Thursday, August 18, 2005

"I want to be criticized!"

There's a good informative article in The New York Times about an impressive group exhibition of Chinese artists who were working steadily throughout the 80's and 90's but only now being recognized by the mainstream public in their country. It's a good article, it sounds like a good exhibition, many of the works described sound like conceptually sound, aesthetically resolved and even important pieces (see image to right of Gu Wenda's 10,000 Kilometers, "bricks made of hair allude to the many thousands of laborers who suffered in building the Great Wall"), and it's a very good thing that the artists are finally being recognized (the exhibition travels to Buffalo in October). This is the sort of serious endeavor and resulting dialog the art world prides itself on, and rightly so, no?

Actually, the exhibition sounds fine. It's something the exhibition's curator, Gao Minglu, said that touches on a disappointment of mine:

There is much good to be said about this breaching of the wall, for artists and viewers alike, but Mr. Gao said he also feared it had caused artists to compromise their work to fit curatorial interests and the demands of the market. He said he looked forward to the day when the hallowed walls of museums and galleries would lose their appeal.

"I hope some artists will rebel against the museum exhibition and criticize the institutional art world and the curatorial system," he said. "I want to be criticized! But right now artists have no time to criticize. They are just enjoying."
OK, so artists and curators have been looking forward to the day that museums and galleries lose their appeal for ages it seems. That's not exactly what jumped out at me here. It was the line I chose as this post's title: "I want to be criticized." In this context I take that to mean he wants his profession and his industry to be criticized. He wants the artists to bite the hand that's only now beginning to feed them. He wants the day to come when China's artists are powerful enough to make statements that challenge the machine. That's all well and good.

But in the context of what that machine has become in recent years (seemingly more so than ever before), Gao's statement could stand as a succinct statement of exactly what's been disappointing me. Let me illustrate with an anecdote:

The first time I lectured a group of graduate students I spent untold hours thinking through how to handle the critique of the series of exhibitions I was curating that I was sure they'd turn the Q-and-A segment into. After all, I thought, that's why I was invited to lecture. The series was about innovative approaches to exhibiting art and the professor suggested my approach would spark a good deal of discussion. I was looking forward to defending my approach (a guerilla-style series of art "raves" more or less) and explaining why it made sense to me at that time. In short, like Mr. Gao, I was looking forward to being criticized, to having to defend the industry and my part in it.

Not one student asked me an even remotely challenging question though. Not one. After an awkward silence following what I thought would be debate-provoking statements, I suggested the students might be interested in learning how to contact curators like myself. Then they were full of questions. Here I had been worried about how I'd stand up to their critique. It was farcical and, as noted above, extremely disappointing. I've since realized that most graduate students want two things out of a lecture: Lots of images and lots of tips on how to get curators and dealers' attention.

OK, so perhaps that's not fair. Perhaps it's too much to expect graduate students who are not actually intimately involved in the industry yet to have a mature critique of it. Perhaps that's only to be expected of artists exhibiting in museums and galleries (not much around there either though). Or perhaps it's not something artists are, or even should be, interested in. Perhaps Mr. Gao and myself are revealing an obnoxious degree of self-importance to assume the industry or our efforts are important enough to consume an artist's time. Perhaps. Within the context of a lecture, though, it's still wholly disappointing. What am I missing here?

28 Comments:

Anonymous jj said...

I’ve had similar experiences when speaking to college students.

Often, young artists do seem too complicit… are they artists or mandarins?

What often helps kick start the discussion is to tell them that having a challenging disagreement usually leaves a better impression than, "can you curate me into your next show?"

Sometimes, I take a page from the Dave Hickey playbook and start picking on sacred cows such as the way institutions etc. reward mediocrity or incremental variations over any form of radicalism.

8/18/2005 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

great suggestions JJ. Thanks.

I think the "rewarding mediocrity" avenue is sure to light a fire.

Even once you get past the students though, I find complicity. Far too many artists (even one is too many IMO) are willing to do whatever to get a career. I've seen artists who, after a studio visit, come back almost immediately with work that reflected answers to my exact criticisms. As if they felt I had given them a class assignment (hmmm...maybe that's why? they're still in student mode) and they thought I would then offer them an exhibition because they had done a good job listening to what they had thought were instructions.

Can I just say, for the record: ick!

8/18/2005 01:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Hmmm... maybe galleries & curators should institute the inverse of studio visits. Instead of an artist presenting work for critique, the gallery owner/curator would present documentation of their shows for critique from an artist.

My guess is that in that context artists would be much more forthcoming with criticism.

8/18/2005 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the gallery owner/curator would present documentation of their shows for critique from an artist.

My guess is that in that context artists would be much more forthcoming with criticism.


I suspect you're right, but am I right in that you'rr suggesting artists don't feel comfortable criticizing curators and dealers in the context of a lecture?

I hadn't thought about that, but it might explain why this occurs.

8/18/2005 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

E, I'm interested. How do you choose which artists to represent? I mean I know that there are some gold standards that you'd like to represent, but what goes into your decision? Is it sellability, the margin you can make (i.e. oil vs. watercolor),how well crafted the piece is, having a mixture of different styles in your gallery, the sheer brilliance of the work, what? This is actually quite fascinating.*

Also, what types of critiques do you find yourself offering?

*For a guy who normally like to NOT see the sausage being made.

8/18/2005 08:50:00 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

This is an interesting point. But I'm reminded of an instance when I was an undergrad and at a talk by the juror of our annual student show - the juror took the students to task for our work lacking experimentation, especially in the media - he wanted to see more electronic work, more video, etc. Now, this might have been a fair critique, but I remember thinking at the time that we were at a state school in Nowhere, Michigan, taught by mostly 2nd generation abstract expressionists who had been at the university their whole careers- how were we supposed to even *start* to approach that kind of work? Of course our work was 10-20 years behind students in NY and LA. We hadn't been exposed to anything like it - you had to drive 3 hours to get to Chicago or Detroit to see any real art shows. I had barely heard of Eric Fischl, let alone Olafur Eliasson.

Anyhow, my long-winded point is that what you get out of students has a lot to do with what's been put into them. I guess this could be true of those grad students - were their professors pushing critical thinking on them, fostering debate, or were they primarily career-oriented too?

Another, more practical point would be of course the students were interested in careerism - how else are they supposed to support themselves? They've probably taken out $50-100,000 in loans just to get their education. Is it better to be a working artist, albiet compromised by the system in some way; or a destitute critical thinker challenging the system? Or even worse, an MFA educated office/restaurant worker?

None of these arguements mean I disagree with you, just points for consideration.

8/18/2005 10:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Amy,

I get all that...really. I understand much better than most folks may realize that you have to support yourself, regardless of what your dreams are. The paradox though is that without making the sort of commitment to your work that for many folks puts their ability to support themselves at risk, they're much less likley to get a career as an artist that supports them (unless they go a very commercial route).

I heard Jeffrey Dietch at a seminar once announce he would never work with an artist that held a full-time job. Their work should be their full-time job and what they did to pay the rent should be secondary. At the time, I thought that was a very unrealistic thing (not to mention a snobbish thing) to say. I've changed my mind though. Making a living as an artist is hard as hell, but that's because you're competing against all of history. In that sense, it's a privelege to get to that place (society is saying you're one of the greats...you're a god, in a sense) and I don't feel sorry for anyone who has to sacrifice to get to that point because those who do so without complaining about it could not do anything else. That's who they are. As a dealer, that's who you want to work with.

In other words, unlike most other fields in which you should be able to expect to make a decent living after graduating with a degree (e.g. from law school, med school, business school, etc.), art demands much more. That's because the payoff is much greater if you succeed. How many lawyers from the 19th Century can you name? How many artists? There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of artists who want the dozen or so slots available in the art history textbooks. If an artist is not so convinced they deserve one of those slots they'll do what it takes to get one, they'll probably not make it.

I can't feel bad for those who don't make it either. My mentor in the dealer business once took me aside and said "Remember that scene in "A League of Their Own" where Tom Hanks said "There's no crying in Baseball?" The same is true in the art world. There's no crying in the art business. None. Get thick skin, or get out."

He was right. We're working toward a place in history. There's no time for crying.

8/18/2005 10:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How do you choose which artists to represent? I mean I know that there are some gold standards that you'd like to represent, but what goes into your decision?

It's a long involved process (involving developing and then defending a point of view and balancing it all in a way that remains relevant), but the short answer boils down to: I want to see that work in my gallery. I want the privelege of talking about that work, of walking into the gallery and living with that work. Honestly. That's it. I have another source of income, so I don't need to sell art to survive. For me it's the privelege.

8/18/2005 10:28:00 PM  
Anonymous preacher's daughter said...

Funny how someone who doesn't need to make money from his gallery can say there's no "crying in Art". And the curation I have seen, most recently at Sculpture Center and PS 1 was all about dealers jockying for position (PS 1, which I heard included 9 unknown artists from their famous slide review) and on the other hand artist "resistant to market" (Sculpture Center who seemed to pick from the HOT MFA programs and ealers.
And it's funny how content and smug this "no crying" statement is considering what it really means practically--the mostly white trust fund baby gets to be the artist. and funny how that type has of late been producing shows that overall classified as adolescent. devoid of content. hmmmm.

and as far as the resistant to market business. (sculpture center) Most artists are aware that apparent messiness gives one visibilty and curries the interest of the critics. One artist told me my work was too ready to be collected. something I have been told often-- I have to mess it up, get down with Holland (maybe an earth room that's actually a pile of shit will get his attention), and then crank it back to an object I can sell.
The contemporary art world (ny) is turning my stomach.


E I like you and your blog so much, but give me a break.

8/19/2005 06:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

what do you know JJ? It worked! there is a way to get folks to criticize the industry. Thanks Preacher's Daughter. ;-)

[I'm kidding...sort of]

They're independent of each other, actually, my other source of income and my belief that having thick skin is required to make in the art business. I was told that (and believed it) long before I opened the gallery. What's the alternative though, really? Believing that complaining about the way things are will bring about change? It's far too easy for others to dismiss that as sour grapes.

There are two ways to get ahead in any field...beating everyone else at the established game or changing the rules. No one's saying the established game is fair. Conclude from that what you need to.

8/19/2005 08:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I suspect you're right, but am I right in that you'rr suggesting artists don't feel comfortable criticizing curators and dealers in the context of a lecture?

I'm sure I'd speak up if the speaker said something that got under my skin (e.g., "sculpture is dead"), but I wouldn't take pot shots at someone just because of their background (e.g., a gallery owner).

I can't speak for others, but I'm always a bit reluctant to be very antagonistic to anyone giving a lecture for two reasons:

1. I usually feel the person is the spot--especially if lecturing is not their profession (i.e., not a professor).

2. There is always one person in every audience who thinks they know more than speaker and who's questions are designed to prove how smart they art. I try not to be that person. My rule of thumb is, "If you can't spot the know-it-all, it's probably you."

8/19/2005 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

pot shots weren't what I was expecting though Ethan. Provocative, perhaps challenging questions were.

I think JJ's hit on something important with this:

What often helps kick start the discussion is to tell them that having a challenging disagreement usually leaves a better impression than, "can you curate me into your next show?"

At least that way, the student will understand you're hoping for a challenging discourse.

8/19/2005 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous jen said...

By the time you're an MFA student, you'd better be atleast looking in the window of the industry and have some thing to say about it ( at the very least a question related to the lecturers specialty!). Then when you graduate (unless you're one of "the chosen ones") you need to hunker down in the studio, live a little and let your art do the talking. I agree that there is no crying in art. It's a calling and you're either up for it or you're not. I think dealers are smart to show full-time artists when possible. The more you hone your craft (for lack of a better word) the more you leave the competition behind. Practice makes perfect!

8/21/2005 03:55:00 PM  
Blogger Katherine said...

Ed, I think that comment is bullshit. Everyone's in the same boat, sure, but to stand off and decide that someone isn't truly committed to their art because they have a day job--I flatly don't buy it. Plenty of writers have had day jobs. The work speaks for itself, or it doesn't.

I heard this kind of crap so many times in journalism. I hope the art world is a little better at finding talent, but I'm sorry, I could have fucking done a better job than so many the reporters out there, I managed to do it on a weblog for God's sake. It was my choice, it's a choice I can't really regret, most of the time, but--journalism should not be driving people like me out of the field. And it might have gone differently if I'd not been work study and had time or money to do the requisite unpaid internships & work at the school newspaper instead of the school library, etc. Needing to pay the bills isn't lack of commitment, the work should speak for itself, and if a field is run in an unfair way, people kvetching about it is actually capable of being the start of a more useful change.

8/22/2005 04:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

but to stand off and decide that someone isn't truly committed to their art because they have a day job--I flatly don't buy it.

First of all...are you K Regina?

If so, thanks for stopping in and welcome!!! (For those who may not know, Katherine is a legend in the blogosphere)

Secondly...it's not a "day job" that Deitch objected to, but rather a "full time" day job. It's an artificial marker, for sure, but in general it's a better marker than most others. I've seen what the pressures of a full-time day job will do to an artist's ability to get in their studio. It's brutal. As you note, the competition (most of whom can get into their studios) is brutal as well.

It's not a matter of not being committed in a spiritual sense...it's a matter of arranging one's life so as to have the time to do what's required to further one's art career...sadly, without an advance in most cases (although there are still galleries that can afford monthly stipends for their artists and, God willing, I'll get there some day).

the work should speak for itself, and if a field is run in an unfair way, people kvetching about it is actually capable of being the start of a more useful change.

totally disagree here. Art is not like other fields where you can assume a baseline competency because of a degree or apprenticeship. What would kvetching actually do here? Make dealers show work they were not interested in? Make dealers do studio visits where the artists they had been ignoring were able to force them to "get" their work?

Seriously...If I thought there were any concrete improvements in the system that kvetching could bring about, I'd encourage it, but I don't. It makes dealers run from such artists.

8/22/2005 08:13:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

I'm a newbie to the "art business" and have had little, if any, "success" in showing my work in the DC area. Just about 3 years ago I quit my full time (50+ hrs/wk) day job to spend more time in my workshop. Being relatively new, I have no idea whether this move will prove successful in the market; however I know it has proved successful in the studio. I feel better about my work now. It's a pleasure to work 12 hours a day in my workshop when I can. So I can say that on a personal and creative level quitting my day job was essential to my work in the studio. It remains to be seen how this translates to the art market. In the meantime, I've never been happier.

8/22/2005 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

In the meantime, I've never been happier.

There is that not-so-small matter as well.

8/22/2005 11:33:00 AM  
Anonymous H.Lowe said...

I am curious--I am not being facetious, but those of you have written to this topic-- How many successful artists do you know that make a living solely on the profits of their artwork? E., you might elighten us on that.

8/22/2005 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How many successful artists do you know that make a living solely on the profits of their artwork?

Know personally? A few dozen or more. How many am I acquainted with? I'd say a couple hundred (out of an estimated 100,000 artists or so trying to get there).

This is a very good point to keep in mind. The total number of artists worldwide who live solely off their art is pitiful. Most artists supplement their sales income with teaching or what have you. Even if an artist has a good run, they'll often raise their standard of living to a point that they must then find additional income should the art market cool to them (I've seen this far too many times and it breaks my heart).

HOWEVER, this is no different than any other art-related field. You can say the same thing about actors or poets (most certainly poets) or dancers (again, most certainly) or musicians etc. etc. etc. The thing is, no one plays in a band 5 days a week just to support their passion for accounting.

If making art is not its own reward for you, you're already in the wrong field. Everything after that should be gravy. It's nice to have gravy, I know...but it's nicer to have satisfaction about how you've spent your life.

8/22/2005 02:57:00 PM  
Anonymous jen said...

I am scraping by as a full-time artist. However, my cost of living is low ( in the Southeast ) and I have a 3 yr. old kid and my husband is a full-time artist too. We took out a small business loan and invested in our art careers 2 1/2 yrs. ago. (Crazy timing having had a kid and all....we figured that if we did't try it that we would seriously regret it.) It is not easy but, the ball is rolling and we've improved as artists thirty-fold and we are incredibly happy and grateful that we jumped in. It's amazing the things that happen when you've got a lot of completed work available-opportunities abound believe it or not. My personal experience was that I was NOT fully committed to art until 2 1/2 years ago-I desired it but, was not getting anywhere with my career despite being represented by a commercial gallery for 10 years...I wasn't consistent in producing and my work suffered awkward transitions as a result of sporatically getting in the studio. This is why I wrote that if I were a dealer, I would be more interested in artists who are in the studio more than their other activities/jobs etc. It's hard to be in the game otherwise.

8/22/2005 05:16:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

thanks for the artist's perspective Jen...I agree fully, and I think many artists who are upset with me for suggesting this are (perhaps rightfully) afraid to make that leap, but I see it myself...being in the studio full time leads to better work...it just does.

8/22/2005 05:40:00 PM  
Anonymous h.lowe said...

So Winkelman, you are telling me you are acquainted with that many artists (a couple hundred?) making a living-at what salary?
On the other hand, there are a LOT of artists living in their studios day in and day out grinding out
mediocre art. Practice is essential when you are perfecting your skills but once they're under your belt...
I think it has to be said that this has no bearing on whether you are or are not a good artist.
You live and breathe your art if you are a good artist. Walking across the street can be a great inspiration because you see like no other sees. I've been in both situations, starved, worked, worked/starved and starved/worked. You must persist no matter what. THAT is what makes you a successful artist.
But I'm in L.A. and maybe this is another planet.

8/22/2005 11:24:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

H. Lowe,

First of all, please, call me Edward or Ed.

Secondly, and more importantly, you seem to be striking out but without a clear target. Is it the art market you're upset with? Artists making a living off their work? Dealers? Who?

Practice is essential when you are perfecting your skills but once they're under your belt...

That's fine for a craftsman, but "artists" aren't just regurgitating with the same honed skills...they're innovating, and more than anything that requires "ass in studio".

I think it has to be said that this has no bearing on whether you are or are not a good artist.

Difficult to have a hard and fast rule here, I agree, but I think it may have a bearing on whether or not one is an interesting artist.

You must persist no matter what. THAT is what makes you a successful artist.

We're getting closer to agreeing here, but it all depends on what your definition of "successful" is. "Persistance" is not the word I'd use either. "Commitment" is.

8/23/2005 07:07:00 AM  
Anonymous h. lowe said...

Ed (sorry about that-I call my friends by their last name--bad habit, I guess),
No, no I am not striking out at anyone,-- just your argument.

Persistence, commitment, it's all good.
The word commitment is a bit overused. I like persistence because it has more to do with endurance which I believe is so important. I've seen many artists once they are up against the odds, leave "town."

As far as practice, I meant exactly what you say! That is why I said once it's under your belt...
Innovation doesn't come from being in a studio every day. It can come from anywhere at any time.
I can be driving along, talking to a friend, etc. and an idea comes. Working it out, I agree, takes time in the studio.
So with that, I am getting back to what is we both know is important--time in the studio.
Thanks very much for the chat.

8/23/2005 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

H. Lowe,

Thanks for the response. Perhaps we agree on even the last bit we're still debating but are using different vocabulary

Innovation doesn't come from being in a studio every day. It can come from anywhere at any time.
I can be driving along, talking to a friend, etc. and an idea comes.


Innovation vs. inspiration seems to be our sticking point.

I see innovation as that "eureka" moment that comes while working and inspiration as that epiphany moment that usually comes from turning ones attention to other things (i.e., letting the universe connect the dots for you).

8/23/2005 10:38:00 AM  
Anonymous henry said...

Ed,

Sorry for coming to this thread so late.

If I were a student with a curator standing before me, I'd be afraid to criticize you too, not simply because you might be the person who holds the keys to my success in your hands, but because you're the person who defines the terms "art" and "artist" in the first place. One might argue that "art is whatever museums show," and "artists are whoever galleries represent." If you're the person who "grants the artistic license," as it were, then Q/A sessions aren't a venue for challenging you, they're a venue for petitioning you.

So I think Ethan and Crionna are on the right track above. Maybe another way to get the ball rolling is to have the great and famous "what is art" discussion. Students might start taking sides and expressing opinions, and some strong views might come out, giving fodder for further debate. You might say "I don't curate such-and-such types of exhibits," and a student might say "hey, why the hell not?"

8/23/2005 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

Persistence is more important than truth.

8/24/2005 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous h. lowe said...

What about your face?

8/25/2005 12:03:00 AM  

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