Tuesday, December 27, 2011

You Can't Be All Things to All People :: Open Thread

As I try to do each year about this time, as my Christmas gift to myself, I'm re-reading a book I've enjoyed in the past. I particularly enjoy discovering what I missed the first (or second or third time around). This year the book is "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde, and while I'm a bit surprised by the mechanics of the book (didn't quite remember it seeming such a chunky novel the last time), the dialog never disappoints.

One particular bit of musing by Lord Henry Wotton (Wilde's alter-ego in the story) seemed it might make for interesting discussion here. In the age of Warhol's children, where it's not enough to be a well-respected artist...one is also expected to be a bit of a celebrity at a certain strata (did you hear who Jeff showed up with at Larry's party?), this passage stood out for me. Talking to his recent acquaintance, Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton considers Mr. Gray's complaint about their mutual friend, the painter Basil Hallward:
"Dear Basil! I have not laid eyes on him for a week. It is rather horrid of me, as he has sent me my portrait in the most wonderful frame, specially designed by himself, and, though I am a little jealous of the picture for being a whole month younger than I am, I must admit that I delight in it. Perhaps you had better write to him. I don't want to see him alone. He says things that annoy me. He gives me good advice."

Lord Henry smiled. "People are very fond of giving away what they need most themselves. It is what I call the depth of generosity."

"Oh, Basil is the best of fellows, but he seems to me to be just a bit of a Philistine. Since I have known you, Harry, I have discovered that."

"Basil, my dear boy, puts everything that is charming in him into his work. The consequence is that he has nothing left for life but his prejudices, his principles, and his common sense. The only artsits I have every known who are personally delightful, are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write they poetry that they dare not realize."
Indeed, many of my favorite artists look and generally act far less interesting than the stereotypical artistes you'll find in literature or films. We always chuckle at how the art world is portrayed in movies, as if it were comprised of half fashion models / half circus freaks. The truth is that most good artists I know (and indeed most of the talented people in the art world in general) would pass unnoticed walking through your average shopping mall in the Mid-West. Talk with them in their studio, though, or walk with them through a museum talking about the work therein, and they'll often simply blow your mind. It is about the art, after all.

Consider this an open thread on Lord Henry's theory that "Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are."

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A New Yorky Sort of Holiday Concert

We put up our first tree in our new home last night. In the light of day, I'd say doing so is probably best BEFORE cocktails. But that's alright, we have a few days to sort it out.

There's an unusual number of darker takes on the season out there at the moment, and much of what Hollywood is offering seems designed to make you feel good only in comparison (e.g., Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Darkest Hour, etc.). So there's ample opportunity to get your Scrooge on, if that's your inclination.

But call me a romantic, as 2011 ends, I'm feeling more optimistic about things than I have in quite some time, and so I'm offering this simple playlist, for kids from one to, well, mostly those who like music from the 80s or earlier. My gift to you, a New Yorky kind of holiday concert.

Please do add your faves as well.

Wishing you and yours the warmest and most cheerful of the holiday you celebrate.








This one is particularly for the troops returning from Iraq. I hope they have the most lovely of holidays with their families this year:






And I posted this last week, but it's so my fave, that I'm dedicating it to all my friends in New York with whom we're celebrating Christmas this year. Let's see if we can stay just this side of the particulars of MacGowan's fairytale ... or not :-)



And thrown in, not because it's all that New Yorky, but because it makes me happy:

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Art Is Not the Evening News

I may have told this story here before, but I always figure if I can't remember, probably neither can anyone else.

Shortly after 9/11/2001, about two weeks in fact, an artist came into our new space with a proposal for a group show of work responding to the terrorist attacks. I didn't know this artist. She was simply shopping around for a venue for what I assume she thought would be snapped up as a timely exhibition.

We were in the market for group exhibitions at that time, having just opened, but I lied and said we weren't. I didn't want to see her proposal. I knew no matter how good a curator or artist she may have been that not enough time had passed for her to have assembled an exhibition, let alone seen artists make new work, that would have interested me. I wouldn't have been able to see it, even if she had.

I have a bias, you see. You'll see it reflected somewhat in how I don't often respond immediately to new ideas or events on the blog. I like to give myself time to think about them a bit before I do. I like to ask a few questions, research my knee-jerk reactions for contrary views, and see if I can synthesize something interesting for myself (assuming that if I can't, no one else will care to read it) before putting fingers to keyboard.

My specific bias, though, as it pertains to visual art is the belief that good work perhaps begins more felt than thought, but ends more thought than felt. In other words, it usually takes time. I don't trust my knee-jerk reactions to events, and I certainly don't trust anyone else's either. Especially when they quickly translate that reaction into an artwork. I assume, even for the most nimble and in-command artists out there, that the work they make in response to something new will be better the more they consider it. That's not to say good art can't have passion and anger (it certainly can begin more felt), but just to say that works created solely via passion and anger can usually stand a bit of editing. Usually.

This belief is also why I personally don't find it surprising or disappointing that most of the artwork in Miami this year was not about Occupy Wall Street, or why most of the artwork in the galleries this past year was not about social inequality, as has been noted recently. To my mind, it doesn't necessarily reveal complacency, as much as scheduling considerations. It not only takes artists time to germinate on what's happening and time to consider it carefully in order to make important work about it, it also takes galleries and museums quite a bit of lead time usually to put together an exhibition responding to such events. I know galleries who have their entire 2012 schedule all mapped out already. And their artists are counting on those time slots (they've scheduled their lives and studio practice around them), and so moving them around in order to respond to only-God-knows-what may happen next has significant consequences.

Moreover, not all artists want to respond to current events in their work. Should their shows be sidelined or rescheduled because there are protests? Should all of art be only about current events?

Yes, a good exhibition will sometimes resonate with what's in the air at the time, and perhaps an otherwise good exhibition will fall short because it seems out of touch, but given how long it takes an artist to create a body of work and how long it takes a gallery to then program and exhibit that body of work, it seems unfair to lambast the galleries for not being as nimble as Twitter or the Evening News.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

G-d

I had a dream many years ago when I was living in London that Russian nuclear weapons were raining down on the British capital. It was spurred no doubt by some vague international tensions, but I recalled in my dream thinking, "Really? Today? Why today? What have you toads in DC and Parliament done now?"

Anyway, in the dream there really wasn't much time to do anything other than melt from the sun-like heat. For whatever reason, the London neighborhood I was living in was ground zero, so it, the dying, was over too quickly to really be bothered by it.

What was striking, and it's never left me, after all these years, was what came next in my dream.

Nothing.

No pain, no sorrow, no light, no motion, no regret, no wonderment, no gravity, no breeze, no drama, no loneliness...nothing.

It was dark, I felt nothing at all (I didn't have any fingers or skin or a body), everything was...well, alright.

I suspect something might have happened in that dark, weightless space eventually, had I dreamed longer, but perhaps not.

That dream was an exquisite gift. Ever since I have had so much more peace about the concept of death. I certainly hope it's a long way off, but I don't dread it like I did growing up. Whether that's what truly happens when you die or not, believing it is (which I now do), has given me a great deal of comfort, especially as people I love have passed away. I truly believe that now they are simply alright.

But it's also made death so much less scary for me that I suspect I may have a false sense of bravado about it. I'll probably only know as I'm taking my last breath.

I'm thinking about this today in response to the news that Christopher Hitchens has died. Infamous for both his atheism (his best-selling book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” made him both a hero and villain to various contingents) and for his abandoning of the Left and his unbridled support of the invasion of Iraq.

Despite what I consider a misguided steadfastness about the war, I so deeply admire how Hitchens faced death. Even knowing he had terminal cancer, he never flinched on the God question. From The New York Times obituary:
In recent days Mr. Hitchens had stopped treatment and entered hospice care at the Houston hospital. He learned he had cancer while on a publicity tour in 2010 for his memoir, “Hitch-22,” and began writing and, on television, speaking about his illness frequently.

“In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair, for which he was a contributing editor.

He took pains to emphasize that he had not revised his position on atheism, articulated in his best-selling 2007 book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” although he did express amused appreciation at the hope, among some concerned Christians, that he might undergo a late-life conversion.

He also professed to have no regrets for a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me,” he told Charlie Rose in a television interview in 2010, adding that it was “impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”

I'm not saying I think he was right about there being no God. I still am trying to figure that out. But I've witnessed those who professed to not care about religion turn and scramble to it upon learning their days were numbered, and it's always broken my heart. It makes me hate religions for promising something they most probably can't deliver and taking advantage of those who are most vulnerable.

I know others would praise them for providing comfort when there's really nothing left for us surviving mortals to say, but I'd rather see my loved ones stay true to their selves to the bitter end. (Selfish bastard that I am.)

But honestly I see not changing as an issue of bravery, or, actually, as an issue of cowardice. Much the same as I view those who supported the invasion of Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks (which Hitchens did) as an issue of cowardice. I need hardly remind this audience that Iraq was not involved in 9/11, posed no imminent threat to the US, and even if something truly needed to be done about the threat of "Islamofascism," it was cowardly and inhumane to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis and American soldiers who died in that war toward that goal. Damned cowardly.

And so I find myself still angry at Hitchens for what I see as an inexcusable support of the invasion even as I can't help but admire him for how bravely he faced his own death.

Perhaps he too once had a dream like my London one.

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.

May he rest peacefully.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

EAI's 40th Anniversary TONIGHT!

For 40 years one non-profit organization in New York has worked tirelessly to preserve and promote video and media art. Started in 1971 by the visionary art dealer and early champion of video art, Howard Wise, Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) has grown to include a collection of over 3,500 new and historical video works by visual artists. EAI is celebrating its 40th Anniversary tonight with a benefit that sounds amazing. Murat and I will be there and hope you'll come too!
EAI 40th Anniversary Benefit

Thursday, December 15, 2011
7 - 10 pm

Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)
535 W 22nd Street, 5th Floor (between 10th & 11th Avenues)
New York, New York 10011

Please join us at EAI for a cocktail reception, hors d'oeuvres, and a not-to-be-missed program featuring special live performances, rarely seen videos, and more.

Short performances by Joan Jonas, Shana Moulton, Carolee Schneemann and Michael Smith. Video pieces by Charles Atlas, Takeshi Murata, Bruce Nauman and Seth Price, among others. Music selected by Dan Graham. Performance and Video Program: 8 - 8:30 pm.


Celebrate with us on December 15th and support EAI's ongoing mission to foster the creation, exhibition, distribution and preservation of moving image art. Help us to preserve the artistic legacy of the media arts for future generations!
For ticket information click here.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Pre-Christmas Sentiment

Have always loved this song, but only recently (as happens throughout my life) have the lyrics really made sense.




This exchange alone sums up so brilliantly the experience for so many people who come to New York to live their dreams
"I could have been someone"
"Well so could anyone"
Not to dampen your spirits, but rather to strengthen your resolve. If something as beautiful as this song can come of shattered dreams and ambitions, then it's all worthwhile.

Hope you're having a lovely holiday season.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Life Doesn't Imitate Art...It Imitates Reality TV

Partly inspired by a scene in Clint Eastwood's film Hereafter starring Matt Damon and partly as a commitment to try to do things outside the art world from time to time (not that we don't love the art world, just that we feel a need to expand our horizons occasionally), for his birthday, I bought Murat a 4.5-hour cooking class that we could take together. The scene in Hereafter that set our expectations was this one (they won't let me embed it, but you should watch it to understand the rest of this post).

Last night we finally got to take our class. Life didn't exactly imitate art in this case, however. In reality, life more imitated, well, Reality TV.

Just like in Hereafter, we unfortunately arrived late to the class (not on purpose, no), but we were met with a much chillier reception. Fair enough, I guess. But what proceeded from there left Murat and I in a near constant fit of giggling (in between bouts of being really upset at the instructor), as the other members of our class seemed to have come with the intentions of living our their own private fantasy of appearing on Iron Chef or Hell's Kitchen.

From the moment the instructor set us loose, the degree of competition and frenetic pace (which most of the other students seemed to not only thrive on but actually work to generate) completely shocked us. What the hell is going on here?, Murat whispered to me on several occassions. Indeed, this class didn't begin with a nice glass of wine (we were told absolutely no drinking until the meal was complete...which makes sense, but also was too bad as a little relaxing would have done our classmates some good), and there was no music either, unless you count the chuckles our instructor kept emitting in response to jokes only he seemed to get. There were plenty of snappish rebukes from the instructor, who seemed to be auditioning for his own cooking show, and a stunning number of furtive sneers from our unfriendly classmates that would have made the job of any producer of a reality TV show too easy. In a nutshell, it was gross and we concluded only one quarter of the way into it that it was our last cooking class at this place.

Anyway, we did eventually manage to complete (as a team with a woman who started off rather pushy but mellowed as we worked together) our task...a Carré d’Agneau Rôti aux Herbes de Provence (roast lamb with herbes de provence). When we presented it at the communal table, I felt quite proud...it looked (and by all accounts tasted) gorgeous.

And I did learn a few fascinating tidbits (like you can get the smell of diced garlic off your hands by rubbing them on stainless steel and you can reveal the ends of the bones on your rack of lamb with some twine in a swift little movement that eliminates hours of scraping with your paring knife). But what I mostly learned was that we are much better suited to the gossipy, back-stabbing, fiercely competitive realm of the art world than we are the much more hellish culinary one.

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

A Common Vocabulary is No Small Achievement

Good art provides people with a vocabulary about things they can't articulate.
--Mos Def
Even though city governments across the nation have done their utmost to decamp the Occupy protesters who had set up tents and taken over parks, leaving the movement (momentarily at least) adrift, the effort was a huge success in one respect. It helped create a common vocabulary that is spreading outward and upward through each part of the nation's dialog. It has provided a shorthand, a means to get past the confusing plethora of phrases or positions that had stymied understanding before, and helped people articulate their frustrations in a way others could more easily understand. As Mos Def might point out, in that way it has been parallel to good art.

But let's look more closely at how that shared vocabulary is accelerating the conversations on topics previously too complex to make much headway on. Two days ago President Obama gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, about the economy that pundits are calling the cornerstone of his re-election campaign (and open opponents of the president are, oddly in unison, calling his "Godfather speech" because it struck them as a...ah, forget it...I can't figure out why they're calling it that...let's just say because they think it makes him look bad). In the speech Obama said:
I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren't Democratic values or Republican values. These aren't 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They're American values.
He also used the Occupy rhetoric to explain why those who don't have a problem with the inequality are not actually pro-American...they're not even pro-business:

Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I'm not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I'm saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.

Now, this kind of inequality -- a level that we haven't seen since the Great Depression -- hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That's why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It's also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run. [emphasis mine]

I'll confess, for years I've bought the line that paying CEOs more money attracts the best qualified to leadership positions and that lifts all boats. Arguments against that always left me scratching my head, befuddled by the vague terminology and probably purposeful obfuscation. It's only through the shorthand of the 1% vocabulary that this picture snapped into focus for me. When CEOs' salaries are 110 times more than their average employees, that hurts the overall economy, because any given CEO is only going to buy X number of cars, whereas were his/her salary only, oh say, 50 times that of his/her average employee...and the difference were divvied up out across the company to everyone...far more cars would likely be purchased by those average employees. One person getting super rich only helps that one person and arguably harms the rest of us.

And the growing familiarity of the shorthand recently colored my opinion about a trend in the art world as well. Linda Yablonksy has a brave and somewhat surprising report on artnet.com titled "The Art World Naming Blight" in which she critiques the neo-Gilded Age practice of naming cultural institutions after oneself:
Last week, with collectors swarming Miami Beach in profligate display, the Miami Art Museum announced that it would rename itself the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County. Pérez, it was explained, is a local real estate developer who is donating $15 million to the expanding museum’s $200 capital campaign, on top of $5 million he already gave.

One MAM trustee, Mary Frank, was so outraged by the renaming that she quit the board (as did three other trustees, at last report). As she complained in an open letter to the Miami Herald, local taxpayers are contributing $100 million. Obviously, that sum outstrips the Pérez donation, but he is also giving the museum part of his collection of Latin American art. Reports didn’t say which part. It’s anyone’s guess how masterful it is, but the whole collection is said to be worth another $15 million. That’s still not enough to buy the place.
When I think of all the museums I love that are named for their benefactors (The Whitney, The Frick, The Carnegie, etc.), I have a hard time holding it against these people that they were vain enough to put their names over the doors. In addition to it being their right (my name is on my gallery :-), their names help bring in visitors and certainly trustees and board members, so it's simply common sense. But as Linda points out, the museum naming game has grown a bit over the years:
Buildings aren’t the only cultural turf a one-percenter can buy. Titles are also for sale. Adam Weinberg is the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Garry Garrels functions as the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. And Lisa Phillips is the New Museum’s Toby Devan Lewis Director.

I don’t mean to fault the generosity of any of these donors. Their interests in art, education, medicine and other worthy causes presumably stem from a genuine philanthropic impulse. Their gifts keep institutions afloat, and may well inspire other citizens to put a similar stake in our cultural heritage. In the end, trading names to keep money flowing into museums seems a small, if grating, price to pay.
The "grating" part of it is probably more obvious when you realize only one of the people who donate their time or energy to keeping a cultural institution healthy and vibrant gets the honor of having their name represent this wing or that staff position. The others' hard work and generosity dissipates into history. As in Miami, this can lead them to quit, which ultimately is bad for these institutions.

As with CEO salaries, the naming blight limits the opportunities/rewards for those not at the very top. There is no doubt that it would cost Perez a lot more than $20 million dollars to build a museum of
his own with the Miami Art Museum's quality and reputation. So in that regard, this is a very good deal for him. But really only for him. That was never really clear to me before Linda chose to identify him as "a one-percenter." I hadn't stopped to think how his claiming the name could affect the museum's long term prospects. Before it might have seemed vain to me, but I would have focused more on the generosity of his $20 million gift, and figured he deserves it. The potential repercussions are only clearer to me because of this dialog that began with a dedicated group of people willing to sleep in tents.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

White to Blue

I art handlers.

Forget that they're the unsung heroes of the art world, that they're the single best sources for who's poaching this or that artist or who's about to close, or that they're more fun to party with than a ship of sailors on shore leave. The best ones are freaking magicians.

Having just returned from Miami, where for the second year we participated in SEVEN (which got some lovely press here and there), an exercise in Extreme DIY pop-up art exhibiting if ever there was one, I cannot express enough gratitude to the men and women who helped put that show together, troubleshoot it, and take it back apart. More than just exhibiting extreme DIY flexibility, these folks demonstrated a staggering aptitude for brilliant problem solving under the most stressful of conditions. Most of them are also artists, which is how they prefer to be publicly introduced, so I won't thank them by name...but you know who you are, you MacGyvers on steroids.

Of course, you'll be hard pressed to find seven harder working gallery owners than the proprietors of these establishments either. There were no pre-show mani-pedis or massages for this crew. If their names are on the door or gallery website contact page, there they were with drill guns and ladders, packing tape and brooms, with cuts, scrapes and bruises galore. Of course, none of us could hold a candle to the man himself...SEVEN's fearless (and I mean that) leader...the entirely indefatigable and multi-talented Joe Amrhein of Pierogi Gallery fame. Seriously, I've never met a harder working human in my life. He's also a prince among men and a brilliant gallerist, but when the rest of us were nearly falling down tired, Joe was just getting started. We all greatly admire him and owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

One of our artists was visiting in Miami, and she noted, quite astutely, as we were preparing to close the show late Sunday afternoon that "This is where you go from being white collar to blue, isn't it?" Indeed, my favorite dealers are the ones who are as comfortable being art handlers as they are trading bon mots over champagne. This willingness to get your hands dirty, to ruin a pair of jeans to ensure the work is installed just so, to bring an extra pair of clothes so you can take a quick sink bath in the restroom before heading out to meet clients...it transcends mere glamor for me...it's real, and fun, and only fair in my opinion.

The artist who acknowledged that part of what we do at fairs is blue collar is one who has the exact same dichotomy in her life. I told her as she left, "Yes, a big part of presenting this to the public involves wearing my blue collar. But it's the same for you artists." She nodded acknowledgement.

I'm not sure I would like the art world if my role in it were limited to only the white collar bits. (Ask Murat, I insist on repairing and repainting the walls of the gallery between shows myself. For me, it's a zen like taking of stock and a chance to think through in-depth our assumptions about the next installation...it's also, oddly, fun.) Mind you, I also very much enjoy lounging in the VIP section of the big fair, air kissing and trading gossip, and on those rare occassions when no one else is looking, having just a moment by myself with some fabulous work of art. But I'm a working class boy, and the idea of just watching as someone else labors makes me more uncomfortable than a bit of grime on my hands or a splinter or two.

But now we're back, and so too are our white collars...until the next installation at least.

A huge thanks to the interns, art handlers, and other dealers of SEVEN for making Miami feel so much like home.

Image above: How many artists/dealers does it take to figure out the timer on a camera? Murat, Justin, and Max taking a photo-op break from installing at SEVEN, 2011.

UPDATE: And here's the photo they were eventually able to take. The crew at SEVEN. I love these people.




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