Friday, September 14, 2007

Who We Talk About When When We Talk about Art

Via Modern Kicks I found this wonderful article by Berlin-based critic Jennifer Allen on how to talk about the art you haven't actually seen. I'm so delighted by this piece, I'm tempted to reprint the entire thing here (actually, I'm having a hard time choosing among my favorite passages), but she starts by explaining how she was saved from a series of awkward social situations that might have been, because she had postponed seeing a chunk of this summer's Grand Art Tour and folks were expecting her to be up-to-date in the dishing and dialog at parties and such:

[M]y wisest move had been picking up the book Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read).1 Written by Pierre Bayard, a literature critic and professor from the Université de Paris 8, this book-length essay – both an apology and a how-to guide originally intended for literary professionals – became this year’s surprise best-seller in France.
Allen suggests one can simply replace the word "book" in Bayard's text with the word "art" to arrive at the perfect manual for surviving those chatty art parties where everyone seems to have seen everything. Here's how:

Bayard’s first words of advice: don’t be ashamed, you’re in good company. The author assures us that he and most literati, dead or alive, never did their homework. Take Paul Valéry, who penned a homage to Marcel Proust a year after the latter’s death in 1922: ‘Although I hardly know a single volume of the great work of Marcel Proust […], I am nevertheless keenly aware, from the little I’ve had the leisure to read in In Search of Lost Time, that literature has just experienced an exceptional loss.’2 Oscar Wilde didn’t like to read the books he reviewed. Michel de Montaigne couldn’t remember the ones he wrote himself. Why should art lovers have higher standards, even if most art works are consumed with a cursory glance? [...]

Books and art works can be pretexts for a complex exchange in which many elements come into play beyond the storyline and the artistic medium: collective and individual memory, relative cultural values, power structures, social circles and reputations – of both the speakers and the works themselves. Physically absent in a conversation, books and art become imaginary, virtual, ghostly, fluctuating, even fictional entities, which Bayard urges us to invent with gusto. Since this imaginary library – or museum – is collective, everyone has the right, if not the obligation, to participate in its upkeep by talking its holdings into existence.
But the gem of keen observation here is revealed in this passage:
There are always enough details floating around about art works to make associations creatively. If you make a mistake, Bayard tells us, you can always pretend you confused one work with another. Talking about yourself – Wilde’s modus operandi – involves treating the book/art work as a pretext not for a conversation but for an autobiographical note. For Wilde, a fanatical non-reader avant la lettre, the object of criticism was himself, not the work: ‘I never read a book I must review’, said Wilde, ‘it prejudices me so.’3 With evident admiration Bayard advises making a perfunctory reference to the work’s title, status or atmosphere before getting down to the real business of you.
Indeed, there's nary a conversation about art I can recall that didn't eventually segue into an oration about the preferences (art related or not) of the person I was talking with. Which I'm very guilty of myself (see, I did it just there!).

Armed with this encouragement, I now feel empowered to share my impressions of a wide range of exhibitions, from the 1913 Armory Show to the 2009 Venice Biennale (who said the art has to be made yet for me to talk about it?). Lucky you, no?

Lucky all of us.

Have a great weekend all.

Labels: art criticism


Blogger Mark said...

Funny you mention it, did you catch my exhibit at the 09' Biennale? We had some amazing dinners too. It was difficult ajusting on our return, via transporter of course. Ah, what the future holds.

9/14/2007 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Yes Mark, I did see your exhibit. It was a triumph. Congrats on winning the Premio Duemila as well!

9/14/2007 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Then again, maybe we don't even have to talk about art. I'm reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote:
"When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money."

It usually does come down to rents, real estate, grants and prizes, doesn't it? Because the biggest issue after making art is how to pay for making art.

9/14/2007 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger Gallery Ant said...

This was a wonderful post. The whole thing, just, really good. So, I don't know. And if you could, by the way...

9/14/2007 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Go on, Ed_, tell us about what you thought of the Armory Show.

I thought the hang was a bit higgledy-piggledy, but there was some good things there. I particularly liked the painting with the soap nailed to it.

9/14/2007 08:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I invites u to the opening of
"Recent Works by Dead Artists"
Watch this space for further non-details.

9/14/2007 10:33:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I know the answers to some of these questions, but in the interest and spirit of complete transparency and bonhomie, I am presenting them here. I know a lot of young artists are just forming these questions, as yet inchoate in their minds.

What galleries encourage the "stable" of artists to attend each other's shows? is it compulsory?

I notice at some shows not all the artists show up, where at some galleries everyone is at everything in uniform as well as affiliates and partners.

I think an artist should choose a gallery based on the choice of a gallery critic or critics as well as the quality of the intern or HR director, who in turn can affect the quality of the staff. In an owner owned gallery, no matter how large, this means the corporate culture usually follows the pecadeallios of the owner. I know many gallery owners have become corrupted by "the system" and no longer "care" about the "myth of the artist". In that case its a harsh realm for the idealist, but an exact fit for some artists.

When I see art that is in the same style as other art by artists who don't socialize but who nevertheless share an affinity for form and ideas, I wonder why the galleries don't cooperate (see above). Are they afraid of losing collectors? I thought collectors were a nomadic herd, much like bison on the great plains, where a shaman-curator (possibly the gallery director) can bring the right people to the hunt.

As one of the last of the Mohicans (hypotheticly) is there a way to assume the mantle of the avant guard or do most people believe art is fashion and cyclical, thus eliminating the need for signature style and novelty (as in the concept of the hem line or the feathered bonnet)?

Another thing - if you have an artist who does one "thing" then you don't need two of them. But as a gallerist you might want to take an artist on for purposes of narrowing the field. What I mean is, some music labels will take on several bands that sound alike and then keep most of them on the back burner so as to promote the best one. A rising tide raises all boats. Or not. Whatever. Its business.

If a gallery attracts the wrong crowd (people who don't have a clue how to be interesting like most walk-ins or other strangers) what can a gallery do?

In some galleries budget is an issue and beer must be served for "donations." Lack of space, air conditioning and location make them suspect. I'm thinking here of "aura" where some galleries have moved or have annexes in order to stay "current" in placement or "context".

I know location or beer is a social signifier as well as a means of attracting the right crowd. Some gallery's are working for market differentiation and exclusivity. Why aren't more galleries located on high floors of office buildings or private islands?

The look and feel of some painting at more prestigious galleries can seem similar. Indeed I've seen artists change styles to meet demand this season. Is this allowed or will those artists be ostracized as in the past or is the "collective" a paradigm that has been integrated into the "schizophrenic esthetic" where one artist can be several people? that seems very progressive, if true.

If an artist leads a dull life (like many authors) is it ok to make up a troubled past like JT LeRoi? I know some artists who have great work but lack a good back story.

I know many collectors aren't comfortable slumming it, prefering the anonymity distance and convenience of a gallery. Still, the thirty to fifty percent discount would seem to be pretty enticing in today's overheated market. With a shortage of art, I keep expecting to see a newspaper story on this. Maybe my "google alert" will help.

Some "post studio" artists get shows based on "ideas" before the actual execution of the work. If an artist has an idea but no one invites them to do a show, is there a way to market this idea to an established artist? What's the protocol for that?

A lot of work is impossible to decipher or "read" without talking to the artist or gallerist. I'm thinking here of abstract work as well as figuarative shows that seem to rely on art historical constructs to create "context."

I know from my education in art school that sometimes this "context" gets wiped clean sort of like a flood on the Nile or a large meteorite impact.

A dog might not mean "faithfull" anymore and instead be open for interpretation.

What if you show up at a party and the artist or gallerist contradicts your interpretation? I know its not ok to say "its all relative" or have an unorthodox opinion from experience. As soon as you open your mouth all kinds of social signifiers are escaping, from intonation to word choice to travel destinations and stock tips.

One way to avoid problems is to make sure you've done everything before everyone else. I personally could watch movies all day and television all night. This limits my social circle to one. I like it that way.

9/15/2007 06:01:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I just read the linked article in Frieze. Its pretty good - Matthew Collings said pretty much the same think in Modern painters and Linda Yablonsky said the same think in Artforum's Social Register.

I think this constitutes a rebelliona and I expect a purge is imminent. Maybe arsenic laced ginger snaps.

Honestly though, I want my five minutes back theres a good sponge bob episode I could be watching.

9/15/2007 06:52:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

WHich is to say art as a status game is bullshit and the only way around it is to get over the myth of the genius and turn artists into anonymous or "generic" producers.

What I'm saying is artists should be licensed and issued uniforms. State control is better than sally may now isn't it?

hahahhahahahahhaha aaaaa haahahahahah!

9/15/2007 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

replace the word "art" with "product" and replace the word "Damien Hirst" with "decorated skull maker" and see what happens.

Limit the kinds of objects people can make and voila! Art writing made easy? COnversation? No sweat!

Stack em high!

Freaking genius.

9/15/2007 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Zippy, are you speeding?

9/15/2007 08:04:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

S/He's a goddamn freak, but a good'un.

Context wiped clean by a meteorite impact, how can you go past that?

9/16/2007 02:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Ben said...

talk of imaginary libraries makes be think of Borges' library of babel, (part of a book that i did read), which holds all the possible combinations of the letters of the alphabet. These words would be in there somewhere, along with all those discussions of unseen artworks and unread books. the creative possibilities of being an authority on books you haven't read and artworks you haven't seen is so much more appealing to me than the kinds of authority that your typical critic invokes. perhaps this way we can tip the balance of the debate from where a work comes from (art history) to where a work can go (theory as a speculative practice).

9/17/2007 02:40:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

There's no where to go - thats what Ad Reinhardt said. Its not a cakewalk or anything, you just sit in the chair or walk around whatever. I'd type it all in but my fingers have grown too large for the keyboard.

“That way it will keep the hot melted rubber fixed,” he said. Even though the ride itself will last only seven minutes, he explained, the panels will be “archival.”

Which is to say, I am on fire. Got the tinfoil hat on too. You know me. Its all think pieces , thinking in pices poesis whatever.

Art is elbow room. A good critic should clear a path. Right now I'm in slash and burn mode.

Peel the glass onion you know? Eat it with a tuning fork.

9/17/2007 03:11:00 PM  

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