Monday, July 31, 2006

Art During Wartime

There's an excruciating duality to the reality of art during wartime. On one hand, the context and often the pretext required for consuming/making art during conflict or catastrophe makes the effort seem insultingly silly (the example of the quartet being forced to play as the lifeboats were loaded on the Titantic comes to mind). On the other hand, in the midst of the madness, sometimes art is the only thing that can give a truly reassuring glimmer of hope.

I note this in response to a heartbreaking
story in the NYTimes this morning about the sense of loss throughout the Lebanese cultural community:

The war in Lebanon is now in its third week, freezing life in mid-flow. A summer season that looked as if it would be highly successful for tourism was suddenly interrupted, as were numerous music festivals, theatrical and movie openings and, because this is Beirut, wild parties. For Lebanon’s burgeoning cultural scene, the conflict has put a stop, at least for the moment, to the patient work begun after the civil war ended in 1990.

Now some movie theaters are opening their doors to refugees, artists are signing manifestoes against the war, commercial stations have turned into 24-hour news channels, and most restaurants and bars are closed. What was supposed to be Beirut’s first break after last year’s traumas — including the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister — has been shattered.

“This was to be a turning point for us after years of hard work,” said Mr. Abdel Baki, 36, whose label produces both 10th-century Andalusian music and modern fusions of bossa nova and Arab rhythms. “But in 24 hours your life is suddenly turned upside down. Even if this stops now, who is going to have the energy and the stamina to produce music, organize a concert or even attend a show?”
That sentiment (that this was supposed to be a turning point) is echoed repeatedly by the participants of the arts community quoted in the article:

“The city was thriving,” said Ramsey Short, the British editor in chief of Time Out Beirut, a four-month-old publication that had become an indispensable tool to navigate Beirut’s busy cultural and entertainment scene.

The July issue, with its cover story on Lebanon’s summer festivals and its 114 pages, has become a memento of a time that never happened: all the events and shows have been canceled. The next issue has been postponed until further notice.

“Just like that, it’s all gone,” Mr. Short said. “And I don’t think we’ll return to that world any time soon.”

[...]

“I feel stupid because I was so optimistic,” said Carole Ammoun, a 27-year-old actress who had been performing in a local version of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” called here “Hakeh Nesswan,” or “Women’s Talk.” The play, which was originally scheduled for five nights, had been extended for three months straight.
The image at the top is from the blog of a Lebanese artist, Mazen Kerbaj, who offers a truly gut-wrenching diary of what it's like to try and make art during the ongoing carnage. In one post where he gives notice that he doesn't want to be contacted anymore for interviews, because "everything i am asked is already on the blog" he tries (a little in vain, I think) to separate his art from the politics of what's happening in his country:
PLEASE DO NOT POST ANY POLITICAL COMMENT ON THIS BLOG.THIS IS BLOG DEDICATED TO ART.AND AS SUCH, IT VOMITS ON ANYTHING CALLED POLITICS.
Still, in her art-house movie theater which, tragically, had its grand opening just the day before the war started and which now serves mostly as shelter for refugees from the bombed-out suburbs, Hania Mroué is making the most of it and trying to screen films at least earlier in the day:
Last Monday she decided to reopen the theater to the public for daily screenings at 6 p.m.: early enough, she said with grim Lebanese humor, so the audience can go home before the bombing begins.

“It’s important to be able to talk about other things than Israel and Hezbollah,” said Ms. Mroué, 31, whose soft features belie her steeliness. “We will have all the time to analyze, to argue and even to cry about all this later. This is why theaters like this are important: so that you can live, even during a war.”
We take the "art world" so deadly serious in certain circles, treating relatively inconsequential set-backs and such as if they were somehow catastrophic, often losing site of the fact that it's really only the art that matters, not the the acclaim or celebrity or the money or the petty positioning. Among those things, only the art can make any sense of the savagery, providing some reason to dare to dream again.

I see this morning that
Rice is suggesting a cease-fire is within reach. May God grant those making the decisions the wisdom to make it so.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why Does Waste Equal Wealth?

Andrew Sullivan wrote something the other day that lodged itself in the back of my mind:

It occurs to me that the global warming debate is not unlike the WMD-terrorist debate, except the sides are reversed. Accrding to Ron Suskind, Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine" means that if there's a one percent chance that a terrorist could have access to a WMD, we must act as if it were a certainty - because the outcome, however unlikely, would be too disastrous to risk. On global warming, Gore expresses a not-too-dissimilar equation: if there's a small chance that human behavior could lead to environmental catastrophe, we should act as if it were a certainty - because waiting too long is too big a risk to take.
Like George Will and other "true" conservatives (gotta love the current cleavage of the GOP, no?), Andrew appears to advocate the position that there's no need for any unprudent response to global warming (the joke comes to mind of the man who drowns in a flood because he told all the rescuers that came along to help him that he'd put his faith in God, only to have God ask him up in heaven why he had turned away the rescuers He had sent). By "unprudent," of course, they mean any regulations or measures that might slow down the neckbreak gluttonous accumulation of wealth that rampant consummerism has spawned. The underlying assumption being that a healthy economy will resolve any potential catastrophe better than, well, common sense is how it seems to me, but...anything that might impact the gathering of wealth.

But Andrew's comparison of Gore's mission to Cheney's gnawed away at some deeply held, but not quite conscious, concept in my worldview. At first I thought it was the obvious moral problem with war (i.e., that what Cheney advocates leads directly to the brutal murdering and mutilation of innocents, whereas what Gore advocates may [only may, mind you] curb economic growth, but if implemented carefully won't equal, what it is, 30-50 horrendous deaths a day now?), but the more I thought about it I realized that it's more a position on the moral issues surrounding consumerism.

I grew up rather poor in a large family. I recall in the early 80's being truly appalled to hear that some people considered shopping a "hobby." Shopping in our family was hard work (coupons and buying in bulk, etc.). It wasn't the notion that folks had disposable income that offended me (I'm not anti-capitalism, and disposable income is how charites are funded and art is purchased); I could see rich people all around. Rather, it was the notion that some people would set out to spend that money just to spend it, capriciously. That concept is still obscene to me. It's wasteful.

But in many ways that concept fuels our current economy. In a nutshell, consumerist capitalism operates on the premise that waste equals wealth. This seems counterintuitive to me. Wealth is the accumulation of material possessions or resources. Spending money just to spend it should equal the opposite of wealth (how good a shopper would one have to be such that a majority of impulse purchases would appreciate?). It's like getting high. If your buzz is the economy, and your substance of choice is the consumption of materials for its own sake, it's moronic to think your buzz can grow and grow without you eventually crashing. It can't grow indefinitely without causing serious harm. You will hit a wall.

I've had debates about this with pro-unchecked-consumerists before. They hide behind a disingenuous taking of offense that I would suggest where to draw a line (despite my not actually having done that) and immediately jump to point out the obvious---that my business relies on disposable income (although I shudder to think it relies on impulse purchasing). They seem to imply that the truly important line will be obvious when we arrive at it and that until then unchecked consuming should be encouraged (the eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow your home might float off to the next county argument?).

To be fair, Andrew has suggested modest adjustments:
A prudent attempt to rein in carbon dioxide emissions seems a no-brainer to me. A dollar rise in the gas tax would be the most effective way to achieve this.
But then goes on to note that Americans are not likely to warm up to any idea that requires sacrifice. The obscene part of this being that many Americans feel curbing their unbridled buying of bigger and bigger and more and more actually equals sacrifice.

Now, clearly wealth is good. It provides security and a better standard of living. But buying unneeded throwable products just for the buzz it provides is an addiction that's out of control and culturally should be discouraged. A new model of wealth, with an emphasis on saving, is much more prudent and something one would assume "true" conservatives would advocate. With all the advantages we know would come from a lower dependence on foreign oil, for example, it is unconscionable that our leaders aren't preaching conservation.


Perhaps the powers that be and their defenders are misestimating due to the fog that their shopping buzz has created, more sure of their footing than they'd be were they sober. Perhaps they're deadly sober and actually grabbing up as much of what's left for themselves before the proverbial sh*t hits the fan and the rest of the nation wakes up from their own buzz. I don't know. I do know that conservation for its own sake is no sin and that exploiting our wildlife reserves (or other such responses to dwindling resources) with no joint emphasis on conservation first is the surest indication of an addiction out of control.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Open-Thread Thursday: Donating to Benefits

This issue has been touched upon here from time to time (and please point to any posts elsewhere dealing with this topic), but today I thought it's a good time to explore it indepth. There are about 20 benefits each year I know of that request donations from emerging artists in New York City alone. I don't want to single any out or have this turn into a gripe session about individual benefits; the organizations I'm thinking of that hold the benefits vary greatly and all are entitled to ask for donations to support the work they do (some count on such benefits to stay afloat). But every year I hear enough questions about benefits in general that I hope we might shed some light on them here.

Full disclosure: I often buy at benefits (primarily to support the organization, but secondarily because my art buying budget is a bit tight at the moment), and I encourage others to as well. Usually the events are fun, and I always discover a new favorite from among the artists I wasn't familiar with. But this thread will focus on such benefits from the artist's point of view, especially the emerging artist. All opinions below are mine and, yes, open to debate:

Why donate?
First and foremost, it's good karma. Helping an organization that hosts benefits (most of which are dedicated to helping emerging artists) reflects well on you. Secondly, it's exposure and can result in getting your work into a collection that opens other doors (I automatically pay more attention to the artists whose work I get in benefits). At the very least it puts your name on that organization's radar. Third, it can be fun.

What can you deduct?
There are more questions than answers to be found on whether you can deduct such donations from your taxable income earned from artistic activity.

On one hand, available information suggests that although there's a bill before Congress (the Artists Fair Market Value Deduction Bill) to address the pathetic current standards for artists donating work, it is only applicable to donations to IRS-recongized museums. On the other hand, the Tax Relief Act of 2005 (passed by the Senate in late 2005) seems to go futher:
The Senate bill would allow artists to deduct the fair market value of a donation of tangible work that they have created. Living writers, musicians, artists and scholars who donate their work to a charitable cause would earn a tax deduction based on full fair market value. Currently such work receives only a deduction based on the cost of materials unless it is donated posthumously by the estates. The new provision, which has been long supported by arts organizations, would serve the public interest in spurring the donation of art to collecting and educational organizations that use art in their charitable mission. It would also address the inequity of current law with respect to artists vis a vis other donors.
I'm a bit confused on whether the first bill is actually part of the second one and where either of them stands. Anyone out there know?

What to donate?
This is the question I hear most often. Generally what one donates should be appropriate for the benefit in question (i.e., if all the other artists are donating framed work, you don't want yours to be the only one pinned to the wall [unless that's the intentional installation of that piece]...or you don't want to have the value of the next closest piece to yours be 1/10th the price [that suggests desperation for attention]).

You do, however, want your piece to stand out. Especially for the lottery-style benefits. You want the piece you donated to be one of the first ones selected. So donate something strong and present it well. I'd also recommend donating a signature piece. With 100 other pieces competing for attention, this is not the best venue in which to exhibit something new, IMO (unless you're sure it represents the direction you'll be taking from this point forward). Your biggest reward (in addition to the karma) here is reinforcing your name/work recognition in the consciousness of collectors. This is not the time to send mixed messages.

How often should one donate?
I tend to read through the lists of artists donating to most benefits, even if I can't attend them all, so I offer the same advice here I do for group exhibitions: overexposure can be a problem. Organizations who hold benefits might not like me saying this, but I do begin to associate a negative with artists whose work appears in every benefit out there. I'd recommend no more than three benefits a year (and even that is rather generous if your work is very time consuming). That doesn't mean you can't rotate each year and still support the wide array of organizations, but I'd recommend not becoming the "benefit artist."

Should I put benefits on my resume?
We went over this on the bio open thread. I say no, but the questions got very specific (e.g., what if the work is on display for weeks in a prestigious location, what if the benefit is curated, etc.). My sense of this still is that listing benefits on your bio looks like padding.

What are the downsides of donating to benefits?
First and foremost is you're giving away work. As much as I encourage artists to donate something that will stand out, that's pretty damn easy for me to say, I know. Secondly, and perhaps more harmful, ironically, is that sometimes the work comes back. Here you were being generous, and the piece didn't sell. This is a risk you take, unfortunately, but, again, if you donate something special, the odds of this are not as great. I've seen very successful artists' work in benefits not sell, though, so I wouldn't let it discourage you too much. Sometimes it's more a reflection of how many people bought tickets or how well-organized the benefit was. Also, many benefits in NYC are hung salon style, so you're not likely to get your ideal installation for the work. You have to let that go. The organizers might be able to accomdate some requests, but probably won't have the time to consult one-on-one with each artist involved.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Those are just some basic ideas to get the ball rolling. What advice do you, as collectors or artists, have for artists considering donating a piece to a benefit?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Lost Lifestyle

An issue that's been coming up in conversations with artists lately is the notion of a lost lifestyle. It may be a romantic notion of a time that never really was, but I'm hearing it enough to wonder if perhaps there's not something to it. Essentially, the argument is that there was a time in which the decision to become an artist was a voluntary vow of poverty for decades if not one's entire life, that in order to make art of any importance it took years of undying passion and excruciating trial and error. The notion of exhibiting, let alone being paid for one's work, before age 30 or even later was seen as unrealistic. The romantic aspect of this, of course, was the hope that one day it would all pay off and one's peers would recognize and appreciate one's [important] achievement.

In his interview with Joe Fig (which we recently exhibited in the gallery), Chuck Close noted (pdf file):
Contrary to what young… what’s happening with undergraduates and graduates today where collectors are buying work and they are in shows while they are still in school… I actually had a number of opportunities to show my work and I chose not to until 1968 and that was a very conscious decision that had to do with the work. I had a very strong… I still do, belief, that the act of going public is a very important decision and everything we do from the point in which you go public is part of the public record and is out there and you cannot get it back. Anything before that time you go public is nobody’s business and you don’t have to talk about it, you don’t
have to show it, you’re not responsible, you can destroy it all or whatever. But there is something about that decision, okay, I think I can put my neck on the line for this work and I feel strongly enough about it that I will live with however I feel about it later.
And more than just going public or putting the work out there, the sense I'm getting from artists I've been talking to is that a way of living is being lost. Our quintessential cliche of an artist is the paint-splattered, cigarette-smoking, philosophy-reading, early drinker who splits his/her time between the studio and the cafes and bars where other artists meet to debate and/or conspire. But that's not what I'm hearing them lament. It's more a sense that it's no longer acceptable to build one's life around one's artmaking. Instead one has to build one's life around one's career.

What gets lost in that, of course, is Art that comes from a lifestyle that's built around one's artmaking. Oh, there are a few artists who manage to still do this---Andrea Zittel is a good example---but she's an extreme case. And of course there's the crop of hipster artists whose work about endless partying and amatuer rock bands may capture a moment in time very well, but how's that gonna serve them when they're sixty? (I suspect they'll be making excuses for that earlier work similar to the ones Madonna's now making for her "Sex" book, if they're still making art at all.)

Taking a longer view, perhaps the careerist focus is simply a natural evolution in the history of artmaking. The lifestyle I'm hearing artists bemoan is a realitvely recent development, I believe (wasn't the earlier model of long-term apprenticeships even more careerist than what we see today?). In an age of hyperspecialization, that Left Bank slacker model may serve more to close doors for artists than build up to some perfect coming out point.

Then there's also the question of what's raised by Faith Ringgold's image (above) as to whether that culture was exclusionary and we're better off without it for reasons that transcend nostalgia. Still, what both the apprenticeship and incubating models had over the grab-em-out-of-the-cradle model is a proven commitment to the pursuit, let alone some evidence of maturity. But we've been all over that terrain several times. What I'm most interested in here is whether a lifestyle has been lost and if so does that matter and if so why?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Angela Hanley

I had a great time in LA, despite the heat wave, and must thank the organizers of the trip (you know who you are) for a truly impressive and enjoyable program. I'm not gonna share any of that here (it was a private venture), but wanted to acknowledge all the hard work and generosity of those involved.

I came down with a sinus infection while there (might have been the heat, or allergies, or whatever) though, and when the plane descended into JFK, something in my left ear popped and I still can't hear out of it, so I'm a bit disoriented (and my voice sounds like a bullfrog, which has poor Bambino alarmed). So bear with me if this rambles a bit.

I didnt' get to do even a quarter of the things on my own that I thought I might in LA (I did learn that the distance from point A to point B in LA is always 15 to 20 minutes when you ask, but invariably 45 to 60 minutes when you drive it), and I apologize to several folks who were kind enough to send invitations that I was unable to get there. I'll know how to plan better next time.

I did get to a few places that I really liked though. First was Champion Bar (not sure if that's the real name or not) on La Cienega. Drew Heitzler, the owner (and brains behind the highly acclaimed Champion galleries that ran consecutively for a year in Williamsburg and then a year in Los Angeles, and who, an artist himself, had the striking New York surfers film out at PS1 for their Summer Warm Up party) could not have been more inviting, and the scene was very laid back. One room will have art installations when they officially open in September, Drew says, and there's a nice patio out the back (it reminds me of Supreme Trading in W'burg).

The other place was Angela Hanley. No relation to Jack Hanley gallery in Chinatown, Angela Hanley is the brainchild of Allyson Spellacy, former director of one of Williamsburg's most adventurous galleries, Parker's Box. That spirit of adventure is apparent in buckets in the model Allyson's using to run the space. Inspired by the legendary Ferus Gallery, Angela Hanley (which is Allyson's mother's name) opened its first exhibition with 10 LA and 10 NY artists. Each exhibition since has paired East and West Coast artists.

The space is located on the ground floor in the architecturally gorgeous 1960s American Cement Building at 2404 Wilshire and open by appointment only (other than the packed opening and closing receptions). The program is an irresistible blend of conceptual rigor and rock-n-roll raucousness (the second exhibition included a dunking booth in the gallery). The exhibition I saw, the gallery's third, includes work by Cathy Begien (from San Francisco) & Jeffrey Hatfield (from Brooklyn). Full disclosure: I was so blown away by the work of Cathy Begien, who identifies as a filmmaker more than a fine artists (despite the fact that the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Yeruba Buena Center of the Arts, San Francisco, both disagree enough to exhibit her work in their spaces), that I bought one of her videos.

It's not near the clusters of other galleries in Los Angeles, but if you're there, I highly encourage you check it out.

More tomorrow, if my head doesn't explode first.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

East Beast to West Beach

OK, so I'll take any excuse whatsoever to reprint this poem:


Upon an island hard to reach,
the East Beast sits upon his beach.
Upon the west beach sits the West Beast.
Each beach beast thinks he's the best beast.

Which beast is best?...Well, I thought at first
that the East was best and the West was worst.
Then I looked again from the west to the east
and I liked the beast on the east beach least.

--Dr. Seuss

I'm heading to LA for a few days...won't have much time to check, let alone write anything here. Meanwhile, I have to point you to this well-considered dissection of recent discussions here over at ModernKicks.

Have a great weekend, all...see ya next week.

Working the Critics: Open Thread

CultureGrrl Lee Rosenbaum wondered aloud about the lack of hard-hitting criticism of new architecture in a post yesterday:

Why do you rarely see strongly negative reviews about new or newly expanded cultural facilities? Cesar Pelli's (pre-Taniguchi) expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, Santiago Calatrava's new wing (with wings) for the Milwaukee Art Museum---all received generally favorable notices when they opened, only to become more controversial with the passage of time. Similar revisionism also seems to occur in reviews of the acoustics of new concert halls---Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center in Philadelphia comes to mind.

And now that the initial euphoria over the November 2004 reopening of the Museum of Modern Art has passed, a second wave of assessments has been considerably more critical than the first round of polite plaudits.

As one who has enjoyed her share of hardhat tours and press previews of expensive, ambitious museum construction projects, I can attest to a natural reluctance to rain on these elaborate and expensive parades. So many well-meaning, talented people have spent so much time, intellect, money and effort on these new cultural facilities that it's hard to be unkind, let alone censorious.
Clearly, the tours and private previews are designed to get critics' buy-in well ahead of time, but reading Lee's post reminded me of a passage I recently read in former Met Director, Thomas Hoving's 1993 air-kiss-n-tell memoir, Making the Mummies Dance:

But I had no idea whom to sign on as the architect for a total renovation of the museum and its expansion. I had the feeling that the current architectural firm of Brown, Lawford & Forbes wasn't the choice, and I was fearful of what Frank Rogers and the trustee Architectural Committe would come up with. [Arthur] Rosenblatt told me that there was only one firm in the world--Kevein Roche-John Dinkeloo. The names did not make much of an impression. He pointed out that they were the designers of the grand Ford Foundation building with its glass atrium, a structure not yet completed, but much talked about in the architectural press. "Kevin's Irish; John's Dutch---perfect for your stodgy trustees," Rosenblatt added.

Rosenblatt explained all of their credentials and accomplishments---as well as a few failures. One of the pluses was intelligence--the firm, Rosenblatt said, had refused to work for Parks. But the real reason Rosenblatt, a man senstive to PR, finally told me was that the architectural critic of the Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, "loved" them.
Which isn't to suggest institutions always choose their architects from among the darlings of the critics, but it does reveal that the critics are often played by such institutions. Again, from Hoving
At the press conference to announce the appointments, Ada Louise Huxtable confided to me, "Kevin and John are the prefect choices."
So given that a great review from certain critics can have monumental impact in the arts, what can one do to maximize the chances of attracting said great review? In other words, what can one do to "work" the critics? I know this topic may strike some critics as in poor taste, but consider this an opportunity to chime in, anonymously if you like, with what most definitely won't work and you'd rather never see again.

Consider this an open thread:

UPDATE: As George points out in his comment, that last paragraph as written suggested I'm encouraging folks to try and buy critics. I don't recommend that or consider it ethical. I was trying to be glib, but only ended up in being sloppy (and more than a bit dodgy). Let me try that last paragraph again:

So given that a great review from certain critics can have monumental impact in the arts, it's not suprising folks try to influence them. What have you seen/heard about folks trying to maximize their chances of attracting said great review? I know this topic may strike some critics as in poor taste, but consider this an opportunity to chime in, anonymously if you like, with what most definitely won't work and you'd rather never see again.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I'll Take a Masterpiece...and Make it Snappy

I grew up in a family of DIYers. From building an extension on the house (or building the entire house from scratch) to renovating the kitchen or bathroom to taking apart the car's engine to diagnose a problem, the members of my extended family (both men and women) dove right in, manuals in hand, and got it done. That same attitude applied to recreation and arts, as well. My father would often draw, my mother mastered an endless number of crafts, we kids picked up the guitar or taught ourselves piano. We were quite far from the leisure-class family you imagine in some Victorian novel (we did these things out of economic necessity mostly), but we cared enough about such things to make the sacrifices to actually buy a piano or guitar or drawing essentials.

Then things began to change. I recall the first time I heard my father took his car into a mechanic to have it worked on. I was quite literally shocked. Why not fix it yourself, I thought? I had spent untold hours assisting him in my youth as he lay under the engine, mildly cursing, covered in grease, impatiently requesting some tool from his massive toolbox (ah, those were the days). All through my teens and college years, I never once took my jalopies into a shop. If I couldn't fix it myself, there was always Dad.

So what happened? Well, mostly cars became much more complicated. Advanced electrical systems, and then computerized this or that, made it impossible to do-it-yourself anymore. When some ticking noise or clanking sound emerged, it became foolhardly to take it apart himself, so my father had to take it in to a specialist.

This all came back to me while reading Michael Kimmelman's
review of an exhibition titled “Teaching America to Draw” at the Grolier Club:

[A] show called “Teaching America to Draw” provides a refresher course in pencil-pushing and other sorts of sketching as a collective pastime. It’s about that golden era, from the time of the founding fathers nearly to Cooke’s day, when educated Americans drew as a matter of course.

Drawing was a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools. It was democratic. It was a boon to happiness.

From 1820 to 1860, more than 145,000 drawing manuals circulated, now souvenirs of our bygone cultural aspirations. Not many of these manuals are still intact because they were so heavily used, worn down like church relics, which supplicants rubbed smooth from caressing.
Kimmelman then offers an insightful analysis of what it means that we no longer draw, as a pasttime, in our nation:

Something happened between then and now, and it wasn’t just the invention of gadgets that eliminated the need to draw.

There was also a philosophical change, away from drawing as a practical endeavor and toward art appreciation. From dexterity and discipline to feelings and self-esteem: the shift in values is implied by some of the later books in the show. Consciously or not, they parallel changes in modern art, which threw out the rule books of draftsmanship and proposed a new, free-thinking attitude.

[...] With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.

[...]

[As] with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available...most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.
What Kimmelman laments is not a loss for American art, per se. In his review of the Greater New York exhibition he noted:

Drawing is the new painting. There's one much-promoted trend. Everybody draws so preposterously well now that it's almost boring.
But rather, he deplores the loss of a collective culture:

Rembrandt Peale published one of the drawing manuals in the Grolier Club show. Besides being an artist, Peale became Pennsylvania’s first high school art teacher in the 1830’s, hired by Alexander Dallas Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. People, Franklin pointed out, can often “express ideas more clearly with a lead pencil or a bit of chalk” than with words. “Drawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations,” he reminded Americans.

We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.

As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”

You can draw the analogy.
I see two intriguing ideas in all this. First is that perhaps the national resentment toward artists is similar to that toward athletes. Sure, the die-hard fans still worship selected heroes, but who would you say the entire nation admires (or even knows)? Not as many as we used to.

Second, is this notion of specialization in art, and what that leads to. I don't exactly resent the mechanic who knows how to fix the car, but he's certainly never gonna replace my Dad. Getting my car fixed had been a special time for bonding and joking (inbetween dodging the hurled crescent wrenches). But it became just another item on the ever-expanding "to do" list, another in a series of business transactions.

Perhaps there's not so much a resentment toward artists today, as there is an expectation that they should provide a service, accept payment, and not expect so much devotion in return. Moreover, just as we select our service providers according to who caters best to our existing needs, perhaps this leads us, as a nation, to expect artists to cater to our existing tastes. "Don't challenge me, you fool, this is just another in my ever-expanding list of commercial transactions."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Picking the Pope a Picasso

The Vatican Museums have announced that they are seeking to add some Modern and contemporary art to their world-class collection:

The Vatican Museums, half a millennium old and home to works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo and Caravaggio, are looking for modern art, the BBC reported. Francesco Buranelli, director of the museums, told the newspaper La Stampa that he “would like very much to have a Picasso” and plans acquisitions “above all in sectors like contemporary art.” The museums, founded during the papacy of Julius II (1503-13), are among the most popular tourist destinations in Italy, with paintings, sculptures, tapestries and maps that draw three million visitors a year.
According to their website, it does appear they've collected "Modern Religious Art," so I'm assuming this new shopping spree is dedicated to more secular works, but that's not clear. Still, although I'm sure he's a charming fellow, why should Francesco Buranelli have all the fun? I propose a bit of virtual curating. Given his entire oeuvre to choose from, which Picasso would you pick for the Pope?

Such a choice should not be made lightly. Although the Vatican Museums have a good deal of non-Christian art, it's important to make a selection that is appropriate for this context (i.e., some of Pablo's engravings would shock the blue right out of many a visitor's hair, I'm sure, so those are bad choices). Perhaps a bit of background will help. We know Picasso was an infamous womanizer and bon vivant, but what else do we know about his life that would help us choose an appropriate piece? I'm really looking for clues as to which piece/s he made that seem they belong in the Vatican Museums:
Although he used religious subjects throughout his career, Picasso apparently had little use for organized religion. His family did not seem to be particularly faithful, though his country was steeped in Catholicism. There is little mention of church-going in his biographies.
OK, so he didn't attend mass regularly, but he was familiar with religious subjects enough to use them. What else? What was Pablo's relationship with God like? The following quote gives us some clue:

God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just keeps on trying other things.
If, seeing Him as "only another artist," Picasso held God in the same esteem he did, say, Matisse, perhaps something playfully teasing, but ultimately respectful would be a good choice. Ah, but then I've gotten ahead of myself here. We're not picking a Picasso for God, but rather for the Pope.

I've generally viewed most Popes of my lifetime as charming in person (at least the public persona one gets via the media), but ambitious in political terms (which is their job, I imagine). But the most impressive quality they seem to share is the sense of humility they project, which puts them at odds somewhat with Picasso, who was anything but humble, as epitomized by this quote:

My mother said to me, "If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope." Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.
Which doesn't really help. Still, what do we know that would help us select the right Picasso for the Pope (who we'll treat as the position, not an invidual here)? We have a Spaniard brought up in a non-religious family during a rather non-religious time, who loved women and bullfights, and who was anything but modest about his abilities, but who was respectful enough to see God as an artist (which is quite a compliment from Pablo).

A "Dove of Peace" piece would be uncontroversial, but seems too trite:

During his early Madrid days, he had produced a number of works on religious themes, likes this one of his sister's first commnion:


First Communion, Signed P. Ruiz Picasso and dated 1896 on the lower right-hand corner, Oil on canvas, 118 x 166 cm (Museu Picasso).

but those hardly seem "signature" pieces.

A piece from the Blue period at first seems appropriate, espeically one about the realities of life, but then we've got Picasso's view of the reality of life competing with the Church's to consider, as delineated well by this piece

La Vie, 1903, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Perhaps it's best to go with a nice analytical cubist piece and leave it at that:

Le guitariste, 1910.


But again, that seems too trite:

Nah, the Vatican Museums deserve a major piece from Pablo's golden years. Let's take this calm, pleasing one away from the Met and give it to them: Girl Reading at a Table, 1934

Just kidding! Really! The one person I want less angry at me than God is Mr. de Montebello.

What do you recommend?

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Oddly Public Dissing of Print Dealers

As reported in the Art Newspaper, the organizers of the Frieze Art Fair in London have announced that they won't invite any print dealers as exhibitors this year. Apparently, The Armory Show may follow suit. Having cut my teeth, so to speak, in a works-on-paper gallery, I have a deep respect for the traditions and importance of prints. Contemporary prints are a vital part of the overall dialog. I don't mind saying, I find this decision jaw-droppingly short-sighted. More odd though is why they chose to announce it at all. Here's their rationale:

The organisers of Frieze have sent a letter to print publishers such as Alan Cristea, Paragon Press and Two Palms saying that “a certain category” of exhibitor will not be admitted this year. The reasons given are that “prints don’t look good in a fair”, and that the dealers do not have “primacy of representation” of the artists they show.
I think that explanation actually raises more questions than it answers. What if a non-print-focussed dealer does have primacy of representation, is he/she permitted to exhibit prints by said artist in his/her booth? What if that artist is so incredibly in demand that prints are the only works available at the time of the fair? And how on earth can one claim that "prints don't look good in a fair"? Doesn't it depend on the print in question, many of which are virtually indistinguishable from drawings or photographs in terms of presentation? Do they mean that prints don't look expensive? And what about some of the interesting developments in three-dimensional printmaking? Are such artworks also considered unwanted? Most fair applications request concept proposals: what if a print dealer proposed a groundbreakingly fresh installation? The article continues:

There are also indications that the Armory show in New York may follow suit. The fair’s communications director Pamela Doan said: “We will be discussing with the Selection Committee how to maximise the space for participants. We do not have clear plans to announce yet about how we will include print dealers in The Armory Show 2007. It will probably be different to 2006, though,” she said.
I'm not sure The Amory Show's response is necessarily parallel here. They've been cutting back the number of galleries they invite the past few years, and most gallerists I know expect it to be even harder for everyone to get in moving forward, so I read their response in that light. If indeed they do single out print dealers for exclusion, that will be another matter.

But Frieze's explanation for the announement makes no sense to me, and I'm not the only one:

“It is completely ludicrous,” says Alan Cristea. “Art fairs are full of multiples: sculpture, photography, even a lot of paintings incorporate printing techniques. This excludes all the people who have the specialised knowledge.”

“This is an sign of an overheated, cliquey market, and it is incredibly short-sighted,” says Charles Booth-Clibborn, founder of Paragon. “Buyers often start with prints: they are a seedbed for future collectors.” David Lasry of Two Palms is “fuming”. He said: “This is the way the entire market is going, they want to push us out to make way for paintings dealers.”

The irony, notes Mr Cristea, is that Frieze’s main sponsor is Deutsche Bank, noted for its fine corporate collection—predominantly of prints.
Of course the organizers of any fair are fully entitled to craft the look and feel of the fair as they see fit, but why make a point of announcing that you're excluding print dealers (bleeding-edge projects often emerge from the last place you'd expect them to). Why not simply not invite them if their application is not what they're looking for? No fair is obligated to explain its selection choices. This "print dealers need not apply" announcment looks to be a public downgrading of the importance of prints, which in turn seems to be about the market for paintings and other more costly works of art. As Booth-Clibborn notes, this is a disservice to collectors just starting out, many of whom begin with prints.

Another reason this is short-sighted is that should the art market crash and many galleries go out of business, the fairs will most likely want to open their doors back up to the surviving dealers, regardless of what their primary product is. At that point, who could blame the print dealers for responding with a similarly very public dis?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Flattery Gets You Nowhere

Preface: I should be very careful here to point out that my interest in endorsing most of this view is to encourage an atmosphere in which better art can/will be created, not to insult anyone or hammer any harder on the wedge dividing us in the so-called Culture Wars. Yes, I'm a snob when it comes to fine art (and I know these ideas are seen by many as being poisoned with that most dreaded of toxicities, elitism), but that doesn't de facto mean I don't appreciate popular culture...I actually love it and have the receipts to prove it. I simply don't agree that better art emerges without concerted efforts or the highest of standards. And I believe that better art is a goal so worthy of mankind's efforts that it trumps the evergrowing demand for comfort (which is another way of saying the advocacy of laziness IMO). You'll see where this preemptive caveat is coming from below.


An anonymous commenter in the
Un/Re/De-Categorizing Art thread pointed to the transcript of a speech given by Frank Furedi, the controversial professor of sociology at the University of Kent (published in the UK's Telegraph), that sharply pulls into focus ideas I've been struggling to put into words in that post and others recently. It represents what I consider one of the most important issues of our day with regards to promoting the arts. In re-reading it carefully, I've found there are portions of it I strongly disagree with, but none of that neutralizes the core idea. It centers on music, but touches on all the arts.

The central argument, summarized below, is at the heart of why the alarm bells I mentioned in the previous post are ringing so loudly:

Cultural politics today is driven by the imperative of an insipid conformism that demands that art serve a purpose that is external to itself.
This article has shown me the vocabulary to say what I only felt when I wrote the previous post. In a nutshell: Exhibitions geared toward access as an end unto itself are not benign. Furedi explains why (all emphasis is mine):

As the Scottish composer James MacMillan observed, when we are "imaginatively challenged as listeners", we are "required to give something up, something of our humanity, something of our precious time". And we need to educate ourselves to appreciate it. [...]

According to current wisdom, listening to music, reading poetry or contemplating a painting should not be thought of as work, least of all as hard work. Works of art that demand serious attention, time and effort are treated with suspicion because they might not appeal to a significant section of the population.

The official politics of culture of our time stigmatises such art for not being inclusive. Inclusive art is that which is readily accessible since it does not require much effort or understanding on the part of the public. From this standpoint, the engagement with art is not seen as a challenge but as an easily digestible act of consumption. [...]

The main merit of inclusive art is that it is, in principle, accessible to anyone. This emphasis on accessibility indicates that the priority of the politics of culture is engagement with the public rather than with the content of artistic and intellectual life.

What is distinct about the access movement today is that it is entirely focused on the opening up of educational opportunities while being indifferent to the intellectual content of the experience. The access movement makes no pretence of aspiring to an intellectual ideal. Its pedagogy self-consciously eschews cultivating people's appreciation of humanity's cultural achievements. [...]

Today, the policy of inclusion makes no attempt to cultivate and elevate the public taste. On the contrary, it regards the taste of the public as something to flatter and celebrate. Official cultural politics is not merely populist, it is also philistine.

From here Furedi ventures into territory I'm not sure he's prepared his listeners/readers for carefully enough (which is my nice way of saying I'm not sure this isn't morally deficient), but I'll point it out, with a few qualifiers of my own, all the same:
This approach is systematically conveyed through the current policy of cultural diversity - a principle that explicitly avoids any attempt to discriminate, value and set standards in the domain of art.

Guidelines that touch on the teaching of music promote the principle of diversity as a way of bypassing the crucial question of just what cultural value is worth celebrating. For example, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance's GCSE specification for music states that the curriculum will enhance students' "ability to appreciate music" in a way that "reflects knowledge of cultural and spiritual contexts and sensitivity to the values and conventions of others".

Gaining sensitivity to the "values and conventions and others" is an admirable objective. But what about the values of the students and of their community? While this guideline makes constant references to the "values of others", it is silent about "our" values.
OK, so he notes that cultural sensitivity is admirable, but he could have (IMO should have) not resorted to this creepy sense of "our" values as if those were somehow universally held even within a small population. That's a regretable tangent, IMO, that also sends off alarm bells (i.e., it smacks of bigotry in a way I don't like at all and hope I'm misreading). Besides, isn't it implied that if there are such things as "our values," we will have learned them outside the educational system and although reinforcement is a role the educational system can/should play, that undoubtedly happens so constantly throughout each day that overtly forcing it into any/every discussion of the values of others is offensive?

He also veers off a bit from my beliefs with the follow-up idea:

By adopting the attitude that everything is of value, our cultural mandarins are spared the hassle of explaining what it is that we espouse as our own. And when there is nothing important to value, upholding standards in art becomes a matter of individual preference.
As an individualist, I wish he had worked a bit harder on that idea. I strongly believe individual preference is highly valuable in art appreciation, it's simply not the only measure of merit.

None of these points of disagreements, though, seem central at all to his thesis about access, nor change my support for those ideas. He gets firmly back on course, I feel, with this idea:

The endorsement of cultural philistinism by officialdom has meant that the political agenda of access, inclusion and diversity becomes the arbiter of educational and cultural life. Music and art are judged not according to an aesthetic standard but a political one.

That is why grown-up music enjoys little official affirmation. Certain forms of cultural practices cannot be simplified and made totally inclusive. It is difficult to turn a complex musical symphony, for instance, into family-friendly entertainment. So instead of a populist makeover, it needs to disappear or to be treated with contempt.
And noting nearly identically what I see as the largest threat looming via this trend, he adds:
Something important has been lost when music is reassembled according to the social-engineering agenda. This is an agenda that begins by breaking down the distinction between art and practical skills.

It then moves on to erode the distinction between artist and audience - after all, we can all make music. And it concludes by collapsing the distinction between the great and the mundane.
Now I understand the resistance to canon-promoting efforts (it's been built to date with horrific prejudices). But the canon is an expanding vessel...what is added today or tomorrow can reflect a more enlightened, more inclusive body of work without a) watering down the quality within or b) tossing out the baby with the bath water. I believe there's a way to counter those prejudices without dumbing down the art viewing experience to the point that we're no longer able to recognize great works. That's important to me, and doing so demands education. None of this means there won't still be camps debating over which work represents the highest achievements, but hopefully those camps will be well-equipped to have those debates.

The answer lies not, in my opinion, in accepting any object as equal to any other or any idea as equal to any other, but rather in accepting any artist as equal to any other and then judging their artworks based on the highest of standards. I know that will strike many as naive, because the current "standards" quite often represent their own cultural biases, but I can't see where treating any object as equal corrects that. At the very least that path leads through a wilderness from which I'm not sure there's any way out of.

But I've rambled enough here. There's plenty to chew on/disagree with/rant against in there...have at it!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Un/Re/De-Categorizing Art

Warning: this one's a bit all over the place.

There's a trend (still, apparently, although I had thought it was ending, but that might reflect more about my short attention span than any change in the matter) among art institutions whereby collections are being rehung not by objective measures like media or movement or even time period, but rather by premise or sentiment or something more subjective. We saw it in 1999 at MoMA, when before they closed on 53rd street for renovations, they installed three exhibitions that "presented well-known masterworks in new contexts, juxtaposing the familiar with lesser-known and recently acquired works by world famous and emerging artists." The general groupings for these three exhibitions were people, places, and things. Shortly after that, the inaugural exhibtion at the new Tate Modern in London did the same, adding a fourth category: History/Memory/Society.

I got to thinking about how this has evolved while reading an article on
artinfo.com about the rehanging of the collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which is an example of the next step in the evolution of thinking here. Precisely:
Different media once segregated by form sculpture, painting, decorative arts are being integrated in the same rooms as museums' once-rigid restrictions on displaying art are dissolved and curators look for ways to present easier-to-understand themes and attract new visitors.
It seems as if some punctuation is missing in that first sentence, but the point is that in addition to mixing and matching the fine art, museums are now adding in decorative arts pieces.
David Carrier, who authored Museum Skepticism, on the evolution of public art museums since the late 1700s, says the idea of mixing the high arts (painting and sculpture) with decorative arts (furniture, vases, etc.) can be jarring for some curators.

"It's a real reorientation in our way of thinking," he says.

Even those who champion the approach say there are limitations. Terrence Riley, director of the Miami Art Museum, who helped integrate objects during his 14 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says it works best when dealing with art from a time when there was a great deal of creative fusion.
And although this is not the only example, a wonderful installation at John Connelley Presents recently, by Marco Boggio Sella, illustrates how such fusions are even being absorbed into artmaking itself. After travelling to Africa, where he introduced a remote population with little access to such images, photographs of the 1969 American moon landing, the artist presented a series of collaborative projects with the Africans in "a salon fashion that integrate[d] a new series of paintings made by Boggio Sella in New York with sculpture, batiks and bogolans (mudcloth), created by local artisans in Africa."

As much as I enjoyed the MoMA, Tate, and John Connelly exhibitions, though, I'm still somewhat hesitant about the notion that such juxtapositions reveal more than isolating works do. This so-called dialog between objects...this approach that Nelson curator Catherine Futter described by noting
"We said, 'Let's look at the art and let's look at how it's talking to each other and how it's communicating with each other and let's let it dictate what we should do,'" she says.
sends off some alarm bell in the back of my head (although I should note that the connection between an artist doing this and a curator is not to be drawn out too long...clearly an artist's project represents one accumlative vision being presented as "art" itself...I note Marco Boggio Sella's exhibiton only as point of interest).

But back to that alarm bell...what bothers me here is the notion that there's a significance to the dialog between objects brought together by what in one sense is chance (oh, I know a collection represents a unique vision too, but the variances between the work by an artist a museum really wanted and the one they got opens up a considerable chasm with regards to the importance of what that object "dictates we should do"). In other words, replace one Rembrandt with another, and your whole installation might change, so it's difficult to accept that this one installation represents anything more significant than the dialog of what was available to work with. Which, in turn, perhaps leads to choices that are a bit forced.

I mean if a curator had access to every work by every artist, and the curator was exceptionally bright, then I might buy that this approach was important, but even MoMA has gaps in its collection (don't ask me to name them, it's simply a statistical certainty), so such efforts represent at best an intersting sidebar discussion, not the main argument that could be made.

I'm not the only skeptic here:
While some galleries are taking this approach, many others reject it. David Sokol, who has been curator at several museums and consultant to numerous others, says it's dividing the art world.

"There's a part that says the traditional painting hanging on a wall with a little plaque next to it is not getting them through the door," says Sokol, who directs the museum studies program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "And there's a powerful, powerful curatorial lobby saying that's the only way to do it."
Perhaps it's precisely that motive---"getting them through the door"---that chaffs my neck here. Attendace is certainly a valid consideration for a museum, but if that's the major justification for this mix-and-match approach, I'm even less in favor of it. I'd like to read a more conceptually sound rationale for this trend...can anyone point to one?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Price of Admission: Open Thread

In what the Times described as an email message "with little fanfare," the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave notice that it will raise its recommended Admission Fee to $20 (up from $15) starting August 1. The Met cited an annual operating deficit of about $3 million recently as the rationale, and implied that they've tried to avoid it, but...

“The Met has worked long and hard to find ways to address a longstanding operating budget deficit,” Mr. Holzer said. “This is an effort to remain as accessible as possible, without resorting to mandatory options like charging extra for special exhibitions.”
Now the Met is an absolute marvel. I certainly wouldn't wish any financial hardship on them. Between the calls by the ancestors descendants of ancient cultures for their art back (including, the stunning "Euphronios krater") and the recent suggestion that one of their prized paintings is a fake, they have plenty of other issues to deal with at the moment. But $20.00 for admission? Who do they think they are, MoMA? ;-)

As an art dealer, it's probably not good for me to admit this, but I haven't always paid the full recommended admission fee upon entering the Met. Depending on how frequently I'm going, I'll curb what I offer. And I've been known to respond to out-of-town guests who gasp at the price (the old price mind you) by demonstrating for them that the museum will indeed accept less than the full amount (although tourists who visit once every several years are precisely the group I feel should cough up the full amount).

Now anyone could get all righteous about how this limits access to our collective culture to the wealthy, blah, blah, blah, but the truth is, the museum must be incredibly expensive to upkeep. I don't mind noting that it does behoove the wealthiest Americans who've become obscenely more loaded under the current administration's cut-tax-and-spend policies to dig a bit deeper when our cultural institutions come calling, but I'm willing to take the Met at its word that they held off raising the fee for as long as they could.

On the other hand, (and it's probably my frugal nature), somehow my favorite museums in the world just so happen to be the free ones. From the National Gallery in London to the National Gallery of Art in DC (hell, even the Getty in Los Angeles is free, although they charge for parking), world-class collections manage to find a way to provide access to everyone, regardless of discretionary income level.

The thing about charging twice what your average movie costs is that that calculation won't escape most people looking for a way to spend the afternoon. Folks determined to visit the museum won't be deterred, I imagine, but the fee hike will undoubtedly give pause to the additional visitors who would otherwise casually drop in.

In the end, there's one very important bit of information art lovers should always keep in mind: commercial galleries are FREE!

Consider this an open thread on museum admission fees.

UPDATE: Don't miss Tyler's take here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Few Quick Items of Note

What I Did for My Summer Exhibition

Reminder to emerging artists: Now is the time to start thinking about getting into that great summer group exhibition that will launch your art career. No, not for this summer. Next summer. As I've noted before, a group exhibition offers an artist a perfect audition with the gallery that hosts it, so if you're looking for representation, this is NOT the context in which to be overly demanding. Make a good impression, be well organized and flexible, and work the show subtlely (i.e., bring people by to see your work, but don't interrupt the work that needs to get done in the office).

We've been over all that before. What we've also been over, but could stand repeating, is that as an emerging artist trying to get in a group summer exhibition in a New York gallery, your best resource is other artists here. But don't take my word for it...take Jerry Saltz's. From his review of the group exhibition up at Andrew Kreps gallery (see image above from artnet.com) at the moment:

"Two Friends and So On" has been organized by...the artist-couple Jonathan Horowitz and Rob Pruitt. The title is as honest and casual as it is descriptive. Horowitz and Pruitt, who organized the exhibition along the exact same lines at this gallery six seasons ago, simply act as a two-headed butterfly flapping its wings in order to see if a storm can be generated.

The results are more a squall than a full-fledged cyclone, but this exquisite corpse of a show sheds light on undercurrents that usually go unacknowledged in the art world. Primarily, it answers the unspoken question, "How do I get in a show?" with "It’s who you know." This isn’t shocking as it’s long known that artists are often the best scouts and that galleries are usually led to artists by other artists. This is as it should be.
Money Changes Everything

(Speaking of group exhibitions and, well, money, be sure to check out the awesome curation of currency-based artwork up at
SchroederRomero at the moment.)

Also, don't miss
Tyler Green's editorial in the LA Times outlining how money (or rather the lack thereof) is prompting significant changes at the Smithsonian Institution:
THE SMITHSONIAN Institution, our national museum and also a scientific research complex, is at a crisis point. Many of its 20 venues, such as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum, need tens of millions of dollars in work. Desperate for funds, the Smithsonian has made arguably improper arrangements with big business, and it has accepted funding from corporations with an all-too-obvious interest in what goes on view in the institution's museums.
Remember this when you hear the President today touting how successful his tax-cuts for the top 1% of Americans have been. (See this editorial in the Times for why what he's about to say is all spin and no substance). Keep in mind who's really benefitting here. Not who they'll say will benefit in the future but who's raking it in now, as we speak, as we wait for the minimum wage to be adjusted for inflation and the skyrocketing cost of gasoline. (Yes, we've heard all that "trickle down" nonsense before...as Tom Wolfe pointed out that will never work as there are lowlifes who make it their business to collect the crumbs long before they reach the poor.)

And Speaking of Money

''We don't see financial investment as a major obstacle,'' Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said of the plans to build another monument to the empire we know as the Guggenheim in his country.

The Guggenheim announced plans on June 8 for a Frank Gehry-designed art museum in Abu Dhabi, a coup for the small Persian Gulf nation and the latest international franchise for the ambitious foundation.

With its flagship museum in New York and branches in Las Vegas; Berlin; Venice, Italy; and Bilbao, Spain, the Guggenheim said its new outpost in Abu Dhabi would be its biggest venture yet.

''This is hugely ambitious, the scale of it is amazing, and they have the resources to do it,'' foundation director Thomas Krens said after signing the deal with the government and royal family of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven city states of the United Arab Emirates.

''It will have an enormously beneficial impact on how creativity is viewed in this part of the world,'' Krens said.
I'm sure that was taken out of context. I'm sure Thomas Krens didnt' mean to imply he was going to show the ancestors of the Cradle of Civilization how to view creativity.

Still, one of the first dilemmas facing Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, dubbed GAD, is whether to exhibit nude works that might offend conservative Muslims. Krens said the topic had yet to be discussed.

"This is a minor issue," he said. "Our objective is not to be confrontational, but to engage in a dialogue."
Hmmmm...While I'm sure few conservative Muslims would object to motorcyles, I would encourage a discussion about curatorial expectations before the groundbreaking ceremony. As noted in the UK's independent :

[This new museum] links a foundation created in 1937 by Solomon R Guggenheim, one of the most prominent Jewish-Americans of his era, with an Arab kingdom that still refuses diplomatic ties with Israel. The new museum will also be designed by a Jewish architect.
I'm generally all in favor of art serving as a bridge, but from this article it seems the driving force here is glory. Not the soundest foundation for such an exchange, IMO. Hopefully, I'm underestimating Krens here. (See this much earlier post for my thoughts on this imperial quest he seems to be on.) Also, see this round-up at Tyler's of the geopolitical ramifications of this latest outpost.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Artist of the Week (07/10/06)

I'm particularly fond of humor in artwork. I justify this fondness via the notion that all truths, to be whole truths, must include humor, as humor can be found in every situation, regardless of how horrific overall. It's simply part of the human condition. [see image here]

I note this in preface to discussing the work of New York artist, B. Wurtz. Represented in Chelsea by the lengendary gallery
Feature, Inc., B. (Bill) Wurtz has been compared (in The New York Times, no less) to Richard Tuttle for his highly intelligent use of mundane, often found, objects in his art, but what differentiates Bill's work (for me at least) is its sense of humor. But it would be a gross simplifcation for me to suggest that humor is the essence of his project. In a Q&A published on Feature's website, Bill notes:

It saddens me that there is so much waste in our culture. I guess I'm very aware of everything I use and try to "tread lightly" on the earth. (I wish I could take my egg carton to the store and have them refill it with eggs.) I think my philosophy of living extends to the way I make art, the found objects certainly are a way of recycling. Doug Heubler made a statement about not wanting to add any more objects to the world, and I can relate to that. While I do make objects - in a way it would be more accurate to say that I rearrange objects that already exist.
B. Wurtz, Untitled, 1989, mixed media, 12 x 20 1/2 x 5 1/2" (image from artforum.com artcle by Bruce Hainely)

Asking any artist what their favorite work by Bill is a bit of a personality test. From found object assemblages, to unprimed canvas paintings, to his little known videos, Bill's work seems to strike a very personal chord with those who love it, opening up possibilities that were seemingly always right there but unnoticed.

If there is an essence to Bill's project, it seems to be "look at reality." In a thorough Artforum
article, Bruce Hainley highlights an early drawing by Bill that sets the foundations for his work:

B. Wurtz, Three Important Things, 1973, ink on paper, 29 1/2 x 23 3/4". image from
artforum.com artcle by Bruce Hainely)

It doesn't get much realer than that. But as Hainley suggests in the title of his article, Bill's continuous use of objects we associate with attachment (like buttons, shoe laces, hooks, wires, etc.), combined with visual metaphors for balance, echoes the mandate for compassionate living so eloquently explored in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End : Only connect.

Essential to connecting, of course, is to recognize one's place in the scheme of things. A series of pieces Bill made in the mid 80s helped nudge viewers to re-examine whether they had done that.
[This] sequence of photographic and sculptural works made between 1984 and 1988 in which black-and-white, [were] typically grandiose pictures of what look like serious architectural structures are juxtaposed with the homely little sculptures (a metal container, a stainless-steel bowl on a block base, a wooden castle) that are their actual subjects. The photographs in Untitled (four views), 1988, initially appear to be images of an ancient monument, but we soon realize that they really depict the small found piece of concrete block Wurtz has poised in front of the photographs on a little tabletop and tiered base. He sutures the grandiose flight of fantasy to the actual in order to eye anyone's place in it, where knowing thyself would seem to entail knowing the scale of things, what's what and the rhetoric of how it's represented, understanding when things are (as one Wurtz drawing puts it) NOT IMPORTANT IN THE BIG PICTURE.

B. Wurtz, Untitled (four views), 1988, mixed media, photos: 5' 1" x 13' 8", sculpture: 17 x 24 x 30" (image from
artforum.com artcle by Bruce Hainely)

More recently, Bill exhibited what were called "aesthetically confrontational and aggressive paintings" (see example below). Although he didn't reject that description, he did clarify in the Q&A on this gallery's website that he was guided in their making by his mantra "look at reality"):


I ... set out...to provide a framework in which to present the buttons. The buttons come from my longstanding interest in ordinary objects from everyday life. The compositions are composed from circles (based on the shape of the buttons) and horizontal and vertical lines (based on the weave and rectangular shape of the canvas). The canvas is cloth, and the buttons are sewn to the cloth, as is their nature. I was thinking about fabric design: in particular, the crosspatch pattern by Ray Eames from the 1940s. However, I didn’t want to have just a repeating pattern. I applied the push-pull ideas about composition that were developed by Hans Hoffman and were very much part of what I was taught when I was at UC Berkeley. Perhaps it is this combination of things that resulted in something confrontational and aggressive. I don’t know.


B. Wurtz, Untitled, 2000; acrylic, buttons, thread on canvas; 48 x 48" (image from Feature Inc. website).

What's in store for Bill's fans next? Well, if you're in New York you can see for yourself. He has an exhibition opening at Feature this Thursday. ArtCal provides a preview.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Survival Test for Art

Jonathan Jones offers an amusing idea on the Guardian's art blog, Culture Vulture. He notes how distracting the installation of Howard Hodgkin's work at the Tate Britian is (each room's walls are painted a different, apparently unpleasant color):

What is most distracting is the variety. If the entire show were hung against black walls, you would get used to it. The constant variation in background hue implies a running commentary - you wonder why the particular section you're in is one colour rather than another.
But despite the distraction, Jones notes, the Hodgkins hold their own. This leads him to the aforementioned amusing idea:

Those sumptuous painted oval panels that look like they should be in a decaying stately home above a marble mantelpiece are exhibited in a setting as bizarrely inappropriate as if they were propped in the street. And they survive. The vulgar treatment reveals a core of scintillating imagination in Hodgkin's sensual smears that convinced me, who arrived a sceptic, that here is a real painter.

So perhaps curators should deliberately subject artists to the most unhelpful display they can think of, just to see if the art can stand it. Video art should be shown in brightly lit galleries, or on primetime television before Dr Who. Drawings by Michelangelo should be exhibited at the White Cube gallery in London. Damien Hirst should show at the RA summer exhibition. Let chaos rule and quality glisten like a diamond in the morass.
A reader pricks Jones' balloon a bit in the comments:

It might be worth commenting that painting the walls of the gallery is Hodgkin's own request-cum-custom that first began when he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1984 - imperative to 'compliment' his paintings.
But his conclusion is still light enough fare to make me wonder on a sunny Friday. Given an informed audience, would your average art video hold its own against primetime television? Would a contemporary drawing disappear among the masterpieces hanging in the Grande Galerie in the Louvre? Or is this just a silly idea?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bitter and Disgusted

The New York Supreme Court has rejected gay marriage. Bambino and I have been waiting for this decision to plan our future. At the moment it seems pretty clear that our future lies outside the United States (or at least in Massachusetts). You should never speak your mind in anger, I know, but at the moment all I can feel toward the bigoted system in this country is bitterness and disgust. That may be historically unrealistic, but I don't care. For us, time is running out. It will now likely take decades before we'll have the rights, respect, and security we deserve in New York. Maybe they can wheel me down the aisle.

ARGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!

Simple-minded morons!!!!!

UPDATE:

From Empire State Pride Agenda's Executive Director Alan Van Capelle

"Today New York's highest court decided by a vote of 4 to 2 that the State of New York can discriminate against gays & lesbians & our families by continuing to deny the protections that come w/ legal marriage. It is now up to our lawmakers to right this wrong & act on the will of the majority of New Yorkers & provide full marriage equality for same sex couples & our families. Tonight, our community & our friends will gather in rallies across the state to let New York know that the marriage debate is not going away & that Albany needs to act quickly to protect our families from discrimination by passing a marriage equality law. We will send a message to politicians who say they are our friends that this is the moment we need them to demonstrate that their friendship is more than just words. We will call on them to work w/ us in winning our freedom to marry here in New York State.

New York City
Start time: 6pm
Location: Sheridan Square (West 4 St & 7 Ave., Manhattan)
Rain Location: LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13 Street

For information outside NYC, see here.