There 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.