Where the geniuses go

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Its that time of year: this week 22 overachieving individuals received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation, telling them that they had received the famous so-called “genius” grant, totaling a no-strings attached amount of $500,000. The list of grantees this year includes a radio host, a parasitologist, a long-form journalist, a clinical psychologist, and others. Now, if you happen to be a genius in the visual arts, I am afraid you were left sitting by the phone. For whatever reason, this year’s grant panel determined that no awards would be given to the visual arts.

To be fair, the visual arts has had its share of awards over the years. Out of the 850 or so grants ever given in the history of this grant, around 46 have gone to contemporary artists (if you count a couple of those who do performance art but were awarded in the theater category). In contrast, music has received 36, dance and choreography 13, and only 5 architects can claim the “genius” mantle.

And still, one can’t help but have a slight feeling of rejection and perhaps collective self-doubt. Maybe we are not ready to announce that the artworld has run out of geniuses; but this symbolic absence reinforces two suspicions that at least I and others I know share: one, that the contemporary art practice, in its self-increasing insularity, is becoming less and less relevant to the rest of the world; and two, that as opposed to other periods in history, the most vibrant creative minds —the Leonardos of today— don’t go into the visual arts but into other disciplines like technology.

Added to this feeling is the fact that in New York today Creative Time celebrated its third Summit, this year entitled “Living as Form”, where we saw an interesting parade of presenters that ranged from socially —but also aesthetically— committed artists to activists who altogether work outside of the art world. The conference at times felt more like an activist conclave than an art gathering. Journalist and keynote speaker Laura Flanders eloquently called for artists to create spaces for people to connect; yet non-artists who work on the social and political sphere received such ovations that sometimes it felt that we were jealous of the freedom in which they created those connections, unburdened by art history. Yes, there are inspirational projects and artists— Mierle Laderman Ukueles moved the whole theater with her historically brave Maintenance Manifesto of 1969, and Jeanne van Heeswijk, this year’s Summit honoree, spoke about her deeply committed socially engaged projects. But the unmistakable feeling of the conference is that we appear to triumph when we reject, not when we embrace, aesthetics; that these projects are successful not thanks to, but in spite of, being artworks.

So the question could be: have the demands of the market system of art and its adjoining academic apparatus have stifled creativity to the point that we feel most creative when we are NOT making art? What does the art practice have to offer in terms of imaginative thinking today to other disciplines? Who would you say are our current visual art geniuses?

About Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist and contributing editor for Artworld Salon. Originally from Mexico City, his multi-disciplinary work often deals with topics such as history, social thought, perception, fiction, and academicism. His works, which are usually performative in nature, have included making phonograph recordings, composing orchestral pieces, inventing fictional artists and museums, founding educational and research institutions, and writing scripted symposia with actors. He has performed individually at the Museum of Modern Art, NY (Parallel Lives, 2003), and has exhibited or performed at other venues such as the Royal College of Art, London; the Havana Biennial, Performa 05, and many others. He received a Creative Capital Grant for “The School of Panamerican Unrest”, a nomadic think-tank that physically traveled by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, covering 25,000 miles, and becoming the most physically extensive public art project on record. This project will be showcased in a solo traveling exhibition organized by El Museo del Barrio in New York, which will also travel to London, Mexico City and in other locations. From 1998 to 2005 he served as Senior Manager of Education of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he developed and oversaw the museum’s public programs. He has organized more than 500 public programs in the course of his museum career, including the international symposium The Museum as Medium (2002) and the Fifth Installment of the International Symposium of Contemporary Art Theory in Mexico City (SITAC, 2005). He currently is Director of Adult and Academic Programs of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of four books: Endingness (2005), an essay on the art of memory; The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005; Spanish edition; 2007, English edition), a social etiquette manual for the art world; The Witches of Tepoztlán (and other Unpublished Operas), (2007), The Boy Inside the Letter (2008) and Artoons (2009). http://web.mac.com/phelguera/iWeb/Site/Pablo%20Helguera%20Archive.html www.pablohelguera.org www.panamericanismo.org

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