Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

Wouldn't be Christmas without the Pogues:

May you find yourself somewhere surrounded by loved ones, warm and happy, this side of the drunk tank.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Need for Affordable Failure

There's a scene in the Coen Brother's new film "Inside Llewyn Davis," where the protagonist, the struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis, is talking with his sister about a box of belongings she had cleared out of their parents' house after their mother passed away and their father entered a nursing home. In the box was an early record Llewyn had cut and given to his parents as a present. His sister said he should release the record...that his parents always loved that song. Llewyn responded that the industry doesn't like recording artists to put their lesser works out there: it ruins the mystique.

That notion stuck with me in a narrative full of life choices based on a perception of personal failure. Our friend Will, whom we saw the film with, saw the ending (where Bob Dylan makes his West Village debut and the rest, as they say, is history) as a beacon of hope for struggling artists who are perhaps ahead of their time. Hang tough and the world will catch up. I saw it more as a cautionary tale against reading too much into this or that personal disappointment, keep your eye on the long-term goals, which may essentially be the same takeaway Will had.

I also, though, saw it as an acknowledgement that within any creative field, as the disclaimer goes for lottery-type contests: "many will enter, few will win." And that's OK. If you don't love the playing for its own sake, you're not in the right game for you anyway.

Having said all that, though, I've been thinking a lot lately about being able to afford to fail. What I mean by that specifically, is that at a certain point in any creative industry the stakes become so high (the investments needed to try this or that are so significant, the pressure to succeed so great), that the kinds of risks that might make all the difference in pushing some "good" work into the "great" realm often seem too risky, and so "play it safe" dictates more and more of the decision making.

If our goal is greatness or meaningful accomplishment or even merely real innovation, though, this line of thinking is ass-backwards. Moreover, so much of what drives this line of thinking is merely perception and impatience (as if we expected masterstrokes should come along on a daily basis in our lives).

I was recently reading an article in The New York Times about the education industry's perception that MOOCs are a flop (stay with me here):

Two years after a Stanford professor drew 160,000 students from around the globe to a free online course on artificial intelligence, starting what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education, early results for such large-scale courses are disappointing, forcing a rethinking of how college instruction can best use the Internet.

A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.
One of the architects of the Stanford experiment, artificial-intelligence professor Sebastian Thrun, became the poster boy for the sense that MOOCs had crashed and burned. And yet, Thrun responded with perhaps the most sensible thing I've heard anyone attempting to change things say in years:
“To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works,” he wrote on his blog. “Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement. ”
What I took away from that common sense assessment, though (and clearly, Thrun is right...many of the best innovations in the world took years of trial and error), is that we simply must build in room to fail at some of these attempts. And not just build in time to fail, but build in other resources as well. Failure...inevitable failure...must be affordable. The notion that everything someone puts out there in the world must be perfect from the get-go only serves to stymie innovation.

And this needs to be the case up and down the ladder in creative industries. Our best minds can't be pressured into increasingly playing it safe, because the stakes are so high. Not if we expect them to really make a difference. Failure is simply part of the process. And for those of us watching and waiting, so too is patience.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Kinder, Gentler Contemporary Art World?

If I had to point to three people in the art world who defined what has been termed the recent "corporate turn" in the contemporary art market, they would be, in my opinion and in order of influence, mega-gallerist Larry Gagosian; Christie's auction house chairman of postwar and contemporary art development, Amy Cappellazzo; and (formerly) Sotheby's auction house worldwide head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer. Forming as perfect a trio in shifting the tide of history as perhaps Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, these masterful movers and shakers each played a huge role in drowning out the previous preoccupations with aesthetics or politics in the art world and quite successfully refocusing the center of the dialog on profit, celebrity, and power.

Is that unfair of me?

Private dealer Richard Polsky says that in many cases, when collectors buy from Mr. Gagosian, what they're really buying is Mr. Gagosian's cachet: "You cannot underestimate the egos of the people who buy from Gagosian. Most would rather overpay to be part of his world, and he counts on that mystique to draw clients to him."
---Wall Street Journal
Basically art’s worth what someone will pay, Ms. Cappellazzo explained. “Someone offered me today a masterpiece by Leon Golub,” she said. “I thought, ‘You can buy five of these for the price of one Nate Lowman right now!’”
She emphasized that she wasn’t commenting on Mr. Lowman’s work, just making the point that money operates in peculiar ways in the market. “We’re not really pricing a work of art,” she said. “We’re pricing what money means to the five people who might be interested in it.”---Gallerist
"What I love to do is put people in front of art and make them feel it, make them stop everything else they're doing and experience it, deeply," [Tobias Meyer] says. "That's how I make art expensive. And that's my job, for the company and for my clients. To make art expensive."
---The New Yorker
They say good (or bad) things come in threes, and so it was when I saw the third successive, unexpected change among these titans of contemporary art in about as many weeks, I began to wonder whether it might be pointing toward a kinder, gentler contemporary art world. Whether these "sharks" known to have laser beam-like focus on the next deal might not have all woken up one day to realize there were other, sometimes really interesting things in life beyond money and evermore power.

First, of course, was the news that Tobias Meyer was leaving Sotheby's. Speculation ran high as to whether the decision was his or not (despite the auction houses press release), given his results had consistently paled in comparison to those at Christie's, but his own explanation seemed a shift in tone:

In a telephone interview, Mr. Meyer explained that his decision to leave Sotheby’s was “about lifestyle,” adding that after turning 50 in February, which he called “a big benchmark,” he began assessing his life, especially given the global explosion of the contemporary art world now. “It’s all become so international and so mobile that a buyer might be in Dubai or Moscow or Paris and by taking advantage of technology you can do business everywhere,” he said.
There was a marked shift in tone as well from Larry Gagosian, who, as noted in the Wall Street Journal article above, has made a point of throwing lavish parties to court Hollywood celebrities and others with tons of disposable income. It was odd therefore to read his recent comments about the scene in Miami last weekend: 
I think there’s too many parties here,” Gagosian said earlier at the dinner at the Dutch. Gagosian hardly ever speaks to the press and he seemed disinclined to answer questions — initially, he misheard Women’s Wear Daily as the Venezuela Daily News — but the explosion of events around the fair has raised enough red flags for him that he wanted to voice some concerns. He noted this year he didn’t see as many collectors from Seattle, San Francisco or Europe. 

“It could be the social scene swallows the art scene,” he said. “It could erode the core of what made this and I’m a little concerned that serious collectors, people who I do business with, and a lot of my colleagues might say, ‘Well, this is just some social rat f--k,’ and I’ve already started to sense a little bit of that.” 

Gagosian had more on his mind. 

“It becomes a place to attach a product launch and I understand that. Those are legitimate businesses, too. I’m not a snob,” he said. “All I’m saying is that for my industry, the tail might wag the dog and that could be a problem. Two years ago, the audience was a little more interesting from the perspective of the galleries that come here.”

And then today we hear that Amy Cappellazzo is leaving Chrisite's as well.
After months of rumors and denials from experts at Christie’s, officials there have finally confirmed that Amy Cappellazzo, its chairman of postwar and contemporary art development, is leaving that auction house in February after 13 years to work as a private dealer and adviser. 
“The market has changed considerably,” she said. “It’s now a vast industry, and there are tremendous opportunities.”
And while that may not in and of itself suggest any change of heart, Artinfo points to a comment Amy made last year that may shed more light on why she's moving:
Over and above online sales, private sales — the more anonymous pairing of collectors and artworks — have been something of a passion for Cappellazzo in her latter days at Christie’s so the move makes sense. “When I think about private sales,” she told WSJ in 2012, “I think about matchmaking—it’s literally about arranging love.

Er, excuse me...I got something in my eye.