Three cheers for austerity

205_a_a_giff_weight-newThree makes a trend, the adage goes. So here’s one: The upcoming Whitney Biennial, the National Academy’s Annual Invitational, and Site Santa Fe have sharply curtailed their rosters of exhibiting artists. The reason is money. The outcome is just what the art world needs.

Bloated biannials and survey shows were a boom-time phenomenon we can do without. They are self-defeating in terms of their purpose, which is to provide a point of view about what’s going on. And for better or worse, art fairs offer a more comprehensive summary of the totality of artistic activity.

Cultural bloat is an understudied phenomenon. Its effects are subtle and pernicious. On the surface, bloat entices us with more and more of a supposedly good thing: brick-size novels, three-hour movies, fancier museum buildings and cultural extravaganzas that betoken civic pride and scaling national ambitions.

Underneath all this more-ness, however, lurks the shadow of unsustainability. And that’s hardly the biggest threat. The lure of large numbers relieves the pressure to leave material on the cutting room floor. The cacophonous results mimic the quick verdicts and ceaseless profusion of the marketplace. A more restricted format, by contrast, tilts power to curators. It flushes away the fluff and injects some editorial discipline into the enterprise of art. Think of it as slow cultural food: Harder to cultivate and prepare, more satisfying to consume.

There’s been a lot of writing lately about how austerity is good for art. Much of it is sentimental bunk. Artists deserve to live well, like anyone else. But a case can be made, I believe, for trimming output and narrowing distribution channels. We may have less art to see, but more attention to lavish on it.

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