Friday, March 5, 2021

ARTSPEAK: Who needs it?

Recently, I posted to Facebook this artists’ statement in the Gagosian Gallery’s February 17th press release about sculptor/painter Adriana Varejão:
"My work is always in the territory of hybridity. All of my content is built in terms of decolonizing subjectivities, because it deals with countless cultural references, not only from official history, but also from many other hidden or obscured histories that lie at the margins."
As anyone who has read my blog or Facebook posts is aware, I’ve long crusaded against artspeak to the point that a few years ago, in the Guggenheim Museum, railing obviously all too audibly to a friend about the wall text, a woman near me asked, “Are you Carol Diehl?” But this press release was over the top—and the more than 100 comments on my post let me know I was not alone in my reaction.
The gallery, however, must have realized that more explanation was needed, so they extrapolated:
"Varejão’s rich and diverse oeuvre embodies the mythic pluralism of Brazilian identity and the complex social, cultural, and aesthetic interactions that created it. Based in Rio de Janeiro, Varejão draws upon a potent visual legacy informed by the stories of colonialism and transnational exchange to create a confluence of forms that exposes the multivalent nature of representation, history, and memory."
The release includes a portrait of the very photogenic Varejão, her eyes gazing up soulfully into the camera as she reclines in her studio on a leather couch adorned with accidental/intentional paint handprints, surrounded by the detritus of art-making, randomly positioned to indicate the busy workplace of a serious artist whose work is worth a lot of money—and indeed, as her Wikipedia page informs us, she holds the auction record for a Brazilian artist with a $1.8 million sale in 2011. The release included no image of her painting because it is from a new and yet unseen series that will be revealed…dum-de-dum-dum… a week hence on the Gagosian website and available for sale for 48 hours only—accompanied by a short film featuring a time-lapse sequence documenting the making of the support for a tile painting, “the first time the artist has ever revealed her working process to the public eye.”
The suspense is killing me.
Meanwhile, research reveals a backstory. Varejão used to be married to one Bernardo Paz, a Brazilian art collector (ARTnews “Top 200”), mining magnate, and creator of the Instituto Imhotim, a nature preserve that contains one of the largest outdoor art centers in Latin America, featuring art by internationally celebrated artists and a pavilion dedicated to Varejão’s work. In 2017, Paz was sentenced to jail for nine years and three months for money laundering related to the institute. Later, Frieze reports, other allegations about Paz’s business practices came forth, including claims of violating environmental law and use of child labor in his charcoal production business, causing him to ultimately resign from the Imhotim’s board and cede ownership of important works. In February, 2020, ARTnews reported that Paz was acquitted of the money-laundering charges and although the government can still appeal, Paz’s lawyer said it was unlikely they would, given that “the laundering occurred through a criminal organization wasn’t part of Brazilian law until 2013, and the alleged wrongdoing happened some six years prior.”
But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yes, confounding statements, which are particularly mystifying when coming from Gagosian, who can afford the best writers in the world. However artist David Levine, who has studied the artspeak phenomenon, suggests in the Guardian that it could have a commercial application: “The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work, the more you can keep the value high."
Ah, so chances are Gagosian’s use of artspeak is intentional, just another means of protecting a work’s monetary value—and perhaps increasing it by sounding politically current and “woke” (anything that includes the words “colonialism” or “pluralism”) while vending an artist who is clearly not of the underclass, and promoting transactions in an unregulated market that functions to exacerbate income disparity.
Artspeak has been around a long time, but it now seems particularly egregious, yet another fiction thrown at us as truth in an era where we are drowning in a tsunami of hype and propaganda. If anything qualifies as “fake news,” this press release is it. I recall Adam Curtis’s prescient 2016 film, “HyperNormalisation,” the title a term coined by a Russian professor of anthropology, Alexei Yurchak, who emigrated to the United States. In his 2006 book, "Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More," Yurchak wrote about the paradoxes of Soviet life in the 1970s and 1980s when, although it was clear that the system was failing, no one could conceive of an alternative, and therefore went along with the status quo. Eventually the fakeness became accepted as real—hence hypernormalisation.
Today’s hazy mental climate of illusion and delusion requires that we keep critically observant while constantly asking ourselves, what is reality? – even as it seems to slip further from our grasp. However, should it be of some comfort, one thing is absolutely certain: if and when reality does decide to present itself, it will not come shrouded in a cloak of decolonized subjectivity and hybridity.


Note: Adam Curtis's film, Hypernormalisation can be watched on YouTube here.

Photo: Adriana Varejão in her studio, courtesy of Gagoisan Gallery.

Carol Diehl (c) 2021

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Banksy and the Art Market: The Downside of Anonymity


Being anonymous has its perks (not getting arrested for vandalism, for instance) but also its complications. For Banksy, it means that there are exhibitions in his name all over the world, raking in no doubt millions of dollars, in which he has no part—hustlers exhibiting work borrowed from collectors, charging up to $49 for admission, while putting up banners with his name on it along the city streets. Banksy has no control over what’s exhibited or how it’s exhibited—nor can he claim any of the income or confirm that the work is indeed genuine. Recently I met a Banksy fan in his 80s, who was going on rapturously about a Banksy exhibition he saw in Amsterdam; I didn’t have the heart to tell him Banksy had nothing to do with it. And in Israel I met a Palestinian artist who was annoyed that Banksy would put on an exhibition in Tel Aviv just as he was opening his hotel in Palestinian Bethlehem, to whom I had to explain that the two weren’t related.

Nor do journalists get it, as in the Euronews coverage of a current 4 ½ month exhibition in Lisbon that read: “The anonymous artist includes his distinctive stencilling technique, sculptors [sic], videos and photographs. This exhibition has already been to Moscow and Madrid attracting more than 600,000 people.”

But no doubt the worst is having one’s work “interpreted” by a “curator” as in, “He is a messenger, he is not somebody who can solve anything, he is not somebody who has the power to solve a problem, he is just showing us the problem, he is a messenger that gives us the message of guys. We have to stop somehow and think about it and then do something about it."  Oh geez.

Even Forbes (which repeats the myth of Banksy’s supposed $20M net worth as if it were fact) seems to find a contradiction in Banksy’s deprecation of the auction market—as when, after three of his works sold in the six figures, Banksy posted a cartoon of an auctioneer selling a framed canvas painted with the words” I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit,” which was in line with his recent painting-shredding caper at Sotheby’s. Few outside the art world (I guess, including Forbes) understand that artists themselves don’t gain when work is sold at auction—but everything is sold on consignment by previous owners, who get all the profit. And while some insist Banksy gains because it inflates the value of the artworks he does sell…well, that might be true if he actually sold stuff. However, since 2008 Banksy has had no commercial gallery representation and has not made anything for the market except some prints for charity. Currently the only way you can buy a Banksy, is to be a guest of his Bethlehem hotel where the tiny bookstore sells unlimited edition prints and small sculptures in the $150-$300 range. Bring your suitcase! And then pray they get through the checkpoint at the wall going back into Israel…but that’s another story.

Banksy, in his website , is clear, listing exhibitions in 19 countries as “Fake” adding : Banksy is NOT on Facebook, Twitter or represented by Steve Lazarides [his former dealer and one of the “fake” exhibition organizers] or any other commercial gallery.”
Pledge to the Kickstarter campaign for my book-in-progress, Banksy: Completed, to be published by The MIT Press in late 2020. Find it here.

Sunday, June 16, 2019


I got the idea to write my book-in-progress, "Banksy: Completed," through conversations on Facebook (thanks, Jerry Saltz!), where I felt the anonymous street artist's work deserved to be taken more seriously by the art world. Therefore, "Banksy: Completed" will be the first in-depth investigation into the significance of his work--published, I'm thrilled to say, by The MIT Press. But since there are no big advances in the academic publishing world--in fact, my contract actually obligates me to expenses--I must fundraise to make it happen.PLEASE JOIN ME! No donation too small (even $1--small pledges increase the number of backers) or too large! Become part of the project as it unfolds and among the first to see BANKSY: COMPLETED when it's published. And please share far and wide!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Another Kehinde Wiley portrait of Obama

The recent official portrait is not the first of Obama by Kehinde Wiley. I’ve always been a fan of the artist, so working at TIME as a consultant on the covers, when it was clear that Obama would be the 2008 Person of the Year, Wiley was at the top of my list. He was ultimately edged out by Shepard Fairey, whose iconic Obama poster made him the logical first choice. In those golden days of TIME, we often commissioned several artists for a single cover—in case, for one reason or another, something didn’t work out. The original artworks of those that did run were ultimately donated to the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, where Wiley’s most recent portrait will also end up.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Adventures with the Berkshire Museum


Who would have thought that our little Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA, near where I live in southwestern Massachusetts, could cause an international ruckus. It has, however, in its attempt to divest its collection of 40 of its most valued and beloved artworks to fund the gutting of its elegant Gilded Age building and the installation of a children's science museum. You can read more about it in Felix Salmon's New Yorker piece, and Charles Desmarais' recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle. As followers of my Facebook page know, I've been working with the citizen's group, Save the Art--Save the Museum, in the hopes that we can bring the art back and restore the Museum's original focus on the art and natural history of the region. Below is my op-ed for the February issue of Berkshire Trade & Commerce:

Saving the Berkshire Museum

By now even people in San Francisco, where it was on the front page of the Chronicle a few weeks ago, know about our Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell the best of their art collection and raise $60-80M to fund a new mission. The National Review called it “the biggest art-world story of 2017,” and indeed, it has been written about in over 4,000 outlets worldwide.

The controversy has attracted attention and sparked widespread opposition because it’s about much more than the specific artworks the Museum's board and staff intend to permanently send away from Pittsfield. Once transferred into private hands, it is most likely that these important works, at least in our lifetimes, will never be seen in public again. The action sets a dangerous precedent for all museums, libraries, and historical societies, and is a blow to the very idea of public access to original artworks, historical artifacts, and manuscripts.

Such deaccessions are related to the damaging long-term national trend toward the privatization of many kinds of assets previously held in the public trust. Escalated under the Trump administration, this includes the selling off of national parklands for private mining and drilling, such as is occurring in the Berkshires’ own Otis State Forest and the plan for PCB dumps in the Housatonic River, as well as the concern over “net neutrality” and control of the Internet which is, in essence, a vital public utility. Responsibility for fixing the infrastructure and the running of prisons, hospitals, and schools, is being transferred to private operators motivated by profit rather than public service.

In contrast, institutions such as the Berkshire Museum were specifically created to provide resources and services for the benefit of the community, with the boards considered the stewards and protectors of the assets. Called “trustees” for a reason, they have heretofore been guided by ethical constraints that only allowed sales from collections for the purpose of improving the collections, not to fund operational expenses. Similarly, those who donated items did so with the intention that they would be cared for and available to the public. The ethical guidelines also have another function, which is to ensure that boards will not leap to sell from collections instead of doing the harder work of fund-raising, or use such profit for individual gain, as in the awarding of construction and other operational contracts to special interests, or the raising of administrative salaries. 

Because tax-exempt organizations are beholden to the public whose taxes contribute to their support, their first priority should be the nurturing of community trust. Toward this end, it is essential that their operations and financial records be fully public and transparent, with any significant changes in mission made in the context of community engagement. In the case of the Berkshire Museum, however, many felt betrayed by the Museum leadership’s decision to sell the art, as well as the way they went about it. The Museum’s much touted (and no doubt expensive) “two-year planning process” lacked transparency, rendering its results invalid, as at no time were participants informed that the “New Vision” would be achieved through the sale of important and much-beloved artworks. Instead it was a fait accompli, announced after the deal with Sotheby’s had been signed and the art already removed from Pittsfield. Further engendering suspicion, the Museum held back the full list of the 40 works until public uproar forced their revelation.
In addition, although the Museum has asserted that if it does not sell the artworks it will be forced to close in eight years, officials there have offered no detailed proof to verify this claim. Meanwhile, ongoing analysis by several independent experts has questioned this premise, as well as the need for a $40M endowment, considered wildly inflated for an institution of its size. Note that the Norman Rockwell Museum gets by with an endowment of $4.5M, while the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY, with a similar size, mission and demographic as the Berkshire Museum, has an even smaller endowment. The Albany Institute of History and Art, in an equally economically challenged area, mounts exhibitions reviewed in the New York Times on an annual budget of $500,000 less than the Berkshire Museum, and employs two curators, where the Berkshire Museum has none.

So, yes, the Museum’s actions have created a crisis, but within that crisis lies new opportunity. A recent letter to the Berkshire Eagle quoted P.T. Barnum saying "Do not squander good or bad publicity but exploit it!" The writer suggests that, inspired by Barnum, a “Forty Works Exhibition” could be one of the biggest art events on the East Coast for 2018. In addition, fund-raising opportunities have increased a hundredfold, in just the kind of circumstances that enabled the Detroit Institute of the Arts to reestablish itself after the City of Detroit threatened to sell off its holdings to fund the sagging city economy.

Although we’ve been divided, what we have in common is that we love the Museum. The citizens’ group of which I’m a part, Save the Art—Save the Museum, has repeatedly invited the trustees to use the passion ignited in the community, harness the energy of all who want the Museum to survive, and come up with a revised plan that saves the cultural treasures of the Berkshires while creating financial stability.
To mobilize this outpouring of local and national care, the Museum's leadership must courageously acknowledge the public outcry against their plans and agree to work constructively with the voices that have emerged, particularly those art and museum professionals who have offered help.

In our interconnected world, only collaboration will bring about goodwill and the long-term enthusiastic support the Museum will need for whatever mission it adopts. Yes, the Berkshire Museum can be saved, but only by bringing back the art and engaging in genuine community dialogue.