New York is on the verge. It’s calamitous. Culture. Economy. Society. The old triumvirate isn’t getting along. They’re faking it, retreating to the corners of a too small apartment of a too-new condo building in an area of the city that didn’t know it had been signed up for the neoliberal remodel. There is anger, and resentment. There have been betrayals, born of disrespect. Just listen to Spike Lee at Pratt Institute this past February, speaking here of the historically black neighborhoods of New York City:
‘You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it any more because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not – he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!… You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.’
Is there hope? After 12 years of Bloomberg, and eight years of Giuliani before that, it’s the age of Mayor Bill de Blasio. A Democrat. A liberal. A man of and for the people, who comes to office armed with a mixed-race family. Not a billionaire. Not a Republican. Someone who has stacked his administration with organisers and activists rather than MBA technocrats. According to a Quinnipiac poll from March of this year, 65 percent of New Yorkers are optimistic about the future with de Blasio as opposed to the 29 percent who aren’t. But when asked if their lives over the next four years will be better, worse or unchanged under the de Blasio administration, the greatest number, 38 percent, believe it will be business as usual.
And so the Great Gentrification rolls on, a juggernaut on a double-diamond slope. Apartments in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, once one of New York’s ‘toughest’ neighborhoods, now go for north of $1 million. Art people I know – critics, teachers, dealers, artists, all white – are moving to Harlem. ‘Great bones’ is how the real estate crowd unironically describes what these neighborhoods offer, as if the flesh and blood should be overlooked. Bushwick is now East Williamsburg. Williamsburg, one stop out of Manhattan along the L train, is now just an extension of Manhattan’s East Side. As is Long Island City. A couple I know are selling their apartment near Columbia University and beating it out of the city… for Singapore.
The visual arts have long been at the tip of the gentrifying plough. Newly minted MFAs and aspiring outcasts often look to such outlands for inexpensive studio and living spaces. But the speed of the speculators has picked up, and the established communities are pushing from the other direction. At a recent panel on the ‘Studio in Crisis’, Brooklyn deputy borough president Diana Reyna noted that ‘once speculators see an artist, they think: there goes the neighborhood. [Artists are] seen as the enemy in our neighborhoods, and that has to change.’ Greater community engagement might be the solution. Reyna offered the example of NURTUREArt, a Bushwick-based nonprofit that has engaged the local schools. But for individual artists, New York’s economic imperatives seem to leave less and less time for anything other than wage earning and rest. Meanwhile, the speculators lie in wait.
The Great Gentrification isn’t only centrifugal – that is, it reaches inward too, into even the most hallowed of cultural precincts.
‘Once upon a time the Museum of Modern Art was a home away from home for anybody who cared about modern art. Now it’s a fucking department store.’
‘This bland and banal scheme possesses all the presence and panache of a commercial parking garage entry.’
‘Somewhere inside me, I heard myself saying my good-byes to MoMA. I thought, I have seen the best modern museum of my generation destroyed by madness.’
That’s Jed Perl (New Republic), Martin Filler (The New York Review of Books) and Jerry Saltz (New York magazine) on Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for MoMA’s expansion into the lot currently occupied by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s 2001 building for the American Folk Art Museum, which is getting the wrecking ball. Never before in my recollection has a single proposal for a cultural product, in this case a design for a museum extension that puts an emphasis on public-facing – aka visible to the street – performance and contemporary art spaces, elicited such a ferocious and, more importantly, unified chorus of histrionic opprobrium. ‘Department store!’ ‘Parking garage!’ ‘Madness!’ To the barricades. Yes, Mr Lee, ‘You have to come with respect. There’s a code.’ If you are middle-aged and white, there’s art.
And artists. Currently sitting on a bank of the Hudson River in Chelsea lies Tony Tasset’s Artists Monument (2014), an offsite project of the 2014 Whitney Biennial (and not far from the construction site of the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano building – a different kind of ‘there goes the neighborhood’ event). Etched with 392,486 names of modern and contemporary artists, from the established to the emerging to the middling, all arrayed on technicolour panels (no black, no white, no brown), Tasset’s shipping container of pseudo-recognition gestures at equality, even collectivity. Congratulations, artists, you have made it to New York, at least in name.
Collectivity is not what Tasset’s Monument is to, however. It’s to individualism. I suspect artists will arrive like pilgrims to Mecca, and will begin their circumnavigations, but always alone, or perhaps in pairs, searching for their names, for that mark of recognition that establishes them as what they have chosen to be. Those who can’t make the journey will ask for pictures. “Look! Here you are, on the same panel as ________!” There is no class called ‘artist’ though. There is no shared project, no modernist utopia nor fidelity to some ‘evental’ eruption of the new in the offing. Which is why just as many will likely avoid the Monument, repulsed by their shared polarities.
It is an interesting number nevertheless: 392,486. According to the 2014 European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) Art Market Report, it’s almost the exact midpoint between the world’s population of high-net-worth (roughly 600,000) and ultra-high-net-worth (roughly 200,000) individuals. It’s the latter, those with more than $30 million in ‘liquid’ assets, who buy the most expensive art and account for the greatest share of the estimated $60 billion market, but the HNWIs, those with $10m, contribute their share too. According to Knight Frank’s Global Cities Survey, which ranks the world’s cities according to how hospitable they are to the global rich, New York, right now second place to London in the overall rankings (but first for ‘economic activity’), will gain the overall top spot by 2024, increasing its numbers of UHNWIs, currently about 3,000, by about 30 percent.
That’s $114b in wealth in ten years’ time calling New York City home. Add to that the HNWI’s roughly $12 billion on the next rung down the ladder and you have the makings of a trickle-down city where money flows easily at the very top but largely evaporates by the time it reaches anything below the second or third percentile of earners.
In the artworld, this translates into big dollars spent at the big November and May auctions, and at the top galleries, especially those that don’t feel the need to vie for the top spot in this magazine’s yearly rankings – that is, the Goodmans, the Gladstones, the Coopers, the Marks – because they’re confident the money will be there when all is said and done. It’s the structural causality behind Christopher D’Amelio closing his gallery and partnering with David Zwirner, and behind Jessie Washburne-Harris and Michael Lieberman closing their gallery (which represented Karl Haendel and Matt Saunders) and joining, respectively, Metro Pictures and Marianne Boesky. ‘Patrimonial capitalism’ is what the economist Thomas Piketty calls it. In New York City, it’s the wellspring of the Great Gentrification.
Against this backdrop, gallery movements (Gagosian to the Lower East Side!), new professional affiliations (former Christie’s Contem-porary Art honcho Amy Cappellazzo to partner with uber adviser Allan Schwartzman!) and academic migrations (David Joselit ditches Yale for the Graduate Center at City University!) are just the rosy epiphenomena (can you hear Frank Sinatra? “New York, Neew Yooooork!”) of a wave – fast, hard, high – on which we are all being driven towards an unknown shore. Will New York’s artworld shatter against the gilded rocks of speculation and status? Or will its formidable ranks of artists, dealers, directors and thinkers manage to surf this inevitable swell in a demonstration of fitness, talent and guts that is worthy of this most improbable of places?
Once upon a time it was regular custom for New York parents to give their children an extra wad of small bills to carry in their pockets when they went off to school. It was called mugger money, the informal fee one paid to walk the streets between ‘nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight’ and sometime soon after the end of the David Dinkins administration (1993). Kids in those days were adults, worldly in ways that only ten frightening blocks could test.
The Great Gentrification has done away with such quaint scenes, for which leisurely art walks on the avenue were backdrops. Everyone has gone to their corners, including Culture, Economy and Society. One almost wants to look to the western horizon, to whisper the words attributed to the great educator and publisher Horace Greeley: ‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.’ And yet…
Excuse me, how does it go, Mr Lee? Oh, that’s right: ‘Get the fuck outta here!’
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of ArtReview.
The flap that erupted after the collector and entrepreneur Stefan Simchowitz was identified as Public Enemy No 1 in Katya Kazakina’s article about ‘art flippers’ (that species of collector who buys and sells quickly in search of profits) on Bloomberg.com this past February took a dark turn at the beginning of April, and it should make us pause a moment and rethink the stakes involved in our arguments about art, money, markets and value. But first, the turn itself:
On 3 April, Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor published a short roundup of recent commentary by Andrew Goldstein, whose interview with Simchowitz on Artspace.com is what originally goaded critic Jerry Saltz to pen a takedown of Simchowitz over atNew York Magazine’s Vulture blog, and Kenny Schachter to defend Simchowitz in theNew York Observer’s Gallerist blog by showing how his speculative dealing strategies are just the latest in a long line of such activities that reaches back to Duchamp.
In this regard the content of Maneker’s post was benign enough – it merely pointed to some choice quotes from Schachter and Goldstein – but it ran under the title of ‘L’Affaire Simchowitz’, which one must assume was meant to raise the spectre of the Dreyfus affair and anti-Semitism, though whose anti-Semitism exactly it would be hard to say.
Then a day later Simchowitz himself posted to his Facebook page a quote that linked to the Wikipedia entry for Werner Sombart, a German economist who, in 1911, published a book titled The Jews and Modern Capitalism. The quote itself didn’t come from that entry, but from the one for ‘Economic Antisemitism’, where it is written that ‘Werner Sombart concluded that the perceptions of cheating or dishonesty were simply a manifestation of Christian frustration at innovative commercial practices of Jews, which were contrary to custom and tradition of the Christian merchants, but were otherwise ethical.’ Simchowitz writes that the quote and link were sent to him by a friend who wished to remain anonymous, but he nevertheless felt compelled to post it under his own name and so to spread the insinuation that other forces, anti-Semitic ones, are in play.
Never mind that Sombart is speaking of Christian merchants’ attitudes in the early modern era, or that what he actually concludes is that if you look ‘through the catalogue of “sins” laid at the door of the Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries, you will find nothing in it that the trader of today does not regard as right and proper, nothing that is not taken as a matter of course in every business’. Sombart’s work, it’s worth pointing out, was in large part a response to Max Weber’s better-known The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), and it sought to position Judaism as a positive guiding force in the development of modern economic liberalism. ‘Throughout the centuries,’ Sombart writes, ‘the Jews championed the cause of individual liberty in economic activities against the dominating views of the time.’
Now, the implications are clear: the slights that Simchowitz suffered after espousing his ‘disruptive’ views on the art marketplace (galleries are monopolies that are dragging artists down, money is the best publicity, and so on) are driven by an unspoken anti-Semitism that pervades critics’ opposition to that marketplace in their orthodox commitment to art’s pursuit of the good and the true and the beautiful. And if Sombart’s work is meant to license an expansion of this logic, then any moves to hamper (neo)liberal economic activity may themselves be viewed as having anti-Semitism – however unconscious, however unspoken – as their animating force.
The insinuations are gross, and the implications contradictory, when not outright stupid (Communism was a Jewish conspiracy too, after all). Simchowitz may have been inelegant in the way he promoted his interests and enthusiasms for profiting off the work of up-and-coming artists, and he is too confident in his own success (as many newly minted millionaires often are), but he’s an advocate of art and artists in his own way, and there must be a place for him and his ideas in the discussion of art’s value both in and out of the marketplace. Trot out hackneyed and false paranoias, however, and you trivialise and cheapen that discussion before it can truly begin.
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of ArtReview.
Michael Fullerton’s first exhibition at Greene Naftali, in 2006, was titled Get Over Yourself, an admonishment no doubt directed at artist and audience alike. It’s a phrase most often leveled when our interpretative or creative flights of fancy become overbearing; and if delivered just right, ‘Get over yourself’ can shine like a klieg light on even the best shit-into-Shinola thinking, revealing it for the turd-work it really is.
Such quick reversals are key to Meaning, Inc. as well, primarily because almost all of the work in the show – predominantly very well-executed portrait paintings, some in greater states of finish than others – comes across as a kind of set up. The portraits, each of different kinds of media types and icons (the victims and villains of our age of image power), are accompanied by lengthy wall texts that explain just who each figure is. Everything is laid bare, clear, including the feeling that someone is tugging at the rug beneath our feet.
There is the portrait, for example, of Samuel Goldwyn, The Producer (all work 2013), one of the founders of MGM. The wall text tells us how Goldwyn was born Gelbfisz in Poland and details his many successes as a Hollywood producer as well as how his name will forever be associated with MGM’s roaring-lion production logo. That logo isn’t pictured here, but a large screenprint diptych of a spotlit lion in profile appears in Trade-Mark, and a silkscreened closeup of another lion’s face constitutes the extent of This is Not Symbolic, This is Real (Lion From Majete Wildlife Reserve). But of course this picture is symbolic, not least in its non-symbolism when presented in the context of MGM, and Trade-Mark gets its double valence not only from the fact that it pictures the same lion twice but also from the right-hand print of the diptych, which emphasizes the streaks and registration effects that are signatures of the silkscreen process – ‘trade marks,’ get it?
There are other ‘ciphers’ at work, as in Ciphers I & II (Jean Harlow, MGM circa 1936), which picture the iconic ‘blonde bombshell,’ Jean Harlow, who died in 1937, as the wall text tells us, in the middle of filming Saratoga. Doubles were used to finish the film. The two most presumably indecipherable works in the show, Two Stars, Two Magnitudes (Polaris Due North. The traversal of Regulus, Due East Between 2001 hrs and 0302 hrs), which consists of two green lasers, one describing a line on the wall, the other a point, and Working Maquette for a Sculpture Entitled “Formalism – Sucking Corporate Cock Since 1968”, a cube of red, blue, and white police strobe lights, are pretty well explained by their titles.
For something to have meaning it requires two things: difference, a gap or interval between the thing itself and its representation (be it in paint, print, or memory); and intent, a will that animates that interval, that stands behind the gap. As all of the doubling in Meaning, Inc. would indicate, Fullerton is fascinated by meaning’s interval, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but his work risks a paradox of the ‘This-statement-is-false’ variety: if we take the work at face value, then we’re likely missing it’s meaning; and if we look past the work for that meaning, then we’re likely missing the work. Perhaps such irresolvable skepticism is what we’re meant to associate with the ‘Inc.’ of the show’s title. But then again, perhaps we’re just meant to get over ourselves.
This review appeared in the April 2014 issue of ArtReview.
Feel like taking a flyer with a spare $10,000? Let Brussels-based Jean-Baptiste Bernadet be your wingman. Made a couple moves on stock tips early this year and now you’re circling the block looking to park that extra $100K? Mark Flood will be your valet. Oh, you were on the other side of those trades and are now letting those margin calls go straight to voicemail? #Sellnow your Oscar Murillo (lucky dog) and live to speculate another day. Holding Banksy? (Schmuck.) #Liquidate – best to lock in the losses and the humiliation now and hope that Art Basel’s VIP list manager still remembers how to spell your name come June.
I like to imagine that in some corner of the contemporary art world someone actually talks like this. It makes it easier to complain about the sinister effects of the ‘market’ when their cause is some used-car salesman who has read too much Nietzsche, or the 1%, or some other similarly stupid reduction of the problem. Nevertheless, when a new website, such as the wonderfully provocative SellYouLater™ comes along, and those dark imaginings stare back at us from the distant reaches of the Internet, we have a tendency to be taken aback. No one would really do this would they? Rank artists using some ‘qualitatively rated metrics’ that spit out trading-floor mantras – ‘BUY NOW’! ‘LIQUIDATE’! – all appropriately hashtagged for increased social-media stickiness? It’s just, so, tasteless.
Funny, Matisse said nearly the same thing about Picasso’s Demoiselles. Well, he actually called it Picasso’s ‘hoax’, and in those terms, SellYouLater™ may be the most modernist of art-market sites. It is spare, yellow, gridded, like Mondrian’s Broadway minus the Boogie Woogie, and it’s bent on confrontation. It’s wager appears to be that intrigue and outrage are enough to drive traffic, gain attention, and, presumably, at some point, turn a profit. If Artnet can sell its reports on individual artist’s markets for $186 each, and Josh Baer can charge $250 for a subscription to his insider-ish ‘industry newsletter’, then there is money to be made as a purveyor of art-trading data, and perhaps even more if one’s methodology remains proprietary. Placebo effects aside, do you still call it ‘snake oil’ if it works?
The great disappointment of SellYouLater™ is not that it exists, however, but that it’s creators appear to be too cowardly to stand up and take a bow. Beside remaining anonymous, they have made the rather pusillanimous choice of hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask, which is the icon that appears on the site’s accompanying Instagram page and in the tab of its browser window. How to understand this? The membership of the global hacktivist group Anonymous, which has waged its crusades under the banner of Fawkes’s grin, might remain mysterious, but their actions, when they reach the public stage at least, bespeak clear intent and strong principle (just ask the Church of Scientology).
The most we can say of SellYouLater™ is that it may be offering straight-up art market analytics. But it may also be a hoax. Or a work of art. Preferably a kind of tactical intervention, a mimetic exacerbation in quintessential avant-garde style of what many view as an increasingly venal marketplace for the fruits of some artists’ labours, fruits that are meant to be venerated for their embodiment of the liberty – in matter, in life, in spirit – that most of us can only hope to experience a tragically few times in our lives. Would that it were so, because from the reactions on Facebook and Twitter, apparently believing that SellYouLater™ is real is just too great a burden for us, and for art, to bear.
When, exactly, did we become so terrorized by the boogeymen of the art market?
We would be better served by asking what happens to that liberty when its avatars are bought and sold like stock. I’m not at all convinced that anything does happen to it. A work of art is not like the Nobel Prize. Buying one doesn’t compromise what it stands for. If our ideal of art, why and how it matters, were that fragile, that easily corrupted, one can hardly believe that it would have remained with us for so long.
NOTE: This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of ArtReview. Since publication, sellyoulater.com has become artrank.com and has proven to be, on the face of it, a genuine business dedicated to selling information. Whether it began with this intent in mind remains an open question, as it likely was for its creator, who has now been revealed as the young dealer Carlos Rivera. That Rivera’s site trumpets transparency from behind the bulwark of a proprietary, and so secret, algorithm that supposedly runs its rankings, is, to be certain, an instance of high cynicism.
By all accounts, David Scanavino is enjoying a successful career trajectory, having exhibited his work consistently in solo and group shows since graduating from Yale’s MFA program in 2003. Museum recognition is gaining. Both the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis and the Aldrich Contemporary in Connecticut are showing his work this year. More press is soon to follow.
It’s understandable. Scanavino’s work is smart without sacrificing either aesthetics or impact. Linoleum, in all of its many unappetizing colors, is a signature material, configured as wall and floor pieces. Heavy rope is cast in Ultracal of various different configurations. Pulped newspapers are applied directly to gallery walls, the taupe colors an aggregate of the papers’ print and photo inks. More recently, Scanavino has turned to colored construction papers of the kind one finds in art classrooms, producing pieces that will call to mind Ellsworth Kelly.
It would be foolish to attempt to understand any of Scanavino’s pieces apart from the rest, as each exhibition is often a fully considered work unto itself. What animates his arrangements is a concern with ‘imprinting’, manifested literally in the rope casts and finger and thumb prints of the paper-pulp works as much as it is figuratively in the linoleum so common to the institutional environments – schools, libraries, low-level municipal offices – that press on us with their authority.
That’s just a taste of what makes Scanavino’s work smart, but don’t underestimate its playfulness, which is the resource that Scanavino will be able to draw on for many exhibitions to come.
This article appeared in the March 2014 (‘Future Greats’) issue of ArtReview.
President Obama came in for a drubbing when he mentioned during a speech at a GE plant in Wisconsin earlier this year that one could probably make a better income in manufacturing than with an art-history degree. The president quickly backtracked, but it’s hard to un-ring that bell, given how people with art-history degrees have a tendency to pay attention to news and politics, and have laptops and Twitter accounts.The president’s remarks called to mind a similar dismissal, this one made by presumably-not-an-art-history-major Edward Conard, Mitt Romney’s former partner at Bain Capital, who, in a 2012 interview with Adam Davidson of The New York Times, chose ‘art-history majors’ as a derisive shorthand for well-educated kids who opt out of the high-risk-taking, high-reward producing economy – an economy that would generate greater innovation and wealth, Conard argues in his book Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong (2012), if we would stop taxing and regulating and even charitably donating.
For Conard, our current patterns of inequality are not unequal enough. The greater the economic rewards for capital-risk-taking, the more ‘art-history majors’ would be induced to give up the safety of their minor gardens of knowledge, irrigated as they are by the innovations (information technology) and wealth (that goes to pay museum, gallery and studio bills) of others.
On this logic, if Conard had to be for anyone in the field of the arts, he would be for the artists. Artists, after all, are in the business of leveraging capital of different kinds in order to produce something innovative (dare one say ‘new’?), often underwritten by some sense of societal welfare (be it through pleasure or use), and usually with significant risks involved (few risks are as dearly felt as the one of being ignored). However much one would like to compare artists to knowledge workers in today’s flexible and precarious marketplace, it remains that artists, more than art historians, and more than even highly skilled laborers in the manufacturing industries, can still envision a direct path of social mobility to the upper class.
Art-history majors, on the other hand, to the extent that they become art historians or, more likely, take on other wage-based positions, cannot and often do not entertain such mobility. This is not to suggest that they are choosing or want a life of impoverishment. Only that it is likely a defining trait of art-history majors and their ilk that they have given up the promise of some social mobility for a life of service. For example, service to the cultivation of the intellect or the passion one has for art, or for the institution or field of culture or knowledge that supports it, but service nonetheless, which – and this is the crucial point – requires casting off self-aggrandisement as either means or end.
Some, such as Conard, will no doubt scoff at such an idea of service, privileged as it may be and as safe as it may seem, certainly in comparison to the heroics of private equity. But the value of an art-history degree lies in that choice between self-aggrandisement and service.
This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of ArtReview.
David Lynch probably deserves more recognition as a visual artist than he currently receives, but that recognition cannot but shrink from the bright light of his reputation as a filmmaker. Lynch’s work in film is an idiolect within the Hollywood system, a language all its own that only its maker can speak and understand. Devotees of his work – and I count myself among that number; Wild at Heart (1990) hit me as I imagine the spear tip of Bernini’s angel hit Saint Teresa – are rewarded only as consumers. Just as you can’t crib from Kafka, so singular was his applied imagination, you can’t even emulate Lynch. His vision may be even more singular: The derivative ‘Lynchian’ doesn’t explain anything. It’s more likely uttered when, uncomfortably stimulating as it might have been, we haven’t a clue as to what we’ve just witnessed.
So what’s up with the paintings? The centrepiece of Lynch’s show is titled Airplane and Tower (2013), which is exactly what it shows, cartoonishly though, with entire tubes of Titanium white and Payne’s grey sacrificed to the canvas’s more than three-metre expanse. The plane, something like a B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ as a child might draw it (note the signature cockpit ‘bubble’), aims right and down, as if to hit the tower, whose heavy timbers also give it a midcentury feel. A predecessor to the US Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress the B-36 was the first Cold War weapon of mass destruction (after the bomb itself of course). It began flying in 1949, three years after Lynch was born, and was designed to deliver an intercontinental nuclear payload without needing to stop for refuelling.
Is this the stuff of Lynch’s nightmares? Does one even dare ponder the bubbling murk of that man’s unconscious? (Relatedly, is it any wonder that Lynch is such a vocal advocate and generous patron of transcendental meditation? Anything to keep the hounds at bay, I guess.) The planes reappear in similar station elsewhere (Airplanes, Airplane and Dumptruck, Bingo, all 2013), but never with any more gusto. The childlike execution – one could say ‘deskilled’ – pervades, and is best served by the series of ink-on-paper works that come closest to schematics or storyboards – eg, Red Man Does Magic Near His House or He Has His Tools and His Chemicals (also 2013). Less iconographically fraught, these pieces actually let the material – the bleeding ink, the stained paper – do some work. Recall that one can’t represent the unconscious, only let it erupt, and only in the place where it has always been (‘Wo es war, soll Ich werden,’ as Freud would say).
Lynch really should stick to works on paper. Brett Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center in New York, has curated two side rooms of work from Lynch’s archives of drawings and photographs (under the heading of Naming), and it’s based on what Littman has dug up that Lynch deserves his card-carrying visual-artist credentials. The photographs will be interesting for those who have always wondered what Eugène Atget would make of 1970s and 80s Los Angeles. But it’s Lynch’s little watercolours that surprise. Particularly the undated As It Was and Is It True, echoes of Wols or early Dubuffet here that are all the more unsettling without that safe shore of chronology. They are rather fresh and fecund patches of authenticity among garden-variety work that looks like what someone thought looked like what the filmmaker ‘David Lynch’ might make.
This review was originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of ArtReview.
Why should a forgery be valued less than an authentic work of art? It’s a question that has recently been renewed for debate by Blake Gopnik (formerly of Newsweek and now at work on a biography of Andy Warhol), who wrote an op-ed for The New York Times last November titled ‘In Praise of Art Forgeries’. Gopnik makes a case for fakes as legitimate works of art by having us think of them as works that the original artists ‘happened not to have gotten around to’ making. To make such works, the argument goes, the artist-cum-forger must inhabit the ‘ideas’ of the predecessor artist, as embodied in the predecessor’s work, and if it’s the ideas that matter (as Gopnik is right to believe they do), then why concern ourselves with whose name is attached, as it would be irrelevant to the work’s effects?
It’s important to note that at the outset Gopnik makes a common distinction between two senses of ‘value’: ‘while forgery is very clearly an economic crime,’ Gopnik writes, ‘it may not always be an artistic or aesthetic one’. Economic or market value is different from artistic or aesthetic value. For Gopnik, as for many commentators on art and its markets (pretty much everyone nowadays), this is a commonplace, and it’s particularly helpful when considering the problem of fakes, as the distinction offers an easy logic: if market value is what matters, then forgeries are a problem; if aesthetic value is what matters, then they’re not. And so an argument ‘in praise of forgeries’ is really an argument condemning the market, which is what Gopnik’s piece is actually about.
But the problem here is not whether or not forgeries are (for markets) or aren’t (for art) a problem, it’s the claim that ‘value’ as such can be separated into two or more competing values. This ‘separatist thesis’, as I’ll call it, draws its energy from our habit of thinking of art and aesthetics as something other than, or opposed to, the market and economics, or to anything else for that matter. It’s an old habit, and it received its strongest articulation in Kant’s critical philosophy, where aesthetic experience involved either the recognition of something’s ‘purposive purposelessness’, which would make it ‘beautiful’, or the recog-nition of our own capacities of cognition in the face of something ‘contrapurposive’, which would make it ‘sublime’, and where, in either case, the question was one of ends as opposed to means: art, judged as such, had to be an end in itself, autonomous rather than determined, just as we are.
Separatists go wrong when they think of this autonomy – of the aesthetic or the subject – as securing a category of things, such as art, that is delinked from other categories of engagement or knowledge. Kant’s aesthetic was meant to bridge pure and practical reason; that is, how we know what we know and what we ought to do with that knowledge. Ought we to disregard who made a work of art, or when it was made, or in what milieu? Do we properly regard it if we do? Isn’t just being interested in what something looks or feels like to us by definition superficial and solipsistic (and, ideologically speaking, akin to commodification)? Such was the danger of Kant’s aesthetic autonomy to begin with: drawing everything back to a transcendental subject hazarded incoherence. What kind of subject, or art, is it that isn’t situated in the world where we and art and, most importantly, value reside?
Knowing that a work that looks like a Rothko is not one matters, not just to the market, but to the art, which is why it should matter to us. The relationship we have to a work of art is to what it’s about – not merely to what it looks or feels like to us, to whether it gives us pleasure or not, but to what it itself is wholly about. And that relationship – call it knowledge – is formed on the ongoing basis of a kind of trust, a fidelity to honest representation.
What, for example, is the value of a marriage after one learns of a spouse’s adultery? In the wake of such enlightenment, it’s only the spouse’s most superficial beauty that could remain in the eyes of the beholder (provided that extramarital gigs weren’t part of the original arrangement). It would also be a dishonest interpretation of that relationship that held it unchanged or somehow equivalent. Knowledge, in its many senses, matters.
It’s true that we can appreciate being duped or taken, but only when what we’ve ventured can be let go lightly (what are titles in the face of talent?). Adherents to the separatist thesis can let go of things like attribution, or history, because these things are of little value to them, as are prices. But the fullest sense of a work of art’s value cannot let go of these things, because the fullest sense of that value, the most honest interpretation of it, requires that both the aesthetics and the economics, as well as other things, such as history, politics, ethics, be taken into account in one coherent and mutually reinforcing assessment. Separatism can only diminish such an assessment, and so, in the end, art’s value.
This article was first published in the January/February 2014 issue of ArtReview.
Alain de Botton & John Armstrong
Art as Therapy,
Phaidon, £24.95 (hardcover)
The only thing prettier than the pictures in Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy is the writing. I’m not as familiar with Armstrong, but de Botton is a master of thoughtful yet unmannered English with just enough crass and sometimes vulgar colloquialism thrown in to keep one from walking out of the auditorium. For example, in a section on ‘Rebalancing’, which is really an extended passage on the moral lessons that can be learned from art, the authors – but de Botton I suspect – have this to say about the photographer Eve Arnold’s Divorce in Moscow (1966):
The task for artists… is to find new ways of prizing open our eyes to tiresomely familiar, but critically important, ideas about how to lead a balanced and good life. It is no easy task to keep making what is hellish vivid: the attempt can easily yield just formulaic horror, which ends up touching no one, until a skillful artist like Arnold stops us in our tracks with an image that brings home what is truly at stake when we let ourselves and others down. We might long to hang her work in the bedroom or the kitchen, in just the right place so that it can be seen when one is tempted to say in anger, ‘Well, that suits me fine, let’s just fucking get divorced. See you in court’ (38-42).
This passage is at once typical and unique: typical of the book’s intention of convincing us that art has a therapeutic role to play in ameliorating our diminished modern lives (Armstrong and de Botton take us to be at turns bored, haggard, impatient, fretful, scattered, etc.); unique in that it’s one of the few places where the authors exhort artists themselves to rise to the moral promise of their practices.
Far more common, though, enough so that it should be taken as the book’s very purpose, are passages that explain how ‘we’ – meaning us, the readership, or more grandly, the public – have been getting art all wrong all this time when we have sought to learn about and to understand its methods and histories, to know it by knowing the cultures and contexts that gave rise to it, to think about it through the eyes and the minds of the artists that produced it. For what, the authors ask, can those methods and histories, those contexts and cultures, those eyes and minds possibly tell us about our lives, about our selves. Art, if it is to have any virtue, must be about us.
What else should one expect from a self-help treatise dressed up as a coffee-table art book? Alain de Botton has created a cottage industry out of high-brow life coaching, and Art as Therapy is only the most recent offering – the industry would call this a ‘vehicle’ – of de Botton’s School of Life, a purveyor of pamphlets and classes and trinkets that promise low-amplitude emotional uplift with light erudition, good design, and other narcissistically small differences thrown in. Call it the ethics of ‘taste’ (but didn’t Nietzsche have something to say about this?).
The question of art’s moral value, it’s moral purpose, is indeed an important one. The recent resurgence of intellectual attention to questions of ethics and morality more generally, all stimulated, one suspects, by a decade of economic and military adventurism and its hangovers, would seem to put de Botton and Armstrong in company with such serious moral philosophers as Ronald Dworkin and Michael Sandel—that is, until one reads in Art and Therapy that, for example, one of the ‘great number of shortcomings’ of capitalism is that ‘there is an astonishing array of chocolate bars for sale’ rather than services that would ‘help us to deal with the causes of domestic rows’ (162). Can they be serious? If the size of the self-help section at any local chain bookstore or the numbers of couples counselors depicted in popular television and movies are any indication, capitalism is very much interested in helping us out on the domestic front. That there is room in the world for Art and Therapy, as well as the School of LIfe that it serves, should be a testament to that.
If a single epigraph could sum up just what Art as Therapy is after, it would be Matisse’s little quip that art should be like a comfortable armchair for the tired businessman. Armstrong and de Botton’s aspirations are no doubt larger than this, but the sensibility is exactly the same. When in 1964 Calvin Tompkins asked Marcel Duchamp about the Matisses that adorned his home, Duchamp responded: ‘Well, they belong to my wife, and I accept them. And also, you know, the surroundings in which you live in my case don’t interest or bother me at all. I could live with the worst calendar picture, and with any sort of furniture, because I never put taste in my life. Taste is an experience that I try not to let come into my life.’ Perhaps Duchamp needed therapy – Armstrong and de Botton must think so – but I suspect not.
This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of ArtReview.
Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969), a seminal work in the canon of American avant-garde film, can be taken as an example both of modernist reflexivity – it is a film about a film, in a sense – and the libidinal cinephilia that courses through the veins of filmmakers of the ‘independent persuasion’ (Annette Michelson’s wonderful phrase) no less than their devotees. Jacobs’s camera caresses and peruses the surface of an earlier artefact of film’s history in a manner that only someone with a deep desire for the medium might do. And ‘desire’ is the word. Not ‘love’, which is too respect-laden an emotion to allow for the kind of mistreatment to which mistresses are subject while ‘loves’ are not.
Pearl Vision (2012), a video that Leckey produced during a residency at the Hammer Museum, exhibits a similar kind of cinephilia, but in Leckey’s case the desire isn’t so much for film itself but for digital video’s capacity for analysis and capture. To revive that old distinction of Walter Benjamin’s, if Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son is magical, involving a laying on of hands without ever compromising the body of film, Leckey’s work is surgical, laying bare the body of moving-image work as light, movement and sync sound.
Much might be made of the object here. Pearl Vision is the brand and model name of the snare drum that stars in the work. We see through it, the way one sees through a kaleidoscope perhaps. And we penetrate it in the manner that endoscopic procedures penetrate the body, as if through a keyhole. We also see the drummer, but never all of him, just his legs, both clothed (in red trousers) and unclothed, in their natural male hirsuteness. We hear the snap, snap, snap of the drumsticks’ report, but on other occasions we see only the drumsticks’ motion, the object of their ballistic arcs having been removed temporarily from the scene. It’s all pretty compelling to watch.
The problem is that Pearl Vision is not the only work offered here, even within the space of the video itself. On Pleasure Bent is billed as a trailer for a more autobiographical work of Leckey’s to come. The video begins with a different, far less coherent set of scenes, which have something to do with picturing Leckey’s memories of his childhood. They’re culled from footage of the 1970s and succumb to all the clichéd conventions of music-video montage in order to ‘suggest’ a mood and a portent – presumably of the artist. The cardboard ‘standees’ – those advertising constructs, like potted plants, that one can still find in odd corners of movie theatre lobbies – that accompany the video are also meant to offer such suggestions, but these merely ‘stand for’ and so picture the kind of truss-work towers that carry high-tension electrical lines (goodness, did the artist have to look at these growing up?). The looped animations on LED screens are similarly pat.
Save for Pearl Vision, On Pleasure Bent smacks a bit too much of art school – although one suspects that the art school implicated here is of the ‘curatorial persuasion’, the kind that wants to look smart rather than be it.
This review was first published in the December 2013 issue of ArtReview.