Monday, December 14, 2009

What Does "Too Many/Much" Mean? Open Thread

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want.
---Devo

Back in the heady days of the art boom (ahh, I remember them well) the virtually uncountable proliferation of ways to participate in the viewing/making/buying of art were prompting a common refrain among the folks inclined to ponder such things: Are/Is there too many/much _________?

Back in 2006, for example, Big Red and Shiny's editor Matthew Nash asked, "Is there too much art" and quoted Jean Baudrillard who noted "Art does not die because there is no more art, it dies because there is too much." No one who treks down to Miami each December with the hopes of taking it all in would argue there are too few art fairs there. And in May 2009, Joanne Mattera asked "Art there too many artists?" (to which one commenter said, no, there are simply too few collectors).

The question is not limited to New York or even the US, though. The question of whether we've collectively reached a saturation point has been raised over the past decade in Norway with regards to biennials, in Melbourne with regards to galleries, and in the UK with regards to museums. And it's not just visual arts. The question is being asked about creative writing, design and artistic direction, theater companies, film festivals, and on and on and on.

In reflecting a bit on what we mean when we ask whether there are too many of this or that, I keep coming back round to those two cornucopias of contemporary choice: supermarkets and cable TV. Not that we don't still hear the same complaints about how much time we waste sifting through the crap offered up via those channels of distribution, but because so many people turn to both so frequently, our species seems to have evolved or adapted to the point that we're able to navigate them and get on with our lives without too much duress. We seem to have developed defense mechanisms against the bombardment of competing options. Yes, this slows us down from the days when we might have had only two types of pasta sauce to choose from and three major networks, but product by product or channel by channel we seem to have refined our sense of what we're willing to spend money or time on and become more savvy consumers.

Or have we simply given up and settled for the crap we know over the crap we don't know?

I'm always very impressed with the class of collectors I lovingly consider "the curious ones." These are the true addicts in the art world who relentlessly seek out new ideas and new visions with an open mind and generosity of willingness to be reminded, all over again, that despite their accomplishments in this world, their education, the depth of their collection and their years of viewing and buying art, there is always something new for artists to teach them. It requires a great deal of mental and physical energy to participate in the art world on that level, rather than settle on what you feel you've earned the right to declare the important art of your time and ease into that niche for the remainder of your days.

In talking with the curious ones, you understand that the question of whether we're seeing "too much" or "too many" of this or that is a sign of exhaustion. Certainly understandable at times, but not as a fixed position on things. There may be too many fairs, for example, to take them all in one trip, but that new one that opened over there might just be the gem that will once again rock your world and renew your passion for exploration. In other words, the "too many" question seems to be a response to wishing (now that you've got a grip on things) that things would stand still for a while (thereby securing your grip). Again, understandable at times, but a limited point of view in the long run.

Consider this an open thread on what constitutes too much/too many with regards to the art world.

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18 Comments:

Blogger Tom Hering said...

Most small cities in America now have an arts center and/or event. This most certainly wasn't case when I was growing up. I think it's great that we now have a world of art out there, and not just an art world, limited to a few major cities. It's an amazing change in our culture.

12/14/2009 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger chook said...

I would go with the theory that there are not enough collectors. I once gave a talk on art to our local probus club (retired professional/business people) and asked who had original art on their walls. Only 3 out of 40 raised their hands! I find it's a process of education. Even if someones first buy is only $100 it makes the possibility of owning art a reality. We have just finished our annual sculpture symposium and we sold 15 of the 24 works, mainly to local and first time buyers because we consistently have art available through our sculpture garden and so it becomes part of normal life.

12/14/2009 01:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Justin said...

It's always nice to know that we have the ability to disengage from the art bubble if we need to take a breathe.

But half the fun of experiencing a great piece is when it wasn't expected, and you just come across an amazing work of art.
Maybe what we need is some kind of art world Tivo.

12/14/2009 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

I don't think it's a question of too many. I've been thinking for some time now that it's all about building a constituency. I started thinking about this when I curated a small show of abstract paintings for a little artist-run gallery in Vancouver in '97. I asked myself what made these artists worth looking at since there really was no question of them being particularly original since the subject was, and is, quite exhausted. Yet, they were worth considering. It dawned on me that it was about building a constituency. It didn't mater if it was particularly new and different, just that you had a following. You had people wanting to look, buy, and simply encourage you to go on. It's like any social network where the binding factor is some kind of consensus. So about "too many'? I think as long as any given artist is unknown to a group of people then there is always room to expand that artist's constituency, which will be made up of other artists, writers, curators, gallerists, collectors, family, etc. When I go to a fair I'm amazed, overwhelmed, and refreshed by how many artists there are that I've never heard of. I avoided fairs for years thinking that they would be depressing but I am actually charged up by seeing how many people care about this thing that I've invested my life in. I think also that artists should buy art. I do whenever I can and I love having it hanging in my studio where, while working, I can suddenly glance up and take a breather and get lost for a moment in somebody else's concerns, then turn back to my own. I was recently talking to Ivan Karp about this, and he was saying in his experience, and it is vast, that few artists buy art. I hadn't thought about it. I simply enjoy other artists work. I can't hang my art where I live because I never stop working on it. Let's be each other's constituencies.

12/14/2009 02:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Many artists + few collectors = too much art. But only if "the right amount of art" is the same thing as "the amount of art that can be sold." Stop thinking about art in commercial terms, and the assertion that there's too much art becomes ridiculous.

12/14/2009 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger William said...

Ed,

When you draw the comparison between the proliferation of art to that of other cultural industries like television and theatre, it raises two questions for me in regards to the production of new art. I want to shift the responsibility here from the consumer and their decisions to the forces behind the production.

One, I've been reading more and more about the trend for Broadway and off-broadway productions to depend on blockbuster shows with A-list Hollywood stars to pack in audiences (museums are dealing with the same issue, of course). This seems like a clear response to the market that decreases risk-taking and experimentation in theatre. If the model is successful, more productions tilt in that direction, which seems to be the case.

Two, the phenomenon of reality shows, which are cheaper to produce than dramas, seem to be based on the idea of replication and repetition. Many US shows are often remakes of successful British shows. Successful, original American shows are also parroted on other channels...there's a lot of shows about dancing, talent, and people of dubious celebrity.

I think it's safe to say that when there was an increase in the amount of money being spent in the art market at fairs, for example, it didn't spur innovation and risk-taking so much as repetition or 'parroting' of what seemed to be commercially viable. Now, as we deal with a period of contraction, there seems to be an even greater emphasis on the familiar to generate sales, limiting the amount of risk-taking that was possible, though not necessarily realized during the boom.

One dealer (and you may have been there), said this fall that she missed the money, because of the freedom it allowed her and her artists. I guess, I'm just not sure that market forces alone provide the best way to encourage artists and dealers to take risks or grow. I also am unsure if it encourages more collectors to pursue they art they are passionate about versus the art that they can more easily define as valuable based on price points and reputation.

I think too much/too many is an aspect of the market that has supported and now hobbled art, because there aren't really any other alternatives. And in the visual arts, there are far less consumers of contemporary art than television, theatre, and museum audiences. While television has to some degree, become more diverse, because it can target specific groups of a broad audience, it often does so with a great deal of redundancy. Contemporary art appeals to a much smaller audience, and certainly isn't there just to cater to their tastes and desires. Some of the art is supposed to challenge their viewpoints, identities, and values making it a harder sell than audience driven entertainment.

I just hope that your questions about the proliferation of art, aren't just dependent on the attitude of the consumer, but also the responsibility of the producers and sellers.

12/14/2009 05:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over time it seemed that art became a viable job that people could go into + the advent of illustrative and design based art being widely accepted into the formal art world as new components or intimacies within itself. Therefore we have more artists now. It's nice to have so many artists around because the communities and local governments must react to their presence in an accommodating way. The more art became a viable investment meant more art-illiterate philistine investors were showing up to buy, and it's nice to have lots of them because the commercial art industry can grow beyond its own community of artists and art-savvy investors. Not everyone can be an artist and they shouldn't have to. Shit floats to the surface and some good artists will also drown from not having enough resources to continue making their work. Chuck Close said this economic downturn would be a SIV for the art world and remove all the artists (an galleries) that didn't have it in them to endure it - or those that he considers faux artists. I often wonder how hard it is for artists that require expensive machinery and materials. Sculptors for instance will switch to plaster when they are poor because it is traditionally the cheap waste material of sculptors. Plaster being widely used could indicate a economic hardship for artists. Art is also widely in urban meccas so it seems like there are too many artists in one place might mean it's true or because everyone wants to believe they were there first - the old close the door behind me policy. I for one am happy there are so many artists around. I think galleries need to come up with new business models for selling art and leap over the obstacles they themselves are encountering. Isn't that part of business? The industry should find new ways to expand to new levels when it finds itself sedentary or in a bad or unproductive loop. The music and film industry runs laps around innovations in marketing the same crap over and over. If there is too much art then the galleries need to find NEW ways of marketing and selling it.

12/14/2009 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger Stefano Pasquini said...

I've been pondering about quantity and art since 2003, and in 2004 I did a whole year project about that. Honestly, I'm not too sure what I got out of it, but I am pretty certain there isn't too much art in the world. Now you may keep creating.

12/14/2009 07:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey said...

In the words of Britney Spears, "gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more".

12/15/2009 01:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Like Tom, I'm surprised at how much people see art (fine art) as dependable on its market. Art, even when reduced to just a segment of the large spectrum of visual arts that we categorize as "fine art", is much broader a phenomenon than how little of it relate to any "market". We have already talked about an hierarchy of the fine art system, about the myriads of small local community or local commercial galleries that exist for each ambitious contemporary art dealer. That's just the market.

Fine art is not a market. It wasn't exactly a market like it is today for centuries. Yes, it often was a profession, but it was not a market. In a "market", things loose value if you got them in excess. That's how you hear about apalling stuff like burrying tons of unsold potatoes. To the market, as to the judge whose role is to lend trophies to the top bests, there IS indeed too much fine art. Even with more collectors, there would only the same 10 spots for "biggest seller artists of the year", ensuring them a career based on market prestige.

But fine art is not a market, it's a human natural right. Every single human on this planet is bound to make (fine) art if they want to. I'm coming back to Baudrillard in a sec. First I need to say that I don't believe people should not attempt making art (because persumably they are "bad" at it). Come on, guys, you have to see this with better philosophy:


1) there is no great without the mediocre. We need the mediocre so we can have something "great" to
distinguish itself (a prize winner).

2) mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder. To the Universe, or God if you want to see it that way, mediocrity does not exists.

3) if the mediocre artist takes a lifelong time to achieve a single great work, the efforts are worth it. And I believe that with time and determination, anyone can reach that point.

4) making (fine) art can heal the soul, regardless of the product or result. Maybe making art should be part of everyone's life, the same way we learn basic mathematics and writting.


Baudrillard assumes that when is too much of one thing, we don't see it as special anymore. That if we have too much (fine) art, we would loose grip on how to let ourselves be "moved". by it, let alone evaluate it for a possible market or a museum presentation.

I don't agree with this. I believe in "genius", and not necessarely a genius of intelligence or skills.
It can be a coincidental genius. A genius that came out of total gratuitous luck and chance-meetings. I think we have an habit at categorizing that will always help us define what works are distinguishing themselves from the bunch, what works appear as "genius" at a certain point and context in time. The vast reach and rapidity of internet communications will make that task easier. Reaching consensus will be made more easier, but like Madonna said in an interview recently: today it is very easy for an
artist to reach success instantly, because of these new modes of communications, but it is much
more harder to sustain it, because there is so much going on. In this I think we reach Andy Warhol's
prophecy, that in the future you will be lucky to get mentioned "artist of the year" for one single year, but you will likely have to lend your seat to another the next year.

They are still experts attention-seekers out there, so don't hold your breath. Also, if we reach any perticular social problem, and an artist comes up with something that make him or her seem like a savior, or the best representant of a generation, I think we may still meet our future "Beatles". Markets and excesses cant last forever. They are harder times. They are times when people need to look upon a single unificating symbol. It's basic social psychology (and sometimes it's scary).


Cedric Caspesyan

12/15/2009 03:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Ooops.

There is a "be" missing before "the same 10 spots", but the mistake I really had to correct is the parenthesis before "because presumably" that shouldn't be there at all.


I wanted to add, though: sometimes I will skip an exhibit that presents "too much". As in: 200 artists with 50 works each, or a single artist presenting an archive
of milions hours of video. This is just about me and what I can cope with. I prefer concision than assault. BUT... another person might feel like they want to throw themselves in an exhibit that look like a trove of treasures. I also asked an artist once who would over-fill their exhibition space why they did so, and he replied he loves to be overwhelmed, like in a flea market. So one should never judge the sensibility of others
because you are seeing things differently. To each his own, and so the same about Chelsea: some will think there is too more, others that there will never be enough. Like for so many other topics, I think no ultimate opinion should have the win on this.


Cedric Casp

12/15/2009 04:02:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Only a restaurant owner would think there are too many restaurants around. The idea that there is too much art has considerations of fame (standing out) and wealth (a good living) at its base. But excellence is not endangered by art's proliferation. Even with a nearly infinite number of restaurants in the world, we still recognize top chefs, don't we?

12/15/2009 07:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the word/action of collector being abused everywhere I turn. Who and what is a collector? Someone that buys art in galleries, auctions, fairs, studios or in the street? How much, how many, what? Do we talk about real motive, quality, relevance, rarity or is it just about an ever expanding and facile accumulation after retirement? A collector is someone that while at the top of his professional/chosen career (game) finds art that complements it. If you build houses for a living, not only should you be making these better, but supporting (the new ideas and) art about the same. That’s the definition of a true collector. The character of a collector is important. Everybody else is a speculator. The best collectors are connoisseurs.

mls

12/15/2009 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Well the issue will continue for some time to come because, against all logic, enrollment in art schools is up (30% in one instituion I know of). How does a shrinking art market accommodate the bulge of thousands of new artists every year? I sure hope some will end up becoming gallerists and collectors.

12/15/2009 10:03:00 AM  
Anonymous kim matthews said...

One of America's big problems right now is that we don't make anything anymore. It's not only an economic affliction; it's a psychological and spiritual one. Perhaps all this art is a reflection of the very human need to create and if we ever bring manufacturing back, the surplus will subside. Frankly though I think that what we're seeing is an unprecedented embrace of mediocrity and more foolish romanticization of what it means to be an artist. Many of us hoped that the recession would make the cream rise to the top but it seems like there's more crap than ever because of all the vehicles for self promotion.

12/15/2009 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the anonymous who first asked the question on Joanne Mattera's blog "Are there too many artists?"

At the time, there wasn't any significance to my asking. The question just came to mind.

Now, in relation to this post, and after reading the 72 comments to the earlier post "Art is my life...Not"; A question to artists (please BE honest, as I think most of you make art because you want to show/sell it (show/sell tied together): What if you could never show/sell any art that you made?

Anon.

12/16/2009 09:31:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Don't blame the self-promoting artists, Kim. They're simply using the technology at hand.

I agree about the crap, though. Thanks to the down economy, more artists are using castoffs and trash to make art. Some good stuff can come out of it (Cordy Ryman, perhaps in counterpoint to his pristine painter dad, is making marvelous little objects from construction-yard castoffs) but there's a lot of, well, crap.

BTW: I'm blogging about the good, the bad and the ugly in my posts about Miami: www.joannemattera.blogspot.com

12/16/2009 09:40:00 AM  
OpenID melbourneartcritic said...

The problem of too many artists or too many galleries (which is what I wrote about in Melbourne, Australia) is one of resources. It is not just sales but gallery visitors, critical reviews and other resources. If there is an exhibition that nobody visits or reviews because there are too many other exhibitions did it really happen? I hope that Joanne Mattera is right and that some of the new arts graduates become gallerists and collectors, and what I have done, become a critic.

12/18/2009 09:48:00 PM  

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