Saturday, October 13, 2012

Art and $$$

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1982
 ©The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc

Jerry Saltz on Facebook, yesterday:

We now have this enormous top-heavy operational apparatus… a hundred art fairs and international biennials, galleries growing larger as artists work in smaller spaces, skyrocketing prices during a worldwide economic contraction. The art world’s reflexes are shot; its systems so predetermined that they’re driving us; we’re no longer driving them. The system is less susceptible to paradox, discovery, ambiguity, and all the exquisite deviations and orphic oddness that brought us to art in the first place.

….The system may be too big NOT to fail. It is telling us what we already know: A crystal is cracked. It is time for mutinies, forging new topographies and plotting other courses."

Artists are famous for pioneering new territory, making places like SoHo, TriBeCa, Williamsburg, etc. so attractive that they’re driven out by the moneyed interests. However now it’s bigger than that; while we were sleeping, they co-opted the entire art world and made it one big hedge fund. 

In Chicago last week, a collector friend asked me what’s going on in art, what’s good, what’s happening, and I couldn’t begin to answer him. What’s good? From whose point of view? Mine? Gagosian’s? Sotheby’s? And does it matter? The machine that is the art world is going to run regardless of whether I, Saltz, or anyone who really thinks about art, finds it important. As in current politics, the truth is meaningless and history never happened. So what if another artist did the same thing better yesterday or ten years ago, or is doing it better now in some loft in Cleveland. Like everything else, when things become corporatized, the emphasis changes; it’s no longer about building a better mousetrap, but how many mousetraps can we sell?

Back in the day, the value of contemporary art was determined by an intangible, but nonetheless fairly reliable, aesthetic consensus of artists, writers, inspired dealers, curators, and collectors crazy enough to spend money on the art they loved—with no prospect of a return, as the secondary market was reserved for dead artists. Now value is determined by how long you can keep the ball (or “spot” in the case of Damien Hirst) in the air. Other than generators of product, artists aren’t part of the game. Nor are critics, whose insistence on analyzing and qualifying is beginning to appear superfluous at best, and at worst, downright annoying.

How great is the divide? Example: Richard Prince’s work sells for millions, yet not one artist of my acquaintance cared enough to see his 2007 Guggenheim retrospective (I did, but only because my press pass got me in for free), and Peter Schjeldahl wrote of him: “An adept of juvenile sarcasm, like Prince, is well advised not to invite comparisons with grownups.”

Often compared to the tulip craze that took over Holland in the 1600s, one wonders if the speculative art bubble will burst once investors find it's filled with hot air, when the tide turns from Hirst, Prince and Koons to….? (Whatever happened to those Chinese artists who were so hot a few years ago?) Even the seemingly grounded market in Warhols could be upset when the Andy Warhol Foundation (whose Creative Capital grant is supporting this blog) disperses its collection.

What could unravel even sooner is the art school pyramid. For a couple of decades, students have been willing to take on loans of $20,000 to $30,000 a year to get a degree that would supposedly net them a tenure track teaching position worth upwards of $50,000 a year. Now, however, that 75% of those jobs are being filled by adjuncts making an average of $2700 per course, with many, like Walmart employees, having to rely on food stamps, it seems unlikely that academia will maintain its appeal for long.    

Meanwhile, what’s an artist to do? Saltz says it: mutiny, forge other topographies, plot other courses…in other words, make history once again. Think the Salon des Refuses, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, New York’s Downtown Scene in the 80s….This is not the first time artists have had to take things into their own hands—and they will. 
An addendum, following the comments of friends on Facebook, some of whom found merit in Prince and Koons, although I'm glad to say no one defended Hirst. That, however, is not the point. While I have no interest in Prince, I do like some Koons, and I adore Richter, who is a daily inspiration and, for me, completely deserving of his fame. However, outside of seminal historic pieces, to assess ANY work of art, even Richter’s, at millions of dollars, or even a million, is to indulge in pure speculation. No longer engaged in questions of artistic merit, every institution, from museums to art magazines, is swept up in this wild game of chance being played out by people with too much money. There were probably some pretty gorgeous tulips during the tulip craze, which is no doubt what set the whole thing off, but what happened ultimately had nothing to do with tulips.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Art and the Internet

Oskar Fischinger, 4 images

Yesterday a new website called, hyped as a Pandora for art lovers, was announced in the Times. Only time will tell if this is a boon or expensive misuse of the Internet. The distinctions that make art great are subtle; for instance, I like art that still keeps me guessing even after I’ve seen it a million times. How does a computer find a “genome” for that?

It also assumes that the medium is the first leveler so, for example, if I “like” Christian Marclay, I must therefore “like” video as a medium, which is SO not the case, just as I would never type “Iron and Wine” into Pandora because I would then find myself listening to (eek!) folk music.

Further, the best and worst thing about visual art is that it often doesn’t come through on the computer screen; you have to be there, in front of it, to get the impact. A great example of this is the current digital work of Gerhard Richter I’ve been going on about, which has a lot of zing in person but looks deadly on Marian Goodman’s website. Isn’t this the ultimate irony? A digital product that doesn’t translate in digital? Surprise!—scale actually means something! And just as “silence” was a “sound” to John Cage, surface is meaningful even when it’s flat.

So will the artists who succeed in the future make work with an eye to computer reproduction OR, unlike sex, will visual art continue to be, like food, one of the few experiences where actual contact remains essential?

Oddly enough, however, the explosion of information on the Internet hasn’t extended fully to art. For starters, neither Art in America nor Artforum has an online archive. No wonder art students don’t seem to know anything about what’s gone on in the last 20-30 years—there’s no place for them to find out about it unless they go to a brick and mortar library, which is not how they’re used to doing research.  And why should they have to? In the past there were online resources, at least for recent articles, but they’ve disappeared.  Some angel should take this on.

Also surprisingly, museums, even more than private galleries, are woefully stingy with online information for both visitors and writers.  If they’re not going to allow photography, which is the rule at almost all museums except MoMA, then the least they could do is provide images online so visitors can refer back to what they saw, people who haven’t attended the exhibition can see what they’re missing, and when the exhibition is over, there’s an online archive.

Museums could also put the wall text online—why not? It’s hardly an expensive proposition. I was recently apprehended by guards at the Whitney for taking photos of the text panels (I’m not kidding!) for Oskar Fischinger (click here to see the sum total of the online info about it) but kept snapping away because I had a review to write and that was the only way to get the information, at least in a timely manner. Of course I could email the Press Office and wait to see if they’d send me a PDF, but why make it so difficult?—not only for press, but for the public. These aren’t state secrets, but information that’s in their best interest to share.

As for check lists of everything in museum exhibitions, including titles, dates, sizes, etc. – these appear to be things of the past. I requested one from the Art Institute of Chicago but gave up after a flurry of emails—“press release” being the only language they speak.

Back in the olden days I’d be sent a thick packet that included check lists, complete bios and Xeroxes of previous reviews and catalog essays, as well as slides (remember them?) covering the bulk of the exhibition I was writing about. Now I’m referred to the website where even the press area, which requires special access, offers only a modicum of images and the lonely press release, which is often too cursory to be helpful. The Fischinger press release didn’t even make mention of the music, by Varese and Cage, which accompanies the films. That information is simply not available online, although the Tate Modern, which showed the piece in the spring, at least offers background information on Fischinger, at Tate etc.  I will happily consult with any museum that wants to improve their online and press offerings! Just ask!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Seeing more in Richter: On "chance"

Gerhard Richter, 1024 Colours (1974), enamel on canvas, 96 cm x 96 cm Catalogue Raisonné: 356-1

Karen Rosenberg in her review: 

What’s important to know here is that it [Gerhard Richter’s process of digitally deconstructing an image one of his scraped paintings] eventually produces a field of thin colored bands, which Richter then prints, slices, and rearranges manually (as you might shuffle cards) and re-photographs.

NOT so. The first part of the process, the digital deconstruction, might be random (although not entirely, as he is working with an image he created after all, and has also devised the system), but the last part is not. It has been documented that Richter very carefully composed these pieces, saying that otherwise they’d look like wallpaper.

Critics—even when they get their facts right – often do not understand how “chance” (Richter commentator Benjamin Buchloh’s word, when he’s not saying “aleatory”) plays into the making of a work of art, and they make much more of it than artists do. When you read Buchloh, it’s almost as if he interprets this aspect of Richter’s work as indicating that Richter doesn’t care, is not emotionally involved in the outcome and has no formal concerns – when the opposite is the case.

Artists, however, know that “chance,”  “accidental,” and even “aleatory” events are an essential part of their process, and consciously or unconsciously build in opportunities for them to happen. If we didn’t, if we could control everything to the point that we knew exactly how it would turn out, there would be no point in doing it; why undertake the experiment if you know from the outset what will happen? It often seems as if critics don’t understand that ours is a process of investigation that involves more than the simple making of things. That’s why I prefer the word “random” over Buchloh’s “chance” (“random” is about eliminating definite aim, while “chance” sounds like dumb luck) – but even more apt would be “unexpected.” We make art because it keeps us in a constant state of surprise—for better or worse. When we use intuition instead of logic, when we allow for the unexpected, trust the unexpected, it becomes a collaboration with unseen forces. I could be crucified in the art world for saying this, but it often feels like prayer.