“Recessional Aesthetics” at Dia

recession-specialFrom Eva Diaz in New York City:

Speaking of the appropriation of empty real estate for art venues in Dubai and elsewhere, a fascinating mise en abyme is taking place at the former Dia space in Chelsea. Dia pioneered the Chelsea art frontier, then sold the building four years ago to a developer who, due to the bummer economy, failed to find tenants for a proposed “apartment gallery hybrid” (this according to the  NY Observer). The space has now been donated to the rechristened “X” non-profit contemporary art center for one year.

In a self-reflexive panel touching on new, non-market/real estate-driven hybridities in such improvised sites, Hal Foster and David Joselit last Thursday conversed about the current and possible future effects of the economic downturn on the wider field of art: its production, reception, distribution, and consumption; its educational institutions and institutions of display. Unfortunately it was an abbreviated session—someone in the audience fell into swoon half way through (an event later judged unrelated to the fraught topic at hand).

The evening was structured around as a series of insightful, speculative questions that posed tentative propositions about how to combat the privatization of cultural institutions and the financialization of art. Here’s quick telegraph of the five questions Foster and Joselit were able to cover, which involved some apposite participation from the large audience:

Will the social role of the artist change in the new “undercapitalist” economy?   Is the neoliberal art museum sustainable?   Will art biennials wither away?   What will be the effect of the economic crisis on art schools?   Will art criticism regain its place in the art world after being marginalized in the market boom?

The last question raised the very pertinent issue of what constitutes expertise in the field of criticism, latterly turned into generalized judgment or appreciation on the part of dealers, collectors, etc. Is there a place left for the common set of terms that a critic provides?Or has the globalization of the art world meant that a form of market-driven relativism supplanted criticism—disguised in the pluralism of purchasable media, the near ceaseless ahistorical plundering/pastiche of prior practices as fodder for new work, and the surfeit of MFA-equiped contemporary artists and surplus of biennials and art fairs?

5 thoughts on ““Recessional Aesthetics” at Dia”

  1. Thank you for posting this, Eva, Diaz. In recent days Jerry Saltz posted the following on his Facebook page, twice:

    “Last night’s David Joselit/Hal Foster “conversation” at X Initiative was the Revenge of the Academics – dead-air & moribund jargon. Time NOT to look to 1980s theory-Gods, guys.”

    There were 51 thumbs up and 156 comments. At first, Jerry’s statement met with the predictable outcome – another “October bashing,” the same kind of thing that has been going on for over ten years now, with the economic crisis and fallout of newspaper media only as fresh background for it. In social media format, friends began to chime in on cue. Dissenting voices occasionally appeared, but no real dialogue was invited.

    My point is not that such a statement should not appear, but that the context for such a statement matters tremendously. New contexts for art criticism are appearing that thrive on the cultivation of fans by throwing out one-liners, and writers who have deservedly earned a strong reputation seem to be doing it because it works. There is nothing wrong with throwing down the gauntlet and taking a position. But it is also true that thoughtful dialogue is being fended off in a twitter at the moment that, in a forum such as this one, the space for it is truly available.

    My first response to the Joselit and Foster’s actual questions, as you pose them here (as always, I cannot predict what will happen, but express my wishes):

    Will the social role of the artist change in the new “undercapitalist” economy? Yes. My hope is that arts patronage will not be the sole reserve of high-rollers, that art will find its reach broadening. Doubtless, for this to happen will depend upon some artistic practices that aspire to become “meaningful,” and so my further hope is that art and art criticism both show up with care towards how meaning is achieved and where it arrives. To my mind this raises a need for the kind of criticism that Saltz condemns – those ’80s concerns over representation emerged in a political context that demanded them. Writing from a different place and with different concerns, but certainly not with all of that behind us, how lucky we are to be in a moment of such possibilities for meaningful thought.

  2. Second response: Could we define the “neo-liberal museum,” and why this is a useful term? Here is the only link to a definition of the neoliberal museum (in English, of a particular sort) that Google served up. It seems to me that this language is heavily burdened by hegemony in all directions, and I wonder if we can open up a little more what it is exactly that we are talking about when we speak of – in what inevitably escapes specificity or maybe even sense but is worth the effort nevertheless – a museum of contemporary art?

  3. Let me try to give my own answers to the questions that were posed:

    Will the social role of the artist change in the new “undercapitalist” economy?

    Not appreciably. Not unless the crisis of such magnitude that it fundamentally reshapes our society. Artists have not turned into government funded cultural workers. Their fundamental relationships to collectors, museums, etc. haven’t changed. While they may have warmed up to politics (temporarily) they have not moved closer to the center of our public debates about our most fundamental issues. However, they may drive less expensive cars.

    Is the neoliberal art museum sustainable?

    I agree with Catherine that this is a heavily loaded word. I am not even sure what it means. It’s also superfluous to the question. The question is whether museums in general are sustainable. For more on museum sustainability, read Adrian Ellis in this month’s Art Newspaper.

    Will art biennials wither away?

    Some will. But like the earlier questions, this one is also heavily loaded. The assumption is that when boom turns to bust, phenomena associated with the boom might simply disappear. The historical record shows that booms give rise to new infrastructure and new behaviors that tend to linger after the collapse, albeit in diminished form for a while. Moreover, biennials long predated the boom, and they draw funding and enthusiasm from many sources going beyond commercial exuberance — national and local pride among them.

    What will be the effect of the economic crisis on art schools?

    Higher education is historically counter-cyclical, and many postgraduate programs are seeing an uptick in applications. One can only hope that the curriculum of art schools changes along with the times. And here there is some reason for hope.

    Will art criticism regain its place in the art world after being marginalized in the market boom?

    Keep dreaming. We would have to see a much more fundamental de-commercialization (i.e. total market meltdown) to arrive at a situation where the affairs of the art world were demonstrably governed by criticism. The marginalization of criticism predated the boom and has been happening for reasons that go far beyond the boom. However, I will allow that the epic transformations currently roiling society may give rise to fresh ideas and new ways of thinking that just may help put new energy into criticism, allowing it to be a more vital force in art.

  4. In the spirit of the speculative nature of the questions asked and the answers proffered, I’d throw into the mix that one of the things that we will begin to see even more of is a shift into high gear of the ‘art and/as education’ complex. Dieter Lesage has a very interesting article in the 4th edition of the ‘e-flux journal’ (one of my new favorite e-rags) that addresses this issue as it has begun to take shape in European art institutions. And on this side of the Atlantic, I think that Jeremy Deller’s ‘It Is What It Is’ at the New Museum (and now on the road with Creative Time), which made of the museum an informal, open-to-the-public Q&A space on all things Iraq and Afghanistan, offers a signal example of the “neoliberal museum” turned platform for education, outreach, activism. (Whether this is viable economically is another matter.)

    We’re already seeing more artists move into this space in which art and edification overlap. Our own Pablo Helguera’s performance ‘lectures’ cross history and current events in a manner at once amusing and interesting but never didactic or pedantic (it think these might be the new critical watchwords, taking the place of the always stupidly deployed ‘derivative’). Jimmy Raskin’s lectures/installations dealing with the metaphorical imagery in Neitzsche’s ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ offer another signal example of this turn.

    I’ll hazard that this ‘educational turn’ will ramp up in the economic downturn. Education in general is counter-cyclical, but this has different ramifications for the arts than it does for other ‘professional’ graduate programs. I think we’ll see a sprouting of, and new attention to, alternative art school spaces, guilds, collectives, retreats, etc. Places and informal programs that are driven by people and ideas and which carry little overhead costs. These new entities might get confused with ‘collectives’, but the work that they generate will not be tied to a self-consciousness about the post-authorial subject because it won’t be the entity itself taking responsibility (as most collectives do when they model themselves on, and often get confused with, the design shop).

    Criticism, the museum, biennials and art schools will all come to be shaped, in one way or another, by this educational turn.

  5. Thanks, Neil, for pointing out Lesage’s thoughtful essay, which ends by suggesting that in the future contemporary museums may become appendages of art academies. I assume he is thinking of something like research hospitals being tied to medical schools. While I think Lepage is deliberately overstating, I do think the “educational turn” is real. It manifests itself not only in the programming of museums, galleries, and fairs, but even in areas like arts PR. Three cheers for that.

    It seems to me, contemporary art institutions are pressing toward — or backing into — education for a host of reasons beyond the counter-cyclical dynamics that Neil mentions, including the following:

    * A search for a new raison d’être, one that offers a substitute for formerly exciting, but now exhausted and defunct agendas.

    * Mounting evidence about (or at least interest in) the “benefits”of arts education (cognitive, psychological, etc.), especially for the very young.

    *The new political climate in the US, which is less tolerant of elitism and seeks to reconnect public arts funding with unassailable public benefits.

    * A philanthropic climate in which the largest foundations (those still left standing after the collapse) are not any longer interested in supporting art for art’s sake.

    Under these scenarios, art typically becomes a means to an end–an occasion for edification (however so defined) at a minimum, or more often, a strategic tool for the pursuit of some kind of targeted societal improvement.

    Can the art world live with that?

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