Thursday, September 30, 2010

It Gets Better

Another report of a young, presumably gay person who took his life is making news today.

This time the events reportedly leading up to his suicide (his dormitory roommate with another student had used a hidden camera to stream him having an intimate encounter with another man live on the Internet) were so particularly callous that I'll break with my personal feelings that incarceration rarely leads to meaningful rehabilitation (at least in comparison with the damage it can do to young people) and note that the perpetrators of this invasion of privacy strike me as far too stupid to safely live among other people. More important than what happens to them, though, is why so many young gay Americans are still, in this day and age, committing suicide.

A recent case in Indiana of a young gay man bullied so much he killed himself prompted Dan Savage to launch a project calling for videos on YouTube that offer those struggling with society's ignorance about homosexuality more hope for a brighter future. It Gets Better:
Today we have the power to give these kids hope. We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and let them know that it does get better. Online support groups are great, GLSEN does amazing work, the Trevor Project is invaluable. But many LGBT youth can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can't imagine a future for themselves. So let's show them what our lives are like, let's show them what the future may hold in store for them.
Here's a link to the video Dan and his husband Terry made. There are many more being posted all the time. If you're gay and struggling with the situation you're in, please spend some time watching them. I promise you...they're right.

I'm still working on my video, but can promise you, speaking from experience, that it unquestionably gets better once you're out of school. College is sometimes less of a problem than high school is, but once you're an adult, and get to choose who you spend most of your time with, it gets infinitely better...and actually can get down right fabulous. It's so worth waiting for and fighting for.

Labels: gay politics

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where'd I Leave Those TUMs? | Announcing #rank

I'll have more on SEVEN as the days progress. Let it suffice for me to say right now, after the past two years we've all had, that participating in it feels so invigorating: anything feels possible. [See Lindsay Pollock's report here.]

Of course, "anything" doesn't necessarily mean only warm and fuzzy things. As I stock up, again, on chewable antacids, it gives me pleasure (read: trepidation) to announce: #rank at SEVEN.

Following their collaboration last spring in #class, artists Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida are teaming up again to explore another side of this art world we all love. From their new fancy schmancy website:

#rank statement

Art is (still) a luxury commodity for the wealthy that limits access to ownership, participation and understanding for the majority of society based on class, education, gender, and geography.

The Miami art fairs make literal the hierarchies within the contemporary art world and its detachment from broader society. The Miami fair events sort everyone – visitors, locals, and participants – into a highly stratified caste system based on which fair (if any) we are associated with; which color pass (if any) we are wearing; which parties we plan to attend; which day we arrive in Miami; if we are paying for our own plane ticket and place to stay; which neighborhood or hotel we are staying in; if and where we are showing or buying artwork; if we drive, get driven, or take the shuttle bus; and countless other ranking mechanisms.

While we appreciate the bluntness of art fair culture (and especially appreciate the fact that we are sometimes able to sell work there), we can’t help but feel queasy with our complicity in this disgusting scheme, all of which takes place within the city of Miami, whose own class, race, and geographical hierarchies are abundantly obvious and pretty much entirely ignored.

So, we aim to explore what is the matter with the art fair and the art market? How might it be improved, tweaked, or overthrown?

Along this exploratory path, we have unearthed some paradoxes that bear consideration:

We think art should be a gift but we don’t want to work for free.

We want art to be accessible to everyone, but when it actually is (can
someone say “Work of Art”?) we want to throw up.

We want people to pay attention to our work but we don’t like being the
center of attention.

We want our work to be available to everyone but we can’t afford to sell
it for cheap.

We want to buy art too, but we can’t afford most of it at the art fairs.

Yeah, seemed like a good idea after a few scotch and sodas.

Seriously, though, we are delighted to present #rank in Miami (and as always, William Powhida appears courtesy of Schroeder Romero & Shredder, who have their grand reopening in just one week and a day...tick, tock...tick, tock :-) ). Furthermore, SEVEN is shaping up to be an amazing opportunity to take our show on the road the way we'd have invented it ourselves, given the chance...which now we have been.

More soon on both #rank and SEVEN.

Labels: #class, #rank, Art Fairs

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Groan.... (or a Quick Fisking of Gil Vicente)

I don't actually disagree with Brazilian artist Gil Vicente on the censorship question. I find very few instances where I agree that artwork shouldn't be exhibited just because it upsets someone or might be the justification an entirely otherwise unbalanced person uses as their defense of a crime they later commit. No, I groaned when I read about Vincente's drawings of him assassinating world leaders (presented at the current Sao Paulo Art Biennial) because the politics of the work are so lame.

Here are a few of the images (from via flickr):

As I've noted frequently here, most political art not only sucks, it can barely aspire to sucking. This is a classic example of why I feel that way. More than the over-simplistic sensationalism of the central idea, it's the artist's complete inability to intelligently articulate why he made this work that makes me cringe. As Vicente explained to the London's Telegraph:
"Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favour to kill them, understand? Why don't people in power and in the elite die?" he said.
I wouldn't normally even think to fisk an artist's work. I generally feel most artwork transcends the insistence on logic that is the foundation of fisking (and in this instance too, I'm not so concerned with Vicente's drawings as his defense of them), but he has willingly stepped into the political arena and opened himself up to the debate. So let's have at it. Let's have a look at his argument.

I'll begin with his last statement: "Why don't people in power and in the elite die?"

You'd have to live under a rock to truly believe there's a shortage of political assassinations in the world. In the United States alone, not counting lesser political figures than the President, the numbers are sobering:

The U.S. has lost four (4) presidents to assassination:

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1865)
  2. James A. Garfield (1881)
  3. William McKinley (1901)
  4. John F. Kennedy (1963).

But this is not the whole story, even restricting ourselves to U.S. presidents. The list of failed assassination attempts on sitting presidents is much longer.

  1. Andrew Jackson (1835)
  2. Abraham Lincoln (1861)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt (1912)
  4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–a month before his inauguration!)
  5. Harry S. Truman (1950)
  6. John F. Kennedy (1960, 1961, in addition to the successful assassination in 1963)
  7. Richard Nixon (1974)
  8. Gerald R. Ford (2 attempts in Sept. 1975)
  9. Jimmy Carter (1979)
  10. Ronald Reagan (1981)
  11. Bill Clinton (2 attempts in 1994)
  12. George W. Bush (Feb. 2001, Sept. 11, 2001, 2005)
Around the world, and throughout human history people in power and the elite have died, nearly constantly, because another person or group felt they had cause to take justice into their own hands.

Being purely Machiavellian about it, one could easily conclude that because political assassination has been a near constant throughout history, that assassination does not work. It doesn't change anything. It doesn't lead to any significant or long-term decrease in corruption. It's a flawed political policy.

But that's the least of Vicente's logic problems here. He begins his rather contemptuous response to his critics with this statement:
Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favour to kill them, understand?
Now I'll be the first to admit you can draw a line between certain policy decisions by most world leaders to the unnecessary deaths of people they're supposed to be serving or those in other countries they have sway over, and I'm all for holding leaders who make illegal or immoral decisions responsible for their actions. And I'm sure, if pressed (unless he's truly unhinged), Vincente would argue that he is hoping to simply start a dialog about such issues with his sensationalist drawings. However, the oversimplification of his statement of the problem (let alone his solution) invites an oversimplified response, rather than the sort of sophisticated response which a more nuanced statement of the problem might invite. Or, as one would hope his ultimate goal truly is, might actually improve political accountability and checks and balances. Instead his vigilante-based response only serves to shut down, rather than open up, any meaningful dialog.

What bugs me most about art like this is what I suspect its real motive is. Convinced as I am that Vincente must know his work won't open up a serious dialog about political corruption or the possible ways to curb it, he must be aware that the only thing left to talk about in response to it is himself...the artist. Which, again, I suspect is the goal here. Not that narcissism isn't the motivation behind most political efforts, mind you.... Corruption and accountability are far more serious issues than Vicente's sophomoric work gives anyone meaningful insights into.

Labels: political art

Monday, September 27, 2010

How Much Work Is Too Much to Install? | Open Thread

I'm a big believer in "a little goes a long way" or "less is more" when it comes to how much work to include in a gallery installation. I use this inclination, as well as the belief that so long as it doesn't affect an artist's concept, how much work you "should" install for any given show is best guided by one hard and fast rule--the show as a whole must work and look as good as it can--to guide me when, in the thick of it, it's hard to decide whether that last piece stays or goes.

In all my years of installing emerging artist's work (this tends to be less of an issue with more established artists, and probably because if they're selling regularly, they don't often have as much work available for each solo gallery exhibition), I've rarely found that an artist didn't want to include as much work as possible in a show. I guess I get that. Each work was labored over and you'd like each to be seen, but often the rationale I hear for including more work than I personally feel the room can hold boils down to "I really want to include this one too."

This often leads to a discussion about how we present the work as a whole in such a way that each work included looks its best. I sincerely believe that even great work can be made to look less than its best by overhanging or poor juxtaposition choices and that how comfortable a viewer is in a space will psychologically impact how they perceive the quality of the work.

Having said that, two exhibitions I've seen recently needed to include the large number of pieces they do to work as well as they do conceptually. Neither was about accumulation, per se. Each included individual works, any one of which could stand fine on its own. But each exhibition also dealt with a subject that required the viewer to be convinced by the sheer volume of evidence.

The first show was the gorgeous suite of new "Black Cowboys" photographs by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher at Sonnabend Gallery. When Bambino and I first toured the exhibition at the opening, I was taken by the individual images. They're powerfully composed portraits of strong, proud individuals, some of them including fantastic action shots of highly dangerous sports. But after we chatted with others a bit, it dawned on me that why this exhibition worked was the sheer number of individual portraits presented.

Robbin and Becher's objective in presenting so many seems to be so it slowly dawns on you that not only are you not accustomed to seeing a black cowboy (i.e., an African American in a ten-gallon hat, riding a horse, wearing chaps, and/or lassoing a cow or riding a bull), but the fact that there are so very many individual black cowboys out there makes you begin to feel that it must have taken quite some concerted effort to keep such images from you over the years. In America, photographs of white cowboys are absolutely everywhere: on billboards, magazines, TV, t-shirts, CD covers, movies, you name it. But to see these black cowboys really is a jarring experience. Without the sheer quantity of images, I don't think why would have sunk for me as it did. I left the exhibition telling everyone who'd listen that the installation was genius.

The other exhibition that works in a similar fashion is the solo show by Yevgeniy Fiks at Temple Gallery that we went down to Philadelphia to see on Friday. I felt at the opening (and said to curator Stamatina Gregory) that quantity was important to this exhibition. That without an overwhelming amount of evidence it was too easy to dismiss the notion that perhaps there really was a conspiracy to wreck havoc in the US via Modern art. What so much evidence eventually does to you here, though, is brilliantly tied into its subject matter. Edith Newhall, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer that "shows of conceptual art rarely get this kind of space anymore," had a similar take to mine:

Fiks' "Communist Conspiracy in Art Threatens American Museums," which was organized by the independent curator and critic Stamatina Gregory, has the entire, almost brand-new Temple Gallery - which can easily accommodate three solo shows - to itself.

This largesse turns out to have been the best approach to Fik's work. Viewers can experience the cohesiveness and obsessiveness of his ideas through his various projects installed in Temple Gallery's three large rooms. [...]

One could argue that Fiks takes some of his projects too far - we get the point already! - but he's clearly going for the hypnotic overdose, intentionally simulating the effect of brainwashing. And it works: You leave this show wondering how an installation whose individual components were so physically minimal and visually bland reeled you in with such force.
Consider this an open thread on installation choices with regards to quantity.

Labels: art viewing, installing art

Friday, September 24, 2010

Just Because You're Paranoid, Doesn't Mean They're Not Out to Get You

One of the things I learned during the years I spent arguing on the right-wing political blogs is that misconceptions are deeply ingrained on both sides of the political aisle. Neither side has an absolute grip on the "truth." Many tall tales have been told and re-told in the service of both progress and conservatism. As such, in order to be as intellectually honest as you can, it makes sense to keep an open mind about what you "know" with regards to history, while still working toward the goals you believe in.

This notion of not quite knowing what I think I know about history is one of the things that first drew me to the work of artist Yevgeniy Fiks, who systematically sifts through the rhetorical wreckage of the Cold War with the insights (if not total objectivity [which, imo, is never quite accessible]) one could only obtain having lived in both the Soviet Union and the United States. Whether exploring Hollywood propaganda, the fetishization of Lenin memorabilia, American Communists, Cold War Veterans Associations, or Stalin's Directive on Modern Art, Yevgeniy begins by assuming there have been lies told on both sides of any debate.

A wonderful example of what this process can reveal is currently on display at the Temple Gallery at the Tyler School of Art. Tonight is a reception for the artist and curator (Stamatina Gregory). Bambino and I will be there. If you're in Philadelphia, please stop by!

Here are the details on the show:

Yevgeniy Fiks: Communist Conspiracy in Art Threatens American Museums

Curated by Stamatina Gregory
September 8 - November 6, 2010
Opening with the artist and curator: Friday, September 24, 6 - 8 pm

Temple Gallery
Tyler School of Art, Temple University
12th and Norris Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19122
Hours: Wed - Sat, 11 am - 6 pm

In the late 1940s, Michigan Congressman George A. Dondero was an avid participant in the burgeoning McCarthy movement, a widespread cultural phenomenon characterized by the heightened fear, suspicion, and prosecution of suspected Communist sympathizers in the US. Creatively surpassing his contemporaries in the witchhunts for Red infiltrators, he became best known for his claims that the whole of modern art was a Communist plot hatched to bring down the West.

In this exhibition, named for a scrap of Dondero’s alarmist rhetoric, artist Yevgeniy Fiks operates within the mythical space of the conspiracy theory. Instead of mounting a retroactive resistance to the reactionary claims of the past (a project repeatedly undertaken in self-defense by artists, critics, and institutions since the 1940s and 1950s) he instead assembles evidence for those claims, piecing together names, quotes, and archival photographs to reconstruct a forgotten history of radical alignment and commitment to artistic agency. [emphasis mine]

Presented in the minimalist language of conceptual art, these prints, drawings, objects, and installations reduce artists and their works to specific identifying fragments: names, signatures, singular utterances, or snapshots. Here, the iconic visual language of familiar figures of Modernism—Stuart Davis, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock—is stripped away, leaving only bare markers of Party affiliation in a gesture that ironically mirrors the operating tactics of conspiratorial rhetoric.

In Dondero’s speeches, two of which have been re-recorded by contemporary actors and presented here in a sound installation, the toxic workings of Modernism itself are both withheld and aggrandized, their power evoked, but never exposed. Even figurative drawings by Picasso and Léger, faithfully reproduced by Fiks, were chosen not for their style or allegorical construction, but for their revelation of sympathies with martyrs of the Communist movement: among the depicted are Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage, and Nikos Beloyannis, who was executed in 1952 after re-establishing the then-criminalized Communist Party in Greece.

Fiks’ installation isolates and reconstructs a moment in the twentieth century in which two sides of a bitter ideological war equally acknowledged art as legitimate and potent weapon of revolution. Through gestures of subtle addition and radical subtraction, he continues his ongoing project of exploring the complex, but fundamental relationships and strange equivalencies between Communism and Modernism.
Image above: Yevgeniy Fiks, "American Cold War Veterans Association no. 8," 2009, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. (This painting is not part of the exhibition in Philadelphia.)

Labels: gallery artists exhibitions, museum exhibitions, politics

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Judging an Artist by the Music They Like (or the People They Love)

Jonathan Jones argues on his Guardian blog that there's a symbiosis between visual art and music:
In Manhattan from the 1940s onwards, artists had an empathy for pop music, or its artier manifestations, and vice versa. Jackson Pollock listened to jazz while he painted and Ornette Coleman repaid the compliment by putting a Pollock painting on the cover of his revolutionary recording Free Jazz. No sooner did rock elbow jazz out of American youth culture than artists began to portray Elvis, and by the late 60s, Andy Warhol was bringing together classical modernist music with guttural pop as he managed the Velvet Underground.

Anyone who doubts Warhol's worth should listen to the Velvet Underground. I suppose there must be a few ears on the planet that would fail to find Pale Blue Eyes beautiful or Sweet Jane uplifting, but there is a fairly broad and just consensus that Warhol adopted not just any rock group, but one of the very greatest. What does that tell you about his art? The poetry of Heroin reflects his car crash paintings; the lyrics of I'll Be Your Mirror tell us about his apparently vacant gaze. Warhol's soul is witnessed by the music he nurtured.

He goes on to emphasize his point by noting:
Damien Hirst's most famous foray into music was Vindaloo. Need I say more?

I will admit that some of the most interesting visual artists I know tend to have the most exquisite and adventurous taste in music. And I'll agree that taste in music strikes me as a good indication of the quality of one's soul. But logically, I'm not entirely sure that the quality of one's soul is a solid indication of how good one's art will be.

Jones goes on to make what might be an even bigger leap in logic, but then again, perhaps not:
[S]o much time could have been saved by critics who, in the 80s and early 90s, argued over the merits of Robert Mapplethorpe if they had just listened to Patti Smith's album Horses. Could an empty, celebrity-fixated nobody – which is how some saw Mapplethorpe – have been loved by her?
I've had the conversation many times with artists that they couldn't love someone if they didn't also love their art. At first I had interpreted this to mean, at least in part, that they knew it would eventually come up and cause problems in the relationship when their lover learned they didn't respect their work, but Jones' example suggests it goes deeper...that you can judge an artist's soul by their work. Or at least that if you love their soul, then their art must be good.

Arguments like this begin to fall apart a bit for me at this point. Personally, I know artists with gorgeous souls whose work is lacking to my eye, and I know artists whose work is great but who are perfect little sh*ts as human beings. Mind you, being a perfect little sh*t may not be incompatible with having a rich and interesting soul, let alone having exquisite taste in music, but I imagine it makes it more difficult to find true love.

Then again, so long as Jones' piece provides a reasonably sound rationale to post the Velvet's all good:

Labels: art making, music, quality

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Outerwear Warfare

Once in the winter when I lived in London my former boyfriend (let's call him Francis) and I were out dancing and having a good time, when at the end of the evening I noticed my overcoat was missing. Francis helped me look for it, but, having much more experience in the ways of London's nightlife than I had, he eventually realized not only that it had been stolen but also where it was likely to have been whisked off to so the thief could rifle through my pockets unseen. Our being in a gay men's dance club, he deduced my coat probably lay in a stall in the ladies' loo.

He was right. There in the stall were my coat and several others in a pile on the floor, the pockets of each turned out.

Francis, I should note, was a 6'4" hulk of an Irish bricklayer with absolutely no respect for authority of any kind and the particular sense of vengeance that must be chemically produced by the drinking water on the Emerald Isle. It wasn't enough that we got my coat back...he wanted to know who had had the gall to steal it. So, as the crowds drunkenly made their way toward the doors, we hung back a bit and waited.

After a few moments, just as Francis had guessed, a tall man and street-smart-looking woman came out of the ladies' with a large bag stuffed full of the coats they had stashed in there. Francis walked right up and began chatting them up, casual like (the bouncers were still ushering us out), and the woman, despite having had to have recognized my coat and pieced together that we were onto them, cheekily asked Francis if we would give them a lift home. Francis said "Of course, love," and we all walked out together.

What happened next was all so fast it remains a bit of blur in my mind, but essentially in the car park of the club Francis confronted the pair, ripping the bag out of the woman's hand and calling them both "filthy tinkers" (not a particularly flattering [nor PC, I believe] Irish phrase) and "thieves." The woman was quick on the draw and had an aerosol can out of her handbag in seconds, trying to blind Francis with its spray, but I stepped in and pushed her arm away. The tall man, admittedly more than a little drunk, swung at Francis and hit him hard in the neck.

The next part was so unexpected it remains frozen in my mind's eye in super slow motion. The look on Francis' face when he realized this lowlife had hit him was a mix of incredulousness and something so ancient I can't describe it other than to say it looked like the personification of "fury." With one fluid move, tightening his his huge bricklayer's fist into a hammer, Francis twisted around and punched the jerk square in the face. The tall man fell straight back, like a giant redwood, and landed flat, out cold, on the wet pavement.

As the woman stood flailing her arms and cursing us up and down, Francis quickly ushered me to the car and sped away, not wanting to wait until the bouncers called the cops. On the way home, Francis assured me that the guy was probably alright, but just pretending to be unconscious so he wouldn't have to fight.

About half an hour later, after we both calmed down and began to feel bad about the poor punk lying in the cold wet parking lot, we drove back to make sure he hadn't been seriously injured. I half expected a crime scene, with police cars and an ambulance, but the place was totally deserted. Whatever eventually happened to the coat thieves that evening, there was no sign of them outside the club.

OK, so what's any of this got to do anything? Nothing really...I was just reminded of it when I read about "Whose Coat is that Jacket Youre Wearing?" an art performance in London:
After 10 years of stealing coats from London pubs, artist Mike Ballard seeks redemption by relinquishing his collection back to the public. In his latest exhibition, Ballard will display hundreds of hijacked coats for visitors to claim back, as a part of a self-imposed therapeutic process.

Following his move from a small village in North Wales to London in 1998, Ballards favorite 55DSL coat was stolen from a crowded pub. It was a loss the artist found hard to deal with. Inconsolable, Ballard began nicking coats in earnest, believing he was retaliating against the city that had swallowed his most prized possession.

Frequenting local pubs and clubs, Ballards revenge tactic was initially focused on stealing coats resembling that which hed lost but soon grew to encompass any mens coat or jacket regardless of size, style or make.

Over the past 10 years Ballard has amassed a collection of over 200 stolen coats and jackets. Each coat and its contents have been meticulously catalogued and stored, never worn nor stolen from. Now without space to continue and having come to terms with his loss, Ballard has decided to return the coats to their rightful owners by exhibiting them. If owners can correctly identify the pocket contents or the date and location of the theft, the coats will be returned.
Francis and I were in London together many more years ago than 10, so I don't believe Mr. Ballard had anything to do with my coat being stolen. But he should count himself very lucky he never stole a coat that belonged to someone Francis was out with.

Labels: performance art

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gagosian Museum Gallery

I have this process when responding to criticism of any organization, whether it be a governmental body or non-profit institution (such as a museum), that guides how I interpret both their actions and the public's response to it. The first thing I generally do is seek out and carefully consider their mission statement. If you've read here for a while, you'll have seen where I cite some organization's mission statement as part of my critique, using their own stated raison d'etre as the baseline for holding them to some standard. Usually, the part of the mission statement I'll focus on, being a member of the public, is the part that explains how the organization seeks to serve the public.

In searching around the website for Gagosian Gallery, I was unable to find any statement about the gallery, but I have spent enough time thinking and writing about what it is that all commercial galleries have in common that I'm comfortable concluding that Gagosian Gallery is a private commercial enterprise owned by Larry Gagosian that admits the public to see its exhibitions for free, and has no stated public service obligations in its mission with regards to its choices for exhibitions. In other words, in making decisions on what he presents to the public (who get in for free), Mr. Gagosian is obligated only to do what he feels is best for his business.

Or so it would seem to me.

If you read the responses to the current exhibition at Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street, of recent work by artist Dan Colen, however, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a tax-payer-funded non-profit with an obligation to give the public its money's worth. Indeed, much of the critique seems more apropos of the sort generally launched at bad museum choices, focusing on whether Mr. Colen deserves the status that Gagosian Gallery bestows by exhibiting him. Here's but a sample:

From artist William Powhida's somewhat stream of consciousness post of twitter responses:
I hate Dan Colen btw, worst artist of the aughts. Gagosian?! The silver man fucked up this time.
From Roberta Smith in the New York Times:
In contributing to New York’s cultural life, there’s no art dealer quite like Larry Gagosian. But he’s not perfect. His forte is historical material and the blue-chip pantheon, from Willem de Kooning to Ed Ruscha, and ascendant blue-chippers he helps pump up, sometimes to the point of implosion — like Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

There are certain artists with enough integrity to withstand the combination of hype and weird invisibility that is part of the Gagosian machine — Philip Taaffe and Ellen Gallagher come to mind. But others seem diminished by this context: Paul Pfeiffer, Tom Friedman, John Currin and even Piotr Uklanski, one of the few artists to use his indisputably perverse exhibition with Gagosian as an occasion to fight spectacle with spectacle.

This brings us to the Dan Colen show in the larger Gagosian space in Chelsea.
From Jerry Saltz in New York magazine:
The fall art season has begun—well after the purportedly cleansing end of the bubble—with the Spirit of Stupidity, stalking us in the form of the well-meaning but misguided Dan Colen. A few weeks ago, the New York Times featured the artist, reporting that he caused an uproar in Berlin in 2006 by posting exhibition flyers that showed him nude with a tallis hanging from his erection. The would-be rabbi breathing life into this golem is superstar mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, who has given us stellar shows of Picasso and Manzoni, but here seems intent on burning up his credibility on a display of dominion.
While I'm sure Mr. Gagosian must be flattered that he's being held to the same standards usually reserved for our top museums, I still think it makes sense to judge the choices he makes in the context of his being a commercial art dealer. The fact that he does on occasion present museum-quality shows (which, again, are free for us) in no way obligates him to pretend he's not running a commercial art gallery. He still has staff and bills to pay (and his ninth outpost's architect). Criticize the art, by all as harsh on Mr. Colen's work as you deem appropriate. But this critique of the choice and gallery context strikes me as somewhat odd.

It's a private business.

Labels: art criticism, gallery exhibitions

Monday, September 20, 2010

Drawing Mohamed : Open Call for Better Approaches

There was an episode of The West Wing in which the liberal president, played by Martin Sheen, was warned by his advisers about the potential political fallout if he didn't support an amendment to ban flag-burning. The president dismisses the frantic politicizing over the issue, getting to the heart of the matter by asking whether there's some rash of flag-burning going on that he's unaware of that requires such drastic legislation? His eventual position is simply that in his opinion, as the President, flag-burning is wrong, but no law is needed to address that opinion, as it's not something causing anyone other than lame politicians looking for a wedge issue to lose much sleep.

Ultimately, my position on the issue of drawing the Muslim prophet Mohamed is somewhat similar to that fictional President's on flag-burning. I feel it's entirely wrong to threaten someone who draws such an image (or any image they feel compelled to draw), but I don't think there's some naturally occurring need for the cartoonists of the world to draw Mohamed other than for grandstanding purposes. I understand the solidarity argument in the wake of threats against other cartoonists, but I honestly think most of this is misguided.

Specifically, given there's no real daily need for drawing Mohamed, I think it's parallel to burning the Koran to organize something as inflammatory as "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day." Yes, there's a First Amendment right at stake here, and should someone really need to draw the prophet in order to express an idea that is sincere and not immaturely provocative, I would support them through and through. But it's not like some lame imam looking for a wedge issue is going to issue any fatwas if a Western cartoonist draws any other person in the world. We're working through a strong difference of opinion over one figure here. That should be easy enough to do with some decorum and maturity.

Even Muslims I know who would never dream of supporting violence against a cartoonist still wince when they hear that someone has drawn's an important part of their religion not to draw this one figure. As strange and offensive as that idea is to us (and believe me, the notion that I cannot draw any freaking thing I want to is very offensive to me), I honestly don't think the way to find common ground here is through provocation.

I do feel sorry for Seattle-based cartoonist Molly Norris, who as has reported was advised by the FBI to go into hiding after calling for an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" on her blog. I hope this phase of her life is short, and I would really hope some Muslim leader would find the courage to stand up for her rights, even if he still winced at the notion of her campaign. But I also find it difficult to imagine the likelihood of this very problem wasn't obvious to Norris from the start of it. Meaning she willingly sacrificed security for a part of her life to stand up for First Amendment Rights. And for that she deserves respect and appreciation, but...I also think she could have found a better way to make her point.

Indeed, my problem from the start with "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" is that I felt the provocation was an immature response to an irrational feeling (there's nothing rational about much of what constitutes blasphemy in most religions). And as such, neither side was likely to learn anything valuable this way. To help raise the dialog above the 4th Grade level will take time and education. Again, if there were a sincere need for someone to draw Mohamed, then I'd support giving them 24-hour Secret Service protection at taxpayer's expense to ensure their rights were protected. But for everyone else who wasn't naturally going to draw Mohamed without being told it was the best way to show their support for the First Amendment, I'd ask them to hold off. Let the temperature drop. And if you really have to respond, well, then endeavor to create events that respect the way Muslims feel too, to help spread understanding.

Norris' notion of watering down the pool of targets is a particularly bad one, imho, being both disrespectful to peaceful Muslims and unnecessarily provocative and hurtful. The vast majority of Muslims will not respond violently to such drawings, but they will be insulted by them, making her event boil down, in tone, to "Let's drive another wedge here by insulting all the non-radicals so that we can teach those terrible radicals a lesson." Surely, there's a better way to respond to the radicals than this.

Consider this an open call for ideas on ways to stand up for the right to draw anything you wish without unnecessarily insulting one-fifth of the world's population.

Labels: first amendment rights, politics

Friday, September 17, 2010

Good Citizenship Is the Best Art

"Dude, You Have No Quran"

[h/t ondine]

Labels: music break, politics

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Free Advice

There's an adage where I come from that "free advice is worth every penny you paid for it," but I'm willing to accept that may not always be the case. As you may have read already, New York art critic Jerry Saltz has launched an online advice column at the magazine's Culture Vulture blog. Stemming from the same desire to experiment with criticism that led him to appear as a judge on the reality TV show Work of Art, Mr. Saltz is now opening up the dialog to even those who didn't make the casting call cut:
Work of Art is over (for now), but Saltz will continue his experiment in public criticism with a new column for called Ask an Art Critic. Have a question about art, art careers, art dealers, art prices, why critics write about artists, how critics are edited, what makes a good dealer, a bad dealer, how to get back at snarky critics, how to behave around critics, what’s up with reality TV, or what makes a curator good, bad, or worse? Ask Saltz anything, and in return expect: tough love, his two cents, advice, admonitions, suggestions, information, misinformation, good guesses, opinions, warnings, and more to get irked about. Send questions to Keep them clear, simple, and preferably short (75 words or less). All selected questions will be subject to editing. Signed questions are preferable, but all will be considered. Go ahead. Take your best shot. Ask an art critic.
Obviously missing the instructions that all questions should be sent to the email address, a few folks immediately took Mr. Saltz up on his offer in the comment threads of the various places the new column was announced. Over on, a commenter asked the kind of question I think could make the column a very helpful resource:
What do you think helps an artist's career more: selling to a notable collector, or being collected by a major museum? Are these two different paths?
Over on the thread (including a charming interview with Jerry) on, however, a reader's question suggested Mr. Saltz has his self-assigned work cut out for him:
I’m curious to know how art critics view photography as ‘art’. Does a straight photo of say, a flower, constitute ‘art’ or must it be significantly altered i.e ‘digitalised’ given the ‘digital era’ we now live in.
Ahh, the public.

Labels: advice, art criticism

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Follow the Money

If you'll permit me to introduce this post with a reference from my book (which is doing alright these days, I'm happy to report). In the chapter on choosing and building out a location for your new gallery, I begin by noting how many collectors, who are high-powered executives or captains of industry, tell me that for them collecting is a way to relax and have fun. That being the case, it's not necessarily the best move to open a gallery in a location that's a royal pain to get to. The best collectors enjoy a bit of an adventure in gallery hopping or visiting studios, but if you're really hoping to attract as many as possible, you have to take their convenience into consideration.

Taking collectors' convenience into consideration is why galleries with global ambitions are opening up shop, as Willie Sutton might put it, "where the money is." Of course, as a Western gallery, you'll have to stand in line to branch out in Beijing or Shanghai these days, but a few stories in the art press of late suggest the wisdom of following the money is leading galleries to open up in places they wouldn't have given much thought to just a few years back.

Uber-dealer Larry Gagosian is now, as was widely reported, opening up his 9th location in the 8th arrondissement, with Bloomberg news noting:
The presence of billionaire French collectors such as Francois Pinault and Bernard Arnault is boosting Paris’s rivalry with London as the capital of Europe’s post-recessionary art market.
Indeed everything contemporary art related in Paris seems to be red hot again, as evidenced most perhaps by how FIAC has one of its strongest lists in ages.

Another city that has seen an impressive rise in its contemporary art market street cred of late is Istanbul. As Andrew Russeth notes in an article on the pending move into the Turkish art market by New York's Lehmann Maupin gallery:
Istanbul seems to be the latest city gaining a more prominent place on the contemporary-art map, helped along by a longstanding biennial, which won rave reviews last year, and a burgeoning collector base.
And it's not only galleries who understand that it's easier to bring the mountain to Mohamed. In the past few years art fairs have increasingly popped up where the NetJets set vacations, including Aspen, the Hamptons, and Dubai. Of course that was the whole genius behind Sam Keller's opening up the second Basel fair in Miami.

The latest and perhaps most ambitious thinking in making it easy to purchase art, however, may be the entirely online VIP Art Fair which will debut this coming January, bringing the art to the collector wherever the collector may be:
The revolutionary design of VIP Art Fair allows art collectors the opportunity to view artwork online as never before. VIP Art Fair’s innovative technology presents artworks in relation to other works of art and in relative scale to the human figure. Inquisitive visitors can zoom in to examine details of a painting’s surface, get multiple views of a three-dimensional work, and watch videos of a multimedia piece. Galleries will provide comprehensive details on artworks and artists, including biographies, catalogue essays, artist films and interviews, and in-depth information that will empower collectors.
Unlike other art fairs where securing the earliest access to the offerings can mean pulling strings to ensure you get a card for the most exclusive preview time slots, anyone anywhere around the globe can browse the VIP Art Fair right out the gate, so long as you're willing to operate on New York time. The Fair opens to the online public Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 8:00 a.m. EST.

I've heard all the skepticism about this online approach (no real face-time with the work or the dealer, certain types of work just don't work in digital format, etc.) but knowing the team behind this effort (and how brilliant and knowledgeable they are), I have to say I wouldn't underestimate how important this may turn out to be. The costs of shipping, hotels, flights, and the build-out of the booths themselves make art fairs a huge funds-suck for galleries. Any of those real-world costs you can eliminate are worth investigating. This could easily be the beginning of a real revolution in the selling of art. Of course, many of the galleries participating in VIP are also, at the same time, expanding their global networks of brick-and-mortar spaces, so it may end up being just one of a number of approaches art dealers end up balancing. Stay tuned.

Labels: art market

Monday, September 13, 2010

Brand Fatigue? : Open Thread

As I noted in a post about a visit from some Russian-speaking journalists to the gallery, when put on the spot to explain what is hot today, I blurted out without much reflection that:
Brand names from the 1960s and 1970s that the market had mostly overlooked seem to be the hottest artists at the moment.
I'd fine tune that assessment a bit today and replace "brand names" with simply "Artists from the 1960s and 1970s" (some well-known, others overlooked even outside their regional support circles). As I had noted, the New Museum's current exhibition of work by Brion Gysin is a good example of this seemingly renewed interest in the era, but so are two new gallery exhibitions that just opened this past week.

First is the fantastic show up at Derek Eller's of drawings from 1967-70 by Karl Wirsum, one of the artists who participated in Chicago's legendarily influential Hairy Who, which (I'll admit) I had to look up to recall exactly, er, who they were:

From the Art Institute of Chicago:
Hairy Who was a self-titled, self-organized series of three exhibitions held at the Hyde Park Art Center from 1966 to 1968. Under the tutelage of Don Baum, the six participating School of the Art Institute graduates, including Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum, mounted exhibitions featuring their perverse, psychedelic and silly prints, drawings, and paintings.
The exhibition of drawings from Wirsum's sketchbooks of that era is an education (as I had never seen his work) and a total delight (as each is more inventive and fantastic than the last). One of the things that jumped out at me straightaway while viewing them was how much they've clearly been part of a scene that has influenced younger artists I do know and really like, such as Tony Fitzpatrick.

The other exhibition up right now that reaches back into the 60s and 70s to produce a delightful education is at Ronald Feldman's titled clearly enough Hannah Wilke, "Early Drawings." Wilke's work I am more familiar with, but I was still not prepared for just how good these drawings are. Walking around the show with another very talented Feldman artist (and almost impossibly generous human being), Bruce Pearson, we both commented independently on how remarkably strong these works were and how, despite certain telltale signs of their era, they looked so much fresher than many similar works being made today.

Bruce and I later discussed what it is about this time that is making these shows seem so relevant and even revelatory. Bruce replied something that I immediate recognized as how I thought, but not something I would have ever consciously concluded on my own. In discussing these hidden gems from art history, versus the work from that same era we all know much better, Bruce noted that although the known work remains strong, we've seen so much of it (and by that I took him to mean at art fairs, in galleries, at auctions, in catalogs, in museums, in homes, etc., etc., etc.) that we've grown somewhat fatigued by them. OK, so fatigued is my word...Bruce was a bit more diplomatic, but that was the essence of his point.

This made me recall a story a New York artist told me of visiting Chelsea galleries with a German artist this past weekend and how the German was reluctant to be dragged into one of these exhibitions, saying he wasn't interested in historical shows. The New York artist and I in discussing this were both surprised. We were highly interested in such shows, which made me wonder if there's not some significant difference in sensibilities right now between Germany (which is reportedly enjoying a long-over-due [imho] reassertion of its identity and if so, rightly more focused on the future) and the US (or at least New York in particular) which seems to be very much in a reflective mood in many quarters.

Or are we simply experiencing what I'd call brand fatigue? The mobs at the Rob Pruitt exhibition opening would seem to counter that somewhat, but even as much as I enjoyed that exhibition it didn't leave me as hungry for more as
Wirsum and Wilke exhibitions did (and no, that's not because of all the food at the GBE...I didn't eat any). Fortunately, for both of these historical exhibitions, their respective galleries have brand new catalogs you can purchase (OK, so I think the Wilke catalog, with a the monograph Hannah Wilke by Nancy Princenthal will be availble during a signing on Sept wait until then to get your signed copy).

Consider this an open thread on whether a seeming fatigue with big brand names is a New York only phenomenon or whether it's even as prevalent here as the shows most capturing my attention would seem to suggest.

Labels: brands, gallery exhibitions, open thread

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tempest in an Irish Teapot

Back in July, I noted how pleased I was that Corban Walker has been selected to represent Ireland at the 2011 Venice Biennale and that Emily-Jane Kirwan, a director of The Pace Gallery in New York (which represents Corban), had been appointed Irish commissioner. In the comments of that thread some anonymous commenter snarked:
gotta love the ingrained conflicts of interest in the art world -- the director of a big commercial gallery picks one of her own artists to represent Ireland. What is great for business is great for art.
I ignored the comment at the time, knowing that it was completely wrong on at least two counts:
  1. given this choice is not at all traditional (i.e., selecting as the commissioner of a nation's pavilion an art dealer who represents the artist being honored), it hardly represents an "ingrained" anything
  2. knowing that the commissioner was not at all involved in the selection of the artist for the pavilion, but will simply serve her nation of birth as an administrator of the pavilion, it is incorrect to assert that she "picked one of her own artists" the artist, she was invited by the the organizations The Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland to serve.
In hindsight, I wish I had made a point of correcting that anonymous commenter's assertions of commercial infestation of the hallowed Biennale. Perhaps such a response would have led to some influence over the somewhat embarrassing article The Art Newspaper has now run on the "controversy." And by embarrassing, I mean mostly the second paragraph quoted below:

Madeline Boughton, the director of showcases and communications at Culture Ireland, responded: “Many artists exhibiting at the Venice Biennale are represented by major international galleries and it is a function of the scale and competitiveness of the international visual arts market that there are often close links between artists, independent curators and gallerists. The selection panel was aware of this when making its decision.”

However, other curators are less convinced. “This is a terrible decision. Everyone has become so cynical that they no longer see any difference between the public and the private sectors and simply do not care about conflicts of interest. Certain lines must not be crossed, certain categories must not be confused or conflated, and ethical stand­ards must be strictly ap­plied,” said a veteran biennale curator who did not want to be named.

I'm sorry, but if the Art Newspaper were publishing the Pentagon Papers or some similarly top-secret expose of international impact (rather than a relationship that the selection panel was aware of when it made its autonomous decision) then offering such an inflammatory and highly subjective quote from some unnamed source might, just might, mind you, pass as responsible journalism, but in this case it's simply laughable. In my opinion, the part of the article that best represents responsible reporting was offered at its tail end:
Boughton said that the Venice Biennale organisers had been notified of Ireland’s 2011 selections and that the commissioner selection criteria does not exclude applicants from working in the private/commercial sector. She also pointed out that the Pace Gallery did not apply for the commissioner position.

She added: “In the case of the 2011 process, the appointment was a tripartite one, with the commissioner appointed jointly with the curator and the artist. It is the entire concept that is shortlisted and subsequently selected by the panel. Kirwan has a history of working with Walker over many years, predating his representation at the Pace Gallery.

Boughton concluded: “It is common practice for commissioners to combine their role as commissioner for Venice with their other commitments.” [emphasis mine]
I am, as noted in my previous post on this, not unbiased in my support of Corban's selection, but that doesn't mean I can't guffaw at a sensationalistic anonymous quote in a report from what I can only assumed must have been an awfully difficult time of year to get someone on record about something.

Labels: journalism, Venice Biennale 2011

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Tonight! The Art Season Opens :: Sarah Peters "Appeal to Heaven" and in the Curatorial Project Space "Used Books"

Well, ready or not (and we're ready!), the art season begins in earnest for much of Chelsea tonight! The galleries on 27th street, including our new neighbor Jeff Bailey, will all open this evening, so come on by! We have two great new shows to launch the new year:

In the Main Gallery:

Sarah Peters
Appeal to Heaven
September 9 - October 9, 2010
Opens September 9 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Winkleman Gallery is very pleased to present "Appeal to Heaven," our second solo exhibition by New York artist Sarah Peters. Featuring a suite of new drawings (the “Mayflower” series) and the first of a series of new bronze busts ("Descendants and Believers"), "Appeal to Heaven" represents a continuation of Peters' in-depth exploration of the ideals and motifs of early American art and colonial history as viewed from our 21st Century vantage point. Combined with her highly stylized landscapes, her portraits of the fervent idealists and puritan visionaries who risked everything to come here from Europe and their ideological heirs reveal not only a lost romanticism, but, in her words, “the chaos of initial human convictions and beliefs as tempered by time and experience.”

The drawings presented from the “Mayflower” series, each created in Peters’ signature aggressive cross-hatching and inky layering technique, include seven turbulent seascapes and a single portrait. The seascapes are titled with dates, beginning with “Sept 6, 1620” (the day the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England) and ending on “November 9, 1962” (the day America was first sighted from the ship). Occasionally appearing among the magnificent yet terrifying waves in these scenes are what appear to be hallucinations of people or spirits bobbing in the open seas.

The single portrait is an imagined likeness of Dorothy May Bradford, wife of William Bradford who in addition to being one of the first colony's earliest governors would also leave the best-known written account of the settling of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Dorothy is unfortunately renowned for being the first of those who survived the sea journey to die in the “New World.” Today there are those who insist she accidentally fell from the Mayflower into the freezing waters of Provincetown Harbor and other who believe she intentionally jumped to her death. As such she epitomizes the tragic fate of Peters' central characters (the cast of true believers who follow their convictions, come what may) as well as the internal and external manifestations of the turmoil of belief.

The progression of sculptural technique and stylization represented via the six bronze busts from Peters’ “Descendants and Believers” series reflects the increasing sophistication achieved by early American artists through the centuries (a reconnection with European sensibilities over time, perhaps), even as the subjects’ shared emotional turbulence suggests a persistence of the belief tinged with longing and suffering that defined many of the earliest Puritans and continues up through those caught up in contemporary messianic cults. From her clunky but somehow still compellingly rendered portrayals of sexually ambiguous characters to her exquisitely sculpted saint-like young man (with a marvelous head of curls and a gently twisting neck), Peters' virtuosic spectrum parallels the artistic progress in early American art.

Sarah Peters received her BFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 and her MFA from the Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003. She has been awarded multiple residences, including recently, The Fine Arts Work Center, Artist in Residency, in Provincetown, MA; the Marie Walsh Sharpe Studio Grant, in New York; and the John Michael Kohler Arts/Industry, Artist in Residency, in Kohler, WI. Her recent exhibitions have included show at artSTRAND Gallery, Provincetown, MA; The Front, New Orleans, LA; Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, MA; and the Morris Museum of Art, Morristown, New Jersey.

For more information, please contact Edward Winkleman at 212.643.3152 or

And in the Curatorial Research Lab:

Used Books
Featuring work by Brent Birnbaum, Danielle Durchslag, Michael Galvin, Morgan Levy, and R. Justin Stewart.

Organized by Ryan Frank.

Used Books pairs the work of five visual artists with the books that played a role in each artwork’s creation. Each artist in the exhibition has one work installed on a wall, under which is a selection of books handpicked by the artist that visitors to the gallery can view and read. The format of the exhibition is intended to give viewers a nuanced perspective of each artist’s interests and experiences while serving as a unique alternative to the typical artist’s statement.

The process for selecting the contents of the exhibition consisted of two parts. The first was a studio visit in which the curator met with each artist to discuss their work and ultimately selected a piece for the exhibition. The second was a meeting in each artist’s home, during which the curator and the artist discussed the contents of the artist’s library and ultimately the artist selected books to be paired with their artwork. While some books directly affected the accompanying work, others were chosen due to their importance in the artist’s overall creative and intellectual development.

A section of the gallery space has been established to allow visitors the opportunity to read each artist’s books as they would in a typical reading room.

Please return books to their respective shelf when finished.

Used Books
is loosely based on an exhibition concept developed with Ad Nauseam Lyceum and would not have been possible without the collaboration of Deena Selenow and Rory Sheridan.

Ryan Frank was recently an artist-in-residence at The Wassaic Project, where his work was shown in the exhibition "Bestiary" at Maxon Mills this past summer. He is the co-founder of Ad Nauseam Lyceum, a curatorial collective that organized a series of pop-up exhibitions in galleries and storefronts throughout New York City from 2006 to 2009. For the past year he has worked as the Collection Manager and Director of Education at The Granary, a private exhibition space located in Litchfield County, CT.

Labels: gallery artists exhibitions

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

An Open Letter to the Arts Community in Santa Fe, NM

About the time this particular piece posts, our now-former associate director and the brilliant painter Max-Carlos Martinez will be heading to the airport to begin a new chapter of his life in Santa Fe. Max has a good deal of catching up to do with his family, most of whom live in New Mexico, and he's working on two upcoming solo exhibitions he has in 2011, but after he's settled in he will begin to look for work out there as well.

I realize I could just write Max a letter of recommendation (and will for anyone who wishes), but the one-page format and tone that's considered polite for such testaments couldn't begin to express how very fortunate I know the art gallery or museum in Santa Fe will be that invites Max to join their team. To say that Max has been the heart and soul of our gallery the six years he worked with us would be to only minimize how charmingly and expertly he managed client relations (with both collectors and artists), how I knew when I left town that there was never any reason to worry about how perfectly everything would run under Max's guidance (no small thing for a control freak like myself, let me tell you), and how he was always a trustworthy (and very patient) sounding-board with a keen sense for when I was drifting in my reasoning or letting my emotions get the better of me.

Max not only understands the essence of our gallery's mission as well as I do, he helped promote it in every interaction he had, whether by offering solid advice to artists stopping by to see if we were looking at work or talking at length with our represented artists so that he could not only sell their work but serve as a reliable sounding-board for them as well. Max did all this not because we could afford to pay him a king's ransom, but because, as an artist and as a dealer, his understanding for what drives people to make, discuss, and purchase art is personal. His participation in all this has been a labor of love. He represents the very best of the art market, in my opinion; business smart and art passionate.

We of course wish Max was not leaving. We have a good team in place in the gallery, but we miss our Mr. Martinez already. But I know that the space in Santa Fe smart enough to bring him on board will be extremely happy they've done so. I will be very happy to vouch for him in person as well (just call me at the gallery any time).

Treat him well, Santa Fe. You're inheriting a gem of a human being and an amazing asset to any organization.

Labels: max

Monday, September 06, 2010

What's Behind the Recent Attacks on Public Libraries?

Back in June, the Chicago bureau of FoxNEWS aired a story asking "Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?" They framed their story as such:
[K]eeping libraries running costs big money. In Chicago, the city pumps $120 million a year into them. In fact, a full 2.5 percent of our yearly property taxes go to fund them.

That's money that could go elsewhere – like for schools, the CTA, police or pensions
They even went so far as to send in undercover cameras to see if, in this era of online information, libraries were indeed a waste of tax dollars:
So we decided to check it out. We used an undercover camera to see how many people used the library and what were they doing.

In an hour, we counted about 300 visitors. Most of them were using the free internet. The bookshelves? Not so much.
If you've paid attention to their methods, you probably won't be surprised to learn that the FoxNEWS story was highly misleading. According to Mary A. Dempsey, Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, whose brilliant response to Fox is well worth reading in full:
Last year, Chicagoans checked out nearly 10 million items from the Chicago Public Library’s 74 locations and the majority of those items were books. (Your ‘undercover cameras” shots were taken in a series of stacks devoted to bound periodicals used for reference. Next time, try looking at the circulating collections throughout the building.)
But Chicago isn't the only place where the usefulness of public libraries in the digital age is being challenged. The Guardian's Jonathan Jones recently blasted an op-ed by Frank Skinner that the London Times published on why Britain should do away with their information lending institutions. It should be noted that although Jones dismisses Skinner as a "comedian," here he's dismissed as "a third rate comedian who sometimes has a chat show on British television and is probably best known for once helping to write a football song". From Jone's response
Do you believe in a well-funded, free library service? The comedian Frank Skinner doesn't. Writing in the Times last week, he sneered at old black and white images of cloth-capped workers educating themselves for free. He's a working-class lad himself, he reminded readers, and libraries never did anything for him. These dreary hangouts are just a big joke.

I came across his column just after my daughter completed a superb summer reading programme run by Camden Libraries, which was singled out yesterday by the Reading Agency. There is a huge gulf between the reality of libraries using imaginative ideas to get kids reading and the stereotype Skinner's Times column sought to create. Apparently, he is happy to see a world of diminished literacy, full of people whose idea of mental stimulation is to watch him banter on the telly.
The Times of London (which, like FoxNEWS, is owned by Rupert Murdoch) charges readers for access to their opinion pieces by third-rate comedians, so I'll have to take Jones' word for what it actually contains.

Of course, a local news piece in Chicago and an op-ed in London hardly constitute a widespread organized attack on public libraries, but to question their usefulness at all seems amazingly insensitive to the needs of the people they serve and nearly evil, in my opinion. However, I became a bit more alarmed about where such attacks might be coming from and where they might lead when my memory connected Jones' astute comment on "a world of diminished literacy" with these two passages from Orwell's explanation of Newspeak:
Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. [...]

From the foregoing account it will be seen that in Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible.
Of course it takes the special brand of suspicion that thrives where I come from (where no conspiracy theory is untrue until proven so) to imagine Murdoch sitting in his office, petting a hairless cat, and plotting to further brainwash the viewers of his mass media empire by discouraging them from stumbling upon information that might contradict his pre-approved narratives at free libraries, but an extensive search for any other organization other than FoxNews that doesn't understand the importance of public libraries, especially during economic hardship, turned up nothing. (Anyone else find others?) There are budget cuts being proposed, but nothing so brash as these assertions of obsolescence from the same source.

The linchpin of their anti-library argument (i.e., that you can get all this information online) is easily dismissed when you remember the why we have public libraries in a democracy. Dempsey put it succinctly:
The mission of the Chicago Public Library is and always has been to make available to all people from birth through senior citizenship, the resources they need to enjoy a good quality of life, to participate in lifelong learning, and to become and remain civically engaged. If information is power, then the public library is the source of that power....
Until use of a computer and Internet access is universally free, what's available online to all people from birth through senior citizenship isn't free. What you can read in a public library is, including what's online.

As Diane Rehm noted at the beginning of the economic crisis in a piece titled "The Role of Libraries in Economic Hard Times," when the economy sours, people often turn to local libraries for help. In the piece, Diane's guests note that historically, people have always (re)turned to their libraries with each downturn in the economy, and now more than every not only for internet access and free entertainment options, but also workshops on polishing one's resume or other employment help and community development initiatives. This haven of information and community organization would be the saddest of losses for those hurting the most during the economic crisis. As such, Murdoch's lack of support, even if you don't see a conspiracy of concerted attacks on libraries, strikes me as an opportunistic and nearly criminally cynical disservice.

Labels: libraries

Friday, September 03, 2010

Circling Back Round to Good, Accidentally | Open Thread

There's a popular notion in politics that it's all circular. That one can be so far to the right or the left that you're in many ways approaching being your opposition. Others consider this hogwash (and the fact that I can't find one good example of it suggests they're correct [or that I haven't looked long enough ...anyone?]). But I understand the notion's appeal. It helps one feel a bit more warm and fuzzy about the opposition, suggesting that our differences are simply a matter of degree, which can provide hope for finding common ground.

I'll come back to that...

But for now, following up on a quality well expressed by yesterday's video, today I point you to a wonderful article in the New York Times about Boston's Museum of Bad Art (bad art is "loosely defined as having a compelling image but poor technique"):
With its U.F.O.’s, suicidal clowns, smiling genitals and other shocking, humorous or bleakly sentimental imagery, “bad art” — or “vernacular painting” and “found art” in polite circles — has achieved the status of a genre, a tiny but devoted corner of the art world. It’s a place where the passion of an amateur is prized over the skill of a technician and where an artist’s identity is of little or no importance. It’s neither kitsch (too cheery) nor camp (too smart) nor outsider (way too good and way too expensive). The best bad art is anonymous, strange, clumsy and cheap (or free, if you’re lucky).

[Don't miss this nice interactive piece "Art So Bad It's Good" with Michael Frank, the museum’s curator, talking about some of the paintings in their exhibittion: “Bigger, Badder, Beautifuller.”]
I'm guessing that in this circle the reason the artist's identity is of little or no importance is that few expect the creator of one really good example of Bad Art to necessarily be able to produce more than one, but I'm not sure [any one?]. And that would suggest to my mind that what makes a work of art circle back round to being seen as "good" is often entirely accidental on the part of the artist.

Which brings me back (cutting through via the diameter, not through some warm and fuzzy meeting at the end of a circle) to the political question. Even if someone can be so far to the right that some of their ideas are indistinguishable from those on the left, this is clearly accidental on their part, meaning it hardly matters in terms of what you can expect of them. It doesn't make them "one of us."

Which brings me back to the Museum of Bad Art article:

The paradox of placing these works within the art world at all has roots in the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Dada and Art Brut in past decades. It was a 1991 exhibition at the Chelsea gallery Metro Pictures, “Thrift Store Paintings,” that really put bad art on the map. The show of ugly children, distorted landscapes and other oddities, along with a book with the same title, were the brainchild of the artist Jim Shaw, a longtime collector of the horribly wonderful.

“Thrift store paintings was a nonjudgmental term,” Mr. Shaw said recently from his studio in Los Angeles. “I don’t think you should tell people what to think.”

I don't think that "thrift store paintings" is as nonjudgmental as Mr. Shaw seems to think it is (but then that's because I know most thrift stores would present a significant work of fine art for all of about 1 day before it was snatched up by those culling through them for just such finds). I also don't think many visitors to the Metro Pictures exhibition saw it as anything other than ironic (regardless of how much they have liked individual works in the show).

So what's my point?

Even when the setting would suggest similarities, in politics and in art there remains a very important difference: intent.

Consider this an open thread on intent, "bad art" you love, or the vestiges of summer. We're nonjudgmental here. :-P

Labels: art making, art viewing