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Post #540 • May 17, 2005, 8:19 AM • 47 Comments

Observations I: Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, buys a Hudson River School landscape by Asher B. Durand for a rumored $35 million from the New York Public Library, despite a joint counteroffer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery. She intends to install it in a new museum that she is building in Bentonville, Arkansas (pop. 20,000), and the NYT notes that she "has been a major buyer of American paintings at Sotheby's and Christie's, snapping up works by Winslow Homer, Martin Johnson Meade, Edward Hopper and other artists." New Yorkers weep and gnash their teeth.

Observations II: As boards increasingly measure museological performance with fiscal yardsticks, and as increasing diversity in the world undermines the idea of cultural inheritance, the major urban museums no longer feel beholden to the public and have lost their qualms about passing off fluffy moneymakers as serious exhibitions. Let them gnash their teeth flat, they seem to say. Meanwhile, bereft of any connnoiseurship that could account for the visual aspect of visual art, the contemporary, new-artist market is modelling the fashion and music worlds, and as such is becoming increasingly clueless.

Observations III: Artists have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to transform entire neighborhoods when they move into them for the sake of cheap real estate. As a corollary observation, young artists, who typically have little income, need cheap real estate to establish themselves and thrive. As any city dweller who has tried to buy property in the last few years knows, the major urban centers are quickly running out of cheap real estate.

Hypothesis: for the first time in history, cultural backbone is moving away from the largest cities. Wide swaths of the country have already demonstrated that they don't share the values of the urban centers. Art needs a certain amount of continuity to advance in useful directions, and Homer, Meade, Hopper, and Durand better represent that continuity than Karl Lagerfeld or Banks Violette. Meanwhile, those swaths contain gigantic tracts of cheap real estate.





May 17, 2005, 4:12 PM

Franklin does a nice job of bringing us art oddities from all over and tying them into a speculative thesis. Here we confront the idea that while the urban centers are clearly the commercial centers of the art business, art itself may be quietly slinking out of town, a notion which has been alluded to before on this page now and then, notably with John Links "Slippery Slope of Hope" essay some months back. I hope it gets a good discussion going.

I am not as disturbed by the Monet-renting and Chanel-showing as others seem to be. Museums should be able to make money with the good stuff and bring in the crowds with design shows. The Guggenheim has been chased around the block for the Armani show a few years back, but, after all, better bland than horrible, as so many of the "art" exhibits are these days. These activities may compromise high-minded purpose but don't do a lot of damage, really, and museums gotta stay alive.

I read the piece about the Banks Violette show in the Times Sunday. it looks like another ill-conceived Whitney Museum disaster in the making, but my judgement about such things is often proven wrong. It could be wildly popular. it is certainly nasty, desperate and fundamantally cornball enough to appeal to the upwardly mobile middlebrow taste now coming to contemporary art in droves, out-of-towners patiently explaining to their children why, even though one may be repelled by the stuff we must understand that it is art, which inhabits a mysterious universe where our mundane rules do not apply.

Violette has all the requisite mainstream moves: "theory-laced vocabulary", Gothic angst, pop culture with a violent edge, rub-your-nose-in-it social symbology, stuff made out of stuff it shouldn't be made out of and utterly trite imagery (instructors in MFA programs should, at this point, simply forbid the house-on-stilts form; the only thing that beats it in the cliche sweepstakes is the "pod"). In other words, "difficult" art made to order, horriblisme for the masses. It will be interesting to observe reactions to it.



May 17, 2005, 4:29 PM

Not just you, Oldpro; the former metalheads of the artblogosphere have passed judgment upon him and found him wanting.



May 17, 2005, 4:39 PM

Among other things, the Met has a fabulous collection of "costumes" the current show seems appropriate, fluffy moneymakers seems overstated. They continue to have interesting temporary exhibitions of Art to go along with a permanent collection large enough to keep one eyeballing for days

No doubt, it is becoming increasingly expensive to live an a major urban center. However, I think the hypothesis for the first time in history, cultural backbone is moving away from the largest cities doesnt hold water. Artists have frequently lived outside the major urban centers but the cultural backbone, which is spearheaded by the media, print, film and television is still primarily ensconced on the coasts. Suppose we had red and blue maps for all the elections in the last 50 years, what conclusion could we draw from them? I suspect we would find a similar distribution of sentiment with no mass exodus from the cultural centers.

In other respects I more or less agree with Oldpros comments.



May 17, 2005, 4:49 PM


Don't forget the Gug Bilbao, up here in the north there's an attempt to do the same thing in Shawinigan, add in DIA Beacon, Mass MOCA and you might have something almost bulletproof there. Thanks



May 17, 2005, 5:00 PM

George, I wouldn't predict a wholesale exodus so much as a flattening. Just like we no longer have a hegemonic art style, we may also see the hegemony of the art centers erode.

Zeke, I didn't even think of them. Thanks for throwing that in there.



May 17, 2005, 5:21 PM

Zeke, problem is, the sites you mention may be town but they are still outposts of Approved Urban Taste. The proof of art leaving the big city will be when we start seeing better art with character of its own developing in small places.

In fact, in Canada, where you are, there are a lot of first-rate artists we (and maybe you) know nothing about. Their crime is not only remoteness from the big art centers but remoteness from current styles. Most of them just paint pictures.



May 17, 2005, 5:31 PM

Let me clarify too that I don't mean the cultural backbone, the media and so on that will probably indeed remain ensconced in the big cities, but backbone in the sense of rigor and strength.



May 17, 2005, 5:39 PM

To echo some of the remarks above, I don't think there's anything wrong with museums (at least those that have a curatorial commitment to the area) doing clothing design exhibits. It's when they do crappy ones that's the problem. The Met's been involved in that area for a long time, and there's no reason for it not to do those shows. The RISD Museum does some really great ones as well - they did a terrific show on eighteenth and nineteenth century dress a number of years ago that I still remember vividly. Of course, it's part of a school that teaches clothing design.

I think Franklin's larger point about urban centers and the dispersal of artistic activity is a good one, though. And yeah, Banks Violette is ridiculous.



May 17, 2005, 5:42 PM

Oldpro, what you said about outposts sounds true on the face of it, but outposts in general have to interface with the locals to survive. Dia looks like it aimed Beacon at NYers who need a trip out of town, but MassMoCA looks like a long damn haul for Bostonians, and Shawingan makes Google Maps go blank. I think these places could inspire product that draws from both urban and regional sources.



May 17, 2005, 5:52 PM

Franklin, I knew what you were implying. It seems to me like this was more or less always the case. Artists who liked and thrived on the buzz of an urban center stay and others leave the first chance they get.

It will be interesting to see what affect the internet has on the art community. Some artists may choose to work in isolation sucessfully but I suspect most need some sort of community or a colleague close by to provide some feedback and dialogue. To some extent the internet can now provide this, whether it will prove to be sufficient or not we will see.

Now it is much easier to keep track of "whats happening" via the internet. Of course this has the major drawback of substituting pixels for paint. As an aside, I have a niece with a recent degree in art history from UCB. She was in NYC on business, visited the Met, and was completely blown away by Jackson Pollocks painting Autumn Rhythm She told me that she was surprised by her reaction at seeing the actual painting even though she had seen it in reproduction several times before.



May 17, 2005, 6:48 PM

I guess I should also clarify that I have no problem with a museum exhibiting fashion design, but the one linked above brought up issues of propriety and scholarship regarding Lagerfeld. Someone shot at it on the NYT op-ed page already.



May 17, 2005, 6:53 PM

Observation Eye: A painting has been sold which nobody had heard of until two weeks ago, and Westen Civ has apparently collapsed.

I visited the NY public library last year. No one else was in the art gallery with me. Not a soul. I certainly don't recall seeing any representatives of the now-vociferous posse suddenly alarmed that this fine treasure has been pilfered by depraved vandals from the immaculate bosom of our nation's finest international city. There was more interest that day in watching the living-breathing artist sitting in the lobby directly outside the gallery, painting a decent rendition of the library's woodwork interior, than in the supposedly legendary works beyond the door, FWIW.

Observation Eye-Eye: "Increasingly" as compared to what? "Museums" in past eras were self-funded salons, country clubs or palaces, with relatively small collections. (One can argue of course whether a palace is "self-funded.") People like those described in the first observation above enjoy forcing museums to purchase outrageously expensive art, yet disallowing them from selling any of that art in the future, and cajoling the same museums into charging the public nothing [thus making no return on their investment], while disallowing them from showing money-making popular exhibits. The less money a person has, the more likely they are to try to controll the money of others.

Observation Eye-Eye-Eye: Artists might just be squatters who keep old neighborhoods warm until they become gentrified [see also Rauschenberg, Robert, inter al.].

Hypothesis: See also this article, about how artists like Bourguereau are thriving at museum gift shops despite what wisemen may say.



May 17, 2005, 7:25 PM

JL - FMI, how long would it take you to drive from Boston to North Adams in decent weather?



May 17, 2005, 7:26 PM

I want to take up something Old Pro said in Comment 6 - where he says " In fact, in Canada, where you are, there are a lot of first-rate artists we (and maybe you) know nothing about. Their crime is not only remoteness from the big art centers but remoteness from current styles. Most of them just paint pictures."

I'm not sure if he means all the rural artists out there, supposedly just painting pictures, or our urban ones as well. I think it's generally an unfair statement based on the self-admitted ignorance of what’s happening here. It seems to me that Canadians are very busy aping current American styles hoping that Americans will pay attention - far from being remote from current styles, many Canadian artists are colonized by them. There's also plenty of American artists who show in our artist-run centres, and I see far more installation art and the like everywhere I go, even in the remote areas.

I think it's a very American-centric thing to say, which is fair because you're commenting on an American art blog, and I accept your comments at face value as nevertheless being generous. I wonder though, if being considered first-rate means 'first-rate by American standards'. Where you suggest that we're remote from current styles, it seems fair to point out that a 'current style' would be an American one. So, even if your perspective is correct - and I know what you mean enough to not really be against what you said - that 'most of them just paint pictures' - I tempted to say, 'yeah, it's a Canadian thing'. The cultural experience in North America isn't homogenous even within the United States (North vs. South) nor within Canada (French/English/Native/Ethnic Mix) so why should we expect the cultural expression to be interchangeable across the regions and the border?

Is a 'current style' defined by what gets shown in New York and LA?



May 17, 2005, 8:11 PM

After reading the NYT articles, I think the auction house pulled a fast one, but of course that's to be expected with so much money in play. However well-intentioned Ms. Walton may be, there's not much question this painting belongs in NYC far more than in a small town in Arkansas, just as there's not much question her planned museum is, in fact, a vanity project, even if she doesn't see it that way. Major examples of American painting should not be languishing in some out of the way place because somebody was rich enough to put them there for personal sentimental reasons. It's a disservice to the art and the public.



May 17, 2005, 8:20 PM

Timothy, you are overgeneralizing what I said.

First of all, I picked Canada merely because Zeke, to whom I was replying, is from Canada, and because I am familiar with some very good Canadian artists, urban, rural, it doesn't matter. The same thing holds true for lots of places, not just Canada.

Second, of course Canadians are aping American and European styles - everyone is aping everyone. Everything is jumping up out of the art magazines all over the place. There are no local styles, so it seems. Too bad. There should be. Someone has to have the strength of vision and character to start.

Third, first rate means first rate by my standards and the standards of the people whose eye I respect. Of course I do not hold much for "standards" because a standard is a measurable thing. First rate by my judgement, let's say.

Fourth, "current style" is not something that can be defined. It is what you see when you go to museums and read art magazines. Anyone who does this has an idea of what the term means.



May 17, 2005, 8:23 PM

I agree with you in general, Jack, but i don't think even Ms Walmart has enough money to seriously deplete the resources of art held in the big cities. Most big museums have tons of good stuff sitting in storage.



May 17, 2005, 9:01 PM

Franklin, North Adams is on the other side of the state, maybe 125-150 miles on the road, 2 or 3 hours.



May 17, 2005, 10:26 PM

Sorry, been out since I last commented. Yes, I'd say it's about a 3 hour drive from the Boston area to North Adams. And keep in mind that the last part of the drive will be on smaller roads, winding through mountains (of sorts), roads that most residents of the eastern part of the state are not terribly familiar with driving on. So it's long, and a bit difficult, especially in bad weather.



May 17, 2005, 11:10 PM

But it's only an hour from Albany NY, where I used to live. Thanks Massachusetts!



May 17, 2005, 11:26 PM

Come now! Nobody lives in Albany! Latham, now that's another story. (Tho Dad moved up to Clifton Park a few years ago, and sis is in Watertown MA now. I'll be there this weekend.)



May 18, 2005, 1:14 AM

jack: Why shouldn't Alice Walton purchase the painting in question? If the Durnad painting were to stay in an NYC museum, there is no guarantee it would hit the wall where the public could view it. More power to her. She's promoting art in Arkansas.



May 18, 2005, 1:18 AM

Bob, I'm assuming that, since this is considered a seminal work of the Hudson River School, the Met and the National Gallery weren't after it to put it in storage. It would obviously be far more accessible to far more people if it were on display in NYC.



May 18, 2005, 1:30 AM

I agree with Bob. Let the people of Arkansas have their museum of beautiful American art. I feel no more parochial about this than I did about the Japanese buying Van Goghs during the 80s and 90s. I won't see it as easily, but we have a lot of their work too, and we still have a lot out this way.

And, well, I'm looking at the reproduction of the Durand at the NYT and thinking that for a Hudson River School work, this one seems a little stiff. Anyone?



May 18, 2005, 2:18 AM

Yes, stuff, cramped modulation, a heavy touch. Not a bad painting but not to my taste. Not for $35 million, for sure.

It is a well known painting, one of the standard examples of the type. Maybe that accounts for the price.



May 18, 2005, 3:29 AM

Franklin: Come to think about it, how about Marfa? It's now in travel mags for the art pilgrim and I know many that have ventured.

Adding to your list, I think Paduka, KY (I'm not kidding here) is promoting itself as an artist community. Why not, it seems the center is elsewhere. C'mon Franklin, you and me go havesies on the entire state of Kansas!



May 18, 2005, 3:31 AM

Halfsies! sorry.



May 18, 2005, 3:52 AM


Apologies for the slow response.

As Franklin said originally the "cultural backbone is moving away from the largest cities." I don't know enough Art History to say if it is in fact the first time, but in my time I do see it happening.

oldpro, "Approved Urban Taste" is what makes them museums. If they didn't have the AUT, then they would be Underground Art Scenes - After Bob mentioned Marfa, it occurred to me that this might all be Richard Florida's fault. If anybody wants to see the piece of crap that he got paid over $16/word to write for the city of Montreal so as to ausage its inferiority complex, email me, I'd be happy to share.

But yes, I do see a certain flight from the BIg City by museums, but at the same time I see lotsa podunks looking to elevate themselves by slapping a "Museum" title on any big building they can find.

Where that is all going to lead to in 20 years, I don't know. But me, with regards to the art, I'm happy I'm here in Montreal. If I wasn't then I'd move to Minneapolis.



May 18, 2005, 7:02 AM

Most of what we have referred to here is Approved Urban Taste, Zeke, outposts of accepted art. They have little to do with vital art making.

What we need is a real Underground Art Scene, a bunch of talented people working someplace away from the art magazines and the fashion parade, doing something new and alive. That's what it will take to get us started again.



May 18, 2005, 1:22 PM

Bob - done! I call dibs on the half with Goodland! Although that Paducah deal sounds pretty good too.

Zeke - did Richard Florida get involved with Marfa? Send me that crap - I'm still trying to make up my mind about him.

Oldpro - would you think it sufficient for them to have psychological or spiritual distance from the fashion parade, or must they have physical remove as well? And I wonder if they could form a community over the internet. In other words, I wonder if the agreeing parties that hang around here might qualify.



May 18, 2005, 3:21 PM

Regarding psychological or spiritual distance
This feels like the wrong approach, as if running away will somehow insulate one from the fashion parade. What would such an act, distancing onself, represent? If it is undertaken in order to develop a personal vision unfettered by outside influence, then good. If it is just to avoid confrontation because we lack the strength of will to maintain our personal visions, then something is amiss.



May 18, 2005, 3:34 PM

Franklin, the pattern has been that individuals of talent who are motivated to rebuild, rather than follow, gravitate together and make a kind of "critical mass" which forges a "style". This is what happened with the Impressionists, Fauves, Cubist, Abstract Expressionists, and others. It is like gathering wood to make a fire.

Usually these people are drawn to a major art center. It is hard to say how it could work now because there are a lot of new factors, specifically the enhanced communication of the art magazines which broadcast what art "should" be like and has an immediate primary (and I would say negative) effect on every young artist anywhere. By the same token, "underground" communication is enhanced by vehicles such the internet, as you suggest

In my opinion, visual art must rejuvenate itself by returning to the purely visual. I have no idea how or what or where, and clearly the current situation makes it very tough for this to happen. it is an uphill fight. It will talke some pretty stiff talent to do it.



May 18, 2005, 3:42 PM

George: Absolutely right; running away will not do it. The point is not to remove oneself from the battleground but to remove oneself - mentally, at least - from the deteriorated forces of "anti-art", to be an innovator, not a follower. This does not happen in isolation; you need "outside influence" but it needs to be new and fresh and positive. This is how movements form that support the best new art.



May 18, 2005, 3:53 PM


oldpro, if you really and truly want an "real Underground Art Scene, a bunch of talented people working someplace away from the art magazines and the fashion parade, doing something new and alive." You're welcome to flop on my couch anytime. I think what you wrote pretty much nails the Quebecois Art World dead to sights.

Unfortunately, everybody up here wants (or seems to want) AUT®, I don't know if this is a case of Steve Earle syndrome (I ain't ever satisfied) or just revisionist 50's suburban thinking (the grass, something about the intensity of the color green and its relative placement to you).

And if I can add my 2¢ in, you're just muddying things up when you start to talk about movements, style and critical mass. That's just gobbledy-gook and bafflegab designed to make "appreciation" easier for the people who don't like using their brains too much.



May 18, 2005, 4:44 PM

Sorry if I engaged in "bafflegab", Zeke, but I do like the term.

Of course everyone wants to be part of Approved Urban Taste. That is the apparent path to fame & riches.

But art is very selfish. it doesnt work that way. Art wants people to work for art. Art needs willing slaves to serve it's own purposes. It couldn't care less about you and what you want. And if you really work for art the other stuff may come along anyway.



May 18, 2005, 4:59 PM

Regarding "outside influence".
Occasionally Ill see a gallery show which makes me think but for the most part I still rely on the Museums to recharge. There is nothing like standing in front of a yourfavehere and reconnecting with what it feels like to be in the presence of something great.

If we are to push the envelope we also need some sense of its boundary, some line to transgress in order to open new territories to explore. It is in those moments when painting is once again considered is dead which allow this push against the boundaries to occur more easily because they are not defended so fiercely. In the flow of history, once seemingly radical approaches become cannonized and old hat. I am not speaking about the mythological issue of "quality" but its container, todays style, content, form, whatever you wish to call the symbolically visual aspect of the painting. It is this aspect of painting which connects with the audience but it ultimately must not sacrifice quality in the process.



May 18, 2005, 6:18 PM


oldpro - No offense meant or taken, feel free to use the term as and where you wish. It is one of my favorite phrases along with "dead-on-balls-accurate," [stolen from the film My Cousin Vinnie] "Spent piece of used jet trash," [Tom Waits] and "claptrap & nonsense" [author unknown].



May 18, 2005, 6:40 PM

Zeke, is the Cheval Blanc still the cool comix hangout? I concur with you on the Montreal as underground art scene, except that the NYTimes recently had a big article about how awesome it was for artists, so the underground portion may be not so apt anymore.



May 18, 2005, 6:42 PM

George, whenever I hear the term "push the envelope" I think of someone shoving a pink slip across a desk.
Not one of my favorite terms.

I'm not convinced we should be too analytic about this. Real talent finds its way by force of feeling. It just has to happen. and If we are not too far along down the primrose path of pomo it should happen. There's no way to predict it, manufacture it or guide it, thank goodness.



May 18, 2005, 8:43 PM

Im not sure what the path of pomo has to do with anything if real talent finds its way by force of feeling My allusion to pushing the envelope was intended as a personal thing. The ability to find within ourselves, a way to keep the work evolving.



May 18, 2005, 10:31 PM

I guess I was being too elliptical. I meant to express the fear that we may be so devoted to pomo and art that is verbal, explainable and idea-based that when something visually new and excellent is pushed forward by talent no one will know the difference.



May 18, 2005, 11:00 PM

I know a talented Miami painter (and I expect there are others like him) with a natural bent for the didactic, meaning he's very focused on message and puts a lot of emphasis on that. The trouble is he sometimes forgets the image has to succeed as such, meaning visually, and if the balance is off, the painting doesn't really work.

If all I'm going to get is a message, why not just tell me or write it and let me read it? Why should I want to look at a mere illustration of an idea when it has no real merit as an image? If you don't have something for my eyes, don't ask me to look at it. In other words, if you can't or won't do visual art, do something else. It may be perfectly valid, but don't call it what it isn't.



May 18, 2005, 11:50 PM

Art that is verbal, explainable and idea-based... something visually new and excellent. These characteristics don't seem to be mutually exclusive.



May 19, 2005, 3:38 AM

i think we went over this before, George, and in fact I think it was hassled over here a year ago.

They are not mutually exclusive but the visual is primary.



May 19, 2005, 4:12 AM

OK, sorry I wasn't around for the previous discussion on the topic but I agree with the conclusion that the visual is primary, always have.



May 19, 2005, 4:32 PM

The Hirst "Virgin" could be a Soviet Social Realist version of "advanced" Surrealist art (many years late). Of course it's not an exact copy of an actual anatomical model (he's not stupid), but it's still clearly derivative of one. The only thing that might impress about the piece is mere scale, which is a rather cheap trick (though if you can't deliver the real goods, you have to try to compensate somehow ).



May 19, 2005, 4:55 PM

Franklin, please delete #46 above. It was put here by mistake.



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