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Opinion Analysis Debate

What would you do with $250 million?

Sunday February 5, 2012 | 16:34 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

Card PlayersAccording to ArtWorld Salon contributor Alexandra Peers, in an article for Vanity Fair online, the Royal Family of Qatar has celebrated a decade of high profile Art buying by spending that amount on the last of Cezanne’s Card Players.  (The painting was purchased from the estate of the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.)  That is quite a number, and a new record for the highest price paid for a single work of Art.  You could pay for the entire budget of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York for almost two years with that sum.

And what else?  I started to wonder.  Here is my quick list.  In January 2012, US$ 250 million buys:-

1 Cezanne
10 decent sized mansions in the Hamptons
100 upper-middle class family homes in Beijing
1000 Ferrari 458 Italia Coupes in Rome
10,000 Ducati 1199S motorcycles in Paris
100,000 complete (3 yr) high school educations including accommodation, food and healthcare in Lhasa, Tibet
5,000,000 milking goats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
50,000,000 egg-laying chickens in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Interesting, no?   So let me ask you again.   What would you do with $250 million?

“Russia takes the lead in regulating…”

Friday September 10, 2010 | 13:11 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

100 Rubles c1910That heading would be funny in any context but here the article in Skate’s is referring to an apparent push to regulate “Art securitization” and Art Investments in Russia.   We have for some time, on ArtWorld Salon, commented on the relative lack of oversight of the opaque and enthusiastically “managed” system that is the Art Market.   The private dealing, auction pumping, ability to cellar works that aren’t selling, and lack of any form of reliable pricing register, all make the Art market a challenging environment for anyone thinking of buying that painting on the wall as a possible investment.   For that reason, and because I am old fashioned, I would always encourage every buyer to think of the work as something they could love for a long time, rather than a way of trying to hedge the currently volatile stock markets, or that condo in Vail.

So it is rather amusing to think that Russia might try to regulate Art funds without tackling the underlying market; never mind the difficulties they will have actually enforcing such regulation in a reasonable and effective manner.   But then I read beyond the title.   Apparently a “powerful local asset management firm controlled by Putin loyalists” launched 2 Art funds on August 27; so now this new regulation starts to look like something else.   Am I the only one that thinks this looks like a way to help market the Funds? The illusion of oversight to support the notion that these are investment grade propositions?   Or am I being too cynical here?

As I have said previously on ArtWorld Salon, to get real transparency into the Art Market, and create a basis for any genuine oversight of market practices, we need a price register for each and every work of Art that someone tries to promote as “investment grade”; with NO exceptions and NO omissions.  Read More »

Quest for art’s Idol-Talent-Factor-Runway

Monday November 23, 2009 | 17:21 by Ossian Ward | permalink

c1823697b82db33bb0dcc11edf3397e579847b3aA new four-part reality show, School of Saatchi, begins tonight on BBC television (and will be viewable online). Six artists from an open submission competition are selected, first by a panel of judges – artist Tracey Emin, critic Matthew Collings, collector Frank Cohen and Kate Bush, director of the Barbican Art Gallery – and then vetted by Charles Saatchi. The London-based collector does not himself appear on screen, despite – or perhaps because – he’s trailed as ‘one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in the art world’ (full disclosure: I was asked to appear in some guise in the programme, but declined). Anyway, the show’s tone is Identikit reality TV fare – a set of silly tasks and crashing verdicts that are peppered with a cheeky voiceover and incidental music.

In the same vein is the yet-to-be-aired ArtStar on US network Bravo, produced by that well-known art world luminary, Sarah Jessica Parker. The only other judge revealed so far is Simon de Pury, who’s no stranger to publicity, or indeed to the conflation of art with the world of pop music, seen here belittling his profession to a thumping Euro-house soundtrack and now fresh from his Saturday night auction/performance, in which he sold music-related art to the live accompaniment of techno DJ Matthew Herbert.

But back to the slow creep of art on reality TV, there’s obviously a place for the kind of populist programming that can cut through the crap that the general public usually associates with our intellectually elitist art form. However, there’s also an unhealthy tendency here that assumes you can uncover artistic talent like you can with a singer or rock star – by putting them in front of an audience or a panel of judges and expecting them to perform, explain and show off their work.

Apart from some cash, an exhibition, a studio space and some residual fame, will such talent spotting ever result in serious appreciation for any of the so-called Next Big Things plucked from obscurity? British artist Phil Collins has already explored the phenomenon of the negative impact such makeover/reality/talk shows can have on its participants in a piece for the Turner Prize in 2006 called Shady Lane. Maybe he’ll be counselling fellow artists from now on: Do you feel your life has been ruined by your appearance on television?

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Let’s all pretend it’s all going to be OK

Thursday October 15, 2009 | 13:24 by Ossian Ward | permalink

FriezeFairSosnowksa.jpgWitnessing the first throngs of yet another busy fair opening, it’s odd to observe what a delicate house of cards this whole art world of ours is, not to mention that I am sat in the ironically flimsy tent of the Frieze Art Fair, this year given an even more precarious feel by a mysterious dent caused by Monika Sosnowska’s crash-landed sculpture which was removed from the roof before the opening (amazingly because the artist felt it looked too dishonest).

Across town, away from the moneyed aisles of the fair (where everyone is kidding everyone else that it’s a good year) is an interesting show called ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ at Tate Modern, which piques the whole fragile institution of the contemporary art market. Its starting point is the vagary of late cash-for-portraits Warhol and his assertion that ‘good business is the best art’. What follows is a torrid wave of money- and publicity-hungry artists leaping from Keith Haring and Martin Kippenberger to Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami et al.

There’s much of the vulgar boom-time art that was discussed a couple of weeks ago here, but also some of the career-making moves of artists (whether knowingly or not) such as David Robbins and Gavin Turk. Read More »

Artoon

Friday October 2, 2009 | 11:50 by Pablo Helguera in New York | permalink

your-work-was-rejected

Sold masters

Sunday September 20, 2009 | 12:07 by András Szántó in New York | permalink

voge-1A Rembrandt is coming up for auction this fall, highlighting anew the relationship of old-master and postwar-contemporary values. “Portrait of a Man, Half-Length, With His Arms Akimbo,” from 1658, owned by pharmaceutical heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson, is the kind of picture that comes to market only once in a blue moon. It’s a museum piece. The Christie’s estimate is $30-41 million, a record for an old master.

Compare that to sums recently paid for new and historically recent works: a reported $140 million for a Pollock, $86 million for a Bacon triptych, almost $24 million for a Koons sculpture (unadjusted dollars). If the sale comes in toward the low end of the estimate, the Rembrandt would be in the same league as Lucian Freud’s “Benefit Supervisor Sleeping” (close to $34 million).

To be sure, those extraordinary prices are from the frothiest of the boom years. But the question remains, as the downturn approaches its anniversary, has the widely anticipated realignment of old master values come about? Is there really a “flight to quality” and blue chip art?

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Temperature check in Beijing

Tuesday September 8, 2009 | 09:55 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

Green ShootSo how does it feel where you are? Arriving back in Beijing after 3 months traveling I passed through the requisite temperature checks at the airport (swine flu mania abounds); and so I thought I would do the same for Art markets around the world. I touched base with gallerists, collectors and intermediaries in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. Without wishing to over generalise: the Americans were still mostly doom and gloom; while the response from Europeans was more varied, with some friends reporting good works finding new homes. This is rather at odds with the general Economic environment. I heard more about “green shoots” while traveling in the US than in Europe. But maybe the American collectors had had more money in the game to lose?

So it has been interesting to arrive back in China and talk with friends in Beijing and Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, things are at least a little more positive here. Whilst there has been a general pull back from foreign buyers, young wealthy mainland Chinese buyers seem to be taking up some of the slack. The locals might prefer “decorative” to “difficult” and positive themes rather than negative or political, but they are starting to buy some of the same “big brand” names that the foreigners have made so popular over the last 8 years. And brand names have always been important in China, for all products.

But the foreign buyers haven’t disappeared completely; they are just taking a little more time and doing a little more due diligence. Read More »

The middleman as muse

Friday July 24, 2009 | 12:54 by The Transom in New York | permalink

bbagCatherine Spaeth writes…

For a while now, there has been a degree of discomfort with the notion of an ideal viewer. At its extremes, the dangers of such an ideal are the failure of one’s poorly aimed presumptions as to what an audience is, or the presumptuousness of constructing a subject, of producing a consumer.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s recent contribution to “Cinema Liberte/Bar Lounge,” in collaboration with Douglas Gordon at the Guggenheim’s “theanyspacewhatever,” was - despite its generosity - a coldly sceptical response to this situation. Served Illy coffee by Illy baristas, the failure to mean was offered as a gift, and this gift in turn was a lifestyle brand. As though wishing to correct this situation of art, Michael Fried in ‘Why Photography Matters” describes work so saturated by artistic intent that the audience is shunned from the space of it.

In a July 11th discussion on “Art and Power” at The Drawing Center in New York, the artist Alexis Knowlton shifted the terms away from the ideal viewer and back towards artistic intent. She invoked a term coined by Jerrold Levinson, “hypothetical intentionalism.” Already standard jargon in the philosophy of aesthetics, these words, for better or worse, have not yet found their way into artworld discourse. In October-driven art history and criticism (inaugurated by Rosalind Krauss’s 1976 essay in Vol. 1 on Vito Acconci, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissicism”), the artworld has been more at home with the problem of the viewing subject.

For Knowlton, the very worst symptom of ceding artistic intent is what she refers to as SLAT: Super Lame Art Thematicization. The current Venice Bienniale, “Making Worlds” and the New Museum’s recent “Unmonumental” are, in her opinion, cases in point. Read More »

The prize of desperation

Wednesday April 29, 2009 | 12:08 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

3_1466I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that will probably get me branded an elitist, a staunch defender of the status quo. I don’t like this big new art prize.

I am talking about the ArtPrize [sic.], the “radically open” art competition with the greatest payout in history: $250,000 for the winner ($100,000 for the runner-up) in an American Idol-style contest based on voting by the general public. It’s being funded by a well-meaning young gentleman named Rick DeVos, who won a contest of a different sort — genetic — and leveraged his inherited fortune with entrepreneurial feats of his own. The contestants will register online, ship their work to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the rest will be up to the good folks who happen to be in town during an exhibitionpalooza weekend event where the voting takes place.

So what’s wrong with this picture? I can think of four things.

First, I have nothing against discovering those hidden diamonds in our midst (I, too, watched the Laura Boyle video and got misty-eyed), but public polling is not the best way to reward human accomplishment. The Olympics, the Nobel, or the Pulitzer Prizes are earned in arduous, sometimes lifelong ordeals of jumping over physical and mental hurdles. Judgment by juries and peers has a lot to do with the authority of these awards. Read More »

Artoon

Monday March 23, 2009 | 06:43 by Pablo Helguera in Manhattan | permalink

the-prices-of-dorian-gray-helguera

of Buyers and Sellers…

Sunday March 1, 2009 | 07:03 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

mugrabis-nytAmongst all the excitement about new movements (see Ossian’s piece below) I find it hard to get my head out of the markets.  To wit, there is a nice Konigsberg feature in the NYT Online this weekend about the Mugrabis and their buying styles.  The title is slightly misleading (Is Anybody Buying Art These Days?) as it is entirely about the Mugrabis and mostly about their buying history, but it is an interesting read about one of the more focused market-makers of the last 20 years.  Features of their approach include the somewhat indiscriminate purchasing of their favorite artists (supporting the notion that name matters more than quality, at least in a rising market), and their “addiction” to collecting. “We are addicts. That is what addicts do,” Alberto Mugrabi is quoted as saying. Many collectors would recognise that sentiment.

The addiction of art collectors got me thinking about the broader context of contemporary art-market values.  At various points in the article, there are references to buying when cash was in short supply and to extending a collection even when the collectors were nervous about the market.  Even quite recently, works were sold to free up cash for a possible market-downturn buying.  That could be sensible triage, or an indication of how stretched the Mugrabis might be. Which raises a question about how stretched or indebted collectors are overall.

The current global economic woes are debt based. They have to do with the difficulty of companies or individuals who rely upon borrowing to conduct their business or run their lives.  Operating on debt is not necessarily a bad thing. It can simply reflect the cyclicality of cash flows (people or companies needing to spend before they can sell or earn, and therefore needing to borrow to fund that spend).  However, when lending dries up because of losses in another part of the debt market (high-risk mortgages in the current case), then companies or individuals who rely upon debt to conduct their operations run out of fuel.  The only way to then raise cash is to sell existing stock, if they have any to sell.  But when there is less cash to go around, sellers start to outnumber buyers, and prices plunge.

So here is the question: How stretched are the top collectors of the last five years?  In any part of their lives? Read More »

New, newest, now, next

Thursday February 26, 2009 | 16:57 by Ossian Ward | permalink

It’s the dawn of a new age. No, not another,tate-triennial-01 deeper stratum to the credit crunch, but a new era of art is upon us and it’s called the ‘Altermodern’. So says French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who was also responsible for that other recent frisson of novel art-speak, Relational Aesthetics, which – for better or worse – is now firmly established in our repertoire of recognized terminology.

The ‘Altermodern’ is more contentious, not only for being launched by a showy exhibition at the Tate, but also for being far more numinous and complex. Put simply it posits a post-postmodern situation in which modernism is fractured further and has no central geographical focus. These ‘other’ modernities take place simultaneously through an international network of production, with a constellation of ideas pulsing through various media and means of communication. Altermodern artists are nomadic flañeurs and the work is characterised by translation and heterogeneity.

Is any of this terribly new, however? The post-colonial diaspora of artists and the ‘glocal’ proliferation of biennials has long been a point of discussion, Jonathan Neil recently cited Noel Carroll’s definition of the ‘transnational’ and notions of the ‘other’ have been around for decades in Derrida, Kristeva, Said and others.

Even though you can’t all see the Altermodern show (which I liked despite its flaws), you can watch the video, read the manifesto and join the debate, in which most newspaper critics have waded in with a mixture of incomprehension and vitriol. Personally, while another impenetrable ‘ism’ is not necessarily the solution to tidying up the art history books of the 21st century, I appreciate that it does at least take some courage to usher in any kind of movement that doesn’t have an easily marketable model like the YBAs or the Chindian set.

The big chill

Wednesday December 3, 2008 | 23:41 by András Szántó in Miami | permalink

netjets-alex-katzUnusually cold weather for Miami lent the opening night festivities a somewhat spooky and sinister air. “I though it was a celebrity, but then I realized it was just some people around the space heater,” said one reveler at the Art Basel opening party, at the Delano Hotel, as a group of half naked Brazilian dancers braved the chilly December winds. Then again, it could have been Antonio Banderas.

Yet despite the cold, the crowd pressed on, like a group of tourists who had booked a late season cruise and were determined to make the most of the amenities on board.

And fancy amenities were everywhere in evidence–gifts from a recent, happier past, when ambitious plans for this week were being hatched. Netjets invited people to celebrate Alex Katz at the Raleigh hotel, posting a giant Hollywood-style sign in the sand in the hotel’s garden. Not to be outdone by the Art Basel event down the street, the dancers at this party added juggled burning torches. Mini cupcakes were emblazoned with tiny marzipan Netjets logos–a sweet touch.

Earlier in the day, in the Design District, preparations were going on for the rollout of Design Miami. Under a tent that resembled a giant lace curtain, it was all business as usual. Takashi Murakami’s operation opened up a store to sell a new line of Murakami household objets, including three giant balls, the largest almost eight feet in diamater, festooned with technicolor flowers constructed out of soft and fluffy teddy bear fur. “Is it furniture or is it art?” I inquired. “It can be anything,” the friendly Japanese PR lady obliged.

Read More »

Message in a bottle

Wednesday October 29, 2008 | 18:21 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

us-cover1Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World, which documents the frenzied peak of the recent art boom, arrives next week in American bookstores, just as that boom appears to be sputtering out. Some would call this bad timing. In fact, it’s a stroke of good luck. It puts Ms. Thornton, a Canadian-born, London-based sociologist-turned-journalist, in the enviable position of having captured an epic chapter in art-world history in its entirety. It’s all here, a message in a bottle to be consumed now, to reflect on what just happened, or later, when the action heats up all over again, as something of a cautionary tale. Each chapter examines a facet of the art world – auctions, dealers, art fairs, and so on – in a fluid, breezy style that masks some serious heavy lifting. The intrepid author has spoken to “everybody” in the art world. No detail escapes her attention, from the desk arrangements of her interviewees to their designer footwear. Underneath the glossy surface, however, lurks a sociologist’s concern for institutional narratives as well as the ethnographer’s conviction that entire social structures can be apprehended in seemingly frivolous patterns of speech or dress. And clearly, Sarah (a friend of artworldsalon) was having fun. We caught up with her on the eve of her US book tour to ask her some questions about the book:

ARTWORLDSALON: You are a sociologist turned writer. What was your biggest discovery about the art world?

SARAH THORNTON: I never had a Eureka moment. Instead, I experienced unfolding revelations. I think that’s how the book reads, too. One reason the art world fascinates me is because it is so full of conflict. It’s at once idealistic and materialistic, exclusive and open, petty and lofty. Moreover, the art world is so full of warring factions that writing this book has been like walking through a minefield.

Your book appears in the US just as global markets, and it seems the art market along with them, are entering a period of turmoil. How does it change the book’s message?

I see the book as having a handful of themes. It is a social history of the recent past - a remarkable period in which an unprecedented economic boom infiltrated every corner of the art world, even the consciousness of art students sitting in a left-wing conceptual art think-tank in the middle of the desert. It helps to have documented the structures and dynamics of a bull art market, because we forget them so quickly. Read More »

And so it starts…

Monday October 20, 2008 | 02:45 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

christies-unsold-bacon-portrait-of-henrietta-moraes-1969Bloomberg today reported the dramatic drop in prices achieved at all the major auction houses this weekend.

Sales by Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury & Co made a combined 59 million pounds ($102 million), against minimum estimates of 106.2 million pounds, according to Bloomberg calculations. They follow a five-day auction by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong this month that raised HK$1.1 billion ($141.7 million), also about half the presale estimate, as buyers shunned some top lots for being too expensive.

This is of course to be expected as much of the collector market focuses on wealth preservation rather than spending. And galleries in New York have noticed a softening for some time.  Interestingly, though, one normally expects an art market correction 6 to 9 months after stock market crashes.  The question now is whether this is the start of a rout in the contemporary art market or merely a short term, financial market correlated, “correction.”

It also, by the way, raises a question about the other major art story of last week about recent moves by two former senior US museum directors to the private sector. Robert Fitzpatrick moved from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to Christie’s Haunch of Venison, and David Ross moved on from his days at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco to be a partner at Albion.  Whilst I fully understand the attractions of better salaries and less stifling boards, I wonder if their timing was all it could be?

Not everyone is worried though.  I have spoken to two collectors this weekend who said, in effect, “finally a correction: maybe prices will come down to a more reasonable level and we can start buying again.”

So what do you think: Short term correction or start of a rout? A good thing or a bad thing?

What’s next for nonprofits?

Monday September 22, 2008 | 20:53 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

Armory
Now that government regulation of investments and markets is suddenly back in vogue, it’s only a matter of time until the reformers and the ethical cleansers train their sights on the least regulated market of them all–the art market. This will take time, but stay tuned. As last week’s exchanges made clear, taking a measure of post-bailout art values is also an exercise for another day. Only the November auctions will give us clear signals about the market’s health or decline.

This gives us breathing room to look further afield. What are the wider effects of the financial meltdown? To launch what might be a recurring feature about “What’s next?” let’s look at what the latest turn of events means for nonprofits. The postmortems have already begun. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles over the past weekend about nonprofits bracing for the worst. The Journal points out that U.S. charitable donations grew a paltry 1% in 2007–that’s before the bad news hit. And although, as the Post reminds, corporate donations amounted to only 3% of the contributed income of nonprofit arts groups, some of the most generous sources of corporate giving are likely to vanish, at least for now.

So what is a nonprofit leader to do? As always, the worst-hit will be mid-size groups with high overhead and weak fundraising potential. These would do well to take a look at the astonishing flexibility that giant financial firms have shown in this crisis. If Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, arts organizations, too, can adapt. For museums, there are undeniable threats in this new environment, including the possibility of tougher Congressional scrutiny of tax exceptions and loopholes. But there might also be a distant silver lining in the form of lower acquisition costs and more revenue from visitors–museums are an inexpensive family pastime, especially compared to a weekend in Turks and Caicos.

The real benefits of an economic downturn for nonprofits may be less obvious. The pendulum may be swinging back to a point where nonprofit art-world institutions start to matter more again. Creative Time’s current event series, Democracy in America, which culminated with the well-timed opening of a sprawling exhibit of political art at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend (see picture) may be a sign of good things to come–evidence that the art world may be ready to rejoin the “reality based community.”

9/15

Monday September 15, 2008 | 13:05 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

3708bk1
The topography of Wall Street and the financial system was redrawn over the past weekend. So what’s next? And specifically, what’s next for the art market? In recent months, heightened anxiety about the credit crisis and the meltdown in global finance did not translate into a flight from art purchases. Quite the opposite. Will the current jitters cause collectors and investors to look to art as a safe haven, or will they put the breaks on a long boom that has persisted, with a brief interruption in the early 1990s, for almost a quarter century? What does it mean for nonprofit institutions which rely on donations, and for art sales that depend on loans, guarantees, and credit? Who stands to lose or gain from the next round of transformations? And on the eve of a historic single-artist sale, are we going to witness a turning point in the psychology of the art world and the art business? I invite our panel to submit educated guesses.

Summer reading: The Art Critic

Sunday August 24, 2008 | 23:05 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

Plagens
Just in time for late summer, Newsweek and Artforum critic Peter Plagens has started publishing his new novel, The Art Critic, in weekly installments on Artnet. The “book” is about a slightly cranky male critic of a certain age who has seen enough and done enough in the art world to call it just like he sees it. The writer clearly has the home court advantage on this one, and readers can look forward to some straight-up acerbic commentary on contemporary art. Here’s a teaser, a rumination on recent art in the voice of the novel’s proto-autobiographical protagonist, Arthur:

Worse, all those current artists who indulged themselves in actual words — paintings with words in them, “photo-text pieces,” video works stuffed with dialogue, and other works requiring more didactic printed material slapped up on the walls than you’d find in a science museum — weren’t the worst of it; the sin of language was a misdemeanor compared with whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus, installations with more electronic equipment than an arena concert, and hugely expensive wannabe architecture in which designer drugs were somewhat mitigated by the assistance of a structural engineer. Although the artists boasted in the accompanying press material that the art — what a big tent “art” was now! — “forces the viewer to confront” some geopolitical issue or another, the local stuff, at least, seemed to be made by upper-middle-class kids who could afford the tuition for a Master of Fine Arts degree and then a studio in some rapidly gentrifying quarter of Brooklyn. The bar for “oppression” had apparently been lowered to anybody looking cross-eyed at them on the subway. Between the lines, so to speak, their art told whiney stories about putative victimhoods, or self-congratulatory stories about their empathy for other people’s misfortunes. And they didn’t want their messages to be confined to mere galleries, either. You could feel them looking toward wider, more glamorous horizons. “Face it,” the film critic at the newsweekly where Arthur plied his trade had once said to him when he took her along to a couple of exhibitions, “they all want to direct.”

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Considering “Tino Sehgal”

Friday August 15, 2008 | 18:42 by Jonathan T. D. Neil in New York City | permalink

wattis_logo

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?

Summer readings: The dismal science does art

Wednesday August 13, 2008 | 14:28 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

hamiltonLast week came news that a reputable economist at the University of Chicago, David Galenson, has devised a quantitative method to measure the importance of 20th century artists. His rankings, which received major section-front coverage in The New York Times, are based on how often paintings or sculptures by a given artist are reproduced in each of 33 art history textbooks published between 1990 and 2005. Science accords merit on the basis of citations in the expert literature. Why not art?

And the winner is… “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” … followed by … Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” … followed by … “Spiral Jetty” … followed by … Richard Hamilton’s “Just What is That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” Huh? The last picture—you know, the collage with the bodybuilder in the living room—came in just a nose ahead of “Guernica.”

Economists are irrepressible when it comes to drilling down to the essence of things. They peel away layer upon layer of history, nuance, and context—so much “noise”—to get to the hidden underlying algorithms of societal and human behavior. But methodology can devolve into mind mush—as in the case of asserting that looking at pictures in art history books can reveal much more than, well, the likelihood of finding certain pictures in certain books.

This exercise in solipsistic reductionism is a bit like mistaking the warped reflection in a fun-house mirror with reality itself. Even that may be giving too much credit to the theory. A fun-house mirror does reflect all that is placed in front of it, whereas the mirror of institutional art history has some conspicuous blind spots.

I am reminded of another quantitative economic study, of the auction market, which started off with eliminating the top 10 and bottom 10 percent of all auction results: A perfectly legitimate and common statistical maneuver to cleanse the data of trend-obfuscating outliers—only one that removed from the study all the data points that most people concerned with art values actually care about. Nonetheless, one has to admire the chutzpah, the sheer rationalist braggadocio of it all. Read More »

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