Friday, August 31, 2007

Not Going to War With the President You Have

As I predicted a while back, the Bush administration is ramping up their efforts to rally support for military action against Iran. Indeed, there is wide speculation that the administration will launch an all-out campaign to raise the rhetoric and hence the tensions right after Labor Day, following in the administration's belief (as former White House chief of staff Andrew Card noted in 2002 about the timing of the decision to begin banging the drums for war with Iraq), that from "a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

Now, I know. It's the last weekend of summer. I should be posting some light and fluffy beach-oriented funnies or something (and I had intended to), but in the end I realized that if indeed the speculation is right, and the campaign begins in earnest next Tuesday, any protests then will, like they did for Iraq, get drowned out in the media frenzy to micro-market the fear with catchy logos and booming voices across Fox News and the like.

The time for level-headed analysis is now. Before Chris Wallace and Brit Hume and the talk radio hacks turn on their mikes to make otherwise rational Americans quiver in their homes or rush out to stock up on duct tape. So what is the level-headed truth?

A report released Thursday showing a slow but steady expansion of Iran’s nuclear technology has exposed a new divide between United Nations arms inspectors and the United States and its allies over how to contain Tehran’s atomic program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in its report that Iran was being unusually cooperative and had reached an agreement with the agency to answer questions about an array of suspicious past nuclear activities that have led many nations to suspect it harbors a secret effort to make nuclear arms. The agency added that while Tehran’s uranium enrichment effort is growing, the output is far less than experts had expected.

“This is the first time Iran is ready to discuss all the outstanding issues which triggered the crisis in confidence,” Mohamed ElBaradei, the I.A.E.A. director general, said in an interview. “It’s a significant step.”
The Bush administration, though, which clearly has Iran in its cross-hairs is minimizing this report much in the same fashion it minimized scepticism (and there was plenty) that Iraq had WMDs.

But the Bush administration and its allies, which have won sanctions in the United Nations Security Council in an effort to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment, saw the latest report as more evidence of defiance, not cooperation.

“There is no partial credit here,” a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said Thursday. “Iran has refused to comply with its international obligations, and as a result of that the international community is going to continue to ratchet up the pressure.”
Now there's a part of me that thinks (hopes is more like it actually) that ratcheting up the pressure on Iran is mere sable rattling and that in and of itself is actually a good thing. Iran is not a state I trust in the least ,and their human rights record is revolting. The idea that they might get the bomb is indeed something the international community should be alarmed about and work to prevent.

But even if that's all it is, sable rattling can provoke actual conflict, and let's face it, the country can ill afford to start another war under its current leadership. Seriously. Anyone out there who believes this administration would wage a war with Iran and then win the peace with even a modicum of competence, please raise your hand. For those of you with hands raised, I'd ask, based on what evidence?

If the speculation turns out to be correct, and the airwaves are even more filled with this sort of thing



come Tuesday and beyond, I hope the overwhelming majority of Americans will stop and think hard about the likely outcome of going to war with the president we currently have, again.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

One Week and Counting (and News about the Gallery)

The feel of this particular week always intrigues me. There's an odd theatricality to it. Sort of like the hushed, but furious shuffling of props and actors and stage sets right behind the curtain mere moments before it opens to a quiet, anticipating audience.

It's perhaps hard to explain to folks still very much invested in squeezing in as much time at the beach or their country place as possible these final weeks of August, but the bustle of activity behind the closed doors in the galleries, where Summer is now a catch-as-catch-can concept, blends a fascinating mix of longing, anxiety, hope, tension headaches and muscle pain, at least for those of us gallerists who do still the work ourselves (with our small team of tireless colleagues, I mean).

Walking down 27th Street and seeing the various stages of installation through the gallery windows, all leading up to the chaotic, sweaty swell of visitors I like to call the Super Thursday opening receptions, I'm so like a kid in a candy shop. Or perhaps more like a child two days before Christmas. The agony of waiting tempered by the knowledge that the day's almost here.

I've noted before where you can get
the information you need if you're planning on heading out next Thursday. One of the best sources for information, ArtCal, is looking fab-u-lous these days (Bambino suggests it's had "a bit of work done," but you know he lives for gossip, so...), but you should also check out the excellent Douglas Kelly Show List and the highly informative and amazingly complete Chelsea Art Galleries in finalizing your plans.

Speaking of ArtCal's new look, though, the mastermind behind the technology of that site, pioneer blogger and art connoisseur
Barry Hoggard has another gift to the art world in his automated artist and gallery website program ArtCat. A number of great galleries already use this technology to build their websites, including our friends at DCKT, Oliver Kamm, and recently John Connelly Presents, and now, I'm pleased to announce, so do we.

I can attest to how much easier making changes to the website has become with this new tool. One of the complaints I often heard with the old website was that there were not enough images. Well that's because adding images was a huge pain in the ass given the way that site was designed, but with ArtCat, adding images is a breeze, so you can expect to see plenty more moving forward. In fact, I've added some
behind the scenes shots of Thomas Lendvai creating his truly astounding new installation (he's been working very hard on it all summer), which opens, you guessed it, next Thursday.

If you're familiar with our gallery, then browsing the new website you'll notice a few other changes as well. Here's the official press statement about what's happening:


Announcing New Gallery Program

In an effort to focus our energy on a select group of outstanding artists, Winkleman Gallery (formerly known as Plus Ultra Gallery) is very pleased to announce that we now represent Ivin Ballen, Cathy Begien, Jennifer Dalton, Christopher Lowry Johnson, Thomas Lendvai, the husband-and-wife team Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, and Sarah Peters. Upcoming exhibitions include solo exhibitions by Carlos Motta, Christopher K. Ho, Joy Garnett, the team Jimbo Blachly and Lytle Shaw, and Rory Donaldson. Work is also available through the gallery by artists David Kinast, Alois Kronschläger, Kim Rugg, and Andy Yoder.

The new program features an international array of exceptional emerging artists with a wide range of conceptually rigorous investigations and media. In turns humorous, controversial, insightful and beautiful, the work by these artists—hailing from locales as disparate as Colombia, Singapore, Scotland, Kyrgyzstan, Hong Kong, Austria, Korea, and the United States—is distinguished most of all by its acumen and humanity.

This new direction reflects the gallery’s dedication to fostering a vital, open dialog about contemporary art and its implications. As part of our commitment to presenting a wider perspective on the important new art of our time, upcoming exhibitions include a group show of video artists from Central Asia, co-curated with highly acclaimed curator Leeza Ahmady, and a solo exhibition by artist Christopher K. Ho, who investigates the growing use of collaboration as a medium.
For additional information, please contact us at 212.643.3152 or info@winkleman.com.


Hope you'll add the western-most part of West 27th Street to your itinerary if you're heading out next Thursday!

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Let's Talk About Art

I know, I know, it's beyond hypocritical of me, mere days after lecturing folks on why it's fine to discuss the art market on this blog...how it doesn't have to distract artists from their work...how doing so doesn't warrant comparisons between me and Dick Cheney (I mean, really!), but the contrarian in me responded to the article in today's New York Times (and I agree with Tyler here that it belonged in the business section, not the arts section [yes, yes, it's another meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society, what can I say...Tyler's consistently there with the goods]) by wishing that whatever impact the turbulence of the stock market might have on the art market would just happen already so we can get back to talking about art.

Wish in one hand and piss in the other, as my Aunt Janet used to say...but yesterday's absolutely brilliant thread on originality and religion and pop culture and fine art was exactly the sort of dialog that attracted me to the art world in the first place. It's up to 115 comments now (prompting Bambino last night to protest he wasn't going to read all that now), although I think half of those were by Chris. ;-)

Don't get me wrong, I can talk for hours about the market as well (and did, just last night), and have a good enough sense of cycles to know that in additional to potential pitfalls, many opportunities lie ahead, but I can recall, back when things were much tighter and we were too depressed to discuss the market, we talked about---surprise, surprise---art. (It's a luxury only the poor can afford, I guess.)

So, again, I'll second Tyler's sentiment and suggest that, in the arts section of the paper, at the very least...let's talk about "art," shall we?

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Simple Question Tuesday

In a recent essay on religion and arts in America (brought to my attention by Chris Rywalt), Camille Paglia noted:

The state of the humanities in the US can be measured by present achievement: would anyone seriously argue that the fine arts or even popular culture is enjoying a period of high originality and creativity?
Anyone?

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Double Agents and Secret Tools of the Trade

For some reason or another, this past season I've seen a sharp increase in the number of online submissions to the gallery by someone acting as the self-labeled "agent" of the artist. I know it's not very nice of me, but I almost always instinctively imagine this "agent" as the artist's ne're-do-well brother-in-law looking for an "Entourage" lifestyle and assuming a few e-mails or phone calls will have him up to his neck in Escalades and bikini-clad babes.

Of course, I know very busy artists who have managers and/or studio managers, and perhaps if said artist is changing galleries their manager will act as an agent in some regard during tense contract negotiations, but to be quite honest, my gallery is not at the level yet that we can't work such matters out over a nice bottle of wine (some day...). Indeed, there are dealers who've been in the business a lot longer than me (and any of you reading, please do feel free to enlighten me), but as long as I've been in the fine art business, I've never once encountered any gallerist who was even remotely interested in talking with an emerging artist's "agent." This is primarily because the gallerist sees it as their job to serve as the person or business authorized to act on the artist's behalf (or in other words, the "agent") and the idea of sharing that responsibility, strikes most gallerists, I imagine, as double the work.

But I'm willing to concede I may simply have not encountered a common practice in the art world, so I performed a quick google search on "agent for visual artists" and found the following:

Visual artists usually do not have agents or personal managers, though they can benefit from business managers when they make a good living.
The same search did turn up one artists' agency in the UK, but their raison d'etre is to "recruit artists who are looking to supplement their income by producing design work suitable for possible use on Greeting cards, Prints, Ceramics and numerous other products."

In the end, I feel, unless you're one of the lucky few, there's not enough money being made during the emerging stage of an artist's career to share that money with someone whose responsibilities duplicate what a gallery does. If you're an emerging artist, please note that I immediately delete emails to me sent by an "agent" and suspect many of my colleagues do as well. Seriously, I don't even look at the art. I assume that if the artist feels they need someone to act as a buffer between him/her and me, I'm not going to have the kind of relationship with that artist I want, so why bother.

Again, though, this reflects my experience and I'm happy to hear from others who know it's perhaps atypical.

Speaking of experience, though, I received a very nice email from a young person who has just begun a career in the gallery business:

I am sorry to bother you but I read your blog and was hoping you could help. I just recently entered the NYC art world working as an assistant at a very small gallery in the city. I really enjoyed your blog and am trying to learn all I can about the NYC gallery/art world. Would you be willing to give me any advice on what to read, where to go, what to know? I know that’s asking a lot, but any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks so much.
I wish there was some secret source on what to read, where to go, and what to know, but the truth of the matter is each gallerist I know either learned from working for another gallery or made it up as they went along. I don't know of any higher education program that offers much more than a continuing education (i.e., generally one term) class on running a gallery (I know the New School used to, but I couldn't find it in their current bulletin).

But there are some things you can do that will peel away the shroud of mystery that covers the business. First and foremost, I recommend reading
The Art Dealers by Laura de Coppet. I've recommended this book for a short overview of contemporary art in general, but by seeing how each of the interviewed gallerists came to own their own space, you'll get an idea for how individualistic the business is.

Also, I'd recommend hanging around with other gallerists or gallery employees. Although you must be nominated to be invited to join, the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) was created specifically to help professionals just getting into the business share their experiences and learn from each other. The
NADA mission puts it much more succinctly:

Our mission is to create an open flow of information, support, and collaboration within our field and to develop a stronger sense of community among our constituency. We believe that the adversarial approach to exhibiting and selling art has run its course. We believe that change can be achieved through fostering constructive thought and dialogue between various points in the art industry from large galleries to small spaces, non-profit and commercial alike.
The one thing you'll learn the more you investigate about the most successful art dealers, is that they have insatiable appetites for information and meeting people. Two very powerful New York art dealers illustrate this penchant. One, rather established at this point, famously memorized years worth of auction catalogs and their sales results, as a child. The other, younger today, but impressively almost as powerful now, is someone I saw tirelessly work a room at a gala art event (in another venue) when the gallery was just starting, making sure to meet everyone and handing them the gallery card, telling them to come by. Again, the drive and ambition those examples illustrate is what it takes to succeed in this business.

But as with any business in the world, I'm convinced you'll never really be more than an also-ran by following in someone else's footsteps. To really make a mark you have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, whether that be with a unique business model, specialized market niche domination, or being an early champion of some important development. I'd recommend being alert to such opportunities and being bold in your choices.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Is It Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride?

As the art market death watch heats up (see MAO's post on Eli Broad's predicitons), the two big auctions houses seem hellbent on discouraging collectors from pestering them to take on lower-priced works. From artinfo.com:

Three weeks after Christie’s announced that it would raise its buyers’ commissions by about one quarter, Sotheby’s has announced it will do the same, reports Bloomberg. As of Sept. 1, buyers will be charged 25 percent of the sale price on the first $20,000, 20 percent of the price above $20,000 up to and including $500,000, and 12 percent of any remaining amount above $500,000.Previously, the rates were 20 percent of the hammer price on the first $500,000 and 12 percent for $500,000 or more.
Indeed, as the Bloomberg report notes, this moves seems designed to alleviate themselves of the drudgery of handling lower-priced works:

Sotheby's, which auctioned almost as much art as Christie's in the first half, has said its strategy is to focus on higher- priced works. The auction house sold 37,977 lots in the first six months, compared with 56,978 at Christie's, Sotheby's said in an e-mail.

Christie's, which raised its fees on lower-priced lots early this month, wouldn't say how many lots it sold.
The timing of this strategy is kind of brilliant actually in that if the market does slow down, it's in the mid-range priced work market that the biggest effect is expected. The conventional wisdom is that highest-end works will see their prices readjusted downward, of course, but a respectable demand will still be there, and the emerging art prices will remain attractive enough to keep hard-core collectors feeding their addictions, but many more of those pieces that were entering that range that's a bit of a financial stretch for your average collector (especially those in the $50,000+ range) will end up back in artists' studios. Of course, if there's anything the past 5 years have taught us it's that the conventional wisdom needs tweeked a bit, due to the more global nature of the market, but, as Bette would say, "Fasten your seatbelts...."

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Worth More Than the Canvas It's Painted On

I'm sure I've shared this anecdote before, but it's the privilege of the aging and/or un-caffienatedly senile to repeat themselves, and it sums up entirely why I feel the Artist-Museum Partnership Act is well past due.

A famous French artist is recognized by the owner of a cafe he's entered. The host makes a fuss about the honor of having such a distinguished guest and suggests that if the artist draws a picture while he prepares him a lavish meal, he'll be happy to pay for the artwork and cover the tab as well. The artist agrees, flipping over the paper place mat before him and taking a pen from his satchel. A few minutes later, arriving with the wine, the cafe owner is very pleased to see a stunning rendering of the flower arrangement at the artist's table. "Mon dieu, Monsieur [artist]." he proclaims. "Fantastique! What a masterpiece...etc. etc. etc."

The artist signs the drawing with a flourish and presents it to the cafe owner. "That will be 5000 Francs." (This was back when that was a significant sum, mind you. [and Francs were still legal tender in France] Yes, OK, so I need some new stories.)

The cafe owner gulps and steps back. "5000 Francs?!?! But you must be kidding. It only took you five minutes to make that drawing."

"No, Monsieur," answered the artist. "It's taken me my entire life to make that drawing."
Indeed.

The notion artists can only claim the value of their raw materials when donating work to art institutions is absurd. But there's a renewed push to change the law, and as
artnet.com reports, Gail Andrews, director of Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art, and newly elected president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, plans to make it a priority during her term. Here's the skinny:

The "Artist-Museum Partnership Act of 2007" -- introduced in the senate in February by Patrick Leahy, and in the house by representatives John Lewis and Jim Ramstad, in March -- would allow for artists to deduct the "fair-market value" of artworks given to art museums on their taxes, creating an incentive to donate works. In the past, several similar laws have been introduced into congress, but have languished (in 2005, the Senate considered "The Art and Collectibles Capital Gains Tax Treatment Parity Act," while the House had "The Artists' Contribution to American Heritage Act of 2005.") [...]

At present, the bill sits in committee, waiting to be taken up by the 110th Congress. According to the nonprofit Americans for the Arts -- which has an "action alert" on its website, arguing the benefits of the law -- when a market-value exemption for art donations was repealed by Congress in 1969, gifts by artists to nonprofit institutions took a drastic hit. The Museum of Modern Art, for instance, faced a 90 percent decrease in donations in the three years following the change.

To those who worry about art-donation tax fraud, the brief notes, "[o]nly a relatively small number of people would be eligible under this bill, since all deductions must be claimed against income earned from artistic activity," adding reassuringly that "museums reject over 90 percent of what is offered to them."
Disheartening or not, that last fact should be all anyone with any sense in Congress should need to assure themselves that most of the fear about fraud is unfounded. Americans for the Arts makes it easy for you to urge your Congresscritter to co-sponsor this legislation. Donn Zaretsky has been following this story and has more information.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Support the Troops

It's one of those images that becomes instantly iconic. In fact, no sooner had I read the headline and first sentence of Holland Cotter's review of the exhibition of Nina Berman's photographs of Iraq war veterans up at Jen Bekman's gallery than I immediately thought of an image I had seen a while back (although I hadn't known who had taken it). From today's New York Times:

Words Unspoken Are Rendered on War’s Faces

One of the more shocking photographs to emerge from the current Iraq war was taken last year in a rural farm town in the American Midwest.
And sure enough, he was describing the very image that is forever associated with the consequences of the invasion of Iraq in my mind (UPDATE: very interestingly, the New York Times, from where I originally sourced the "wedding" photo has renumbered the images of that story so that the one below actually appears twice and the wedding one doesn't appear at all. See http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2007/08/21/arts/bermanslide6.jpg and http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2007/08/21/arts/bermanslide6.jpg and http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2007/08/21/arts/bermanslide7.jpg). To see the image I'm referring to visit Jen Bekman Gallery's site.

Now I know it's foolhardy to conclude too much about someone's life from a photograph. It's possible that moments before and mere moments after that shot was snapped, both of these young people were all smiles and confident and hopeful and in love. But what this captured instant conveys, whether indicative or not, seems to be a heartbreaking blend of pain, uncertainty, and hope, and it stirs up the kind of empathy that makes you want to march on your nation's capital and hold some of those, who had other priorities when they were called to serve, accountable for their raging incompetence.

But before I stomp a hole through the top of my soapbox, let me separate out my stand on the war from that of the photographer. As Holland notes:
Ms. Berman adds no direct editorial comment to the presentation. She has said in interviews that she started photographing disabled veterans soon after the war began mainly because she didn’t see anyone else doing so.
As Holland also notes, though, the images in this exhibition represent only the tip of the iceberg with regards to the number of wounded Americans returning home from that conflict. Ms. Berman's image of Iraq war veterans has been published in the book, Purple Heart, Back From Iraq.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Same As It Ever Was

[T]hese guys these days, these youngsters, get up in the morning, they paint a picture, they hang it up in an exhibition and the Ford Foundation gives them a prize.... They have their [well-known collectors] who stand there and catch the next picture that comes off the easel.
----Edith Gregor Halpert, early 1960s


It takes me forever to read biographies. I'll spend months savoring one, taking it in bit by bit, stopping to read up on something or someone it had introduced me to before I go back for more. I feel that's fine though. It takes years to research and write one and, clearly, someone's whole life to inspire one.

I note this mostly to explain to Lindsay Pollock, in case she's reading, why I've just finished her thoroughly engrossing, incredibly well-written book, The Girl With the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market. She was kind enough to sign it for me a while back, but I only just read the final pages tonight.

The Times reviewer praised the book (and gives a good summary of the details of Halpert's life and times, so I won't here, except to note for reference sake that she opened her gallery in the West Village in 1926), but he thought Pollock is "perhaps too enamored of her subject’s plucky spirit." I can't say. I fall into that category of reader the Times reviewer meant when he wrote: "Historians of the American folk art market, created in part by her salesmanship, will find plenty of details to chew on." And chew I did. [update: OK, so I just re-read that and need to clarify that I don't mean to imply I'm a historian, and certainly not of the American folk art market, but merely someone who was absorbed by the details of Halpert's life.] The number of innovations that Halpert introduced that contemporary gallerists still use to market and sell art is impressive, and I made plenty of mental notes about things I'll have to try.

As, um, wonderful as it was to learn that artist-dealer and artist-collector relations haven't really changed all that much, it was really surprising to see how little the market factors have changed over the decades, even though each generation assumes the good ole days were better and it's all gone to hell under their watch. In the early 60's Edith wrote to a client [any typos mine]:

A great change has taken place in the art world with two new classifications among collectors--THE INVESTOR and THE RICH MAN WHO IS BORED. The first buys names and the second buys erotica, happenings etc. concentrating on sensationalism exclusively. [She waged a] one-man battle against the new 'investment' buyers. We have been turning them down wholesale and are getting a bad reputation but I am really adamant on the subject as you know.
The one thing that Halpert remained impressively true to throughout her 36 years as a gallerist was her unyielding faith in the art she sold. Her business had survived the Great Depression, WWII, and the ever-evolving tastes of the critics, curators, and collectors who saw the craze for old masters, European Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop art, to name but a few, come and go. She was a true believer in the idea that art is for everyone (introducing payment plans to encourage those without millionaires' budgets to collect) and had little patience for those who didn't spend the time to understand why what she was selling was important. Her thoughts on the market were always impressive for someone who made her fortune selling art. When, in the 1960s Americans were buying American art with a vengeance, a lot of it from her, she stuck to her guns:

"When the crash comes and it's in the making right now and has been for some time, it will drive out, I hope, all the investors--now they come in and say 'Is it a good investment?'" Edith had her answer ready for these new buyers. "I'm sorry," went her line. "I can't sell anything to you. I don't have a brokerage license and I may not sell securities."
There are only a handful of people in the art world I know with that much integrity on the subject. I imagine Edith is up there, watching the market today, a cigarette in one hand and a Scotch in the other, shaking her head. Thanks for the portrait, Lindsay. I loved it.

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An absolute gem

I haven't read this book (wouldn't buy it if you paid me), but I find that this insight softens my otherwise unfavorable opinion of our former President. From The New Republic:


"A moment I've been dreading. George brought his ne're-do-well son around this morning and asked me to find the kid a job. Not the political one who lives in Florida. The one who hangs around here all the time looking shiftless. This so-called kid is already almost 40 and has never had a real job. Maybe I'll call Kinsley over at The New Republic and see if they'll hire him as a contributing editor or something. That looks like easy work."

-- Ronald Reagan in his recently published diaries, May 17, 1986.
Ouch.

UPDATE: Kelli tells us "The writer Kinsley is just speaking in jest and plugging himself he mentions the conversation is occuring in his imagination. The quote has been picked up but supposedly it's not in the diaries."

Still...a gem even as satire.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Iraq Reality Check from the Men on the Ground

Bush has consistently deflected the advice offered him by those with more experience in waging war than he has by insisting that he makes his decisions based on what his generals on the ground in Iraq tell him. The fact that the generals who don't tell him what Cheney wants to hear are shuffled off the battlefields is supposed to be something we ignore, I guess, but in the press this sound bite serves as cover for the obvious fact that Bush doesn't really care what the reality is on the ground. With God's help, he intends to will the US to victory in Iraq, just as soon someone tells him what victory there actually (i.e., in non-rhetorical terms) means.

Given he moves his generals around based on their support of the latest twists in Cheney's vision (i.e., what Cheney's buddies in the oil industry tell him they want on a silver platter this month), I don't expect the President to pay much heed to the observances and insights of mere soldiers on the ground in Iraq, but those of us left with no options for what to believe is really going on due to the traditional media's constantly confused and overall controlled coverage would all benefit greatly, I submit, from listening to the brave Americans putting their lives on the line in the service of their country.

Seven such soldiers have written a piece published in Sunday's New York Times: Buddhika Jayamaha, an Army specialist. Wesley D. Smith, a sergeant. Jeremy Roebuck, a sergeant. Omar Mora, a sergeant, Edward Sandmeier, a sergeant, Yance T. Gray, a staff sergeant and Jeremy A. Murphy, a staff sergeant. Their essay, The War as We Saw It, strikes me as one of the most lucid and truthful sounding assessments I've read (partly because of its absence of flag-waving bullshit and partly, because as they note at its end, "We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through").

Here's one of the key assessments they share:

[I]t is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.
That's important to remember: the ability of, say, John McCain or, say, a German journalist to stroll through a marketplace and not be shot reveals nothing significant about the experience of the local citizenry or how well the war is going. But more important than their warning to Americans about being fooled by such publicity stunts into thinking we're "winning" in Iraq (they note that although we have the power to win specific battles and secure areas, to make any of that mean anything long term "require[s] measures we will always refuse — namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force") is their assessment of why Bush's stated current political strategy is doomed to failure:

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.
That's a fairly generous assessment on their part if you ask me, but they boil it down to what I feel are the un-ignorable indicators of colossal incompetence by this President:

Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages.
Of course everyone can criticize. What we need at this point are realistic next steps. These soldiers suggest the following:

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.
The bottom line here is that no amount of American prodding is going to make the Iraqi's form a government that will equally share the power among the factions. The Sunnis and Shiites, alone, obviously don't trust each other (the Kurds would likely be the first to sign off on a division of the country). Indeed, the idea of a unified democratic Iraq has been but a fantasy for quite some time now. Their next truly sovereign leader will be the person who manages to strong-arm his way into power and most likely will need to maintain that power via the sorts of compromises of the ideals that we had hoped to bring Iraq that eventually corrupted our previous ally there, you remember...Saddam Hussein?

UPDATE: For a lengthy, but thoughtful, dissenting view to the soldiers' opinions, see BlackFive's response. I have a few logical problems with his response (e.g., just because someone had incorrectly predicted the ability to [momentarily] secure Anbar province doesn't de facto mean the same result is possbile everywhere and assumes the insurgents learned nothing by being routed out of Anbar. Baghdad, where the soldiers who wrote the piece are stationed, will undoubtedly remain a challenge until the very end, given its importance to both sides ... and ... this idea:

Politics in Iraq, at this point, have to be viewed not as part of a "peace process," which is a foolish dream. They have to be viewed as a part of the war effort. They should not be designed to offer concessions in return for negotiations; they should offer concessions only in return for alliance, and should punish those who remain outlaws, who wage war against the central government. It is necessary that reconciliation be able and willing to forgive and offer amnesty to those who are willing to come in from the cold; if the COIN [counterinsurgency operation] is being fought successfully, there will always be more such persons arriving. As long as you remain opposed, however, you must be fought hard and offered no political relief. There must be consequences: this is a basic part of my understanding of COIN strategy.
is a recipe for a enduring conflict that will surely exhaust America's already tattered patience, ensure the deaths of many more innocent Iraqis [many of whom will undoubtedly be pulled into the conflict the longer it gets extended by such strategies], and that assumes the central government isn't a willing [if covert] player in the insurgency with their own reasons for perpetuating it, or at least assumes the Shiite vision of dominating the country post-invasion [i.e., oppressing Sunnis in the process] is fine by us.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Juicy Gossip Friday

ONE : Know Your Landlord

In an interesting twist to the perpetually problematic art+real estate relationship, the owners of Sotheby's New York office are putting it on the market.
Lisa Sandler of Bloomberg reports that the owners, RFR Holding LLC, bought the building back in 2003 from Sotheby's who at the time was facing anti-trust fines (they then leased the space back). The price RFR bought it for 4 years ago? $175 million. According to RFR, though, they've received offers as high as $500 million for it today.

That increase is a reflection of just how insane the NYC real estate market is, but there's much more to this story than record-breaking prices. Sotheby's is objecting to RFR's marketing of their building on the grounds that their lease agreement requires their landlord to offer them the building first:

"The company is pursuing its rights with respect to the right of first offer,'" Sotheby's said in a quarterly filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Aug. 9. If successful, "this could result in a material benefit to the company.'"
I haven't run out and received a degree in real estate law since we last talked, but I'm not entirely sure how doing so is going to help Sotheby's buy the building for a better price. If RFR knows the building could fetch half a billion dollars, they might as well price it up in that range, no? (Lawyers, feel free to educate me here). Of course, as the article points out, Sotheby's hasn't come out and said they want to buy their building. They may simply be pursuing this alleged breach of contract to see what they can get out of it.

But hang on, there's more. The real juice in this property game gossip is this little tidbit:

RFR's president, Aby Rosen, became a kingpin of New York real estate with the $375 million purchase of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in 2000. He is an art collector and sits on the board of auction house Phillips de Pury & Co.


TWO : From A to B and Back Again

In case you missed it when Tyler posted on it, Modern Art Notes super-guest blogger (and all around brilliant art world insider) Todd Gibson
reframes the growing grumbling about "the direction that the initially promising Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant Program has gone."
So think on this: if Andy Warhol were alive today, and if he were personally giving his foundation's money to arts writers, who would he bankroll?
But let me back up. Here's Tyler on what's spurring this discontent (with a link to Andrew Berardini with the details):
Meanwhile, at The Expanded Field, Andrew Berardini finds some of the many flaws with the Warhol Foundation's art-writers grant program, including cronyism and a lack of younger grantees. He's right. (Though specific examples -- they're there -- would make his case even stronger.) Last year the foundation asked me to encourage writers who blog to apply. This year? I'd say don't bother. After seeing who the grantees (and the panelists) were last year, I'm not.
OK, so to be fair I should quote Andrew, who pointed out:
Though nearly every project given in the last round of this grant project
is legitimate and deserving
, the grantees are hardly an undistinguished bunch. [emphasis mine]
Disclosure: I applied for one of those grants last year, after considerable encouragement, and thought I would at least blog about the experience, but not getting one didn't end up being as interesting as I thought it might.



THREE : Bubble, bubble, art world trouble?

The death watch for the contemporary art market has begun in earnest.
Charlie Finch notes:
Those that believe the sky is the limit for contemporary art prices need only look at the current hedge-fund problems roiling the markets for a caution sign.

Even more ominous sounding is this tidbit:
The unseen leverage factor in contemporary art lies in the way many galleries do business: using the rising value of inventory as the basis for bank credit to pay day-to-day expenses, top-of-the-line rents and expansions to hot new neighborhoods like Loisaida. As art prices rise, debt becomes easier to acquire, gallery wall space increases to showcase the hot art for day-tripping collectors who write more checks, increasing the base value of all present and future works by in-demand artists, whose inventory valuations allow galleries to gain more credit. Reduce surplus collector cash and these equations unravel quickly, the way the inability of middle-class home owners to pay their mortgages is unraveling hedge funds managed by Wall Street's most prestigious firms, who should know better, but never seem to.
Todd Gibson is also concerned:

During the first two weeks of August, while everyone in the art world was away doing what art world people do during the summer, this long-awaited correction may have started.
Over at Art World Salon, Ian Charles Stewart is looking for some concrete indications of whether that pin is about to prick the spherical canopy around art prices, asking "does anyone know if auction houses are still offering sales guarantees this year?"
In a financial market turning south it is a common strategy to buy “put options” before everyone else notices; i.e. contracts to lock in now, a right to sell something in the future, to someone else at a price fixed now, when you think the market as a whole is falling. An Art market equivalent would be to agree with an auction house now to sell a collection later in the year, on condition of sale price guarantees, set now, at current pricing. Always a risk for the auction house (ask Phillips de Pury), in a real down market it can be a disaster. The smart auction houses understand this, of course. If they are nervous about market values, they stop giving guarantees. Perhaps only in some markets. Perhaps in all.
You'll have to head over there to find the answer to Ian's question.

Have a juicy weekend folks.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What a Difference a Draft Makes

To my mind the biggest inconsistency within the Bush administration's sales pitch for the so-called Global War on Terror (as John Stewart said, "After we defeat [terror], I’m sure we’ll take on that bastard ennui") has been that for what's being billed as a critical conflict that demands sacrifices, those sacrifices seem to be limited to a very small portion of the population. Bush has said,

Wars are not won without sacrifice -- and this war will require more sacrifice, more time, and more resolve.
And to help rally the nation to make this sacrifice he has done his Churchhillian damnedest:
We will confront this mortal danger to all humanity. We will not tire, or rest, until the war on terror is won.
But, beyond the rallying rhetoric, this President's real notions about national sacrifice border on idiotic:

[Jim] LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you’ve just said - and you’ve said it many times - as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it’s that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military - the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They’re the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.

BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.

What no one is really saying, but everyone means, when they ask about a national sacrifice, of course, is why, if this struggle is so important, doesn't the President implement a military draft (whereby all Americans of a certain age would be called upon to defend their nation against this global threat). The President's response to that suggestion (even from his own generals) generally combines praising the brave young men and women serving and insisting "the all volunteer military meets the needs of the country military." What he doesn't say though is that he understands full well that his currently low numbers in the polls would look like astronomical sums in comparison to measures of his popularity if he started calling up the nation's young people randomly and shipping them off to go fight in the desert. More than that, however, he knows that a draft would (finally) spark the anti-war movement into high gear.

I suspect we're going to hear a good deal more about the draft (or lack thereof) in the upcoming Presidential elections.
Senator Clinton has already asked the White House to clarify their position after Bush's so-called "War Czar" (isn't that what a Commander in Chief is?) said we should consider a draft. And on the GOP side of things, Mitt Romney is sure to be asked to clarify his position on the draft given that his gaff about his five sons "serving" their nation by helping get him elected doesn't seem to want to go away.

Personally, I don't think Bush should have invaded Iraq, and I don't believe we'd be having this conversation about the draft if Bush had focused on al Qaeda instead of seizing upon the 9/11 attacks to launch his long-standing dreams of securing the oil in the Middle East for his business associates. I do believe that if the President is forced to repeatedly re-deploy the same men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan, or cancel their scheduled leave, because reserve troops are not available, that the sacrifices they're being asked to make are too great. Also, I do believe we'd see a much quicker withdrawal from Iraq should a draft be implemented. The remaining Americans who support this fiasco might be willing to sacrifice our civil liberties to its cause, but if the examples set by Romney or Bush tell us anything, many seem to be very unwilling to sacrifice their own children to it.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

His and Hers Unmatching Cups

In response to yesterday's post about the passing of Elizabeth Murray (see also this lovely "In Appreciation" in today's New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg), an anonymous commenter noted a double standard that I think is more than fair to consider here:

I didn't like her work, but also felt that she was dismissed in a very sexist manner, so I feel a bit like a gender traitor in not defending her work. But I just never liked it.

But she was absolutely right when she said that no one ever trivialized Cezanne's paintings of cups and saucers and apples as "domestic" or homebodyish, housewifely, etc., like they did with hers. I think, even as a woman, I am guilty of that too; when I saw her giant coffee cups flying around, I thought, ick, housewife in the kitchen, painting between the children's feedings and the housework, whereas when a man paints cups, one doesn't think that. We all have to watch those sexist assumptions.
Which got me to wondering, what exactly does one think when a man paints domestic objects?


Instinctively, for mostly non-narrative (and even for a good number of narrative) paintings/photographs, when a man is the artist I forget the subject matter and look at the paint/light/composition, etc. In fact, the only time I even think about whether it's appropriate for a man to paint/photograph something (anything at all) is when it's a young person in an overly sexual pose (something I give women, ironically, much more latitude in [see: Sally Mann]).

But I have to admit that Anonymous' response to Murray's subject choices had occurred to me as well. It made me slightly uncomfortable that many of Murray's choices were so "housewifely." Which is absolutely insane because many hundreds of years ago when I was an amateur painter, the thing I drew or painted most often (probably hundreds of times) was a tea cup. I totally understand the appeal of a cup as subject (color and light in a very straightforward form that's immediately recognizable as well-rendered or not, permitting you to focus on the paint). And yet never once did it occur to me that this wasn't a masculine enough subject (insert obvious gay joke here).

It sucks having to be so conscious of your subject choices, I'm sure, but in the end Murray was right to paint what she wanted to, regardless of our responses. Do yourself a favor (and pay Murray the respect), if you don't already, and focus on how she painted a cup the next time you see one of her works. I intend to.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Elizabeth Murray (1940 - 2007)

Elizabeth Murray passed away (from complications from lung cancer). From the New York Times obituary by Roberta Smith:
Ms. Murray belonged to a sprawling generation of Post-Minimal artists who spent the 1970s reversing the reductivist tendencies of Minimalism and reinvigorating art with a sense of narrative, process and personal identity. Her art never fit easily into the available Post-Minimal subcategories like Conceptual, Process or performance art. This may have been because her loyalty to painting, which was out of fashion, was unwavering. At the same time, her blithe indifference to the distinctions between abstraction and representation or high and low could put off serious painting buffs.

Both tendencies enabled her to be one of a small group of painters — including Philip Guston, Frank Stella and Brice Marden — who during the 1970s rebuilt the medium from scratch, recomplicating and expanding its parameters and proving that it was still ripe for innovation, in part because of its rich history.
We had gone a few rounds about Ms. Murray's work and the response to her 2006 MoMA retrospective here. At that time, at the moment in her career when Murray's place in art history was its most secure, Michael Kimmelman noted:
She has pursued a problem partly inherited from Cubism, and filtered through Surrealism and comics. It is how to get movement (translating her absorption in the sensuous push and pull of pigment) into a static image - how to make a figurative painting, even when its subjects are inert objects like tables and glasses, convey instability, fracture, speed, collapse, explosion, thrust. This isn't a new problem, of course. Among others, Ms. Murray has had her great hero Cézanne to emulate.

Her inclination has been to nudge painting toward relief sculpture: to concoct and combine panels and shaped canvases that teem with goofy incident and stuff. What results can look as rickety as an old jalopy. Paint pools, congeals and drips. Sides and edges of canvases stay unfinished, like the backs of stage props, openly belying their ostensible illusions. You love them or not for their messiness.
May she rest in peace.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Long Weekend

We're heading out of town for a long weekend, and have some last-minute things to attend to, so I'll substitute a post with my favorite YouTube video at the moment (yes, they change frequently...isn't that the idea?). This one is so popular it's been on TV as well, but if you haven't seen it, keep watching, it just gets more and more amazing. Have a great weekend all!

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Scapegoats (R) Us

Warning: Partisan pontification ahead.

I know this will strike many of my friends on the Republican side of the aisle as unfair, but having been the recipient of such cynical political posturing, I don't mind saying that the GOP's penchant for creating and then campaigning on the pledge to contain or eradicate some dangerous "other" in our midst is the single greatest reason I don't trust their party as a whole. The approach is antithetical to my belief that "united we stand" (in which I assume "we" is inclusive), and perhaps most offensive to me is how in private (I lived and worked in the cesspool of national politics we call the nation's capital for five years) many of them will confess to not really feeling personally the way they campaign, especially when it comes to the party's rhetoric surrounding a presidential campaign season's chosen scapegoat (when the stakes are so high, good soldiers must simply fall in line).

The last time around (2004) the main domestic scapegoats were "the gays" (which reminds me, you have to see
this video). But, even though I expect plenty of gay bashing from the GOP in the 2008 elections, it'll be somewhat tempered by the dual facts that 1) after you propose removing every book from a library that was written by a homo or features a gay character, you haven't really left your fellow gay haters much in the way of novel legislation to campaign on, and 2) shining too bright a light on the threat that gays pose to "normal" Americans risks reminding the base of the seemingly never ending parade of closet cases in the GOP who just yesterday were right there beside the rest of them fighting the scourge (and, let's face it, eventually even the dimmest among them will connect the dots and realize that means there are probably others right there beside them, or ---gasp---standing behind them, at the "Blame the Gays" rally).

But not to worry, the GOP already has its next main scapegoat lined up, the next biggest threat to our way of life, the scourge for 2008: "the illegals." Now, I'll be fair and note that I believe we have some significant problems with our immigration laws at the moment. But I also strongly believe that resolving them is possible without the sort of demonization we're seeing the Right stir up in its
radio hack shows and blogs. Of course, Congress is working (heh) on the issue, but with the true Red-White-and-Blue believers in no mood to compromise (and I believe it's fair to assume that's because they're more interested in using immigrants as a wedge issue than they are in actually solving the problems), a national, compassionate approach is not on the horizon. Therefore, we're seeing a hodge-podge of local and regional initiatives that reveal a hatred so vicious it quite literally frightens me.

I read a bit of graffiti the other day calling for civil war in the US to stop immigrants from taking over, claiming that the number of "illegals" was higher than the total number of police and military in the country (implying that immigrants could band together and overthrow the country). It was so paranoid and hateful I seriously considered calling the police to have them track down the author before he/she hurt someone. But in the absence of comprehensive unified legislation, and given the fear being mongered by the Right's PR machine, is it any wonder average citizens are dreaming up their own (twisted) solutions? But as horrific as such paranoid mutterings are, what's actually happening officially is even more inhuman.

The New York Times nailed the resulting atmosphere and ad hoc strategy perfectly in an
editorial titled "The Misery Strategy" today:

The path the country has set on since the defeat of immigration reform in the Senate in June enshrines enforcement and punishment above all else. It is narrow, shortsighted, disruptive and self-defeating. On top of that, it won’t work.

What it will do is unleash a flood of misery upon millions of illegal immigrants. For the ideologues who have pushed the nation into this position, that is more than enough reason to plunge ahead.
[...]
The federal government’s abandonment of comprehensive reform has been matched by unprecedented crackdowns at the state and local level. Lawmakers this year have introduced more than 1,400 immigration-related bills in all 50 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and enacted 170 of them. Many of the bills severely restrict where immigrants can live and work, and leave them vulnerable to exploitation and fearful of the police. It’s the federal approach of raids and aggression, metastasized across the continent.

The country will have a long time to watch this approach as it fails. The politicians who killed the Senate bill for offering “amnesty” have never offered a workable alternative. Their one big idea is that harsh, unrelenting enforcement at the border, in the workplace and in homes and streets would dry up opportunities for illegal immigrants and eventually cause the human tide to flow backward. That would be true only if life for illegal immigrants in America could be made significantly more miserable than life in, say, rural Guatemala or the slums of Mexico City. That will take a lot of time and a lot of misery to pull that off in a country that has tolerated and profited from illegal labor for generations. [emphasis mine]
That bears repeating. The current, piecemeal strategy, spearheaded and/or supported by Republican Senators, like John McCain, Jon Kyl and Lindsey Graham, and even reluctantly tolerated by moderates Republicans like Arlen Specter, is to create a permanent noncitizen immigrant underclass, and make life more miserable for them here than it was in the country they left to come here. In other words, to create a scapegoat and collectively and systematically oppress them.

God reserves a very special place in Hell for folks who operate like that.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Blur is Complete

Programming note: Art presses on, but because it's summer and even I need a vacation now and then, I'm gonna mix it up a bit the next few weeks.

It had to happen. The way things have been developing, it was merely a matter of time. From Variety:
NBC Universal is expanding its battle against YouTube and other viral video sites, using the weight of its top-rated USA cable network to launch an all-advertising website called Didja.com.

Set to launch early next year, site will offer a vast archive of current and classic TV spots, movie trailers and other "brand-related content." USA-Sci Fi Channel prexy Bonnie Hammer said the goal is to "become the go-to destination for on-demand advertising content."
You can't see anything if you go to Didja.com right now, but with this new concept, the blur is complete. Advertising = Entertainment. But wait, it gets worse:

Launch of Didja -- whose name is a play on the phrase "Did ya see that?" -- marks USA's first digital media initiative not directly linked to the cabler's programming. Brainstormed by USA execs, Didja will start out with extensive promotion on the channel and will eventually extend to all divisions of NBC Universal.

Didja will roll out after NBC and News Corp. mount their first major assault on YouTube, the viral video partnership known as New Co. Both efforts are designed to give NBC a bigger share of the ad revenue being generated by streaming video.

Peacock will use its massive ad sales division to help stock the site with content. Conglom hopes that advertisers will eventually pay for prominent placement on the site or create microsites within Didja focusing on their brand (an all-McDonald's channel, for example). [emphasis mine]

Mind you, Mickey D's hardly needs the additional exposure:
Anything made by McDonald's tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children.

In comparing identical McDonald's foods in name-brand and plain wrappers, the unmarked foods always lost.

Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.

The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald's foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.

"You see a McDonald's label and kids start salivating," said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids. She had no role in the research.

Levin said it was "the first study I know of that has shown so simply and clearly what's going on with (marketing to) young children."

Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the kids' perception of taste was "physically altered by the branding." The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were already so influenced by advertising.
"[R]emarkable" is not the first adjective that springs to my mind in response to that finding, but given we're talking about children here, I'll leave out the saltier words that do. Of course, it's not just the burger-pushing clown that's waging this battle for the hearts and effectively washed minds of the populace:
Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, said a fairer comparison might have gauged kids' preferences for the McDonald's label versus another familiar brand, such as Mickey Mouse.
Indeed, in another study (of web-centered [or "Social Media"] consumers), positive associations with the brand "Disney" were amazingly high:

Even within the tech-savvy crowd, the study reported that "After assessing consumer sentiment Google, Disney and Nintendo appear to have the most positive buzz going on." Disney?!?


Consider this an open thread:

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Art: The Last Reality? (or, Would Someone Throw Me a Definition, Please!)

Wonderful and ponderous food for thought in the artinfo.com interview with Richard Tuttle by Robert Ayers. Folks may recall that I consider Tuttle one of the most influential living artists, but as Ayers notes:

When Tuttle had his first major retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975, Hilton Kramer infamously savaged it in the New York Times: “In Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less. It is, indeed, remorselessly and irredeemably less. It establishes new standards of lessness."
(SIDEBAR: Speaking of lessness: What genius at The New York Times decided that right after they hiked up their price to $1.25 was the appropriate time to decrease the width of the Old Gray Lady by 1.5 inches? If I wanted a "standard" [their rationale for the change in size] newspaper, there are dozens of other, cheaper choices out there. It's not really the smaller page, as much as the one-two punch, I mind. But...the NYT has enough to contend with, with Murdoch hot on their tail, so I'll leave it at that.)

The major theme in the Tuttle interview centers on the notion that art is the only realm in which we can experience reality in our culture. It seems a dubious assertion, IMO, but let's give the great man a listen:

[RT:] Eastern philosophers talk about the illusion of the world. I feel very sympathetic to that, because you know in an instant if a person is involved with appearances or reality. There’s a whole huge structure out there that gives high marks for appearances. Then there are the people who are involved with what’s real. By far the vast majority of people’s lives are involved with appearances—even most art is just appearances. People are literally swept away by appearances.

[RA:] But you believe that you’re working with reality rather than appearance?

[RT:] In our culture there is a job for art, because we can’t experience reality anywhere else. And the experience of reality is absolutely fundamental to human existence. My job is to give the best possible visual experience. I try to raise the bar on the visual experience so that people can enjoy their lives. I get to thinking a lot about motivation—the purest motivation should result in the best visual experience. This is the first show where I think I’ve really connected with this motivation. It takes a lifetime to achieve one’s work. Art is not an overnight career. You can’t face your own desperation until after a long time.
I couldn't agree more with that last idea: "It takes a lifetime to achieve one’s work. Art is not an overnight career." But I'm not quite sure I understand the logic behind "we can’t experience reality anywhere else," (and anyone reading here for a long time will know that the idea that art has a "job," per se, chafes the back of my neck).

I assume Tuttle means that because our culture is dominated by mass media, which is, when all is said and done, just a vehicle for advertising, which has been raised to the science of inducing purchasing behavior via tapping into individuals feelings of inadequacy, mostly about superficial issues (has anyone noticed how those VISA check card commercials are geared toward making you feel like a stone-age loser if you pay with cash or a check?) that "our [mass] culture" is so overwhelmingly concerned with appearances that little reality can eek out of it. But I'm not so sure those pockets of Art that (may) manage to provide a glimpse of "reality" are any less pronounced/effective than those pockets of other realms (including mass culture) that do so as well. Or perhaps I'm working with a different definition of "reality" here.

To my mind, regardless of how raw or true to form an artist's materials are, once they've been rearranged and fixed into that arrangement, they reflect one person's "reality" more than anyone else's.

OK, so that was a bit disingenuous of me (allowing me to slip in that last tidbit to shake things up); Tuttle goes on to explain more fully what he means here:

[RA:] Why do you think that most art deals with appearances rather than reality?

[RT:] I think that it’s necessary to achieve art that is reality-based. In our culture, imitation-based experience dominates reality-based experience. I find this an awful thing. But there are artists who know from the bottom of their souls that art is about the experience of reality. The reason we have art is because you can’t get a real experience from the world. Philosophers can’t tell you, religion can’t tell you. So art has become hugely important.
Again, I full agree with that final notion (i.e., philosophy and religion don't come close to providing me with the kind of real experience that art does). But we're still left wanting a solid definition of "reality" here. Tuttle continues:

But our culture suppresses art. In our culture, the people who need art to survive are given the message that they’re weirdos. Every day and from every corner of the world they’re getting the message that art is imitation-based, which is absolutely the opposite of the truth. You would never base your life on imitation. Even the people who are saying to do it never would. It’s fucked. It’s really fucked.
Now, I can project onto this a definition of "reality" that makes this true for me (my "Reality" definition presupposes the entire universe and everything in it is but part of one big bowl of "molecule soup" and that we only believe/imagine things [like artists and sculptures] are separate, but they're actually all part of the same whole), but I wish to Hell Tuttle had offered his own here. Not that Ayers didn't try to get him to clarify:

[RA:] Can you give me an example of how art is presently conceived as imitation-based?

[RT:] Well, in the New York Times, art is treated as “entertainment.” When you get tired and you want to be distracted, then there’s art. There was a recent review that said, “Don’t expect to find tickets for Richard Tuttle’s show at Ticketron!” This is not that kind of show. This is about art as a necessity. There are shows where people will stand in line for blocks, but those are not about necessity. Fortunately, most of the world is not desperate enough that they need this kind of thing. But people who still have art in their lives, they’d be dead without it, because the suppression of art is so enormous.
That's a rather sobering notion, for me, actually: "people who still have art in their lives" (implying that art in my life could end as well), but can anyone restate those last two or so lines? I'm not at all sure what he's trying to say here. And, more to the point, I don't feel I'm any closer to his definition of "reality."

The closest I feel I got to understanding what he meant was in this passage:

[RA:] What do you think has brought this state of affairs about?

[RT:] This is a very special moment in human history, I think. We have a very clear vision right back to the foundation of our particular culture, and you can see that at the foundation of our culture, the artists worked out the theory and the practice of art. The theory is that art is reality-based, and the practice is to make something that shows that. But it’s tough. It’s hard. Every part of it is hard. The Hellenistic philosophers said things will be a lot easier if we say that art is imitation-based. They didn’t care, because they weren’t artists and they had a lot to gain from art being less than it is. So it stumbles along, year after year, without really satisfying anyone.

Every once in a while, usually in really desperate periods, when life becomes totally confused and almost unlivable, artists come back and create art that is reality-based, and everyone says, “thank you very much.” But then as soon as they can, they turn back to the imitation-based art.

This last notion implies either that artists must constantly struggle (against their tendencies) to create reality-based art or that artists, being products of the same culture the rest of are, would prefer to make imitation-based art because they long for it like anyone else. And, again, all of which would be much easier to decipher if we had solid working definitions of reality-based and imitation-based art, but, alas...feel free to jump in and save me from myself here at any point....

Image above from artinfo.com website: "Richard Tuttle, "Section II, Extension C." (2007) © Richard Tuttle 2007. Photo courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York"

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