Occupy Museums, MoMA and insta-history

occupy_museums2-sqOne week ago today the Occupy Museums (OM) offshoot of OWS staged a protest inside MoMA during which a banner was unfurled and promptly confiscated by MoMA security.  (Read a decent account here.)  Today, in a cheeky but perhaps brilliant move, OM sent a letter to MoMA’s Acquisitions Committee claiming that the “confiscation” of the banner was in fact a “unilateral acquisition” of a work of art that is by, and so belongs to, OM.  In the letter, the banner, which quoted Camus and called for the end of the Sotheby’s lockout of its art handlers, was designated by OM as both a work of art and ‘historical’ by OM.  Writing that “institutions around the country are negotiating with OWS to acquire archival materials for their collections,” OM designated its banner as one such artifact and then enumerated the three conditions that would have to be met for its return, none of which, in good OWS fashion mind you, were monetary.

The rhetoric of the letter and its demands aside, the OM letter to MoMA raises a host of interesting questions, one of the least salient being, Is the banner a work of art or an artifact, however limitedly ‘historical’?  One could go around and around on that one for a while.  More interesting is the question of how OM is playing the institution’s game against itself.  If MoMA doesn’t take the banner, which it likely won’t, who will pick it up?  The Whitney?  The Met?  Another American, or European, Latin American, or–wouldn’t it be great–Chinese institution?  (I’d like The New York Historical Society to step in personally, but I imagine it won’t get any takers for a while.)  Does the claim of the banner’s immediate historicity, so seemingly easily and retrospectively secured by the letter itself and by the rapidly disseminated documentation of the protest, hold legitimacy? And legitimacy for whom? (Paradoxically, the letter demands recognition from the very institution whose policies it questions.) What’s puzzling, though, is how quickly a protest over the treatment of people–namely the art handlers at Sotheby’s, who are being held up as emblems of labor in general–is being mediated through a conflict over an object?  Is this not the logic of the commodity fetish itself?

On seeing a performance of exploitation…

augustsanderMaking its way across the web as I write is a story about the exploitation of performers at the hands of Marina Abramović.  ARTINFO is running the best recap of the story, and Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic has picked it up and carried it as well, but here’s a brief:

Abramović was tapped by LA MOCA to produce a performance work for the Museum’s annual gala.  The outcome?  Each table at the gala comes with a performer getting paid $150 to sit under it on a slowly-rotating lazy-susan with his or her head protruding up through the table’s center, which carries the promise of intermittent and likely uncomfortable eye contact throughout the evening.  One human-centerpiece-to-be was none too happy about such future prospects and sent a missive to Yvonne Rainer, presumably because Rainer’s position in the artworld is unassailable, her politics predictable, and her network far reaching.  Rainer in turn decried the spectacle in a letter to Jeffrey Deitch, which was published on the web as co-signed by Douglas Crimp, Taisha Paggett and, according to ARTINFO, Tom Knechtel and Monica Majoli.

In response to Rainer, Abramović told ARTINFO, “All these accusations, you can’t have them before you actually experience the situation and see how I can change the atmosphere [of the gala], that’s my main purpose.”  And in a comment to the LA Times, Jeffrey Deitch said, “I would just hope that when people make allegations like this, they would actually come to see the performance and talk to the performers.”  To make good on that, Deitch invited Rainer to a rehearsal of the piece.

Continue reading “On seeing a performance of exploitation…”

Maastricht: a different model for collecting?

Louise Lawler: Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut (2000.434) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of ArtBY JONATHAN T.D. NEIL AND ANDRAS SZANTO, JUST RETURNED FROM THE NETHERLANDS

Why don’t we see more cross-period and cross-category collecting? We found ourselves asking this question repeatedly while wandering the halls of The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) this past weekend. And it appeared to be the question dealers were asking, too. One London-based gallerist we spoke with lamented the decline of the collector dedicated to his or her individual wants. Such connoisseurship simply comes down to wanting the “best” of what one likes, regardless of whether that is a Richter abstraction from 1984 or a Brueghel wedding dance scene from 1614.

The Maastricht fair is tailored to this kind of collector. It is really five fairs in one, with large sections dedicated to old masters, modern and contemporary works, antiques, works on paper, and design. Within these larger sections one can discover highly specialized booths offering jewelry from antiquity, illuminated manuscripts, Chinese relics, guns and armor, nineteenth-century Japanese prints, or 1930s photographs. Even the length of the fair (ten days) and the habits of its collectors (most transactions happen toward its end or after the close) speaks to an entirely different sensibility than what reigns at Art Basel Miami or Armory or Frieze. It is not uncommon to see collectors lost in conversation in front of works—and not about prices.

In short, at Maastricht, discernment reigns. But why is discernment in decline elsewhere?

For two reasons. The first is education: Maastricht demands a high base-line level of knowledge on the part of collectors. Only a solid grasp of world history, the classics, and religion will unlock the meaning and relevance of the work on offer. Barring that, one must have total faith and trust in the dealers dedicated to this work. Time and again, we witnessed impromptu master classes being conducted in the booths, with dealers delivering learned excurses on the form, content, material, and history of a given piece. Questions of provenance are left to the wall labels. Some press releases stretch on for five pages, replete with footnotes.

Second, market and institutional pressure: Collectors are increasingly encouraged to pick one medium or category – say photography or west-coast video – and stick to it. Others feel compelled to reproduce institutional habits in miniature, which is where the language of “filling gaps” comes into play. These approaches explain why so many strictly contemporary art collectors have the exact same stuff hanging on their walls. Only through one or the other of these strategies, it is commonly thought, can a serious collector hope to have museums, or maybe taste-maker magazines, come knocking.

Yet Maastricht seems to counter this particularist/generalist dichotomy. Its historical and material scope alone stands as a lesson in the necessity of discernment as a skill for today’s collector.

Zuckerberg to VIP Art Fair: “Users are fickle…”

the-social-network-movie-poster-david-fincher1There is a scene in The Social Network when Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg is laying into his then CFO, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), for freezing the company account of the then-neo-natal Facebook. It’s the best 30 seconds on the fragility of a company’s online profile that one can possibly find, and it goes something like this:

Do you realize that you jeopardized the entire company?…If the servers are down for even a day our reputation is damaged irreversibly.  Users are fickle…Even a small exodus, even a few people leaving would reverberate through the whole user base. The users are interconnected, that’s the whole fucking point!

The VIP Art Fair is not Facebook.  It’s not a social media platform and was never billed as one. Rather, it is the first successful attempt at bringing something like an Art Basel or Armory Show to your browser. But here’s the thing: “Users are fickle.” And VIP learned that lesson the hard way.

The scrutiny and criticism have been relentless: my colleagues at ArtReview questioned VIP’s default email sharing/privacy settings (another Facebook lesson), about which collectors were pissed; bloggers, as they do, have offered comment and cattiness, on everything from the experience to the idea; everyone I’ve spoken to trashes the interface, or has said the art looks “flat” (you are looking at it on a screen, I remind them); and rumors abound that exhibitors have been asking for refunds.

Barring those rumors, all of this confirms that VIP is indeed a success, a qualified one, but a success nevertheless.  People logged on, looked, commented, contacted (too many it seems). This is what happens at an art fair. Continue reading “Zuckerberg to VIP Art Fair: “Users are fickle…””

The educational worm turns

glenn-beck-cryingAs someone who as taken an interest in what I have called the art world’s ‘pedagogical impulse’ and what others have dubbed its ‘educational turn’, I was of course tickled to read that yesterday marked the first day of classes at Glenn Beck University.  As the news outlets have reported, Beck U teaches courses such as ‘Hope’, ‘Faith’, and ‘Charity’, rewrites, apparently, of standard disciplinary topics, such as History, Religion and Economics, though inflected with Beck Inc.’s brand of newspeak and ‘taught’ by some questionable characters (only one of Beck U’s instructors is an ‘academic’ in the conventional sense).  And this for only $74.95/year.

That’s a comparative bargain, unless of course you consider iTunes U, which offers an immense array of course lectures taught by academics (some award winning) from institutions (‘esteemed’ ones we would say) with brand names such as Oxford, UC Berkley and Yale, and all for the low download price of $0.00.

Of course, Beck U’s point is that it is exactly such institutions of Higher Ed which are mired in what it would call bias and what most everyone else calls reality.  (Best that one take American History from the likes of David Barton, whose campaign against the First Amendment of the Constitution is grounded upon the persistent falsification and misattribution of historical quotation, rather than from, say, the Gilder Lehrman Institute).

Now, one cannot but view Beck U as a cynical foray into the education business (and probably something very much akin to Thomas Kinkade‘s successful foray into the art business), because a business it is, but I also cannot help thinking that part of what prepared the ground for Beck’s easy entry into this likely very lucrative landscape, aside from the obvious platform of the internet, has to do with a greater crisis of authority, institutional and otherwise, that shapes so much of what we hear and see today, both at large and in the art world itself. Continue reading “The educational worm turns”

Win, place, sell

blacklist_3Randy Kennedy has finally brought the Craig Robins v. David Zwirner legal spat to the pages of the great Grey Lady; so, now would seem to be as good a time as any to open up this issue for debate.  That issue, as laid out by Kennedy, turns on the presumptive practice of art-world “blacklisting,” whereby collectors are kept from purchasing works by artists they covet because the dealers or artists fear that those same works will soon find their way to the auction block.  In this case, Robins sold a work by Marlene Dumas, and allegedly did so a bit too early for the artist’s taste, which is why, according to Robins, he was blocked from buying new pieces from Dumas’ recent show at Zwirner’s.

You see, the art world doesn’t like speculators.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  The art world doesn’t like anyone else speculating on what it’s already speculating on.  And it’s this attitude, largely hypocritical in character, which has likely brought Zwirner’s lawyers to characterize Robins as a petulant child who is being told he can’t have the big red and white lollipop in the gallery window.  Or rather,

“By bringing suit,” the gallery’s lawyers argue, “the wealthy Robins has literally made a federal case of not being able to buy what he wants, when he wants.”

Kennedy goes on to offer some choice quotes from Allan Schwartzman and Jeffrey Deitch about dealing with speculators and the difficulties of “placing” works of art with the right “serious” collectors (as opposed to those who will flip the work to make a quick buck) or simply selling them to some schlub just in off the street with a briefcase full of cash.  But then to “place” a work is a form of speculation in and of itself, no?  After all, even if that schlub loves the work so much as to never even entertain the possibility of selling it, “Some Schlub'” under the “Collections” column on the artist’s CV doesn’t exactly send prices soaring.  We call this the problem (and power) of “access.”

To my mind, though, the “blacklist” issue misses the point (and perhaps purposely so, if Zwirner’s lawyers are trying to deflect attention). Continue reading “Win, place, sell”

Sometimes a fair is just a fair

noyoushutupAfter the noughtie boom and the ’08-’09 bust, and even now with the art market engine appearing to turn over and offer the promise of a restart, might it not be time to leave behind the idea of assessing the art fairs as “shows” that are akin to exhibitions at kunsthalls, projects spaces, museums and galleries? Perhaps it is my own sensibility at the moment, but why do we, or should we, really care?

I think we’ve seen that some number of art fairs are now fixtures of the art world’s event-cycle; they offer a service that I think is reasonable: to bring together in one spot a wide variety of dealers from around the world to showcase the work of the artists they represent (and, in some cases, those that they don’t.) Are they ideal venues in which to view and to think about works of art? No. But do they offer, as Sarah Thornton wrote about the Armory, a “terrible viewing experience” because of their “indiscriminate lighting, bad acoustics, awkward floor plan, and dearth of food and drink”? I don’t think so. (If Thornton had added “droves of tourists snapping iPhone pictures and obliviously jostling everyone and everything while plugged into an audio tour,” I’d have thought she was describing what it’s like to visit MoMA.)

I just don’t find this kind of commentary interesting or necessary. Let’s treat the fairs like what we know they are: trade shows. What do I think of the trade shows?  Were they strong? How did they look…”overall”? Are they forums for engaging with and thinking about and assessing the aesthetics and politics of works of art? Really? Are these the questions we want the answers to where art fairs are concerned? Did dealers make sales, and by making those sales, put money in their artists’ accounts so that those artists can keep doing what they do (or do something different, if they so choose)? That’s the bottom line question (no pun intended) in my mind. If the background din and lack of snacks made it harder for collectors to buy work, then yes, let’s talk about that. But if not, then let’s not.

And so sorry, but for as much as everyone squealed with delight about Independent (a.k.a. the ‘Black and White and Monochrome’ show), it was not that great. It was not some revelation. Was there good work? Of course. Was it self-congratulatory? Unquestionably, yes. But there I go, commenting on an art fair as it if deserved the attention. It is what it is…and that should be enough.

Developing sino-criticism

9780713992540hWhile taking a brief vacation from the cold this past week (in Panama of all places; as an aside, the rapid and apparently unconstrained development of Panama City since 2003 is a phenomenon worth looking at) I finally had the opportunity to plow through Martin Jacques’s When China Rules The World (Penguin 2009), which I found to be an excellent counter-consensus account of how China’s rise will be anything but a process of ‘westernization’.

Not that I have done all that much reading on the topic, but it seems to me that Jacques offers a thoroughgoing introduction to the many promises and problems (for the globe, not just the West) of China’s rise.  But more than this, the importance of Jacques book, for me at least, was to have disabused me of my habit of utter skepticism with which I met nearly all (positive) accounts of anything having to do with ‘Chinese Contemporary Art’.  The ’emerging market’ chorus and so many artists’ tendency towards the worst ethno-kitsch, combined with the extensive accounts of ‘pay-to-play’ networks of curators, critics, galleries and museums, simply put me off.  My major criticism being that it seemed impossible for anyone ‘in the West’ to get a clear or honest assessment of Chinese art from Chinese critics and curators.  Yes, books by English-language critics (Richard Vine’s fine recent survey among them) have been appearing.  But without access to the thinking that was going on within the networks of Chinese art (and networks purged of monetary grease), I simply felt that its landscape would necessarily remain obscure. My reaction, unenviable and small-minded, was to put my head in the sand and simply hope that this too would pass, chalked up as a mere symptom of globalization.  As I said, small-minded.

The rise of Chinese contemporary art is surely a function, not a symptom, of globalization; and it’s here to stay.  Jacques’s book attuned me to this (and it has perhaps only twenty words on art, contemporary or otherwise).  All of which is to say that, post-Jacques’s book, I was able to read with some optimism this report on the announcement of Wang Chunchen of the Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts as the most recent (and only second) winner of the Chinese Contemporary Art Award prize in criticism–and this for a work entitled ‘Art Intervenes in Society – A New Artistic Relationship’.  I have not read Wang’s piece, and would be interested to hear from anyone who has; but it seems to me more generally that this prize in criticism is exactly the kind of thing we need.  The discourse of Chinese contemporary art needs to be shaped from a perspective internal to its own culture.  The CCAA prize promises to do just that.  And now that I’ve got my head out of my as…I mean, out of the sand, I’ll be looking for more such platforms (and their beneficiaries).

An artist speaks out against neo-orientalism

orientalismIn the wake of the October auctions in London, Kamrooz Aram wrote a piece about the appendage of “Arab and Iranian” artists to Sotheby’s sale of Contemporary Art (full disclosure: I assisted Aram in the editing of his piece and ushered it up online).  Aram rightly points out that this was of course not the first time an auction house or other outlets have used ethnicity as a means to promote a broad spectrum of art works which might otherwise bear no connection to one another; nevertheless, it was the first time that one of Aram’s works had been put up in such an auction and, as Aram notes, solely as a speculative move, given that the work had been purchased from his gallery only months earlier.  What is more, the notes that accompanied the piece in the auction catalogue demonstrated the persistence of some orientalist perspectives at work in what we might inflatable bouncers canada as well call the ‘positioning’ of Aram’s work for sale.

One of the many implications of Aram’s piece is its challenge to the not altogether unfamiliar use of ‘identity’, both questioned and not, as a tool of the market.  ‘Identity’ has been a major theme not only for contemporary art, but for contemporary literature and, indeed, politics itself; and it seems part and parcel of this thematic’s rise that it is, exactly, marketable.  One of the questions then is this: are we witnessing a neo-orientalism in the marketplace?  One that is interested to–as the Sotheby’s auction notes do–keep in play the divide between a modern west and primitive east?  Or is what Aram identifies as neo-orientalism more like a single facet of what someone like Walter Benn Michaels would call neoliberalism in art in general–an art that is itself more interested in identity (i.e who belongs to this or that group) than in class (i.e. who has the money and who doesn’t)?

Does who owns art change it?

imagesA couple of weeks ago Tyler Green posted an interesting interview with New Museum director Lisa Phillips about her institution’s decision to put on shows drawn solely from various high profile collections (Dakis Joannou, New Museum trustee, will be the first beneficiary of the new curatorial program).  I’m happy to debate the merits of such a program (I see the conflicts, but I also see the value too), but what caught my interest was this loaded question of Green’s:

Do you worry that your decision could reinforce the notion that art is a luxury owned by the privileged few rather than a means through which artists engage communities and nations and societies in a broader discourse?

My response in reading this was: “Why can’t it be both?”  That much art–and much of what we recognize as the best and most important art–has always been a luxury good is of course no defense for why it should or will always be so, but it seems to me that the opposition that Green puts into play here is a false one.  I don’t see how a “luxury,” which I take simply to mean a good or service that comes with a high price tag, is inherently incapable of engaging with “communities and nations and societies.”  Who “owns” this luxury, especially if that luxury is work of art, should have little to do with whether the work is engaged in a “broader discourse.”  This leads me to a series of questions: Continue reading “Does who owns art change it?”

What’s wrong with ‘professionalization’?

dunlops-cornwall-spetember-2007-007-men-in-suitsLurking within recent commentaries on ‘the big group shows’ one finds no uncertain antipathy to the idea of ‘professionalization’ in the visual arts.  Most of the time, this gets written up as back-handed swat at art schools and the credentials they offer, the MFA and, now increasingly, the PhD.  Holland Cotter did it in that same piece on ‘generations’ I mentioned last week.  Here’s the offending passage:

A scan of the catalog’s biographies confirms that, almost without exception, the artists in the show are products of art schools, as often as not intensely professionalized, canon-driven environments. This may help explain why so much of the work on view comes with art historical references and borrowings, tweaks on tweaks on tweaks so intricate and numerous as to defy listing.

And Michael Kimmelman can’t resist a similar swipe in his recent and rather sonambulant review of the Venice Biennale:

If any show can be said to reflect a larger state of affairs in art now, this one suggests a somewhat dull, deflated contemporary art world, professionalized to a fault, in search of a fresh consensus. It has prompted the predictable cooing from wishful insiders, burbling vaguely about new found introspection and gravity.

What, I have to ask, is wrong with professionalization? What are we really criticizing when we deride the graduates of MFA and PhD programs for nothing more than simply having done what one would expect them to do, which is to go and learn about the enterprise in which they are interested? Continue reading “What’s wrong with ‘professionalization’?”

Making shows vs. writing history

9780714844053_mainOver the weekend, Holland Cotter, the (now) Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for the New York Times decided to take that newly minted status out for a spin.  On Sunday, Mr. Cotter attempted what I guess one would call a “think piece” that took as its objects of interest two exhibitions in New York that deal with the idea of a “generation”: The Met’s Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 and The New Museum’s Younger Than Jesus.  These shows have been open for a while, so Cotter’s attending to them now announces that he has something more than a mere review in mind.  And in essence, his point seems to be that the notion of a “generation” is circumspect.  Here is Cotter’s conclusion:

Is same generation a useful basis for writing history? Obviously the answer is yes and no. For years now scholars have questioned the validity of viewing the cultural past and the present through the old apparatus of renaissances, dynasties and “periods.” They see these categories for what they are: packaging designed to sell an account of events that will go down smoothly and leave no spaces blank or questions unanswered. Generations could be added to the list.

So much for the “no.”  But what of the “yes”?  Why wouldn’t “same generation” be a “useful basis for writing history?”  Because, one imagines, without the contemporaneity that underpins much historical analysis, the writing of history would make little sense, or it would at least require significant methodological justification just to get itself going.  But this gets beyond my immediate point.  Cotter takes to task The Met and New Museum shows because their “history” is somehow incomplete.  Cotter thinks the Met’s case is myopia, the New Museum’s is inevitability.  Of course some of Cotter’s points—that the Pictures retrospective gives Philip Smith short (actually no) shrift; that the Generational is an exercise in curatorial self-gratification—have some merit.  But here’s the thing: they are shows.  They may even be historically important.  But they are not histories.  Or are they? Continue reading “Making shows vs. writing history”

Why evolution?

evolving1

Evolution, as it should be, is a growth industry.   We should be pleased with this.   And yet I find myself  wary of some recent books and articles that are beginning to look at cultural production, and art more specifically, through the lens of evolutionary theory.   Here I’m thinking in particular of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct (Bloomsbury, 2009).   Dutton’s aim in this text is to demonstrate how our preferences for arts of all kinds can be traced back to selection pressures–essentially, for Dutton, finding a mate–that have shaped our sensory-cognitive faculties over thousands of years.

Dutton’s appeal to evolutionary pscyhology in itself is not problematic, but I’m  concerned, not because I think that this appeal will somehow strip the arts of their purchase on meaning and significance, but because such arguments offer up the realities of evolution as an ontology for art–i.e. what ‘art’ is, is nothing more than an evironmental adaptation designed to proliferate the species.

It’s not that I’m at odds with this notion; in fact, I find it quite obvious.   Insofar as our cultural products become a manifest part of what the evolutionary psychologists would call our “fitness landscape,” it stands to reason that our adaptations to that lansdscape necessarily take into account that cultural production.   But, as Joseph Carroll, one of the leading proponents of what has been called “Literary Darwinism,” has stated:

Research in the next few years will determine whether we can generate a cumulative body of explanatory principles rooted in Darwinian theory, that are in themselves simple and general but nonetheless encompass the particularities and complexities of literature and the other arts.

The question is: What exactly needs explaining?   If we are hardwired for certain things (as I’m sure we are), if art, or the creative spirit, or the kunstwollen, is innate, then so what?   This doesn’t explain art; it simply means that artistic creation is being taken seriously by evolution-based psychologies and sociologies.   We’re still left with the hard work of understanding–and more importantly, arguing for–why certain works of art (more than others) demand our attention, aren’t we?

At what cost, production?

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The Art Newspaper leads today with a piece by Louisa Buck about “Artists  Clawing Back Control From Dealers.” If the title is a bit hyperbolic, the article itself is a measured account of how artists such as Kieth Tyson and Gavin Turk have begun hiring financial advisors and forming their own companies in order to maintain better and perhaps more centralized control over, and so creativity in, the production of their work.   For a long time, galleries served this purpose for their artists, functioning as the business and finance arm of their activities, which often meant that a gallery would front significant amounts of money to realize an artist’s particular vision.   (It was Jeffrey Deitch’s financing of Jeff Koons’ Celebration series of sculptures which nearly bankrupted the gallery and ended in Deitch’s temporary partnership with Sotheby’s.)

The sticking point in the gallery-artist relationship comes, of course, when that production money comes with strings attached; namely in claims to ownership of the work or some percentage of it, or, perhaps more difficult for artists to accept, sometimes a say in the ultimate outcome of the piece.    Such is the case with Emmanuel Perrotin’s new venture, ‘Artists’ Dreams’, which will use an outside pool of investment capital to produce works which will then be exclusively consigned to his gallery for sale.

So it makes sense that artists who have the means to do so might choose some measure of economic autonomy from their galleries when it comes to questions of production.    But “the means to do so,” as we well know, would seem to exclude a large number of working artists, whose only business outlets are the galleries who stand to profit from the sales of their work, and whose markets and operations are too small to warrant hiring the likes of Frank Dunphy (Hirst’s business manager) or his firm, Hogbens Dunphy, which manages Turk and Tyson among others.

The idea that this move is one of “clawing back control” from dealers is a bit misleading then.   After all, if you can finance it yourself, why would you take on outside obligations?   If you can handle the risk, you get the control.   (It’s actually surprising to me that more artists haven’t made this move sooner.)   I know one artist who finances his own work and then backs those costs out of the sale of his art before splitting anything with his gallery.   Of course, the market for that work had better already be there, or else one may soon be faced with a Celebration-esque economic disaster.   And this question is not limited to the relationship between artists and their dealers.   Many non-collecting institutions underwrite all or portions of the produciton of new works for exhibition.   But often the associated “ownership stake” involves the negotiation of tricky contracts, in which small musuems and kunsthalles have only their prestige to serve as leverage.

So the question is: Are there other options out there that we’re not seeing?   As the economy continues to slide, and production costs become ever more onerous, will the majority of artists working today become ever more indentured to production funds, whether these come from galleries, museums or independent sources?   And might we not also see a change in the scale of operations taken on by artists in the coming months and years as well?

A plea for optimism

miami_beach_nightThere is a question circulating around the art world blogosphere: Will Art Basel Miami Beach, and all of its attendant satellite fairs, be a gallery killer?

The rationale behind the question works something like this: Given the way the art world’s schedule runs, one assumes that most galleries paid for their art fair real estate many months ago.   And given that many galleries have begun to rely upon their fair sales to remain profitable, if not solvent, in a down turn, the art fairs begin to look like a bigger and bigger gamble, akin to doubling down on an otherwise iffy hand.   With the US economy in tatters, and knowing that the full scope of the financial crisis has yet to come into focus (not to mention the dismal performance of the fall’s contemporary art auctions), can there be any doubt that real buyers will be few and far between, and that only those galleries with (enough) cash already in the bank will still be around this time next year?

I do not relish what I believe to be the answers to these questions.   The sought after purification of the art world’s soul will be seen–if LA MOCA’s potential collapse has not shown it already–to affect the avant-garde and the opportunists alike.   So I ask, where is the silver lining?   What should an optimist for the future of the art world be looking for?   What might we find in Miami that we did not expect or could not have foreseen?

Considering “Relational Aesthetics”

anyspacewhatever250

Much art of the 1990s will forever remain associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s exhibition Traffic (1995) and the book it spurred him to write, Relational Aesthetics (1998), which put forward the terms of art we now use to identify (describe?) the offerings of artists such as Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerester and others.   Whether one was eating Thai food in a gallery, sitting and conversing on understated but stylized benches in an exhibition hall, or taking part in a seance, it was immediately apparent that something significant had happened to the way that artists were approaching the enterprise of art making, and Bourriaud gave it a name.

Now, the Guggenheim has just opened theanyspacewhatever (24 Oct. – 7 Jan.), an exhibition conceived in “collaboration” with a number of artists of the relational persuasion (Angela Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija), who the organizer, Chief Curator Nancy Spector, invited to “collectively formulate a scenario for an exhibition, one that will reflect and articulate the unique nature of their practices.”   In an effort to keep this self-reflexivity running in high gear, the Guggenheim, along with the School of the Arts at Columbia University, presented “Catalysts and Critics: The Art of the 1990s,” a day-long symposium designed to reconsider “relational aesthetics” a decade on.

And reconsideration, it seems, is much in demand.   Ina Blom conjectured that this work revives the concept of “style,” understood as a “style of life”–this is style not as the attributes of a thing but as its continuous relationship to itself, but one now transferred to a particular “site.”   This externalization of style Blom named (what else?) a “style site.”   Alexander Alberro drew the audience’s attention to a “different relationality” altogether, one that began in Brazil in the 60s with artists such as Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica and Cildo Miereles.   Alberro’s otherwise excellent account of this “counter-formation” in the history of relational artistic practices was foiled only by the absence of Bourriaud himself (he was slated to attend), at whom Alberro’s talk was undeniably directed as a corrective to the Frenchman’s amnesiac theorizing.   Continue reading “Considering “Relational Aesthetics””

Considering “Tino Sehgal”

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Editorial Note: This post marks the initiation of a new AWS series entitled “Considerations.” With some regularity, we will turn our readers and commenters’ attention towards a particular artist, work or enterprise that the AWS editors believe merits a sustained critical discussion. The idea, of course, is not to have the last word on the subject, but rather to see what people are thinking about certain contemporary artistic practices and the issues, or problems, that they raise.

For the past year, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in  SF has served as a platform for the presentation of works by Tino Sehgal, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. By now most of us are familiar with Seghal’s offerings: performance pieces which lay the barest of frames around sometimes quotidian and sometimes quirky human behavior. For those in New York wishing to see an example of the latter, The New Museum’s show, After Nature, includes Sehgal’s Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), which is constituted by a young woman writhing in slow motion on the museum’s third floor.

What distinguishes Sehgal’s work from the legacy of happenings and post-Cagian performance, of course, is the artist’s refusal to allow reproductions or documentation of any sort accompany or supplement his work. Not only does this make the works’ commercial existence somewhat tricky, given that such transactions have a habit of being fairly document intensive (and note that Sehgal has never voiced any kind of anti-commercial sentiment), it also points up the problem of where and how the work actually exists.

More recently, this liminal status has begun to elicit more metaphorical readings of Sehgal’s pieces. Echoing Seghal’s inclusion in After Nature, Marisa Olson (writing at Rhizome.org) observes that this “lack of physicality is at least partly a response to the earth’s dwindling resources.” Nevertheless, Olsen does go on to note that Sehgal’s “primary medium is…conversation–whether it’s an initial one in the gallery or the oral narrative that perpetuates and historicizes his practice outside of the gallery.”

But can “conversation” justly be said to be Sehgal’s medium? In a talk given as part of “Not for Sale: Writing on Performance and New Media” at Performa 05, Bennett Simpson (curator at Boston’s ICA) argued that the medium most central to Sehgal’s activities was the artist’s persona itself, insofar as it is the biographical subject “Sehgal” that gives these works their consistency. After all, with no “fixed, tangible medium,” nothing that Sehgal does can necessarily be said to “belong” to him, or, for that matter, to any of the institutions or collectors that “acquire” one of “his” works. And yet, it hardly seems like Sehgal’s motivations are communitarian in nature, even if they do emphasize the social.

So how do we consider “Tino Sehgal”? Are his works “conversation pieces”? Are they meditations on a dwindling environment? Is he the apotheosis of the artistic “persona” (and its institutional supports)? Or is it something else entirely?

Arts of torture?

Steve Powers

For those needing any practical reassurance that “waterboarding” is a form of torture, Christopher Hitchens provided something close to a final word on the matter, at least in the realm of public opinion (and persuasion), when he subjected himself to it for the benefit of Vanity Fair’s readers.

One is reminded of the Hitch’s stunt by a short piece from last Wednesday’s New York Times, which used it to introduce artist Steve Powers’ The Waterboarding Thrill Ride, an “animatronic diorama,” installed out on Coney Island, “that depicts a prisoner being waterboarded.” Whatever you may think of the necessity, or originality, or political probity of Powers’ diorama, which is being presented by Creative Time, the final sentences of the Times‘ piece describes how Powers’ project will take on a bizarre because redundant dimension when,

In mid-August Mr. Powers and several lawyers will be waterboarded by a trained professional in a secret location in Coney Island as a private performance. Documentation on the performance will be at creativetime.org.

I think one needs to needs to ask here just what such a performance can hope to achieve, either for politics or for art. If Hitchens’ waterboarding was an act undertaken to provide an otherwise reliable public account of it as torture, does not Powers’ “private performance” come off sounding more like an exercise in voyeuristic sadomasochism (which certainly has its own political dimension, just not the one Powers and Creative Time are after)?

The price is right?

Christies.pngSothebys.pngAs part of the art world’s chattering class, we hold our breath in anticipation of contemporary art auctions only long enough to weigh in on their outcomes. Our stake in whether the sales fall short, meet, or exceed estimates runs I’d say on average to about 400 words. Well I suggest we spice things up a bit with a little contest.

While we claim to know the value of contemporary art better than most, let’s see if we really know the market for it. Below are six works on sale this week; three from Sotheby’s and three from Christie’s, and each from one of the houses’ three sessions (evening, morning and afternoon). The works are accompanied by their estimates. AWS will award two prizes: The first—bragging rights and marquee billing as AWS’s own Carnac the Magnificent (a Johnny Carson reference for those of you scratching your heads)—will go to whoever comes closest in their prediction of the final hammer price for each separate lot listed below. The second—more bragging rights and marquee billing as AWS’s Market Guru (a.k.a. Money Honey)—will go to whoever comes closest to the combined hammer price for all six works. All entries must be submitted by 7pm (EST), May 13th, 2008. Good luck.

(For those of you who are not registered commenters, send your entries to “mail – at – artworldsalon.com”.) To see the 6 works, click: Continue reading “The price is right?”

Notes on ‘Art and Money’

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On the 14th, Artforum hosted a panel at the New School with the stripped down and self-evident title “Art and Money.” The panelists included Tom Crow (much esteemed if somewhat dusty art historian currently installed at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts), Amy Cappellazzo (International Co-Head of Christies ‘s Post-War and Contemporary Art department, art world punching bag and proud mother of the auction house as “big box store” analogy), Yinka Shonibare MBE (perhaps the very definition of the post-historical, post-colonial, post-black artist), Kathy Halbreich (former Director of the Walker and now MoMA’s image disciplinarian-cum-Kultur defender) and Jeffrey Deitch (maestro of the art world spectacle who never met a hipster he didn’t like); it was, to say the least, an almost perfectly diverse array of the art industry’s different player positions. Tim Griffin (Artforum‘s soft-spoken editor) moderated the event.

The house was packed, no doubt in anticipation of the rhetorical grenades that the panelists, antagonists all, would lob into one another’s laps. But once again, “politesse” was regnant (see Andras Szanto’s dispatch from the ADAA/MoMA Panel back in February). Here is a brief rundown of the more and less interesting of the panelists’ comments:

Deitch opened with an astute statement on how the artworld had become the newest “platform” upon which “creative people” from all disciplines gather, adding that “people at the top of their game like to meet one another,” which sounds a lot like celebrity culture entering a plea of Innocent.

Shonibare noted that a “bigger market” makes room for “bigger thoughts.” As to whether those thoughts are actually better, he withheld judgment, but did add that bigger work continues to run the risk of appearing “superficial.” Continue reading “Notes on ‘Art and Money’”