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. Continue reading “Where the geniuses go”

Enter the activist foundation

fire-in-my-bellyWhile assessing the extent of this country’s liberals political apathy, Harper’s magazine writer Thomas Frank remarks: “say what you like about the Tea Party movement, but at least they showed up.” It is precisely the combination of the dormant state of progressives (be it due to either disillusionment, boredom, or exhaustion) and the huge motivation of conservatives that tables have turned in this country’s politics, and the art world appears to be only a tiny turf where the latest battle is being waged. It is playing out in the current Wojnarowicz-gate at the Smithsonian, where the bigots showed up to tell us what art should be; but instead of protesting in front of the museum, the art world went to Miami.

Until yesterday, when the Warhol Foundation entered the fray. The fact that a Foundation has taken such a brave stance is significant in many levels. The Warhol Foundation was established in 1987, the same year than David Wojnarowicz made “Fire in my Belly” and amidst the culture wars. Ever since that time, it has continuously been an advocate for the central issue that caused the NEA debacle then — the idea of an individual artist grant (as it is exemplified by its funding of organizations like Creative Capital), so its announcement to suspend funding to the Smithsonian is more than a simple act: it is a restatement of its founding mission, and a reminder to us of that history. Equally significantly, though, the noise of the Warhol’s announcement also underlines the deafening —and really, unacceptable — silence of the contemporary art world about this affair up to this moment.

Are we really so comfortable with letting art being criminalized this way? Is our reaction going to be limited to sign some Facebook petition? The Warhol has done what very few in the visual arts has had the guts to do yet, and we should look at their example to follow suit and press others to do so as well. A curator friend of mine had recently told me: “when institutions take the initiative in art, it means that artists are not doing their job”. Who knew that two decades after the culture wars art foundations would have to take the lead in defending culture? Say what you like about our supposed liberalism as the cultural producer class, but in this case it was the foundation who showed up.

Is it just art or is it progress?

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Can you keep a secret? But please don’t tell anyone, because if you do, knowing how the art world is, no one will go see the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim. No, its not that the museum’s walls are completely bare and that the admission price continues to be the same. No, its not that there is an uninhibited couple endlessly kissing amidst the Rotunda. No, its not that the show is not worth visiting —on the contrary. Ok, here it is: the work is not really a performance art piece, and not so much of an artwork either: it is an education program.

I imagine that no one will agree with me, but that’s OK— I have my reasons. Sehgal took a situation that takes place daily at the museum —people having directed or undirected conversations— and extracted the art from the equation. (In the spirit of disclosure, I used to work at the Guggenheim’s education department there for seven years, organizing the museum tours and talks, which may have colored my experience, but I think that is besides the point).

For those of you who still have yet to visit, here is a report: As I went up the first ramp a 9 year-old girl greeted me. “Welcome, this is a piece by Tino Sehgal. Can I ask you a question? What is progress?” As we walked up the ramps, I spoke about wanting to become a better person when you grow up. While I was trying to explain that, a teenager appeared and took over, while the 9 year-old disappeared. “Can you elaborate?” As I labored to understand myself what I had meant after a few minutes a tall guy in his 30s arrived speaking to me about sprinting, which tied somehow with progress. He was replaced a bit later by an older man in his 60s who told me: “you know, my two best friends are alcoholic, and I wonder what that’s about.” This conversation became the most existential of all, so much so that neither of us had realized that we had reached the top of the ramp and my interlocutor was so absorbed by it that he temporarily forgot that he was part of an art piece. “Oh my god”, he said. “Usually I am not here by this point”. Then he added: “Thank you. This is a piece by Tino Sehgal” and left. Finally alone, I felt a bit of melancholy at that point, I am not exactly sure why. Continue reading “Is it just art or is it progress?”

Saudades of a collection

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Only a few hours ago the art world learned of a tragic event: on Friday night nearly 2,000 works by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica perished in a fire. It is an incalculable loss of the work of someone who is increasingly recognized today as one of the most influential Latin American artists of the XXth Century. Although the actual number may be lower, the initial and estimate of the lost works was a mind-numbing 90% of Oiticica’s entire production.

The collection at that moment was temporarily located in the house of Oiticica’s brother, Cesar Oiticica, because of a dispute between the Oiticica family and the city of Rio regarding unpaid fees for the lending of the works and, ironically, because of an an argument around the safe storage for these pieces. This past April, the Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica opened a large retrospective of his work, which prompted the quarrel that resulted in their temporary relocation on Cesar Oiticica’s house in the Rio neighborhood of Jardim Botanico. Cesar Oiticica claimed that his house was conditioned with adequate alarms and climate control systems— which in any case didn’t help to prevent the fire.

It is true that fires happen everywhere and in the most secure institutions. But after the initial shock and mourning passes, there will be important questions to ask around the circumstances of this loss. Continue reading “Saudades of a collection”