November 22, 2006

The Pro Practice Class

My old friend, artist Craig Cree Stone asked me to sit in on his class at Cal State Long Beach last week and talk about what kind of art world his students could expect to work in when they graduate. Craig is a wonderful friend and an excellent artist who has devoted himself to his community, his teaching, his family and the American Indian community (sorry if I mangle the name and terminology, Craig is highly involved in intricately communitarian Pow Wows that occur here annually). An accomplished sculptor, he has garnered several art in public places projects over the years. Other artists out there in blogland should know that Craig is no slacker when it comes to the theoretical arena, either. He's great to talk to because he always brings detail and nuance to the conversation, often leading to a widened reading list afterward.

I arrived early enough to catch a performance by Guillermo G?mez-Pe?a, Craig was helping him set up, with his daughter Lauren in the control booth. A born actor, Pe?a has a remarkable voice, deep and resonant. When I walked in , he was in make-up, eyes in eye shadow and brows drawn archly ready for his eyes to cast downward on his audience. He was in the glory of his Hispa?ola universe, language laced with slang and his performance was to a packed house to whom he communicated in a comfortable and intimate way. Someone murmured next to me as the performance started that the students are about to have their assumptions questioned... but what I saw was nothing of the sort, but rather it was an old time preach to the choir. It was fine and good in that the school was slow to change, given that there were little or no representation by hispanic artists within the ranks of the 50 or so tenured faculty in the art department... but in relation to society at large, Pe?a's performance is a reflection of a bygone social revolution that meant so much more back in the 80's.

After the roaring applause, we took off for a quick dinner before class started and on the way back we stopped by my parked rental car, a Jeep mini-SUV so that I could retrieve the projector in case we needed it in class. Standing precariously on a curb next the passenger side door, I pulled perhaps too forcefully on the door --the top corner smacked me between the eyes. Damn, I thought... I might have to give a talk with a lump on my head. As I jumped back into Craig's car, I pressed my hand on my head and took a look: a streak of blood as long as my palm. I've heard that head wounds bleed a lot, and so it did. I found a handkerchief in my backpack to apply pressure on the wound. Craig's wife was driving and the two of them in the front seat were marveling at the event, "Are you alright? Are you alright?", wondering what to do. Holding pressure against the wound, I remembered another head injury in Tossa years ago (what is this, an emergent theme called head injury?) and Kiko's urge to forge on and maintain a calm public face.

"Nah. No problem. It'll be alright."

The handkerchief was getting soaked. I wondered if I could get the blood flow to stop in time for the talk. In the bathroom outside of class, I handed Craig the camera to document my face as I flashed my best "I'm gonna get you look". I managed to stop the bleed, but I didn't know if it would flow again in class. Then I had a fleeting thought of giving the talk like a Shiite with blood streaming down my face, spraying bright droplets while I describe the art world, my white t-shirt blushing red.

Just a thought.

And then I met the class. It was time to get the game face on.

(NOTE: What follows is essentially a BLOGPOST IN PROGRESS, a one man Wiki. This shall be a post hoc outline recalling what I had said to Craig's class that night. I will fill in as best I can in the following days during the Thanksgiving Holiday and beyond. Sometimes writing can be like chopping wood and sometimes the best one can do is bend twigs along the way as you run into the forest.)

My first thought for these students was: a professional practice class for art students?

I'm used to this curricular provision in architecture school, but in art school? I asked my friends, fellow artists who made it out of school around 2000. CalArts, S.F. Art Institute. Not even then was there such a curricular offering. It's not like there is something wrong with the impulse to inform the students of the sobering reality of the business aspect that comprises the artworld, indeed schools are obliged to ready the young artist for the rigors of the marketplace. The trouble is, there are few people who know what's up out on the street --many of them out in the street themselves, much less those in academia.

When I was a student many moons ago, the old idea of pro practice was a seminar session in which the precious information was tendered, such as: be sure to sign the guest book at the gallery reception desk, study the list of represented artists and estimate whether you fit in or not... then go to the openings and network, take slides and transparencies and disseminate a slide sheet to your targeted galleries... The seminar was quaint like pilots in biplanes dropping bombs by hand in the first world war. Now we are living in a time when the MQ-1Predator can drop a Hellfire missile on a bad guy in the MidEast, directed by a "pilot" operating remotely from a trailer parked at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas. Similarly, our artworld today is different in many ways, complex in many dimensions.

In a word, it's bigger.

The soul of art.
In the midst of all this, I therefore propose that there is one issue that is indispensable: something core or essential to art. Let's call it a soul. Students and young artists scare me when they dwell solely on the success engine of the artworld. I ask them: "What are you curious about? What excites you?" And older artists who think like this are tragically boring. Don't forget the art-part as you prepare to engage the would be Leviathan of a professional, industrial, multilayered, interconnected, hyper attenuated, 21st century artworld.

The interesting aspect of art in economic terms is that great art exists outside of those terms. The greater the remove, the greater the art. Great art is priceless, as everyone knows and all other candidates for that nomination have the ambition to be priceless. Art is art when someone invests in material/thought/activity for it's own sake. The object/subject/project goes into the world charged with a value that has an intrinsic nature. Less intrisic value, less extrinsic value. More intrinsic value, more extrinsic value... when finally others understand what's going on in there.

Be the first audience
If the artist is not the first audience, there will never be others of lasting consequence.

The mission from G-d, doing that for which you are put on this earth to do, that there is something transcendental in the intrinsic/extrinsic twist of irony:

Matt Murphy: But babes, this is Jake and Elwood. The Blues Brothers.
Mrs. Murphy: The Blues Brothers? Shiiit! They still owe you money, fool. You're livin' with me now. You ain't goin' back out on the road and playin' them old two-bit sleazy dives, and y'ain't gonna go slidin' around witcho ol' white hoodlum friends.
Jake: Ma'am, would it make you feel any better if we told you that what we're asking Matthew to do is a holy thing?
Elwood: We're on a mission from God.
Mrs. Murphy: Don't you blaspheme in here! Don't you blaspheme in here! This is my man, this is my restaurant, and you two are gonna turn around and walk right out of here - without your dry white toast, without your four fried chickens, and without Matt 'Guitar' Murphy!
Whether you are indeed religious or secular or somewhere in between, finding a drive that isn't merely self indulgent might be a good thing. Having some idea or notion or hunch whose source is outside of your ego, that drives you beyond your natural state of repose, that tasks you and changes you and forces you to struggle as if you life depends on it... this, I consider the very definition of art in the widest sense.

why is today's artworld especially problematic?

-Scale: the artworld is huge and getting bigger.

It takes some effort for those of us who were kids in the 60's to remember just how small the world was then. Am I correct in stating that the artworld of New York in the 50's could have fit in the Cedar Tavern? Correct or not, our artworld has since then exploded in population and structure. In Los Angeles alone, there are eight art schools that I can count off hand. Every year they graduate scores of young artists some of whom are starting their own galleries or working for the institutions museum, school or otherwise.

Is it possible that the dimensions of the artworld made sense in terms of equilibrium, proportion and balance back in the 50's and 60's... perhaps the 70's? And now in terms of the sheer number of artists and the objects/subjects/projects they produce are too big for the number of museums at large to cope their mission of telling the story of art both recent and breaking.

Here in Los Angeles, one can see the old guard artists dutifully making their rounds, checking out the shows in the city. Impressive, since many younger artists have since given up on trying to see it all. Even so, it has been a while since I have heard of sightings of the venerable John Baldessari, making his rounds here in ChinaTown, the last of the comprehnsive scene checkers. After a while, it becomes inevitable that some shows pass you by... if you are interested in getting some work done in the studio. Rachel Cooke commented on this in the Guardian recently:

I've been worrying about the quality of my looking. Last month, I went to see the new Hockney show at the National Portrait Gallery. I love Hockney and yet, coming out, it was a surprise to look at my watch and realise that I'd devoted only an hour of my Saturday to him; it had felt like much longer. Then there was my immediate and unthinking purchase of a catalogue. I must have a catalogue: it's my way of owning what I've seen - and a kind of proof that I was there at all. For while I see everything I can in terms of hot tickets, it would be equally fair to say that, often, I see absolutely nothing at all. I walk round galleries in a kind of dull stupor. Three weeks later and, from memory, I can only describe, at most, six works from the Hockney show - and none of those very well.

There are good reasons for the gallery visitor's failure to see. The blockbuster shows, assuming that you can get into them at all, are crowded beyond all endurance. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people see the 45 paintings that make up the Velazquez exhibition at the National Gallery every day (in the month since it has been open, it has attracted more than 86,000 visitors). Exhibitions like this are also loaded with an inhibiting once-in-a-lifetime significance. Completism paralyses even as it excites: desperate not to miss anything, you fail to stand in front of any one thing for more than a minute. But it's more than that. We live in a culture that is so image-heavy, it has resulted in a kind of collective blindness. Once, it must have been possible to have stood in front of a great painting and to have felt your world being slowly flooded as if by some wondrous light. Now, it is possible to stand in front of a great painting and to feel nothing more than: yeah, I've got the postcard.

Then she polishes the essay off sharply:
But in the 21st-century gallery, with its shops, its cafes and its crowds, it feels like an act of stubborn resistance just to sit there, and to look.

Art prices have soared into atmospheres of thinning air. The Financial Times' Deborah Brewster recently reported the record sales in the auction houses, "Record art prices astonish New York dealers":

More than $1.3bn in works of art have been sold in the past two weeks during a record New York auction season that has pushed art prices to an all-time high.

Experienced dealers and collectors were astonished by some of the prices paid at auctions held by Sotheby?s, Christie?s and Phillips, which pulled in twice the sum they did last year. The worldwide collecting boom shows no sign of slowing, with Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern collectors, along with hedge fund managers, providing a fresh pool of buyers.

Then there's the phenomena of the recent aggressive museum expansion that has sprouted worldwide. I Google to an article by Dan L. Monroe writing for the Art Museum Network News:

The "Age of Expansion" marks an unprecedented period of growth among the nation's art museums. Roughly encompassing the period between 1995 and 2010, the Age of Expansion has witnessed the creation of new facilities at museums large and small. Designing and constructing these facilities, creating new installations of collections, and raising large amounts of money have consumed the time and energy of art museum directors, staff, and trustees. As a result of these efforts, the status and role of art museums in America has forever changed.

Yet remarkably little attention has been given to thinking about the outcomes we may expect from the Age of Expansion. Few among us have had time to consider the possible long-term consequences of the prodigious collective effort that has been made.

Which is all fine and good. I as an artist should recieve such news with a smile... and I do... but there is in fact a darker aspect to it --the eventual morphing of the educational mission of the museum into the profit drive of the commercial gallery:
And so another museum goes to market. Last week Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery announced it plans to sell some 200 objects from its permanent collection...

...But the issue is bigger than the nostalgia of a single museumgoer or the history of one city. It's a problem that's become endemic to the profession. Museums are devoting more and more resources to acquiring large amounts of contemporary art, work about which the judgment of history--supposedly what museums are all about--is far from settled. Such acquisition policies may be acceptable, but not when done by getting rid of masterpieces whose importance has been validated by time and critical opinion and that provide a context for the work of the present. Ironically, this plan is driven by perceptions about the notably erratic and currently inflated contemporary art market, rather than by any dire financial crisis.

The museum maintains that these disposals follow the policies of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which allow museums to sell in order to buy. If so, then perhaps it's time to revisit those policies, rather than taking for granted that trading art for art, whatever the merits of the work, is acceptable. (Disclosure: I am an AAMD emeritus member.)

It's not comforting to think that a "special advisory committee" of fellow museum directors was invited to assist in what Mr. Grachos calls the "careful vetting process" that produced the list. Museum folks are notorious for covering up each others' missteps: Just watch the constant buying and selling that characterizes what used to be called "collecting" but that has now obliterated whatever lines once differentiated the roles of curator and dealer. Richard Armstrong, director of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum and a member of the Albright's committee, suggested that the process was made in an "elegant and open way that sets a national standard." Do we really want this kind of national standard that robs communities of their assets?

Then two days later in the same WSJ's Opinion Journal featured a piece about the same museum. Eric Gibson wrote: officials claim they can build their collections only through tax-incentivized donations. ?[I]n today?s art market, museums cannot realistically expect to have the funds to purchase such major works on a regular basis,? Mr. Cuno writes.

Er, not quite. They have other ways of doing so, like selling works they already own. Just last week the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., announced that it was selling more than 200 objects from its collection to raise $15 million for the purchase of modern and contemporary art. ?Deaccessioning,? as the practice is known, used to be the tool of last resort for acquiring new art. But lately it?s become the tool of first resort, with museums strip-mining their collections just to build a war chest. This has caused considerable alarm on the part of many museumgoers, but the directors of these institutions have argued that they are merely adhering to AAMD guidelines, which permit selling art in order to buy it.

In other words, museums are trying to have it both ways: benefiting from tax subventions because they supposedly can?t survive in the marketplace yet stepping into the marketplace when they deem it appropriate. Deaccessioning isn?t the only way museums are increasingly operating as commercial enterprises. They have restaurants and shops, and rent their spaces for gala events. Some are actually renting out parts of their collections. In 2004, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts lent some Impressionist paintings to the for-profit Bellagio Gallery in Las Vegas in exchange for a percentage of the (substantial) gate.

What?s so disturbing about collection rentals and sales is that they violate the reason that museums are treated differently from businesses. Because of their transcendent importance, museum objects occupy a position outside the pressures of the marketplace. Yet more and more museums are treating these objects as financial assets that they can tap at any time. And the two professional bodies charged with oversight responsibility?the AAMD and the American Association of Museums?have been toothless watchdogs.

In the passage of Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, one encounters Alice in Wonderland phenomena, such as charmed quarks and Schr?dinger's Cat and non-locality and a menagerie of oddities, a journey into the subatomic realm. But what of all the role shifting as we dilate the artworld out of the scale of human experience and into the 21st century? Just what kind of artworld wonderlnad are we growing into?

-Collectivism vs the Marketplace: the entrenchment of socialist models (the overweening and unquestioned dominance of Marxism in academia) has allowed us to blind ourself to market realities in important arenas. Yet paradoxically (perhaps not) we are ultimately stimulated by power, the thought of active participation in the marketplace is discouraged and yet it cna be argued however provocatively that this is sum total of what the artworld is or has become. There is no recognition of where the legitimacy of pricing spawns from (for example Hayeck's theory), this is probably the most siginficant economic issue for art students to understand. The art market exists robustly in a wild west environment. Pirate country like the high seas. Or artworld is unregulated, unpoliced, uncharted by transcendental claims to truth and pocked by countless no man lands of pure seething power relations... a strange world in which everyone in it is apparently too content with or too afraid of the status quo to establish a constructive critique against it..., the marketplace is evolving...Schimmel's brilliance: three epoch defining curated shows: Helter Skelter, Out of Actions, and Public Offerings, the consequenses of the show: artwork as investment grade stock... the question is whether capitalism is a riptide away from altruism and human values or will those values and core of humanity prevail in other forms that we cannot yet recognize?

if property is theft, then what are we to do with the fact that all artists create property? And what should we do with the implied imperative of restraining or conforming or aligning one's artistic subject with the agenda of the Progessive? world view? If all that is solid is to melt into air, then the postmodern imperative is to dematerialize art into the conceptual realm... the consequence being the the apparent extinction of art itself (the intrinsic value) like the smile of Alice's Cheshire cat (ugh, did the cat extinguish itself?). (The word we can't use in polite artworld company: postmodernism.) The most dematerialized such as LeWitt is doing fine financially. Is Hans Haacke rationing cans of tuna since he apparently disappeared? I suspect Hans is doing fine.

A dealer once said: "It isn't art until it is sold." I don't blame him/them for thinking this way, I might agree if I too were a dealer. The sale of art is the first figuration in the public record. A tree might fall in the forest but only if there were certified data to verify the fall. However I am an artist and my first response is that then such would be a fraud since art must be art (that which is qualified by intrinsic value) before it it is sold, else it's a merely a commodity whose price is soley a measure of extrinsic value and little else. Thus, the irony of commodities which qualify themselves as such by criteria outside of the marketplace.

Surely dealers recognise value and represent the art object/creator as such and therefore are crucial figures in this prime act of recognition. Dealers in this schema become the sole authenticators of value. But such value is ultimately not created but discovered and the truth is somewhere in between, a handshake of the intrisic and extrinsic. The upshot: don't forget the soul whilst you chart the profession, young artist.

-Change: Herodotus, mutations, hybridizations, crossing media
...change in my time: reel to reels to the internet
place shifting
time shifting
role shifting (article on museums becoming banks)( link to camper) education: education as we know it has been minted in the previous eras where a huge chunk of educational curriculum was devoted to instructing students in how to understand and fit in to complex systems of existing organization... now entire industry life cycles can be born and expire in less than a single generation

-Change into what?
(reference to Schimmel again, "Public Offerings" and the conversion of the art object into a stock, a piece of the brand... and therefore the remove of the artist as existentially sensitized human in the heart of the art history drama, (--Car City, the code for the trajectory of our imagination, the distance from coporeality that we are travelling)

the story of the human remove from avionics:

Since computers are running all this, the reactions are quicker than with human pilots. The UAVs can perform a number of dangerous missions, like attacking air defenses, searching for targets on the ground, or defending the entire "package" (the manned aircraft and all the UAVs) from enemy aircraft. The UAVs can be used more aggressively, because you are not risking the lives of pilots. If the manned aircraft is shot down, the UAVs have their programmed orders to complete the mission, or immediately break off and return to base.


structural anxiety

For the artists*: the artworld is like a theater, the wings are crowded with actors (artists) but the stage is small, hence the despair in the diminishing possibility of standing under the spotlights. The sole saving grace: that the marquee has to change.

For the dealer*, where does anxiety stem from?: Contentment or validation can only be found at point of sale, the briefest of momements. For the time before, after, and between sales... skin crawling agony. Why? No one knows what will sell. And if someone on earth did, they would rule the world. Dealers might pretend they know, and they have a better inkling (which is all one needs), but ultimately they won't know until the moment something sells, and then the moment is over. The only truly happy dealers are gallerists too. And who are gallerists? A subset of people who live for the exhibition as a form of expression. Gallerists who aren't dealers, who make money with their efforts, are called museum curators.

If happiness exists fleetingly at the point of sale, then the recent structural change in the artworld provoked b the advent of art fairs has intensfied both happiness and anxiety. Once upon a time, art sales occured in a pattern distributed troughout a calendar year. Collectors have generally reserved their purchases for the art fairs since a convention of art galleries will allow optimum price and selection comparisons. The upshot of this is to concentrate the occurance of sales episodically... and so too have anxiety and temerity (see the last issue in this section below) amplified considerably.

hyperdeveloped... the groundrush effect... freak outs that stem form the distorting effects of the mediated hothouse... the tendency to be hollowed out by envy and desire for popular success

art is in constant movement, towards the landfill or towards the museum, as the first audience, everyone who appreciates art has a responsabililty to guard against the landfill, to move the art you love/appreciate toward the museum.

The lifeboat... It is as if we are all adrift at sea, seemingly alone on a lifeboat and we (as artists) are thirsty for water (a show) and yet there is all this seawater all around us... DON"T DRINK THE WATER... wait for the exhibition opportunity that will thread you in the proper context. You may feel desperate but you have to choke it down. You have to control your fear, not only for your sake but more importantly for those around you.

Sgt. Barnes: Take the pain! Take it!

anxiety and the connection to envy and using the dynamic of the greener pasture. I don't know if I am projecting, but my recollection of David Hickey's writing was that he urged artists to have their own party, and not be overly concerned about joining another

The flip side of anxiety: Temerity. An occupational hazard, narcissism and hubris come with the territory in the creative world. Perhaps it stems from the utility of criticality. In art school, savage (a figurative and relative adjective) critique is instrumental pedagogically. The young artist is encouraged to form comparisons of their work to to that of exemplars (well regarded artists in history) who are enlisted to compose a personal jury whose purpose is to hone our work in the direction of perfection (a figurative and relative noun). And then most of us get out of school and forget the proper arena for the instrumentality of our personal jury. SomeMosttimes we inflict our self flagellatory instruments on others without thinking. We do this together in the public at large, but in a much more diffused and argumentative way. Currently, our shared public exemplars and the design of our devices for flagellation are wide open for dispute.

-recentness: before we can talk about how the art world became a professional place, it's helpful to remember that the idea of art itself is a recent one. For the purpose of this essay., there are three kinds of art: art in the universal creative sense ("the art of ..."), art outside the West (tribalist) and art inside the West (Oedipal)

-Sanity: to throw down a definition of sanity: the ability to maintain the distinction between fantasy (imagination) and reality (the stubborn stuff), art may be viewed as the interdependence and the commerce between the two.

Why care about art anyway?

For the sake of argument, let's say that maybe art as we knew it is a passing phase --quaint and antique and dead and gone-- and this emergent marketplace dealling in cultural products is the the triumphant reality. (Story about museums becoming profit centers) why should anyone undertake the responsibility of moving art towards the museum? What makes art not only legitimate but indispensable for the human condition?

-Freedom, dissent/expression

-Resistance against the dehumanizing trajectory of our inventions, the irony of the tendency of the inhuman consequence of our imaginations, the suicidal aspect of our imagination... that to decouple imagination from reality is an act against life... that our idea of art may be recent, that this current manifestation that we tend to take for granted is a passing one and an eternally changing creative force known now as art is the real and enduring one... that within a blooming (metastasizing, if you feel cynical) industry, a kernel or soul has to be preserved... the industry needs it, we need it, freedom needs it, mankind needs it.

-Life made anew: art is the crucible in which the patterns of life are solidified, encrusted, then busted and reformed anew... make a pattern, break the pattern, then do it again...

-Everybody is a star: a democratic idea of imagination, (the only way to teach art, I believe)

(Sly Stone Image Source)

*Disclaimer: These characterizations are not to be taken literally, but are offerred as a figurative depiction for the structural synamics of how stress germinates and propagates in the artworld. It is not my intention to render an image of weakness other than that which is already inherent in the human condition.

Posted by Dennis at November 22, 2006 3:24 PM

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