Category Archives: Criticism

Enlightenment comes to Tiananmen Square?

NMCThe Art Newspaper leads this week with a thought provoking and fact-filled article on a huge co-operative Arts project between the German and Chinese governments to bring major works from German museums to the newly re-opened National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square.   The theme of the exhibition is the European Enlightenment, and the story is by our own András Szántó.

A glimpse of the exhibition:-

Over dinner on a bitterly cold January night in Beijing, I asked Cordula Bischoff, the Dresden-based curator of “The Art of the Enlightenment”, which object in the exhibition best represents its message. Without hesitating, she pointed to a silhouette print in the advance catalogue. The work, attributed to Johann Heinrich Lips, depicts Voltaire, the French philosopher, holding a lantern that shines a light outward beyond the picture frame. “He is carrying the light and leading the visitor out of the exhibition,” she said. “It tells everything.” Bischoff’s counterpart, Chen Yu, a curator at the National Museum, nodded in agreement. “This picture is a metaphor of the Enlightenment,” he said. “The European Enlightenment is still influencing people everywhere in the world. Chinese people are still enjoying its fruits.”

And a comment by a local resident:-

This is an era of tremendous change. It is time to pause and reflect. Are we a leader economically? Spiritually? It’s part of the opening up after 30 years. What have we lost and what have we gained?

As Andras points out, Confucius was an inspiration to many of the leading lights of the European Enlightenment and so it seems the cycle of inspiration returns.   One wonders, though, what the results will be as China is really only taking its first hesitant steps forward culturally, even as it charges forward economically.

You can read the full article here.

For Museums, a New Twist on Instrumental Benefits

right-way-wrong-way1For years the debates have raged about how to argue for the arts, and never more so than now, when public money for museums is everywhere drying up. As I wrote not long ago in the Art Newspaper, a thorny problem for arts advocates is that they have boxed themselves into a corner by developing instrumental arguments for the arts. According to the now widely-used reasoning, investments in the arts are supposed to yield tangible returns — tourism dollars, construction jobs, white collar citizens, booming maths scores, etc. — which, in turn, advance cities and their inhabitants in the global economy.

The trouble is that in the meantime the art community has lost sight of what in the first instance is important and intrinsically valuable about the arts. And as far as policy arguments go, funding cultural institutions to obtain the aforementioned outputs is a rather inefficient way of going about the business of improving education, competitiveness, and neighborhood health.

Now philosopher Alain de Botton has waded into this fertile rhetorical swamp by proposing a new twist on instrumentalism. Let museums be a means to and end, he argues in a polemic published on BBC’s website. But let those ends be moral. Did anyone say moral?

Invoking the old chestnut about museums being our secular churches, de Botton argues: “I try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us good and wise and kind – and tried to use the art in their collections to prompt us to be so?” He goes on to ask, “Why couldn’t art be – as it was in religious eras – more explicitly for something?”

The philosopher has pointed out a valid contradiction. While arts advocates have willingly instrumentalized their cause when arguing for subsidies, they insist on a neutral, open, cause free definition of the contributions of artists and cultural institutions. But what would museums look like in the scenario suggested by de Botton?

A dash of cold water

brodypicassoThere’s been much fuss over “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” the 1932 Picasso that sold for $106.5 million at auction last week. Roberta Smith devoted an article in “The Week in Review” section of the New York Times to the guessing game about the anonymous buyer. Bemoaning the “irksome” secrecy of art sales, she conjured a rogue’s gallery of possible bidders, including “Buyer X,” a “puppet master,” a “Russian oligarch” fearing “home invasion or too much unfriendly attention from Vladimir Putin,” and “someone with vast sums of money stashed in a Swiss bank account or a dubious tax shelter.” All very James Bond. Buyer X must be smiling.

Anyway, on one score, the article, along with most others I have read, is unambiguous: The Picasso claimed “the highest price ever for a work of art at auction”—a “world record.” Technically speaking, the number is the highest—the largest pile of US dollars ever spent on an artwork at auction. But adjusted for inflation, this Picasso is a far cry from Van Gogh’s 1989 record-setter, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which, at $82 million at the time, would be worth about $140 million in today’s dollars.

Leaving out inflation is a bit like measuring one high jumper’s performance in inches and another’s in centimeters. It’s worth noting, for context, that we have had at least three private sales in the neighborhood of $140M in recent years. And there have been a couple of auction sales exceeding $106 million in 2010 dollars, including a Picasso, “Garcon a la pipe,” which sold in 2004 for just over $104 million.

All of which is to say, Buyer X doesn’t get the gold medal after all. As Smith rightly points out, record mania is something of an irksome diversion in itself. In any event, the search for the mystery collector continues. Anyone have a clue?

Requiem for a magazine

356_id_june_cover_400I attended a wake for I.D. magazine last night in New York. Not I.D., the fashion magazine. I.D. the design magazine. Now dead.

Like so many of its recently-axed midsize peers, I.D. — International Design — leaves a much larger hole in our cultural landscape than its modest circulation numbers suggest. Say what you will about the promise of online media, there is a kind of energy and legacy that develops around a magazine that remains unique to the form. A great magazine is a network and a through-line: something that, done right, can lend a segment of our culture a sense of coherence, validation, continuity and substance. The event last night, attended by several generations of former editors and contributors, was a clear manifestation of the kind of discourse a magazine can create. It is a decades-long conversation between those who care about something, and one that is unlikely to be satisfyingly supplanted by an online alternative, at least not soon.

Along with these magazines, we usually lose their archives and libraries, their established voices and obsessions, their particular and often quirky ways of going about things. Also gone, or left without a common anchoring point, are the clusters of fans and gawkers who follow the moves of these magazines avidly and who are tied together by their love or hate of what their current stewards decide to do.

For design, the loss of I.D. (disclosure: my wife used to work there, and I had written for them on occasion) means the loss of a platform for serious dialogue about a cultural form that sorely needs it. Design is one of the most exciting corners of our culture right now. But without a thoughtful exchange of ideas, it devolves into mere consumption, trapped in its own glamorous, self-referential ghetto.

I.D. gave expression to the highest ambitions of design. At its best, it reminded us that design is about art, urbanity, civilization, and our shared hopes for a better future. We can all drink to that.

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).

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

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?

What recession art?

articles_1There was a lively discussion in my class the other day about boom-time art. Some students said fast times produce “vulgar” art; others disagreed. The point was that they found connections between the economic climate and the sort of art being made and sold.

By extension, it’s worth asking if the recession has given rise to any particular kind of art. My informal gallery scan suggests that works on view, on the whole, are getting smaller. Has substance changed, too? Will it? Should it?

There are signs that, beyond what Lindsay Pollock described as “the Darwinian game of gallery musical chairs,” art is being influenced by the downturn. BravinLee gallery in Chelsea is producing limited-edition rugs by various artists, with some of the proceeds going to charity. “Art needs to get out of the white box,” said John Lee in Pollock’s report. “This is born out of the current economic environment in a way.” Another item in my mailbox heralds a group show, opening this week, titled “Art of the Crash” at FusionArts Museum, on the Lower East Side. It’s something to do with sculpture made from the “detritus of Detroit.” Art of the Great Recession? You judge.

Now, with exquisite timing, along comes Morris Dickstein’s book on art in the 1930s, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” in which the CUNY professor surveys the artistic response to the calamity to which our times have so often (and so misleadingly) been compared. Continue reading

The middleman as muse

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. Continue reading

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

After the dead tree

The nice folks over at The Art Newspaper asked András for his thoughts on what would happen to Arts writing with the decline of the Press.   His response can be seen here, or after the break.

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Continue reading

Lessons from Havana

cubaIt is useful to remember that there is a place, not far from here, which makes our Wall Street worries look like luxury problems. The average salary in Cuba is around $20 US dollars a month, which is the equivalent of a regular dinner in a tourist restaurant in Habana Vieja. Economic contrasts border on surrealism, and yet Cuban society manages somehow to survive through a system of inventive informal businesses and exchanges that involve outsmarting the government and permanently playing a game of intrigue and paranoia.

The Cuban situation in the art sphere has always been equally perplexing: Cuba doesn’t have private galleries, art magazines or independent art foundations. Internet access is heavily restricted if at all available. Only a handful of artists (who normally live outside of the country) actually get to make a profit of their art. And yet over the years Cuba produced as many or more consequential artists than other countries who may boast of far stronger infrastructure and support system for the arts. Which leads me to ask: amidst all this soul-searching after the fall of the markets, can the Cuban example help the art world re-envision itself?

In Cuba it is really hard to get quick answers to anything, though, as reality is so complex. For starters, the meeting of the art world and the Cuban reality is an awkward one. The Havana Biennial, which just opened its 10th edition last week, is an event that best exemplifies the contrasts and ironies of today’s art world. Officially entitled “Globalization and Resistance,” one could see the event as the ultimate anti-Dubai, anti-Chelsea event. Yet, there was a parallel show precisely entitled “Chelsea,” comprised of New York artists who show at Chelsea galleries. The event seemed to be quite successful, no one seemed to think it was a contradiction to the curatorial premises of the biennial, and everyone seemed happy. The biennial per se, however, as well as the theoretical forum I attended, were much more true to form. Continue reading

“Recessional Aesthetics” at Dia

recession-specialFrom Eva Diaz in New York City:

Speaking of the appropriation of empty real estate for art venues in Dubai and elsewhere, a fascinating mise en abyme is taking place at the former Dia space in Chelsea. Dia pioneered the Chelsea art frontier, then sold the building four years ago to a developer who, due to the bummer economy, failed to find tenants for a proposed “apartment gallery hybrid” (this according to the  NY Observer). The space has now been donated to the rechristened “X” non-profit contemporary art center for one year.

In a self-reflexive panel touching on new, non-market/real estate-driven hybridities in such improvised sites, Hal Foster and David Joselit last Thursday conversed about the current and possible future effects of the economic downturn on the wider field of art: its production, reception, distribution, and consumption; its educational institutions and institutions of display. Unfortunately it was an abbreviated session—someone in the audience fell into swoon half way through (an event later judged unrelated to the fraught topic at hand).

The evening was structured around as a series of insightful, speculative questions that posed tentative propositions about how to combat the privatization of cultural institutions and the financialization of art. Here’s quick telegraph of the five questions Foster and Joselit were able to cover, which involved some apposite participation from the large audience:

Will the social role of the artist change in the new “undercapitalist” economy?   Is the neoliberal art museum sustainable?   Will art biennials wither away?   What will be the effect of the economic crisis on art schools?   Will art criticism regain its place in the art world after being marginalized in the market boom?

The last question raised the very pertinent issue of what constitutes expertise in the field of criticism, latterly turned into generalized judgment or appreciation on the part of dealers, collectors, etc. Is there a place left for the common set of terms that a critic provides?Or has the globalization of the art world meant that a form of market-driven relativism supplanted criticism—disguised in the pluralism of purchasable media, the near ceaseless ahistorical plundering/pastiche of prior practices as fodder for new work, and the surfeit of MFA-equiped contemporary artists and surplus of biennials and art fairs?

New, newest, now, next

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 Singapore experiment

kinesisk-tempel-singaporeWhat kind of an art world do you get without critics? To some, the question may sound hypothetical. But as I learned in Singapore last week, such scenarios exist, and may become more common.

In every tangible respect, the visual arts in Singapore are in an enviable situation. The small island nation sees cultural investments as a step toward a high-tech, educated, information society. The major arts facilities are glittering after ambitious additions and facelifts. The display technology in the top museums is world class. There are for-profit and non-profit art galleries. More and more institutions are being built. Artists can learn in prestigious training programs, some managed in partnership with reputable foreign institutions. Grants for travel and production are widely available.

The missing element is criticism. There is none. Newspapers offer reportage, but no reviews. There are no local criticism journals or websites, no training in criticism at universities. In talking with students and artists from around Asia, it quickly becomes clear that while western-style art cultures and art markets are proliferating, criticism is not necessarily being added into the mix. There is one silver lining: More direct contacts between artists (in person or online) not only to chit-chat, but to seriously debate the merits of each other’s work — the kind of intense, one-on-one dialogue and discourse we only read about in the history books.

With Asia exerting a more powerful influence, and with the Western arts press in decline, could the absence of criticism become the norm, not the exception?

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?

Goodbye to all that

newspaper3With The Minneapolis Star Tribune filing for bankruptcy protection yesterday, this is a good time to talk about what happens to the arts when newspapers go away.

I was talking to a friend who tracks journalism trends closely earlier this week and he said, “2009 is going to be a real game changer.” He listed the latest casualties, which now include some of the most venerable titles: The Los Angeles Times facing the real possibility of closing. The San Francisco Chronicle losing a billion dollars for its parent company. Seattle’s second paper shutting down. Same in Denver. Papers in cities like Detroit scaling back to publishing a few days a week. The Miami Herald up for sale, but only the building seems to be worth anything. As layoffs and heretofore unthinkable page A1 banner advertising attests, even The New York Times is in deep trouble.

Are we ready for a world in which major metro dailies don’t arrive on our doorstep every morning? Or have they already lost their relevance? After all, in most American cities, a vibrant discourse conducted by dueling critics at rival newspapers is already a distant sepia-toned memory.

My friend, the publisher of a major arts website, worries more about city hall reporting than arts coverage. “Writing about art will always be glamorous and people will do it,” he said. “But what about those unglamorous stories about city government, which nobody else wants to do, and which don’t sell ads?” With so much arts coverage being opinion based — under the fancier name of criticism — blogs have absorbed arts coverage more successfully than hard news. Moreover, many papers say they’re ready to cover newsroom expenses solely with online advertising. The extinction of dinosaur papers printed on dead trees may even leave more breathing room — i.e. ad revenues — for nimbler upstart species of news media.

All points well taken. But call me nostalgic, I still don’t feel the online world fully substitutes for coverage in big metro dailies. Where do we go from here?

Message in a bottle

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. Continue reading

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

Summer reading: The Art Critic

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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.”

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?