Thursday, January 31, 2008

Damn the Renaissance! Open Thread

This won't be a stream so much as a glutted rusty drainage pipe of consciousness, and I'm sure there's some standard text out there in academia that I've missed that covers/dismisses all this (probably by some Australian), but I'll ask that you humor me as I wind my way through the barrage of thoughts and questions prompted by the sight of an earring on the sidewalk recently. I won't call it an epiphany so much as a suspicion, but my train wreck of thought went more or less like this:

I spied this humble hoop of small brown stones on the street the other day. Normally the kid in me delights in finding shiny objects in my path, but this one provoked a shrug and "ehh" until it dawned on me that a member of my family would probably adore that style of jewelry. I could hear her say "How beautiful!" in response to me, er, re-gifting it to her. (Settle down: I left it where it lay.)

But it did make me wonder why this woman whose favorite painter is renown for his luminescent snow-capped cottages could appreciate the beauty of something as abstract as the chunky earth-tone stones in an asymmetrical grouping. This woman who I know to sneer at Abstract Expressionism and other such achievements when on canvas, actually has a rather highly refined appreciation for abstraction in jewelry. And she's not alone, I know. This media bias is widespread.

I wondered: how do we not celebrate what's assumed to be a highbrow appreciation in some media when it's revealed via other media? And more than that
, where did this come from, this abstraction appreciation? And why on earth doesn't it extend to paintings?

My first suspicion was training. Despite great advances in moving away from this real-o-centrism over the past century or so, Westerners have been trained to expect representation in painting and that's that, as they say where I come from. But it seems silly in light of the fact that 1) appreciation of beauty has almost assuredly always included a highly developed appreciation for abstraction (as jewelry and patterning stretching back millennia suggest)--indeed, when we take in the dramatic gradations of a sunset or stare up from our blanket on the lawn through the jumble of leaves of the tree we're picnicking under and sigh "ahh, how beautiful" it's not the representational qualities of what we're seeing that pleases us--and 2) it's totally illogical to assign expectations of this sort to certain media without being consistent about it (i.e., jewelry can be both abstract and representational and still please our sense of how things should be, but when it comes to painting and even sculpture we [Westerners] are still highly resistant to seeing it that way). In short, it's human nature to appreciate abstraction in general, but we fight it when it comes to "fine art."

But how did it get to this point, this artificial division of expectation? I blame the Renaissance. Specifically, I blame Giotto and subsequently that myopic and meddlesome Piero della Francesca. They and their respective contemporaries launched the accelerated race toward realism for its own sake that still plagues us today--Giotto somewhat inadvertently, but della Francesca with an arrogance and recklessness akin to that displayed by the scientists on the Manhattan Project. By setting in motion the successive "achievements" that would send young artists scrambling to out-realist their predecessors, they introduced a dehumanizing virus of sorts into their disciplines, one that paralyzed a portion of how we truly see and appreciate what's around us. Lord help the hapless young Florentine foolish enough to suggest that perfect perspective and rigid rules of rendering were antithetical to true perception. From that point of Roman machismo up through the dawn of Modernism, there were, of course, those who saw the truth and sculpted or painted it, but they constantly risked scorn or misunderstanding in do so. And so here we are...artificially divided. Of course that is changing. More and more Westerners appreciate abstraction in painting all the time, but...

OK, so I knew I'd run out of time before finishing this, which I have. I promise to pick it up later, but feel free to jump in and correction my misunderstandings or faulty conclusions here....

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Feds Working Their Way West East (and Photographing Art Exhibitions Revisited)

Best headline by far I've read of the investigation into alleged Asian antiquities smuggling that included a raid of four California museums was Tyler's: "Museum attendance by federal agents up dramatically."

Now we read in the LA Times that the investigation is working its way West* East:
A federal investigation into looted Asian antiquities at Southland museums has broadened to include a prominent Chicago industrialist and art collector who purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of allegedly stolen artifacts from a Cerritos arts dealer.

On Thursday, the same day federal agents raided four Southern California museums suspected of displaying stolen art, authorities also searched the private museum of Barry MacLean, a trustee of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. The newly revealed allegations have significantly raised the stakes of the ongoing investigation, suggesting that a suspected network of illegal art dealers extended far beyond Southern California and included objects far more valuable than those previously revealed.

The affidavit suggests that MacLean built his well-known art collection with substantial help from Robert Olson, an alleged smuggler of illicitly excavated Thai, Asian and Native American artifacts. Warrants authorized federal agents to seize Cambodian daggers and a sword, a bronze mask, many objects from Thailand's Ban Chiang culture and all records relating to MacLean's dealings with Olson.

The supporting evidence for the raid was collected by an undercover National Park Service agent who, while visiting MacLean's collection, shot photographs of certain objects.
That last line must send chills down the spines of private collection security guards. "Hey you! You with the camera...you a Fed? You are??? Oh! OK, uh, just asking...."

James Wagner, who is phenomenally generous on his blog with press and images of work by under-recognized artists, has been posting on the topic of photography in galleries and museums for quite some time, including this 2005 classic on why he doubted whether he could blog on the Greater New York show that year, which didn't permit photos:

Barry writes that I'll probably be doing a post about our return visit to PS1's Greater New York 2005 show, but I don't know how I can do that without images.

There are no documented pictures on the institution's website [okay, there's a silly slideshow/teaser of a dozen or so works, but no information and the images can't be uploaded], and photography is not allowed in the galleries. My site can't function without pictures, and besides, they're called the visual arts, aren't they?

Indeed.

Before our current exhibition went up, though, I had told James and Barry (author of the equally generous art blog bloggy.com) that, despite agreeing with them on the value of bloggers photographing exhibitions in general, I might want to make an exception when the work in question portrays me in my birthday suit. I've since changed my mind (I got used to the idea) and told them so. Still, I totally appreciated that they understood my initial hesitation.

As this particular exhibition plus the ongoing Federal investigation of the alleged smuggling suggest, however, the questions involved are not always cut and dry. There may indeed be times when photography makes those in charge of some space uncomfortable, and I feel they have a right to make that call. What I feel is the appropriate means of communicating with the public that photography in a gallery or museum is not permitted is a clearly posted sign and a respectful explanation available at the information desk. If the conditions change, take the sign down and inform the folks dispensing info.

Having said that, I have to admit that few of the rationales I hear for forbidding photography truly make sense. James shared a list of the ones he hears most with me the other day, and he charmingly, as always, made mincemeat of each in terms of logic or evidence of harm. The wide range of positions held by galleries, from very young galleries with "no photography" policies to very well-established galleries with totally open policies, suggests there is no industry standard, per se. (Speaking of well-established galleries with open policies, don't miss this gem from Heart As Arena.) And so it comes down to personal preference, which is fine, so long as that preference is respectfully and clearly communicated.

*I wish I could hide behind some MAO-esque cleverness intended in that correction, but the truth of the matter is I'm a dizzy redhead with no sense of direction. ;-)

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Democracy or Fascism on the Blogosphere

A rising meme among blogosphere detractors is that, rather than democratic, its participants are actually fascist. This despite the fact that keeping the blogosphere open and unregulated is the one, and perhaps only, issue all bloggers of all political stripes and agendas agree on.

But the meme keeps rearing its head.

First there was Lee Siegel, whose charge that the Left on the blogosphere represented "hard fascism with a Microsoft face" came only briefly before
he was sacked from his blog job at The New Republic for being caught using sock puppets (a "sock puppet" is an alias that unscrupulous bloggers use to comment/defend their own writing, making it look as if the feedback is from someone else). More recently the disgraced Siegel (whose TNR posts you can't read anymore because his embarrassed publisher took them all down) came out with a book (Against the Machine) in which he compares bloggers to Stalin. As the amazing Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings noted:
I mean, in such a topsy-turvy world, why shouldn't my little blog posts be the
equivalent of sending millions off to die in the Gulag?
In our smaller subsection of the blogosphere, the art section, we have our own Lee Siegel: Cheesie Charlie, who is erupting all over himself again:
Thanks to the nitpicking morons of the art blogosphere, the Village Voice recently dismissed its art critic Christian Viveros-Faune due to his self-declared involvement with two art fairs. The foggy bloggies, who never tire of circle-jerking each other with praise in their dull, redundant musings, began to call for "regulating" critical speech like the blue-nosed cryptofascists they are, while ignoring the free market manipulations of the auction houses and blue chip galleries they love to suck up to.
You do have to begin to suspect he's only doing this because he loves our attention. Still, would it kill him to do a bit of research or self-reflection first? I mean, how the hell can anyone else suck up to the blue chip galleries with Mr. Finch's nose so far up the ass of certain power gallerists? Also, many a gigabyte has been consumed discussing the practices of auction houses on the blogosphere (at least here), as is obvious for anyone who knows how to use a search engine. And most importantly, no one called for "regulating critical speech." The call from one commenter was to regulate the art business, something I rejected. Still it provided a good excuse to have an open discussion of the pros and cons of what that might look like. You know, a public debate: the hallmark of a democracy.

But I wanted to flesh out the notion here that bloggers are fascists. It comes, I believe, from the ability of bloggers to get people fired or otherwise change their behavior. There are more well-known cases of this than CVF. As
Sarah Boxer recounts on her excellent exploration of blogs:
In 2004 the blogs Little Green Footballs and Power Line helped set Rathergate in motion when they spread the allegation that the memos Dan Rather presented on 60 Minutes II about President George W. Bush's Air National Guard duty were fakes. (Since then, a CBS panel investigating the matter has failed to prove that Rather's account of Bush's military career was substantially wrong,[2] and Rather has pressed a suit against CBS for "wrongful dismissal.")
What's at work here, I believe, is a new, extreme, immediate [and widespread] form of public pressure. Without its immediacy [or global nature] (i.e., if LGF and Powerline needed to wait until the next day to update their attacks [or only people in their home town read their rantings]) things would have moved more slowly, Rather might have had the elbow room to defend himself to his network, and he might still be sitting where Katie Couric squirms today. But because the attacks came fast and furious, he was forced to play catch up. He was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion before there was time for a fair hearing.

I'll be the first to admit this is problematic. But it's not fascist. It's the tyranny of the majority, which occurs frequently within democracies, but stems not from the direction/prodding of an elite leader or group (as is required in true fascism), but rather up from the groundswell of the mob. It's ugly, but it's not fascism. Oh, I know, Powerline and LGF are popular blogs and might constitute an "elite" to some people, but unlike in true fascism they have equally powerful opponents that keep them in check. Why they failed to stop Rathergate is a good question, but LGF et al. have been caught out in many other instances, just as have their opponents. So the system mostly works.

But that's what I suspect the Siegels and Finches begrudge about the blogosphere, its ability to serve as a check and balance on the previous monopoly held by pre-blog-era writers. In many respects, I get that. I put out my opinions and want them to be accepted, but sometimes others will vehemently disagree. Sometimes their disagreement is quite embarrassing for me, pisses me off, and makes me want to take revenge. Other times it makes me want to reflect, though, and there's no doubt that this open discourse has greatly widened my worldview. Opening minds is not one of the goals of fascism, regardless of how catchy a label that might seem to those who want control of what other people think.

UPDATE: The Boston Globe's arts blogger Geoff Edgers adds this note:

What's also strange - coming from me, apparently one of those bloggers who thought an art critic should understand the difference between reviewing exhibitions and organizing them - is this reference to the auction houses and galleries we all supposedly like to suck up to.

Isn't artnet a service that provides sales figures and basically charts the art market?


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Monday, January 28, 2008

Blogological Singularity

This is hands down the most insightful analysis of what blogs are I've read to date (makes Lee Siegel look like the mangy grapes-dissing fox he is). It's so good, I won't be surprised if it changes how blogs are written from this point on.

In fact, it's so very good, this may be the parallel to a technological singularity (you know, the moment an artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and more intelligent than any human could ever be and then can begin to reproduce without us, making humans irrelevant [and thus disposable] to them). By deconstructing so thoroughly how and why blogs are so effective and popular, Sarah Boxer may have planted the seeds for a paralyzing self-consciousness, somewhat akin to what Sartre's biography Saint Genet supposedly did to Jean Genet's ability to write novels.* One golden snippet:
For many bloggers infamy is better than no kind of famy at all. In his book The Future of Reputation, Daniel Solove quotes Jessica Cutler of the Washingtonienne blog: "Some people with blogs are never going to get famous, and they've been doing it for, like, over a year. I feel bad for them.... Everyone should have a blog. It's the most democratic thing ever." To go unnoticed in this democracy is to not exist. This kind of existential pressure, naturally, ups the ante on language.... Invective—hilarious, acidulous invective, often served up with false apologies—is everywhere. The law of the blogosphere is Hobbesian: survival of the snarkiest.
Highly recommended.

*Edmund White, Genet's subsequent biographer, disputed this speculation, just as the fact that I'm writing this blog post disputes my own here, but....

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A Duck Walks up to the Podium (or, Ed has a cold and this is all he can think of today)

Tonight begins the long line of lasts for George W. Bush. Tonight will be his last State of the Union address, heralding his final year in office (actually we're already well into that), and leading up to that glorious January day when the mantle of power will pass from him to some other, unquestionably better, President of the United States.

It's wrong to relish the irrelevancy of others, I know. But with Rudy slipping in the polls (thereby making the only person even less suited to be the leader of the free world now quite the long shot, I can say with confidence the next one should be a vast improvement), I feel so much relief these days. The dark clouds are parting, and regardless of who wins (and it looks like four people stand a good chance, three of whom would be historic firsts [first woman, first black, first Mormon]), there's no doubt in my mind the Executive branch will become more responsible and accountable in the future. It's hard to imagine it being less so.

So it's with a lighter heart and, despite the turbulence on Wall Street that spells uncertainty for us all, a renewed sense of optimism, I'll be watching that lame duck walk up to the podium this evening and quack his little heart out. I won't take anything he says seriously, mind you. I'll merely enjoy knowing we won't see him up there in that capacity again. Buh-bye, as they say...don't let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

475 Kent

It truly is appalling the way New York City treats its artist communities some times. In particular, when it comes to real estate, gentrification, and then the onset of truly subhuman greed among landlords, the stories you hear here are stomach-churning. Williamsburg, which has been reported to have the largest per capita concentration of working artists in the world, has seen its fair share of Dicksonian landlords bully out tenant artists (with the authorities' complicity) only then to quickly renovate their spaces into tacky luxury condos for lame-ass hipsters who are deluded (either chemically or genetically) enough to think they themselves are cool because their trust funds permit them to loiter among the creative classes ("you wouldn't understand Mother...I'm an artist now...just send the money"). Are you picking up on the fact that these poseurs annoy the hell out of me? Good.

Anyone who knows artists in New York has heard horror stories of their electricity and heat being cut, highly dubious "emergencies" necessitating evacuation, and other forms of constant harassment (all in the name of greed), but the latest episode of artist tenants being treated poorly by the city (and you can bet a billion this is leading up to some real estate development) is at 475 Kent. Here's a press release from the tenants association outlining the travesty our supposedly pro-arts Mayor is letting occur under his watch:
JANUARY 24, 2008
PRESS RELEASE:
FROM: 475 Kent Tenants Association

MATZO-GATE

NEW YORK CITY'S ARTISTIC COMMUNITY UNDER ATTACK

The live-work building located at 475 Kent Ave in Brooklyn's coveted waterfront neighborhood of Williamsburg was issued a Vacate Order by the NYC Fire Department on Sunday, January 20th at 7:30PM, the day before Martin Luther King day. Tenants were given until 1:30 in the morning to leave the building on a frigid January night.

475 Kent is a microcosm of New York City's cultural and economic activity with creative professionals generating an estimated $15 million in annual revenue. The vibrant community of 200 working artists - photographers, architects, writers, musicians, sculptors, filmmakers, designers, painters, printmakers, etc. is under attack.

It seems that the D.O B. is intent on making sure people will never be able to return to their spaces until all repairs are made and the building has a residential C of O, a prospect that could take years and millions of dollars. This renders 200 inhabitants most of whom are self-employed, small business entrepreneurs, both homeless and out of work. This building has been consistently and viably supporting creative professionals lives and businesses for ten years. The illegal eviction at 475 Kent comes on the heels of the evacuation of 17-17 Troutman in Ridgewood. That people's livelihoods and homes are being put in complete jeopardy makes one wonder if this is a trend and begs the phrase “follow the money”.

The events on Sunday night were precipitated when the FDNY inspected the basement of 475 Kent Ave. and “discovered” two 10' diameter metal canisters containing grain used for making Matzo. The Matzo bakery has been in the building for more than ten years. The DOB and fire department have inspected 475 Kent Avenue regularly for the past ten years and would have had to be blind if they were not fully aware of the existence of a Matzo bakery and the grain. The presence of the grain resulted in a so-called “hazardous emergency” situation that gave FDNY and DOB license to vacate the building. When some residents and the landlord offered to alleviate the problem and remove the grain from the building on Sunday night the FDNY replied “you are not qualified to move the grain”. They then issued the vacate order.

What ensued was unmitigated chaos under the direction of our friends at the OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANGEMENT starring the New York City Fire Department, Department of Buildings, NYPD, Health Department, Department of Agriculture and the Red Cross. Their only area of competence was at holding closed-door, inter-agency meetings, in which no tenant representative was allowed, every two hours in their brand new location trailer. How many City agencies does it take to unscrew a lightbulb? We'll let you know, we're still counting.

Upon the issue of the vacate order 200 people scrambled to rid 110 spaces of their most crucial belongings. The following day people were given 6 hours access to remove their belongings, tools and equipment, a scenario that for most people who had been in residence for 5 - 10 years with substantial equipment and installations was completely untenable. From there the scene snowballed. On Tuesday January 22, tenants arrived with moving trucks at 10am having been told they would have another 6 hours access to the building. They found all entrances blocked by NYPD and FDNY and no one was allowed upstairs. Finally, at 1pm the leaders of each agency stood on the staircase and delivered their plan to the crowd:

- residents would be allowed into the building six people at a time for one hour, followed by another group of six people each being granted one hour.

Do the math.

No, we'll do it for you. 200/6= 33.3 hours it would take to allow each person ONE hour access to collect their stuff. Then they shut down the elevators, insuring that the task was impossible. People, in a panic that this would be their last chance to save their belongings, began to carry equipment and valuables down ten flights of stairs, creating a real hazard.

As of Wednesday, January 23, the grain has been removed from the basement of 475 Kent Avenue, alleviating the immediate “hazardous” condition. Now the tenants have been allowed a final four days, six hours a day, to access the building. On Sunday night, January 27, the building will be padlocked prohibiting all further access for the foreseeable future. Why the building is safe enough to access for four days, but suddenly deemed unsafe again on Monday is a mystery to which DOB, OEM, FDNY has not provided an answer. Although requested repeatedly the DOB has never provided a complete list of the violations on the building. We know one of these violations is an inoperable sprinkler system, a problem that can mitigated with the presence of fire-guards while the system is repaired, allowing continued occupancy of the building.

Since the 1960's New York City's tacit urban renewal policy has been reliant on artist's moving into derelict buildings in less desirable neighborhoods. The city does nothing to bolster or support economic activity in these down and out areas, nor do they do anything to create affordable, legal, usable space for live/work entrepreneurs. 475 Kent is a prime example of this kind of turn-a-blind-eye urban renewal that has been a boon to the City of New York. A decade ago South Williamsburg was a dangerous neighborhood. Once artists take the initiative to live on the edge and restore and renew unused real estate in what were marginal areas the City becomes predatory. The transformation of Williamsburg by the artist community into one of New York City's most desirable neighborhoods encourages the city to move artists out as they calculate the tax revenue of luxury condo developers moving in. No one in any city agency cared about our health and safety ten years ago. Now that our building has become hot property the City is ready to muster all the powers of its many agencies to assist in the muscling of the property from the owners and the tenants. The tenants of 475 Kent Avenue call into question the hypocritical policies being put forth by the agencies of the City of New York. We cannot help but wonder what forces are driving this vacate and why the agencies are suddenly so concerned for out health and safety.

475 Kent Tenant's Association
The New York Times (who the landlord, Nachman Brach, refuses to talk to) reports that the timing of this "emergency" was highly suspicious:
More than 200 tenants live and work in the building, which tenants described as a small town stacked 11 stories high, despite its being zoned exclusively for commercial use. A massive abstract painting hung on a 10th-floor wall. The fourth-floor hallway looked like a photo gallery.

Late in the afternoon, one tenant, Lai Ling Jew, 41, held an impromptu meeting.

“We’re trying to figure out how to organize ourselves as tenants to get to the bottom of what’s going on here,” she said. “We love our homes. This is a vibrant community we created. People look to New York as the most creative city, and the city is pushing us to the edges.”

The meeting lasted past 4 p.m., in defiance of the deadline for the doors to be closed. Signs of confusion and sadness punctuated the frigid day. One tenant, Betsy Kelleher, said she had fought for years to get the lofts legally converted into apartments. She said it was suspicious that the evacuation came weeks before a court decision that could have made the building rent-controlled.

“They want to clean everyone out and then convert them into expensive condos,” she said.

Calls to Mr. Brach’s management office, Sheila Properties, went unanswered on Monday. Reached on his cellphone, Mr. Brach hung up.
Another report, however, suggested that Sheila Properties, at least, was as upset by this as the tenants:
FDNY officials didn’t know when residents would be allowed to return. A DOB spokeswoman said her department was working with other agencies “to communicate the requirements the owner must address to make the buildings safe.”

A man reached at the building’s management office, Sheila Properties, said the FDNY “evicted people in the cold for nothing.” Before hanging up, he said, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. The first time, they say it’s a fire hazard. The next time, they said the grain is poisonous.”
I'm sure the DOB and other authorities will stick with their story (which ever one they finally decide on) in the face of charges of greed and malfeasance, but this happens far too many times for anyone to accept their excuses at face value. I'm not sure what there is for us to do at the moment other than spread the word, though. If anyone learns of some organized way to help, please do share.

Image above from NYTimes.

UPDATE: Here is contact information for Patricia J. Lancaster, Commissioner of Department of Buildings in NYC. You can make anonymous comments, but for this issue it might be best to give your name and where you live.

Here is contact information for the Mayor's office.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
City Hall
New York, NY 10007
PHONE 311 (or 212-NEW-YORK outside NYC)
FAX (212) 788-2460

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Christopher K. Ho in The New York Times

Congratulations to Christopher for the wonderful Ken Johnson NYT review of his first solo exhibition in Chelsea! Our Associate Director Max overheard Mr. Johnson when he was in the gallery say of the sculpture "It looks like he's sucking in his stomach." Er...uh...well, I never!

Of course, I'm sucking in my stomach.... Who wouldn't? In fact two separate people at the opening, who could also tell I was sucking in my stomach, explained that I was doing it wrong. I need this? Still, we're beyond delighted today.

Many thanks to Mr. Johnson (who we are so very happy to have back in New York, I must say) for the insightful response to the show. Here's the review:

CHRISTOPHER K. HO
Happy Birthday
Winkleman Gallery
637 West 27th Street, Chelsea
Through Feb. 9

As you enter through the glass front door you glimpse a naked man lurking behind the big square column that sits in the center of the dimly lighted gallery. Inside, the gallery has been painted entirely gray and is empty but for that life-size sculpture of a muscular nude man, also painted gray, who stands facing the column as though frozen in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

The statue is a portrait of the gallery’s proprietor, Edward Winkleman. The 6-foot-1-inch painted polyurethane sculpture is realistic yet simplified, its details smoothed over as though it had been sandblasted. The exhibition’s title, “Happy Birthday,” spelled out on one wall in vinyl black letters, alludes in part to Mr. Winkleman’s being in his birthday suit. A red spot just below the title is like the red dot customarily used by galleries to designate a sold work.

The effect of all this is funny, creepy and mysterious. The image of a dealer — who in reality wields considerable power over an artist — stripped bare and turned to blindly face the blank expanse of the column produces a weirdly Oedipal effect.
Mr. Ho is a conceptualist who uses art in many different forms to critique the art system. His aims are detailed in a tediously academic exhibition catalog, which is supposed to be a discrete artwork in its own right. In the Magritte-like gallery installation, Mr. Ho’s garden-variety neo-Marxist conceptualism comes surprisingly to life. KEN JOHNSON

It's probably less surprising once you know Chris considers each and every conceivable detail so very carefully. If you're reading this from Wyoming (and who isn't?), you can catch Chris' exhibition "Time Machines" at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts in mid February as well. Or head out there in a few weeks...you have time.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This One Is Simple

Every now and then, when I vehemently disagree with something the government is planning to do, I imagine myself face-to-face with the elected leaders in Congress, many of whom have impressive law degrees and decades of experience in reading through what must truly be (for the average citizen) mind-numbing bills and budgets and studies of the alternatives and consequences to their plans, and that generally settles me down. After all, these are the experts, and many of them are brilliant. Other times, however, why their plans are wrong for the country couldn't be any clearer to me if Jesus Christ Himself came down and told me to oppose them.

One such plan is to be taken up again now that the US Senate is back in session. I'll let Kos) describe the plan and its consequences [emphasis mine]:

Stuck in traffic on Sept. 11, smoke from the burning Pentagon wafting past, Royce C. Lamberth called the FBI to help get him to his office. As the top judge on the FISA court, Lamberth was in charge of approving government requests for NSA telephone surveillance. By the time the FBI arrived that day, he’d already approved five new wiretaps. “The courts can respond in times of national crisis, and I think the courts have to, and we did,” he explained.

National security agencies got everything they needed on Sept. 11, and on the critical days that followed.

It’s important to remember that fact this week, as Senate Republicans amp up the rhetoric in anticipation of their rekindled efforts to pass a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendment granting retroactive amnesty to telecommunication companies that violated federal law — by enabling spying on ordinary Americans’ phone calls — at the behest of the Bush administration.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto gave us an idea of the kind of hyperbole we can expect when he warned, “We’re exactly three weeks away from the date when terrorists can be free to make phone calls without fear of being surveilled by U.S. intelligence agencies.”

A terrific scare tactic, but dead wrong. No one thinks U.S. intelligence agencies should be denied surveillance capabilities.

The sole issue is whether outlaw telecommunications companies should be given a pass on their illegal behavior. And since President Bush has threatened to veto any FISA legislation without telco amnesty, it’s clear that he’s more concerned about Verizon’s checkbook than he is about our nation’s security.
As a partisan, Kos paints this as a Republican plan, but the truth is, as Harper's Scott Horton (h/t Joerg Colberg) tells us, this stands to pass with "the full complicity of the Senate Democratic leadership":

There’s no surprise that the White House is fully behind them. The surprise (though not to those who’ve kept a close tab on things) is that the Democratic leadership, which claims to be in opposition or at least neutral, is effectively in cahoots with the forces behind telecom immunity. Here’s what Harry Reid had to say:

[I]f people think they are going to talk this to death, we are going to be in here all night. This is not something we are going to have a silent filibuster on. If someone wants to filibuster this bill, they are going to do it in the openness of the Senate.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, Democrats have been pushing Reid to adopt just this defiant posture with respect to the filibustering Republicans for the past year. He has consistently refused to do so. Evidently his backbone only stiffens when it comes to a showdown over the telecoms and their right to facilitate criminal surveillance of millions of Americans without a warrant.

So, as is my habit, in response to this outrage I tried to imagine myself face-to-face with the distinguished senators in support of this immunity, and what I would say to express why this is a bad idea. Why the notion that the government should be able to grant the telecom companies who knowingly broke the law immunity just because there are terrorists out there the government wants to listen to is ill-conceived and un-American. Why the notion that the government should be able to spy on its own people is a path to totalitarianism. What would I say to these experts with more inside knowledge about the threats to our security that I'll every have? This one is simple.

We don't trust you! We do not trust you with that much information about our private conversations. We don't trust you won't somehow abuse this power. We don't even like you having this power because it will, like any power, corrupt those who have it. So throw your hands up in the air and wail away as much as you like about how the terrorists will surely kill us all if you can't listen in on Aunt May's gossip calls. We're not buying it. The laws are not there for times when it's easy to comply with them. The laws are there for the times when it's difficult to tell right from wrong. The telecom companies knowingly broke the law. They should not be granted immunity. They should have to answer for their crimes.

As the guy in the commercial says "I'm not one of those "call now" types, but...call now." Demand that your senators oppose this legislation and/or support the filibuster.

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The Joys (and Sorrows) of Finding Those Hidden Gems

I felt like such a fool. We were pressed for time, though, if that's any kind of excuse. And, of course, a good deal of greed played into it. Even as I paid the thrift store attendant a few hundred dollars for what I suspected was a drawing I could resell for thousands, I had pangs of guilt. "Should I come back and pay him more if this turns out to be what I think it is?" I thought. "Nah..." said the mini-me with horns and a pitchfork over my left shoulder. "You spotted it...you deserve to profit from it."

Long story short, I was wrong. It was by the artist I thought it was, but it wasn't worth thousands, and, as it turned out, I had no reason at all to feel guilty about what I paid. But in the end, just the thrill of thinking I had found some hidden gem was worth the price...like uncovering the Pollock at the garage sale, or the old story of the 11th-century rock crystal ewer mis-categorized (and mis-priced) at auction...or the Rembrandt under the...huh? er, back up...that what? you might ask. Here's the story, via artinfo.com:

A rare 11th century rock crystal ewer, misidentified as a 19th Century French claret jug, has sold for 220,000 pounds at auction, more than one thousand times its pre-sale estimate, the Art Newspaper said on Monday.

Experts believe the artefact's real value could be nearer five million pounds, according to the report.

The ewer was sold last Thursday at an auction held by Lawrences Auctioneers of Crewkerne, Somerset.

Lot 424 is catalogued as: "A French claret jug: The rock crystal body carved with animals, the silver gilt mounts with enamelled decoration, 19th century, 30 cm. (cracked and damaged). In fitted box of Morel a Sevres. 100-200 pounds".

But experts believe it is a rock crystal ewer from the Fatimid dynasty which ruled parts of northern Africa and the Middle East in the 10th-12th centuries.

Only five examples were previously known to have existed.
OK, so someone should have suspected something was up when an object valued at 100 to 200 pounds broke the 100,000 pound mark, surely. The report quoted above, in the British Newspaper, The Mirror, notes that the story broke in The Art Newspaper, but
The Art Newspaper did not say who had valued the ewer at up to five million pounds,
More pressing to me is who at the auction house valued it at only 100-200 pounds? But I guess even the dealers in this area are not all that familiar with these objects:
One dealer, who described the crystal ewer as a "Holy Grail" of Islamic art, recounted how he had looked at the item but failed to identify the ewer from the auctioneer's online catalogue.
There are fabulous stories associated with these objects, by the way:
Al Maqrizi, the Egyptian writer who chronicled the history of the Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate in the early 15th century, recorded eye witness reports of a large number of rock crystal artefacts in the Fatimid royal treasury in Cairo which was looted by mutinous troops in 1067-68. However, under Saladin, the Sunni Ayyubid ruler who conquered Egypt and succeeded the Fatimid Caliphs in 1171, a wave of iconoclasm saw these beautiful objects with their animal motifs destroyed en masse, thus ensuring their great rarity.

The ewers and other vessels which did survive were thought to have been carried back to Europe from the Holy Land by crusaders and ended up being used as reliquaries in churches.
But my favorite part of the story...because it's early, I'm uncaffienated, and I'm simply mean that way...was this tidbit:
Art Newspaper said that apart from the ewer bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the others remain in ecclesiastical collections. Another was dropped by an employee of the Museo degli Argenti in Florence in 1998 and shattered irreparably.
The only person less happy than that Florentine museum employee must be the Somerset auction house appraiser, I'd wager.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Regulating the Art Business and Other Unpleasantries: Open Thread

In response to Paddy Johnson's ArtFagCity post on Tyler Green's CVF interviews, artist and writer Pedro Velez suggests, "It’s time to regulate the arts, really."

It's hard to argue against that, really. It was probably time to regulate the art world ages ago. I, for one, am happy that hasn't happened, though, because I know regulation won't be any fun for me. But in response to Pedro's comment I wrote, thinking regulation can take many forms and affect many parts of any business:

It may be time for [regulation], but let’s be up front about what that means. First of all, each artist wanting to exhibit their work may need to hire a lawyer or manager to work out their contracts with galleries and museums. If you go the lawyer route, you can expect, in NYC to pay at least $350/hour. Unless you go with free services, but you may need to get in a long line then. If you go the manager route, it may cost you an extra 10-15% of what you sell. There may be other models, but none are free or hassle free.

How will this impact the struggling artists wanting to build up enough sales to quit their day jobs? Hard to say at this point (clearly it doesn’t stop ambitious young actors or musicians), but it will almost certainly ensure that galleries, who will have to hire their own lawyers, take fewer chances on artists for whom sales are not a sure thing.
I'd like to elaborate on that a bit here. First of all, I realized after posting that comment that I jumped the gun in assuming I understood what type of regulation Pedro was talking about. He later suggested again that regulation was needed on the thread here about the Voice's decision:
The arts need to be regulated, its about time...

My response to this instance was less presumptuous:

I'm curious what form of regulation you're recommending, how it would address this particular issue, and what you see as the potential impact of such regulation in how artists work with galleries and/or museums?

I ask because my sense is that a little regulation always leads to a lot more regulation (it breeds bureaucracy). This may be appropriate (if frustrating) in many businesses, especially those where the public's health or well-being is at risk (Bambino walked past the Trump building where a worker was killed last weeks mere minutes before it happened, making me currently very much in favor of certain types of regulation), but it can come with a creativity-stifling price. That doesn't strike me as possibly even remotely good for visual art. As I noted above, I suspect, at the very least, that more regulation will necessitate less risk taking in galleries. (What risk taking? you ask...well, multiply that sentiment if you regulate things too much.)

Pedro hasn't responded yet, but I'm still curious and want to open up this thread to discuss what kinds of regulations might be appropriate for the visual art industry, with specifics about what abuse or potential abuse they would be designed to curtail and what impacts that might have on either what gets exhibited where or the creative process in general.

Again, I'm fine with the way things are, so don't ask me.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Art Writing Reality Check (Time for a New Code of Ethics?)

This post is cross-posted at Art World Salon.

The recent chain of events that led the Village Voice (one of New York’s most important sources of arts criticism) to end their relationship with critic Christian Viveros-Fauné raises some questions about the practicality of applying The New York Times style code of journalistic ethics to the arts publications that can’t offer NYT-sized salaries.

Indeed, given the widely perceived diminishing influence of art criticism (due to the overwhelming power of certain collectors and the market in general in determining what art is seen as important by museums and other collectors), a question I heard repeatedly in the wake of the Voice’s decision was, is it even realistic to expect quality criticism from writers without deep interest/influence in the commercial side of the art world?

The case in point revolves around a Q&A interview by Tyler Green with Christian Viveros-Fauné (see parts one, two, and three) that culminated in Tyler asking Christian:

You’re a managing director of a commercial art fair, Volta, and an organizer of another commercial art fair, Chicago’s Next fair. At the same time you’re a writer, a journalist, you’re the art critic for the Village Voice. Why isn’t that the most basic kind of conflict of interest?

Christian responded with perhaps a too honest answer that included several of the key issues leading me to wonder just how practical (if not how adhered to) the current code of ethics really is [all emphasis mine]:

I believe you can wear a lot of hats in the art world, and one needs to because, among other things, critics can’t survive on the money that they make from writing. Very few critics can. And, not only that, but I’m interested in curating, and I firmly believe that there is no interest in the art world without a conflict of interest.

Now, that may seem counterintuitive, and it is, but I would argue that the art world is counterintuitive in the extreme. In what other industry, for example, does one of the major magazines that chronicles both the creative and the business end of the art world establish an art fair of the same name. Obviously, I’m talking about Frieze.

And that’s nothing. Examine, for second, the practice of writing catalog essays. You know and I know that there is no such thing as a negative catalog essay and the reason for that is obvious: one way critics make money is by writing promotional copy for galleries and, hopefully, artists they like or love. And then there’s the business of curators and critics slinging their asses around to universities and institutions for speaking engagements.

Shall I go on? I mean, again, what I’m arguing for here is honesty all the way around.

In light of the practicality of living on what arts writing pays and being insightful without inserting oneself deep within the commercial structure in this particular age, and given that whether there’s a more pressing conflict of interest to address is no longer relevant, perhaps attention can now be turned to the issues Christian raises. In particular, is it time for the code of ethics to specifically address critics lecturing for money at universities whose artists or exhibitions they later write about, accepting paid travel and hotel expenses in return for press (and the rules for acknowledging that), confluences of power like that represented by the Frieze art fair, writing catalog essays for pay, and the rest of it?

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Rent

DCKT is opening on the Lower East Side (LES). Yeah for Dennis and Kenny T!!! We're so happy for the lads!

My favorite response to their good news was posted on
bloggy.com:

DCKT.. goes to the LES...
No wonder the drink prices have become so expensive over there !!

Posted by: MAO

As MAO also tells us, though, another emerging art gallery is opening on the Upper East Side (UES). This is a move I considered a while back, thinking it makes sense (because it would buck the trend and get some attention, which it has, and it would be close to the UES money and that might translate into better sales if done right, and let's face it, because the rents up there can't be that much more than they are elsewhere in the city now)...we'll watch and see:

Asher Edelman, a Wall Street raider turned art dealer, is seeking space to open a gallery on New York's Upper East Side that will show young and emerging artists.

Edelman, 68, has been a private dealer for about seven years, trading impressionist and modern works through Edelman Arts Inc. while promoting younger artists such as Yasmine Chatila, Christopher Winter and Cathy McClure. He is ending a joint venture in the Neuhoff Edelman Gallery because he prefers working on his own, he said.

But it looks like the LES is still the new hot spot. Bloggy.com also points us to the following article: "Rent Jitters Hit Chelsea in N.Y.; Art Galleries Look Downtown":
When Lombard-Freid Projects moved to West 26th Street in Manhattan's Chelsea area in 1998, the stretch between 10th and 11th avenues stood at the northern frontier of a fledgling art hub.

There were only two other galleries, a bunch of car garages, ``foul toxic odors and Annie Leibovitz's studio down the block,'' partner Lea Freid said.

The price was right, though. At the time, second-story spaces went for $14 to $15 per square foot in annual rent, and the gallery negotiated a 10-year lease below market rate. That lease is expiring this year, and the gallery may have to leave the neighborhood, now one of the world's major art districts.

"A lot of us are pounding the pavement,'' said Freid, who has all but given up on finding new space in Chelsea. "We were hoping it all will shake out, but that doesn't seem to be happening.''

Rent jitters are common among Chelsea art dealers these days, as the district becomes a victim of its own success. Car repair shops have given way to luxury towers designed by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, and galleries in need of new digs must pay up or leave.
Indeed, just as the musical is closing on Broadway, Rent looms largerer than ever in New Yorker's ability to realize their dreams (studios aren't getting any cheaper either). According to one report, though, renters have at least one advantage at the moment:
The shape of the new American housing market — the post-bubble market — is starting to emerge. It is one that favors the young who never owned a house and the banks that have access to cheap deposits. It may be harshest on the two coasts, where both distress and a newfound lack of mobility may be on the increase.

The ideal home buyer now — in a reverse of what was true for years — is a renter who is not burdened with a house. Such a buyer will need a down payment from somewhere, and he or she will need enough income to meet the monthly payments for the foreseeable future, including any increase in adjustable rates that seems probable.

But not owning a home, which may be hard to sell, is a big plus.
And it's not just in the US. According to another report:
The financial benefit of buying a home rather than renting over a 25-year period has tumbled by 75% over the past year – with tenants better off than owners in half the UK's regions.
But before this morphs into a financial blog, let me return to gallery talk. Charlie Finch predicted recently that:

MANY CHELSEA GALLERIES WILL CLOSE
The double edge of the High Line development means that leases come due and the transformation of Chelsea into Fifth Avenue South will move into high gear.
I'm not so sure they'll close, as much as move (obviously), or evolve, but there's no doubt that space is getting beyond precious between 16th and 29th streets. And I'm not so sure how "many" galleries will be affected. Yes, leases are ending for a large number of spaces, but many larger galleries in the neighborhood purchased their spaces (having seen this gentrification transformation force them out of SoHo) and they'll continue to serve as anchors. In other words, for some galleries it will still make sense to pay the extra to be in Chelsea than to pioneer some new territory. For others, pioneering is why they're in the business, so....Eastward Ho!

Or is it Northward? There's also been plenty of speculation that Hell's Kitchen South (mid 30s) might follow the LES as the next area to attract spaces. With Exit Art's giantic space as an anchor and what looks to be plenty of warehouse type spaces (although admittedly, I haven't any idea what rents are there), this might make sense. (Psstt... don't tell the landords there...they'll raise the rents in anticipation). OK, so that's all I have...what are you hearing?

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Proud Papa and Disappointed Arts Supporter

Lots to do today, so I'll keep this short(ish...it is me, after all).

Bambino and I are heading down to Philadelphia today for the opening of
Carlos Motta's exhibition at the ICA. We couldn't be prouder of Carlos. Here's the skinny:

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is pleased to present “Carlos Motta: The Good Life,” the first museum presentation of an ambitious work by Carlos Motta, on view January 18 – March 30, 2008. “The Good Life,” a long-term, in-progress, experimental documentary project, engages and critiques documentary practice itself. It is a relevant examination of the regional history, perception and effects of US interventionist policies in Latin America, at a time of global critical awareness of those politics.

Since 2005, Carlos Motta has recorded over 300 video interviews with civilians on the streets of twelve cities in Latin America. The questions he asked, on individual perceptions of US interventionism and foreign policy, democracy, leadership, and governance, resulted in an extremely wide spectrum of opinion, which varies according to local situations and forms of government in each country. The resulting footage is the basis of “The Good Life.” Informed by conceptual documentary traditions the project references the approach of cinema vérité classics such as Chris Marker’s Le Jolie Mai (1963) and Vilgot Sjöman’s I am curious (Yellow) (1967), which began to study the notion of public opinion as mediated construction.
Congrats to Carlos and ICA curator Tina Gregory!!!

And while I'm at it, let me note we're also proud that
Jennifer Dalton was selected by curator Chuck Close to be in the inaugural exhibition of the FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea:

The FLAG Art Foundation is pleased to announce its inaugural exhibition, "Attention to Detail." Curated by renowned contemporary artist Chuck Close, the show includes work from a wide range of both established and emerging artists:

Louise Bourgeois, Delia Brown, Glenn Brown, Maurizio Cattelan, Vija Celmins, Jennifer Dalton, Thomas Demand, Tara Donovan, Olafur Eliasson, Dan Fischer, Tom Friedman, Ellen Gallagher, Tim Gardner, Franz Gertsch, Ewan Gibbs, Robert Gober, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Jim Hodges, Naoto Kawahara, Ellsworth Kelly, Cary Kwok, Robert Lazzarini, Graham Little, Christian Marclay, Brice Marden, Tony Matelli, Ron Mueck, Richard Patterson, Richard Pettibone, Elizabeth Peyton, Richard Phillips, Marc Quinn, Alessandro Raho, Gerhard Richter, Aaron Romine, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, James Siena, Ken Solomon, Thomas Struth, Tomoaki Suzuki, Yuken Teruya, Fred Tomaselli, Jim Torok, Mark Wagner, Rachel Whiteread, Fred Wilson, Steve Wolfe, Lisa Yuskavage
Jen's response was even more delightful than she usually is when she learned that her spectacular piece, The Collector-ibles, was forming an installation triptych, so to speak, with a large Damien Hirst and giant Andreas Gursky. The show is spectacular, by the way, so congrats to the FLAG, director Stephanie Roach, and curator Mr. Close.

Hold on, though, there's more...Having just closed his simultaneous solo exhibitions in New York and Detroit, for which he got buckets of great press (and there's more to come),
Ivin Ballen will be in his first European exhibition at the Markus Winter Gallery, Berlin, Germany. Curated by Jim Lee und Rob Nadeau, the exhibition also includes one of our other fave artists, Wendy White!

And, yes, there's even more. As noted previously, but soon to open (March 15 through June 8 2008 [oh, yes, you'll hear about this again]),
Cathy Beigen's video Black Out has been selected for the monumental exhibition by the Getty Center, California Video:

The first comprehensive survey of California video art from 1968 to the present, this exhibition includes important examples of single-channel video, video sculpture, and video installation. Featuring the work of fifty-eight artists, duos, and collectives, California Video locates a distinctively West Coast aesthetic within the broader history of video art while highlighting the Getty's major commitment to the preservation and exhibition of a young but vital artistic medium. This exhibition is co-organized by the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
OK, so Cathy's the most important artist in the show, but it also includes Eleanor Antin, John Baldessari, Brian Bress, Nancy Buchanan, Chris Burden, Jim Campbell, Meg Cranston, Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn, Allan Kaprow, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Tony Oursler, Martha Rosler, Jennifer Steinkamp, T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm, Diana Thater, Bill Viola, and William Wegman.

To say we're proud is to set new standards for understatement.

On a different topic, though, I was sorely disappointed to learn that the new standards being used to divvy up public money for the arts in the UK are off to a ridiculous start. You may recall that I blogged
back in December about a new plan in England to rethink how tax money was being spent to support the arts with the top priority being to "reward excellence." At the time I noted I agree with the premise but was not optimistic that this could be done "without politics outweighing ...objective appraisals of excellence." Sadly it seems my fears were not unfounded. Today, The New York Times delves into one inexplicable cut (well, inexplicable in terms of rewarding excellence):
On Dec. 14 Josie Rourke, the artistic director of the tiny Bush Theater in West London, received an unwelcome Christmas present. It was a letter from the Arts Council England, the government-financed body that doles out subsidies to the arts, announcing plans to cut the Bush’s public funding by some 40 percent — to about £300,000 (roughly $588,000) a year, from £480,000 ($942,000).

Budgets cuts loom for the Bush Theater, which finds and supports new work.
Ms. Rourke was surprised, to say the least. While its building is shabby, inaccessible to wheelchairs and seats just 81 — all matters of concern to the council — the theater is known for having influence above its station, with a track record of finding and supporting new work and picking winning plays. Last year one of its productions, “Elling,” transferred to the West End; playwrights like Stephen Poliakoff and Conor McPherson and, most recently, Neil LaBute, have had premieres of their work there.

“Our excellence is not in dispute,” Ms. Rourke said in an interview. “They’ve praised, year on year, the work that we’ve done,” she said of the council.

With letters of support pouring in, including one signed by Michael Frayn, Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard, Margaret Atwood and David Hare, the Bush is appealing the cut and will learn the council’s final decision in February. It is a difficult situation: more than 700 arts organizations would actually see their subsidies rise under the Arts Council’s plans, but the Bush joins 193 others — art galleries, orchestras, literary groups and the like — that face devastating cuts over the next three years.
The Bush has been a victim of government timing (i.e., they need a new building but the Art Council spokeswoman interviewed explained that there was no longer any government money available for capital projects). The horrific Catch 22 here for The Bush is because there's no funding available for them to move into a new building, they're having to cut back their plans, but because they had to cut back their plans the Arts Council is cutting their funding.

No one anywhere is suggesting their program is less than excellent, making a total mockery, IMO, of the new decision-making process. The criteria here has to include a combination of concerns: rewarding excellence AND ensuring excellent institutions aren't penalized (or forced to close down) due to arbitrary bureaucratic timing.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Revealing Too Much

It was just a momentary discomfort really. Not a big deal. In general (actually more than that...overwhelmingly), I respected and admired the professor. It was just this one little moment when he tried to explain why there's not as much lost as a class of 19-year-olds might think there is via certain societal standards of decency. In fact, he explained, there's more lost by having no limits at all.

His example was what got me, though. He was right, of course, that there's something much sexier about a woman revealing a nude thigh from beneath a silk sheet than there is about someone sprawled out like an anatomy diagram. It was simply that extra glimmer in his eye when you could see that he had imagined it. TMI, I thought; Too Much Information. (Ironic for a man whose gallery's current exhibition includes a life-size nude sculpture of him, I'll note...before someone else does...but stick with me here.)

My professor's example is a good benchmark though of where the line is between erotica and pornography, and thinking of this reminds me of a rather uncomfortable exchange I witnessed at an art fair once when an artist whose work was being shown by another gallery introduced herself to two women in our booth and explained where her work was. "Oh, yeah," said the one woman. "We saw your work...the pornography, right?" "It's erotica," shot back the artist, in a tone both weary and a bit too defensive. The two women huffed and left. At an art fair. Clearly the distinction is not as clear to everyone as it might be.

If that's the case, though, you can't blame the French. In an exhibition that's causing quite a stir (and can take up to an hour to get into), the National Library in Paris has opened its vaults and presented a show that, as The New York Times explains, "offers a peek at its secret archive of erotic art, putting on display more than 350 sexually explicit literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, photographs, film clips, even calling cards and cardboard pop-ups." Titled "Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret," the exhibition includes quite an array:
The handwritten manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s novel “Les Infortunes de la Vertu” (“The Misfortunes of Virtue”) is under glass here, as are 17th-century French engravings of “erotic postures”; English “flagellation novels” exported to France in the late 19th century; Japanese prints; Man Ray photographs; and a police report from 1900 that compiles the addresses of Paris’s houses of prostitution and what they charged.
Until this exhibition, the only visitors permitted to view this collection were legitimate researchers. For the next three months or so, though, anyone (well, anyone over 16 years old) can take a look.

The items, on display through March 22, are drawn from a permanent collection created in the 1830s when the library isolated works considered “contrary to good morals.” They were put in a locked section with its own card catalog and given the name L’Enfer — hell. Many pieces have been consigned there over the years by the police for safeguarding, perhaps, and posterity.
I have to wonder, though, what happens to the collection now? I'm sure the off-limits L'Enfer section of the library sparked the imagination of many a visitor over the past two centuries or so. Now that it's been "consumed" by the public, though, will it loom as large?

The same question occurred to me when I heard that German researchers claim to have definitively identified the subject of Leonardo's world-famous portrait "Mona Lisa." From
National Geographic:

A researcher has uncovered evidence that apparently confirms the identity of the woman behind the Mona Lisa's iconic smile, Germany's University of Heidelberg says.

She is Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Florentine businessman Francesco del Giocondo, according to book-margin notes written by a friend of Leonardo da Vinci while the artist worked on the masterpiece, the school said in a statement Monday.

The discovery by a Heidelberg University library manuscript expert appears to confirm what has long been suspected. [...]
In a copy of the works of Roman philosopher Cicero, a Florentine official and friend of Leonardo's wrote in the margins that da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The friend, Agostino Vespucci, dated his notes October 1503, also helping to pin down the exact time Leonardo was working on the painting.

"All doubts as to the identity of the Mona Lisa are eliminated (by) one source," the university said.

The discovery was actually made in 2005, but was not widely known until a German radio station last week aired it in a report.
That's sad to me actually, that "all doubts as to the identity of the Mona Lisa are eliminted." The mystery of her identity, I'm sure, is part of the painting's widespread appeal. Sure, it's still an extrordinary work of art, but knowing it's the wife of a Florentine businessman does take just a bit of the glamour out of it for me. By revealing her identity, these researchers have lessened the work's mystique to a large degree. A bit of mystery, as my professor would gleefully explain, goes a long way.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

New Art TV

All of a sudden many of the online art news outlets have "TV." From artnet.com to The Art Newspaper to New York Magazine. This is hardly new technology. The fine folks at Bad at Sports have been using it incredibly well for quite some time now, but for the more traditional news outlets to be picking up on it suggests someone must see it as potentially lucrative now.

I'll be honest, though. I'm not so sure. Most of the current efforts are fine in terms of production values, but there doesn't seem to be a marriage of content and format yet that suggests this won't prove to be a passing fad.

Having said that, the single best effort out there to my mind, in terms of depth, vision, and production values that serve the subject matter is the impressive debut of NewArtTV. (Full disclosure: I blogged about NewArtTV a while back after having met its founder, and our current exhibition will be featured in an upcoming piece).

What makes NATV stand out for me, as noted, is the depth of the coverage. From an overview of the fairs in New York in 2007 to a wide and growing range of studio visits to coverage of Felix Gonzalez-Torres at the American Pavilion in Venice, NATV's scope, while clearly American and New York centric, promises to reflect the globetrotting nature of the art world. Perhaps its most solid offering at the moment is the coverage of exhibitions and events.

More impressive though is the depth of the interviews. I mean that in terms of length (some last as long as 15 minutes, which is an eternity in YouTube time) and in terms of intelligence. The interviews dive right in, assuming the audience is educated, and thereby providing a richer treasury of information. This piece on Deborah Grant, for example, begins with the artist describing a particular piece, no overview of her project or background or even process, just straight into references and picking up speed from there. Brilliant.

There's no slickness to the look and feel of the video itself, but there is a sophistication to the editing that provides lots of information without having to slow down to do so. If I had to put my finger on the effort's strongest accomplishment, that would it be it: the editing and pacing. Get in, get the goods, and get out.

The site just launched, so it bears watching to see where it goes, but of all the new efforts in presenting art news in video format, this is the site to beat, IMHO.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

If You Can't Beat 'Em...You Can Still Be Self-Aware

Headlines confirm it, the recession is either here already or about to land, and even the nation's #1 economic cheerleader, President Bush, noted finally there were challenges ahead (that must have hurt). Indeed, it seems as if so much has all been leading up to this. The conventional wisdom, I mean, regarding this era and what it means to "Art" that there's been so much freakin' money spent on contemporary work lately...the conventional wisdom that has held that "things will change" (and presumably for the better for true "art lovers") once the money dries up. We're about to see, it seems. And yet, as complicated as the economy has become over the past 10 years (i.e., why no one knows for sure what to expect), the relationship between art-making and money, on a conceptual level, has become just as complicated.

Ben Davis has a good hard look at the state of the uneasy relationship between art and commerce in a recent article on artnet.com. Money quote:
Most often, critics...just tag everything that involves commerce as "capitalist" and leave the analysis at that. But the fact is there are different ways to relate to commerce, and the production and distribution of "visual art" is defined by particularly middle-class relations, not by large-scale wage labor at the service of massive conglomerates. Just ask the animators whose work was shown in the "Pixar" show at MoMA a few years back what a difference this makes (they don’t have an individual claim on the creativity that goes into the work; it belongs to Disney). Contemporary art’s position in the world forms the basis for the quirky values -- the fetish for low-fi, child-like creativity, the questioning or ironic attitude, the attention to the individual touch or "statement," etc. -- that are associated with it.

Even when individual productions go beyond these terms, the climate of being resistant to mass culture values must be preserved. In December, Paul McCarthy transformed his New York gallery into a factory for producing chocolate miniatures of a signature image. Though the project would seem to be a fairly full-throated replication of commercial-scale production, McCarthy takes esthetic refuge precisely in the fact that, as a straight-forward commercial enterprise, it is a money-losing deal....
Davis also dives into what this means specifically for today's working artists in terms of what Johanna Drucker calls "complicit esthetics":
In a useful recent book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, Johanna Drucker offers the term "complicit esthetics" to describe contemporary art. Art today, she argues, is distinguished by its embrace of commerce and the values of the mass media. According to Drucker, the familiar notion of "oppositional critique" is now largely a relic of academic writing, which has been reduced to justifying artwork based on its political correctness.

For Drucker, Vanessa Beecroft’s practice of staging fetishistic tableaux of naked women in high heels is the rock that high-flown art theory runs aground on. While critics persist in looking for a political kernel in the work -- Drucker cites one who calls it a "post-feminist critique of the catwalk" -- Beecroft is clearly not attempting to resist the values of fashion. She is replicating them in the space of the art world. And this loss of art’s distinction as an alternative to media spectacle, Sweet Dreams argues, is not just one artist’s choice but an existential condition for all artists, and therefore something that should be embraced.
An "embrace of commerce and the values of the mass media" can mean many things, though. There are degrees of complicity (from what the existential philosophers termed "lived reality" to the more capitalism-specific state that Peter Sloterdijk calls "enlightened false consciousness" [in which one dutifully accepts the reality of one's professional obligations despite one's inner-socialist's better judgement]) that are distinguished by degrees of self-awareness. Perhaps raging against a tidal wave as powerful as Capitalism will strike some as a waste of energy, but that doesn't mean one has to embrace all of its excesses.

I was happy to find a new blog devoted to the role of the artist in all this the other day. Launched by the sculptor Deborah Fisher, the blog "
Sellout" is dedicated to a more practical approach to what's become an increasingly impractical profession:
Artists face all the problems the consumer citizenry faces. We eat and drink and drive and buy things. We need health care; battle 30% credit card interest and stupid little fees; are having a harder time getting a full return on a gently used power tool at Home Depot. We will retire or get sick one day. We hate to admit it, but sometimes we need jobs. And at the same time, we are all trying to pull off a career that makes our parents feel just a little sick with worry.

What does it mean to be an artist in this era of corporate feudalism? We may talk about that. But this blog will focus on what it takes and how to do it better. Less painfully. With more dignity.
It's off to a great start, with posts ranging from marketing oneself as an artist to talking with your gallery about money, and plenty of links to incredibly practical financial sites. I can hear artists across the globe groaning at the thought. As Deborah notes, though, "I am not entirely sure why money feels so profoundly dirty to me. It shouldn't, and this harms my career all the time, in thousands of different ways, and if I could change one thing about myself, this would be it." Do check it out.

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