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Worlds Apart

Post #1597 • April 3, 2013, 1:51 PM

In this installment: the notion of many art worlds, new writings, Hess opening tomorrow.

Many Worlds

Jerry Saltz, in a widely circulated post from March 30 on his blog entitled "Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show," in case we couldn't read the byline:

Art doesn't have to be shown in New York to be validated. That requirement is long gone. Fine. But consider this: At a Chelsea opening, a good Los Angeles dealer chided me for not going to art fairs, not seeing art in L.A. and London, and not keeping track of the activity online. He said I "risked being out of touch with the art world," and he was right. It got me down. As recently as four or five years ago, I could have crowed that because I see so many gallery shows every week, I know what's going on. That's slipping away, if it isn't already gone.

I brooded for months over this. Then I started thinking it through, and instead of focusing on the "being out of touch" part of what he said, I started thinking about "the art world." Something clicked and brightened my mood. There is no "the" art world anymore. There have always been many art worlds, overlapping, ebbing around and through one another. Some are seen, others only gleaned, many ignored. "The" art world has become more of a virtual reality than an actual one, useful perhaps for conceptualizing in the abstract but otherwise illusory.

Insightful, no? Here's Michael Kimmelman from 2010.

We talk about the art world these days as if everyone everywhere who appreciates art belongs to the same global tribe, united by jet travel, integrated markets and the Web. But there are many art worlds, countless ones, which often don't talk to one another, don't know or care about one another, and that are no less potent because they're not, strictly speaking, universal.

To his credit, when I pointed this out to him (with the comment, "You're rather late to this party"), Mr. Saltz was gracious.

Thank you. Actually, I do not think that in my gallery essay that I am saying ANYTHING that many people have not at least thought already. Thank you for this reference and for reading this long essay.

That said, a lot of us whose regular art-world interactions hardly touch upon New York have known about this for a long time. Here's me from 2004:

It reinforces my many-worlds theory about the art world—[the artist under discussion] is in the art world, I'm in the art world, but it's not the same art world. Our two art worlds touch but don't overlap.

So this realization has occurred to a major New York critic, and perhaps it will alter his view of the landscape. Good for him. What do the rest of us do with this insight, whenever we gathered it?

In my opinion, this is the main problem of our creative lives in the 21st century, once we've figured out how to make art of some merit. With ourselves satisfied, as much as the self-critical can ever be satisfied, who is the audience for our work, and how do we display it to them?

I wondered for a couple of decades about why people buy art—some kind of general principle that would enable me to sell mine more often. Something finally occurred to me in 2011, when I was in residence at the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation: People buy art to tokenize a relationship with an artist. There are two main exceptions to this. One is that sometimes people buy through a gallery to tokenize their relationship with the gallery. The other is that is that collectors want to cultivate a relationship to a genre—works on paper, Cuban artists, Japanese pottery, scrimshaw, you name it—and they are tokenizing their relationship to the genre by buying an associated object. Even this, though, is a social act, as it brings them into communication with other aficionados of the genre. They identify with the community that forms around it, and bond with the people who can talk intelligently about it.

The exceptions to these three reasons, I'm fairly sure, constitute a tiny minority of sales even when considered in aggregate. I'll bet that even the purchase of blue-chip art for the main purpose of storing it in a warehouse and flipping it at a future date is nevertheless partly a tokenization of a relationship with a blue-chip gallery.

I'm using tokenize here in a manner that I probably shouldn't. I mean token in the sense of "a thing serving as a visible or tangible representation of something abstract," and tokenize as "to turn that abstract something into a thing." (Tokenize means something particular to lexical analysis that I'm ignoring here with apologies to computer science.) It probably sounds too crass, but nothing else I can think of does the job: symbol, commemoration, sign, etc. are all too immaterial. The whole purpose of the transaction is to give the relationship material form.

I'm fortunate to know some patently visual people who are persuaded by no wall label, media coverage, press release, or any other such thing when it comes to looking at contemporary art. They have an eye and they use it proudly. But when it comes to exchanging money for an object, their eye is the first but not the final arbiter of the exchange. Whether they buy or not often depends on the quality of the conversation they had with the artist or the dealer. And if you don't identify on some level with, say, Mughal miniatures, you're unlikely to acquire one even if you spot a splendid example. Buying is social.

At the risk of reductionism, I would claim that the whole spectrum of interest in someone's art beyond its visuality—which ought to be the basis for it in the first place—is social. The circle that forms around that social activity defines which art world you belong to. This is not purely a commercial matter. I believe that while the number of art styles and artistically acceptable practices multiply, seemingly to infinity, the ones that have one or two dozen major participants are the only ones getting important, innovative work done. Less than that, and it's too difficult to bounce ideas or compete with your colleagues. More than that, and the group starts filling up with duds. A genre can support a lot of competent adherents even if they're not innovators or masters, but not forever, and not beyond a certain scale. Differentiating yourself—again, which ought to be primarily a visual achievement—has a social component to it. In what mode are you working, and how do you both exemplify the practice and distinguish yourself among the practitioners?

Returning to the idea of cultivating audience, the good news, if you care to think of it that way, is that we have more social tools at our disposal than ever before in history. But probably nothing substitutes for engaging real people, in public, in some manner, and the tools are best used for facilitating those interactions. How you might go about this could take a great many forms, but my favorite example these days is that of Beatriz Monteavoro and Gavin Perry. Each of them have been making distinctive art in Miami for many years. Together they are Holly Hunt. For the record, I don't think they're performing out of a need to cultivate an audience. They're having a blast, which shows in their art as well, and the audience falls in around them.

If, on the whole, you'd rather stay in your studio and make your art better, I can't say I blame you, but I wonder if you'll really be able to do so without someone both critical and sympathetic to respond to it. As John Link once put it:

The art artists do is much more a product of their environment than most care to admit. It almost seems a mistake to say that artists are the masters of their art. Individual talent and discipline are necessary conditions for great art, but hardly seem sufficient. From the time of the cave painters, you had to be painting in the right cave to make it to the level of "greatness". The more things have changed, the more that has remained the same. ... Those who painted in the Right Cave kicked the butts of those who painted in the wrong ones, that's for sure.

New Writings

At The Arts Fuse, I review "Teaching the Body" at BU:

At one time in Massachusetts, drawing was not just a pleasant, cultivated pastime—it was the law. In 1870, the state passed the Massachusetts Drawing Act, which mandated that every public school in the Commonwealth was to teach drawing. Fully titled “An Act Relating to Free Instruction of Drawing,” it also declared that any town with a population over 10,000 people was to offer drafting instruction to citizens over the age of 15.

Prior to this, as pointed out by Naomi Slipp, a PhD candidate in American Art at Boston University and curator of Teaching the Body: Artistic Anatomy in the American Academy, figure drawing instruction was hard to come by. This obliged interested parties to attend medical courses, setting a particular kind of instruction into motion that has had an effect on art all the way to the present.

In the April 2013 issue Art in America, I review Sylvia Plimack Mangold at the Norton:

Sylvia Plimack Manngold is the sort of admirable artist who discusses cobalt violet oil paint as if were as tasty as crème fraîche. This is only partly a matter of visual delectation. She has been drawing and painting the trees on her property for over three decades, and this simple yet consuming project has caused her to develop a masterful sensitivity to the materials she uses.

It's not online yet—look for it in the print edition on page 118.

Hess Opening Tomorrow

Indeed. 10:20 AM, Thursday, April 4. I do hope to see you there.

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