Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

February 21, 2012
I’ve said before that when I'm king, the first thing I’ll do is abolish artist’s statements—which will make me very popular in the kingdom, as I’ve never met anyone who likes them. What I want to know is, how does something no one likes continue not only to persist, but become increasingly unintelligible and ridiculous? The form is only about 15 years old, and how it evolved and took root in the culture would be a (semi) interesting study.

However since I’m not king yet, and schools, galleries, and curators seem to require them (in fact graduate students complain that their teachers often put more emphasis on the quality of the statement than the artwork) I am pleased to provide a formula that’s been very successful for the artist I stole it from, and you can then use the time you would have spent on your statement to work in the studio:

My work emerges in the interdisciplinary space of art, -----------, and social practice. After leaving behind my formal training as a ---------- and relocating to ----------- (note: you MUST relocate. Jesus couldn’t work miracles in his hometown either) I have created a diverse body of artwork that explores urbanity, spatial justice, and land-based poetics. Employing a broad range of media from ------ to ------ to ------ these works examine the tension between politics and poetics, individual action and impotence.  I reconfigure time, making reference to the concept of --------, originating from the work of Charles Baudelaire and developed by Walter Benjamin (you may substitute Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard or Lacan for either of these).  Cyclical repetition and return also inform the character of my movements and mythology, contrasting geological and technological time through land-based and social practices that examine individual memory and collective mythology.

Notice that the artist left out a few essential terms, such as “gender,” “social identity,” and “the body.” So that all artist’s statements from now on don’t look exactly alike (you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism, not that anyone would notice) it’s your job to insert them in a creative way; just don’t spend more than five minutes doing it.
Of course after I wrote this, I realized that eliminating any kind of written accompaniment to an artwork would restrict creativity unduly, so I’ve decided to modify my ruling to allow statements if they fulfill the following requirements:

Are fun to read.

Shed no light whatsoever on the meaning and experience of, or impetus for, the artwork.

I liked my friend, Colin Brant's statement for his 2011 exhibition at the Bennington Museum, where he wrote:

My approach is one in which reverence and skepticism coexist naturally. I like to imagine the possibility of a world in which men and women in their underwear read poetry by a reflecting pool, looked on by deer and birds.

If Colin's paintings don’t fit the description of “land-based poetics,” I don’t know what does. But as for "reconfiguring time," well, only God can do that.

Colin Brant
Colin Brant
February 12, 2012
This is the question I’ll be putting to the panel I'm moderating on The State of Contemporary Art, Wednesday at the National Academy Museum (6:30 p.m., 1083 Fifth Avenue @ 89th Street). 


Michael Hall, Director of Exhibitor Relations for The Armory Show

Paul Laster, Blog Editor of, editor of, a contributing editor at and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.

Rachel Wolff, freelance art writer, editor, and critic, and contributor to New York Magazine.

Just as we've gone from being “citizens” to “consumers” and “patients” to “clients,” the “art world” has turned into the “art market” and the playground of the 1%. Globalization, chain galleries and ever-expanding museums, an excess of art fairs, “gallerists” touting artists like hedge funds, and art schools churning out MFAs whose only function seems to be teaching more MFAs, are all part of the "corporate-ization" and institutionalization of the art world. So the question is, can art sustain itself as the true non-verbal expression of our times, something that takes us to a higher plane, increases our aesthetic awareness, and serves, as Tolstoy said, "to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations"-- when money is the primary concern?

Hope to see you there!
February 12, 2012
In November, Daily Kos ran an article comparing US and world covers on TIME Magazine:

Now TIME does it again, "The Surprising Science of Animal Friendships" is the US cover story, while
February 5, 2012

Out, damned spot! – Lady Macbeth

I was walking along 24th Street in the bitter wind, wondering if it was necessary to write any more about Damien Hirst’s blasted spots, and if I really needed to see even one of the shows. But there I was at Gagosian’s door, and it seemed silly not to go in, so I did and….a terrible thing happened. Are you ready? I’m about to admit something that could ruin my credibility forever: I liked them. Okay, to be completely candid, I didn’t just like them, I loved them. Especially the humungous gallery with the big, big spots and the smaller room with the paintings where the spots are formed into vibrating circles. The color, movement, and exuberance reminded me of Matisse and made me want to dance (by now you’re wondering, what is she taking, and where can I get some?). It was such a relief to have an experience of art that wasn’t complicated by a lot of tacked-on personal or intellectual bullshit, but was simply happy. Especially since I’d just come from the Bill Jensen painting show at Cheim & Read, which was over-the-top depressing. The mantra in the art world seems to be “if you can’t make it good, make it grim.” And I thought how, in the current context, the most radical thing an artist can do is create art that causes to people feel good, that makes them, as Tolstoy said, “love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.“ The art world seems to equate happy with sappy. And there’s a reason for this – happy art is extremely hard to make, which is why hardly anyone even attempts it. But here it was, in the Gagosian gallery of all places, suddenly transformed into  a joyous, celebratory oasis in the middle of cold, heartless Chelsea.

The next day I visited the Madison Avenue permutation. To get there I had to walk past a shop selling Hirst "spot" effluvia, whose giant windows looking onto the street revealed a lone, rather dazed-looking customer. It reminded me of those stores that used to be ubiquitous on Madison and in SoHo (do they still exist?) that specialized in knock-off Dali, Chagall, Miro, and Picasso prints. And upstairs, well, it was a total bore. I trudged from room to room and floor to floor, marveling at the ridiculousness of the over-abundance of guards, until I realized that this was one of those situations that could cause someone not to want to steal the things, God knows, but I could see how, in that compressed, airless environment with all that repetition, a person—maybe even me—could go berserk and act out. Happily, I was able to contain myself. Back on the street the chilly breeze was refreshing, and I walked toward the subway thinking, what a load of crap! I hate those fuckin’ spots!

January 30, 2012
Cartoon: John Fewings
Nothing I’d heard about the spiraling cost of higher education (127% from 1980 to 2000) made sense until a friend, whose daughter is in journalism school, told me she was studying statistics at American colleges and universities and found an enormous increase in administrative jobs with salaries much higher than those of faculty, whose numbers are declining—including the small, private liberal arts college where I used to teach (administrative salaries over $100,000, faculty salaries considerably less). Then today, when I was catching up on old New Yorkers—print version, in the bathtub, the biggest downside of digital readers being that they’re not yet waterproof—I found this letter to the editor (December 19 & 26, 2011):

James Surowiecki, in his commentary on student-loan debt, does not identify an important source of growth in college costs (The Financial Page, November 21st). Coincident with only a modest increase in enrollment in the past decade is the meteoric rise of a professional university administrative class. One study found that between 1993 and 2007, while enrollment at universities increased by fifteen per cent, the number of administrators per hundred students grew by thirty-nine per cent. This vast layer of university administrators has changed the composition and culture of the American university. Increasingly, they are private-sector outsiders who are more willing to undermine the missions of research and teaching in order to preserve the bottom line. A notably egregious case is the recent shuttering of the theatre department and several language programs at cash-strapped SUNY Albany under the leadership of its president, George Philip, a former investment-fund manager. Bubble or no, universities are building an expensive management structure around an academic core that’s becoming more and more hollow. Any effort to reduce college costs must restore leaner administrations, representative of the faculty and staff who carry out the institutions mission.

Ryan Walker
Lexington, Ky.

Walker’s source is no doubt the Aol News/HuffPost article, by Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute, which provided this graphic:

This article about Obama’s plan to control college debt states that student debt now exceeds credit card debt. Very little I’ve read, however, mentions administrative “bloat” as a contributing factor. Student debt reduces the opportunities for entrepreneurship and hobbles the economy, while the narrowing of college choices makes for stunted cultural, scientific and intellectual growth. How this can be controlled, I have no idea, but it’s time we got on it.  
January 25, 2012
Louise Bourgeois, Fugue, 2003
Screenprint, 30 cm x 42 cm

On a Facebook friend’s wall the other day:

I have erased a black cloud eating my stomach with an unknown weight. I am young, 34, but I am not young within the context of New York. The black cloud is from the perception of myself I feel from others. There is this, what I would, call "petit bourgeois" view of success that runs through the art world. A false belief art is a career that can be measured by degrees of success that correspond to age. I have been around art long enough to know in reality most artists do nothing until their thirties or later. But I face day to day the idea I am too old.

My comment: “If this even crosses your mind, it indicates that you're looking outside yourself for validation. The best art is made by people who don't care what others think.”

Even though he’s part of the OWS movement that’s causing such great change so quickly, he’s stuck in the assumption that the art world and its values are always going to stay the same. Again, we can’t predict! The only thing we know for sure about the future is that it will be different. And isn’t that fun? Wouldn’t it be boring if it stayed the same, if we knew exactly what was going to happen? Therefore, since the art world has been predicated for two or three decades on the coming of The Next Big Thing, a concept that has everything to do with money and speculation, perhaps once we get off our current financial merry-go-round, it will come to reflect more meaningful values.

I recently saw the first one-person show in NY of another artist, who happens to be around the same age. He is tense with ambition; his desire and extreme need are palpable, evident in his every word and gesture—and it would seem that he’s done everything right. A deft marriage of painting and sculpture, the work is competently executed around a concept that comes off as smart and cool when described in a press release. Not too big, not too small, perfect for people who want contemporary art on their walls that’s not threatening, it lacks only one ingredient: soul. 

I know people in the art world who, while not particularly talented, attractive, smart, or even nice, have “made it” through sheer persistence. I could also point out some who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, whose ideas merged with those of an important exhibition or Whitney Biennial, which set them on a path for life. Unfortunately, it is not a meritocracy. But then there are those, like Louise Bourgeois, whose work was of such value that it couldn’t be ignored, regardless of her age, gender, and prickly personality.

For true success to happen, an artist has to make art that’s not only exceptional, but is a reflection of the needs and desires of his time. The first is more or less in our control; the second, as adroitly described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, is not. The reason you can’t pay heed to what others are thinking, doing, or making, is that they’re stuck in the present, while you’re creating art for the future.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 20 years, when our FB friend has reached the ripe old age of 54, everyone will be wanting art that enhances their lives, takes them to a higher place, the kind of work that, in most cases, only a mature artist can do. And he’ll be the right person for the right moment, glad he didn’t burn out at 34.

January 23, 2012

Kenneth Noland, 1961.
Synthetic polymer paint on unprimed canvas.
Museum of Modern Art, New York

After talking about people becoming curmudgeons and losing their edge, my intention today was to write a post about how to keep one’s edge—that is, if we knew what that term really meant. For me, it’s about keeping one foot ahead of myself, keeping my life and work alive and growing, staying excited about everything I’m doing. In the manner of self-help books, I started a list of things one could do toward that end. But first I went to the gym (for me, staying in good physical condition is number one) where, on the white board, was a quote:

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm Ralph Waldo Emerson

A great way to start things off, I thought, and being enthusiastic about Emerson, I wanted to read more. The Internet, however, is awash with unattributed quotes: we know so-and-so said something, or is said to have said something, but where? It’s as if all we’re interested in is finding some cute quote with which to kick off a commencement address (or a blog post). Although it was posted thousands of times, only one site, Wikiquote, listed the source, the essay, Circles (full text here), which I double-checked by opening up the complete Essays on my iPad (a free download, BTW) and typing “enthusiasm” into the search function.

But enough of my research methods. Really what we’re talking about is personal progress, and in our culture we tend to see all progress, personal or otherwise as linear—the idea of doing better and better, of topping our last effort.  Emerson’s idea is more gentle and expansive, i.e. circular. Some excerpts:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. There is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning: that there is always another dawn risen….there are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile.

The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet…New arts destroy the old…. 

Every thing looks permanent until it’s secret is known.…
(Hopefully this is true of the corporate regime, which hasn't changed--it's the same as it was last year--but since September is now seen in an entirely new light.)

There is not a piece of science but its flank may be turned tomorrow; there is not any literary reputation, not the so-called names of fame, that may not be revised and condemned.

Fear not the new generalization. Does the fact look crass and material, threatening to degrade thy theory of spirit?  Resist it not; it goes to refine and raise thy theory of matter just as much.

Whew! So much for Damien Hirst and his silly spot paintings: may they represent the flaming-out of art world materialism.  Sometimes things have to reach their nadir before being reborn. As Peter Schjeldahl put it so beautifully, “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.”

So when we go into the studio, or wherever, we can take comfort in this :

Our moods do not believe in each other. Today I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thoughts, the same power of expression tomorrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world: but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall

Emerson was famous in his lifetime, but while he was writing it, did he know that his words would still have resonance 200 years later? In a blog post?

And as far as keeping your edge:

The difference between talents and character is adroitness to keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage to make a new road to new and better goals.

The lesson in all of this is, go for whatever turns you on because you can’t second-guess the culture. Notice that predictions no longer work—not that they ever did, but we believed in the illusion. Probably the biggest change in the last ten years is that everyone knows that we know nothing about the future. Under these circumstances, all we can do is do whatever it is we do with the greatest enthusiasm—and hope for the best.

* * *

Another Emerson quote about enthusiasm, often mistakenly linked with the other, from a source I was unable to track down:

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your mind. Put your whole soul to it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic,
 be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object.

January 11, 2012
In the catalogue in my previous post of the changing fashions of the last ten years, I forgot a major trend that’s now also happily receded: massive handbags decorated with straps, buckles, chains and other assorted hardware that made women look like lopsided pack animals. See? Things are getting better!

Apropos of that post, I just watched Woody Allen’s charming “Midnight in Paris” in which Gauguin (clearly suffering from what I shall dub Curmudgeon Syndrome), complains that the younger generation is boring, has no imagination, and everyone wants to live in an earlier and more exciting era. Where have we heard that before?

[The idea of being able to visit an earlier time period is appealing only until you realize that everyone is SMOKING. Blech!]

The Curmudgeon Syndrome is given the treatment it deserves in this genius song by what is arguably the greatest band to come out of the supposed cultural wasteland of the ‘00s: “I’m Losing my Edge” by LCD Soundsystem (take that, Kurt Anderson!). If you don’t already know it by heart, listen to it here. It’s required.