June 11, 2020

Art: Pro-Practice

Last Spring, I received an email request from a friend:

I am writing to you because I am teaching a Painting MFA seminar here at [XXXX} University this semester centered on exploring issues of "art context" and "art mediation." Part of our class time is dedicated to interviewing different people that work in different roles as agents or actors in the for the lack of a better term "art world" to try to see things from their point of view. The idea is to try to discern the complexity of the value systems, networks, and social dynamics in which art practices are inserted. We have interviewed artists, docents, curators, writers, art historians, etc. 

I thought about inviting you to join us for a conversation.

We used to call this topic "Pro Practice" back in my day. This is a grad seminar designed to prepare young artists for the world they are about to embark. After the Zoom talk, I pulled much of the conversation into the notes below and elaborated a bit more. My abiding theme was a description of two worlds: the real idealistic world and the unreal realistic world.

The former is about a fidelity to inspiration, creativity and the courage to accept the consequences of the hazards of wider audience receptivity, to reconcile oneself with oblivion, to simultaneously steel oneself against it by striving to create art objects that survive dissolution by a demonstrable self evident value that resists the destiny of the landfill. The latter is about an ecosystem of egos operating within an economic marketplace that has in recent years become more and more corporatized and bureaucratized despite the erosion of modern late Industrial Revolutionary disruptive innovations.

Promises of Success

Art schools have been suffering under the pressure to promise at least some degree of career success when graduates sally forth into the world. The truth is, no one knows. Two forces run sometimes in concert and sometimes counter to each other: one advances the historical argument and summons with universal acclaim, beautiful surprise; the other is akin to chance molecular connections of entities in Brownian motion. Maybe something like a Darwinian survival of the fittest brings the fittest art to the world stage. Maybe greatness would lie hidden in plain sight, undetected until oblivion erases all traces from human memory. The best an artist can do is to strive, to summon the superlative from the core of their being... and then allow their reverberation to travel via the medium of the art community at large. The rest is destiny.

The list of the particulars concerning the marketplace that could be discussed in an art school setting but generally isn't: What is value and how does pricing art work? When is pricing real and when is it artificial? What is the business relationship between a gallery and an artist? What is the difference between a primary and secondary market? What is a contract, either implied or written? What is the history of art dealing, who are the major figures and how does character and circumstance shape their destiny? Similarly, what is the survey of the art city past and present, and how does historical circumstance shape them? How do the mechanics work between galleries, museums, critics, art fairs, etc? How can the art system be gamed? What different kinds of collectors are there, what motivates them? What is money laundering and what are the signs? If art is sold depending on perceived prestige, how is is prestige created, grown, simulated and/or destroyed? This is a list that I can whip out in a single sitting. Young artists who leave school unequipped with this compass are easy prey.

Don't let them know you're hungry. Back in the early aughts, my gallery shared an exchange with another artist in the stable. The artist wanted to tell the gallery how much he needed them to sell his art work. If that wasn't bad enough, he relayed his concerns with such desperation that it shook the gallerist and not in a good way. It was then as I listened to this account that I resolved never to let a gallery know how hungry I was. We need our galleries to sell our work with confidence, conveying the sense of the value of our work to the collector. We don't need to hazard the seep of undertones of desperation to the world at large. Our confidence in the greatness of our work must be total and rooted in reality. Our survival is our own responsibility and can never be laid at the foot of the people who sell -or buy- our work.

Modeling the Art World

Art school is a virtual version of the art world, a necessarily simplified model. Art education is a schematic of a community of peers, a studio, opportunities to exhibit and gatekeepers in overwatch. The recent notion (growing within the art world for the past twenty or more years now) that artists can and should emerge from school hot into the marketplace has been a catastrophe for wisdom, common sense and a sensible art world. What is inevitably missing are the dimensions of the dialog in print (criticism) , the participation of collectors, the intermediary of the gallery and the ecosystem of the marketplace. This is true for all education, for all careers: a diploma marks only the beginning of an education. No art school can guarantee success nor make any promise in the direction of art career success, much less survival.

Realm of artist communities in collaboration... the loamy soil. Circles and circles of friends: real, strong and reverberating. The Aether of the social. The medium of friendship is where the expanding waves of the energy of influence moves. It wouldn't hurt to look up waves in the scientific sense in Wikipedia for interesting metaphors for the various dynamics of camaraderie. Being a service to the community is universally appreciated. Visit studios and talk about the work more than you talk about career. Curate your friends into a show. (Beware of ingratiatingly including yourself, it's a bad look.) Write a review. Band together with friends and open your own space. Don't get preoccupied with finding where the best party is in town. Have your own party. Be attractive, unforced. Get to know the history of artist friendship and rivalry. Like the Athens of Pericles, sometimes we find ourselves in the company of a group of brilliant people. Kismet. What do you do when this happens? What do you do when it doesn't?

Art and Value

The nature of art and the market. We operate within a marketplace but we are not OF the marketplace. The framework undergirding this arrangement is the distinction and relation between implicit and explicit value. Objects that are traded in the marketplace are vested with value in subjective and objective terms. Commodities (water, food, fuel...) and services have value that is easily formulated and calculated. Beauty is intangible and sensed differently in each and every mind. Commodities such as a refreshing beverage begin their existence explicitly in value and can arrive possessing the implicit, subjective, iconic value of, say, Coca-Cola. Flip this script for beauty. Art of every type begins existence endowed with perceived value that is implicit in nature. The social machinery of perceived value is established at the origin of the creating artist and proceeds into world in successive expanding waves of acquaintance within a social medium. The art world is not something outside of you. It begins within you if you are an artist. Your success will be the measure of its' realization. The velocity and amplitude of this energy can arrive delivering a value that is explicitly demonstrable in terms of money. The value of art, whether it's in the primary market of an emerging artist or the secondary market of an auction, depends on the degree that it is regarded as priceless. Note the wink of irony in that jealous possession is overcome by the ratcheted offering of price. The highest price is fetched by that which is mostly-yet-nearly impossible to be parted with. A conquest of fidelity. A stolen romance. An orgasm of seduction.

Structure of the Art System

There are artists who make art and gatekeepers who interlock into the architecture of the art system. Let's take a look at the components.

Collectors. They complete us. But too many today don't collect like they used to do, like artists making art. Too many rely on art advisors. Too many think of art as a fungible form of money. Once in a while, you could encounter someone who loves your art work as much as you do and will want to keep it near, to let others know you regard it as priceless. The jealous regard of pricelessness is the prize... this is what fetches the highest price.

Commercial galleries. The world of the gallerist is extremely tough, high stakes, so have some compassion for the honest ones. They come in sizes small, medium and large. Anyone could create a gallery, but do it for enough time, survive and thrive and this stability delivers them to the second category. The prize is access to the circles of elite collectors whose passion rivals that of the best artists. This schema is not as simple as it seems, and the gallery world can be a step through the Looking Glass. The problems that galleries have to contend with include managing rapid flows of income and outflows of expenses, retaining the investment in artist careers in the face of pressures on artists to migrate to stronger galleries who may or may not offer a stronger potential marketplace of passionate collectors. How does an artist gain gallery representation? This is like the question: how does a person fall in love? The answer is simple: you become fetching and available. The earlier discussion of the medium of friendship is important here. This is how a gallery gets to hear about you, through other people. Let that happen. Make this easy to happen. The game: garnering the trust of collectors beyond the periodicity of calendric time that could sustain a business economically. This is the measure of the strength of the "two list model" (my coinage): galleries have two lists. One is a list of collectors and what they want. The other is a list of artists and what they make. Are the correlations strong? Are they beyond enduring, do they grow?

There is of course a complex of institutions public and private. Every institution is an ecology of personality dynamics. Note the galleries who are tuned into that frequency. they owe their existence to the legacy of Alfred Barr, who created the model of curation and collection that endures to this day. Museum collections: every artist wants to be part of one but not everyone can get included. Museum curators: they see patterns in what artists make and present this to the world. Their popularization has weakened their power in recent years. Original thinkers among curators remain, but are hidden in the middling crowd. The silver lining when everyone wants to be a curator is that their visitations to the studio make them good honeybees of viral reputation transmission.

The art press is an institution in transition in this Information Age. Criticism, is it dead? When you think of a critic, try to characterize their creative contribution. Clement Greenberg ("Avant Garde and Kitch", Ab Ex) Raphael Rubenstein (Provisional Painting), Germano Celant (Arte Povera)... they're easy. Not so easy with most of the contemporary critics practicing today. The best critics are imaginative, perceptive, creative, peers of the best artists, in command of their craft of language. That their population is fewer today could be because of the dispersing force of the Information Age that has diluted their power and reach. They directed the force and concentration of prestige, who will take their place today, especially after the impact of the pandemic's social distancing when we can't witness the strength of the throng for ourselves?

Gaming the system

Every system gets gamed. Big system, big game. Small system , small game. Today's art world is a very BIG game. Don't game the system (else art becomes a cover for the real objective of power for its own sake)... but be aware of the games in play. The art world today is humongous, compared to its' nascent years when in one evening of gallery openings, you could meet ALL of the major players in the art scene. In the past, the population was small but the larger culture couldn't care less. Today, the danger is to be lost in the clamorous noise of our own making. The number of artists were smaller then and larger today but the population of true vision and talent has remained roughly the same. How to stand out from the crowd? By catering to dominant curatorial themes? Beware of art devolving into illustration.

The impact of the swollen Art Fair calendar has the overclocked art market. The art fair has existed since the beginning of modern art but it became what we know it to be today with the success of the Cologne Art Fair in the late 80's. Success breeds success as they say, but it does so ad nauseum. Like the California Gold Rush, seekers of fortune poured in by the droves, multiplying fairs to crowd the calendar, obligating galleries to support a road show that never stops, that never knows a break. Prices become goosed in this artificial environment, art only of a certain salable type gets shown and ultimately the population of collectors are gathered into one time, one place to the detriment of the conventional gallery ecosystem, starving them of their buying audience. Meanwhile, art fairs pin the gallery to the legacy model, preventing them from adapting to evolving circumstance by selecting galleries on the precondition that they occupy real estate and run a conventional program. Into this bind, they have in recent years started to undercut the curatorial function of the gallery by dictating what artists' work to exhibit in the fair. In this way and others, the art fair has evolved to an attenuated form where it starts to resemble processed food: hyped, overpriced and devoid of nutrition.

Artists can game the system by catering to its demands. The artless do this baldly, but the cunning can do it artfully. I call this "biting the hand the feeds you"... and this can be done via brute independence or in a false, theatrical manner, conforming to expectations. Examples of the former: Bruce Conner, Picasso, Carl Andre immediately come to mind. Some, more than a few, collectors love to demonstrate power by allowing themselves to be humiliated. Think of this as a taste for bitterness, the favor for "difficult" art. (*1) The kitten's ferocious gnaw. "If you can't be good, be notorious, right?" (a quote snatched on the fly from "The Eddy", Netflix series) History is a chronicle of bad behavior, art history even more so if every generation refusing the straitjacket of the previous is bad behavior. Independence is the most dangerous agent to any system. What happens when genius doesn't mitigate the asshole, when time doesn't tell, when theory blurs, when some players in the system find a way to game this aspect?

Staring Into the Abyss

Sometimes methods of survival are counter-intuitive. Steer into the skid. Relax when you are drowning. Similarly, it's wise to befriend oblivion. When we come out of school, we shoot for the hot out of the box success. The wunderkind. The prodigy. The genius newly emerged on the scene. If that doesn't manifest, we hope to be the discovery five years after graduation. "Hey, look over here!" The necessary gestation outside of academy's womb. If that doesn't manifest, we hope for that recognition after a ten year maturation. Then twenty. Then thirty. If that doesn't manifest, there's always the chastising "Hey, see the genius that we had overlooked!" If that doesn't manifest, there's the charitable indulgence of the octogenarian solo show. And if that doesn't manifest... we plan for posthumous recognition. Therefore, we must make art work that can argue -on its own power- for its sheer existence. Art after it is made, is in constant movement between the museum and the land fill. It might begin this journey in a living room, but it could move to a bedroom, hallway , closet or garage. It might be donated to a museum, but it's siting is not guaranteed. It might be hung on the walls for all to see, or it could go into storage or deaccessioned, and the cycle could possibly begin again. By befriending oblivion, you don't have to surrender to it. This reality instead can make you stronger, make your art stronger. The sheer acknowledgement of oblivion places it on a radar to be navigated, to be contended with. This, a contest no artist can evade.

*1: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/jordan-wolfson-documentary-spit-earth-1846551

Some Books:

Rogue's Gallery, a history of art dealing. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia, a beautiful friendship.

Art Tribes, artist circles in and around 1968.

Bohemian Paris, artist circles in turn of the century Paris.

The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck, more artist circles in turn of the century Paris. I came to love Alfred Jarry after this.

Leo and His Circle, The life of Leo Castelli by Annie Cohen-Solal, a tale of the emergence of the NYC art world.

Posted by Dennis at June 11, 2020 5:48 PM

Leave a comment