Friday, April 29, 2011

Blaming the West

Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, fired Jack Persekian, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation because Persekian had failed to recognize that a work by Algerian artist, Mustapha Benfodil, would be interpreted as obscene and blasphemous by local attendees at this year's Sharjah Biennial.

This is old news at this point, but the protests over the firing have inspired a curious op-ed published in The Art Newspaper. In what strikes me as a highly condescending and equally contradictory defense of the firing, Abdal Hakim Murad (Sheikh Zayed lecturer in Islamic studies, the faculty of divinity, theology and religious studies, University of Cambridge) offers a series of soothing-toned statements that essentially accumulate into "those amusing antics of the wicked West will be tolerated only up to a certain point." Or, as Hakim Murad actually argues:
A sophisticated appreciation of contemporary art as an icon of the fragmented secular soul of the west, and hence as a signpost that points Muslims back to the mosque, will draw the line at religious offence.
Where to begin?

First of all, Hakim Murad's position only makes sense if one assumes there is a less fragmented soul to be found in the Muslim world. This pan-Muslim, united utopia of patience that he seems to be writing from, though, must exist on some parallel universe invisible to the rest of the world. Fragmented would be among the first words I'd use to describe the sensibilities ripping the Muslim world apart as we speak. And as so, I'd recommend he consider gazing longer into a mirror than at icons of the western soul.

Second, the artist whose work caused the controversy was not from the West, but rather from Algeria, and the offending text described Muslim atrocities. Hakim Murad's conclusion that this somehow reflects the west requires a fair bit of twisted logic. One has to assume that he means to imply that without the example of Western art leading Benfodil to create this work, he would have, like a good Muslim, not created it. This is condescending on many levels. More than that, it essentially apologizes for outrageous behavior:
What shocked the public was a text on one of the t-shirts [on Benfodil's soccer-playing mannequin sculptures], in English and Arabic. It said: With each breath of the wind I see a hand on my pants and my hymen torn/Every night was a sharp body raid/Vaginal sacrifices for lustful gods/My nights were haunted by the cries of all those virgins whom they had/Scratched, molested, maimed, bitten, eaten/RAPED KILLED/After being blessed/By the penetrating holy word of Allah/The sperm of his Prophets/And the spittle of his apostles.

Benfodil explained that this is from his play Les Borgnes (The One-Eyed): “The words have been interpreted as an attack against Islam, but they refer to a phallocratic, barbarian and fundamentally freedom-killing god. It is the god of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, a sinister sect that raped and massacred tens of thousands of women at the height of the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s in the name of a pathological revolutionary paradigm, supposedly inspired by the Koranic ethics. My own Allah has nothing to do with the destructive divinities claimed by Algerian millenarian movements.”
Hakim Murad skips right over addressing this explanation of the work, returning instead to the easier task of pointing fingers westward:
Yet just as more secular vulnerabilities deserve protection, in the form of laws against libel, slander, racism, or Holocaust denial, so too do the no less tender sensibilities of religious believers.
How about laws against rape? Or Murder? Let's start with sensibilities that acknowledge those first, shall we? So long as we're being so civilized, that is.

What really offended me in Hakim Murad's op-ed, though, was his attempt to highlight hypocrisies that should neutralize any western objection to Benfodil's censorship. The logic used here is so inferior, it's an insult to Cambridge:
The same religionists are laughing at liberal attempts to explain why blasphemies against Islam are a valid expression of artistic licence, while certain western legal and moral taboos may be acceptably internalised by curators and by legislation. Yet even in Sweden, just two years ago, the Linköping municipality banned posters for a rock festival that showed Satan excreting on a cross. And in Denmark, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had defended its right to publish cartoons of the Prophet, retreated from its stated intention to publish a cartoon that lampooned the Holocaust.
The first person who finds a more obscure example of western censorship than a poster in Linköping, Sweden, do let me know, will you? The Sharjah Biennial is meant to rank among the world's most important platforms for contemporary art. Its standards for defending freedom of expression are thereby expected to be a bit higher.

Furthermore, as Benfodil has explained, his work was not intended as "blasphemies against Islam," so no one, liberal or otherwise, needs to defend it as such. If Hakim Murad interprets it as such, he should explain why. Avoiding the topic altogether, as he's doing here, makes his entire op-ed look like a game of "Whack the West" and little more.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Slow, Quiet Death of The Rule of Law

There's a scene in the final film version of the Jason Bourne trilogy (yes, I love that stuff, and yes, I know it's fiction) in which the Director of the CIA is called before Congress to answer on charges he broke the law in authorizing the secret program within the agency that operated like an autonomous hit squad, answerable only to the few senior agents who knew it existed. That scene was juicy satisfaction the first time I watched it several years back, but upon catching it on late-night television a few weeks ago, it struck me as quaint.

Quaint and antiquated.

The whole notion now that the senior agents of the CIA are answerable to the people of the country they serve (via their representatives) seems childishly naive. How can we hold them accountable when we can't even figure out what the hell their roles are anymore?

From today's New York Times:
President Obama’s decision to send an intelligence chief to the Pentagon and a four-star general to the Central Intelligence Agency is the latest evidence of a significant shift over the past decade in how the United States fights its battles — the blurring of lines between soldiers and spies in secret American missions abroad. [...]

The result is that American military and intelligence operatives are at times virtually indistinguishable from each other as they carry out classified operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Some members of Congress have complained that this new way of war allows for scant debate about the scope and scale of military operations. In fact, the American spy and military agencies operate in such secrecy now that it is often hard to come by specific information about the American role in major missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya and Yemen.
Clearly, the daily operations of our intelligence agency and military are not something we want to advertise, but the murkier and more complex the arena becomes that they work in, the easier it becomes for corruption and criminal activity to fester. Being held accountable requires first and foremost clear rules and regulations, to protect the agents and soldiers as much as the public.

But this is just the latest step in what I'm beginning to sense is a slow, quiet death of the rule of law in the US. Oh, I know, that if you have enough money and clever enough lawyers, it has always been possible to get away with anything here, even murder. But even such cases actually underscored the importance of the rule of law (you had to beat the rule, in the courts, to get away with it).

More and more, though, if you know the right people (i.e., you line the right pockets), you can get away with it without ever being hauled before a judge and jury. Just look at the economic crisis. From Matt Taibbi's article for Rolling Stone "Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?":
Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world's wealth — and nobody went to jail. Nobody, that is, except Bernie Madoff, a flamboyant and pathological celebrity con artist, whose victims happened to be other rich and famous people.

The rest of them, all of them, got off. Not a single executive who ran the companies that cooked up and cashed in on the phony financial boom — an industrywide scam that involved the mass sale of mismarked, fraudulent mortgage-backed securities — has ever been convicted. Their names by now are familiar to even the most casual Middle American news consumer: companies like AIG, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. Most of these firms were directly involved in elaborate fraud and theft. Lehman Brothers hid billions in loans from its investors. Bank of America lied about billions in bonuses. Goldman Sachs failed to tell clients how it put together the born-to-lose toxic mortgage deals it was selling. What's more, many of these companies had corporate chieftains whose actions cost investors billions — from AIG derivatives chief Joe Cassano, who assured investors they would not lose even "one dollar" just months before his unit imploded, to the $263 million in compensation that former Lehman chief Dick "The Gorilla" Fuld conveniently failed to disclose. Yet not one of them has faced time behind bars.
Other than Madoff, none of them has ever faced criminal or even civil charges...nor are they likely to, not even Richard Fuld.

I was talking with an arts and philosophy professor the other day who noted a disturbing trend among his younger students. They didn't believe anything they saw on TV or read in any source could be viewed as truth or trusted. Everything is suspect, all the time. And in a world where everything is suspect, the motivation to follow the rules yourself disappears. You'd be a sucker to do so.

It's understandable. I find myself leaning the same direction. If, for example, you assume you can trust something you read, but you later learn that your source had been framed by a hard core political agenda, initially leaving you with the exact opposite impression of what actually is the case, you begin further to doubt everything you read. "What is the agenda of this other source?" you wonder. All of which would make for more discerning news consumers, except: our skepticism is further exacerbated by the sampling method of news consumption that's grown possible with the Internet. You read something online, but you have no reason to pay any attention to the original source of the news, you also miss the original author's biases and agendas. In other words, because more and more you consume without discrimination, you have to take it all with a grain of salt. Once you begin doing that, to save time, you begin to assume it's all bullsh*t.

So you combine a generation without any faith in what they're told, seeing the rule of law being completely ignored by the most powerful and wealthy members of society, and, well, you train them to understand that the whole thing is a free-for-all and that they would be fools to not just take what they can for themselves. This is not a recipe for a brighter future.

"Win the Future" the President has apparently decided his new campaign slogan is going to be. Someone should tell him how uber-Orwellian that sounds. Even someone as dimwitted as Sarah Palin was quickly able to point out that the initials of that slogan reveal how it's most likely to be received.

You can't win the future, Mr. Obama, until you and the other leaders of this country work to restore faith in the rule of law. With your new appointments to head the CIA and Department of Defense, for example, you need to implement much clearer means of accountability. The corruption and criminal activity that is highly likely to result with the creation of such blurring of the lines may not emerge during your Presidency, but you can bet, human nature being what it is, that its seeds will be planted then. Therefore, the notion that they're accountable to you (with the implication that we can trust you) is meaningless.

Also, can your order a spine implant for the SEC while you're at it?

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Art Seeks Its Own Market Level | Open Thread

Go to the artists' page on Marian Goodman Gallery's website and scroll down to the section for Tino Sehgal. There is no image, of course. There wasn't one on the gallery's page for Mr. Sehgal's work presented on their "booth" at the VIP Art Fair, either. That's because it's integral to Mr. Seghal's practice that no photographs of his work be taken. Indeed, as The New York Times has noted
[H]is pieces cannot involve the transformation of any material, in any way. No written instructions, no bill of sale (purchases are conducted orally, in the presence of a notary), no catalogs and (to the dismay of photo editors in the art press) no pictures.
I use this extreme example in a lecture I give about "Galleries and the Art Market," in a section about selling non-object based work. If Marian Goodman can sell a Tino Sehgal (and she has), I note, then clearly any dealer can sell anything any artist can create.


Of course the logistics of such sales have been being worked out for quite some time. In his book Art of the Deal (and, no, I'm not going to stop talking about it...so go buy it already), Noah Horowitz cites the sale of Yves Klien's Transfer of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959-62) as one of the clearest precedents for such transactions. Noah also builds a pretty solid case for the notion that the harder artists have worked to create unsellable work (for a host of reasons that only a few ever seem to remain wedded to), the more sophisticated the art market becomes across the board.

In other words, artists attempting to circumvent the art market only seems to make it stronger.

But before those neo-Marxist artists out there get their undies in a bunch, stop and consider that, arguably, it's artists themselves who are the root of this. We all know that you can purchase a drawing of a Land Art work by even Robert Smithson, for example. Documents of less commercial enterprises have long been viewed as marketable "art" objects in and of themselves, and always with the artist or their estate's approval.

And it's not just the market that's become more sophisticated about/complicit in all this. Again, consider Mr. Sehgal:
But Mr. Sehgal, unlike many performance artists, is not protesting the art market itself. His work is specifically conceived to function within the art world’s conventions: it is lent and exhibited, bought and sold. It is sold, in fact — now that Mr. Sehgal is becoming a star in Europe — for five-figure sums.[...]

Mr. Sehgal studied dance and economics, but economics came first. He says his touchstone belief is that his generation must “come up with alternatives of producing in different ways”: a political rather than an artistic issue.”
I can't quite put my finger on how, but more and more I suspect that economics always comes first. Indeed, lately, I've begun to wonder, believing as I do that human expression is progressive, whether it's not somehow the art itself that seeks out the market....needing to sustain itself, ensuring its perpetuation.

I know...that's silly. And, of course, I'm sure the notion that the market will find a way to commodify and then sell anything chafes the neck of the artist with tons of unsold work bursting out of his/her studio.

Still, consider this an open thread on the idea that you cannot make art that someone cannot sell.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Christianity in America at Easter

Almost every time Bambino and I gather with friends in New York, it strikes me that we're like the opening of a bad joke: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, an atheist, and a Buddhist enter a bar.... I love that America is a mix of all people from all places. I also love that in America I can identify as Christian for what I see as all the right reasons, and not because to do otherwise is to risk harm.

Yeah, I know..."Christian" is hardly the first thing you'd think to call me, but this time of year I always fall off the wagon a bit with my on-again--off-again agnosticism. Easter is the Christian holiday I respect the most (even more than Christmas, which I love, but mostly for its family-gathering and warmth and charm), and there's something so reassuring about Easter's message of renewal. Whoever decided to have it in Springtime knew what they were doing. :-)

More than that, though, Easter is the holiday in which we observe what made Christ most worthy of admiration. So much so that it still continues, to my mind, to overshadow all the jockeying for ways to control the masses that followed in its wake. And that's saying something.

Easter is the holiday I respect because it's about something other than wanting to party.

At Christmas we celebrate his birth, but being born was no big deal (despite how melodramatic we try to make his story, the fact remains that billions of the rest of us have managed the same thing). And while living simply and spreading advice on love and life's best practices is certainly noteworthy, it was accepting his terrible fate in Calvary with grace and conviction (if the stories are to be believed) that truly set him apart from your average inhabitant of this planet. If there's anything to admire about Christ (and I think there's plenty), the sacrifice symbolized by his crucifixion is worlds above the rest.

There is another part of Christianity I admire and need to clarify in this context, although I think it's predominantly a Protestant presumption. That is the ability to communicate (i.e., negotiate) with God directly, without any middlemen. This may be total hogwash as theology to many people (and that's their right to believe so), but it's what I was raised to understand and, well, I prefer it that way.

But that's as far down the path of theology as I'm comfortable taking this. My main point is that as much as America is statistically dominated by Christians, the belief that people are free to worship as they wish, or not, is what actually makes being a Christian here so great. I can choose to be a Christian even though there are those who would argue that certain aspects of my life are incompatible with their definition of Christianity. In that same regard, the fact that others are free to be Jewish or Muslim or atheist, only underscores the freedom I feel to be Christian in the way I wish to negotiate with my God and my conscience. It creates the most forgiving context imaginable, which just so happens to be at the very core of Christianity.

Now I know that my preference here will strike many people heavily invested in a wide array of religious rules and regulations as highly convenient for me. Knowing how many sects there are within any main religion and the truly petty differences that separate them, though, I'd throw the exact same statement back their way. Work your differences out amongst your warring selves and then get back to me. I'll wait.

Next week I'm sure some idiot will burn a Qur'an or insist that objecting to Christians' sense of entitlement is a "hate crime," but this week, I'm reminded of all that's good about the message of forgiveness, charity, sacrifice, and love for each other that I had been taught Christ represents. Like most religions, Christianity IS fabulous, when sincerely practiced as preached.

Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Solstice, and Happy Spring!

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Balanced Art Diet : Open Thread

In the introduction to his book, Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market, Noah Horowitz notes:
In the decade from 1998 to 2008, worldwide sales of contemporary art at auction swelled from just $48 million to over $1.3 billion, representing a more than eightfold rise in the sector's market share, from 1.8 percent to 15.9 percent of the global fine art trade. During this same period, contemporary art would also overtake Impressionist and modern art as the most valuable sales category at the world's leading auction houses, an astonishing feat given the long-standing supremacy of these established categories and the sheer speed of its ascent; whereas just 8 percent of artworks selling about $100,000 were contemporary in 2005, this figure more than doubled to 19.5 percent at its peak two years later.
Why this happened is complex, but the factors clearly playing into it include how scarce great works from other the categories had become (a factor related to the proliferation of art museums around the world and subsequent snapping up the few Impressionist and Modern works still available); the rise of the global art fair industry and the impact that had on accelerating the buying process (which increased the amount of flipping-at-auction based speculation, and hence these numbers); and what I'd call a very successful advertising campaign by the contemporary art market, in which buying contemporary art became a high-profile, very sexy, very conspicuous practice sprinkled with equal measures of glamor and celebrity. The rise of the contemporary market has been a triumph of capitalism's best practices: create scarcity, increase demand, promote brand loyalty, etc. etc.

But have we become victims of our own success? What are we giving up through creating such a unprecedentedly strong contemporary art awareness.

Last week (while we were in London), Holland Cotter presented a thought-provoking piece in The New York Times titled "Under Threat: The Shock of the Old." In it he notes how this success of the contemporary market is impacting the choices budding art historians are making at our art schools:

[T]he reasons people pursue careers in newer art are understandable. Money is one. To an unprecedented degree, contemporary art, no matter what its geographic or cultural source, is now thoroughly tied to and buoyed by the global economy. This phenomenon is fairly recent. Not long ago the contemporary market meant Europe and America. Now it also means New Delhi, Beijing and Dubai. New art has become a worldwide industry. Industries generate jobs.

Holders of degrees in contemporary art history don’t have to limit their career prospects to the low-paying teaching gigs that remain the fate of their colleagues in more traditional studies. They can, in greater numbers than ever, become curators, corporate advisers, auction house experts and dealers in a luxury business that has, so far, floated above the prevailing economic turbulence. Sticklers for academic orthodoxy are prone to hint at corner-cutting features of a contemporary-art major. Language requirements are often minimal, English being the global art world lingua franca. And with only the history of today and yesterday to deal with, primary research can be done, over a Starbucks latte, via Google.


Ouch.

I have to confess, with things moving as quickly as they are, I feel constant pressure to learn more about contemporary art and the latest artists to emerge on my radar than I do to continue my education about older art. I assume I'll have my retirement to troll through the halls of the great encyclopedic museums, and dust off those large books weighing down the lower shelves of my bookcases. Right now, though, there's a new crop of new artists with new ideas every year. (And it generally takes me longer to learn about what they're thinking than it does to down a latte.)

Still, I do see the perils of focusing too much on the here and now, least of which is not recognizing when some "new" idea is actually a well-established "old" idea you simply weren't familiar with. (We have a joke in the gallery about younger artists who think art history is to burdensome to learn: "Hey, did you know someone else already presented a urinal on a pedestal once?")

Of course, the flip side to broadening beyond contemporary art in our institutions is to begin to water down the context entirely. One realm that is (again, through money) seeping into the fine art context (and if you look at me on any given day, you'll know why I am at best ambivalent about it) is high fashion:

Officials at the American Association of Museums say that there is no data available on the annual number of fashion exhibitions at member museums across the country. Some, including the Museum of the City of New York and the Chicago History Museum, have been doing them for years. It’s not surprising that design museums, like the gallery at the Bard Graduate Center (scheduled to host a Stephen Jones hat show) and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (now showing Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry and the designs of Sonia Delaunay) regularly work clothing into their rotation.

But suddenly it seems as if a world of tomboys just discovered dresses, whether they like them or not. Since John Buchanan took over as director of the de Young, he has mounted not only the Balenciaga exhibition but a series of fashion and jewelry shows, including one on Vivienne Westwood and another on Yves Saint Laurent (a Montreal show that went on to Paris).

Not everyone (including yours truly) really appreciates this infiltration:
Behind the rush to fluff up ball gowns for display are fierce philosophical disagreements among board members, museum directors, curators and critics on what is art and what is not, and whose underwriting checks are acceptable.
But that kind of misses the real question here, imho. What is "art" is something people will debate (although, I'm still not clear why), but what should be preserved is the concern of museums. Not even fashion designers agree on that:
A fashion exhibition can only stay up for a limited time because exposure to light damages fabrics. “I always thought of clothes as a disposable art form,” Mr. [Oscar] de la Renta said in a telephone interview. “I never thought that clothes were as important as they have become.”
But I'm getting off track here. Within the context of "fine art," the recent rise of contemporary art is clearly having an impact on who pays attention to more historical works as well as other types of art being made now. As in all things, I believe maintaining a balance is a good idea. But what do you do? There's not enough time to see all the contemporary art shows in Chelsea; visit the area museums that exhibit contemporary; keep up to speed with what galleries and museums in other places are exhibiting (via the internet); do studio visits;and read, read, read the latest analysis of it all.

One idea I was particularly fond of was the site Art Inconnu (which seems to be on a bit of a hiatus). From their "About" statement:
Collected here are works by artists who are forgotten, under appreciated, or little known, as well as news, reviews and ephemera from the corners of art history. Works of startling quality can be found beyond the big names in the visual arts, whether it is just one exceptional work, an area of an artists oeuvre, or an entire career worth re-examining.
The weathered faces in the portraits by Charles Frederick Goldie (1870 -1947), for example, are fabulous if only in how the suggest rugged landscapes (which I imagine as maps of the places his subjects were born). Perhaps you knew Goldie already, but Art Inconnu introduced me to the work (I suspect he's from New Zealand) and although it's not work that makes sense in my gallery, I would still make the trek to see them in person should the opportunity arise. I'm sorry to see that site's not still active. Hopefully, they'll pick back up soon.

The site also has this fabulous randomizing set of links to previous posts (over 350 artists are included) called "5 Random Artists from Art Inconnu," making it fun to happen upon some artist you never knew before. Of course, the reason Art Inconnu works is that someone else took the time to scour the records, assemble the images, post the details, etc. And it's a lot to ask that someone keep doing so for free. But like all of the blogosphere, so long as the work is divided up among enthusiasts, this online history lesson is one good example of how to keep the dots connected and your diet of art well balanced.

Other ways???

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Thing About All that Fun at the Auction...

First time I saw this episode of the Dick Van Dyke show as a kid (and no, not during its original broadcast), it made a big impression on me. Hinging on issues of class, insider-ness, and knowing (or not) when you're out of your element, I saw it more as a horrifying cautionary tale than a comedy bit. Start watching about the 6:50 mark, if you're pressed for time:



Even as a kid, I realized that the thing about all that fun bidding at the auction (and why the bit works) was that they do expect you to pay in the end. Of course, growing up in a capitalist society, that was always highly evident. People here take someone committing to paying them money seriously. But what if you hadn't grown up in a capitalist society? What if how seriously people take the auction process wasn't really all that clear? I mean, you see all kinds of silly antics during the bidding process, but you never see anyone actually paying for what they bid on in a movie or TV show.

From artinfo.com:
Sotheby's recent eight-day Hong Kong auction earned a staggering $447 million for a vast array of Asian and Chinese art, as well as fine wines, watches, and jewels, but the rise of voracious Chinese buyers has not been free of setbacks. For one, there is the issue of payment: after bidding up works, particularly in the hypercharged sector of imperial antiques, Chinese buyers have been incredibly slow to make payments on purchases, a habit that is leading auction houses around the globe to demand deposits from high bidders.

The most prominent example of this delinquent behavior concerns the shocking $83.2 million sale of an 18th-century vase at the suburban British auction house Bainbridges in November — a sale that has become symbolic of the skyrocketing market for Chinese antiques, and of Chinese buyers' infinitely deep pockets when it comes to snatching up Chinese art objects. In the months since the vase was hammered, making international headlines, the buyer has failed to deliver the money. As a result, the Bainbridges vase has still not been claimed.
And as a result, that symbolic "purchase" now needs to be reframed. Indeed, why it happened at all is now cause for speculation (even if only in the form of denying such speculation exists):
Thus far, there has been no suggestion that the buyer deliberately sabotaged the sale on behalf of Chinese nationalist interests, as was the case with the Beijing businessman who won two contested Chinese imperial bronzes at the 2008 Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sale, and then refused to pay the $45.5 million he owed.
Longtime readers here will hardly expect me to cry rivers for the auction houses, but I do respect the contract one enters into when raising a paddle at one. Moreover, I had assumed it was, in part at least, the strength of recent (so-called) sales at that had led Artprice to declare China the number one art market.

But Skate's, who doesn't like Artprice's lack of transparency, has recently offered some harsh criticism of both Artpice's murky skyrocketing stock prices and their calculations on the Chinese art market (pdf file):
Going forward it seems that China has become the main center for speculation on the art market and perhaps the riskiest segment of the global art market. When it comes to the premium (investment) segment of the global art market monitored by Skate’s Art Market Research, China is far from dominance by every indicator.
Now, there's no doubt that players in the US will not just lie down and acknowledge China's reported dominance without a fight, and such reactionary responses to the changing landscape must be seen as such. But when you combine Skate's suspicions with the very slow payment at auctions, it does suggest that declarations of dominance be reviewed a bit more closely before being considered definitive.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

"Archival" DVDs

During Moving Image's panel discussion (we're working on getting the podcast online...I know it's been a while, but well, we've been busy), one of the most tense moments (and to my pleasant surprise, there were a few) came when (Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art) Chrissie Iles admonished the gallerists in the audience with not so much a suggestion as the command: "Don't sell DVDs."

Of course she wasn't suggesting that video can't be presented/exhibited on DVD discs, but that, simply, it cannot be responsibly archived on DVDs. There is, despite widespread confusion in the gallery system and art industry in general, no such thing as an archival DVD.

As early as 2007, analysts were predicting the end of the DVD, and when I ask the artists, curators, and technicians best suited to know today, they generally give the format between 4-5 years before it's officially dead. That means the large collection of films you have on DVD will soon be joining your cassette-based music collection in your parent's attic.

But more than just referencing the ever-evolving "preferred platform" dance of technological "advancement," Chrissie was referring to the poorly understood, but very important, imperative that moving image-based work be preserved in the format closest to its original production as possible (yes, for video, that would mean the very file or format first recorded/edited, or as close to that as possible) and that that be given or available* to the collector who will eventually donate the work to a museum for its lasting preservation. A DVD is already a compressed (and hence degraded) copy of that original and as such nowhere near "ideal" from a preservation point of view.

While in London this past week, Bambino and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with the charming Curator of Film and Events at the Tate Modern, Stuart Comer (who will be here in NY this week, presenting, as he describes it, "Steven Arnold's magical, polysexual underground films on Friday 22 April at 7pm, and will join Ronald Gregg, Agosto Machado and Ela Troyano in discussion following the unmissable screening of José Rodriguez-Soltero's Lupe and Ron Rice's Chumlum on Saturday 23 April at 7pm" at the Museum of the Moving Image). Stuart echoed Chrissie's concerns and noted how a very well-established gallery who should certainly know better had tried to pass along an important video work on an "archival DVD." We guffawed, but it dawned on me later that many artists and/or dealers may not understand (given how DVD manufacturers flog their wares as "archival") why it is so irresponsible to suggest a DVD is a fine permanent vessel for the information it contains.

The University of Michigan has a nice accessible summary of the pitfalls of digital preservation at this site. In addition to obsolescence the main problem with DVDs is degradation:
The very media that digital information is stored on was not always made to last, and can quickly degrade. This media can include magnetic tapes, floppy discs, optical discs and more. Take, for example, a movie on DVD. More likely than not, you have experienced a crucial scene in a movie being ruined because of scratches on a DVD you were watching. This is a case of media degradation – the information that was on the DVD no longer exists because the media that it was on has itself degraded. Now imagine this has happened with not simply a commercially available CD or DVD, but a unique item ...
In addition to the physical damage possible (which is the same for any object-based work of art, obviously), each time you burn a file to a DVD some of the original information is lost (due to the compression process). If you burn a file from one DVD to another DVD or another format (generally converting it first to an *.avi or similar editable file), you will lose even more information in the re-compression. Therefore, it's irresponsible to present someone with a DVD as if it were a truly archival version of the artist's intent.

As Noah Horowitz points out in his new must-read book Art of the Deal (I'll have a lot more to say about this important contribution to the dialog in weeks to come...seriously, you shouldn't even pretend to discuss the art market until you've read this book...it's like manna from heaven), though, getting serious about moving image artwork conservation is a critical first step toward building a serious market for it. Therefore, it is in the interest of every gallery representing video artists to stay informed and participate in the development of best practices and standards.

Now I realize it's complicated (believe me...we present our fair share of moving image-based work and it's an ongoing education), but one easy way for dealers (and artists) to keep up to speed is to follow the work of the New Art Trust (founded by Pamela and Richard Kramlich, and involving the Tate, MoMA and SFMoMA). Together they have taken a leadership role in providing guidelines and information, including in showing dealers anxious to have their video artists acquired by these major museums what goes on behind the scenes in their decision-making process (hint! hint!).

I strongly believe that moving image-based work stands to follow a similar trajectory to that of photography in being seriously collected in the coming years. There are too many artists working in the medium, including those whose main practice is in painting or sculpture, to ignore it. You can expect to see more on these topics here as I continue my own in-depth education. As such, don't hesitate to point out where I may be missing something or (gasp) even mistaken in my own assessments.

*Making the original available to collectors when the format requires that the artist keep it in their procession is a common practice, with the terms (including location of the original) generally spelled out in the Certificate of Authenticity.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Used to find this song a lot more bitter-sweet before flying became the exercise in human degradation it is today, but...it's still lovely:



Blogging will be hard this week, as our schedules in London are packed, and our luggage has yet to be...

...see you the other side.

e

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Friday, April 08, 2011

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Or, When Do You Call It Quits? Open Thread



via Sully
Tucker, our one and a half year old Schnoodle, plays the piano and sings along at least 3 or 4 times every day. In spite of all of his practicing, he really isn't getting any better at it.
Practice makes perfect, or so they say. But what about when it doesn't? What do you take as the "signs from God" that you're not as well as suited for the life you've chosen as you've always hoped you would be? When do you throw in the towel or keep looking for what it is you're meant to do here?

I mean, there's a buffet of aphorisms to choose from if you're looking for cheap bumper sticker encouragement (...I LOVE the item in that search result with the link "Printable christian aphorisms of encouragement" ...as if to imply there were also some "non-printable Christian aphorisms" ... OK, you've piqued my interest...let me see 'em!).

You know them, the sort of encouragement I mean: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Or my favorite of all time: "Ever tried, Ever failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better." --Samuel Beckett.

However, if we're honest, you and I both know it: some people will never reach the top of their field. No matter how much they try. They don't have the chops. Which is perfectly OK if reaching some level of achievement is not their goal. Who's to stop anyone from carrying on doing what they love?

But I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about those who are not happy doing what they love...I'm talking about those who are miserable because they're not getting the recognition they feel they deserve, while you and I and everyone else involved are pretty damn sure they never will. It's not that they're trying (in the sense of giving it their best shot); but rather that eventually they're trying (in the sense of working your last nerve). You want to tell them "you're just not that good" in response to their bellyaching about how the system is rigged against them or some other self-deluded excuse for the lack of recognition.

Why we don't say that, usually, is out of kindness or understanding that it really doesn't hurt us (that much) if they continue to toil under unrealistic expectations. Or, we don't say it to them because we secretly fear the same is true for ourselves, and if we let that monster out of its cage, it won't rest until it's mauled us all. In the end, it's probably not anyone else's place to say something so harsh to another person anyway...if they never realize it themselves, well, there's always caller ID to protect us from them.

But individually, it does begin to dawn on many of us that we never will make it to Carnegie Hall (without buying a ticket, at least), and we're left with either readjusting our expectations or giving up on that dream. Accepting one's place in the scheme of things can be comforting (or so I'm told). Slowing down long enough to understand how one's contributions are important to the whole can be very rewarding (again, or so I'm told).

Consider this an open thread on reading the writing on the wall and deciding what to do about it.

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Ai Weiwei

As I've noted here before, I strongly believe the surest way to turn a revolutionary pest into a compliant pet is to give him/her just enough money to make them bourgeois.

Likewise the surest way to turn the people against someone they otherwise admire is to insinuate that person is taking advantage and unjustly dipping into the people's pockets. We've seen this in America with the positively absurdist right-wing rhetoric against public servants (don't look at the banks' record profits or those multinational tax-dodgers who claim they'd create more jobs here if the US corporate taxes were lower [meaning so they got billions more in tax rebates than they already do], no...all your economic woes stem from those greedy middle-class teachers).

In short, if you want the public to turn against someone, suggest that person is unfairly costing the public money. And so, we have out of China today, news that the government there is charging Ai Weiwei with "economic crimes:"

“To my understanding, Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes, and the Public Security Bureau is conducting an investigation according to law,” Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a regular news conference in Beijing. “China is a country under the rule of law, and relevant authorities will work according to law.”

Mr. Hong did not give further details, and he did not say why the authorities had yet to notify Mr. Ai’s family members of the detention. His remarks followed a cryptic one-line report that was posted on the Internet by Xinhua, the state news agency, around midnight that said the same thing. The report was deleted hours later from the Chinese and English Web sites of Xinhua, deepening the mystery around Mr. Ai’s detention. The government has convicted citizens of financial fraud before when trying to silence them.

What's particularly insidious here is that it seems the Chinese government is clearly shopping around for the "crime" most suited to their twin goals: Ai Weiwei's silence and international breathing space:
Mr. Ai’s mother, Gao Ying, 78, denounced the government line in a telephone interview, saying: “Economic crimes! They say one thing now and another later. It’s ridiculous.” [...]

Mr. Ai’s case is the most prominent one to pit the Communist Party against liberal Chinese and Western nations since that of Liu Xiaobo, the dissident writer who was sentenced to 11 years in prison here and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize last October. In response to calls by Western governments for China to release Mr. Ai immediately, Mr. Hong said Thursday, “Other countries have no right to interfere.”
Perhaps other countries have no power to interfere, but as China is asking to be taken seriously as an equal contributor to the dialog of contemporary art, the rest of the world has every right to demand some answers. It's entirely ludicrous that China would arrest Ai Weiwei on apparently trumped up charges and yet expect a place at the table as respected members of the international arts community. China needs to release Mr. Ai now.

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Calling London

Quick shout out to the good folks on the other side of the pond to note that Bambino and I are heading over next week for some gallery and museum hopping. Looking for advice on must-see shows and/or events.

Suggestions most welcome.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Appeal of The Killing

Bambino and I love, love, love our Law and Order. It's kind of like Sex and the City in that one of the main characters of the TV crime drama is New York itself. Nearly half the fun is identifying where they're shooting and whether or not they're being true to the location (I recall an episode where they actually had to spruce up a spot I used to hang out in to make it a convincing "dive bar").

But in watching the two-hour premier of AMC's The Killing the other night, I began to better understand what's wrong with Law and Order (besides the bad acting) and other popular dramas in the US and, to a larger extent, our expectations in all our diversions (art included).

Based on the wildly successful Danish television series
Forbrydelsen, The Killing takes things really, really slow. Exploring a crime that would not only have been solved and brought to court, but had three or four plot twists thrown in for good measure on Law & Order in 1/20th of the time, The Killing barely moved at all in its first two hours. There's a murder revealed and a host of suspects introduced, but you know you're very far away from learning who did it. Still, what grips you in this series (and it's insanely gripping) is that they slow down long enough (and have good enough actors) to let you feel the agony of the family, almost smell the fear of the suspects, really understand the torn allegiances of the cops (to their families vs to their jobs) in a much more convincing way than they do in all the other films and TV shows that seem to have long ago traded in good storytelling for a bag of quick tricks.

Just one gorgeous example was the scene in which the parents of the murder victim tell her young brothers that she's dead. It was devastating, because it was so true to that moment and it took all the time you really would in real life to share such horrific news. Rather than setting up the next bad one-liner pun for the lead cops, The Killing is busy setting your hairs on end by placing you in that position...showing you (rather than glibly telling you) how it feels to be that person.

So how do I connect this to art? Essentially, it's made me more seriously wonder if we're too accepting of punny one-liners and/or simply rushed-through explorations, when what would really knock our socks off is some slower, more carefully considered, more conceptually rich and engaging efforts. This ties in, in my opinion, to how we've let expectations develop that a recent MFA grad should be able to live off their art shortly after graduation. How can you possibly offer up slowly considered, deep work if you've barely lived outside your parent's home and you've barely had time to let the varnish dry on the new series you've rushed to market? Perhaps if you're a phenom you can, but how many of those are there really?

The problem with expecting consistently high quality (in both the art and TV realm), I know, is how much time and space there is to fill up. If there were fewer galleries, fewer museums, and/or fewer channels, would we see better work in them?

Arguably yes.


Also complicating this is how freaking expensive it is to produce and/or present any such efforts, leading to the lowest common denominator winning the day as just common sense in recouping one's investment.

And yet, there it is...The Killing...stealing rave reviews from nearly every quarter...let's hope it sets a trend.

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Monday, April 04, 2011

The Other Great Debate in Contemporary Art

A while back I had noted how there didn't seem to be as many passionate disagreements in the art world as there once were. Epic philosophical arguments seemed a relic of the 20th Century and, even then, were possibly even played up by historians looking for some conflict to spice up their narratives [h/t FE].

Today the only public debate I tend to hear much about from where I sit is the Formalist vs. the Conceptualist one, but I'm beginning to understand more about another ongoing difference of opinion the more I learn about the history of experimental film and its (to my mind) misplaced but intentional distance from the rest of the visual art world and, more famously, from the popular film industry.

Today, of course, the lines are being blurred all across the board, with Hollywood actors crossing over into performance art, bona fide fine artists preferring their films to be screened in cinemas rather than galleries or museums, filmmakers embracing video, galleries embracing both (but with their own set views on editioning works for sale, video artists transferring their older works to film, and a wide range of the preferences that defined the field just a few decades ago seeming nowhere near as important as they obviously once had.

Not that I know this topic will come up, per se, at the New York Film/Video Council panel discussion tomorrow night, but I do expect the tensions that are still simmering below the surface on such issues to inform the conversation at this event you might consider attending if, like me, you're fascinated by this debate. The title does suggest the strong differences of opinion are on the table:

Split of Light: Experimental Media
A panel on the past, present + future of creating, distributing and presenting experimental film and video with panelists from Anthology Film Archives, Electronic Arts Intermix, Film-maker’s Coop, James Fuentes Gallery and Light Industry.

Join us in conversation on the past, present and future of effective programming of experimental media. Learn from leaders of New York’s programming, distribution & exhibition scene: Rebecca Cleman (programmer and Distribution Director of Electronic Arts Intermix), Thomas Beard (Founder and Director of Light Industry), Andrew Lampert (filmmaker, programmer and archivist at Anthology Film Archives), James Fuentes (of the Lower East Side gallery James Fuentes LLC, which represents Jonas Mekas among many others) and MM Serra (filmmaker and Executive Director of Film-maker’s Coop).

After the panel, we’ll have a reception for all attendees to continue the conversation.

When:
Tuesday, April 5th, 7pm
doors open at 6:30, panel begins at 7, reception to follow

Location:
EAI (Electronic Arts Intermix)
535 West 22nd, 5th floor (btwn. 10th and 11th)

New York, NY

Tickets are free for members and $10 for the rest of us. See here to reserve yours.

Bambino and I had the pleasure to briefly discuss the panel with its moderator, Rebecca Cleman, in advance. Here is Rebecca's description of what to expect:
The panelists will consider how experimental film and video has been impacted by the art world's increased interest in the moving image, parallel to a changed environment for independent media production and exhibition. The panel will also take into consideration how the very term "experimental" - sometimes used interchangeably with "avant-garde" and "underground" - has been defined by audience demographics, and distribution, exhibition, and production models.
These topics dominated most of the discussion at the Moving Image art fair as well. They're hot button issues in the film+video-meets-gallery domain. I highly recommend this discussion for those interested in the topic.

UPDATE: Due to a scheduling conflict, James Fuentes will be replaced by Alex Kitnick of Greene Naftali.

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Friday, April 01, 2011

All the Service You've Paid For

OK, so here I was all set to run with my new April Fool's Joke (it involved the "newly found" Egyptian Cobra, details on the international plot to hide the fact that the real one was killed by the overzealous 5-year-old of a famous Italian politician during a private tour, and the tell-tale physical differences between the original and the replacement cobra they quickly rushed over from Cairo to quell the controversy...), but I got distracted by this response to the latest Jerry Saltz "Ask an Art Critic" article.

The original question was:

Dear Jerry,

In a past column you wrote about the "bad dealer behavior" you experience as a recognizable critic. As an ordinary engaged observer, however, I often experience something very different at galleries: smugness. I'll ask for a piece of information and am dismissed with some uninformative answer. Occasionally, I’m asked if I’m a collector. It's not a big deal, since I'm there to look at the art, but it does leave a bad taste. Would you please ask those galleries to be a bit more welcoming to those who've made the trek to the windy west?

-- Plebeian

And Jerry's response to the letter:

Dear Plebeian,

[...] The people who work at those front desks are usually paid very little. Many have no insurance or benefits. Like you, they're poor, in it more for the love or desire than money. They may be on the "inside," but there's a spiritual cost to that: Dealers are ultra-demanding control types who expect impeccable work out of them. Moreover, they're on public view and subject to all manner of abuse. They're sneered and stared at, and are asked for restaurant recommendations, street directions, bathroom keys, suggestions of what else to see. They are pummeled with demands to know who bought this, how much it costs, what the artist thinks they're doing, and why the gallery would show such crap. They are bombarded with artists asking them to look at their slides. [...] They may be short with you, but they're not dissing you. They're probably as concerned about how they're perceived as you are.

Actually, with all due respect to Mr. Saltz, let me (finally) confess and get this off my chest. The truth of the matter is THEY ARE DISSING YOU. That's their job. Dealers, you see, make employees sign confidentiality agreements; so they'll never tell you this out of fear of being sued, but it's in the job description of nearly each front desk worker in Chelsea to be as dismissive and short as possible with anyone who enters a gallery who isn't an obvious collector. We actually spend several weeks when someone first starts at the gallery working with them on their haughty airs and bored eye rolls. The goal is to make you feel so inferior you eventually feel compelled to sign letters as "Plebeian" or something equally demeaning and self-pitying. Every time that happens, you see, each dealer in Hell gets a shiny new pitchfork. It's a pact we make upon opening a gallery.

But the thing that really pushed me to finally come clean about this is the response to Jerry's post by a commenter:

I remember loitering near the front desk at {Gallery X} some time ago (the {Artist Z} show was up) A woman was politely asking for a price sheet and the underfed art school chicky at the desk looked down at her (somehow, from below) and said "Oh no, the show sold out LONG before we opened the doors" in the most dismissive and undermining tone possible.

This left an impression stronger than the paintings.
Not everyone who wishes to work in a gallery wants to be this way toward the public, but they're trained to not forget it's the dealer's demand that they are. If I, for example, catch someone in our gallery being helpful or chatty with someone who isn't writing a check or not insidery enough for my team to recognize them on sight as important, I'll scream at them the moment the nonentity leaves the gallery and assign them some mindless, tedious task as a punishment. Making them re-label all the artwork in our storage area, even though there's nothing wrong with the current labels, is one of my favorite penalties for breaking this rule. Sending them on some trumped-up errand to the Upper East Side on a rainy day with just bus fare is my second fave.

So don't blame the person at the front desk of a gallery for not greeting you like the purser on a cruise ship; there is a engraved sign posted right beneath the ledge of the counter facing them that spells out in a large, Gothic font "Each Visitor is Entitled to All the Service They've Paid For and NOTHING More." Taped under that on a Post-It note is often usually "You can smile all you want in the storage area or on the uptown bus."

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