May 30, 2006

Morning Reading: Lists

When ArtForum booted to the list mode years ago, it was yet another indication that a sea change had just taken effect.

About the same time, I noticed that people around me were talking about artists as if they were stock picks: who's hot and who's not. I remember a particular dinner conversation with a gallerist, a collector and a curator where names of artists tumbled out, each life --personally epic gambles with talent gripped in white knuckles, intrepid lunges against the odds that the end might well turn out to be a vainglorious dead end-- each life dispatched in cold blood.

"What do you think about XX?" "He's sh-t, he lost his edge. How about YY?" "I'm surprised to hear that you like her work! Did you see ZZ's show? He's much better." Lives tossed about like baseball cards by people whose lives are padded by 401k's, luxury health plans, annual vacations in exotic resorts, extended sabbaticals and elite health clubs.

The horror.

Permit me to submit for your consideration, this morning's read, courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily of course:

But my heart sank when I saw that the premier egghead journal of the land, Critical Inquiry, published an essay last winter that purported to rank the greatest literary theorists in its pages (and, by implication, the world). Why ? at a time when we distrust megacorporations and any word from high, when we know it only makes sense to suspect the fix is in with any such lists unless they are produced by a klutz like Posner or a clown like Letterman ? would the leading specialized journal in the humanities toss very likely bogus social-science tools into its hitherto beautifully humming engine?

I felt like I had seen the people of Troy open their gates to that huge gift horse. What did the editors hope to gain, and was it worth giving up so much credibility to put pseudoscience where words should have been, to substitute accounting methods for critical judgment? Humanists should know better...

...What chiefly surprised me about last winter's list was its lack of any humor, any irony. The self-styled most important journal of theory was going to inform us ? so it told us ? what an objective method revealed about who the most important theorists were in its pages. How? By counting citations to theorists. Behind the rhetoric about discovering "the identity of our journal" lies an implicit assumption: If you're cited in Critical Inquiry, you're the best of the best.

On the other hand...

A list is also a reflection of reality's bite. For example, take tonight's dinner: Chinese, Thai, Italian, Japanese... what would you like to eat? Attention to one steals from the others. But you can't eat all at once. Eventually, one must choose.

There's the rub.

The saving grace is that the list lives only for the present tense. Top ten lists are valid for the moment of publication but not for much longer than that. Soon, another list is complied and the list made earlier is yesterday's news. All of a sudden, but for the briefest of moments, the universe does become zero sum.

All of which brings me to a blogpost on anxiety in the artworld that I've been considering for some time now. Stay tuned, if you please.

Posted by Dennis at May 30, 2006 10:24 AM

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