Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Binary Takes on Contemporary Art : Open Thread

OK, so we've collectively seen what I would consider significant progress through the discussions here in gaining consensus on the idea that the best contemporary art isn't steeped in the "conceptual" tradition or the "formalist" tradition, but in work that effectively takes from either and/or both traditions toward a more perfect resolution of the artist's vision. What had begun several years ago as a fairly binary argument seems (to me at least) to have subtlety enhanced nearly everyone's take on the issue.

I like to think that many things that were framed as either "good or bad," "black or white," and "you're either with us or against us" by that horrid, simple-minded opportunist running the country before Obama became President (i.e., Cheney) will now be examined with a bit more maturity and nuance. [UPDATE: in re-reading this I realized the irony of calling for "maturity" after calling someone "horrid" and "simple minded."] The best way to approach an ever more complicated world is not with an oversimplified worldview. It may make being "the Decider" less time consuming, but it hasn't proven itself to lead to better results for the rest of us.

Last night at the MoMA opening for Gabriel Orozco's fabulous new exhibition, Bambino and I had a chat with a well-respected art critic about another oversimplified binary feud that still seems alive and well in the contemporary art world. We've touched on it a bit here, but the discussion last night centered on the terrific NYT article on William Powhida. (Full Disclosure: Bill and I know each other fairly well, and Bambino and I own a few works by him. He has collaborated with Jen Dalton on a Compound Edition, and we regularly disagree about things. I admire him greatly.) Here's a snippet of that article:

“The bubble never burst, it just got smaller,” Mr. Powhida, 33, said, standing over the poster-size drawing. “For the people on the outside the oxygen ran out.”

Put another way, he said, “this is about how out of touch the art world is with economic reality.”

Income disparities and class, many in the art world say, are subjects that get short shrift in the contemporary art represented at shows like this one, which cater largely to rich collectors. Over the last two years the Great Recession has seemed almost entirely absent from the thousands of works at Art Basel Miami Beach and most of its offshoots. With a few exceptions — usually art depicting consumerism or the dollar in various forms — the largest economic shock in decades and its fallout seem to have gotten little play at the nation’s most comprehensive contemporary art extravaganza.

Mr. Powhida (pronounced pow-HIGH-da), who lives in Brooklyn, stands out here not only because he is one of the few artists to regularly address these issues, but because he takes them on in the context of this very world. Though he is unassuming in person, he has become known as something of a gadfly in the art establishment, with work that uses humorous text, draftsmanship and careful painting to lampoon some of its biggest stars and institutions.

The art critic at MoMA last night expressed disagreement that the issue is that binary, though. I wanted to take notes, the critic's exact phrasings were so sublime (but alas, a head cold and too much medicine has left me with a short-term memory lapse, so I'm left paraphrasing). It's not like you have the anti-establishment artists eschewing the commercial side of things and everyone else is a sell-out, the critic argued. There's a universe of options in between. Moreover, it really is possible to ignore how much any work costs and train yourself to focus on how that work does or doesn't speak to you. Time and energy are well spent in doing that.

Again, I don't do the author of those sentiments justice here, but I wanted to springboard off that take on things to ask whether or not the debate on being a sell-out has been oversimplified. We're a nation addicted to snap polls and top ten lists. We like things boiled down to their bite-sized nuggetness for us. But in discussing the impact of the art market on the historical importance of the art being made now (always my yardstick), have we gone far too binary?

Consider this an open thread.

Labels: art market, open thread, recession


Anonymous Cedric C said...

There are artists in Chelsea that look like they found themselves
there by accident. Artists who would still do what they do even if
nobody ever cared or was ever buying their art.

Than in a non-profit art centre, you can stumble on an artist making
"convenient" fine art products (painting on a standard size canvas
to me would be a convenient fine art strategy. Anything about standards in media, sizes, and presentation (for example a curio)).

There is no real rule or black and white, but it's important to hold an awareness of the context of what you are seeing, or rather, that when apprehending any work of art, the audient mind should flicker its thoughts between a vacuum of context and an acknowledgment of context.

The question remains: how often are your experiences of viewing art
attached in any ways to the art market? Does the art itself, the
way it is presented, seems affected by market strategy? Is it "convenient"? Grosso modo: If you realize you are leaning too much toward visiting commercial
versus art centres or vice-versa, you should learn to develop a balance. That is, if you're really intrigued in getting a global picture of the possibilities that are out there.

(You should also travel in different countries, if it ever crossed you mind that you might be suffering a critical syndrome called geocentric bias.)

Cedric C

12/09/2009 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

"The artist acting like a B.F. Skinner rat doing his "tough" little tricks is something to be avoided. Confined process is no process at all. It would be better to disclose the confinement rather than make illusions of freedom."
_Robert Smithson

William Powhida is very much an insider within his peer group (there are five major (radicalized) emerging artist groups with over 200 sleeper cells or "affinity groups").

As you and Deitch mention, "ironically" (what is irony again? Anynone?) William is becoming more of an insider/star through his critical actions involvng stuff no one wants to talk about except here, or on some other anarchic agit-prop blog.

Could someone please list the stuff that no one talks about for me? The top ten stories that got censored by Big Art Media? Send them to my anonymous acount at Remember to route your email through an anonymizer so they can't get your IP address.

William's complaint, presented in his work as a caricature of the artist as vulgarian star, is that he is not in fact a star. That he is both fascinated and repulsed by the spectacle makes him all too human.

He is well positioned.

What will he do with his current 15 minutes power? Run the fridge?

Probably sell more work, buy some of his friends work and then retire to a comfortable middle class existence with the family with occasional fourth of July BBQ's for his closest 400. I know I would.

It's kind of an old story isn't it?

If Powhida wants to be the mildly risque cartoonist to the stars for the rest of his life, "Kudos" as Deitch said. Kudos. My god, how bourgeois. Why not kismet?

By contrast R. Crumb started out weird and mellowed with age, making a Bible of sorts that apparently no religious group has seen fit to issue a fatwah over.

Maybe people are wise to the fact that not all publicity is PUBLICITY, and to be connected to William Powhida, even by weak association, is to dilute the brand (whatever their brand may be).

On the other hand, if William Powhida represents some social foment of the moment, then perhaps he is not the only one gunning for the mercy seat, the most christ like. Maybe there are other more talented ironists, just waiting to steal his nails and build his coffin.

Why no New York Times articles on James Kalm? Is he just a sad knockoff of another show?

Artists are a competitive lot, and the market pits them against each other, the ends against the middle, the middle against itself. In the end, the baby gets aborted.

No, Billy's army might weigh down a few Continental Army types with their squirrel guns, but a squirrel in every pot wont attract the big money.

What picknics will come?

12/09/2009 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger Stefano Pasquini said...

He's got a cool name though.

12/09/2009 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger William said...

William's complaint, presented in his work as a caricature of the artist as vulgarian star, is that he is not in fact a star. That he is both fascinated and repulsed by the spectacle makes him all too human.

That's one of the best observations I've read so far. I'd love to see a map of the 5 major radical groups and the 200 sleeper cells. Please. I think we're all a little disconnected. I consider Jen Dalton, Eric Doeringer, and Jade Townsend friends and collaborators.

The fifteen minutes are nothing, considering the last decade since I started graduate school, or in relation to the future. I think I have to withstand them more than employ them. And yes, I'm sure there will be line of smarter, more ruthless (in that competitive sense zip described) people behind me waiting to take me down. They'll find artists like Guy Richards Smit already standing in front of me. Christ like? You should see his Jonathan Grossmahlerman pieta. It's amazing.
As far as James, he takes the piss out me whenever he gets a chance, and I respect that. I don't think we share the same sense of humor about this business of art.

Finally, if it's any indication that no one wants to talk about this...2 comments. This is really causing quite a stir on the old blog. I think the silence speaks volumes here.

And Ed, you didn't buy that Market Crash drawing because it was a binary comment. I think you got it because it talked about the complex ambivalence we share about our respective roles in the art business. We all love and hate each other, no?

Time to ferment or go get some fermented grain.



12/09/2009 05:07:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

We all love and hate each other, no?

I'm all love, all the time...never had an unkind word to say about anyone in any part of the art world...pre-fermented grain consumption, anyway... :-)

12/09/2009 06:02:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

I think Ed, with this thread, you’ve touched on one of the profound issued facing young contemporary artists today. I, like you, have known William for several years, part of the last wave of the Williamsburg contingency. I appreciate what he and a few others are doing as far as “meta art”, “Institutional critique” or as he said the other day “muckraking” goes. And, as stated in the article, Powhida (you know you’ve made it when the Times gives a phonetic spelling of your name) has only grossed something like $50,000 in the last three years from ass busting work. Ha. I visited the latest Eric Fischl show, the whole batch of shall we say less than stellar works, sold out for 1.2 mill a pop.

Who get seen, and how they’re seen is the question, and it’s expensive to do it right. How many artists would trade a secure teaching position to risk their pension and dental care on the long shot of really shaking things up and making something happen in the art world? Next time you walk past a homeless lady or guy remember, they might be Lee Lozano, or Henry Darger, artists who didn’t compromise, and lost everything. Unless you’re independently wealthy or making a ton of money off your work, there’s always going to be a need for income. The question is: how does one channel the financial stream with out becoming a manipulated “whore”? And if were all “whores” how can we be the best most provocative whores we can be?

12/09/2009 06:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the political portion of the post, once everyone realizes that Obama is simply a black George Bush we will all be better off. Washington is more polarized now that a year ago (how is that even possible??!!) with the only difference being the reason for discontent. Instead of Iraq we have nationalized healthcare. Instead of Gitmo- wait, we STILL have gitmo- there is cap and trade. Instead of removing barriers of entry into the business world we have exploding deficits and impending taxes and penalties.
But yes, we all like our nuggets, and we like to agree with the headlines of the papers which agree with our sensibilities!
What is interesting to me now i relation to art is that the hate of dub-ya created some very good music and good art in some instances. Since (at least in come circles) dub-ya isn't an issue any more there is a shift in the intensity of some of the art and music out there. People thought things would be better by now, and they aren't, and they don't know if they should wait or if they should rail back. Usually the best art in any form comes when times are tough. Times are tough now but I feel like artists are holding back because they feel like they should be polite. They feel like they should play nice. I don't get it. Light fires. Turn over some cars. Stir some $h!t up. Enough of this complacency already.

12/09/2009 07:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

criminey sakes! let me say something nobody else has: Powhida's work is hands down the best satirical and/or cynical look at the art world that has been produced in my long standing memory.
His Charley James show was a fantastic play on everything LA. supurb!
that's why the NYTimes singled him out and wrote that piece the other day. obviously, someone at the Times recognized this and choose Powhida. Things like this don't just happen, rather they happen for a reason.
Kudos to Mr. Powhida and his wonderful art!

12/09/2009 09:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Luigi said...

yo stefano

12/10/2009 07:32:00 AM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

This comment is stupid and over the top, but James Kalm's annoyed me.

Comparing William Powhida's US$50,000 (prob more than NZ$100,000) in three years to whatever ridiculous amount Fischl's made is just silly.

Any comparison of that kind is silly. Of course, Powhida's work is better than Fischl's. But comparing earnings of that sort is not the way to go. Ye gods, let's get down to it. I don't know what the minimum wage is in the US, but here it's about NZ$26,000. Most artists here earn about NZ$10,000, and that's the compromised ones, what is quaintly called sell outs. That's less than the dole. (Yeah, we do get a dole, and free health care. But then we're almost a civilised country.)

Don't get all hero on my arse by making the sacrifice of not earning millions.

And making out that the choice is between making millions or being a dero? What!?

Is this seriously it? This and bizarre formalist vs conceptualist arguments? For fuck's sake.

12/11/2009 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger Ben Will said...

This is the halves complaining about the other halves. Gimmie me a feakin' break. A further example why the NY art world has gotten so lame.

12/11/2009 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said... you mean "the haves" (as opposed to "the have nots") or do you mean only half of the NY art world?

12/11/2009 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Ben Will said...

I meant the haves...excuse the spelling. Thats what I get for multi-tasking

12/11/2009 10:23:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home