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Taking Pulse at a Slower Pace
Post #1479 • December 22, 2012, 9:12 AM • 14 Comments
My review of the Pulse Art Fair is posted at Artcritical.
By the time I finished writing the piece it had sprawled into an overlong epic. I chopped a few hundred words and my editor chopped some more. One bit that didn't make it in was my primary-source qualification about Walter Darby Bannard's work at Daniel Weinberg Gallery and Frank Stella's protractor series.
Did Stella get the idea from him? I checked in with Darby. "I did the intersecting arc pictures from 1965 to 1967," he said, "and he started the protractors in 1967. We talked and exchanged ideas all the time back then, and he certainly saw those paintings, so he may have borrowed the idea. However, I have no taste for making claims (like the 1960s hassle over who did the first stripe) and I strongly feel that whatever influence there may have been, it is nothing more than the natural and benign process of sharing visual ideas. After all, I got plenty of ideas from him. It is the way art gets made."
So there you have it, for the record. Here's a part I cut myself:
I am a onetime Miami resident, and consequently saw the first five iterations of Art Basel Miami Beach. I watched the satellite fairs grow in number from a handful to two dozen or more. And of all the serious coverage devoted to the fairs over the decade since their first arrival in Miami Beach, I've never yet seen the obvious asserted about them: they're meaningless.
I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. A tree is meaningless. It's just living out its beautiful existence as a tree. A fair manifests at the same level of existential tautology. If you're looking for some larger theme at Pulse, Aqua, Scope, Burst, or any of the other fairs whose one-word names wouldn't look out of place on a tube of toothpaste, you ought to look directly at the stylish fairgoers, the frenzied gallerinas, the flawless Miami weather, and the selection of art that came to the fair individually according to someone's program, but in aggregate, at random. The larger meaning is not greater than the mechanics of the event itself.
Thus I've been saying for years that sending an art critic to an art fair is like sending a food critic to a supermarket, leaving the writer to claw a theme or a story angle or something from a non-narrative in which product appears because of the possibility that someone may want to buy it.
And yet every year I pitch fair coverage to some editor. Say what you will about them, the fairs are fun and the weather in Miami in December is the envy of most of the Northern Hemsiphere.
December 22, 2011, 11:30 AM
Of course I saw some awful things. But the more I write, the less of a problem they are. A normal art viewer has two basic categories for evaluation, Good and Bad. I have Good, Bad, and I'm Not Going to Write About This. That last category is an abyss of consciousness. Things thrown into it take no toll on me.
Besides which, think of all the people who discovered your work for the first time by determining to bother with it.
December 22, 2011, 12:32 PM
Oh, I'm not complaining, nor am I unhappy about Weinberg's enthusiasm for the work and the fact that he sold a number of pieces.
As for your I'm Not Going to Write About It category, must I then conclude that you were thrilled by mutant bables and lesbian orgies on picnic tables?
December 22, 2011, 12:37 PM
No, you need not conclude that I was thrilled with those pieces. I hope that's evident from the article.
December 22, 2011, 12:40 PM
A good read, and you made the right move by cutting it down. Few people can get away with Barry Schwabsky-like self-indulgence. Paragraph 11 has a serious run-on sentence, though. (I'm needling you of course.)
Art fairs strike me as so much coal for the money-furnace. They may be peripheral in the grand scheme of things, but they undoubtedly contribute to the vast overvaluation of particular artworks and artists. A tidal wave of big-money background radiation makes things like connoisseurship and art criticism (ahem) even more undervalued than they already are. When you've invested so much coin in something you can't exactly have a critic come a long and say, "Hey gov, you've blown a wad of cash on some serious garbage!"
December 22, 2011, 1:02 PM
Thanks, Franklin, for alerting your personal following to an excellent post that, as ever with your work, I'm proud to have published at artcritical. And kudos to you for making the best use of a blog, to give us the personal stuff behind the public, mediated, edited self. People accuse bloggers of being egoistical, but in fact the real function of blogs is to add some id to those with healthily developed egos.
David Cohen (your sometime and hopefully none-too-harsh superego)
December 22, 2011, 1:09 PM
Alan, pondering how much effect one has a critic is a debilitating enterprise. Personally, I try not to think about it too much.
David, the pleasure and the pride are all mine. Thanks for the opportunity. And it's thanks to editors like you that I learned to say to myself, "You know, Self, this essay would improve markedly if you excised these three paragraphs of navel-gazing."
December 22, 2011, 1:14 PM
Alan, I have heard a number of dealers say that their gallery gets no traffic and the fairs are the only way to sell art. I think it is a natural commercial development, like the big mall, or the old village marketplace, and probably the wave of the future. All in all not a bad thing.
I agree with your analysis about the effect, but it neglects to account for the social changes which have led to the new "need" for original art, which has become one of the badges of social mobility, like expensive watches and cars. This is a recent phenomenon, and a strong underlying force behind both the art mall and the impulse to scale up prices. It just didn't exist forty or fifty years ago. Back then a Van Gogh print in a wormy chestnut scoop moulding was pretty racy. I know; I used to sell the stuff out of my little frame shop in the early '60s.
December 22, 2011, 2:49 PM
Franklin, thinking about criticism's effect on the stratospheric level of the art world is a taxing enterprise indeed. But I happen to think that the potential for impact on the lower realms is pretty high. And if we're not aiming for some kind of impact, than we're just writing in an echo chamber, and that strikes me as being rather futile. I take heart in the notion that most of the art world is not London, NYC, Beijing, or Berlin (though Berlin's scene is accessible in ways that the others are not). Sure, that's where the money and the publicity are, but it's people interested in art in local scenes like St. Louis, Detroit, or Nashville (which has an amazing local energy) that can benefit from a critic with a good eye. I know that nothing that I throw at Richard Prince is going to make a difference, either to him or the people going to see his work, but having a well-sorted review of a show in, say, Covington, KY (ahem), actually has something of an effect. I hope I'm not sounding to Midwest-centric over here, but I think you get the idea.
Darby, I'm not against the idea of an art fair per se. There's a local guy here in Cincinnati that would not have a business without them. He's dealing in blue chip work that's just not going to sell in these parts. I'm also not one of those types that need art and commerce clearly separated, or think that they somehow contaminate each other. I think in the "big leagues," money + private collections of dubious work is a real problem, and I do think that fairs help to foster that, but by and large, I realize we all gotta get paid.
December 22, 2011, 9:02 PM
"Dubious" is a tactful enough term for the swill sloshing through those fairs, but the fairs are only responsible insofar as they accommodate the process of selling it.
We are still living in the "anything goes if it is offensive, silly, asinine, fatuous, repulsive, senseless or incomprehensible" epoch of the 1970s and it will not change until a general attitude comes about that adopts some sort of hierarchy of taste and opinion that is able, through social pressure, to dismiss and displace what is clearly crappy but not allowed to be acknowledged as crappy.
It is a generational thing. It will happen, but only when the "tastemakers" (those with money) decide that's the way to go, and it will happen by means of that sneer you invoked. What they will decide on as the New Thing is scary to contemplate, of course, but it should create an atmosphere that is more openly conducive to art that is somehow respectable, or at least not horrible. I will take bland over hideous any day, and it should make better art come through more easily, and ease the burden on critics, who will once again feel free to say, "that sucks."
Of course I have been known to make bold predictions before. I won't say how those turned out.
December 22, 2011, 9:53 PM
The problem with "swill sloshing through those fairs" and whatnot is that your work was in one of them.
There hasn't been a hegemonic style since Pop, sixty years ago. We're not getting a New Thing, either better or worse. Instead we are going to have a proliferation of modes of art-making all working alongside one another in fairly close proximity. This is why the fairs have become so viable. Over in this booth you have Anything Goes. Over in that one you have Walter Darby Bannard. My interest as a critic is asserting better and worse regardless of what kind of work I'm dealing with.
While anything goes, there was a significant contingent at each fair of people who were using their freedom to work on visual problems in a visual way. I have always been free to say that something sucks, but doing so expends opportunities for me to talk about those people. That sneer—which I think you projected on Alan—may have its place, but the ultimate aim of rhetoric is persuasion. If we're not persuading anyone, we can sneer until our faces freeze that way for all the good it will do.
December 22, 2011, 11:22 PM
I was not expecting hegemony, just a change of attitude which will drive away the worst and install an attitude which favors overt value distinction, for better or worse. And while I regret (mildly) having become the Apostle of Sneer, it is precisely a vehicle of persuasion, and a damn powerful one.
That said, of course you are right that we are now, and will probably continue, to be in a "pluralistic" market. One of my worst predictions was made some 40+ years ago in an Artforum article when I said that each "mode" would go its own way and find its own audience. Instead they all fought for a piece of the same museum/galllery pie. The fair phenomenon may promote the change I saw back then, but I'm certainly not going to predict it.
You are right that I imputed the word "sneer" to Alan when I was the one who came up with it. I apologize.
December 23, 2011, 8:06 AM
Alan, I fully agree with you that critics can have a lot of impact at the level you're describing, and we ought to be writing on the presumption that we are influencing things somehow. But the mechanisms of that influence can be pretty mysterious. I ran into an artist at Scope whom I had written about ages ago, maybe at the old version of my blog, The Sunburn, which would have dated it to early 2003. I said something that so rankled him that he was still thinking about it when he went to grad school, and it ended up playing a part in his finding his creative voice. At the fair, he thanked me.
If your writing is strong and true and you keep at it, your influence can grow deep and pervasive. You tend to find out about its real effects long after publication.
December 23, 2011, 10:52 AM
Indeed, I'm a pretty sneer-free guy. Unless, of course, I'm doing Billy Idol karaoke. Then it's full-on sneer.
Walter Darby Bannard
December 22, 2011, 11:16 AM
Thanks for the mention.
Aside from that, and aside from the unfortunate cutting of your other more generalized and reflective remarks, it is clear from reading your report on the fairs that you had to endure some pretty awful stuff. I assume that your relatively non-judgemental stance was calculated. It is bad enough just reading about such things, much less seeing them. If anything it served to reinforce my determination to bother with none of it. I'd rather do my crossword puzzle and go paint. Or just about anything.