William Powhida, “A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System” (Photo courtesy of Felix Salmon)
The artisphere has been awash these last few weeks with opinions about art fairs, the brazen commercialization of fine art, changes in powerbrokering, and what’s hot. These topics are perennials that come and go like the cold virus that takes up residence in your body before moving on to the next vulnerable human being. They are fast moving and are never conquered or solved.
So as tiresome as some of these issues may be, I still feel an obligation (to what I am not sure) to take some space here to put a few of these topics into a more personal context.
Here are excerpts from two writers whose thoughtful insights spoke to me. The first is artist and writer Thomas Micchelli, writing for Hyperallergic:
Like it or not, we have an official visual culture, and that culture is determined by an entrenched hierarchy. This is no different from any other historical era, though the hierarchy has evolved from emperors, popes, cardinals and kings to museum directors, biennial curators, collectors, gallery owners and select members of the media.
And this official culture is no less fallible than the one that once considered Guido Reni (1575–1642, aka “The Divine Guido”) to be the greatest of all Italian artists.
But it can also bring to the fore the most noteworthy artists of our time. I first saw the work of Regina José Galindo in the Venice Biennale of 2005, El Anatsui in the Biennale of 2007, and Adrián Villar Rojas in this year’s Triennial at the New Museum.
These artists cannot remotely be considered “worker bees in an art-industrial hive.” Rather, their art reflects Robert Henri’s sentiment from The Art Spirit (1923):
I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.
And so does, oddly enough, the work of the artists I know and care about.
These artists are by and large laboring in the shadow of official culture. Of course they would like to make a living from their art — who wouldn’t? But they see the act of making as the primary goal. And their choice to live an artist’s life is not subject to the whim of the hierarchy or the market.
This is so in line with my way of seeing things.
And from John Yau, also writing for Hyperallergic, some timely comments while reviewing Dana Schutz’s recent show of paintings in New York:
Dana Schutz, who is in her mid-30s, belongs to the generation of artists who grew up in an epoch where painting was routinely thought of as a dead practice. One couldn’t just be a painter, because doing so would be to enter a dusty domain crammed with empty signifiers. It would mean you were doing something that was obsolete (and reviled) — like speaking Latin to the drugstore cashier. The lines were pretty clear: dumb people became painters; smart people became conceptual artists who painted only when and if the subject called for it. This viewpoint might have started out as speculation, but now it’s a stupid and persistent prejudice.
Instead of accommodating herself, like a good student, to the pressures of the historical moment, Schutz turned the tables. If painting was no longer possible, then what would it mean to depict the impossible in bold colors and clear forms?
I have shared this anecdote on Slow Muse before but it is particularly apropos at this point in time: A young graduate art student tearfully tells her advisor that her classmates are mocking her because all she wants to do is paint. Her advisor responds with this advice, “Art has a history of being subversive. Seems to me the most subversive thing you could be doing right now is to paint.”
Whether your making is in the form of painting or something else, the Micchelli litmus test is a useful tool: Being someone who sees the act of making as the primary goal. That, and the choice to live an artist’s life that is not subject to the whim of the hierarchy, the market, the art fairs, or the latest art school fad.