Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's Art Got to Do With It? Open Thread

Paddy Johnson tweeted something not too long ago that made me nod and, then, realizing it indicted me too, begin to quickly rationalize. She wrote : "Art could do without the art world."
I immediately knew what she meant, even as I realized, as part of the art world, that it meant me too. Thinking on it longer, I realized that it meant Paddy as well, and other gallerists and writers, and curators, and museum directors, and collectors and everyone else we collectively refer to with the term "the art world" other than artists.
So I let it go. 
Then Murat and I had drinks with a gallerist friend of ours, just catching up about vacations and business, and, well, that theme (of Paddy's tweet) kept emerging in our conversation, and so I began to muse on it again. 
Again, though, I let it go. Our new season is starting, we're super excited about our Fall line-up and Moving Image in London, and well, since the indictment applies to essentially all of us in the art world, what was little ol' me supposed to do about it?
Then came the 30-8-12 Art News Digest. It's a frequent summary of art news and commentary emailed out by one of the smartest and most open collectors I know, Alain Servais. Based in Brussels, Alain (who is an independent financial consultant and was profiled in Modern Painters 50 most exciting Collectors under 50), has for some time now emailed an undisclosed list of readers his interpretations of advances in art and in the art market, always providing a great non-US point of view informed by a professional understanding of the workings of the global economy. He's also a true believer in contemporary art and a supporter of the most altruistic art spaces around the world. In other words, a total mensch in my book.
What Alain said in his 30-8-12 art news digest, though, rocked my senses. It was simply a brilliant synthesis of what's happening behind the scenes in the global art market sprinkled with some rather blunt truths that need a wider discussion. He agreed to let me present his text here, which I do unedited (the more casual format of the art news digest is in part what makes it so popular):
this news digest is all about money...
it puts together quite a few conversations and observations dating back to frieze ny, artbasel and the rest.
it is definitely “grow or go” with the further caveat that real estate developers increase the temptation by building the spaces themselves.
how did we get there?

it is a convergence of trends reinforcing each other.

new money find many reasons to pour crumbs (the global fine art trade is assessed to a yearly total of 50 bln usd, very small vs the size of investable assets) of their wealth into art and particularly contemporary art. this new money comes from the western world still but also largely outside of it where the economic growth and increasing wealth is.

this new money is still largely unsophisticated and not yet confident in its own taste. the easy solution is to use their reflexes acquired in luxury goods and go after the best brands which are at the same time the art bringing some social recognition. and branding of artists or galleries is becoming the name of the game.
as an example of this, i remember the explanation a ny friend dealer gave me before buying a 15000 usd watch: “my client will recognize this watch and it will show him that i am part of his world and help me in my relationship with him”

the development of 5 mega-galleries and their branding. the names: gagosian, pace, zwirner, hauser&wirth and white cube.
But one of the counter-productive trend going with this branding is the growing fixed costs of such an infrastructure. i can make some educated guesses: gagosian would have fixed costs around 120 mln usd when pace’s would be around 35 mln usd (reduced from the previous year).

this imply a large amount of art sales and more particularly an enormous pressure to sell. and this is where the vicious rat race starts.

with so high fixed costs, standing still or having a low-selling show or art fair is not an option.
the mega-galleries have to focus of what an insider named for me “high-velocity” artists which means artists selling at good prices but mostly selling a lot. i call those artists, Very Bankable Artists or VBA’s.

but there are few VBA’s and worst they are changing with the time, like fashion.
so some VBA’s have suddenly their “velocity” dropping like a stone,: for example, most of the Young British Artists like Damien Hirst of others.

and this drop of velocity happened at a time where heavy infrastructure investments had been realized like the new mega white cube gallery in the neibourghood of tate modern.

the immediate consequence was Jay Jopling calling every single VBA’s of its mega-competitors.

and those mega-competitors have no other choice than to match offers, particularly in terms of exhibition spaces’ sizes and multiple locations which allow to increase the number of shows for one artist to more than the usual “once-every-two-years” that one space can usually accomodate.

this is what marc glimcher call “extremely brutal competition for artists” in the next article.

but it does not stop at division one of course as the mega-galleries are going to hunt for current or future VBA’s at the next level:
division two with andrea rosen, spruth magers, barbara gladstone, blum and poe, thadeus ropac, yvon lambert, paula cooper,perrotin,cheim&reid,continua,victoria miro, luhring augustine and others i forgot.

and this division has no other choices than “grow or go” by expanding their spaces or multiplying them like a 12 mln usd fixed-cost a year andrea rosen in order to attract future VBA’s like ryan trecartin and lizzie fitch or mika rottenberg. but i let you guess what is the choice of their previous galleries like nicole klagsburn, laurent godin or new gallery in paris....this competition for VBA’s is going all the way to the bottom of the art galleries’ pyramid endangering an “eco-system” where one VBA in a gallery was supporting many more emerging artists which needed time and shelter to develop and blossom.

as a berlin gallery told me during artBasel, the problem is that the arms race and its costs are the same for gagosian and for his 4 people operation and the cost of the sq meter increased at the fair by 70% in last 4-5 years for gagosian but for himself too. how long can he make it with moderately priced artists?

Grow or go!!!!

if this was not enough competition for VBA’s, you have the relative “outsiders” who want to jump the established ranking and have a shot at the higher divisions: sean kelly and friedrich petzel with their new large spaces are examples.

and if you doubt about the “brutality of that competition for” VBA’s, just remember the gagosian opening of their new gigantic space two weeks in advance of thadeus ropac with...the same VBA’s, anselm kiefer.

this is where it turns nasty and pervert. we are not talking about art anymore but about hard-cash earnings in the context of much higher and therefore riskier stakes.
and gloves are off. an “insider” described this as “giving up to the dark side of the force” and it seems to me an appropriate description when never in the “gentlemen club'” past of the art market such a gagosian-ropac would have happened.
morality is not the order of the day anymore.

one cannot speak of artists’ careers anymore but almost of months or years in the sun as galleries have more and more difficulties in investing in the early days of their artists.

“non-performing artists” are dropped like old horses with no mercy.
also the level of stakes push emerging VBA’s’ prices instantly to higher levels concentrating their acquisition in the most speculative hands and increasing the pressure on them to produce the “same line of product”.

this brought us back to the indispensable days of artists’ workshops to cope with the demand to be met like for kapoor, kiefer and some younger like houseago, ruby, olafur eliasson and others.

and again where is the art left when uniformization and comfort of eye-candy art is the main offer of the art market?

there are very fragile signs that artists are realizing that “all it glitters is not gold” as some galleries’ sell-high-or-go has some badly negative effect when the tide of fashion refluxes.

some begin understanding better the value of a committed long term support of their galleries which should extend to much more than just selling fast.

global contemporary art auction turnover went from 215 mln usd in 2004 to 1.349 mln in 2008!! (on the same restrictive Artprice basis. see the excellent “art of the deal” pg8 as a source)

the total insured value of frieze ny art fair was 350 mln usd but during the 2 weeks surrounding the event approximately 1.5 bln usd was transacted at the three auction houses. (source:the art newspaper special frieze ny).

auction houses are one of the favourite super wealthy’s shopping outlet
: convenient, confidence-inspiring and similar to the trading universe they are often used to.
auction houses are key players in the current art market and part of the reason for the “arms race” as explained in the competition for the juicy part of the large succession like the Lauffs or Sonnabend described hereunder.

there are coming on the galleries’ turf with their auction and private sales but now also with selling exhibitions like a josh baer curated West coast art at christie’s ny.
this gave rise to the mega-galleries as only possible response.

the vicious circle is closed.

why is it vicious? because it contains the seeds of its own demise: more money for less quality and greed replacing all kind of morality or love of art.
it looks so similar to the financial bubbles i have lived through in the last 25 years and particularly the last one, the Big One.

it looks also similar to the “winner takes it all” in all professionnal sport where clubs are bleeding themselves sometimes to death to retain the stars people only want to see.

how long will the New Buyers accumulate over-priced art which even furthermore can be mediocre? and when they will realize they all have the same “collections”?
what if the Crisis lasts 4 more years and starts hitting the wealthy’s confidence and therefore even only decreasing VBA’s “velocity”?

first of all everything which is described above concerns a narrow group of people: “art of the deal” writes  pg 18 that “the worldwide fine art, decorative art and anitiquities marketplace comprises upwards of 71000 dealers of which a core of 4000 (5.5%) account for 75% of business ans as few as 1000 (1.5%) are responsible for half the market by transaction value...the auction circuit which accounts for roughly half of the global art trade...comprises approximately 5000 fine and decorative art auctioneers globally. in the fine art segment, sotheby’s and christie’s dominate the international auction trade and together accounted for 73% of art auction sales by value worldwide in 2008 for just 16% of transactions.”
so this concerns a very narrow group of people but which (un)fortunately controls by far the largest part of the money spent on art.

it means there are hundreds of thousands of people not involved in this vicious circle described above.

but this narrow core art market has the biggest influence on the art which is being created, bought and exhibited.

what should we do to keep supporting less “commercial” art until this “bubble” ends up deflating as it for sure will (i can tell you as i have seen it deflate many times in financial markets)?

one should support what i would call the “Resistance” institutions still defending an ideal which is not only measured in hard cash: the museums like the Wiels, the witte de With, the Mukha, the palais de tokyo, the new museum, the south london gallery, the basel kunsthalle and many others; the galleries still fighting to defend emerging artists and offer quality art for less than 10000 usd like the lower east side in ny, the XXth arrondissement in paris, the dansaert neighbourhood in brussels and many others;the challenging and ambitious survey exhibitions like the documenta 13, the whitney biennial in ny, the new museum triennal in ny, les rencontres de la photographie in arles and many others;the ambitious writing and commenting about art in publication like especially e-flux but also frieze, mousse, de witte raaf and many others; and lastly, the daring pionneering artists which will be challenging and questioning us in our deepest certainties and who need our support to develop and find their ground.

it seems simple and too romantic but how many of us will stop at the main “glamorous” event, the luxury goods market described in the first part and not take the time to show their support to the above initiatives by only visiting them and even better supporting financially?

“At its height, Chelsea was home to more than 350 galleries; today only 204 remain”
This is the new Chelsea gallery scene—where competition has gone beyond survival of the fittest and evolved into a full-fledged superspecies.”
i do not think all artists require those super-size galleries but Very Bankable Artists (VBA’s) certainly do as nothing can be refused to them: ““The artists are the ones in command of this,” “The artists like the idea of not having too many neighbors. It’s not a shopping mall; it’s about them and their work,”
this is the real problem: a vicious circle where VBA’s are becoming more demanding due to galleries’ competition for their cash-flow producing abilities and where galleries have no choice anymore than expand due to the competition for their most VBA’s. “The good galleries are having trouble keeping their artists unless they can offer them a global platform or a space that’s magnificent,”
the top end on 24th str and the low end on the Lower East Side: Some observers have attributed this fall’s mega-gallery boom to a bifurcation of the market that favors its very highest and lowest ends.”
does it sound like the luxury goods industry and their flagship stores? ““These are big brands trading on their reputations to a certain degree.” and “Indeed, “brand” is at times a better descriptor than “gallery” these days.”
and if competition between the mega-galleries was not enough, the auction houses are walking more and more on their own turf and the mega-galleries on theirs...: “It used to be that only a global conglomerate like Sotheby’s or Christie’s had the resources for large-scale secondary-market business, such as the liquidation of a major private collection or estate.
But in 2008, Gagosian Gallery challenged this model by purchasing Ileana Sonnabend’s collection of Andy Warhols for $200 million. That same year, David Zwirner, along with Iwan Wirth, purchased 155 postwar works from the collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs. The price was never disclosed, but Sotheby’s reaped $96 million for selling just 33 works from the trove.
It has been suggested that Mr. Zwirner’s success in selling off the Lauffs collection helped him land the coveted Donald Judd estate in 2010.”
and of course the developpers are an underlying force trying to get their share too: “very few dealers own property in Chelsea. Mounting office and residential competition makes space even more scarce.”

this is a fact: i will not discover new works in chelsea anymore. ““Increasingly the lack of smaller galleries in Chelsea makes it a less interesting place to be. It’s a great destination for museum-quality exhibitions, but there’s less sense of discovery there now.”

There, as they say, it is. What few others are brave enough to say in public, but which is continuously confirmed over lunch or cocktails throughout New York. The art market is increasingly beginning to function like the luxury goods industry. 
Consider this an open thread on what "art" has to do with that.

The articles sent with the Art New Digest included:
  • Supersize Chelsea!: In New York’s Main Art District, It’s Go Big or Go Home Or to the Lower East Side By Rachel Corbett 8/20 12:22am at the gallerist in the ny observer
  • "It’s Become Extremely Brutal": Pace's Marc Glimcher on What's Driving the Gallery's Splashy London Expansion by Julia Halperin @ artinfo Published: July 2, 2012
  • 303 Gallery to Open Second Location by Dan Duray 8/27 3:28pm in the ny observer
  • Friedrich Petzel Gallery Signs Israeli Artist Yael Bartana by rachel corbett @ in the air – blouinartinfo
  • Justin Matherly Joins Paula Cooper Gallery By Michael H. Miller 4:24pm in the ny observer
  • Tiffany’s Sales Growth Slows as Wealthy Cut Back Aug 27, 2012 11:46 AM EDT in the daily beast at the LA times
  • The Number: 80,000 @ the daily beast; That's how many square feet art dealers have snatched up in Manhattan's gallery hub of Chelsea.
  • Gagosian Plans $130 Million Package for Brazil Art Fair By Katya Kazakina and Juan Pablo Spinetto on August 28, 2012 @ businessweek bloomberg
  • More brokers let clients borrow against their Bruegels, 7:03am EDT By Jed Horowitz @ Thomson reuters

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Extreme Right's Seemingly Savage Position on Rape

I offer this advice sincerely.
To all GOP male politicians running for office this year:
Do yourself, your party, and especially the women in your lives a huge favor and stop discussing sex or reproduction in interviews under any circumstances. In the space of two weeks you've managed to collectively paint yourselves as absolute savages on issues of women's health. 
First there was Todd Akin, who asserted women who were being raped could flip some biological switch that would prevent them from becoming pregnant if the attack were "legitimate." The horrifying implication for any rape victim who conceived being she must have, on some level, not resisted enough. 
Then in discussing Akin's refusal to step out of his tight Senate race because of that comment, Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan casually referred to "rape" as a "method of conception." He was explaining why he opposes abortion rights even in the case of rape, but the means by which he sanitized rape to make his point revealed an alarming degree of disassociation.
Then first-time Senate candidate Tom Smith (R-PA) stepped in it during an interview at a PA press luncheon today:
Mark Scolforo, Associated Press: How would you tell a daughter or a granddaughter who, God forbid, would be the victim of a rape, to keep the child against her own will? Do you have a way to explain that?
Tom Smith: I lived something similar to that with my own family. She chose life, and I commend her for that. She knew my views. But, fortunately for me, I didn’t have to.. she chose they way I thought. No don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t rape.
Scolforo: Similar how?
Smith: Uh, having a baby out of wedlock.
Scolforo: That’s similar to rape?
Smith: No, no, no, but… put yourself in a father’s situation, yes. It is similar. But, back to the original, I'm pro-life, period.
As asked about Smith's comment, "What are the odds that Smith would have gotten this question in an Akin-less world?" Probably pretty slim. 
But that's kind of scary, actually. The notion that either many GOP leaders truly do hold barbarian opinions about sex and reproduction, or that they've spent so little time thinking about those issues that not only are they shockingly inarticulate in expressing their position, but they would seem to have no business at all legislating on such matters.
Many are calling for them to keep talking about the topic, because the more they do, the weaker their chances of getting elected become. While I see the wisdom of that, I'd rather they work out their positions in private. I'm actually rather sure that many of them would realize themselves how brutal they sound if they listened to their thoughts out loud. Honestly, I suspect many of them are not anywhere near that savage.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Putin the Pathetic

The history of Russia includes some of the most fearsome leaders to ever walk the earth: Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, that monster Stalin.
Vladimir Putin is not one of them.
Taking off his shirt in front of cameras may make the neo-czar feel like a Hollywood he-man, but what kind of true leader is so freaking fragile he can't withstand an artist/punk band criticizing his tyrannical hold on his supposed democracy? (Yes, that's a rhetorical question.)
Some are explaining his cowardice by saying Putin is a victim of the mechanism of his own success, as Bloomberg reports:

[T]he case has galvanized a fractious political opposition as authorities ratchet up pressure by prosecuting leaders and other activists. Putin, who faced the biggest demonstrations against his 12-year rule last year, will find it hard to reverse course now, said Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow.

“Putin has become a hostage of the process of repression,” Bunin said by phone. “He’s in a trap. He can’t quit without losing face.”
He's got to know he's lost serious face in the international community already by not stepping in to stop this miscarriage of justice. It's time for him to do the right thing and pardon Pussy Riot. If he doesn't, it's time for us to put pressure on our leaders to ostracize Putin the Pathetic until he resigns.

Enough of this crap.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Post-Brick-and-Mortar Gallery Art Market?

From the moment someone first posted a jpeg of a work of art for sale on the Internet, there has been chatter about whether or not brick-and-mortar art galleries would go the way of the dinosaur. Yes, the initial crop of art ecommerce sites bit the dust, along with a fair number of dot-com initiatives, but what few people seemed to have anticipated was that it wouldn't be online channels alone, but rather a combination of them and the rise of the event-based art purchase (read: mostly art fairs) that would increase that chatter about the impending death of the gallery as we know it to a new level.
Yesterday we learned, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, that after 40 years, Los Angeles' highly acclaimed Margo Leavin Gallery is closing. And while there are perhaps more galleries in the US now than ever before, with quite a few announcing moves to bigger spaces or plans for expansion, it was something Margo Leavin partner Wendy Brandow said about their decision to close that is reigniting the questions about brick-and-mortar's future:
"People are approaching art differently today. They're not seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions," said Brandow. "The exhibitions have been such an important part of what we do, and they are no longer valued as much by the public."
GalleristNY's Sarah Douglas spotted that explanation and asked her readers if they thought it was true. Vocal gallery supporter Jerry Saltz responded
No. I do NOT think that art-audiences are no longer "seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions." I also very much disagree with the idea that gallery exhibitions are "no longer valued by the public.” People still love gallery shows.
And journalist Paul Laster added that it may be a generational thing:
People do still love to look at art in galleries, but Margo Leavin has definitely lost touch with the times.
Although Leavin has a stellar stable of contemporary artists, she hasn't added younger artists to keep it fresh.
And yet, in the same comment thread, artist and gallerist Lisa Ruyter (whose Vienna space exhibits many younger artists) confirmed Brandow's assessment, and noted what I've heard from back offices throughout emerging galleries in New York, London, and Berlin:
Absolutely true, I'm dealing with it in Vienna too. It preoccupies my thoughts and I am trying to figure out how to adjust as someone running a space and also as an artist.
The artworld as we know it will implode this year...
Of course, the art world as we know it has consistently reinvented itself again and again for centuries now, and quite a few watchers of the current one would dance should it actually implode, I'm sure. 
So what's going on here, really, though? Some Lower East Side galleries keep moving and or expanding, even as others decide to call it quits. The same is true in Chelsea, London, and Berlin. Is there truly some seismic shift afoot or is this merely more of the typical ebb and flow that the highly creative (i.e., impatient with the status quo) art world has always embraced? 
To be honest, I believe it's a bit of both. Like in the debate over "climate change," you can point to anecdotes which contradict the larger trends, but anecdotes won't stop your ship from being sunk by the increasing flotilla of icebergs breaking off Greenland, so you might want to ensure your gallery lifeboats are seaworthy all the same. What that means in practical terms, in my opinion, is you need to adopt a multi-channel approach, whereby you recognize the role art fairs are playing in purchasing decisions, even as you fight the good fight in your brick and mortar space. 
The bigger and arguably better, from a business point of view at least, galleries are already doing this, actually...if you wanted confirmation that those "in the know" could sense the icebergs coming. They're doing record numbers of art fairs (some more than one a month) all the while increasingly producing museum-quality exhibitions in their spaces. 
Of course, there remain career goals for artists that art fairs cannot provide (not yet, anyway) and certainly viewer experience opportunities that fairs won't be able to replicate without greatly extending their days of operation and/or amount of allocated space (which of course translates into much higher fees, so I wouldn't hold my breath). 
So I envision the near future being one in which this hybrid model is perfected. In other words, I envision strategic overlap becoming much more sophisticated, whereby gallery exhibitions are coordinated with art fair presentations more and more to where the strongest potential within both (critical acclaim in the space and sales at the fair) is nearly scientifically calibrated. 
Then I see the whole thing imploding.... 
...just kidding 
kind of.

Friday, August 10, 2012

What's in Your Post-Avant Garde Toolbox? | Open Thread

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a guest columnist at The New York Times for the moment. Let's hope they decide to keep him on permanently. In his column today, he redefines "culture" in what strikes me as an important way to think about it (forgive the long quote, but it's essential to understanding my next thoughts here):
When people invoke culture in the Romney manner, what they are really invoking is a scale by which humanity may be ranked from totally dysfunctional to totally awesome. The idea is that culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job. If you want to create a nation with a dominant entertainment media, perhaps American culture is the way to go. If you’re uninterested in presiding over a nation with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 5 percent of its population, perhaps not.
Whenever this particular incarnation of the culture wars erupts, I think back to my earliest experiences with my august employer, The Atlantic. On the scale of ashy to classy, I was more the former than the latter. But my relationship with the magazine often put me in the dining company of men and women who were not unused to nice things. These were the days when I powerfully believed Breyers and Entenmann’s to be pioneers in the field of antidepressants. My new companions had other beliefs, a fact evidenced by our divergent waistlines.
They organized dinners featuring several small courses, most of which were only partially eaten. The general dining practice consisted of buttering half a dinner roll, dallying with the salad, nibbling at the fish and taking a spoonful of desert. The only seconds they requested were coffee and wine.
I left the first of these dinners in bemused dudgeon. “Crazy rich white people,”  I would scoff. “Who goes to a nice dinner and leaves hungry?” In fact, they were not hungry at all. I discovered this a few dinners later, when I found myself embroiled in this ritual of half-dining. It was as though some invisible force was slowing my fork, forcing me into pauses, until I found myself nibbling and sampling my way through the meal. And when I rose both caffeinated and buzzed, I was, to my shock, completely satiated.
Like many Americans, I was from a world where “finish your plate” was gospel. The older people there held hunger in their recent memory. For generations they had worked with their arms, backs and hands. With scarcity a constant, and manual labor the norm, “finish your plate” fit the screws of their lives. I did not worry for food. I sat at my desk staring at a computer screen for much of the day. But still I ate like a stevedore. In the old world, this culture of eating kept my forebears alive. In this new one it was slowly killing me.
It was like trying to drive a nail with a monkey wrench. And it could work in reverse. I could easily see how the same social pressures that urged dietary moderation could drive someone to an eating disorder.
Using the wrong tool for the job is a problem that extends beyond the dining room. The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel. The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language. It is to teach him a new one.
I've been thinking about that idea since I read it last night (yes, you can read tomorrow's news, reviews, and opinions today, thanks to the Internet): how the wrong tool for the job causes unforeseen cultural problems. I've also been thinking about it in the context of Robert Hughes' passing away. The "shock" Hughes had discussed back in the early 1980s seems almost quaint today. 
Even people unfamiliar with contemporary art are now so accustomed to the idea that its job is to oppose mainstream cultural values, that they can knowingly chuckle to themselves as they happily ignore it and carry on. Arguably, then, vanguardism has ceased to be the right tool for the job. 
OK, but I've gotten a bit ahead of myself. That assertion requires a declaration of what exactly the "job" is. What is the job of an artist? And more specific to my declaration, then, what was the tool of vanguardism designed to address? 
The original ideals of the avant-garde approach had been to position oneself between the extremes of so-called high culture and mass-produced popular culture as a means of revealing via the middle-ground something closer to the "truth" of the human condition. It was intentionally designed to be adversarial, as a means of shaking people out of the slumber of their current thinking. What happened though is a classic example of being a victim of one's own success, leading to where even the most conservative among us came to know exactly what "those wacky artists" were up to with their avant garde culture, thereby neutralizing its impact. More importantly (and disempoweringly), though, as Harold Rosenberg summed up best perhaps, this had ceased to be a credible ideal by the 1960's because culture had become "a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it." 
Indeed, the jig was up. And yet, should we accept that its the "job" of the artist to capture something significant about his/her time; to reveal what is right before our eyes, and yet not obvious; to inspire and show us our follies as well as our better selves through beauty and/or wonderment; to show us and posterity our "truth"; what is the appropriate tool today to do so? 
I have some ideas about this, but am actually more interested in hearing yours at the moment. Consider this an open thread on the "right" tool for the job today.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

To Hear Yourself Think

I've had some time to myself as of late, with Murat visiting his family, and two long drives from the airport to my own family's town in Ohio, and then back, this past weekend. It flew by, that time alone. Like a missile. But thanks to the XM radio in the rental car, a missile with a cheerfully 80's soundtrack.
I have a niece just entering  junior high school, whose elementary school in our town had been razed a few years back. Our town is shrinking, quickly, and they're continuously consolidating the schools in response. She was upset, this niece, when they tore down her school. "They've taken my memories," she cried when it first happened (she was about 8). We adults cooed our condescending commiseration between chuckles, "Ahhh, sweetheart! It's ok. You'll have other memories in your new school."
And yet, I think she may be much wiser than I am.
"I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born." - 2. Where I Lived and What I Lived For, Walden, Henry David Thoreau
My own elementary school looms large in my memory. I still have dreams in which I'm walking down the long hallway to my 5th grade classroom, past the water fountain and restrooms, past the other classroom doors decorated with seasonal motifs and with animated teachers' shadows cast on their pebble-glass windows. Down to the room I should have already been seated in, where I'll have to enter sheepishly, to endure the glares of my teacher and giggles of my classmates. Usually only then to realize I'm either still in my pajamas or its the last day of class, there's a tome of a final exam lying on my desk, and I can't recall having studied, anything at all, for years.

Horace Mann Elementary School.
Image from Google street map. Year, unknown.

Some of the most profound memories of my life took place in that classic 1960s horseshoe-shaped building, with its high-ceilinged auditorium/cafeteria/gym titling its shape heavily to the left as you looked at it from the front and the large field out the back that served as extended playground and adventurous terrain for our over-active imaginations during lunchtime. We played "Gilligan's Island" or  "Lost in Space" out there for hours.
Among the more indelible memories I carry with me was the time I witnessed Brandon, the school bully, beat the living sh*t out some long-haired kid none of us really knew in the playground (to this day I still wonder what his offense had been), just to learn later that Brandon was beaten at home nearly every day of his life. There was the time I, yes me, as incredible as it seems (I was a tiny child, far smaller than most classmates, until I reached age 14), caught the long pass and made it across the goal line in the casual football game during lunchtime. In my memory that was the winning touchdown, but I'm actually not at all sure. I do remember the cheers and pats on the back from my equally astonished team mates. Then there was the time two friends and I wrote a joint confession of love to Terri, the tall blonde new girl, and slipped it to her as the class was ending. The letter asked her to choose from among us. She kindly chose all three of us...but we debated the significance of how she had checked each of the boxes next to our names for weeks.
Just outside the auditorium/cafeteria/gym were a few trophy cases, then the window to the kitchen where they served us the packaged lunches (Thursday was pizza day!), and finally there was the placard on the wall, near the main offices, where they listed the "Students of the Year" going back to, I believe, 1965 or so. One year, never you mind which, the name listed on the placard is my own. A few decades later it is that of another Winkleman, one of nephews. 
After I finished grade school, my family moved across town, and so I rarely saw the old side of town that often. During my visit this past weekend, I had some time to drive around by myself, and decided to visit the old haunts.There was our first house, near the elementary school. It's now abandoned, as are perhaps 2 to 3 houses on every street in that part of town. It's eerie to see the boarded up windows, or burnt-out shells (a lot of arson is helping the earth reclaim that lost city, as weeds and young trees grow up through the charred ruins), and even the odd empty lot, such as where Walter's house used to be (he would chase us off his lawn with a mean scowl, but then laugh as we scurried away...if I recall correctly, it was him who had fought in WWII and continued to hold a  grudge that that service hadn't stopped the resentments about his German background).
Anyway, I also drove past the small park up the street with the pond that we used to play hockey on in the winter, and which one impatient time, I fell through the thin ice up to my hip and seriously thought I was going to die on the two-block rush home. There still stood the ancient swing sets and monkey bars, rusting, as well as the club house in which we'd huddle with a cup of hot cocoa to warm ourselves up between rounds of skating and hockey. It's completely boarded up now too.
I walked past that park every day on the way to and from elementary school. It's so much smaller than it is in my dreams now. Driving past it this time, and then turning left toward my school, I was greeted by an empty field. My school too had been torn down. Apparently some time ago, as the grass was growing nicely where the classrooms and playground and auditorium/cafeteria/gym and the placard listing the Students of the Year used to be. 
I was thunderstruck. I had dreamed of that school at least twice in the past year. It was still a big part of my childhood, my memories, and how I got to be who I am. How was it gone?
And then I was pissed. I dismissed the irritating voice pointing out the irony of how I had condescended to my niece about her school and her memories, and wallowed for a moment in my own, truly shocking sense of loss. "Mutha-f*ckers!" I cried out loud. For a moment I had seriously thought, "How had they not consulted me on this?"
That was it! I decided there and then. Screw this town! What the f*ck is wrong with Ohio, with its pretty countryside, rich resources, and unbelievably kind people, that it can't sustain itself in this economy? Yes, yes, I know, history has shown us how industry migrates and fortune follows with it, and the loss Ohio's downturn represents is countered by the booming economies in other parts of the country. Blah, Blah, Blah.
But did they have to tear down my elementary school?
I dread my next dream about arriving late to my 5th grade classroom. There had always been a sense of security to balance out whatever embarrassing scenario awaited me past the door. A sense of timelessness and solid foundation. 
For those of  you old enough, remember the tornado (aka, Soviet nuclear attack) drills? When all the students would quickly file out into the hallways, and crouch down along the walls, and cover our heads. We were so well-rehearsed to do what we could to withstand whatever force might obliterate the building.
There was no drill for this scenario.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Quote for this Campaign Season

"Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme- either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them. "  --Aristotle, from "Politics"

Culture? You Mean the Kind in Yogurt, Surely

A Brit, a Jew, and a Polish guy all walk into the bar and say, "Holy crap, Romney is a douche."
---Andy Borowitz
Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to maintain a position for at least 24 hours? His flip-flopping has recently taken on such a head-spinning speed that someone is bound to get hurt just trying to keep up. 
 On Sunday in Israel, the GOP candidate for President was quoted as saying
"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.... Culture makes all the difference."
Understandably, the Palestinians pointed out, as has Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, that to truly evaluate the Palestinian economy, let alone their culture, you need to appreciate that they have faced (in Netanyahu's words) "hundreds of barriers and roadblocks to the free flow of goods and people." Also understandably, the implied insult to Palestinian culture in Romney's statement upset them. The Daily News quoted one Palestinian official echoing a sentiment Romney had stirred up in the London leg of his journey as well:
"What is this man doing here?" said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official. "Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn't this racism?"
The fact that the Palestinians were upset made it back to Romney, though, and by Tuesday he was declaring he had been misunderstood:
Under fire from Palestinian leaders for recent comments suggesting that Israel's economic success is borne out of its "culture," Mitt Romney on Tuesday attempted to clarify his remarks, telling Fox News that he had not talked about "the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy."
"I'm not speaking about it, did not speak about the Palestinian culture," Romney told Fox's Carl Cameron, in an interview taped before the candidate's departure from Poland.
But, you see, his departure from Poland and his subsequent itinerary must have distracted Romney, because he seemed to have missed that many right-wing Americans actually agreed with his insulting assessment of Palestinian culture:
Romney, while not exactly retracting his initial statement, insisted on Tuesday that he didn’t mean to put down Palestinian culture or imply that they were inferior to Israelis. But high-profile neoconservative Republicans immediately claimed Romney’s speech was exactly what it sounded like to Palestinians — a tough condemnation of their values.
In one awkward example, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin praised the candidate’s speech as proof that Romney was not the “calculating” politician his critics alleged, and in fact “blunt and thoughtful,” giving the Palestinians a dose of hard truth about the importance of capitalism. “If this is the Romney we’re going to see during the balance of the campaign Obama is in deep trouble,” Rubin wrote. “This Romney is unapologetic.”
Almost immediately after her post went up, Romney told FOX News that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy” and that “I certainly don’t intend to address that during my campaign.”
Less than 24 hours later, though, Romney must have gotten word that his initial statement was popular with his base because, yes, he flip-flopped yet again:
On Sunday, Mitt Romney boldly declared that Israel’s economic superiority over the Palestinians was due to its culture. On Tuesday morning, he dismissed any notion that he had even discussed Palestinian culture. On Tuesday night, Romney reversed himself yet again, in an op-ed entitled “Culture Does Matter.”
“During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it,” Romney wrote in the National Review. “In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy. But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?”
In an interview earlier the very same day with FOX News, Romney told interviewer Carl Cameron that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy” and that he “certainly [doesn’t] intend to address that during my campaign.”
That interview appeared to be directly at odds with Romney’s original speech, in which he directly compared the per capita GDP of Israel and the Palestinian territories and attributed Israel’s comparative strength to “culture” and the “hand of providence.” It also directly contradicts the first paragraph of his National Review op-ed, in which he explicitly says he was comparing the two economies and cultures.
It's hard to retrace all this in order to know where to agree or disagree with the candidate, even if you support him. One must assume the latest opinion, as offered in the op-ed, is the one we're supposed to assume he believes, but his history would suggest any criticism of that text would cause him to declare he was misunderstood, until his base insists "no, we like that opinion," in which case he'll embrace it again. 
But to his point about culture, ironically, one of the commenters who supports Romney's op-ed highlighted the point made by noted economist Hernando de Soto that the single most important factor in whether a nation is economically successful is not culture, but rather property rights:
"In most developing countries, the vast majority of people live outside the legal economy," said de Soto. "Because they lack property rights, they cannot access capital or credit, so they cannot grow their businesses. Without a legal framework, the market system fails."
Who has the right to what property in Israel is undeniably a hot-button issue (see this example and this op-ed), and one that I am poorly equipped to do justice to, but let's just say that Romney's insistence that the Palestinian economic situation is a result mostly of their culture is a grotesque oversimplification at best and, indeed, racist at worst. 
Why it's popular with his base speaks volumes as well.