Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art Market

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

September 24, 2007
The best and worst aspect of art is that it isn’t quantifiable. Spending time with astronautical engineers as I did a few weeks ago at M.I.T., I found myself envious of the fact that they work within a meritocracy. No doubt politics and ego show up wherever there are people, but when you get right down to it, a rocket either flies or it doesn’t—unlike the art world where things fly because someone says it does and gets enough people to agree, where things fly one day and not the next, and where hedge fund managers and advertising executives, in bed with the institutions, are often in charge of determining what flies and what doesn’t.

This has got to be one of the least interesting epochs in the history of art—not just because of the money-grubbers, but because the art world has become infused with people who are not really interested in art. They’re interested instead in novelty, in the idea of being creative and expressive in a way that’s not too taxing, and leading a cool life where they can sleep late and go to a lot of parties. Add that to a seemingly insatiable art market, and you’ve got a situation where almost anything can fly, at least for a minute.

Worth quoting from here is Raphael Rubenstein’s in-depth review in Art in America of the traveling exhibition, “High Times, Hard Times, New York Painting 1967-1975” (curated by Katie Siegel with David Reed, shown at the National Academy Museum in New York last winter, now touring Europe):

That victory is fleeting and artistic canons subject to drastic revision seem such obvious facts as to hardly need stating, but for some time the deciders of the art world have appeared to feel that their authority is both eternal and infallible. There’s been an assumption on their part, usually unspoken but detectable in the total assurance with which art institutions and markets function, that no deserving artist, living or dead, is now being overlooked. (The correlative is that every currently celebrated artist is one for the ages.)….Another factor that reinforces the long-term confidence of today’s tastemakers is the enormous level of investment—financial, social, and intellectual—in the work of most successful artists. When so many people and institutions have so much at stake, when capital and contemporary art are so deeply intertwined, it seems that nothing short of some unimaginable total artistic revolution, or a catastrophic global recession, could upset the status quo.

Rubenstein concludes:

I’ll leave it to readers to decide what is the legacy of this work, and whether to “possibility and openness” of that heady era expired circa 1975. Instead, I’ll close with a few comments on the issue of who is in “Hard Times, High Times” and who isn’t. Reviewing the show in The New York Times, Roberta Smith took Siegel and Reed to task for passing over the artists who, in her view, dominated the period—Frank Stella, Brice Marden, Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman. Without them, Smith wrote, the show was like a “time capsule from a time that didn’t quite exist.” This seems to me to be a complete misunderstanding of Siegel and Reed’s project. The aim of “Hard Times, High Times” is not to reflect the standard version of New York painting 1967-75 but rather to recover a lost history, to bring back into public view works long unseen, often painted by artists who have been long overlooked…

Serious historians long ago ditched the “great men” and “great events” approach to their discipline…[and] we have learned that there is just as much historical truth to be learned at the margins of power, in the facts of everyday life, in slow, nearly invisible long-term movements, as in palaces and parliaments. “Hard Times, High Times” significantly alters how we view painting during a nine-year period; as an instance of historical revision, it offers a powerful model for anyone who isn’t satisfied with the versions of our recent culture as offered, with clockwork regularity, by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and MoMA.