Thursday, May 31, 2007

Islamic Art Market Makes Miraculous Recovery
(Or Does It?)

I know I've been going on about how there are no tried-and-true indicators that account for the new reality of a much expanded art market in determining whether we're witnessing a bubble or not, but even I was a bit taken back by the miraculous recovery of the Islamic art market suggested by a recent revaluation.

What am I on about?
Georgina Adam has the lowdown:
How can a collection of Islamic art valued at £500m ($850m) a year ago be worth £4.5bn ($9bn) this year? The Sunday Times estimates the holdings of the Jewish-Iranian property mogul David Khalili at a “tentative £4.5bn” ($9bn), in its 2007 Rich List, published last month (see below). Dr Khalili is now Britain’s fifth richest man, says the newspaper, following its “revaluation” of his Islamic art. Dr Khalili was in 99th place in the 2006 list, with a fortune of £610m ($1.16bn). This year, The Sunday Times estimates he is worth £5.8bn ($11.6bn).
Islamic art has not been keeping pace with other sections because of a scandal that landed Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar in legal hotwater:
The world's biggest art collector, Sheikh Saud Al Thani of Qatar, who has spent hundreds of millions of pounds during the last decade buying some of the most important works, has been placed under house arrest after being abruptly removed as head of his country's national council for culture.

According to a report today on the internet site of The Art Newspaper, Sheikh Saud, whose collections include millions of pounds' worth of British art, has been held incommunicado since the end of February on the orders of his cousin, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has asked Qatari authorities to investigate his cousin's acquisitions.

News of his arrest has astonished the international art scene, where Sheikh Saud had a reputation for paying as much as 113 times the estimated price for items he particularly wanted. [emphasis mine]
As I noted in this blog post back in August 2005 (I've been doing this that long???) this scandal effectively caused the Islamic art market to crumble. So this latest vaulation is, to my mind, rather incredible. In fact, the Times has already, sort of, admitted they made a mistake here:
Philip Beresford, the editor of the Rich List, said: “Talking to various art people and Islamic scholars, the view was that the collection has huge potential value. In retrospect I will almost certainly cut it back next year as any price would be far less if the market was flooded with the giant collection. This will bring it into line with the other art fortunes of the old aristocracy.” [emphasis mine]
Khalili's people are standing by the vaulation, mind you (and why wouldn't they?):
Dr Khalili’s PR, Sue Bond, said that: “We never discuss the value of the collection,” but suggested that The Sunday Times valuation is accurate. “The newspaper clearly did its research,” she added.
But as Georgina writes, there's little market evidence to support this hike, and actually a bit that disputes it:

This month the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney is showing “Treasures from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection” (22 June-23 September). We understand that this has been insured for £400m. As this is the cream of the collection, it is hard to see where the extra £4bn comes from.
What could, conceiveably, account for the extra £4bn is the possibility that one of the, as Adam calls them, "Middle Eastern countries ... engaged in a frenetic rush to create museums" might simply buy the collection outright, giving them an instant world-class collection. There are also rumors that Khalili is negotiating to sell part of his collection to the planned branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, but Khalili denies that.

So what does he have in this controversially appraised collection? The Art Newspaper reports:
The star holding in the collection, the Khalili portion of the fabled manuscript of Jami’ al-Tawarikh, the “universal history” of Rashid al-Din, produced in Tabriz (today in Iran) in 1314, is of huge significance [see image above (I'm assuming this is from the portion owned by Kahlili, but I'm not entirely sure it's not from the Edinburgh portion): Pursuit Scene from the Battle of Badr, Jami' al-Tawarikh ('Universal History' of Rashid al-din). Rashidiyya, 1314. Hazine 1653, folio 165b.] The other portion is in the University Library, Edinburgh. It is considered the finest medieval manuscript ever produced in East or West, and is reportedly the most expensive ever sold, although the price has never been revealed. This, according to one scholar, could be worth well over £4.5m ($8m). But many of the objects in the collection—which includes 8,000 coins—could be worth less than £100,000 each.
Of course, I would love to believe such a recovery were possible. I'm thrilled to think Islamic art is on the rebound and will come back stronger than ever, but there's an important difference between actual demand (as we saw with the Contemporary art auctions recently) and potential demand. As evidenced by the value placed on the bulk of the collection heading for Australia at £400m, it honestly seems unlikely to me that anyone would tack on an additional £4bn just to get the complete collection. I can't believe that's not a good dose of wishful thinking on someone's part.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Punishable by Death

Andrew Sullivan makes a rather compelling case for why Bush, Cheney, Yoo and the lot of them had better be interviewing some damned talented lawyers. In a nutshell:
[T]he interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.
Here's the scariest/most depressing part of Sullivan's post:

Also: the use of hypothermia, authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld, was initially forbidden [by the Nazis]. 'Waterboarding" was forbidden too, unlike that authorized by Bush. As time went on, historians have found that all the bureaucratic restrictions were eventually broken or abridged. Once you start torturing, it has a life of its own.
We have a president who loses in comparison with early Nazis in terms of his support of torture.

Most damning in all this is the fact that war-crimes trials in 1948 in Norway essentially nullify the Bush administration's assertion that they're not obligated to comply with the Geneva Convention because the "enemy combatants" they're torturing are not in uniform, stripping away the only conceiveable defense they have for their actions. Nor did the notion that the Nazi criminals tried in Norway were humane with some of their captives earn them any clemency:

The victims, by the way, were not in uniform. And the Nazis tried to argue, just as John Yoo did, that this made torturing them legit. The victims were paramilitary Norwegians, operating as an insurgency, against an occupying force. And the torturers had also interrogated some prisoners humanely. But the argument, deployed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Nazis before them, didn't wash with the court. Money quote:

As extenuating circumstances, Bruns had pleaded various incidents in which he had helped Norwegians, Schubert had pleaded difficulties at home, and Clemens had pointed to several hundred interrogations during which he had treated prisoners humanely.

The Court did not regard any of the above-mentioned circumstances as a sufficient reason for mitigating the punishment and found it necessary to act with the utmost severity. Each of the defendants was responsible for a series of incidents of torture, every one of which could, according to Art. 3 (a), (c) and (d) of the Provisional Decree of 4th May, 1945, be punished by the death sentence.
Of course it's pointless to draw this parallel without outlining what one feels is the appropriate response by the rest of the world. Should Bush et al. be tried as war criminals? The mere notion strikes some folks as treason. The fact of the matter is that, unless we lose this "war," there's little chance anyone could get a court to hear the case. And it's worth remembering that Bush has not done anything even remotely as evil as what the Nazis eventually wrought.

Sullivan sort of cops out in calling for a response, though. I understand why. I'm at a loss for what I think the appropriate response (aside from impeachment [and even there, mostly because of the domestic spying issue, where he clearly intended to break the law]) should be. To watch a US president tried for war crimes doesn't strike me as a good thing for this nation. There's no easy path back from that point.

We'll have to wait for the stories of those tortured via Bush's authorization to emerge to see how we really feel about all this, I suspect. Too many of them, of course, will not be telling any tales.

How on earth did we get to this point?


Waiting for Gelitin : Open Thread

Francesca Gavin offered a thoughtful essay on "The Art of Waiting" over at what I still insist is the very best art blog of any major newspaper, The Guardian's. Of course the notion of queuing takes on a whole other dimension in Britain (I remember a series of cartoons advertising to Germans, encouraging them to visit England, with one showing a group of Londoners happily lining up, in a circle going nowhere, just because they could).

The gist of Gavin's post is as follows:

We live in a world of increasing speed and immediacy, but a strange phenomenon has been growing in the art world - delay. There has been a rise in art installations and exhibitions where gallery-goers have to queue to see the work. Eager audiences line up and linger to get a glimpse of an art work at the end. Perhaps surprisingly they often wait rather patiently - as if the soul-fulfilling piece at the end makes the delay better.
Gavin lists a few recent examples in Britain, but we've seen a few here this side of the pond as well (the queues for Gelitin's interaction at Leo Konigs' a while back being high among them in my memory, but then I tend to break out in hives at the mere thought of a queue, so I don't keep an ongoing list and tend to try to visit blockbusters during off hours).

Gavin continues:

Why are we waiting? Is this delay tactic a way of forcing us to spend more time with the art work rather than the average number of seconds? After waiting to see a work, there's a natural bloody-minded desire to really look at it, even if just to spite the rest of the queue behind you. Perhaps some artists or curators feel that the art should be viewed in a less crowded space, but is it better art if you have to wait to see it?

Blockbuster exhibitions have exploited the drama and hype of the queue for years. It's also not only an English phenomenon: in France, people will quite happily stand in line for an exhibition for up to an hour if there is cultural enlightenment at the end. Maybe waiting adds something to the whole sense of pilgrimage. Just be warned: it's only a matter of time before some installation or performance artist transforms the queue itself into part of the exhibition ...
When I think of people who will happily queue up and patiently wait, like the British or the Russians, they tend to be folks who experienced great scarcity of staples (because of WWII mostly) within recent memory. While visiting Leningrad (during the days of the USSR), we happened upon some folks queuing up, with one woman joining the queue first and then asking what it was for. This linkage of need and patient queuing may offer the most insight into why art queues are so well-behaved generally. Which lends credence to this interesting comment on Gavin's thread:
we are queueing because we have been taught that we are impoverished. We have been made dependent upon entertainment, whether it be low or high brow. We have been taught to crave. Our experience of 'the great' has to be had elbow to elbow with countless other impoverished souls. We no longer exist inside ourselves, but rather as part of some dislocated, disassociated mass, but well-healed, nevertheless.

There's possibly also something to the idea of this good behavior being mostly due to the widely held notion that viewing art demands a certain decorum (which owning a gallery, I wholly support, mind you).

But this notion that anticipation adds something to the eventual art viewing experience...I can't decide. I like to think that the most powerful artwork would stop you in your tracks were you fleeing a burning building. But does indeed a bit of the drama of a queue cleanse the visual palette, so to speak? We go to great lengths to clear away everything but the art in the white cubes we call galleries, facilitating the experience of coming upon the work with no other distractions. Does waiting merely give one time to clear one's mind of the myriad daily concerns? In the end, I think not. I think waiting just sucks.

What do you think?


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nothing's Sacred (But Then, Nothing Really Was)

The question has been raised as to whether artwork exhibited at the Venice Biennale should be for sale. Again, that is.

I was as surprised, as I'm sure many other folks would be, to learn that the Biennale had once facilitiated the sale of work, openly. From
The Art Newspaper:

People who say that biennials have become covert art fairs may be surprised to know that the Venice Biennale used to sell art openly—from 1942 to 1968. The Italian dealer Ettore Gian Ferrari had the official job of placing works for any willing artist, earning 15% for the Biennale and 2% for himself.

The practice was ostensibly stopped so that the Biennale was not tainted with commerce, but the real reason, says his daughter, Claudia Gian Ferrari, was that the artists’ regular dealers had begun to object.
As right they should, IMHO, but what's led to this interest in revising the taint of commerce?

A new art fair, Cornice, which takes place in Venice from 7 to 10 June to coincide with the opening of the biennale will include 60 dealers—80% of them international names, including Salander-O’Reilly. It has raised the whole question of sales again. When the president of the Biennale, Davide Croff, realised that Cornice had the support of all the public authorities—the Region, the Province and the Mayor—and of a number of prominent art world figures including former French minister of culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, now the director of the Pinault Collection in the Palazzo Grassi, he considered whether the Biennale should start selling again from 2009.

Mr Croff raised this question at a board meeting in January. No official statement has been made, however, and now, more than ever, there would almost certainly be strong opposition from galleries.
OK, so we've been all over the issue of whether there ever really was some golden era in which art was free from the nasty business of commerce, but I have to admit to having liked the idea that some high-profile venues were at least, ostensibly, about the art and open commerce was verboten. What's next? A cash-and-carry set up at the exit of Documenta?

To be clear here, I'm not attacking the fair in Venice. As with any such venture, knowing how much effort goes into producing them, I certainly don't wish anything but the very best for Cornice and its participants. I just sincerely hope the Biennale decides against reinsitituting open sales at the Gardini. As the article notes, galleries who often need to raise buckets of cash to realize an installation will object to someone else moving in, and ultimately it could impact the artists they promote/lobby for inclusion, making Venice less interesting/important.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Three Shout Outs

Shout Out 1 to Paige West, whose new book hits the stores this coming week...Wahoo!! Titled The Art of Buying Art: An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Contemporary Art, it looks (from the reviews, I have yet to go buy my copy) chock full of useful insight and smart encouragement (exactly what one would expect from the briliant founder of Mixed Greens). Also, this explains why Paige's blog (one of my all time favorites) has been rather silent of late (hey Paige, a blog is a great marketing tool!!!). has the lowdown on the new volume, including two excellent excerpts: What Type of Collector Are You? and What Can I Get for $100?

Shout Out 2 to Paddy Johnson who posted a photo of the back of my head on her must-read-daily blog Art Fag City that managed to minimize my ever expanding bald spot. The story she recounts (of someone stopping me to ask whether I was Derek Eller) is true. Derek's a great guy with an awesome gallery, but what's the point of all this branding? I mean really....

Shout Out 3 to the tireless folks at Nurture Art who are celebrating 10 years of suporting emerging artists. Their Benefit on June 4 is a great way to support this essential organization, discover some new artists, and help honor two of New York's most diligent, generous, and truly visionary collectors and bloggers: James Wagner and Barry Hoggard. They'll be introduced by the most dangerous man in the art world, the amazing William Powhida, who has a killer exhibition up at the moment at our neighbors, Schroeder Romero. Don't miss it!



Scroll down to the second story.

That's all I'm saying....


Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Limits, Part III: The Price of Bursting Through the Corral

A modest epilogue to Parts I and II, in which the author pontificates on the paradoxical nature of expecting acceptance for breaking all the rules.

UPDATE: Christoph Büchel's lawyer, Donn Zaretsky, posts this letter to MASS MoCA's lawyers on the always good reading The Art Law Blog.


I've been letting the Christoph Büchel vs. MASS MoCA brawl simmer on low in my brain for a few days, permitting my over-alcoholized mind to pour over the details to see if any part of the controversy would jump out and convince me Büchel intended to bust the budget of his massive installation in order to make an even larger point, but, alas, I'm still not sure. Here's how the Times summarized this conjecture:

Some people in the art world have suggested to him that Mr. Büchel might have purposely forced the exhibition to grind to a halt as the final act of the work itself — a literal demonstration of the kind of futility and absurdity that he seeks to communicate in the exhibition, with war, religion and the news media as his motifs.

It would not be the first time that Mr. Büchel has used his work to tweak the art establishment. In 2002 he sold his invitation to participate in Manifesta, an international art exhibition in Frankfurt, for $15,000 in an e-Bay auction to allow the winner to take his place.

[MASS MoCA Director Joseph C.] Thompson said he had no way to know whether Mr. Büchel’s actions might be part of an elaborate art stunt. “At times it’s certainly felt that way to me,” he said.

As with the speculation that Richard Prince's decision not to give permission to reproduce images of his earlier work in a catalog about those pieces was actually a carefully crafted statement underlining the sorts of questions about authorship his work has always been about, Mr. Büchel obviously cannot come out and say that this is a deliberate attempt to make a larger point without destroying it, so we're left guessing.

But this brings me back round to that thought by
Peter Schjeldahl we discussed earlier:

Artists of the Duchampian sort delighted in effacing the boundaries, which, with increasingly avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements.
Indeed, if the idea an artist wants to express requires they take measures to ensure the authorities cannot redraw the boundaries to corral their efforts into the fold, these examples (the supposed motivations by Prince and Büchel) would seem the only means toward that end.

The problem with this, of course, is the rather biting relationship it sets up between the artist and the hand that had fed them (earlier collectors in Prince's case and the museum in Büchel's). Who will trust Büchel with a budget (without, at least, as
Modern Kicks points out, a very strong contract) in the future? And it can go beyond just the relationship between the artist and the art institutions, which one could argue should be happy to pay for the privilege of being in the center of such a clever ploy. As Lisa Ruyter pointed out on Artworld Salon Büchel had no qualms dragging an entire city (and a chunk of its money) into a highly suspect scheme to rid their public squares of "modern art":

Residents of Salzburg are this week voting whether to ban modern art.

Various pieces have annoyed locals so much that they are going to the polls to vote on whether to declare the city a "modern art free zone".

An upside-down helicopter that lies in the middle of a square in the historical baroque centre of the western Austria city has caused the most uproar.

Christoph Büchel, a Swiss artist, has been collecting an anti-modern art petition at a stall next to the artwork since it was installed during the Kontracom modern art festival in the summer.

He declared the pieces of modern art around the city "a blight on our cultural heritage".

2,000 signatures were collected, which is enough to trigger a referendum in the city. He handed the petition to the mayor in October, accompanied by local media reviews scathing the festival.

103,000 residents now have the chance to vote on a ban of modern art in public places until Saturday. Local authorities are now faced with the 40,000 Euro cost of running the referendum.
Which actually seems amusing (given that it's not MY 40,000 Euros the artist is tying up with what looks like a stunt), but might actually prove to be a crime if it became clear the intention was to use city funds and resources (which means the tax dollars of widows and such, if you want to spin it that way) for what amounts to a prank. Not that I don't see the point of such a prank. It's a brilliant concept and certainly supports my earlier dispute with Schjeldahl that Burden had pushed art to its ultimate limits. But, unlike Burden, whose work held serious risk truly only for himself, efforts that make a point at someone else's expense, whether art world insider or not, strike me as another matter.

We have the legal system to deal with any artist who truly abuses someone else, so I'm not calling for any changes, but I know how betrayed I would feel if an artist played me for a patsy in making a point, especially if it consumed resources I had set aside for some other artist's project, like Büchel is suspected of having done. Perhaps, if the prankster piece were brilliant enough, I'd eventually get over my anger and appreciate it, but that's putting a lot of pressure on its success.

Your thoughts?

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Beauty Beyond Imagination

The review in The New York Times suggested that some of the images of undersea creatures captured in The Deep Book, by Claire Nouvian, "rivals artwork that might be seen in an upscale gallery." Well, you know I was gonna have to see that to believe it.

Turns out, that was understatement. The unimaginable beauty (and sheer hideousness) of some of these creatures surpasses what you'd be lucky to find in a dozen trips to any upscale gallery. Then again, the creator of these wonders, has no equals. Here are a few gems from the series (all images From “The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss” by Claire Nouvian/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute [buy the book!]:

Dumbo Octopus

Unidentified species

A stimias boas scaly Dragonfish


Smoke and Mirrors

I've mangled my thoughts about this over at Artworld Salon (in response to a post about an exhibition on "Perspectives on the Art Market"), so I'll take advantage of a clean slate here to see if I can be more clear.
Via a conversation with a very smart and compassionate artist last weekend, it became (a bit) clearer to me that the scapegoating of the "art market" really needs to end. Not because I'm growing so very weary of it (although I am), but rather because it's counterproductive. Taking artists and others at their word that they'd like to see change in the way things stand, it's becoming apparent that harping on about the art market will not result in that change. Why?
The art market, like the vacation home market or even the stock market is not a self-interested force unto itself. Rather, what it looks like at any given time is a reflection of the nexus of economic conditions and the values and desires of the culture at large. In other words, the art market is us (or the best us possible given the current economic realities).
Currently, it reflects a culture in which money is valued above all else; above fairness, above patriotism, above family, above compassion, above spirituality and generosity, and above higher ideals, such as are often symbolized by the arts. Money is king, and we bow down at its throne. If our values were different, then our markets (art included) would be different.
In other words, most attempts by artists at exploring the ins and outs of the art market, per se, amount to navel gazing. There are two reasons for that: 1) most attempts at examining it are not well-informed enough to lead to real insights (the truth about the current art market is in fact so complicated it's beyond the grasp of many of the world's best economists); and 2) the root of the reason it looks the way it does is the collective set of values that led us to feed it (i.e., the culture) and ignoring that root will not change anything, despite how much energy is put into examining its result. The market is merely a symptom: the culture is what's diseased. You might find satisfaction in whining about the shortness of breath caused by your emphysema, but it's ludicrous to do so while lighting another cigarette.
So what am I suggesting here? To my mind it's now more clear that art's role in changing the art market is to reflect back to the public not the truth about the current art market (whatever that might be), but rather the truth about the culture that's given it birth, because only via a shift in our values, will we see a shift in the market. Only by quitting smoking will we have any chance of seeing an improvement in our emphysema. If we rant on about our shortness of breath, but keep smoking, we'll change nothing.
One commenter on Artworld Salon asked if I was suggesting that the art market was an invalid topic for art. I'm on record as saying there are no invalid topics for art. But, as the exhibition in question was designed to “invite a skeptical awareness of market mechanisms” and “an active engagement with possible alternatives,” it's fair, I feel, to suggest no amount of skepticism about the market will lead to meaningful alternatives so long as we're not also holding up a mirror to the underlying root of why we (us, right now) have the market we do. It's parallel to saying, between drags on that Marlboro, "Yes, I have shortness of it is...damn shortness of breath, with its wheezing and coughing and making it dangerous to climb a flight of stairs. See, I fully understand what this shortness of breath is. So why isn't my emphysema getting any better?"


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Green Utopias

Via Greg Allen comes news of plans to build the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city in Abu Dhabi, the Masdar Initiative:

The new six square kilometer energy, science and technology community will open in late 2009. The development is a unique, integrated “Green Community” in the heart of Abu Dhabi, which uses the traditional planning principals of a walled city, together with existing technologies to achieve a zero-carbon and zero-waste sustainable development. [...]

Rooted in a zero carbon ambition, the city will be car free, powered by renewable energy with services digitally managed and providing real time information. With a maximum distance of 200m to the nearest transport link and amenities, the compact network of streets will encourage walking and is complemented by a personalised rapid transport system. Shaded walkways and narrow streets will create a pedestrian friendly environment in the context of Abu Dhabi’s extreme climate. Surrounding land will contain wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, enabling the city to be entirely self-sustaining.
Sounds awesome. Hope it's realized. It got me to wondering about other such visions of self-contained, eco-friendly utopia, however, and I found quite a few, of various plausabilities, states of completion, and aesthetic accomplishment, including:

Autopia Ampere:

Popular Mechanics:
"A cargo ship drops anchor in choppy water 300 miles off the coast of North Africa. With practiced efficiency, its crew deploys the ship's crane and begins hauling house-size wire frames and reels of thick electrical cable from the hold. As quickly as this cargo appears topside, it is flung overboard, disappearing into the gray, swirling sea. When the decks are finally clear, the crew begins assembling floating solar panels that look like adult-size tinkertoys. The ship's engines rumble as the first of these ungainly structures is hoisted skyward and carefully deposited alongside. The activity continues until they form a vast spiral that dips below the horizon as the ship steams away. Five years later, a luxury cruise liner drops anchor at precisely the same place. Instead of finding bobbing rafts, the passengers lining its decks see the thriving island of Autopia Ampere. With a population of 50,000, it is the newest destination for "eco-tourists," an honor befitting its stature as the first city to rise from the sea."

The Independent:
Wang Enming pauses as he emerges from the subway in Dongtan to listen to the sound of flocks of birds settling on the wetlands near the metro station, undisturbed by man as they prepare for a winter migration. Cycling the remaining three minutes home to his apartment, he marvels again at the fresh breeze coming off the mighty Yangtze river, which is never cleaner than at this point at the world's first eco-city near Shanghai.

The power that opens the door to his apartment comes from a solar cell on the roof, while the water he uses for his evening shower is recycled, as is all waste in this city of half a million residents. His dinner of boiled rice, spinach and spicy chicken has all been locally produced using organic methods. Later, he'll stroll down to the car club and rent a battery-powered sports car and whizz through the tunnel back to Shanghai to cruise the Bund. This is one possible vision of China in 25 years' time, low carbon-footprint living in the eco-city of the future.
Beddington Zero Energy Development

The Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) is the UK's largest carbon-neutral eco-community - the first of its kind in this country. BedZED was developed by the Peabody Trust in partnership with Bill Dunster Architects and BioRegional Development Group, environmental consultants.

BedZED is a mixed-use, mixed-tenure development that incorporates innovative approaches to energy conservation and environmental sustainability. It is built on reclaimed land owned by the London Borough of Sutton, sold to Peabody at below market value due to the planned environmental initiatives.
As with any utopian vision, however the reality of such design doesn't always live up to the dream, as is evidenced by this blog entry by Paul Miller, a BedZed resident:

Ive been living in my new flat at BedZED for just over two months now. I have most things you need: furniture, stuff to cook with, Playstation 2 (okay maybe you dont need one of those) and I have to say Im loving it.

[...]Like every housing estate the world over there are a few problems. Last week I got a bit annoyed with the fancy energy saving electronics when a beeping noise started in the service cupboard just near my flat. It was just loud enough and often enough to mean that I could dose off for a few seconds before being woken up as it beeped again. To be fair, Peabody Trust did get it sorted pretty quickly when I called them though.

I dont think Ive mentioned the playing field saga yet. Just across the way from my flat theres an open area which was originally planned to be a junior football pitch. It then got dug up so that a gas pipeline could be put through it and never really recovered so was empty for a while. Now the grass has just about grown back but for some reason a lot of stones have come to the surface and its pretty dangerous to play on so still isnt being used. The discussion in the bar of a Friday night is about what we can do about it.
Then again, compared with choking down car fumes and other hazards of your average metropolis, these do seem like minor issues. Do folks know of other such planned or realized cities?

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Why That Warhol Was Worth It : Open Thread

In an effort to justify my claim on CNBC that I didn't think the $71+ million recently paid for Andy Warhol's Green Car Crash was such a bad price, I've been doing some soul searching on the parameters of the question (including the reality that, when put on the spot, it doesn't behoove any art dealer to suggest, without conclusive evidence, on live TV, that a particular work of art was overvalued) and have concluded that, yes, for a number of reasons, I'll stick by my assessment that that painting is indeed worth that much money.

This opinion is not without its dissenters, however, including Paddy Johnson, who notes on
Art Fag City:

I don’t think that the 71 million dollar Warhol painting is a good price. As was stated several times during the interview, a work is worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay for it, but these really aren’t the answers people are looking for when they ask whether a painting is “worth” it. All we really want to know is whether the painting will maintain or increase in value. In short, my answer to this is no, though I don’t have more insight than anyone else on when these prices will level/drop off. Warhol was expensive last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. In fact, it was only three years ago that I worked at a blue chip gallery that got out of the Warhol market due to the believe that the work was over valued, so I can tell you I’m not the only one in the city who thinks these prices aren’t sustainable. If the business practice of at least a couple galleries in this city reflects this belief, my advice to buyers can only be to proceed with caution.
I agree that the essence of that question is whether or not the painting will maintain or increase in value. Had the work in question been from another series, I'd argue that perhaps that's debatable. However, I'm confident history will confirm that the Death and Disaster pieces comprise one of the most important series of the 20th century*, and even if the market crashes tomorrow and all artwork feels the pull of gravity, that piece will remain important and begin to appreciate again (quickly I would guess) with the next rebound. In other words, when considering the question of whether it's worth it, and whether I would buy it at that price (and, yes, whether or not it will increase in value), I took what an eventual sale from my estate would likely mean into account. Assuming I'd keep the piece until my death (hopefully at least 40 years from now), would it appreciate beyond the 71 million when it then was sold? I'm sure it would.

Two things convince me of this. First is the evidence provided via the market. The low estimate of the piece was already a record price for Warhol, suggesting intense interest in the work, from more than one buyer, before it began. Also part of the market evidence was Gagosian's willingness to jump in at $65million. Other secondary market galleries may be questioning the value of Warhols at the moment, but I'm fairly convinced Larry's take is a fair indicator of what they're worth. At the very most, if overvalued at all, it's only over by a million or two, based on Larry's interest. (Yes, all kinds of alternatives to that theory are possible [Gagosian wanted to drive up the price, he knew what the buyers' limits were, etc. etc.], but that's speculation, not evidence.)

The second factor that convinces me that Warhol will appreciate within 40 years is the fact that, as I noted in the interview, the best Picassos are already picked over and collectors who want to build a serious collection of high-quality work need to move on to the post-war / contemporary market. The relevant question, then, is who is Picasso's heir in the market? Whose work will set the standard moving forward? It seems pretty clear to me that it must be Warhol. Yes, contributing to nervousness about his prices going that high is the fact that there are plenty of Warhols out there, and many of them not all that good, but the same can be said of Picassos. There's no question in my mind, however, that Green Car Crash is from a very important series and if Warhol does prove to be the heir to Picasso, then it's potentially on its way toward that rarefied realm we call "priceless."

What Bill Griffeth alluded to in the interview that still serves as conventional wisdom about some overvalued art never really rebounding is the height of auction madness we witnessed in the late 80s/early 90s (symbolized perhaps by no sale as much as the 1990 price of $82.5 million for van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet Dr. Gachet). The difference here is that "Dr. Gachet" is far from one of van Gogh's best paintings, whereas, despite not being among his most popular (yet), I can't see how the Death and Disaster paintings will not prove to be among Warhol's most valued.

I could be wrong, of course. But those are my reasons for sticking by my assessment that the Warhol was worth it. Have at it...

*This series represents to my mind the pinnacle of Warhol's insight. It wasn't just that he saw how popular culture was infiltrating our lives to the point that we were becoming culturally trivial, in this series he warns that commercialization and the cheapening of imagery (via mass production and irreverent treatment) had begun to trivialize the least trivial aspect of existence: death. The repetition of the images, the mass production process, the mundanely fashionable colors: they add up to a brilliant but biting indictment of how callously we had begun to sell (and buy) death. Reportedly Warhol began the series in response to a headline in the Daily News that Henry Geldzahler pointed out to him: "129 Die in Jet." So many lives lost in such a senseless, meaningless tragedy, reduced to a catchy bite-sized message. By magnifying the absurdity of this growing ambivalence, Warhol meant to held up a mirror, a warning, if you will. I feel we're still just beginning to understand what he was trying to tell us. I think as it becomes clearer, the works in this series will become even more important to us.

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Visual AIDS Benefit Tonight!

While I'm not sure if you still have time to get tickets, let me encourage you to contact (phone: 212.627.9855 : email: Visual AIDS to see how you might support their annual Benefit which is taking place tonight at 300 New York, where business and bowling mix (or so their slogan goes). Bambino and I will be there, although I'm not making any guarantees about our bowling abilities (last time I went bowling I was awful, so it's clearly not like riding a bicycle).

If you can't make it, you should still consider bidding on one of the artist's Bowling Pins, with contributions by Polly Apfelbaum, Barton Lidice Benes, Mark Bradford, Geoffrey Hendricks, Markus Linnenbrink, Whitfield Lovell, Tom Otterness, Barbara Takenaga, Mark Wagner, and Lawrence Weiner.

Each work’s minimum bid: $1000

Phone bids can also be placed by calling during Visual AIDS office hours Mon-Fri 10AM-6PM at (212) 627-9855. Be sure to have your credit card information available. You may download the bidding form [here] and return by fax (212) 627-9815 or email ( We will open the silent auction with the top bid. Only winning bids will be contacted.

For your best chance of winning by pre-bid, think of your bid as a final and best offer.

Let's show those folks at Christie's and Sotheby's. $385 million ...that's nothing! (OK, so I"m sure Visual AIDS will be very happy to raise something a bit short of that, but still, don't be afraid to let your competitive spirit get the best of you for a good cause.)


Friday, May 18, 2007

Short and Sweet Shameless Self-Promotion

It wasn't until I saw that the written summary of the interview on CNBC yesterday made me seem less of a bumbling idiot than I felt I must have come across as, that I decided to post a link.

A good friend of mine in the movie and TV business has graciously offered to critique it for me over cocktails soon (he said I did 90% of what one should correctly, which is kind, I think, but...), so I look forward to his professional opinion, but feel free to offer your own (professional or not) feedback. Those foolish enough to offer their opinions in public have it coming:


All the President's Thugs

It reads like a plot from the Sopranos, the "Wednesday Night Ambush" in which the current resident of the White House sent his soldiers to the ailing Attorney General's hospital bed to twist his arm into signing off on a program that he had already clearly concluded was illegal.

The fact that the mainstream media, which will milk any white damsel in distress story for every ounce of drama they can squeeze from it, has yet to exploit the action thriller quality of this storyline suggests to me they realize that the only follow-up to this sordid tale is an unequivocal demand for Bush's impeachment. Like many other Americans who loathe Bush, I've held back in any sustained calling for his removal from office because it seemed to me there was more to be lost than gained (mostly due to how difficult it would be to achieve with the current make-up of Congress) in doing so, but now I agree with those arguing that the impeachment clause of the Constitution is meaningless if intentionally breaking the law is not a clear rationale for invoking it.

Let this sink in. Bush intentionally set out to break the law. Even after his own Attorney General (John Ashcroft, mind you, no bleeding-heart liberal) concluded that proceeding with the secret program would be illegal, he intended to move ahead with it anyway. Intentionally, with no room for plausible deniability at all.

Many bloggers are examining this issue (for an excellent summary, see this post by Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings), although next to none over at, unsurprisingly. In reading through it all, what strikes me as most incredible is how truly vicious this administration was in trying to get what it wanted. Consider for a moment the fact even though what Bush wanted to do (and we're still not sure exactly what it was, knowing only that it was much worse than the program that was eventually approved) was so ethically unacceptable that his Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, and scores of DOJ officials were willing to resign to prevent him from doing it, he still wanted it done so badly he sent two members of his staff to a hospital at night to coerce a desperately ill man into essentially accepting legal responsibility for it (can you say Patsy?).

The degree of ruthlessness (not to mention betrayal) that suggests is simply staggering. And who were these late-night soldiers deployed to do this dirty work, to set up an otherwise loyal servant? Andrew Card (the former chief of staff) and none other than the currently embattled, pro-torture Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales. The man eventually appointed to be our nation's number one law enforcer was attempting to bully a gravely ill man to help his boss break the law.

From the Washington Post (hardly one of Bush's strongest critics):
The administration, it appears from Mr. Comey's testimony, was willing to go forward, against legal advice, with a program that the Justice Department had concluded did not "honor the civil liberties of our people." Nor is it clear that Congress was adequately informed. The president would like to make this unpleasant controversy disappear behind the national security curtain. That cannot be allowed to happen.
What I find most unbelievable in all this, given how willing Bush was to trick Ashcroft into taking the fall for his illegal scheme, is that other Bush supporters don't seem to see that they too are just as disposable to this mob boss. There are folks on the right already trying to paint Comey's testimony as "histrionic" (although, pathetically, Kmeic has to rely on the response to Comey's testimony, rather than his actual words themselves, to make this otherwise lame and totally transparent argument), suggesting they will still target anyone who speaks out against Bush, unable to connect the dots here and realize if Bush was willing to hang Ashcroft out to dry, then they wouldn't stand a chance should they be unfortunate enough to step into his path.

It is so long past time for this criminal to be out of office. Congress should begin impeachment proceedings immediately.


Real Estate Madness

Follow-up to yesterday's post on Art Coverage. For the record, the gallery coverage in The New York Times today is extensive. With 7 reveiws in the Art in Review section (including three by one of the new writers I didn't mention yesterday, Bridget L. Goodbody [yes, still sucking up]) and 4 major stories sprinkled through out. There's still only one listing for a Chelsea gallery, which suggests that section is winding down altogether, but I give credit where it's due, and admit when I was emulating Chicken Little.

The Chelsea real estate sky is falling! The Chelsea real estate sky is falling!

OK, so again, perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but as reported in the Times today, unless you're a behemoth gallery or independently wealthy, your odds of getting a good Chelsea location are getting slimmer all the time. We were lucky to get a ground floor space when we did (and even then, we're closer to New Jersey than we are to 5th Avenue), but are terrified of what things might look like when our lease is up (can't think about that just now, must think happy thoughts!)

Here's the essence of the drama:

The contemporary art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s this month are among New York’s colorful rites of spring. Art dealers say they expect the spring sales to be especially bountiful this year, thanks in no small part to the record bonuses on Wall Street in December.

“The demand is huge,” said the art dealer Perry Rubenstein, who added that the contemporary art market was “accelerating as we speak.”

While the market is red-hot, many prominent New York dealers are scrambling for ever more gallery space. Some of them have traded up to bigger spaces that allow them to show larger works, while others have opened second — or even third — galleries.

The competition for gallery space is probably fiercest right at the heart of the art market in Chelsea, the neighborhood that has become a magnet for contemporary art collectors. The core gallery district stretches roughly from 20th to 26th Streets between 10th and 11th Avenues. There are a handful of galleries a bit north or south, but almost everything is west of 10th Avenue.

“That’s where the hedge fund people go to drop a lot of cash,” said Matthew Bergey, a real estate broker at CB Richard Ellis, who is an art collector himself. “They enjoy art, and they are also trying to get into the right social stratosphere,” by collecting contemporary art.

Mr. Bergey said the tight market for space in the Chelsea gallery district is forcing out many young dealers. Some of them are taking space a few streets farther south, toward the West Village, while others are opening galleries on the Bowery, in the East Village. But when new space becomes available in Chelsea, it is usually the better-established dealers who can snare it.

In addition to how hard it is to find a Chelsea space at all now, unless a gallery was flush enough to buy their Chelsea location, many are now facing their initial leases coming up for renewal and landlords are raising rents to astronomical sums. I've heard of 60% increases by landlords who consider themselves pro-gallery. Furthermore, I was recently told of one space where the rent soared to 10 times what it was less than 5 years ago.

With all the new condo buildings going up in the neighborhood (suggesting if the galleries have to move out, there will be plenty of residents to support restaurants or boutiques moving in), there's every reason for galleries who don't own to start considering where the new concentration of New York's contemporary art scene might be in a few years.

Uggh...I can't think about that right now. I still haven't unpacked everything from our recent move.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Auction Madness

One's jaw simply drops.

One day after Sotheby's set a record for a contemporary-art sale (at $254.8 million), Christie's makes that look quaint. From
The New York Times:

Buyers from all over the world spent millions of dollars at Christie’s last night as if it were play money. Together they made auction history: the most successful sale of postwar and contemporary art ever. Records were set for 26 artists, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst.

The two-and-a-half-hour sale totaled $384.6 million, nearly $80 million more than its high estimate of $305.5 million. Only 4 of the 78 works failed to sell.
Reading through the results on is like entering Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory: you simply can't believe your eyes. Lot after lot after lot smashed its high estimate. The big winner was Warhol:

lot# 15
Artist: Andy Warhol
Title : Green car crash - Green burning car I
Year: 1963 -
Medium: synthetic polymer, silkscreen ink and acrylic on
Size: 90 x 80 in. / 228.6 x 203.2 cm.
Estimate: 25,000,000 - 35,000,000 US$
Sold For: 71,720,000 US$
It's tempting in the face of such prices to look for trends, and although it's not entirely supported by the results at Christies and Sotheby's there does seem to be a demand for art of the 60s, but other trends are difficult to spot. Of the work bought in (suggesting perhaps what's not so hot) the mix is inconclusive. Only 9 pieces were bought in between the two auctions:

Ashile Gorsky
Donald Judd (who also set a record, mind you)
Lisa Yuskavage
John Currin (despite our discussion about these two the other day, don't assume a trend; another Yuskavage went beyond its high estimate)
Gerhard Richter
Jackson Pollock (twice)
Willem de Kooning
Luc Tuymans

The are two mini-trends in there, perhaps (complex abstraction and naked women), but that's a stretch.
Long story short, there's little rhyme or reason to the results other than people with big bucks want art. God bless 'em.


Arts Coverage

Tyler Green brought up an issue in a post yesterday that I've heard galleries grumbling about lately: a precipitous drop in the amount of arts coverage in the printed press. He pointed to a story about Minnesota's largest newspaper, the Star Tribune:
The Star Tribune says its readers will see less coverage of architecture and arts -- and more of suburban Bloomington -- as part of a newsroom reorganization.
I don't know enough about the newsworthy events happening in suburban Blommington to comment on the wisdom of that decision, but it's a trend we're more likely to see elsewhere as print publications attempt to deal with, as they call it at the Star Tribune, "declining readership and advertising revenue." The fact that the arts are the first to be led to the chopping block is a bit too reminiscent of the obscene belt-tightening priorities we see in local school districts across the nation when money gets scarce, but that's a debate for another thread.

What I've heard grumbling about specifically, being where I am, is the sudden and very noticeable drop in the number of gallery reviews in The New York Times lately. Last Friday, for example, during the height of the art season in New York, there were three reviews in the
"Art in Review" section. Comparing the same week a year ago, there were more than twice as many.

Added to this drop (and it's not just this past week; the Friday before, there were only four reviews and the Friday before that, only 5 [at this rate there won't be any by June 1]), is the fact that the Times used to have a good deal more gallery listings than they currently do as well. With (
at last count) more than 330 galleries in Chelsea alone, and growing, this shift seems odd. There are of course other factors (besides dropping readership or revenue) that might explain this decrease. Ken Johnson leaving the Times for the Globe and Michael Kimmelman's (pending?) hiatus abroad have both contributed to less stability than the Times' fine art team had a year ago, but having brought a slew of bright new writers into the mix (including Andrea K. Scott, Martha Schwendener, and Benjamin Genocchio [yes, I have to make sure I get a good dose of sucking up in there]...), I had actually expected the gallery coverage to expand.

Perhaps it's just a momentary lull or perhaps there's a systemic change going on (I've noticed what seems to be more in-depth reviews during the week, so perhaps that's the shift), but for the artists with exhibitions up at the moment (and their galleries), this decrease is depressing. The odds of getting a Times review are already incredibly stacked against them.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Sculpture : The Best Art Bargain?

I know that talking about art in terms of "bargains" or other commerce terminology will irk a good chunk of folks out there, but for those collectors without trust funds, information about spending one's art-buying budget wisely is like manna from heaven. Therefore I was personally thrilled, while reading, to have confirmed what I've been noticing for a few years now about sculpture being remarkably undervalued in comparison to photography and especially painting:

According to Peter Rathbone, senior vice president and director of the American paintings and sculpture department at Sotheby’s, although lower-priced paintings are more numerous than affordable three-dimensional pieces, sculpture bargains usually pack more of a punch dollar-for-dollar when it comes to quality.

“If you find a first-rate modern piece of sculpture, it may well cost you a lot less than a painting of equal quality,” he said, though he added that exact numeric comparisons are hard to make.

For years I've assumed this disparity was related more to what I think of as the home-space law of diminishing returns (i.e., if you have to buy a bigger apartment to house your sculpture, what kind of bargain was it?), especially in New York, but the article suggests another factor I hadn't considered:

Second, sculpture is a less obvious choice for collectors. According to [Michael Hackett, co-director of the San Francisco-based Hackett-Freedman Gallery], most people begin collecting art by acquiring a two-dimensional work, and then they continue to purchase works in the medium of their first purchase.
Then however, the article offers a rationale that seems counter-intuitive to me:

Finally, there are simply many more painters than sculptors. This is partially because of the voracious demand for two-dimensional works and partially because sculpture tends to be more difficult, costly, and time consuming for artists.

“It’s more difficult to create successful sculpture than it is to create successful paintings,” Hackett said. “There are fewer great sculptors than there are great painters. For every Richard Serra, there are at least 20 quality painters.”
But that would suggest less supply for sculpture, which one would expect to increase the demand (and therefore the price), so I'm not sure that explanation makes market sense. I think the "voracious demand for two-dimensional work" is related to space considerations, not the paucity of great sculptors. I know plenty of excellent sculptors who working other full-time jobs to be able to afford their studio practice (when they get to it). No, I think that final notion is misguided. There may be more painters exhibited in galleries, but I don't see, in my travels through the studios of the metropolitan area, any great disparity in the number of painters versus sculptors. Perhaps it's because I'm drawn to sculpture and seek it out, but I don't think so. (Other New York studio visitors? Your sense of this question?)

But back to the article's central premise, which I totally agree with: sculpture in general is undervalued and provides a high return with regards to quality in the current market. So if you have the space, remember, real collectors buy quality.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I saw a famous artist Saturday...Or, the Inevitable Dulling of One's Edge

This is one of those muddled, rambling, "I've got to get more sleep" type posts that I'll apologize in advance for.

I saw a famous artist Saturday, making his way uptown in Chelsea, and my first thought was "Wow! That's so-and-so." My second thought was "He used to be so bleeding edge, and now he's really just riding that wave, churning out signature work with a seasonal/fashionable update every so often." And this got me to wondering about maturing within a successful career, finding one's groove, letting other artists take over "reinventing the wheel," and simply enjoying one's place in history. I'm sure there's something to all that, mind you, but as I was making my way to the Western most parts of Chelsea, it struck me as awful, this odd sense that one has outlived one's legend-in-one's-own-time status. Perhaps not though, I can't say.

This came back to me this morning reading Todd W's response on Gallery Hopper to Jerry Saltz's review of the current Andreas Gursky exhibition (and no, the artist I saw was not Gursky). It probably helped me connect these ideas that Saltz's review is titled "It’s Boring at the Top":
Jerry Saltz's review of the new Andreas Gursky show at Matthew Marks is in this week's New York Magazine.

Gursky is still trying to render purring pre-9/11 space, where commerce ticked along without an undercurrent of fear. But his rigor and criticality have been replaced by grandiosity and theatricality; figures feel frozen; compositions are stagy; structure devolves into carpetlike pattern. Gursky’s new pictures are filled with visual amphetamine, but now they’re laced with psychic chloroform.

I have not yet seen the show. I probably won't. Saltz's review was almost, in my opinion, inevitable. It's hard to keep topping yourself, particularly when you basically defined the current epoch of photography. Reinvention is no picnic. Nor particularly lucrative.
I've read enough biographies of influential artists to know that it's not only unfair, but highly unrealistic, to expect anyone to continue to be at the forefront of new ideas, breaking the boundaries, breaking the rules, and there's nothing at all wrong with an artist "doing what they do" (especially if they love doing it) as long as they like. But when one trades in the "new" (and let's face it, that's what the bulk of contemporary art criticism is currently consumed with...what's "new"), there must be tremendous pressure to reinvent.

There's a good argument in all this, I realize, for ignoring the critics when making one's work (and I love the Warholian idea of not reading one's press, but simply weighing it), but most artists are genuinely interested in the dialog/response that critics offer and so it goes, round and round, ad infinitum. What used to happen with daring manifestos (the slaying of the father to supplant the son) now happens in the popular press, only it's no longer one's ideas that are targeted, but one's freshness (read: one's youth?).

There are those artists, of course, whose exploration ages so incredibly well, we think of them as cutting edge for decades (Louise Bourgeois springs to mind), but even they eventually will repeat themselves. All artists do, in my experience, suggesting that artmaking follows a spiral trajectory, with themes or ideas radiating out like spokes in a wagon wheel, and the artist coming back round to them again, a bit further out mind you (a bit wiser and better informed), but still hitting that same line (idea/theme) again, and then later again, and then later again. Often artists are caught by surprise, I find, to realize what seemed a new idea was actually connected to the essence of a much older exploration. After a while, one would think, they'd suspect each "new" idea was an older one in new clothing.

OK, so this is getting maudlin. let me switch gears. The one part of what Todd notes that goes a long way toward explaining why so many older artists don't seem to mind not reinventing the wheel is how very, very lucrative it is to produce what the public expects of a well-known and well-loved practice. There are still museums out there waiting to get their hands on a "so-and-so," collectors too. Hell, me too. I'd love to own one (suggesting to me that an accomplishment is still an accomplishment, and good artists make good art, and good art is worth having, even after it's past being fresh-from-the-oven hot). Suggesting again, that artists should ignore all those positioning measures that the world outside their studio fusses over and continue to make what they want to make, and make it well.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Limits, Part II: Gratuitous Activity and Avid Complicity

Michael Waugh, the brilliant artist (who exhibits with Schroeder Romero) and Associate Director of one of my all-time favorite alternative art spaces (Momenta Art), offered a thoughtful response to the post on whether there are ultimate limits in art. Mike and I have been friends for years, and he elaborates on his thoughts on his blog here, but I disagree with several of the points he makes in his comment and want to explain which and why. First Mike's comment though:

Schjeldahl's idea that art is “the privileged zone of gratuitous activity” is pretty commonly held, the idea being that art patronage guides art – as it has for millennia. In the modern era, this idea is used to reduce art to a kind of philosophical “play” in which philosophical, moral, formal (etc.) beliefs are “tested,” at best, illustrated (and made accessible so that they can enter the zeitgeist) at worst.

But, Ed, I really thank you for your blog entry because it got me thinking of some connections.

I just finished a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and I’ve been thinking about the revolutionary ideas that exploded across the globe in the 18th century with the French and American revolutions. Before Jefferson, democracy was envisioned as merely overturning the hereditary nature of aristocracy (John Adams and Washington did not believe every citizen deserved a vote because the general population was too dumb). The real revolution happened with Jefferson, in which the abstract democracy held power not an aristocracy. One of the cornerstones of this Jeffersonian change was the evolution of the 4th estate, journalism, as the vital seed that empowered the voters to make decisions and limit the aristocratic pretensions of those in office.

So here’s my point: in a democracy, the rich and the elected are not supposed to hold the ultimate power, an informed public is supposed to wield that power. The “rule of law” referred to by the Leone article has been a phrase behind which the Bush administration has hidden because they have taken it upon themselves to interpret the rule of law, which is not their role ESPECIALLY when faced with “threats of a nature unlike any that it had previously faced” that the law did not foresee.

OK, so how does this relate to art, Burden, and Schjeldahl? Well, there may well be artists who merely produce work for rich patrons – just as there may well be journalists who cater to the ideology of their owners (read: FOX news) or their advertisers. Powerful people, governments, and corporations may well try to (and often succeed) at directing and limiting journalism. But that is in violation of our democratic system.

So it is with art: Powerful people, governments, and corporations may well try to (and often succeed) at directing and limiting art so that art merely reflects the tastes and beliefs of collectors. When this happens, art fails to serve what is supposed to be the seat of power: the people.

What is incredibly troubling to me is that the trajectory begun by the Duchampean impulse has been co-opted so that “avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements.” This means that many artists have become modern day court jesters, ridiculing or testing the limits of the norms set by the powerful – without challenging the basis of those norms and doing nothing to challenge the undemocratic consolidation of power in this country.

Wealth and heredity were supposed to have been replaced by democracy, by the people. If we hold this truth to be self-evident, then the patronage that artists should seek is not rich collectors but the democracy itself. I don’t think this has ever really been realized: serving the people does not mean making simpering public art. Serving the people should mean that art, like journalism, should help to expose the structures of power that can lead to the un-democratic entrenchment of that power. In the most banal sense, this could mean exposing the random nature of societal norms, shocking people into wakefulness. But once people are awake, a rigorous critique is not just necessary but required.

The problem in the arts, like in the rest of our society, is that the Jeffersonians never envisioned corporations or global capitalism. Just as this 5th estate (corporate capital) has shifted the balance of power in politics and in journalism, it has shifted the nature of patronage in the arts.

The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power. Mere delight, mere beauty, mere effacement do nothing to serve the patronage of democracy.
I totally agree that journalism's role in our version of "democracy" is to empower "the voters to make decisions and limit the aristocratic pretensions of those in office." I disagree that art is supposed to serve that same role, however. But let me back up.

I understood Schjeldahl's term “the privileged zone of gratuitous activity” to include artists, not only art patrons. In other words, I think by "gratuitous activity" he means art making, not collecting or patronage. The "privileged zone" therefore is the elbow room society (as a whole) and the taste makers in particular give to those who engage in that gratuitous activity. The most influential members of that society as a whole may be the art patrons who fund/support that activity, but even they can't protect an artist who too greatly abuses the privilege (think, again, the Chocolate Jesus artist).

Looking then at Schjeldahl's statement in context:

In pragmatic terms, art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities. Artists of the Duchampian sort delighted in effacing the boundaries, which, with increasingly avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements.
I understand Peter to be saying, not that the art is being made solely to please rich patrons, but rather that the vested authorities collectively make decisions that promote/preserve certain efforts by artists and, essentially (if only temporarily), reject others. In other words, when an artist pushes beyond the known boundaries at any given time, the vested authorities can either 1) reject the product or 2) redraw the boundaries to include the new, boundary-breaking work. I personally do this constantly (i.e., redraw my own boundaries to include some new idea into what I consider a worthy exploration or approach to art making). I pride myself on being open minded toward this end. I consider the alternative (limiting my personal boundaries to thereby exclude new or cutting-edge ideas) to be a lapse of responsibility. That doesn't mean anything goes, but it does reflect my belief that the boundaries are (and to my mind, should be) ever-expanding. If an artist jumps out too far ahead of my comfort zone, I'll admit it and reject the work, but to think that I currently possess enough knowledge to conclude my boundaries should be chiseled in stone is antithetical to why I'm interested in art in the first place. Therefore, it's a bit unfair to me, I believe, to suggest I'm in any way attempting to contain or control an artist because of this complicity. Quite the contrary, I'm attempting to give the artist more elbow room (that "privileged zone") in which to attempt his/her gratuitous activity.

But getting back to Schjeldahl's point, this complicity on the part of the authorities does indeed create a crisis for artists, but it's not one of being reduced to a court jester serving at the pleasure of the uberwealthy, but rather of not being able to use transgression (which we've come to expect and, quite frankly, I've come to find tiresome) to distinguish oneself and having to find some less-worn avenue toward attention.

Mike's argument to me boils down to one of his final thoughts: "The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power."

I respectfully, but wholeheartedly, disagree. The role of art is NOT to put checks on institutionalized power. The role of art may sometimes be to speak truth to that power, perhaps (when addressing the matter at all), but to "find a way to put checks on institutionalized power" is to let an individualized political point of view (and let's face it, no single artist fully understands, let alone represents the will of "the people" [as if that were some definable homogenized majority]) guide the decision-making process in art production to such an extent that the truth will , in all but the very rarest of cases, be compromised, resulting in propaganda, not art.

Having said that, I believe that speaking the truth to the powers that be is an incredible thing for art to be able to accomplish. I believe it's something that art perhaps can do better than other messaging toward capturing the imagination of enough people to effect real change. But if an artist is more interested in change than he/she is in expressing the truth via his/her work, the result will be something less than art, IMO, and won't serve anyone well. Least of all the artist. The tricky thing about expressing the "truth," you see, is it cannot emerge from an individualized political point of view. It cannot emerge from a position that dictates its role is to check the power of corporations or authoritarian governments. It can only emerge from objective analysis, an honest expression of the whole picture, and that rarest of gifts only a few possess, insight. A good dose of talent doesn't hurt either, but....