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Post #1274 • January 12, 2009, 11:55 AM • 35 Comments

Not long ago I asked what opportunities are presenting themselves in light of the economic downturn. I'm gathering my own answers together to that question, and in the meantime present the following links as background reading, some by way of example, some by way of counterexample, some for a bit of both.

Stephanie Lee Jackson, Why I Am Not Renewing My Whitney Membership. "...the Whitney has consistently championed art which is conceptually banal and aesthetically bankrupt, selected almost entirely from a pool of artists who have already been filtered by high-profile galleries and cultural organizations, and justified by a morass of pretentious, impenetrable and obfuscatory rhetoric."

Edward Winkleman, We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For. "But it must be noted again, that as in any content management system, the output (or what you can actually do with the system) is only as good as the input. In other words, the quality of the individual paintings or photography or video or installations that go into this system, that we tag and collectively connect the dots to, is as important as what anyone ever expects to get out of it. Quantity must be directed by high purpose to reach its quality potential."

Matthew Nash, Looking Back on 2008. "For arts institutions here in the Boston area, 2008 has been a very turbulent year. While the larger institutions saw some impressive growth, the commercial gallery sector of Boston changed dramatically. By my count, at least twenty-two galleries made significant changes in 2008." (via)

Holland Cotter, Museums Look Inward for Their Own Bailouts. "Reality issues an order: do or die."

Martha Schwendener, What Crisis? Some Promising Futures for Art Criticism. " writing already experienced its own sort of crash. The days of power critics like Clement Greenberg or Harold Rosenberg ended decades ago; writers have been eclipsed by globe-trotting curators, mega-dealers—even, in recent years, collectors." (via)

Bunny Smedley, Land girls in Lymington: war art fights back. "Cook is an illustrator. He is not, repeat, not an artist. Having once introduced him to someone as an artist, rather than an illustrator, I was charmingly yet firmly set straight on this point. This mode of self-identification, in turn, licences him to transgress pretty much every normative stricture associated with the trendier end of the contemporary art market. For instance, he not only enjoys drawing from life, but is very good at it."

Waldemar Januszczak, Time for a cull in the art world. "This, then, is the art world’s chief and most catastrophic problem — as its prices have risen, so its values have collapsed. In 1986, someone asked Andy Warhol about money. By that time, he was much too experienced a rich man and much too canny an interviewee to pass up the chance to promote his utterly appalling world-view. “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” quipped the paper-thin Warren Buffett of pop." (via)

David Berry, No one's a critic. "Ryan McCourt, an arts blogger ( and sculptor whose controversial statues of Ganesha might make him the most-talked-about Edmonton artist of the past few years, agrees. 'Speaking generally,' he says flatly, 'you can’t really talk about the role criticism plays in the community, because there isn't any.'"




January 12, 2009, 12:30 PM

Stephanie Jackson's letter is overlong but of course right on target, and her bloggers seem to agree with her, as I do.

What they should do now is make a chain letter or a petition and sent that to the Whiney. The Whitney has become blase about criticism from individuals, but that might get therir attention, especially if someone can find a way to get the NY Times to write about it.

Of course if the Whitney takes any of this to heart we will get some ill-advised effort to try to do an "unrecognized artist" exhibit which will be yet another disaster. They are not about to do anything right. After all, dramatic ineptitude is a revered tradition there.

Januszczak, on the other hand, seems to be whining about the lack of spectacle as much as the overemphasis on it.

The bad economy will change things, for sure,. We have to wait and watch.


Chris Rywalt

January 12, 2009, 1:23 PM

Ed Winkleman, of course, is just stating, in far more words than necessary, the elegant computer programming mantra: GIGO.



January 12, 2009, 1:38 PM

More words than necessary, indeed. In fact, his whole art world view seems to be quantitative, eg the section on artists, which goes on about collaboration and masses of information and on and on. Good grief!



January 12, 2009, 1:38 PM

Not just stating GIGO but exemplifying it.


Chris Rywalt

January 12, 2009, 1:41 PM

There's something to be said for leading by counterexample. Look what George W. Bush did for the country -- he screwed everything up so completely we're all pulling together for a change.



January 12, 2009, 2:07 PM

And so far, Chris, it doesn't look like we are going to get any change. War, bailouts, tax cuts, etc. Sounds like Bush's policies will continue, undaunted.



January 12, 2009, 2:07 PM

Those of you who are willing to read through any pronouncement from the likes of Ed W. deserve whatever you get. As for the Whitney, is this situation even remotely new?



January 12, 2009, 2:18 PM

Not new, but left to be newly rediscovered by successive generations of disenfranchised artists.



January 12, 2009, 2:34 PM

I wholeheartedly endorse Ms. Jackson's letter, of course, but its chances of getting anywhere other than the trash bin (literal or electronic) are very slim. For one thing, the guilty parties are so above-it-all, "validated" and trendy-unto-death that, to them, the letter will read like incoherent gibberish. I'm not sure these people are reachable any more, certainly not on the grounds of logic or facts. In other words, I'm afraid they're too far gone, and having ventured so far afield, so far off track, they can no longer find a way back without an excruciating loss of face, among other things. It's not that they don't know; they don't want to know. Knowing, or admitting to it, would only interfere with their designs.



January 12, 2009, 2:38 PM

That's why it shouldn't be sent to the guilty parties, but to the people in charge of membership. (And likely not the recipient of the business-reply envelope would have conveyed her renewal.) There it may find a sympathetic ear and enough leverage to tilt the situation, particularly if delivered en masse.



January 12, 2009, 2:39 PM

"envelope that would"


Pretty Lady

January 12, 2009, 4:07 PM

Hey, Franklin, thanks for the link!

It needs to be clearly understood that I am not writing and sending this letter in the hopes of instigating any actual change in the Whitney's philosophy, structure or program. The act of writing the letter is merely a symptom of my understanding that such change will not happen, certainly not from any actions on my part.

I wrote it to clarify 20 years of experience with all manner of art institutions, which has convinced me that it is no earthly use expecting these institutions to support either me or my values in any way. On the contrary, they base their existence on financially exploiting and artistically disenfranchising me, and thousands of other artists like me. They not only have no reason to listen to me, but they have very, very good reasons for ignoring me.

I needed this clarification because I need to assess my situation realistically, and decide--what now? What should I aspire to, as an artist? What genuine community can I create or find? Because as long as any part of me is hoping, however subliminally, for recognition by The Powers That Be, there will not be space in my life for that new paradigm to enter it.


Chris Rywalt

January 12, 2009, 4:09 PM

What should I aspire to as an artist? I think that's a really good question, and one I've been mulling over for a while.



January 12, 2009, 4:13 PM

I intend to answer that very question tomorrow morning.


Pretty Lady

January 12, 2009, 4:14 PM

Not so incidentally, this is also triggered by the fact that I am about to become a parent. I've been thinking about what values I want to raise my child with, and the sort of life I want to model for her. It's a knotty problem, because I don't want to model defeat and despair, but neither do I want to continue throwing my energy down a black hole.



January 12, 2009, 4:22 PM

I am certainly no activist myself, Pretty Lady. Bashing yourself bloody against that brick wall just means you have less time & energy to make art.

But things will change, especially with this lousy economy, and it would not hurt at all if someone got it together to make some kind of "class action" protest. The situation has gotten to be a lot like it was 150 years ago when Manet and the Impressionists decided to hell with letting the customers decide what the art is like.

Change is overdue. Sooner rather than later later the hipster art types are going to start putting it around that, after all, Warhol is really not much of an artist, and Johns is not much better, and, when you come to think of it, maybe the same goes for (fill in here)....

Of course they may start liking some other species of dreck, but usually a really crappy economy flushes out bad stuff and the good stuff hangs on. Maybe it's a good time for the Silent Majority to speak up.



January 12, 2009, 4:25 PM

Congratulations on your anticipated kid. Give it lotsa love and hold onto your values and everything will be fine. A little defiance is not a bad thing.


Chris Rywalt

January 12, 2009, 4:40 PM

A quick parenting note for Pretty Lady: Before I had kids I thought very seriously about exactly how and what I'd do to raise them right. Turns out they arrive pretty much pre-raised, with some things that you'll love and some things that'll drive you nuts (and some both) and all you need to do is make sure they don't accidentally kill themselves before they're 18.

Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Regarding Manet: I feel the same way, OP, and have for a while, but of course the big question is, how to get noticed. It can't be a repeat of anything that worked in the past, it has to be something new, its own thing -- and I can't imagine it. Another almost-was on my list, I guess.

Maybe it's something that has to emerge organically. I don't know.


J.T. Kirkland

January 12, 2009, 4:48 PM

This question - what should I aspire to as an artist - is particularly relevant for me right now as I finish up applications to MFA programs. I am 30 years old and have spent the past 8 years working in the corporate world, making art when time allows. For that whole time I was scared to death of MFA programs and refused to consider them. I was afraid that they would change me... make me part of the problem that I see in contemporary art.

Ultimately I decided that I would be upset with myself decades from now if I didn't see what could be gained from art school. I believe (hope?) that I can go into an art program and take from it that which helps me the way I want/need it to. If it doesn't serve my needs, I can reject it.

So, what type of art education do I aspire to? What do I want to learn and what do I want to create?

I hope to get a chance to answer those questions.

P.S. - I am SICK of applications!



January 12, 2009, 6:03 PM

well i almost forgot that i won the cookie for being closest to the close for the s & p 500 on dec 31. 1,100 was so close too. i did say that i was probably on the high end though.



January 12, 2009, 6:32 PM

JT whatever you do, don't just go to the grad school that gives you the TA. Grad schools are VERY DIFFERENT and some are destructive to the point of criminality. This is IMPORTANT. Go talk to people. Get a feel for the place. Don't worry about being changed - you need to be changed - but not for the worse.

I disagree, 1. I did the best because I didn;t give a damn what it was on Dec 31 because I was not in the market. George the expert on everything said here a while back that we are in a new bull phase, but he won't say how he figures that. I don't agree at all.



January 12, 2009, 6:33 PM

PL, for what it's worth, I think the first step, or one of the first, is to see and call things for what they are, then act accordingly. One or a few people doing that may not make much difference, if any, but it will make some difference, of a positive kind, to whoever does it--and if enough people did it, something would have to give.

There's plenty of reason for cynicism, perhaps even despair, but I don't think it's quite hopeless. As I said, if nothing else, there's benefit to be had from freeing one's self from the yoke the powers that be would impose upon us all for their benefit. There's not only a kind of liberation, but a kind of affirmation of one's truth, judgment, intelligence and taste--an assertion of one's dignity as an independent being with eyes and a brain who can see and reason freely on one's own.

I don't expect or even aspire to change the system, especially since I've never been part of it and have no intention of joining it. Artists, of course, are in a different situation, for obvious reasons. I'm not qualified to advise an artist on the matter, but I definitely feel qualified to advise people like me (generally speaking), who are not dependent on or beholden to the system, but happen to be seriously interested in art. Such people, by the way, are critical to the system and hold tremendous power, if they would but use it.

My advice is very simple and very practical: This is essentially about you (the viewer) and the work, period. It's personal, individual, specific, and yes, even intimate. Nobody else, nothing else matters, unless you choose to let it, on your terms. Reputation, status, fashion, image and so forth are always subject to question and challenge, formulated by you at your discretion, and you absolutely have the right to be satisfied--again, on your terms. If you're not satisfied, you are always free to reject. Do it. What others do or don't do is their affair, but when it comes to art, you have no obligation to anybody but yourself--assuming, of course, you're in it for the art as such, not ulterior ends.


J.T. Kirkland

January 12, 2009, 6:50 PM


I just sent you an email (the address at which we exchanged emails in the past) sharing some further details with you.

Thanks for the advice... I know it is sound.



January 12, 2009, 7:21 PM


You will be assimilated. But you might find a teaching job in 5 or 10 years, just when you need it.

Just kidding. Find a good program, grow, be the best artist you can be. Art is its' own reward.


Pretty Lady

January 12, 2009, 7:48 PM

Thanks Chris, Opie and Jack.

Jack, I think I have been adhering to those principles pretty rigorously for the last decade and a half. My concern right now is primarily economic. I have to support myself and my family, and I have to confront the fact that my art may never come close to paying for itself, let alone paying for anything else. At the same time, the thought of morphing into a 'Sunday painter' horrifies me.

Finding the energy to pursue a profession that does not pay, while maintaining 'professionalism' when the 'professionals' are mostly contemptible frauds, is a major conundrum, and involves a lot of tough priority decisions. It may well be that I have to take a break from art for a few years. This is not an easy thing to contemplate.


Chris Rywalt

January 12, 2009, 8:23 PM

Gauguin, Rousseau, and I all Sunday painted for many years. It's not so bad.



January 12, 2009, 8:35 PM

Bunny's post, by the way, is fascinating. I love finding obscure or unusual stuff that's worthwhile.



January 12, 2009, 8:37 PM

Oh, and MC, good luck with your local, uh, cultural environment. Sounds like an uphill battle, to say the least.



January 12, 2009, 9:03 PM

OP, in #1, were you talking about Januszczak or Cotter?

Anyway, I liked this line from Januszczak:

flaunting appalling nouveau-riche tastes at our auctions is embarrassing

Deliciously snobbish, and perfectly apt.



January 12, 2009, 10:09 PM

Embarrassingly, the local art writers have recently run a spate of articles like that one, decrying the state of local art writing, as the irony of it all sneaks by them unnoticed...



January 12, 2009, 10:40 PM

You know, MC, I'm increasingly of the opinion that, if only for practical reasons, one must learn to cope with being surrounded by idiots. There are so many of them, that it is simply not feasible to actually solve the problem. I mean, it could be done, but it would take something along the lines of Mao's Cultural Revolution, which is a tad excessive, not to mention homicidal.


Bunny Smedley

January 13, 2009, 3:10 AM

Pretty Lady's letter is excellent. True, it may not change the world overnight, but making some sort of statement along these lines seems to me a lot better than silently failing to re-subscribe, let alone continuing to subscribe. Membership organisations do, sometimes, get spooked by public opinion, especially when it's clearly articulated and seems to express more general discontents. Well, we can but hope.

Congratulations, PL, on the forthcoming infant. Children are, in my limited experience, astonishingly hard work but also full of interesting surprises, often good fun and somehow strangely rewarding.

Finally, I found that Januszczak piece was disappointing. Opie summarises the central problem with it very neatly. But it's also always a bit sad when someone with Januszczak's stature (or at least relatively high profile) assumes 'the Art World' reaches no further than Frieze, the A-list gallerists, Tate Modern and the under-performing ageing popstars of the BritArt scene. Why not acknowledge the fact that there are still plenty of artists creating some really beautiful, exciting work here - not household names, but none the worse for concentrating on art rather than brand-building - who may well find the credit crunch (and its effects on corporate art collections, institutional sponsorship, private wealth etc) very hard going? Hirst's fortune may drop by the odd million or two, but some very promising artists may really find it hard to keep on painting or printing or sculpting. Isn't that reason enough for an arts commentator to question the wonderfulness of the credit crunch?

A baby is being thrown out with the bath-water here. I know how this sort of journalism works and I can see why he wrote what he did. But it's irresponsible, as well as deeply unfair. Januszczak should know better.



January 13, 2009, 7:29 AM

I hadn't read the Cotter piece, Jack, but I see what you mean. He comes down solidly on the side of dilution and catering to the crowd.

The problem with museums is that they were originally vehicles of cultural preservation and only lately became dependent on drawing crowds. Now they are stuck with it.

If it is necessary to do hip-hop and Armani and motorcycles and Princess Diana's ball gowns (as our Lowe Museum did a few years back) to preserve precious artifacts I guess that's what they have to do, but I get a little nauseated by the disingenuous rationalizations of our low-brow culturati.

He makes a good point, finally, about the wonderful things in museum collections that are never seen, and it may behoove our museums to go that route to prove their worth rather than garbage exhibits, whatever their drawing power.


Chris Rywalt

January 13, 2009, 3:09 PM

I have to say I found myself wondering about what's happening with museums lately. My family and I tried to get in to see the Van Gogh show at MoMA during the free Friday night only to find the show was full; when I finally got there again one day before the show closed I was lucky to squeeze in a timed ticket an hour before closing at the full-price cost of $20. (Van Gogh tickets were free with general admission tickets, although you had to wait on line a second time to get them. And then wait on line one more time to actually get in.)

Twenty dollars! And the place was packed! And I don't mean packed for a museum packed, I mean New Jersey shopping mall at Christmastime packed. I could barely make it through the rooms to see Vincent's work, and outside of there it was still a rugby scrum. The escalators were jammed, every available seat in the building had someone sitting in it (some people were napping), and there were lines for the bathrooms.

Which all had me thinking. Poor Vincent is famous for not having made anything off his art in his lifetime, and he's dead anyhow, so clearly the ticket prices don't matter to him. I know some of his family is still around -- do they get some of the money? If not, who does?

Granted that shipping and insuring and securing a show with such valuable paintings is expensive. So expensive that, not long ago, Robert Hughes was predicting the end of the blockbuster show. Seems he was wrong.

Beyond the obvious costs, though, what's going on here? We should be happy, I guess, as artists and people interested in high culture, that so many people are going to museums. It wouldn't surprise me to find that museum attendance is higher than it's ever been in human history. And yet we keep hearing about how troubled museums are, how they have to handle these crowd-drawing popular shows and may be letting real art down in the process.

And further, with these huge crowds and the high cost of tickets, how are museums not making money? And thinking about it a bit more, isn't it somewhat immoral for them to make profits on the backs of artists like Van Gogh, who didn't benefit from the system and are incapable of benefiting from it now? Why should museums gain anything more than operating expenses for what they do? Why should they function like high-priced shopping malls that don't even sell a tangible product, only proximity to great art they had no hand in creating or supporting? Especially given that proximity is relative -- at one point a man said to me, "Excuse me," and when I moved aside for him, rather than moving through the area (as I expected) he just took the opportunity to step in front of me and block my view. (Good thing I'm tall -- most of the time I could see over the shorter visitors.)

I was thinking all this. None of it's come together in any coherent way, but it's all running through my mind.



January 13, 2009, 9:08 PM

Making museums cater to a mass market, forcing them to be "popular," is inevitably deleterious. There's no way to avoid pandering, dumbing down and compromising standards. That's what's happened to the art world generally. The real problem, of course, is not so much the economy but the culture, such as it is, and I don't see that situation getting better, let alone being resolved.



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