Monday, August 30, 2010

Art in the Post-Democracy Era (or The Inspiration of Dictatorial Constraints)

You might want to grab some dressing to flavor this bowl of raw thought salad.

So over the weekend, I read the New York Times review of Milan Kundera's new collection of essays titled Encounter, and was particularly intrigued when the critic quoted the Czech writer's opinion that "we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.”

That is a statement we could discuss in some depth, but it reminded me that I haven't heard as many people talk about being in a "post-art" era recently as we had a few years back. And, to be honest, I wasn't sure what the latest, most widely accepted definition of "post-art" was, knowing that how something is defined is usually as political as the implications of its significance. So I googled "What does "post-art" mean?" which turned up this great piece by Deborah Fisher I had forgotten about, Post-Art Manifesto And Eponymous Blog-Killer. In particular, this notion jumped out at me:
I learned how to make modern art. Contemporary art is a modernist activity. And I honestly think that the only way to catapult over the problems we have--everything from the impending Climate Death to this Economic Catastrophe to Rampant Fundamentalism (from ecofundamentalism to jihad and the GOP)--is to find what lies beyond the modern world.
Knowing what lies beyond the modern world would indeed provide direction for citizens and artists alike, but transitions are usually deceptive, often all but impossible to get a good grasp on while actually happening. Hindsight is generally the only serious way to even begin to organize what truly mattered versus what was reactionary or simply noise. What seems obvious, though, as the limitations of Liberal Democracies seem to be being reached in conjunction with what looks like the biggest heist in human history (i.e., the money that banks managed to squeeze out of the US treasury before dropping its ravaged rind into the wastebasket) is that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are more willingly traded in exchange for prosperity and, most of all, security by the masses than would have flattered our forefathers.

The experiment that has been the United States of America will likely continue under its current Constitution, but more and more I hear people (very intelligent people) argue that a benevolent dictatorship wouldn't be the worse way to run things, especially if that brought with it a reasonable amount of economic stability. Historically speaking, such thinking isn't as heretical as it is an accurate and objective observation. In 15th century Florence (which had the only representative government of all the Italian states then), for example, each time the Florentines pushed for less corruption among the Signoria and a more open and fair form of democratic government, they found the competing tenets of Christianity and Capitalism brought about constant wars and civic strife. By pretending to simply have a representative government that all but the dullest knew was tightly controlled by a benevolent oligarchy, the Florentines prospered, and how. The checks and balances of such prosperous times were provided by competing wealthy families, not other branches of government, as well as how easy it was to turn any abused population into a blood-thirsty mob. Yes it was much more violent, but at its best it was also stunningly efficient.

What I suspect, in addition to Liberal Democracy, is also potentially reaching its limits is its driving Humanist ideal: individualism. One of the ways previous centuries of people dealt with hardship was by maximizing their resources within their extended family units (forming micro-economies and governments, if you will). Individualism and globalism has spread families out to where this isn't as easy any more. We hear about 20- or 30-somethings moving back in with their parents to save money, but that's seen as an undesirable, and hopefully temporary, situation, whereas before it was viewed as a source of a family's strength to pool their resources and work together as a team. The same people who I hear muse on the potential benefits of a benevolent dictatorship also see a return to extended family coalitions as a positive part of that scenario. In other words, they seem to instinctively long for a pre-Enlightenment social structure, as if it were genetically hard-wired into our species to live that way.

But, asks the myopic dealer, would such a structure serve art? In the recent thread here on whether "huge leaps" in art were still possible, many people questioned whether huge leaps were even desirable (which I personally would answer "For me, yes."), but Franklin cut to the chase and noted that "Innovation doesn't happen in the absence of constraints."

Are the kind of "constraints" that would come with a benevolent dictatorship the kind we want, even if they would bring about innovations in art? From the point of view I was raised in, the answer would be "Absolutely not! Corruption squashes individualism, and individualism is essentially for meaningful artistic expression." But, if I'm honest, I have to acknowledge that despite our Constitution, despite centuries of hard-learned lessons, corruption is ubiquitous everywhere humans set up governments and always has been, even in the US...so such sentiments are a bit naive at best.

Moreover, there is the matter of how you side in the other perpetual debate Milan Kundera raised: "the disagreement between people for whom the political struggle is more important than real life, than art, than thought, and people for whom the whole meaning of politics is to serve real life, art, thought.” Fighting for a political system that is not serving real life, art or thought very well is about as anti-Humanist as it gets.

Don't get me wrong. I like Liberal Democracies, even as messy and hypocritical as they are. I am comfortable in them. I am not advocating for a dictatorship here, nor do I applaud them elsewhere. I just think that whatever comes next for the species, and our art, can't ignore some of these human tendencies and paradoxes. We can continue limping along with our cynical blinders on...and, here in the US at least, probably will. But it's tough to get excited that or the art it will produce.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Loose List of Links for a Sunny Summer Day

In no particular order, these amused me
And with that, I'm packing for the beach!

see ya next week!

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Huge Leaps Still Possible? Open Thread

I spent my vacation reading a book on the Medici's that was alright (but what the author seemed to understand about homosexuality [a topic he raised incessantly] could fit on the head of pin). I did appreciate how well he moved the story along and the character development he was careful to build. But in general I won't recommend it. I will ask for others' recommendations on the family, though, as I'm currently obsessed with what drives people to patronage.

What struck me the most while reading, however, was the monumental leaps forward made by the artists of the Renaissance. Yes, many of their "advances" were more accurately rediscoveries, but many of them were not as well. As I read, it occurred to me, especially when it was noted how much advances in art at the time depended on advances in science, that with the specialization that science has reached today and what at least appears to be only incremental progress in most science fields now (where's my flying car and transporter bay, eh?), art may have reached a similar point of specialization and thus a point at which only much smaller steps are likely to be seen.


Oh, we do occasionally see exhibitions on "New Abstractions" or what have you, but rarely do any of the works therein seem entirely revolutionary. And there are intriguing new approaches in photography that seem to be capturing more and more people's imagination, but even these seem incremental in comparison with Brunelleschi's brilliant egg dome solutions or Leonardo's subtle psychologically charged and anatomically miraculous portraits.


Of course it's not entirely fair to compare artists coming out of the long dark Medieval period who happened upon these great road maps left by the Roman and Greek geniuses to guide them and then were able to carefully protect their secrets due to the lack of mass communication and mass transportation (so that viewers had to travel in person to see, process, unravel, and incorporate their advances) with those artists working in the Internet age in which any image photographed by a cellphone and then posted to a website will be immediately viewed around the world and possibly appropriated, if not parodied, within hours.

Or am I too close to the issue? Do others see huge leaps forward in art that I'm taking for granted? Consider this an open thread on the limits of advancements in art, as well as whether they're still tied to science or some other discipline.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why I See Opposition to the Islamic Center as Indistinguishable from Bigotry

I believe that good meaning people in America are so uncomfortable with the idea of a "mosque" (and by that they mean the Cordoba House Islamic center which is not really a mosque, per se) at Ground Zero (which is actually two blocks, and a few dozen entirely unhallowed other buildings, away...but...) that they simply wish its supporters would move it to another location. They're not bigots, and they believe in religious freedom; they just feel that all this tension isn't worth it. "Just not there; it's too controversial" seems to be their fall back argument.

I'm sorry, but I see that as still essentially defending the wrong side in the debate. Whether one's intentions are non-bigoted is beside the point; the entire reason this location is controversial stems from bigotry (people associating anything Muslim with those who carried out the 9/11 attacks). That means the non-bigots who just want stability are left with a dilemma: either side with the bigots' call for a relocation or endure the uncomfortable controversy. It's clear to me what the brave choice is.

Moreover, siding with the bigots affiliates anyone who does so with the growing impact of their opposition. The media circus and reckless rhetoric of the opportunistic politicians willing to seize upon this issue to hopefully advance their election chances (such as) has stirred up opposition to mosques and Islamic centers across the country (see here, here, and here). It's not good enough to say you support the rights of Muslim Americans to build mosques in Wisconsin or Tennessee or California, but oppose it this one time. You have to stand up for the American ideal of religious freedom when it's the least comfortable for your position to mean anything.

I'll be honest. This is very personal for me. A good number of Muslim Americans are very dear to me. It pains me greatly to see the hurt in their eyes over this blatant bigotry. They too endured 9/11. They too deserve comfort from the horror of it, and they deserve to know they're safe in their own country. (This video is a nightmare of undiluted ignorance and hate.) As Americans, they deserve to live as they wish and worship where they want, just like any other American. Full stop.

Mira Schor has penned an amazing essay on why it's essentially moronic to carve out some circle around Ground Zero as a mosque-free zone. Here's a snippet:
From my corner I saw with my own eyes the second plane hit the South Tower. I lived downtown through the scary nights and the many rough months after September 11, and I am here to say that my whole street is a mosque. Several times a day, small groups of Muslims -- mainly African street vendors who peddle carvings or fake Vuitton bags and Rolex watches on Canal Street -- pull out prayers mats, often just rolls of cardboard they store in the nooks and crannies of the buildings around, take their shoes off in all weather, wash their feet with water from bottles, kneel towards the east and pray, 14 blocks from Ground Zero, on ground they've spontaneously "hallowed." And the only thing one can say, in the words of my late Holocaust-refugee Polish-Jewish mother, is "Only in America."
Muslims help make up the fabric of New York. They did on 9/11, and they still do today. The mindless hatred they're subjected to over this controversy makes me ill. Our country (their country, your country, my country) is better than this. I know it's better than this, because it's worked through issues like this before and found the higher ground. As Mayor Bloomberg noted last night:
[I]t was not so long ago that Jews and Catholics had to overcome stereotypes and build bridges to those who viewed them with suspicion and less than fully American. In 1960, many Americans feared that John F. Kennedy would impose papal law on America. But through his example, he taught us that piety to a minority religion is no obstacle to patriotism. It is a lesson I think that needs updating today, and it is our responsibility to accept the challenge.
There's so much more at stake in this for America than anyone's personal comfort level, and, with all due respect, that includes the families of the victims. I won't minimize their feelings (because, as I've noted, my position is also influenced by my feelings for my loved ones...so I appreciate their pain), but I can't agree to let those who would conflate the terrorists with law-abiding Muslims do so unchallenged. And as that's the entire basis of the controversy, I can't agree to let those who would oppose the center do so unchallenged either. It's un-American, it's cowardly, and practically speaking it's indistinguishable from bigotry.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

My Final Thoughts on "Work of Art" (Season 1, anyway)

Karen Rosenberg has already written a well-considered, non-star-struck summary of Bravo's Work of Art, so my initial decision to wait until the show had concluded to weigh in with what I hoped would be a similar fashion now seems somewhat redundant (which is not to suggest I could have done anywhere near as good a job, mind you). So let me just tie up a few loose ends about it all.

Not being much of a TV critic, I won't weigh in much more on the design of the show. To my eye it was classic reality TV competition fare (which means it's about storytelling, not the specific field used as the backdrop, and should probably only be judged as such). The only comment I'll make on how it ended is that the winner did indeed seem to me to be the "most improved" of the contestants, and so I'll offer him my sincere congratulations on winning the contest.

In fact, I'd offer sincere congratulations to all the contestants of the show. Despite what I'd call condescending and sometimes simply moronic challenges, they seemed to take it all (mostly) in stride and often still made interesting work. I will note that I consider asking artists to do such things the height of disrespect for the profession (even as I acknowledge that they freely signed up to do it).

Then there are those affiliated with the program who didn't have "desperate artist seeking any leg in the door" as their defense. This is what I promised to return to in my first post after viewing the show. Here goes...

I'll start at the top: As Tyler put it, Rosenberg "clobbered" the Brooklyn Museum for agreeing to present an exhibition of the winner's work, delivering a brutal blow with this undeniable observation:
The museum’s affiliation with Bravo’s “Work of Art” is most worrying as a symptom of something bigger: a dampening of curatorial vision under the institution’s director, Arnold Lehman. Whether or not you agree with the museum’s efforts to broaden its appeal, which leaves it open to accusations of being overly populist, you have to acknowledge that it has been importing shows of contemporary art much more often than it generates them
Karen more or less echoed my exact sentiments about the oddly chosen artists' champion in the show too:
Simon de Pury, the chairman of Phillips de Pury, was an unexpectedly fabulous “mentor,” doling out bons mots worthy of Tim Gunn from “Project Runway” with a soupçon of Swiss superiority. But the choice of a Phillips representative was peculiar; auction houses in general have long been seen as the enemies of the emerging artist, places where careers flare up and then fizzle.
I interpreted the baffled looks on the faces of the three finalists, when they were told the winner would also have a work of theirs auctioned off at Phillips, to convey "You mean you'll do that to the two of us who lose, right? That's the losers' punishment, right?"

All joking aside, I was appalled at that decision. Putting up at auction the work of an artist with no established market seems cruel to say the least. Maybe the celebrity factor will secure a good price for this one piece, but it will hardly establish a solid sense of value in the minds of anyone taking the artist's career seriously. Indeed, the whole spectacle will hardly be anything more than a prolonged publicity stunt for Phillips, which of course it seems designed to be.

China Chow was a fine host for a reality TV Show. She always looked interesting and delivered her lines (which I suspect some snickering, budding Dostoevsky on the show's staff wrote as his insidious revenge for his heretofore obscurity) with all the enthusiasm they inspired.

From my point of view (which is admittedly insidery), Jerry Saltz got the most out of the show, transcending his uphill battle to inject some standards in the judging (at least as detectable by the edited version aired) via his unforgettable recaps on New York magazine's site. The final summary he wrote was evidence that those who initially hoped the show would do some good for the art world weren't wrong...they were simply expecting it in the wrong arena. Here's a snippet:
In the middle of the street — or, once, in the Dallas airport — I’d be having animated conversations about art and art criticism. That confirmed my suspicion that many people have inner critics dying to get out. But the good I’m thinking of wasn’t about me, and it didn’t happen on the street or even TV. It happened here in these recaps. And not in my summaries of each episode. It happened in the tens of thousands of words that all of you wrote in the comment sections at the bottom of the recaps. An accidental art criticism sprang up, practiced in a new place, in a new way, on a fairly high level. Together we were crumbs and butter of a mysterious madeleine. The delivery mechanism of art criticism seemed to turn itself inside out; instead of one voice speaking to many, there were many voices speaking to one another. Coherently. All these voices became ghosts in criticism’s machine. It was a criticism of unfolding process, not dictums and law - a criticism of intimacy that pulsed with a kind of phosphorescent grandeur.
I still get chills reading that.

As much sh*t as Jerry got for being on the show (not all of it entirely undeserved, imho), I can't think of anyone else who could have transformed his experience there into the incredible online dialog that he did. He's an alchemist with words, that guy, and somehow so damned interesting to watch. Bravo should just give him his own show. Seriously. I'd tune in every week.


There were two other judges rumored to have been on the show, and a few "celebrity" artists (see: "famous accountants") kind enough to lend their credibility to the venture. I kept wishing they'd just hurry up and let Jerry talk again. Mind you, I recognize that my feelings about that are conflicted by the other two judges also being dealers and the dialog that Jerry represents being the one I'm personally most interested in. But then I'm not offering you someone else's take on the show here.

Expectations that the show potentially set for aspiring artists out there about what it takes to "make it" is where I feel it failed the most. In fact, I'd call it all but unforgivable. In particular (and while admittedly, "making it" can have different meanings to different artists), the grad-school mindset that drove the creation (and drama) of the challenges is exactly what an artist hoping to get into the gallery system needs to shake off. The skills it takes to win a TV contest are all but irrelevant in that context. I assume most aspiring artists know that, but just in case some got confused... No one in the gallery system gives a rat's ass what you'd do with a warehouse of broken electronics if you're not compelled to use them as raw material, and we sure as f*ck don't want you purposely setting out to create "shock" art (whatever the hell that means). We are only interested in seeing you make the work you need to make to best express your personal vision. And we want it to be better than excellent. We want it to change the course of human understanding.

In short, focus on that, and forget whether you're too much or not enough of an "art pussy" for this industry.
Despite what the show might have suggested, it's not about you...it's about your art.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Gone Fishing

Bambino and I are on vacation this week...hanging out mostly in places with limited to no wi-fi or cell phone reception...yes, on purpose (like the place below we visited yesterday with my Dad [took that with my iPhone, believe it or not] of course they didn't let you fish there).



see you next week!

e_

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Jennifer Dalton's show at the FLAG Art Foundation Reviewed in today's New York Times

Ken Johnson has reviewed Jennifer Dalton's exhibition at the FLAG Art Foundation in today's New York Times. The exhibition runs through September 10th. Don't miss it!
Jennifer Dalton: Making Sense
By KEN JOHNSON
Published: August 13, 2010

FLAG Art Foundation
545 West 25th Street
Chelsea
Through Sept. 10

Jennifer Dalton mines data about various sorts of art-world behavior and presents her findings in low-tech, handmade forms. (See her Web site, jenniferdalton.com.) “What Does an Artist Look Like? (Every Photograph of an Artist to Appear in the New Yorker, 1999 & 2009)” presents a copy of just what its self-explanatory title says. The array of portraits includes not only visual artists like Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman, but also actors, writers and other creative types. Each is ranked on a scale from genius to pinup.

Insiders will be particularly amused by “What Are We Not Shutting Up About?,” a 15-foot-wide chart that graphically represents statistical information gleaned from five months’ worth of Facebook conversations between the art critic Jerry Saltz and his online friends. The chart lists all of Mr. Saltz’s status updates, and colored bars of different heights show the number of responses to each. One notable result Ms. Dalton turns up — represented in pie-chart form — is that 18.5 percent of all responses were generated by just 5 people, with 930 people accounting for the rest.

Ms. Dalton’s investigations might seem inconsequential, a kind of gossip-mongering journalism; or she might be teasing the art world for its solipsism. Either way, she is serious about being systematically unserious. Her irreverence is infectious and thought-provoking.

Also on view at the FLAG Foundation are Robert Lazzarini’s magical-realist sculptures of handguns, knives and brass knuckles, distorted so they seem to exist in some sort of warped virtual space; and, by Noriko Ambe, art books that have been intricately cut into ingenious sculptural forms. KEN JOHNSON
Here are some other installation views of Jennifer's show:

Jennifer Dalton, "Making Sense," installation view.


Jennifer Dalton, What Does an Artist Look Like?
(Every Photograph of an Artist to Appear in the New Yorker, 1999 & 2009), installation view.

Jennifer Dalton, What Does an Artist Look Like? (Every Photograph of an Artist to Appear in the New Yorker, 1999 & 2009), installation view (detail of 2009).

Image at top: Jennifer Dalton’s “What Are We Not Shutting Up About?” graphs discussions on the art critic Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page. Photograph by Genevieve Hanson.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cops, Rights, and Videotape : Open Thread

It's tricky working through the complex sets of opinions on what is reasonable in the case of laws in certain states that make it a crime (often a felony) to videotape a police officer interacting with the public. On one hand, you have the widely held opinion that if a police officer isn't doing anything wrong, why should he/she mind being taped (and, they use that same logic in reverse when citizens complain about cameras on every street corner). On the other hand, you have civil rights issues: Is a police officer less entitled to privacy than other people?

The overall context for this debate though is, as as noted by Glenn Reynolds (whom I so rarely agree with on political issues), that...
In the old days, ordinary people didn't have much privacy, but neither did big shots. By contrast, today's government officials and big corporations often want to watch us, but they don't want to be watched in return. Shopping malls are full of security cameras, but many have signs at the entrance telling customers that no photography or video recording is allowed. Police cars have dashboard cameras, cities and counties are posting red-light and speed-limit cameras, and it seems that the dream of many government officials is to put every public space under 24-hour video watch. But try shooting photos or video of police or ­other public officials as they go about their business and you might find yourself in wrist restraints.
Or, in some states at least, you might find yourself in prison. As Radley Balko notes in a really good summary of the issue on Reason (read it all):
The debate over whether citizens should be permitted to record on-duty police officers intensified this summer. High profile incidents in Maryland, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere spurred coverage of the issue from national media outlets ranging from the Associated Press to Time to NPR.
The details of the Maryland case getting the most attention are horrendous. This Washington Post editorial explains:

ANTHONY GRABER deserved a traffic ticket for speeding on Interstate 95 while popping wheelies. What the 25-year-old Abingdon, Md., resident did not deserve was to find himself, weeks later, facing a lengthy prison sentence for violating a Maryland wiretapping law.

As The Post's Annys Shin explained, Mr. Graber's troubles started when he mounted a video camera on his motorcycle helmet. Mr. Graber was pulled over by an unmarked car in early March while on his ill-advised romp on I-95. A man in street clothes and wielding a gun emerged from the vehicle and ordered Mr. Graber to get off the bike. Only then did Maryland State Trooper Joseph D. Uhler identify himself as a police officer and holster his weapon.

The helmet cam captured video and audio of the encounter with the trooper; Mr. Graber posted the piece on YouTube one week later. He soon found himself the subject of a raid in which law enforcement officers seized computer equipment and the video camera from his home. Mr. Graber was indicted for violating a Maryland law that prohibits the audiotaping of a person without his consent. Between the wiretapping charges and the traffic violations, Mr. Graber could face up to 16 years behind bars.

I side with those who feel "Photography [or Video] is Not a Crime, It’s a First Amendment Right." I think in the way that more and more we upload photos or videos to the internet or email them to our friends, it's becoming even more so a fundamental issue of free speech. It's how we're communicating with each other.

I guess I can see the potential for video to be used to harass people, though, in extreme situations (and I do believe people have the right to a certain degree of privacy...civility and sanity demand it), but I suspect there are stalking laws that would protect most of us from the most egregious abuses. Whether public servants should enjoy the same expectations while on their job that private citizens should with regards to privacy is the central question here to my mind.

Where I see allowing anyone to videotape police officers playing an important role in a democracy is as a check on abuse of power. From Rodney King to the McKenna case, it's only because some citizen caught abuse on tape that the police didn't get away with it. But such cases are often inflated to make just such a point. As Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, noted:
You have 960,000 police officers in this country, and millions of contacts between those officers and citizens. I’ll bet you can’t name 10 incidents where a citizen video has shown a police officer to have lied on a police report," Pasco says. "Letting people record police officers is an extreme and intrusive response to a problem that’s so rare it might as well not exist. It would be like saying we should do away with DNA evidence because there’s a one in a billion chance that it could be wrong. At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures.
Trust, but verify, as Reagan said. Video is a good form of verification.

Consider this an open thread on the impact of laws that prohibit videotaping police on free speech.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Nurture Art Benefit Tickets: Get 'em while they're hot!

Of all the benefits I attended last season that one that seemed most infused with energy, good will, and just plain fun was the one benefiting NURTUREart. There was a real air of optimism and joy, despite the economy, which was so encouraging given Nurture Art's mission of helping emerging artists, which they do consistently and generously with a true democratic spirit and warmth.

Therefore it gives me great pleasure to volunteer for this year's benefit committee and to be able to give you a sneak peek at this year's event. It's a few months off, but if you act early you can get gala entry for two people (they had great food and drinks last year and your ticket includes one artwork) for 20% off! Here's the real deal, though, if you get a VIP ticket, you get first choice of your artwork at the VIP Preview @ 6:00 pm. The folks lined up for this last year were so excited, and the rush in to select from early among the great works was exhilarating.

Here's the vital info:

Ticket Prices:
  • $200.00 VIP Tickets Purchased Before October 1st: Includes early admission to the VIP Benefit for two and one work of art
  • $250.00 VIP Tickets Purchased After October 1st: Includes all of the above
  • $75.00 General Admission Tickets: Includes entrance to the Benefit after the VIP preview
Benefit Details (as of August 10th):
  • Date and Location: Tuesday, October 12th at ZieherSmith gallery
  • Honoring: Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts
  • Benefit Artist Submission curated by: Dan Cameron (Prospect New Orleans), Ceci Moss (Rhizome.org), Jane Panetta (MoMA), and 2009-2010 NURTUREart curatorial alum, Krista Saunders.
I'll update you as we get closer to the event, but don't miss out on your chance to get discounted advanced tickets. Artists interesting in supporting the benefit can also submit their work for the curators' review here.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

Interpretive Dance (or..."Here we are now..entertain us!")

I don't do things that make me feel stupid. I'm smart enough, exactly as I am. And anywhere I go that doesn't reinforce my sense of self-satisfaction is obviously being run by people I cannot trust, so I won't go there.

That's the accumulated feedback today's museums seem to be trying to address with a wide-range of what's being called "interpretation" initiatives. The thinking seems to be that encouraging visitors to interpret a work via their own experience is the best way to keep them from getting bored while in the museum (and keep them coming back). ARTNews' summer issue has a well-considered article on these interpretation efforts at America's museums. Here's a small section, but please do read the entire thing:

As art museums have become destinations for more socially and culturally diverse audiences, they have been working hard not only to attract visitors but also to keep them engaged once they are inside. They have come to realize that visitors who feel bored, overwhelmed, confused, or stupid are unlikely to return. "Interpretation should be the biggest priority," says Sara Bodinson, director of interpretation and research at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Using both staff members and outside experts, these institutions are running focus groups and observing people strolling through the galleries. They have clocked how much time viewers spend in front of an object and how much time they spend reading a label, and noted whether they look back at an object after reading about it.

They know how many words visitors can tolerate in object labels (about 50), room labels (no more than 150), or longer introductory texts (300 is the maximum). They know that most visitors spend ten seconds in front of an object—seven to read the label, three to examine the thing itself. They know that for most people museum fatigue sets in after about 45 minutes. And they have learned that the issues and questions on the minds of visitors are often the most basic:

  • I don't know where to start.
  • I don't know what to look at first.
  • Have I looked at this long enough?
  • What does circa mean?
  • Your labels make me feel stupid.
  • How did the artist make this?
  • Why would a museum put this on display?
  • Is this really art?

"We cannot make assumptions today about what people know," says Geri Thomas, founder of the art consulting and staffing firm Thomas & Associates.

I'll cut to the chase in my response to this trend : catering to the public's insecurities is the work of Madison Avenue, not America's museums. Further, I'm personally not convinced by the arguments that seem to be hiding behind the "service" side of a museum's mission when it feels that increased attendance for its own sake (any paying body through the door, regardless of the impact of experience for everyone) is the driving force behind such changes.

In fact, the first sentence I quoted above bears repeating:
As art museums have become destinations for more socially and culturally diverse audiences, they have been working hard not only to attract visitors but also to keep them engaged once they are inside.
I read that to mean the museums have been successful in getting more socially and culturally diverse audiences in the door, but not in providing a rewarding experience for them once they paid to get in. The implication in that seems to be that although you can lure them in once, unless you can convince them they received value for their entrance fee, they won't return.

That in and of itself is fine. (And I'm not in the camp of people worried about curators "dumbing down" things for viewers...helping people, whatever their background, understand the work is one of museum curators' prime responsibilities.) What I think the new "entertain them", er, I mean..."engage them" initiatives (with their tactics of holding visitors hands to ensure they get more from the artwork they're viewing) entirely miss, however, is that it may not be possible to understand or "get" a work of art in the first or second or even the 67th viewing. It may require someone multiple viewings to understand a work of art. Therefore, museums may actually be providing a disservice by suggesting to visitors that they now "understand" a particular work because the museum went to such great lengths to rush some personal connection for them.

In other words, leaving a museum scratching your head is actually an OK experience, in my opinion. Rather than these silly (and in my opinion condescending) efforts (such as "spectacular high-tech projection[s]" or "fictional narrative[s] about a housemaid displayed in a storybook") in the interest of speeding up the understanding process (i.e., things that distract you from having to form your own opinions), museums should IMO contextualize the art viewing experience so that visitors feel OK about not getting the work right away. It doesn't make you "dumb" if you don't get it. It means you can still look forward to having that epiphany one day in which you connect the dots and that artwork screams back through your memory into your consciousness and exhilarates you like nothing else you've ever felt.

That, to me, is an experience worth paying for.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

A Few Thoughts about Mr. Connelly

Lindsay Pollock reported yesterday that after nearly 10 years of promoting some of today's most exciting and cutting-edge artists, John Connelly is closing his eponymous gallery. Not only is John a neighbor and someone I personally admire a great deal, he has always represented to me the very best of what a young art dealer could achieve in this increasingly complex art scene and globalizing market. (It's not as simple a landscape out there as it was even just one generation ago.)

I've written about John's program on occasion (which is more than I have for most other galleries), but I have always marveled at his feel for what the most interesting artists of our day are thinking. John has taken more risks in his programming than just about any other dealer I know to make that complex thinking more accessible. His exhibitions have always looks fantastic, while still being intellectually adventurous and curatorially exhilarating.

When it comes to having one's finger on the pulse, John is the real deal.

I don't really expect everyone to understand the sentiments that follow. I know there are those for whom the closing of a gallery is cause to snicker or simply add another notch on their tally board. Of course, the impact on the careers of any closing gallery's artists is of significant concern, and,while in the court of public opinion that often rightfully overshadows any thought toward what the gallerist is personally losing, for most of the people who have worked to build a gallery, such events represent so much more than just the end of a business. Once the hard decisions are final, it may play out as such, but making those decisions is (I can imagine) nothing short of agonizing. A gallery is more than a business to me. It's someone putting their money where their mouth is (not to mention tons of hard work) to say "Hey, you! Look here! These artists are important!!" In that sense a gallery is a gift to the public and often a bloody damn generous one.

Yes, I know, I'm guilty of romanticizing this, even as I urge artists to be tough and thick skinned about their own careers (I only do so because I care), but that's partly because I'm spending my summer leisurely devouring the biography of Leo Castelli, and I'm almost at the end and, well, I so do love when a gallery is able to make an impact on art history, to help make the world take notice, to help usher in a new understanding about what important artists are making, and so I find it rather heartbreaking when that all comes to an end.

John is actually moving on to a really good gig, so I'm not feeling sorry for him, per se. I'm actually feeling sorry for myself. I'm going to miss feeling the way I have each time I've visited his space...having my eyes opened a bit more, my positions challenged a bit more. John has worked with some truly spectacular artists, but more than that, he created a context in which I truly trusted that if I just gave it a chance I would learn something I didn't know before. There's no higher compliment I personally can pay a gallerist than that.

As Lindsay reports, John Connelly Presents is closing with a reception tonight, 6-8 pm.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Good Advice, Served up on a Very Bitter Cracker

The Guardian offers an op-ed by Rena De Sisto, global arts and culture executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, on how arts organizations should re-think the way they interact with corporate sponsors. On the surface it seems to be a common-sense opinion piece on "know your customers' needs." Here's a bit [via artinfo.com]:
Importantly, cultural institutions must understand that the days of arts support based on executive whim are over. Companies have many people to answer to – shareholders among them – and must extract sound business benefits, such as access for employees, brand visibility and client outreach opportunities. This need not be a Faustian bargain, but a mutually beneficial one. Treat your funders like valued clients and, like all satisfied clients, they will become more loyal. Some organisations, such as the Old Vic and Tate, do this very effectively and make it easy for Bank of America Merrill Lynch to continue our support of them. Going beyond the big financials and the energy companies will diversify institutions' revenue bases. These are sound strategies for most businesses, certainly for financial institutions. So why not for the arts sector?


I wouldn't disagree with the essence of that sentiment. Understanding your clients' needs is step one in developing how to serve those needs. And I agree that if states are having to cut back on arts funding, it is a very good thing for corporations to step in to help keep institutions afloat.

What I find particularly shocking about this essay, though, is how anyone in the banking industry would, so soon after the historic tax-payer-funded bailouts that saved them from absolute oblivion, already feel so cock-sure about their own insights as to to lecture other industries on what makes for "sound" business strategies. Mind you, I'm not saying BoA isn't savvy...they managed to make the most of the available government bailout money, but as one commenter on the Guardian put it:
Now let me see why is it exactly was it again that Arts funding is being cut?

Ah yes the 'Masters of the Universe' noses in the trough Credit Crunch.

Thanks for the advice Bank of America - but get your own house in order before offering 'no pain no gain advice to everyone else'.

Without you there wouldn't have been pain.
From all accounts, BoA has gotten their own house in order again, but then I think that almost any company would have, had the US government offered them access to hundreds of billions of dollars to do so.

They might have waited just a bit longer to climb up on that soapbox, or at the very least acknowledged the taxpayer help they received before lecturing others.

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Messiah Impulse

Of all the pearls of wisdom my mother has taught me, perhaps one more than all others has influenced my interactions with other people throughout my life. It was profound in its simplicity and, I find, unerring in its accuracy. "You cannot change people," she said. She was referring specifically to one's spouse and wanted me to understand that it's pointless to assume you'll find that almost perfect person and be able to urge them into your ideal of perfection.

At a very young age, I took that message to heart and, indeed, although I've had many friends and, well, more than two lovers over the years, I have never once (as far as I can recall) ever tried to get someone to change. I accept people as they are and use that assessment alone to decide whether or not I wish to hang around them. I will not meddle, let alone insist upon alterations. Even if I see someone is heading over a metaphorical cliff in life, unless they request my help, the most they'll get from me is some cheerful recommendations or selfish complaints. (If they're heading over a more literal cliff, I will, of course do what I can to intercede.)

I guess I just don't have a messiah impulse. I don't think you can change people, and I
certainly don't think you can save people. Either they save themselves or they make mistakes. And to be honest, to me, mistakes are an important part of living. They make us all more interesting, and certainly more humble, as people.

This is partly why, I suspect, despite its flaws, I can't quite understand the folks who feel compelled to change the TV show everyone in the art world seemingly loves to hate: Bravo's "Work of Art." More than just change it, the impulse seems to be to "save" it from itself.

First came the very funny, but still somewhat messianic, suggestions from Art Fag City's Paddy Johnson and C-Monster's Carolina A. Miranda on how to craft "Better Challenges" for the show's next round of contestants. Among the ones the made me laugh the hardest:
EXTREME VIDEO
Artistic Inspiration: Dash Snow.
Sponsor: GlaxoSmithKline.
Two teams of artists are each sealed into rooms stocked with a Polaroid camera, 1000 issues of Artforum, a kiddie pool full of malt liquor, a skateboard and a buffet full of tranquilizers. Using these tools, each team must produce a 30-minute video set to music by an unsigned Brooklyn band. Immunity goes to whoever wakes up naked in Berlin.
Then today comes a round-table discussion by three of the sharpest wits in the New York art world (all three of whom just so happen to currently write for the Village Voice): R.C. Baker, Martha Schwendener, and Christian Viveros-Fauné. What starts as an admittedly "intemperate introduction" (but again, very funny) then steers into a surprisingly earnest appraisal of the show:
Baker: I'm enjoying this show, in a bread-and-circus kind of way. Like everything else in our Internet age, it's not thought out. It's built for TV speed. It's prurient, it's voyeuristic, it's sensational. But for all that, it's entertaining. There's certainly no great art on the program. The art is in the conceptualizing, editing, and cutting of the show.
The assessments are very interesting. But then, bang, there it is again, that messiah impulse:

Baker: But here's a question: Bravo calls you and says, "Christian, you know the art world—help me put together this show." What do you do?

Schwendener: Let's back up, because I thought the question you were going to ask was: "Would you go on?"

Viveros-Fauné: And the answer is, yes, I would have. The real reason I hate the show is that I think they cocked it up.

Baker: Well, one thing you can say is that TV and art are pretty much antithetical. The contemplation, the time you need, the nimbus that is art doesn't play on TV.

Schwendener: Not with this format. Again, Christian, remind me what you hate about the show?

Viveros-Fauné: I hate wasted opportunities.

Schwendener: Got it.

Seriously, though, I don't get this.

I wouldn't meddle with the show at all. If it's going to be a glorious mess, I say let it. If it's going to be the quintessential evidence that McLuhan was right (as Martha notes, and I entirely agree "It's not about art, it's about TV"), then let it be that.

I mean, here's the thing. It's all gravy. It's not like the world needs this TV show. It's not as if it performs some vital function within the cultural nurturing system (and it's certainly not like I had expectations from the early descriptions that it would). Its greatest potential, as far as I can see, is to be a fabulous train wreck, and as such, simply magnificent to watch in slow motion.

Let it be what it will be, I say.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

ADL's Statement on the Proposed Islamic Center at Ground Zero

I have been a long-time fan of the Anti-Defamation League. Their consistent stand against extremism of all kinds, their oft-unpopular commitment to the the ideals of universal tolerance and (as their mission states) "justice and fair treatment to all" has made them absolute heroes in my eyes.

That is why I was shocked and literally disgusted to hear that they had issued the following statement:
We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship.

We categorically reject appeals to bigotry on the basis of religion, and condemn those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.

However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.

The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.

In recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center, we are mindful that some legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values. These questions deserve a response, and we hope those backing the project will be transparent and forthcoming. But regardless of how they respond, the issue at stake is a broader one.

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.
Much has been made in certain quarters about how this puts the ADL in league with the likes of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, but having some opinions that overlap with people you'd otherwise consider unhinged is not uncommon in a complex world, so I don't see that as much of an issue.

Others have highlighted the following utter horse manure for logic in their statement:
In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.
I won't insult the ADL by deconstructing that lame and irrational rubbish. Let's all please just pretend that sentence was one big typo.

No, I'll cut to the chase and use the ADL's own words as my entire response to their statement:
"Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site"
Only, take out the word "may."

Proponents of the center have EVERY right to build at this site. Full stop.


No other argument trumps this fact. Any attempt to deny it reeks of bigotry.

What I really can't understand is why they bothered at all. The ADL did not need to weigh in on this. Unless you go to extreme lengths to twist it into such, no part of this issue is truly central to their primary mission "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people."

Tragically, though, joining in to pressure the proponents of the site to change locations brings the ADL so close, at least in spirit, to actually supporting the violation of their civil rights, that they have, in one fell swoop, introduced serious questions about their credibility after a nearly flawless 100-year record.

Now I ask their leadership: was this one building worth such a loss?

UPDATE: Thankfully, calmer heads seem to be prevailing: Mosque Near Ground Zero Clears Key Hurdle. The law is clear, the rest is
merely wedge-issue politics.

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