Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm Your Fa-a-a-a-ther, Luke...

So there I am preparing to enjoy perhaps my favorite guilty pleasure of each week---sitting down with the Friday Arts Section of The New York Times (a truly generous, remarkably erudite gift to the world, in my opinion)---but I never quite got around to reading Holland Cotter's piece on the exhibition devoted to how Portugal (where I lived for a while) conquered the world, or Roberta Smith's review of Rudolf Stingel’s show at the Whitney (we loved the version of it we saw at the MCA in Chicago recently), or the...ahem...three whole reviews from the 500+ exhibitions up in galleries at the moment (uh, I know it's Summer, but the streets of Chelsea were packed last night, folks...art goes on).

No, I didn't get to enjoy any of those offerings because I got distracted by a headline for a book review (
its headline is different online, mind you...isn't that interesting???):
The Roar of the Herd is Deafening on the Web
Now discussing books that one hasn't read is like discussing exhibitions one hasn't seen, but from what I can tell from Michiko Kakutani's review of Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture it's apparently OK to pontificate about things one clearly approached with a bias firmly in place, so....

OK, so that was perhaps a bit harsh...let me back up. Here's what's got me so distracted:
Digital utopians have heralded the dawn of an era in which Web 2.0 — distinguished by a new generation of participatory sites like MySpace.com and YouTube.com, which emphasize user-generated content, social networking and interactive sharing — ushers in the democratization of the world: more information, more perspectives, more opinions, more everything, and most of it without filters or fees. Yet as the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen points out in his provocative new book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” Web 2.0 has a dark side as well.
Lu-u-u-u-u-ke....

Now you know I'm a bit protective when it comes to the blogging community, so you'll want to read the following with that bias clear in your mind, but Mr. Keen's analysis, from what is quoted in the review, is anything but.

Mr. Keen argues that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens, he suggests, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”
This is what happens, I'd argue, when someone attempts to scapegoat a pastime for the downfall of those segments of an aging media that are resisting change, when arrogance meets solipsism meets piss-poor observation meets hyperventilated hyperbole.

After a wholly undemocratic rant against what he calls the "crowd" (yes, it is easier to lump folks together than to consider them as individuals, this efficiency has served bigots and false prophets well for centuries)---blaming crowd mentality for everything from slavery to the war in Iraq (height of all ironies for anyone advocating the mainstream media, IMO)---he then proceeds to overstate the importance and/or credibility of a host of online offerings. Anyone who spends anytime online at all knows full well you take the information on Wikipedia with a grain of salt, but that doesn't stop Mr. Keen from noting:

[T]he online encyclopedia Wikipedia (which relies upon volunteer editors and contributors) gets way more traffic than the Web site run by Encyclopedia Britannica (which relies upon experts and scholars), even though the interactive format employed by Wikipedia opens it to postings that are inaccurate, unverified, even downright fraudulent.
Well, duh...the difference, and what Mr. Keen fails to mention (or so the review would lead me to believe...[again, reason one shouldn't review reviews, darn it]), is that Encyclopedia Britannica charges you for its best information (offering only teaser info until you pay and plastering its site with ads), whereas Wikipedia gives you all its info for free and doesn't bombard you with offers like (yes, this is really on the Britannica site, that paragon of integrity) a book on fashion and the Oscars. But that's besides the point. Wikipedia is only one source for info (kind of like your online Uncle Rex...most of what he knows is accurate, but he's wrong sometimes, so you take that into account when you ask him a question), but it's fast, free and ad-less.

But it's when Mr. Keen disses the blogs that I wanna, well...let me try a different approach. Here's what he reportedly thinks:

[A]s Mr. Keen points out, the idea of objectivity is becoming increasingly passé in the relativistic realm of the Web, where bloggers cherry-pick information and promote speculation and spin as fact. Whereas historians and journalists traditionally strived to deliver the best available truth possible, many bloggers revel in their own subjectivity, and many Web 2.0 users simply use the Net, in Mr. Keen’s words, to confirm their “own partisan views and link to others with the same ideologies.”
Let's take Mr. Keen's own example to test this theory, shall we? Let's take the war in Iraq. Who among the traditional historians and journalists were delivering the mobs he blames for that debacle the best available truth possible in the lead-up to the invasion? Judith Miller? The Editorial Board at The Washington Post? No?

Who, on the other hand, was highlighting the articles The New York Times was burying on page 19 about experts at the CIA who were questioning the validity of the Administration's claims about Hussein's alleged WMD? Who was screaming "People...pay attention to this...we're not having the full and open debate about this invasion we owe our troops!" Was it the traditional journalists???

No, goddammit! It was the blogs! And virtually the blogs alone. Traditional media had either been bought off or were too chicken-shit to call the Administration on its overstated case for war. In fact, with Judith Miller at the head of the pack, it was the traditional media that cherry-picked information and promoted speculation and spin as fact, if they did even that, and didn't merely print the White House's talking points.

What Mr. Keen seems to have forgotten in his research is to remember that old adage: "Necessity is the Mother of Invention." Web 2.0 has sprung up because the traditional media were not meeting the public's needs.


Besides, despite his accusations that bloggers are undermining the media, very few bloggers I know consider their site anything more than what a blog is, by definition: a personal web log...an online discussions of their personal opinions about things, not a replacement for the news. In a nutshell, it's entertainment.

Mr. Keen reveals his true objections via a thinly disguised warning of doom:
Mr. Keen argues that the democratized Web’s penchant for mash-ups, remixes and cut-and-paste jobs threaten not just copyright laws but also the very ideas of authorship and intellectual property. He observes that as advertising dollars migrate from newspapers, magazines and television news to the Web, organizations with the expertise and resources to finance investigative and foreign reporting face more and more business challenges.
Its a perceived loss of authority and profit that motivates screeds like Mr. Keen's...read on:

“What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune,” Mr. Keen writes. “The new winners — Google, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie — are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.”
OK, so stay with me. Here I am, reading this review in the print version of The New York Times, which I pay full price for every day (because, as I've noted, I want to support the frail little man who sells them on my corner) and yet somehow, because I also have a blog, I'm partially responsible for undermining the print industry? I have directed more people to a wide range of articles in the very paper Mr. Keen's books is being discussed in than he ever has, I'll guarantee it. I've directed them to pages where The Times has ads and tons of links to its other offerings, unlike Mr. Keen's book.

This whole stance, this anti-Web 2.0, under the guise of fretting for our offline culture, is so transparent and idiotic. As I noted in a comment the other day, a good number of folks in the art world (you know that industry with the blistering hot market and record prices) figured out recently something the traditional media might want to pay attention to. You stand more to gain by collaborating with others to increase the size of the pie than you do by wasting your resources desperately trying to protect your little slice of it. Web 2.0 can be good for the traditional media who spend more time learning how to harness its power and less trying to fight its tide. Seeing a YouTube excerpt from a TV show has led me to rent the entire series on CD or watch it during prime time, for example. Finding a link to an article in a blog post has led me to eventually subscribe to a magazine I didn't know about before then.

I'm not saying traditional media aren't facing challenges. The world is changing. Technology is making old methods obsolete. So, you evolve or perish. That's nothing new. But finger pointing and mocking new media isn't going to change anything. It's not like Google or YouTube are going to read Keen's book and say, "You know...I think he's right...I think what we're doing is undermining main stream media (and Lord knows that's synonymous with important culture). I think we should close up this business and open a traditional newsstand instead."

As I noted above, even if Web 2.0 does eventually destroy the very sources of the content we crave, our need for that content will lead to new inventions for its delivery. Protecting our fathers' media (how? through legislation? guilt? what?), when it's unable to evolve on its own, is a ludicrous solution to this. Not all fathers (like not all their media) represent the path that will steer us clear of the dark side. Sometimes you have to trust that the new generation, when it finally figures out how to wield its light saber, will do the right thing.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Good Artists Borrow....Great Artists Sell Out?

Two stories making the rounds morphed into some muddled morality tale in my mind this morning (yes, I'm an alliteration slut). First is from London, where an ex-friend of Damien Hirst is claiming the diamond-encrusted skull is a direct rip off of work Hirst saw him doing in the early 90s. Decide for yourself:

From the
London Times [Via artinfo.com]:

Three weeks after [Hirst] artist unveiled his diamond-encrusted skull with a price of £50 million, another artist, John LeKay, has told The Times that he has been producing similar jewel-encrusted skulls since 1993 [above image, left]. He also believes that it is not the only one of his ideas that Hirst has used in some way.

LeKay, who claims to have been a friend of Hirst’s between 1992 and 1994, and who shared a mixed show with him in New York in 1994, said of the diamond skull: “When I heard he was doing it, I felt like I was being punched in the gut. When I saw the image online, I felt that a part of me was in the piece. I was a bit shocked.”

LeKay, a 46-year-old Londoner who lives in New York, created 25 of the skulls in 1993. Inspired by Mayan skulls, he used crystal to make his skull glisten. “When the light hits it, it looks as if it is covered in diamonds,” he said.
The other story I read also deals with the notion of artists profiting from something someone else thinks they shouldn't, but raises a finer point in that the presumed betrayal isn't of a friendship or idea, but rather an ideology. It deals with an anonymous and misguided campaign to highlight the increasing commercialization of street art (aka graffiti). The headline above isn't exactly how I feel about this, mind you, just a lazy attempt at being funny. In addition to splashing paint over existing street art (particularly by artists now showing in galleries), the "Splasher[s]" as the anti-commercial campaigner is/are known are suspected of setting off stink bombs during exhibitions.

From
The New York Times:

The covert campaign targeting street art began about seven months ago, with blobs of paint that appeared overnight, obscuring murals and wheat-pasted art on walls in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Arcane messages were pasted at the sites, but it was difficult to ask for an explanation. The author was never identified.

Shepard Fairey, whose work has been a target of the splatterings.
Then in November, during a panel discussion on women and graffiti that included a street artist called Swoon, a figure wearing a hooded sweatshirt flung a sheaf of fliers using similar language from a balcony overlooking an auditorium at the Brooklyn Museum. Swoon was among those whose work had previously been struck by paint, and some couldn’t help wondering whether the person who threw the fliers was also the Splasher, as the perpetrator of the paint attacks had come to be known.

Web sites, magazines and newspaper articles reported about the splatterings. Some wondered about the motivation and identity of those responsible, but the Splasher — or Splashers — remained anonymous.

The most recent episodes came this month, in two incidents involving what seemed to be stink bombs lobbed at shows of street artists on the Lower East Side and Dumbo. And some in the art world believe the identify of the Splasher may have been revealed. Last Thursday night James Cooper, 24, was arrested at the Dumbo show after witnesses accused him of attempting to ignite a homemade incendiary device in a metal coffee canister.
The Wooster Collective, who are interviewed for the article, has been covering this and actually broke the story about Cooper last week in this blog post:

One thing seems clear - there are two motivations that have been driving the Splasher. Attention and a jealous desire to sabotage and ruin the work of well known artists who have gained a certain amount of notoriety. It then makes sense that after gaining a ton of press over the last few weeks, that the Splasher would try to take things to another level by not only ruining the artwork on the streets of people like Faile and Shepard, but by getting even more attention for ruining their gallery shows as well. Since it would be all too obvious to walk into an art show and throw paint on the wall, why not then attempt to close down the show by causing a panic?
There are, to my mind, legitimate questions with regards to where one draws the line in supporting such statements. Where does the romanticism that turns a blind eye toward the vandalism aspect of street art turn to criticize of the vandalism of the vandalism? In other words, is one gesture, more pure than the other? And if so why?

And with Hirst's ex-"friend," did he invent decorating skulls? Hardly. Where is the line with regards to standing up for one's rights/copyrights and understanding that it's more or less the only rule left that everything is grist for the mill?

I hesitate to weigh in on these topics, truth be told. But don't let that stop you.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Logic Behind the 50/50 Split

I've been threatening to do this since the blog began, so here goes...

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Gallery/Artist relationship is, not surprisingly, the most controversial aspect of any relationship in any business: money. Specifically, the 50/50 split of sales between the artist and dealer. Many folks outside the gallery system will look at that split and be amazed, I'm sure. The artist is the creative genius, the artist spent years in art school, the artist is the one putting it all on the line for the public to take pot shots at their vision. In other professions, like acting, managers only get 15% and agents only get 10%. Why on earth does the gallery take 50% of the money? The short answer is because it costs that much to promote the artist's work. The longer answer is, well...a bit like the adage about watching sausages being made. The following is a very unromantic discussion, leaving out issues such as how much the gallery believes in the work or how important the artist is to the world. Those things do matter, but I'm taking a wholly bottom-line view here to provide the most objective analysis and hopefully most useful information toward understanding this.

It must be noted that the 50/50 split is not universal. A few notable galleries offer artists a better split, and if an artist can get into them, they probably should. Also, many artists can and do renegotiate a better deal when their work is selling consistently at higher prices. Some very prominent galleries only get 25% -30% from certain artists. Of course those artists' works are in very high demand, but I'll come back to that later.

In general, I find the artists most upset about the 50/50 split fall into one of two categories: 1) they don't understand the business that well (and many of them have never had full-time representation) or 2) they have a bad relationship with their gallery (i.e., their gallery is not doing enough in their opinion to earn the 50% they're taking). This second category of artists can also be broken down in two groups: those who are correct in their assessment that the gallery is not doing enough for their 50% and those who may not understand that the gallery is still behind in the deal in terms of recouping their investment and is actually doing more than their fair share for the 50%.

All in all, I feel the artists who get it the best are also the artists who take the time to understand the business realities of the relationship. Many artists will complain about the split wholly unaware that at the point they're doing so, the gallery has spent more money promoting the artist than they've taken in through sales. In other words, the gallery has yet to recoup its investment. So in the interest of helping artists either renegotiate a better deal for themselves or feel better about the deal they have, I'm going to spell it out in detail:

Because emerging artists are most likely (and understandably) the least likely to understand the business, I took a small survey of young(ish) galleries with bare bone staffs and predominantly emerging artists in their stable in New York. They reported that it costs between $6,000 to $12,000 per exhibition for the overhead/rent alone (these are all galleries with relatively modest spaces). This is before the gallerist takes a salary, let alone sees any profit for the business. That means, that with the 50/50 split, those galleries must sell between $12,000 and $24,000 of artwork per exhibition before they even break even. Before they can pay themselves anything. Before they can expand the business and reinvest in more resources to promote their artists. For many (if not most) emerging artists out there, I suspect, that means the gallery took a loss on your first exhibition. Sometimes a hefty one. If nothing in the exhibition sells (and it happens more frequently than any young dealer will admit), that's a very significant loss of money.

Why does it cost that much money per exhibition, you might wonder. Here's a partial list of the bills/expenses we must find the money for during any given exhibition (more or less in descending order of how expensive they are):

  • Rent
  • Staff expenses / salaries
  • Electricity / heating / AC
  • Invitations
  • Postage, Postage, Postage
  • Insurance
  • Adverti$$$$$ing
  • Opening Reception Refreshments/Expenses
  • Phone 1, Phone 2
  • DSL
  • Accounting Fees
  • Banking Fees
  • Subscriptions/Professional Fees
  • Storage rent
  • Art Fair applications/expenses
  • Shipping/Crating expenses
  • Entertaining collectors expenses
  • Office Supplie$$$$
  • Travel Expenses
  • Gas/Water
  • Garbage Collection
  • Alarm system

Now I realize that there are many similar expenses for running a studio, but a commercial gallery is a business and should only be in business if it can pay these bills AND see its way (some day at least) toward profit on top of that. With emerging artists prices, however, it requires a good deal of hustle and determination to make it some times.

Essentially, a gallery is investing in an artist, betting they can develop a market for the work and (one day hopefully) see a return. Like any investment, however, this includes a significant amount of risk. There are far more artists who didn't become overnight sensations out there than otherwise. Regardless of how well-connected or determined a gallerist is, there are some artists with more challenging work for whom it takes years to sell anything. If it takes five years to develop a market, for example (which is not that uncommon), that will represent at least two solo exhibitions on average, meaning the galleries I surveyed might at this point have invested as much as $50,000 in this artist (including taking the work to art fairs and promoting it in between exhibitions) before they see the first significant sales. Unless those sales total $100,000, the gallery will still be waiting, five years later, to break even on their investment. Multiply this by the number of artists in a gallery, and you begin to sense how risky a business it can be.

Further, it happens all the time that after 5 years, after an investment of $50,000 or more, an artist will leave a gallery, or stop making art, or a whole range of things that make that investment disappear. It's risk like this that, to my mind, justifies the 50/50 split. At least initially.

I know there are dealers out there who will disagree with me on this, but I happen to believe that after an artist's market is well established and they're clearly bringing in more money than it costs to promote their work, it's a gallery's obligation to reconsider the split. Without opening myself up to questions about the details, I'll note that we have indeed done just that. As I noted above, big galleries do it as well. It makes sense to me. It seems justified and fair. When all the expenses are covered (and, granted, that's a complicated equation [and one you should feel free to ask your gallery to sit down and outline with you...just be prepared to learn/accept they're still in the hole], but still sometimes it's obvious), the artist deserves to make more IMHO. Of course, a gallery is within its rights to refuse to reconsider the split, but then so is the artist within his/her rights IMO to reconsider which gallery they work with. Other factors, like loyalty and a collaborative spirit are considerations as well, mind you. It doesn't hurt an artist's soul to be fair to the gallery that first believed in them. Still, when it's clear the artist is earning more than their fair share, a better split is only fair.

Until that point, however, the 50/50 split is more than fair, to my mind.

And now, I'll take questions. I won't reveal details about specific artists, however, and I won't suffer in silence misplaced animosity for things I personally haven't done. I know this is an emotional issue, but keep your questions civil please. Finally, I should note that these are my opinions only and don't represent all gallerists, many of whom have years more experience than I have.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Apologies and Photo Blog Plugs

Sorry for the extended silence. Bambino and I were upstate with our dear friends from SchroRo for the weekend, and there were no cell phone signals, and our laptops didn't fit in our bags...darn it. Of course, whenever we get away, we have tons to catch up with when we get back, so I'll keep this short.

First though, in addition to some wonderful barbecues and very leisurely mornings, Bambino and I spent some time looking around for a potential second home. This is all very new to me (septic tanks and surveys, "setting"s vs. "views") but we made good progress. Here's the first place we looked at:

Just kidding. That's obviously the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, which

[A]fter a $16 million makeover, the full spectacle finally resumed, with the hall looking, as closely as possible, the way it first appeared to Louis XIV in 1684. With its 357 mirrors, 17 glass doors, marble walls, chandeliers and ceiling paintings, it remains — as was the Sun King’s intent — a sight breathtaking in its majesty.
We have our sights on something with a few more chandeliers.

Before we dashed out of town, though, I had the pleasure of stopping in to see a group show at Jen Bekman's gallery co-curated by Jen and the mastermind behind the encyclopedic photography blog Conscientious, Joerg Colberg. It's a wonderful survey of contemporary portraiture in photography, but the opening was so packed, I'll definitely have to go back. You'll find photos of the opening on AFC and this well-written photography blog by Shane Lavalette. Among the artists in the exhibition I saw were the truly amazing Alec Soth, who has perhaps the most beautiful blog on art of anyone blogging and Brian Ulrich who also has a very fine photo blog of his own. Congrats to all the artists in this excellent exhibition, as well as to the charming curators, Jen and Joerg. Don't miss this one.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Just When You Thought You Had Heard It All

The un-Mighty Quinn

Further on from yesterday's discussion about how power always corrupts:

I guess you might have had to be gay to really get it. The insecurity and uncontrollable suspicion with which I began to meet each person's eyes was something I had never felt before in America. Tinged with true rage, it was interfering with my ability to get through my day. I know in hindsight that a good deal of that response was due to some rather selective manipulation by the press, but all the same, in the wake of the
Matthew Shepard murder in 1998, I needed to feel secure again. That's why, when I saw a flyer in the East Village for a makeshift vigil, I grabbed a friend and headed up to the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street to see if hearing and seeing other people who were similarly affected might bring me some comfort or resolution.

What organizers predicted might draw about 500 people or so, and was always intended to be a solemn and dignified affair, turned into bedlam when thousands showed up and eventually began marching down Fifth Avenue. Ninety-six people were arrested that night. Me and my friend were nearly among them (the police swept up the man right behind us as we were trying to move onto the sidewalk). It was chaotic, it locked up traffic for hours, I believe some vandalism occurred, but I slept like a baby that night. Seeing all those people, gay and straight, turn out to share the same fears, sense of loss, and unity was very reassuring.

Now I understand that the police were caught unaware by the size of the crowd (so were those of us who turned up). I understand that traffic was disrupted and people in their cars were equally upset and frightened (we witnessed one stuck driver grab a tire iron out of this trunk and threaten to beat the passersby touching [out of necessity] his car). It was in many ways ugly (along with hundreds of others, we were trapped by the police between two streets at one point...an intentional divide-and-conquer strategy aimed also at calming us down). But the thing was, most of the bedlam was the result of folks trying to comply with the Police's inconsistent and/or impossible instructions (how can you get up on the sidewalk when there's no room?).

All in all, it was one of the most memorable nights of my life and I awoke the next day feeling much, much better about America. I went from fearing any stranger I encountered and feeling I was isolated to believing Shepard's murderers were the ones who had better be afraid. There was unquestionably strength in numbers.

I inflict this tale upon you to make clear why I feel what New York City Speaker
Christine Quinn (the first openly gay City Speaker in New York's history) has arranged / approved of / conspired with the NYPD to permit is treachery at its most foul. From James Wagner:
Quinn was the civilian agent for a secretly-negotiated agreement (there were no public hearings) with the NYPD which gives the police full authority to restrict public assembly and public speech (if more than 49 people get together anywhere, under any circumstances, they are all subject to arrest - unless they have applied to the police for a permit ahead of time and have received the department's approval). This policy was never submitted to the Council for consideration; no statute supports this agreement and practice; it is the creation of the Speaker herself.
I chose my story of public assembly (I've attended others) specifically because that time things got out of hand. That time things led to the sort of situation that, if I'm charitable, I suppose Quinn might feel she's working to prevent. The thing is, though, that night was one of the most powerful/meaningful nights of my life. No one got killed, no one was permanently scarred, no significant property damage occurred. What happened was the people, yes THE PEOPLE, took to the streets to let the city, and country, and world know that they were not going to be afraid. What Quinn has signed off on is not only unAmerican to my mind, it's inhumane in its design to squelch the impulse to seek comfort in numbers in times of tragedy.

Imagine if Christine Quinn had been the Speaker in Madrid after the bombings there, when in the hours after the blasts, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Spain in a spontaneous outpouring of pain and grief. This later, un-permitted event involving millions would also have been an illegal gathering in Quinn's Madrid:

What the Spanish did was awe-inspiring. In response to terrorists, they took to the street and let the world know they would not be afraid. We in New York, where we live under the threat of another attack constantly, would be arrested for responding in kind.

Seriously, Speaker Quinn, what the hell have you reduced us to with your Nanny-state meddling? Things sometimes get out of hand. Democracy is messy. Get used to it.


James Wagner's post has images of people trying to get her to account for her betrayal (she was an activist herself before power corrupted her). She has refused to meet with folks who've asked her, despite her assurances that she'll talk with anyone. She had better start talking before the next elections. She had better reconsider her position and fast.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Small Matter of Abusing the Public's Trust

Sweet deal if you can get it:
Though his talent for fund-raising was cited to justify his ballooning salary, private donations to the Smithsonian Institution actually declined under its former chief executive, Lawrence M. Small, an independent committee said in a scathing report issued yesterday.

Salary and other compensation for Mr. Small, whose title was secretary, soared to $915,698 in 2007 from $536,100 in 2000, the 109-page report said. But ultimately, it added, the institution became more dependent on taxpayer funds and less on donations during his seven-year tenure.

Mr. Small resigned in March amid growing controversy over his lavish expense-account spending.

From 2000 to 2006, the report said, he also took nearly 70 weeks of vacation — about 10 weeks a year — and spent 64 business days serving on corporate boards that paid him a total of $5.7 million. Rather than rein him in, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents stood passively by, the report said, allowing him to spend the institution’s money on copious personal expenses and to treat the board as irrelevant to decision making.
There's a side of me that wants to make some allowance in all this for the fact that Mr. Small was essentially given a green light by the very folks who were supposed to set the limits. I have no doubt it's a hugely complicated job to run the Smithsonian, and that's why a Board of Regents exists in the first place. But in this era of no accountability, where the buck seemingly never stops until it's rolled as far down hill as credibility will permit, I feel it's more than fair to join in the chorus of critics suggesting this was no small matter of abuse on the former chief executive's part. Even the worn-out and never truly convincing argument that top executives should be compensated disproportionately so long as they're delivering top performance doesn't pass the laugh test here:

In selecting Mr. Small, the committee wrote, the Board of Regents had hoped that his “experience in the business world” would benefit an institution grounded in science and the arts. But private donations declined during his tenure, reaching a low of $88 million in 2003. And while private money improved to $132 million in 2006, it noted, “that figure is about 10 percent lower than the amount raised in 1999, the year before Mr. Small took over.”
OK, so the economy also took a nose dive during that same time, and there are other factors that might have suggested Small was doing as well in the position as any human might, but if that were the case, then his terms for doing that job are even more offensive:

By the time he left office this year Mr. Small’s total compensation was $915,698. Part of that sum consisted of his annual housing allowance, which rose to $193,022 in 2006 from $150,000 in 2000.

The report said that “an individual who played a key role in the initial financial negotiations with Mr. Small” acknowledged the housing allowance was a “packaging device” for “delivering Mr. Small additional compensation in a manner that would conceal the true size of his pay.” The Regents were largely in the dark about the terms of Mr. Small’s initial compensation package, it said. [...]

“The mismatch between Mr. Small and the Institution appeared as early as the initial negotiations with Mr. Small when he made it clear that if he and his wife were not allowed to travel in first class, it would be a ‘deal breaker,’ ”“Over the years, Mr. Small placed too much emphasis on his compensation and expenses.”
As I'm sure you know, the indefatigable Tyler Green has been all over this story from the start, breaking the story of how not only was Small not raising the money he was hired to for the Smithsonian, but he was raking in all kinds of personal money sitting on some corporate boards that raised serious concerns about conflicts of interest:

Over the last few days the Washington Post's James Grimaldi has penned a series of damning stories about Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small's spending patterns. This story concerns Smithsonian spending at Small's home and in his office, and in this story (co-written with Jacqueline Trescott) the Smithsonian's former inspector general reveals that Small attempted to interfere with an executive compensation audit.

All important stories (especially that last one). But I'm concerned about this: Lawrence Small sits on the boards of directors of several companies, including The Chubb Corporation and Marriott International.

In the post-Watergate era, Congress passed a series of governmental ethics reforms, one of which prevented Cabinet officers and the like from serving on corporate boards. Those reforms did not extend to the secretary of the Smithsonian. Small's directorships are publicly known and are even included in his official Smithsonian biography.

But does that make it right? Chubb is one of the world's largest insurance companies. They do a tremendous amount of business in the art and museum worlds. Should the leader of America's largest museum complex sit on Chubb's board?
Small's eventual permanent replacement (and there's ample speculation on who that might be [stay tuned]) will reap the regulatory rewards that this kind of abuse has sown:

Members of Congress have made it clear that the Smithsonian’s spending and its efforts to find private donors will be under harsh scrutiny as they debate its budget for fiscal 2008. The report is likely to be a centerpiece of its deliberations.
In it the independent committee proposed several radical reforms in the Smithsonian’s operations, including an annual review of senior management expenses by an internal audit committee; a salary for the secretary that would be competitive with those of chief executives at comparable nonprofit organizations; and new policies “to promote openness, transparency and effective governance consistent with federal regulations.”
I don't mind saying this is further evidence of what I've always felt was a gross miscalculation in the notion that the principles of cut-throat corporate business can be easily applied to the arena of public service. The latter implies a bit of self-sacrifice for the greater good that trumps the bottom-line-focused, barbarians-at-the-gates mentality that makes someone a success in the business realm. In Small's case, apparently we got the short end of the stick in that deal as well.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Reading the Tea Leaves

The Summer of Art has opened and the reviews are pouring in. Most of them have a tinge of finality to them : "The beginning of the end?" could be a headline for any number of them, but there's no mass consensus on what exactly is ending.

There's been much talk about the future of news in which your personalized version will be cut-and-pasted from a wide range of sources, with journalists contributing entire sections uncredited to a central pool of news, so that you the consumer will read a seamless, tailor-made account of events. In the spirit of that vision, here's my own grand, totally contradictory summary of the Summer of Art, as collated and shamelessly edited for maximum confusion (just the way it's all settling in my head) from the reviews I've read, revealing nothing so much perhaps as my need for psychotropic refreshments:

The great European summer of art (the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, ­Documenta in Kassel and Sculpture Project in Münster) may be a dream for art-lovers, but is a test for the budgets and staff time available to cash-strapped museums. Even before [our] team left London and New York, there were rumours that some museums might not make it to all four events. And with Venice every two years, Documenta every five and Münster every ten, there was always a risk that the annual Art Basel fair might be the one that was skipped, at least by patrons’ groups. Javier Peres, of Peres Projects at Liste, confirmed: “A lot of museum curators thought that they had to do the intellectual thing, and that means Venice and Documenta."

Coming hot on the heels of the two biggest curated exhibitions on the art-world calendar -- the Venice Biennale and Documenta 12 -- the high quality of Art Basel is sobering news. Art Basel blows both of those shows out of the water. In a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titled "The Better Biennale," art critic Rose-Maria Gropp suggests that for art lovers, Art Basel leaves hardly a desire unfulfilled. "There is in Basel more concentrated strength than in the Italian lagoon," she claims.

And despite all the talk about booming business earlier in the week, the fair is far from being sold out. Sure, some dealers have sold everything and have even begun re-hanging, but others, a lot more than I had expected, still have plenty of stuff they’ll be taking home with them. Many dealers complained to me about collectors reserving work and then changing their minds.

However,
the entire 52nd Venice Biennale—the national pavilions in the Giardini, the Arsenale, and the various exhibitions in the palazzi—breathes the air of the times, sometimes tragic, sometimes funerary. It is generalized, whatever the continent, the generation or the artists. . . . It gives the Biennale, which is so often confused, tonality and coherence. The work of artistic director Robert Storr is a success; his Biennale is one of most interesting of the past decade. Robert Storr's show is well executed. But one could also say: undistinctive. Waste dumps full of testimonies to correctness are punctuated by fairlike rides.

Documenta 12 is one of the strangest art exhibitions you’re likely to see. Containing over 150 artists, sprawling through five different buildings in Kassel, Germany, the show has nary a white cube in sight. But, overall, I give it a net positive. I came back exhausted and depressed from Documenta, the sprawling exhibition of international modern art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. The artistic directors this year are the freelance curator Roger Buergel and his art historian wife Ruth Noack, and between them they have managed to stage the single worst art exhibition I have ever seen anywhere, ever.


Well that settles it then.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Toast to Critics

There's no doubt that blogs and print media often seem at odds with each other. Critics and pundits especially tend to bear the brunt of the blogosphere's ire. How dare that person publish an opinion different from mine!?! I'll show them...I'll "fisk" them royally. (I've done it myself often.) Not that there's anything wrong with it, mind you. I think blogs are one of the greatest things that's happened for democracy since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the darkest days after 9/11 when it became apparent to me that no one in the traditional press had the guts to stand up to George Bush (i.e., Dick Cheney) and call them on their outrageously unfounded conflations between Iraq and the New York/DC attacks, it was the blogosphere, and the blogosphere alone where I found sanity.

Having said that, I do feel through all this turbulent transition in media, some journalists (and critics in particular) have been unfairly maligned. Criticism is to my mind an essential part of the dialog I'm interested in with regards to the arts. Reading a review by
Roberta Smith, or Jerry Saltz, or, now again!, Christian Viveros-Fauné is always an education and illumination for me. And I'm not (just) sucking up (I've told them this to their respective faces). The fact is I was reading all three of them (and loving all three of them) long before we opened the gallery.

It's a point of view that distinguishes the great critics from the arm-chair pundits (of which I include myself, art criticism wise). A constant voice in the ever-moving field that helps me make sense of it all. Moreover, to my mind, many critics, such as the amazing
Holland Cotter, are heroes of the Davids (as opposed to Goliaths) in the arts. As Michael Kennedy recently wrote in an article for the MinneapolisSt. Paul Star Tribune (via artsjournal.com):

Yes, we have the smaller venues, but do you hear about them very much? Not really. We hear more about television shows, movies, traveling Broadway shows and what to wear to a nightclub than we do about the fine arts in the Twin Cities.
This city is in a quiet artistic crisis. With all of our small theaters, small galleries, music groups, dance companies and literary venues, we should be getting clear, serious criticism. We should have people working full time covering all of the theaters they can seven nights a week. There are tons of art galleries that most people have never heard of. Musical groups are everywhere.

We need the critics. Their opinions are one thing, but the fact that they can go into these small places, consider these artists and watch these performances says that the arts are a serious part of this community.

But the critics are fading away because of corporate decisions in the newsrooms, and along with those critics go the arts.
I've moaned about dwindling art criticism in print before, and as with any industry, I understand that print will need to evolve or perish, but there's no comparison in my opinion between what a good critic does and what insight I or my fellow bloggers with other jobs can offer about the art we get around to seeing. I'm not a huge fan of email activism, but I do feel the publishers of print need to know how much we value their critics' diligence in seeing as much as they do, and their expertise in making order of the cacophony. So I'll make this as simple as possible: consider what you might do that will express to the publishers of arts coverage how much you appreciate that the paper you purchase contains the work of their critics. They'd hear a good deal of noise from sports fans should they cut back on that coverage. There's no reason arts readers should be any less vocal, IMO.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

The Popularizers

Another blogger was kind enough to send me a link to signandsight.com (a great site I hadn't known before) that translates arts articles from other languages into English. That might explain why the article I read struck me as a little disjointed, but it was a very eye-opening read all the same. Essentially it argues that Art has become the new, all-encompassing "It" :

Art is the theme of the hour. You can't get around it. [...] Clearly, this is not only true for unmitigated consumerism and lifestyle, but also for societal or political engagement. Even demonstrators at the G-8 summit don't - or don't wish to - avoid art. "Art goes Heiligendamm" (feature) or "BALANCE!" is the name of the project in which politics becomes aesthetic, and aesthetics becomes political. The greater good therein may not be really clear. But this only underscores the true role of art. Art is needed because - according to popular consensus - only those who bring art into play are truly up-to-date.
This idea occurred to me again this morning while reading in The New York Times of the new PBS art series debuting tonight:

There was a time, not so long ago, when “popularizer” was a derogatory term used by academics to dismiss the popularity of a more successful colleague.

When Robert Graves wrote “I, Claudius,” many classicists sneered. Even Kenneth Clark, the art historian who in 1969 wrote and presented “Civilisation,” the BBC’s hugely successful survey of Western art, was mocked in some circles as a sellout.

That fusty line between art and entertainment faded long ago. Stephen W. Hawking, the British physicist, starred in his own series on public television about the origins of the universe without any damage to his reputation. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists line up to appear on “Oprah.” So it’s not surprising that Simon Schama, a Columbia University professor, is turning into the Bob Barker of art criticism, a genial television host who excitedly invites viewers to come on down to high culture.

In “
Simon Schama’s Power of Art,” a series that begins tonight on PBS, Mr. Schama walks through wheat fields that van Gogh painted and strolls beaches where Picasso quarreled with his first wife, Olga. Most documentary-style series nowadays include re-enactments, but this one also offers a re-enactment of the narrator as a young man. In the final segment on Mark Rothko, an actor with long hair and mod glasses recreates the moment when Mr. Schama strolled through the Tate Gallery in London and first spied that artist’s murals in 1971.
Add these two general ideas to the debate last week about whether Paul Potts was really singing "opera," though, and things get rather complicated in my Monday morning mind. At what point, I began to wonder, does popularizing something actually make it less accessible to the public? At what point does it make its greater essence less accessible? If all you take away from Guernica, because it was offered to you on a spoon, is the anecdote below...

Picasso’s tale begins in his Paris studio in 1941, with the image of jackboots stomping up a staircase. Mr. Schama recounts the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Nazi who barged in and poked around, picking up a postcard-size reproduction of “Guernica.”

The German officer said, “Did you do this?” Picasso replied, “Oh, no, you did.”
you might feel you get it...enough, at least (after all, isn't art appreciation really just for dinner party stories? Once you have enough under your belt to add something clever to the conversation, can't you move on to easier pursuits?)...but the motivation to revisit it (to really try and understand what all the fuss is about) might be diminished, no?

OK, so that's perhaps too jaded and implies I'm not above social pressure to lead folks to art appreciation, which I can't endorse, in all honesty. But the hope in my muddled thinking here would be that such motivation might lead one not only to revisit a work, but actually, eventually to have a meaningful experience with it on one's own.

Which brings me full circle here. There's so much competing for our attention these days, maybe the Popularizers are needed. Gone are the times when those with too much time on their hands could leisurely stroll the museums for hours, hoping for epiphanies.

Still, I can't help but wonder whether one of the best parts of experiencing art isn't indeed the initial struggle for comprehension, the confusion, the mystery...whether, as the Times calls it "[t]hat fusty line between art and entertainment" doesn't serve some good we won't quite recognize until it's gone. I'm looking forward to Mr. Schama's series, but I wonder how I'd feel about the works in question had his program been my first introduction to them, rather than some heavy book I schlepped home on my bicycle from the library as a kid. With no guidance but the text (which I rarely read), those images were beyond wondrous to me. But more than that, they were mine to interpret/struggle with without any entertainment filters. They were work, but work I relished.


I honestly don't know where I'm going with this, so I'll cut it short...consider this a work in progress.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Two Juicy Bits

First Steps: Beginning and Developing Your Collection

Lisa Hunter, author of the very informative book The Intrepid Art Collector, is moderating a panel tomorrow at 2:00 pm on how to start a new art collection. Hosted by the School of Visual Art and the Affordable Art Fair, the panel includes, Bloomberg art reporter Lindsay Pollock, art fair impresario Tom Delavan, and yours truly. Please come out and join in! Lisa has all the details on her blog
here, but here are the essentials:

Admission to each program is free with AAF admission. Both programs take place at The Affordable Art Fair at the Metropolitan Pavilion and adjoining Altman Building, 125 West 18th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), New York City.

AAF hours are: Thursday, June 14, 12noon - 5pm; Friday and Saturday, June 15 - 16, 12noon - 8pm; Sunday, June 17, 12noon - 5pm. General admission is $15/day, $10/day for students and seniors. Children under 12 admitted free.

For the Love of God

OK, so two people I've spoken to who've actually seen it say Damien Hirst's $100-million diamond-encrusted skull is a wonder to behold. I won't offer too much in the way of critique of a piece I haven't seen, but on a thread the other day, Cooky Blaha requested that we open up a thread to discuss the interview between Hirst and Joe La Placa on
artnet.com. Here's a juicy snippet to get things started:


JLP: For The Love of God has a huge sale price of $100 million. . .

DH: It’s too cheap! People really want it.

JLP: £50 million is too cheap?

DH: Definitely! If the Crown Jewels were on the market, they’d sell for a hell of a lot more than that. It’s just one of those objects.

JLP: Yes, but in relation to what other contemporary art has sold for, this is over the top, particularly for a living artist.

DH: Not really. What do you mean, living artist? That’s a bit of a fucking red herring really, isn’t it, a living artist? I mean, art lasts for thousands of years; it’s been going on for thousands of years and a human’s lifetime is less than a hundred years. There are only a few artists alive, relatively speaking. And the art market is, what, 2000 years old and beyond, of artistic activity? You need to forget about the living artist and just talk about art.

When I got into the art world, I consciously wanted to change it. I found it really annoying because it seemed like a kind of club where people would sell cheaply to investors and they’d make the money. Collectors would take the art off the artists and, because they came in early and they gave the artist a little bit of money, later, when the artwork got resold, it would be the collector who made the big money in the secondary market. And I always thought that was fucking wrong. I’m the artist, the primary market. And I want the money to be in the primary market.

I’ve always said it’s like going into Prada and buying a coat for two quid and then selling it next door a charity shop for 200 quid. It’s totally fucking wrong! Why are they doing it that way round? Art should be expensive the first time around. There shouldn’t be all these old boys making loads of money on the secondary market.

JLP: So you’re saying it’s the artists who should make the lion’s share of the money, not the dealers or collectors?

DH: Right. We should have learned from what happened to Van Gogh. Art has a kind of value now! People fall for that old fucking vintage trick, don’t they? "Oh, it’s a vintage antique, so it must be expensive." But that’s another priority. When you go in someone’s house and see a painting on the wall, a new painting should be much more exciting than an old painting. . . and that should be where the money is spent.

I've often cited Hirst as an example of an artist who took matters into his own hand and changed them. That, in my opinion, is the very best model (as opposed to just bellyaching about how things work). And while I agree in principle with Hirst about contemporary prices, I want to just note that he's now talking from the point of view of an artist with a market already (like Prada), not as a totally unknown newcomer. A totally unknown artist demanding $100 million for that same piece would take it home at the end of the show. I'd bet the farm on it. With that caveat, however, have at it....

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Demanding Little Bastards, Aren't We?

I had the exact same thought in response to Paul Potts' performance of Nessun Dorma on "Britain's Got Talent" that Franklin did:

Those goosebumps, the beauty that makes your eyes tear up, the sublimity that arises from the individual and yet transcends him, is something we used to ask of visual art.
Yes, yes, yes. Where is that in the visual arts these days? I'll admit it; I felt a bit cheated overall, because that heartbreaking experience in the art world is so rare.

"What's wrong with the art out there?" I thought. "Why can a mobile phone salesman from Wales tap into my heart like that, but out of a hundred visits to galleries or museums, I'm lucky to feel that way a few times." (I have a few artists who have work that does indeed make me tear up if I spend enough time contemplating it, rather than trying to sell it, but ...)


I had drinks and a chat with, IMO, one of the greatest minds of the New York art world last night, and he and I eventually came around to this very question, agreeing that the world has been lucky to have 10 truly great artists per century, if that, and yet, well, I'll let this New York Times article by
Carol Vogel tell you. Reporting from Art Basel, she writes:

Collectors are grumbling about the scarcity of top-quality art.

“There are some good things, but not as many as there used to be here,” said Donald L. Bryant, a Manhattan collector and trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. “The market is so hot, and the demand is so great, it’s getting harder to find great art.”
There are of course many factors contributing to this assessment of things. The proliferation of art fairs and bienniales folks attend, the fact that folks are paying more attention to what's available than ever before (because if they don't move quickly they won't get the prized pieces), and with that the comes the increased refinement of their tastes (they're becoming better judges of quality through all this exposure). But also contributing to the reality of the situation is that there never was as much great art to go around as the market is demanding right now. Masterpieces can't be produced on demand. They take a course of their own, and we're simply lucky when the stars align just so that some mortal can see their way to create one.

That doesn't stop me from wanting to experience more great art. In fact, as I've noted repeatedly on the blog, that's my mantra: Make Better Art. Easy for me to say, I know.

Now to be fair, there were certain advantages Potts had in this situation. Nessun Dorma is a crowd-pleasing aria. The emotional pull of the music alone would have carried along the audience to some response for anyone who could do the song a reasonable degree of justice. And his story was brilliantly set up in that clip. (In other words, it was very good television.) None of which is meant to take away from his heart-felt and very moving performance, but add a score like that behind the viewing of a painting in a contemporary gallery and measure the response vs. the response without that music and I suspect the former will be more positive.

And I wonder if that's not a bit of what's happening here. With the advent of television, movies, and other media that involve more of our senses than sight alone, perhaps we've been emotionally dumbed down a bit, visually I mean. Perhaps an early 20th century viewer of a van Gogh had a much more emotional response to the work than we do today because our senses are stunted. Perhaps it takes the careful editing of scenes, the roar of the crowd, the professional lighting and pacing to stir all that up in us now. I don't know.

Or perhaps Potts is simply a very gifted singer and phenomenal human being as well. I don't want to take anything away from him. In fact, I can't wait to see the next round of that competition.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hidden Talents

I've seen this three times and still can't watch it without becoming ridiculously overwhelmed:


[via Sullivan]

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Sarah Peters @ Winkleman Gallery

Winkleman Gallery is extremely pleased to present "Being American," our first solo exhibition by New York artist Sarah Peters. Through her ongoing exploration of the earnestness with which early American artists strived, but often failed, to match the formal achievement of their European counterparts, Peters presents a spellbinding vision of an imagined paradise where the artworks of 18th Century America that missed the mark (often due to their creator's misreading of an ideal that never really was) went to spend eternity. This invention is presented, in part, as a 20-foot drawing with sweeping vistas of an idyllic countryside populated with the specters of those naively rendered sculptures, overly ornate memorial urns, and a host of peculiar characters. In spite of the shared awkwardness or failure that defines this landscape, however, its overriding sensibility is one of utter bliss.

Other smaller drawings focus on particular individuals or settings, each more eccentric than the next. With hints of preternatural forces and all the earthly delights one would hope to find in paradise, these images suggest they might have been the ones edited out of the Peale family scrapbook. Standing watch over the exhibition is Peters' self-portrait, a bust à la the terra cotta self-portrait of the first classical American sculptor, William Rush, with his head emerging from a log. Clearly pained by the fruits of her labor, the grimaced artist nonetheless looks patient and perhaps even hopeful that some viewer will see that the journey taken to this place was its own triumph.

Sarah Peters credits her fascination with early American art to her study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. She completed her BFA at the University of Pennsylvania, and her MFA in Sculpture at the Virginia Commonwealth University. This is Sarah's first solo exhibition in New York.

For more information, please contact the gallery at 212.643.3152 or info@winkleman.com

Sarah Peters
Being American

June 15 to July 21, 2007
Opening Reception: Friday, June 15, 6-8 PM

Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm

Winkleman Gallery
637 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001
T: 212.643.3152
F: 212.643.2040
info@winkleman.com
www.winkleman.com

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What's an Artist? Take 459

That tuckered-out argument we've been having here for ages...you know, the one about who's an artist and what makes something art...reared its ugly head in my consciousness again while reading an article in the Science section of The New York Times this morning. It's a profile of photographer, Felice Frankel, who has virtually revolutionized the way images are presented in science education:

With her help, scientists have turned dull images of things like yeast in a dish or the surface of a CD into photographs so striking that they appear often on covers of scientific journals and magazines. According to George M. Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and her longtime collaborator, “She has transformed the visual face of science.” [...]

In her book, “Envisioning Science” (M.I.T. Press, 2002), Ms. Frankel instructed researchers, in words and many pictures, in the kind of visual depiction of scientific processes and subjects she and Dr. Whitesides produced in an earlier book, “On the Surface of Things,” (Harvard University Press, 1997). Now they are finishing a book about “small things,” as Dr. Whitesides put it, things at the limit of what can be seen with light, even through the microscope.

Meanwhile, Ms. Frankel has been organizing conferences around the country on “Image and Meaning,” and working to establish a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation on the uses of visual imagery in teaching science.
Her images are indeed captivating:



But in the Times article, she explains why she's not comfortable with her photographs being described as "art":

When people call Felice Frankel an artist, she winces.

In the first place, the photographs she makes don’t sell. She knows this, she says, because after she received a Guggenheim grant in 1995, she started taking her work to galleries. “Nobody wanted to bother looking,” she said.

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”
There's not a lot of information about her experience with galleries in that statement, but it's not difficult to image the details. What gets me about this, though, is the notion that someone doing something so fundamentally related to what true "art" does (i.e., help us see the world in a new way) has decided what she does isn't "art" because of some degree of rejection by the commercial gallery system. Without knowing whether that experience was limited to walking into some big name spaces and asking the gallerinas if someone would look at her prints, it's difficult to conclude whether such a response was premature or not (and I'll admit, the work's not quite right for our program), but it's merely the idea that Ms. Frankel permitted someone else to decide for her whether she was an "artist" that bothers me here.

In this
1998 interview on The NewsHour, the interviewer called what Ms. Frankel does "a marriage of art and science," and she doesn't object to that characterization, suggesting perhaps back then she was still actively seeking gallery exhibitions (or, obviously, that she wasn't presented the opportunity to object), but clearly at one point she wanted to be taken seriously as an "artist." In fact, when she first became affiliated with MIT, according the Times article, it was as an artist in residence. What changed her mind about whether she was an "artist" appears to have been the gallery system.

But let's back up to her definition for more insight into this decision:

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”
Ouch.

Now I don't imagine she meant that as the criticism it reads to me as, but still. Yikes.

Or is she right? Is art more about the creator than anything else? What is an "artist" minus the ego? Is ego a primary component of "art"?


Even more disturbing perhaps than this assertion is the initial conclusion that her photographs are not "art" because "the photographs she makes don’t sell." Perhaps that reflects nothing more than Ms. Frankel's personal assessment. But it was alarming to read it in print, so matter-of-factly stated by someone so clearly intelligent and creative.

Like I said, we've been over this terrain with a fine tooth comb, but I wasn't aware of how much such notions have seemingly seeped into the conventional wisdom. I mean she's now convinced...where did her doubt about the definitions go?

Can I just say Yikes, again?

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Venice Envy

A good friend of mine who found me a room in Central Venice and all but booked the flight for me will be exasperated to hear this, but in reading the accounts of the 52nd Biennale I'm finding online, I so-o-o-o-o wish I had been there for the opening. It sounds typically surreal and delightful. Here are a few samples of eye-witness accounts and impressions:

From
Walter Robinson:

In Italian, the slogan for the 52nd International Exhibition of the 2007 Venice Biennale, June 10-Nov. 21, 2007 -- "pensa con i sensi, senti con la mente" -- sounds like an advert for a breath mint. In English, that’s "think with the senses, feel with the mind" -- and just plain bad advice.

The Italian pavilion, the warren of galleries that hosts the main part of the exhibition, features individual rooms filled with works by curator Rob Storr’s usual suspects -- Gerhard Richter (a particularly gummy assortment of smear abstractions), Louise Bourgeois (a grid of not-half-bad grid drawings done in blue pen), Ellsworth Kelly (they looked better a few months ago at his New York gallery), Robert Ryman, Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, Susan Rothenberg, Thomas Nozkowski.

For this we come to Venice? Oi.

From Sarah Douglas:

"I'm only now learning about art," said this fund fellow, as the boat neared the Isola, and Kosuth's project swam into view. He gestured vaguely around and added, "And this...world."

In any event, as the boat neared the island it moved into the eerie glow emitted by its buildings. Kosuth had covered the monastery's exterior with fluorescent tubing spelling out words in various languages. The effect, at night at least, is otherworldly, with the words illuminating the hundreds of revelers on the lawn.

But the light was not strong enough to blind us from real-world concerns. "Forget the money! The bureaucracy!" said Kosuth's dealer Sean Kelly, as he described the ordeal of arranging such an ambitious installation in Venice (It’s on view through November). Money again! By then we had landed on the Isola, which resembled a sort of Kythira for partying art folks—prosecco, canapes, chatter. The mood there was typical of the first few days of the Biennale. The art world, having just landed, seemed at once weary and excited, at once enervated and invigorated. Veterans of the festival circuit looked around with expressions that said both: "Oh no... this again?" and "Oh boy! This! Again!"
From Randy Kennedy:

The city is so packed during the day, but at night it’s like a film set you have all to yourself. You never know what’s going to come your way. Tonight, the curators of an unlikely show of trippy paintings by the spiritual guru Adi Da Samraj (also known as Bubba Free John; born Franklin Albert Jones in New York; now residing in Fiji) took me along some winding alleyways for an unofficial late-night visit to the show. The other (very late) night, I got a chance to hear the amazing blues-marinated voice of the Italian singer Paolo Conte, who The Times once described as having a face that is “part Florentine fresco” and “part Venetian carnevale mask, with a nose straight out of Dante.”
From Carol Vogel:

Normally the installation at the Arsenale has a hodepodge effect, but under Mr. Storr, it is more coherent, looking like a carefully conceived museum exhibition rather than a random assemblage of works. Among the standouts are a pair of tapestrylike hangings fashioned from discarded soda cans by the artist El Anatsui, who was born in Ghana and lives in Nigeria; though steeped in African culture, their shimmering patina evoked the luster of a painting by Gustav Klimt.

For the first time the Biennale is also including comics. The North African artists Eyoum Ngangue and Faustin Titi have created original drawings for a comic book about displacement, depicting a young African boy’s failed crossing from Tangiers to Europe in search of a brighter future.

From Charlotte Higgins:

France and Germany are the must-see pavilions this year, if you're lucky enough to get in. But after hours of speeches, crowds and queuing - I need a little lie down.

If Tuesday, VIP day at the Venice Biennale, was a bit frenetic, Wednesday was a mess: the Giardini now opened up for the official press days and became a nightmare. You couldn't move in the supposedly tranquil gardens for the crowds, or for bumping into people from the UK.

The entire staff of the Tate had apparently appeared, but the pristine white trousers of the exquisitely turned out and beautiful young contemporary curators were sprayed with mud as the heavens opened and the rain poured down furiously. I stood under my umbrella for about an hour of grotesquely tedious speeches by various dignitaries for the official inauguration of Felix Gonzales-Torres's American pavilion. Not fun.

Image above: The work How To Blow Up Two Heads At Once, by Yinka Shonibare from Nigeria is exhibited at the African pavilion.

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