Dissent and its consequences

DISSENT_TERRORISM.jpgOne of the leitmotifs running through much of the chatter about the just-closed fairs and the ongoing Whitney Biennial here in New York has to do with the palpablility of politics, or of political content, or of “commitment,” in contemporary art. The question seems to be one of whether our art should or indeed needs to be more “activist.” And following closely is the question of whether we, as critics, historians, artists and other devotees to the art and culture industries, need to be more “activist” ourselves.

I bring this up because I was reading through a recent special issue of October, the contents of which took the form of myriad responses to a questionnaire on the problem of contemporary political “passivity.” Needless to say, the war in Iraq forms the backdrop for such an inquiry. And the last question of the bunch asked “What, if anything, can be done to make intellectual and artistic opposition to the war more active and effective?”

Responses to this question were understandably–and perhaps understatedly–varied, but one struck me as worth reflection, if not debate. Critical Art Ensemble offered that we, presumably as intellectuals and artists, must “be more daring and less afraid,” and then they continued with, “losing a job, being beaten, or going to jail isn’t the worst that can happen.”

I must confess that this bit caught me up. To be sure, CAE’s list is aimed at increasing the numbers of those who would choose to man the (police) barricades in demonstrations of resistance to our current administration’s asinine execution of a debatable foreign policy. But I imagine for many people, and not only in the U.S., these three actions are indeed and exactly the worst that can happen to a human being, especially given the rather sinister way in which their combination has become a hallmark of the war on terror: think extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo.

It occurs to me that only someone who has never lost a job (upon which daily survival depends), been beaten (and so by it lost, say, an eye, or the ability to walk), or gone to jail (without recourse to a legal defense) would think these potential returns for dissent something less than “the worst that can happen.” Nevertheless, the question remains, if opposition and activism is the goal, how does one “be more daring” and of what should we be “less afraid”?

A fair to remember?

Armory08.jpgNow that the Armory Show and it’s progeny have packed up, perhaps it’s time for a little stock taking. For my own part, the Armory began as something of a disappointment. “Sleepy” was the word I found myself using to describe it. There were no grand gestures, such as Kris Martin’s one-minute-of-silence loudspeaker announcement at last year’s Frieze or Sassolino’s sovereign robotic metal claw at ABMB. Even the requisite installation piece by Thomas Hirschorn was rather subdued, opting to display a library of High Theory books instead of images of decimated bodies.

But as I returned over the course of a couple of days, I grew more comfortable with what I think can only be called the Armory’s “maturity,” which may be summed up thus: less spectacle, more substance. I was particularly taken once again with the Ronald Feldman Gallery’s commitment to a solo showing of an artist of particular historical import; in this case, Eleanor Antin. And I was happy to find that the absence of Gagosian, Goodman and Gladstone, amongst others, did not necessarily “diminish” the fair.

Of the other venues, I believe Volta NY will stand as a signal example of how art fairs can successfully adapt to their ever-changing fitness landscape. The small size and single-artist exhibition directive put to rest, definitively to my mind, the idea that art fairs cannot possibly be good places “to see the art.” It’s a risky venture to be sure, and not all galleries will find it suited to the necessities of their bottom line, but it seemed good for the artists, who can confidently add it to their CVs as one more “solo show,” and it was a gift to the viewer, one which obviated the need for a stiff drink once the rounds had been made.

I’m curious, of course, to know what others think.

Taste v. Price (why critics don’t matter, Ch. 36)

Margaux.jpgHammad Nasar finished off the previous thread with a statement which many of us take to be gospel, namely, that when it comes to art, or really to any offering from the culture industry, the most expensive product is not the “best” product, it is simply the most expensive. So remains open that space for “critical judgment” which, most would agree, is a necessary condition for criticism to function in the first place.

But are we fooling ourselves? Are our judgments–aesthetic, critical and otherwise–more determined by price than we know? The Art Newspaper seems to think so: Anna Somers Cocks’ has written a short piece on a recent study by Cal Tech scientist, Antonio Rangel, who hooked up a group of volunteers to an MRI machine and measured the pleasure centers of their brains while they tasted various wines of different quality and, most importantly, expense. Over and over again, the volunteers “enjoyed” the expensive wines more, even when the price tags had been switched and the ’82 Margaux turned out to be an ’07 Bin 28.

The parallel to art is both obvious and ill-fitting, which is presumably why Cocks only draws the conclusion that the Rangel effect (actually the Rangel-Veblen effect, given Thorstein Veblen’s economic theorization of it back at the turn of the twentieth century) will contribute to the retraction of the art market once the powers that be are finally able to utter the word “recession” in public. But do we really need Rangel to confirm for us that people “like” their art less (or anything for that matter) when it’s perceived to be losing value? More interesting might be the possibility of a parallel study which could address the physiological effect of positive or negative criticism on the pleasure centers of the brain. For example, what happens when someone tells you the ’82 Margaux tastes no different than that ’07 Bin 28? What does price get you then? Call it the “sucker” study. Don’t we think the art world could use one?

YouTubing the art world

imgres.jpgThe debut of Robert Knafo’s NewArtTV, which is dedicated to offering online streaming video coverage of exhibitions, gallery shows, artist interviews, art world events, etc., gives us an opportunity to take a fresh look at a persistent question: Just how does one “cover” visual art in a televisual format, be it web-based or otherwise?

We should note that Knafo’s enterprise is not the proverbial “first to market” here. Basel-based VernissageTV has been up and running since late 2005. LXTV, a more broad-based lifestyle site, offers segments on art and collecting. Both artinfo.com and artreview.com are ramping up their menus of streaming video options (full disclosure, I’m working on a project for the latter). More independently, James Kalm maintains a channel on YouTube where he regularly posts more guerrilla-style first-person coverage of shows and openings. And I’m sure there are more, both on YouTube and beyond.

NewArtTV itself seems to follow the format favored by PBS’s Art:21, the well-produced and thematically organized series that forgoes a narrator in favor of voice-overs by the artist alone. VernissageTV gives up on narration of any kind, offering instead only a steady stream of “composed” installation shots. True to the YouTube ethos, Kalm’s episodes tend towards running commentary with the “record” button pushed.

These are different approaches to be sure, but it seems to me that they are only beginning to scratch at the surface of the “coverage” question. What is more, we should probably also ask how streaming video, the new promised land of web-based content (as the current writers strike more than amply demonstrates) might alter the relationship between “coverage” and “criticism”—is there room (or rather time) for the latter in a YouTube world?

We the priesthood?

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What purpose does art writing serve?—a self-reflexive question for this forum to be sure; yet we can’t fail to notice that it is one begged again and again by cultural critics who every once in a while decide to turn their attentions to our modest yet flashy corner of the industry. But what to do when the swipes come from within our ranks? During an otherwise favorable review of Arthur Danto’s Unnatural Wonders from a few weeks ago, Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times, had this to say:

A system so needful of interpreters surely lays contemporary art, its makers and consumers open to the same abuse as medieval Catholicism, when an ignorant congregation depended on a substantial class of (mostly self-serving) priests and pardoners as intermediaries to the confusing, elusive concept of God…[Commentaries on art] are written by today’s priests and pardoners, each carrying a mix of truth-seeking, vanity, ambition and the conviction that their own big idea is the route to aesthetic understanding.

What are we to make of this? To my own ear, this dismissal echoes the sentiments of the “anti-theory” crowd which grew very vocal in the 1990s. But is it more than this? Why, for example, does it always seem to be writing about art, and contemporary art in particular, that is singled out? Why must art be more popular or, to push the point, more “lay” than either science or philosophy, the two disciplines with which it undoubtedly shares a genuine creative impulse? Or to push it even further: Is this a call for evangelical aestheticism?–i.e. the only way to true “aesthetic understanding” is through one’s own personal relationship with art?

Correction? Or intelligence of the collectorate?

There can be little doubt that the incessant whispering about the inevitable decline of the art market will erupt into a roar today as Sotheby’s stock begins its tumble after the venerable house’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale fell nearly $86 million short of its $355.6 million low estimate. Sure Christie’s beat its low estimate just the day before by roughly $46 million, but of course that’s not news. Or is it? Can it be true, as Andrew Fabricant mentions in the New York Times, that “this was not some watershed moment in the market. It’s what happens when the pricing is extremely aggressive and the material less than stellar”?

Quite often we like to dismiss the money that is thrown around at the upper reaches of the market as so much conspicuous consumption, an indication of the Collectorate’s obsession with image rather than substance. But does the asymmetry between the Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales indicate a more discriminating taste at work? Are we witnessing the return of Homo Aestheticus after the reign of Homo Economicus?