What recession art?

articles_1There was a lively discussion in my class the other day about boom-time art. Some students said fast times produce “vulgar” art; others disagreed. The point was that they found connections between the economic climate and the sort of art being made and sold.

By extension, it’s worth asking if the recession has given rise to any particular kind of art. My informal gallery scan suggests that works on view, on the whole, are getting smaller. Has substance changed, too? Will it? Should it?

There are signs that, beyond what Lindsay Pollock described as “the Darwinian game of gallery musical chairs,” art is being influenced by the downturn. BravinLee gallery in Chelsea is producing limited-edition rugs by various artists, with some of the proceeds going to charity. “Art needs to get out of the white box,” said John Lee in Pollock’s report. “This is born out of the current economic environment in a way.” Another item in my mailbox heralds a group show, opening this week, titled “Art of the Crash” at FusionArts Museum, on the Lower East Side. It’s something to do with sculpture made from the “detritus of Detroit.” Art of the Great Recession? You judge.

Now, with exquisite timing, along comes Morris Dickstein’s book on art in the 1930s, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” in which the CUNY professor surveys the artistic response to the calamity to which our times have so often (and so misleadingly) been compared. Dickstein finds many connections, but he reminds us that when it comes to art, hard times cannot be reduced to soft and simple truths. Populism went hand-in-hand in the Depression with the flowering of modernism. And severe hardship for artists was accompanied by the greatest government munificence to culture in the nation’s history, in the form of the WPA.

Visual art was only a blip on the cultural radar back then, but Dickstein’s conclusion about culture and gloom is noteworthy, if only because it seems to be so pointedly untrue about visual art today: “The arts bound people together in a collaborative effort to interpret and alleviate their own plight.”

More to the point, Dickstein observes that artists and intellectuals were slow to respond to the Depression, because they were insulated from its effects at first. Perhaps we’re inside such a time-lag gap right now. It would help to explain the almost total absence of art that might have allowed me to bond with my fellow gallery-goers in New York last week, as we made our rounds of the season openings, to interpret and alleviate our own plight.

5 thoughts on “What recession art?”

  1. Because of what Dickstein noted—“that artists and intellectuals were slow to respond to the Depression”–and because I know that the germination period from well-resolved concept through experimentation to realized art object and then to exhibition of said object/s is generally longer than one year, I am highly suspicious of the importance of any “recession” art already being exhibited, to be quite honest.

    Smaller (i.e., less expensive) art being exhibited in galleries over larger works is one thing (and perfectly understandable given that many collectors haven’t stopped buying as much as they’ve capped what they’re willing to spend at the moment), but art that addresses the “crisis” (as they ubiquitously called it in Europe, while we refer to it here in the US as a “downturn”), specifically, would have to have been cranked out in most instances.

    Multiples (says the dealer who launched a publishing venture with his neighbors last fall), on the other hand, are simply smaller art and, again, a sensible response to the downturn.

    In general, I’d say the important “art of the crash” (if indeed we ever see any) is still just a sparkle in some artist’s eye.

  2. Points well taken. But in recent years there has been much talk about the acceleration of art production, in particular with artists cranking out works in a matter of weeks to stockpile gallery booths at art fairs. It seems artists were willing to turn on a dime then. Why not now?

    Well over a year into the downturn, and a full two years into the mortgage crisis, you would think that some deeper thoughts would have been thunk–and executed–by now.

    Or maybe we really are just left with a kind of belt-tightening. The same product in smaller and serialized packaging?

  3. I think the cranking out for art fairs is a different situation, usually in that such work was more of the same the artist was known for, and not a new body of work that required research, reflection, experimentation, etc.

    I also think that smart artists respond more to impact than to current events. Although the mortgage crisis is two years old, the impact of it is still being sorted out. Yes, some folks have been plunged into a nightmare, but it’s not as if any commentary on that from this point of view could be universally meaningful IMO. I suspect that the reason artists were “slow” to respond to the Great Depression was they were looking for the big picture and that takes time to assess.

  4. I have seen artists use the recession as a narrative hook, such as Jonathan Monk’s deflated bunnies at Casey Kaplan. I have seen curated exhibitions that explicitly address the economy, such as Re-Accession: For Sale by Owner at the Flag. “Hoping to provide a view towards the shfting climates of exposure,” the intent of this exhibition was also all about strategy: the works of artists who have just lost representation or are without it were exhibited on piggyback to “Vague Terrain: Analogues f Place in Cntemporary Photography,”one of the best museum-quality exhibitons of contemporary photography I’ve seen in a gallery context.

    What interests me more are those exhibitions that have addressed the placement of objects in relation to each other with an eye towards a fragmented temporality, and there s something about scale at work here. Todd Levin’s show at Marianne Boesky, “Your Gold Teeth II,” did this well enough. As a response to the New Museum’s “Unmonumental,” Levin thickened the intensive space of the gallery with the implications that one small work could draw from the next. History and touch became involved, in reach of each other. As such, I was very comfortable with the fact that this was a gallery and an appeal to a collector base, a comfort I rarely have.

    Of different interest and not for sale was “Exhibition,” a “non-curated” 6 month show on Elizabeth Street. Artist’s names were drawn from a hat, their space in the gallery determined by the throw of the dice, and their rights to recycle the previous artist’s work into their own was given. With a new group show every week, an artists community was actively shaping itself in chance and intention.

    I like particularly the words of Eric Angles in the link above: “So what might at first glance look like a theater of freedom and constraint, the rehearsal of a tired dialectic between an artist/curator enforcing the law and an artist/Houdini dancing her way out of those shackles, is far more immediately and compellingly an experimental site where each one of us present in this space is made to decide, over and over again, how to face one other.”

  5. Karen Witczak writes that there are more exhibitions that tackle the art of the downturn:

    “Recession Art” has become a popular nom de guerre (or perhaps more accurately, a nom de temps), to describe at least two art shows I know of. I attended one last week, the “Recession Art Sale,” and did a short piece on it. Additionally, an exhibition titled “No Money No Problems: A Recession Art Show” is opening at The Invisible Dog Gallery in Brooklyn this weekend.

    This way of describing art directly reflects our crisis, of course, but I don’t know that there was a description for art produced during the boom years, the recent years of excess. Does art need to be marketed like a grocery store product? With accompanying markdowns and sales?

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