recent events in the Egypt and the Middle East differ from previous, “non-networked” social and political events. Reporting is no longer filtered or shaped by media control, but is simultaneously diluted by the sheer volume of information available.

[13] Errors in transcription have been around as long as there has been writing. While these accidents may provide a sense of beauty or an uncanny alteration to how we perceive our interactions, they were supposed to be caught in whatever the contemporary equivalent of the proofing process was; I suspect the fact that we see more such glitches now is a result of the combination  of ever greater output (of course facilitated by the digital utility of the network) and lower editorial standards (of which I and every other self-publisher who lack an editor beyond the software we use are probably guilty of).

[14] Corrective lenses and telescopes having been around for a very long time.

[15] Of course the other side of the New Aesthetic coin is the proliferation and distribution of language as text. This can be traced back at least to Gutenberg, and the transmission of art via printed copies in the form of etchings can be seen as a forerunner of the photographic distribution of multiple copies of the same image.

[16] Or usurping, depending on your point of view.

[17] One that was inevitably white and male.

[18] Any description of the limitless will bump into the technical definition of infinity very quickly, and my description of the ‘limitless object’ is not suggesting anything on a universal, or even galactic magnitude.

[19] Any new technology is always subject to severe limits of engineering that are practically wished away for raw potential. If a 3-D printer is analogous to an automobile, then consider what today’s “model-T” versions will give way to within the next century.

[20] The difference between “5 unique versions” and an “edition of 5” strikes me as  a minor difference aimed at collectors rather than artistic exploration of the differences between versions.

[21] Perhaps the first ‘new aesthetic’ revolution.

[22] Which is just another version of “infinitely reproducible”, and also gives rise to the same problems that dogged photography as a medium.

[23] This had happened before, but Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s use of it was essentially only as a gimmick. Similarly Tony Smith was able to “phone in” Die, but it was really the only project that he did so (probably because the form was about as simple as possible). Judd was able to make his relation with his fabricators central to his practice but not foreground it in the art object as a concern or theme (say the way Jackson Pollock’s process became central to his drip paintings once Hans Namuth’s photographs of him working were released).

[24] See discussion of Count Gussipe Panza’s interaction with Andre and Judd in ‘The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art’ by Martha Buskirk, MIT press. This treatment of the object leads to the possibility of the complete dematerialization of the object allowed for in conceptual art.

[25] Lawerence Weiner: “Statements” (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece.

2. The piece may be fabricated.

3. The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to the condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

[26] As the ubiquity of Photoshop renders the veracity of nearly every image as suspect, the mantle of objective “reality” once claimed by photography must now commonly be recognized as false.

[27] By adopting the conventions of the limited edition, the illusion of scarcity is preserved, even though the negatives of a print usually still exist and more images could be printed. It is a common practice that when such a (usually large scale) photograph is damaged, the conservation treatment is usually to simply reprint the image and then confirm the destruction of the damaged work so that the number of prints in the edition is maintained.

[28] Which when tied to the necessity of the development of tubed paint to Impressionism, is another example of the underlying influence of technology on art.

[29] It certainly did not help that the early limits of the technology severely limited formal options for expression. In this regard the story is the same for each new medium that comes along, and we’ve seen it play out similarly with film, video, sound art, and computer and net-based art. New pioneers begin working (or often more accurately, playing) with a technology, and try to find out just what it can do or how far it can be pushed before it starts to break down and exhibit interesting fissures or glitches that are unacceptable in commercial application. They may not even think of themselves as artists, and often their work disappears from view for not being recognized, collected, and cared for. Of course the same is true of painting, it is just that over 500 years of history has obscured the difficulties of moving from being part of the wall to a portable object, and the shift from guild-era craft to high art.

[30] Consider only what iTunes, Garage Band, digital cameras, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and e-readers have done to the market for music, TV, movies, books, and newspapers and magazines.

[31] A position that is subject to reinterpretation by advances in theory, understanding, or intellectual fashion (even if such revisions do not affect the production of the artwork).

[32] Performance and time-based work being a separate case; its temporal nature can only be experienced directly, and subsequent reference is only to the artifact,  record, documentation, or memory. These may come to act as surrogates for the artwork, but bear a different indexical relationship to the common understanding of an art object that can be returned to as an unchanging entity. It is probably not a coincidence that art media where time played a central role began to fully emerge with the advent of Postmodernism.

[33] Call it work, production, practice, or transmission.

[34] Be it ever more complex productions that challenge architecture or feature films at the top of the market, or seeming small scale, ephemeral gestures that are none the less preserved at the bottom, these works still mostly fit easily into standard taxonomies of art practice.

[35] Where said hegemony used to be confined to the distribution of the artwork, it also now seems to be usurping the interpretation, criticism, and historical narrative of art. As the vast sums of money moving through the upper echelons of the “art world” have rendered interpretation irrelevant and criticism as beside the point (as such analysis does not have any effect on what is bought and sold), the market has begun to dictate what curators and museums preserve and exhibit (by virtue of the people doing the buying simultaneously pricing out said institutions and then turning around to lend or donate said works as members of the museum board), so artifact and scholarship wind up serving the market as well.

[36] Contrary to the romanticization of abject poverty, I have yet to meet an artist who prefers to go to a day job rather than being able to go to their studio.

[37] An artist I know produced an edition of three large scale digital prints of computer rendered imagery for an exhibition, and the gallery asked if she could paint or draw on each print, turning each into unique work. This would have completely compromised the aesthetic intent, removing the viewer’s sense of engaging real life through a mediating electronic screen, and questioning the identities that we present both on-line and in the flesh. The seamless and un/hyper-real crispness of focus on the surface of the paper would’ve been completely disrupted by the addition of pencil or paint (and would have interacted poorly with the imagery in any case, likely looking just slapped on over the top), but the works would then have been unique, and more saleable at a higher price. I am happy to report those prints were shown unaltered, and unhappy to report that they are still rolled in the artist’s studio.

[38] Think of the transition from Napster to  iTunes, the expansion of Amazon.com into all facets of retail, or Hulu challenging network and cable television distribution.

[39] From Artsy to Amazon and Saatchi, and to smaller digital platforms like Paddle 8 or Artsicle, the network provides a much greater breadth of economic possibilities. Many of these players are working on lower rungs of the market, but this offers more possibilities to new or emerging artists. It also offers a greater ease of entry into the market for new collectors, which is a way to grow the audience for art outside of just the outsized ticket line for the next museum blockbuster.

Written by Brian Dupont

October 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

A Provisional Explanation.

To declare one’s self a painter, and one committed to abstraction at that, is to stake out a space for one’s artistic practice that would seem to be essentially limitless. When faced with near infinite possibilities, the first thing one often does is to set some boundaries so as to establish a direction. Within the cannon of modernism that direction was a tied to a narrative of a manifest expansion of art, but with the ascendency of a post-modern condition the very idea of progress has become suspect. When painting was declared dead, abstraction was the only idiom in play, but since that fall it has been playing for smaller stakes when compared to the greater concerns of culture. When painting has been seen to be at the forefront of artistic production, it is usually for a re-entrenchment allied with a surge in the market.[i] So what is there to say when so much contemporary production in a given medium seems to shift in a certain direction?

The rise of so-called provisional strategies in abstraction was first identified by the critic Raphael Rubinstein[ii] and has subsequently been expanded by other curators and writers[iii] who have enlarged his basic taxonomy into an ever widening ecosystem of artists who seemingly eschew craft, finish, precision, virtuosity, and even ambition. The central problem is that the discourse surrounding provisional strategies does not rise above identification. The label is trend-spotting or cool hunting for the newest fashion, but since the provisional is not an organized movement, school, or even well defined set of tendencies it can easily be applied to almost any art or artist. Rubinstein linked them to some of the most heralded names in contemporary painting, which helps cement the idea within our visual vocabulary, but the underlying biology has gone largely unaddressed. Fleshing out of the connections to the practice of younger artists and scenes other than at the pinnacle of the art market points to not just how diverse and vibrantly varied these strategies have become, but also how they have diffused throughout recent history and are used without any reliance on a central dogma.

The unfinished nature of “Provisionalism”[iv] was encoded into the DNA of modernism with Manet’s vacant, scumbled spaces and the en plein air canvases of the Impressionists. From there historical precedent is rife with a churn of examples: it is found in the chance compositional strategies of the Dadaists and Surrealists[v], in the struggle with resolution of the action painters of the New York School, in the inclusion of commonplace objects and physical detritus in Johns and Rauschenberg, in the destruction of the painted surface in Klein or Fontana or Burri[vi], or in the sculptural accumulations of Arte Povera or the performative remains of the Gutai group.[vii] Fertile ground was found where a direct gesture was (or is) left unmediated or where painting intersects with sculpture and its nature as object. The legacy of both process based abstraction and Post-minimalism[viii] is that painters have been able to fundamentally reassess notions of composition, failure, and finish. With the contemporary ground for art so open as to appear strip mined and barren, the question becomes why artists are increasingly drawn to methods of working that embrace the casual, the provisional?

An obvious place to start is with the germination of an artist’s practice and the influences exerted at the beginning on the structures where art is made. As any organism evolves, adapts and grows into the geography it occupies, young artists working in major metropolitan areas face increasing pressures of limited space and economic constraints on their time. The urgency to make work trumps fetishistic perfectionism or the unifying, grand statement. As big things come from small beginnings, the work is seen as something that can incubate and expand as circumstances and successes dictate, or constrict during hard times. As their practice develops and their career progresses they may move on to more finished modes or not, but that early experience remains.[ix] In this regard Rubinstein’s focus on artists who are much more established is telling as he is pointing to how the trends have been tested and utilized successfully; that there may be a host of failures[x] speaks to the vitality of the underlying idea.[xi]

Likewise, craft has been downplayed within the current art world[xii], and the extra time[xiii] it takes is seen as something that can be outsourced to specialists, assistants, and fabricators. The singular artist as a true craftsperson has become increasingly rare.[xiv] While a provisional approach need not scorn craft and careful construction, the tenacious expenditure of time and labor required to fully employ that knowledge and experience sits at the opposite end of the production spectrum. Any spectrum will tend towards concentrations now and then, and then adjust and change over time. When I first moved to New York it seemed as if the galleries were filled with clean paintings that must have required miles and miles of masking tape to produce, and as I was enthralled with my new (but very worn) surroundings, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why young artists weren’t mirroring the scuffed, scratched, and beaten surfaces around them. These surfaces spoke to a deep history and a different kind of beauty and it was only a matter of time before there was a shift back (or back to) a handmade art that embraced a patina of habitation and use.

The greatest threat to the continued relevance of abstract painting is the possibility of its ossifying into a new academy. All too often, the guides that are laid out when a journey begins harden into not only a map for individual practice but an expectation that others will follow it as gospel. Examples of dedication to the tenets of modernist abstraction can be found as bad décor and the unironic and uninterested embrace of banal geometry.[xv] Advances in the formal structure of painting are usually of a specific time and do not easily translate through generations. Dealing with the fractured visual space of today’s culture via a retreat to cubism would read as quaint; to wrestle with one’s personal struggle to express a personally authentic gesture on a blank canvas in the vein of the abstract expressionists would seem histrionic and unseemly. This is not to say that these (or any other) references are unavailable, but only that to effectively function in the present[xvi] they must be approached and utilized within a contemporary framework lest they be mere exercises in nostalgia.[xvii] Academies are about perpetuating their own ideas and ideals, of achieving stasis rather than growth through challenge and evolution. The latter is a function of unseemly mutation, of embracing rather than rejecting the aesthetic other. In this regard Provisionalist trends over the last century serve as an antipode to any strict formalisms, geometries, or theories that may infest the medium.

The current proliferation of provisional abstraction should not just be analyzed as a swing of the art historical pendulum or knee jerk rebellion against stuffy elders. It does any artist a disservice to suggest that they merely respond to their history and environment to the exclusion of finding something deeply affecting at the core of what they make. Artists today[xviii] are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus[xix], and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards. The long-term success of painting can be attributed to its ability to colonize and assimilate outside ideas and approaches, stretching form and content to the breaking point so that the project of the medium is ultimately made stronger. If a provisional vocabulary can provide a timely reinvigoration of the expression of individual concerns, that should be all the ambition anyone needs in a painting.


[i] Think of the circumstances of the Neo-expressionists, the allies of Dave Hickey’s crusade for beauty, the rise of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bilds.

[ii] First for Art in America, and subsequently in an exhibition for Stuart Shave/ Modern Art in London, and finally a follow up article (again in Art in America).

[iii] See Sharon Butler’s New Casualists essay for the Brooklyn Rail, as well as further essays by Sam Cornish on Abstract Critical, Lane Relyea on Wow Huh and an anonymously penned feature on The Painted Wrd. (And this list is by no means comprehensive.)

[iv] You can only dance around the language for so long before just breaking down and labeling it as an “ism.” The problem is that the tendencies, strategies, methods, and concerns that would make up “Provisionalism” do not have the same unifying focus that bound together more familiar “isms” of art history.

[v] See Inventing Abstraction at MoMA

[vi] See Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void at MOCA.

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Specifically how aesthetic concerns interact with an art object that has been reduced to a remnant of an action.

[ix] It may be coincidental that Provisionalism has emerged as the competitiveness (and expense) of M.F.A. programs has turned the emerging artist towards a more professional track, but it also cannot be ignored that it seems that young artists with more limited time make up the broad base of provisional work.

[x] Of which there will necessarily be exponentially more of, but in appealing to an evolutionary context I hope that the broader process of integrating different ideas points to the number of failures proving the project’s success.

[xi] Imitation still being not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also indication of influence.

[xii] To say nothing of our broader culture and the world in general.

[xiii] And therefor expense.

[xiv] I’m thinking of painters like Terry Winters or Bill Jensen, or sculptors like Martin Puryear, who even though they have assistants, are deeply engaged with the craft associated with their materials and are not turning the production of their work over to fabricators or an atelier system.

[xv] If extended into the sculpture, the tendency becomes ever more pronounced in the monumental, blocky stone carvings and welded metal assemblages that barricade office plazas and concourses.

[xvi] And thus present them to and communicate with contemporaneous audiences.

[xvii] At this point Impressionism is the province of Sunday painters and naturalists with a flair for color.

[xviii] Young and old alike; the historical context shows that the trends encompassed by Provisionalism are neither a new phenomenon nor only the province of the young.

[xix] Perhaps this is where painting finds common ground with the so-called new aesthetic, as the rise of the digital is built on rapidly obsolete and repurposed technologies.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 13, 2013 at 1:19 am

Hide and Seek.

The state of the art market and the fantastic sums of money thrown into it as a part of the economic recovery[i] continue to serve as fodder to trumpet or denounce the direction of contemporary art itself. Breathless claims for art as an asset class are countered with calls that the money involved is irretrievably corrupting any aesthetic value. Add to this mix the Occupy movement casting its eye towards the art world as the only cultural arena where critical judement is almost entirely determined by the super-rich[ii], and the level of discourse gets more and more histrionic (on both sides) at the expense of actually addressing the fundamental issues or offering any possible solutions. There’s a good deal of populist rhetoric but it’s unclear how much of it is actually looking at art. Disturbingly, art is not being judged on the gallery or museum wall, but via the booths found in art fairs.

Most of the artists I know consider fairs a sort of necessary evil. Whether they go or not usually depends on if they can get in for free[iii], and if they go it’s because they can see a phenomenal amount of art in one place at one time; even compared to gallery hopping in Manhattan there’s more to see, but then the viewing is less than optimal (although compared to the free Friday evenings of most major museums in New York City, it can’t be too much worse).

Morley Safer brought out his second supposed dissection of the art world, the first having come not quite twenty years ago. This time he looked at the market through the lens of the Art Basel fair in Miami but his report has little in the way of actual investigation or exposition; there are some tossed off facts and a graph or two, but most of the issues are raised as snark and then left to quietly drop.[iv] While Safer did raise the issue of the amount of money in the art world, all too often he was ingratiating rather than critical. He has to practically beg to talk to Larry Gagosian, and instead of following up on ideas that the art market is completely opaque and unregulated and what this might mean, he spends his time poking fun at art he finds both silly[v] and overpriced. Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Anish Kapoor, and a host of anonymous art join Robert Gober, Christopher Wool, and Robert Ryman for mocking this time. To his credit, he at least goes after big names[vi] as long as they’re not in the same room; when he gets a tour of the Rubell family collection, he lampoons a work that drips honey from a box for participants to catch on bits of bread without noting that the artist in question is the Rubell’s daughter. Instead of exploring the nexus of money and privilege in the creation of art and how that affects broader aesthetic concerns we’re left with art reduced to mere absurdity, which is an easy answer. Drawing a connection with his first report, he wryly mocks Do Ho Suh’s delicate fabric recreations of elements from places he has lived by stripping them of all relation and reference, undercutting any possible meaning or engagement by treating them as ultimately little more than a commercial spot.

Safer notes a few works on view as worthwhile[vii], but the problem with his approach[viii] is the same many make:  the conflation of aesthetic value with how much a work of art costs. This is the clear cut issue with art at an art fair; not that personal obsessions are opaque (they are) or that the tussle of the contemporary scene is different than canonization (it is), but that as long as society insists on using money as the primary yardstick of “worth” it will be viewing art through a distorted lens. An art fair is ultimately about art as salable ware in a way that it is not in a museum, or even a gallery; the distortion Safer applies is that people more conversant in art manage a fair according to their own needs, while Safer presents it as the only way art is considered anymore.

Where Safer couches his aesthetic conservativism as a critique of billionaire spending, Charlie Finch seeks to align the problematic points of the art market with the economics of sports. He handles this arguably worse than Safer. For one, he should have a better understanding of the issues within the art market, but he so mangles his opening example[ix]  that it’s impossible to take him seriously; it makes me question whether or not he’s ever actually listened to a baseball game[x] and by extension just how much stock to put in the rest of his analysis. He complains that “What’s missing in both narratives is the traditional public interest that used to motivate the whole process”, but when I listen to a baseball game, I always know what the batter did, and so does everyone else. Likewise the only coverage of the fairs that I paid attention to[xi] hardly mentioned sales, but did mention that Michael Riedel’s installation at Zwirner’s booth was great. What is more problematic here is the equation of a singular aesthetic pursuit such as art to popular pastime like professional sports.[xii] To claim that Baseball is only a “construct no longer intended for public entertainment, but merely to justify the exchange of large amounts of capital between the 1% of the 1%” is to both reveal that one has never been a sports fan, but also to say that art should be merely public entertainment.

For me, the strength of art lies in its possibility for finicky, over the top elitism. What great movement in art has not been met with howls of derision and outrage from the general public? It can be the expression of a single individual that is not dependent on larger social or economic structures for its creation. The tricky thing with appealing to the taste of the general populace is while you’re never sure exactly what you’re going to get[xiii], it is safe to say that it isn’t likely to appeal to the contemporary art world. In appealing to the taste of the 99% I don’t think Finch intended to spend much time writing about Thomas Kinkade[xiv] or the latest generic Hollywood romantic comedy. Why should anyone believe a rant about how the influence of the 1% is destroying culture for everyone when the art Charlie Finch endorses would not pass muster with most majorities; aesthetically speaking, he is the 1%[xv] and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best and delusional at worst.

This is not to say that there are not economic inequalities that arise in participating in either the sports or art economy, but they are much more complicated to unpack[xvi], and the issues extend beyond just either arena to issues that affect the broad politics and economics of a city or region. In a sense this complexity is what makes it so easy to stop at just platitudes and economic name calling. The issues (and possible solutions) are less sexy when not looking at just art[xvii], and they also require the 99% to accept some responsibility for how things have turned out. I do not mean to use “responsibility” as the cudgel conservative politicians do, but whatever the problems that have come from a widening gap between rich and poor and a slow dismantling of the social safety net, these were legislated for in a functioning democracy. In such a political system it can’t be accurate to say that this was done to us; the sad truth is that we let this happen to us. Accepting responsibility is the first step towards reconstruction.

I tend to agree with John Powers when he identifies the ever widening disparity of incomes between the haves and have-nots as one of the central economic problems, and points to that providing healthcare and education as a simple leveling mechanism. While I would be quite happy to see the implementation of Scandinavian quasi-socialist economic policies designed to provide for all of the citizenry before (rather than after) splitting up the pie among private interests, I also do not think that any calls to remove art from the functions of basic capitalism and the laws of supply and demand have much credibility. Art cannot stand apart as a separate, somehow pristine economy because at its root it is interconnected with the rest of the global economy[xviii], just as is everything else. This is neither good nor bad; the issue is not working outside of capitalism, but in assessing how art can be produced within such a system.

Accepting the basic agency of supply and demand appears to be the lost key in understanding how the contemporary art market ebbs and flows. Artists tend to focus on the supply of or demand for actual artworks, but in responding to calls that “the game is rigged”[xix] one should turn to the supply and demand for labor. Finch blames the super rich for creating the illusion of opportunity, but when you get right down to it the fact is that being an artist (or at least the idea of it) is incredibly seductive. The reason there is a lot of competition is because so many people look at it as something that would be a great thing to do with their lives. Of course that image often doesn’t show the hard work or luck that underwrites the myth of success, but this is the same in a great many professions. [xx] I have actually often likened starting a career as an artist to trying to play a professional sport[xxi], but where Finch points to the failure rate and cost inherent in the system as an indication of its corruption, I see it as more and more people bringing new ideas to the table, and making art and its discourse stronger through variation and competition, debate and synthesis. Of course this strength also provides a broad labor base for an industry to draw from as new artists look to find work in their chosen field, and that pushes the value of that labor down, but it’s not realistic to expect that the art world is going to be able to support every artist. No industry provides that level of income security, and every artist has always had to work against the giant stereotype of the starving artist blinking annoyingly in the background. Even if artists saw some of their classmates offered solo shows, one would’ve had to blithely ignore the basic math[xxii] (along with most anecdotes from art history about how long it took for artists we care about today to find an audience). I don’t see any way that should be laid at the feet of art or the art market any more than all of cinema should be condemned because there are a bunch of actors waiting tables are disappointed that they didn’t get to have Brad Pitt’s career. We may have been raised to believe that we were all going to movie stars or rock gods, but if we’re pissed off by the fact that we’re not then we really have only ourselves to blame, even if it’s only for believing an advertisement.

Again, the key issue comes back to our unit of measure. Finch’s hypothetical benefit-less adjunct professor for Schlump Community College hasn’t had his work assessed in any way other than via the standing of his bank account. This is where criticism of the art fairs becomes problematic, since their entire raison d’etre is to sell art, and that helps artists (who presumably will get paid for their work). Safer and Finch ultimately get the art world they are looking for rather than the one they want because of the questions they ask. They want the work they like to be financially rewarded, but short of legislating taste perhaps the key to looking at art should be to look directly at the work rather than the price tag off to the side.


[i] Remember when the economic collapse was sure to herald in a new conceptual agenda reminiscent of the halcyon early 1990’s and the market would be corrected to a state subservient to aesthetics?

[ii] Almost any other medium for expression makes its bones on selling multiples, be it identical copies or tickets to a performance. This means that a certain amount of populism is built into the market. Where there is a singular object, that sum total concentrates into the single object, elevating it out of the price range of mere mortals.

[iii] This past round it seems like comps were harder to come by and ticket prices that rival MoMA’s probably kept some of the unwashed (i.e. non-buyers) away; with the next big event being the Frieze fair isolated away on Randall’s island, access does become a more pointed issue.

[iv] Yes, the art market and its participants do sometimes behave as though they are investing in commodities, but that is a problem why exactly? Show your work, Morley…

[v] That some cultural production could be both bad and ridiculously expensive should not exactly be news to Schafer as the same network that broadcasts his story also broadcasts “Two and a Half Men.”

[vi] We can all still agree that he might have a point about Koons though, right?

[vii] Kara Walker being the only artist so named, but pretty much anyone discussed is damned by the association of inclusion. I wonder if Safer’s viewers recognize that the quick insert of a small Picasso or large Frankenthaler are something they’re supposed to know is good.

[viii] From the standpoint of someone interested in art; trying to grab ratings by pandering to middlebrow misunderstanding of contemporary art is probably still a sound broadcasting strategy.

[ix] So let’s break his paragraph down, Finch writes

Turn on a televised baseball game, for example, and the announcer will say, “Joe Palooka is coming to bat. Joe is in his walk year, making $15 million, and his agent is rumored to be negotiating for a minimum six-year contract with the Red Sox or maybe the Rockies. Here comes the pitch. Strike One. Whether the Rangers will trade Palooka before the All Star break depends on management’s willingness to eat a big chunk of Joe’s current contract.”’

Just to start with, announcers just don’t talk this way. Being in the entertainment business, it’s generally accepted that too much talk about astronomical sums of money doesn’t really appeal to Joe Six-pack fan. Furthermore agents don’t negotiate with other teams for extended deals during the season. That would be tampering with a player under contract and MLB actually takes that pretty seriously. The player has to file for free agency for anybody to do any negotiating, and that happens in the off-season, not during the season.

Next, the teams are all wrong; the Red Sox don’t really compete with the Rockies for free agent signings (it’s the definition of a large market with lots of money, and a smaller market that can’t compete in spending), and anyways since the Rangers have been very good for the last few years, they wouldn’t be looking to trade away a good player at the deadline. That’s a salary dump and salary dumps are for good players on bad teams, they don’t happen to good players on good teams who are looking to go to the playoffs… but let’s not let facts get in the way of a nice bit of alliteration.

[x] Maybe Finch has only been listening John Sterling all these years, who is legitimately awful and barely does call the game; his pitch calling is non-existent, and he hardly interrupts his monologue to let the listener know that “there’s a strike.”

[xi] Rachael Wetzler writing for Idiom (who I also occasionally write for) and Greg Allen blogging for himself stood out in my feed, but many blogs looked at the art without getting to hung up on the money. Even Tamara Warren, writing in Forbes of all places, spent more time talking about the work than how it sold.

[xii] For the purposes of this discussion, we’re talking Baseball, which is the only sport I follow, although the issues that can be raised via Baseball can also be applied to other sports.

[xiii] As evidenced by all the cat videos on the internet.

[xiv] Although with his recent death perhaps we’ll be treated to an obituary that had all the wit and generosity of his thoughts on Hilton Krammer’s passing.

[xv] And likely so are you, dear reader.

[xvi] Just to start with the economics of having municipalities levy taxes to build stadiums and arenas for private enterprises that are both already very profitable. This trend becomes even more distorted in the face of the funding for the New Yankee Stadium, as the Yankees lack a credible threat to move anywhere else (does anyone really think Jersey is an option?) while at the same time annexing public park land in a poorer section of the city to build upon. The Yankees proposal would have returned said public lands back in trade, but only in a fragmented and less useable fashion, and they haven’t even undertaken to live up to those meager responsibilities. By comparison, funding for oversize art projects (public or private) are the super-rich spending their own money. Even if you argue that their incomes should be taxed at a higher rate, you simply do not see even major museum projects (never mind galleries or projects by single artists) making such a bald claim to privatize public funds. The unpopularity of contemporary art that insulates it as a luxury commodity is also what keeps it from becoming a larger drain on the taxes paid by the 99%. When art accrues value and prices push ever higher, the only people who are paying more and more via auction and private sales are already very, very rich.

[xvii] And thus actions like Occupy Museums have less purchase for grabbing media attention. While such tactics are good for exposing issues that should be debated and starting a dialog with otherwise indignant and closed institutions, they appear to provide less in the way of demands for change or actionable solutions.

[xviii] Money is a very pervasive technology precisely because it is so convenient. Artists, galleries, and museums still must draw on resources of power and utilities, space, transportation, and labor. These are all networked into the general economy in a way that cannot be easily segregated into a separate system based on, say, barter and good will. Any such separate economy would run into limits of scale that art, like most global markets or enterprises has long since surpassed. The genie simply cannot be put back in the bottle.

[xix] Which is a common refrain, echoed by Finch and participants in the Flux Factory Death Match linked to above.

[xx] There are a lot of things to do and ways to make a living that look really interesting, but in the end are not easy to get a foot in the door. An example that goes beyond the arts is my brother’s work to become a full time pilot. He spent his summers flying weather modification in the middle of nowhere, just so he’d have a job flying and could log flight time that he could bring to an application for an airline job. But the air line job he got still gives a great deal of weight to seniority and institutes practices that takes advantage of the fact that there is a very deep pool of labor to draw on.

[xxi] At least in pro-sports the goal of winning a game that has clearly defined rules means that talent will always trump unrelated maters. This is obviously not the case with art, but that is a strength as well as a weakness. With art we can at least define our own goals and goal posts.

[xxii] Take the number of people in an MFA program and use that to extrapolate the number of MFA candidates in all of the grad schools across the country. Then subtract the number of gallery shows available in a single given year and take the square root of that number. If the resulting number is imaginary, then so was the financial planning behind the idea.

Written by Brian Dupont

April 16, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Future Maps for these Territories

 

The New Year’s holiday inevitably brings about remembrances and prognostications. 2011 saw me celebrate a decade in the same studio, and as I sat around looking at works in progress and planning for the New Year (figuring out new works, and considering the more daunting task of trying to resolve what’s already been started, discarded, or just left sitting around) I was also considering my New Year’s day trip to the art openings in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I started thinking more and more about the (very) long-term affects of changing economic conditions, and how the seemingly continual search for space affects artists, and where that search may lead.

In a year that saw the birth and subsequent suppression of the Occupy movement focus attention on corporate machinations, it is hard not consider the footprint of corporate interests in finance, real estate, and art when considering any such potential future. The early fiction of William Gibson seems to particularly apply, with his simultaneous exploration of the corporation as quasi-governmental power[1] and interest in art and design. Any attempt at articulating a future will be more a snapshot of the author’s present[2] more than the future[3], but Gibson’s Sprawl fiction[4] presents a future for art that is in some sense already here.  Artists are measured in a stock market-like system of fluctuating points, up and down. The actual works of art are purchased by reproduction[5], and then safely crated away in secure storage, possibly never to be seen before being resold. Scholarship is privatized as well[6], with the heads of the new oligarchies serving as patrons (and also demanding favors) in a model reminiscent of the medieval kings. His setting for the market of the art world is likewise eerily prescient. Marly Krushkova[7], the disgraced owner of small gallery for emerging[8] art contrasts with Picard, the international gallery manager who treats art as any broker would their preferred commodity. Setting aside motivation, the contrast between the power and wealth available in the realm of the blue chip as compared to those working from purer motives is stark.

By comparison his artists Slick Henry[9], Rubin Stark[10], and the artificial intelligence discovered at the end of Count Zero[11] are represented in a romanticized fashion that make them seem more outsiders than careered artists. Their creative drive is an unsullied internal need. (Only Stark has representation, and fully engages the market for his creations. In this sense he actually comes the closest of the three to representing a successful artist working within today’s art world.[12]) Aside from their collage based practice and their affinity for cast off materials, these characters share an affinity for living and working in repurposed industrial spaces. These are a future version of the light-industrial lofts that became the new model for the artist’s studio in the Post-war art world.

Whether the size of these new spaces allowed or caused artist to dramatically change the scale of their work[13], what is evident is that the work produced in these spaces is peculiarly of these spaces:  just as the scale and materials of pre-war modernism seem particularly suited to a Parisian garret, the paintings of the New Yorks school swelled to match the space available in an urban center with a surplus of raw, light-industrial space. Contemporary art has seen the loft space institutionalized as grad studios in MFA programs and this as affected how the art is made. Construction is an ad-hoc affair with considerations of craft in construction[14] giving way to a direct and immediate engagement with the work that assumes that problems of logistics, transport, and storage can be solved after the fact. Artists will be keenly aware of their own space, and often build work that just fits in or out the door by a matter of inches, but these measurements are unlikely to consider future doors in different neighborhoods that the work may need to get in.[15]

I’ve always considered the migrations[16] of artists in New York to react like quicksilver to pressures relating to the cost of space.  Artists[17] form the leading edge of gentrification in the city, following the arteries of transportation through to under-used (or under-capitalized) light industrial spaces that could be taken over for idiosyncratic ends. The post-war bohemia of Greenwich Village was pushed into Soho and from there into (generally) Tribeca and lower Manhattan and out to Dumbo and through to harder to access areas like Red Hook or the Navy Yards. Another tack flowed to the East, from Village and out into Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City and into Bushwick.[18] It appears that artists are following the subway lines to anywhere there is cheap space, which was usually “the next stop out” from a popular neighborhood. Established residential neighborhoods formed a natural bulwark to an influx of artists, providing the rents were high enough. If the neighborhood tended to be lower income, or zoned for mixed-use, it was only a matter of the next financial boom until the indigenous residents who didn’t own found themselves forced out, soon to be followed by the artists who couldn’t afford the rising rents. Leaving aside the contemporary socio-economic implications and looking to the future, what sort of changes and evolutions can we expect in art and the art world as economic pressures continue to exacerbate the problem of a finite amount of urban space?

Gibson’s artists find themselves in extremely out of the way locations[19], but are able to interface with culture and patrons virtually via technology. Presently artists still feel the need to gather[20], but space is becoming more and more limited and the influx of new, young artists into the same limited, urban territory will eventually subject the makers of objects to evolutionary pressures that will affect where and how art is made. Artists never left working in their apartments, and post-studio and conceptual practices may become increasingly popular urban practices to accompany works at a more modest scale.[21] Another avenue would be a longer, more desperate migration that can be observed in other species struggling with dwindling local resources. Other smaller urban areas connected by similar transit options are one option[22], yet will face the same pressures from outside industries. These factors will only increase as rural populations contract, but with a retreat to urban centers new spaces will open to colonization by artists. Strip malls and abandoned big box stores of the twenty-first century will present similar floor plans possibilities to their light industry counterparts of the twentieth century. With a proliferation of mobile connectivity and social media artists will be able to take advantage of cheap real estate as working space trumps the ability to grab a drink or quick meal with a fellow artist.

Looking back on the crowds that crammed into Norte Maar or spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of Storefront on New Year’s Day, the implication (or threat) to artists is probably greater to the underrated social community that surrounds long hours alone in the studio rather than any specific need for space; after all artists will still find a way to make things under the most pressing limitations. Nevertheless I can already envision a future version of Loren Munk, traveling so far that he’s nomadic and without time to paint, his work documented digitally via GPS and JPEG like a cyberpunk Richard Long, trekking out to and mapping the remains of a Walmart that was once home and studio of a now famous artist…until he or she was priced out and now the space is occupied by a bohemian descendant of Sam Walton. Even in the future, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 


[1] Gibson’s future is the ultimate in corporate privatization, with national governments collapsed and corporate conglomerates wielding their own private armies. Nevertheless there must be some organizing and mediating principle, as evidenced by the wild global urban infrastructure his characters must navigate.

[2] Gibson acknowledges as much, writing that “Nothing acquires quite as rapid or peculiar a patina of age as an imaginary future” in the introduction to Burning Chrome.

[3] The Sprawl trilogy seems rather light on smartphones, and the graphics available to his cyberpunks and the animations that represent the web belong more to Atari than one where the imaging of Avatar is out of date. In this regard Neal Stephenson grafted the appropriate bandwidth onto Gibson’s corporate future in his novel Snow Crash.

[4] The novels Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the stories collected in Burning Chrome.

[5] Gibson’s holograms are a sexier antecedent to today’s JPEGS.

[6] In the future of the sprawl there seems little room for museums, and I imagine that community outreach programs were cut when the government fell.

[7] In Count Zero.

[8] In Gibson’s world, this means dealing with original works, presumably by living artists. There is little money in it, unless one gets extremely lucky, but there is the visceral, direct appeal.

[9] In Mona Lisa Overdrive.

[10] In ‘The Winter Market’, included in the Burning Chrome collection of stories.

[11] Spoiler alert.

[12] Although his work and character seems like a precursor to Slick Henry, as if the more career savvy artist had to be tamed to get along with his new neighbors and relations in the subsequent novel. Also of interest is that he has an agent, and not specifically gallery representation.

[13] Like any other nature vs. nurture argument the answer is probably “a bit of both.”

[14] Speaking generally, and certainly not of larger projects fabricated with the aid of specialized technicians, who generally need to have their shit straight to survive working with artists…

[15] This is a benefit to the much maligned practice of art going directly into storage after it is bought. Artists are at least free to make anything, and sell it, without worrying about where it is going to fit. In my experience far fewer collectors have huge garage-style roll  up doors into their residences than you might think.

[16] Or, if you prefer, relocations. The constant movement of artists has a whiff of refugee movements about it, in a distinctly first-world way of course.

[17] In this case, young or emerging artists working to establish themselves. Older artists who have consolidated their position within the art world will probably have similarly consolidated their position in real estate. Likewise they are more likely to have family commitments that keep them from the young person’s game of pioneering.

[18] And of course some also headed West to New Jersey or North into the Harlem and the Bronx, and individual outposts or colonies thrive almost everywhere, but migrations are a matter of populations, not individuals. Chelsea remains an interesting outlier as artists have been there since at least the 1940’s or 50’s (deKooning had a studio there for awhile), but despite its proximity to Greenwich Village* it has never really had a status as an “art neighborhood” until the galleries moved in. If some future historian is looking to pinpoint where capital and galleries bifurcated away from artists, this is probably the point.

* Despite the rallying cry of the time, artists did head above 14th Street. Hipsters are notoriously unreliable that way, and of course there wasn’t an art museum that far south anyway.

[19] Low Earth orbit, or New Jersey.

[20] Following the split noted between the populations of artists and galleries in #18, it is interesting to note that galleries are exhibiting the same behavior, just within their own “species”, rather than with artists.

[21] Mira Schor’s call for an new intimate art may become a reality in light of working and exhibition space reducing (which can be seen a bit in smaller spaces on the Lower East-side downsizing from the blue chip Chelsea hangar). See “Modest Painting” in “A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life.”

[22] Potentially leading to a version of Gibson’s Boston – Atlanta Metropolitan Axis.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm

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