Yuri Ancarani, Il Capo [still] (2010)
Few people outside of film circles in the United States will be familiar with Yuri Ancarani’s work, and one hopes this series of short films, which is being screened continuously at the Hammer Museum, will remedy that fact. Rather than showing Ancarani’s works intermittently as part of a regular schedule and larger lineup, which museum film programs are wont to do, the Hammer has three of his best works, Il Capo (2010), Piattaforma Luna (2011) and Da Vinci (2012), a trilogy that the artist calls La Malattia del Ferro (The Disease of Iron), on continuous view in a single side-gallery appointed with comfortable beanbag seating that suggests one should get comfortable. And indeed one should.
Ancarani, born in Ravenna and living and working in Milan, has been showing his work in art exhibitions for more than a decade, but since 2009 his films have been making the festival rounds, and awards have been stacking up. Spend just a little time with Il Capo and one understands why. This film is ‘about’ the operations of a Carrara marble quarry and the grizzly but sad-eyed foreman who directs the excavators that break off enormous, impossibly geometric slabs of the rock. The soundtrack consists only of the hacking roars of the excavators’ engines and the piercing clanks of metal on metal and loud knocks of metal on stone, all punctuated by moments of seeming near silence when the foreman surveys the cuts just made. In one sequence, he stands in front of a wall of marble, which an excavator gradually takes down from behind and below to reveal the mountain quarry’s opposite slope, dusted white with what look like grains of light.
Piattaforma Luna goes from the extreme environment of the quarry to the no less extreme containment of a deep-sea mining operation, where Ancarani’s camera is trained on a group of divers who move around their cramped, pressurized quarters with careful deliberation. The only sound here comes from the constant hum of the rig’s environmental controls and the occasional squawk of the divers’ voices, rendered comically high-pitched from the mix of helium in the air they need to breathe at such depths. Da Vinci opts for even more claustrophobia as it records the actions of a da Vinci Surgical System – a robotic platform that doctors use to keep major surgeries minimally invasive – at work inside a patient’s body.
Ancarani is not afraid of the still camera and the centered shot. This formal language, combined with his favoring of ambient, synched sound and far-from-equilibrium environments, gives the trilogy its signature definition. If Il Capo remains king here, though, it’s only because the beauty and the violence of that film is less contained than in the other two. The vastness of its geological scale, of its brute industry, is more palpable than the fluid dynamics of Piattaforma Luna or the invisible electronics of Da Vinci. Yet, because this is a trilogy, one needs to recognize how the technological refinement of ‘excavation’, for which the films together serve as a kind of allegory, is not really, or not only, progress – these scenes and their actors are all contemporaries – but a kind of repression as well. The deeper we go into the interior of the earth or the body to excise or extract the things we need or want – or, in the case of Da Vinci, the things we don’t want – the less of us we are apt or able to see.
Frank Stella, Puffed Star II (2014)
What should we make of Puffed Star II (2014)? Well, for one, it’s big: almost six metres high and wide. It’s shiny too: pure polished aluminium. And it’s regularly geometric: a 20-pointed, equal-sided star with protuberant – ‘puffed’ – planes. If it hadn’t been made by Frank Stella, one could be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Koons had turned his attention to Christmas- tree decorations. That might be good for Koons, but it’s not for Stella. In all fairness to Jeff, he would never allow chipped tips or misaligned facets to make it into the public eye (Puffed Star has both). In all fairness to Frank, he likely could care less; merchandise has never been his thing.
But then what is his thing here? Puffed Star II is juxtaposed with a similarly sized work from nearly 20 years ago, Fishkill (1995), whose geometries are as far from regular as one might get. A car wreck of cast stainless steel, Fishkill shows how Stella embraced digital modeling and manufacture early, but only as part of a sustained attack on the formal coherence that had dictated his earliest painting series and which Puffed Star II resumes.
The tension between regular geometries and irregularity is taken up more singularly in K.150 (2014), a ‘tabletop’ sculpture of digitally printed ABS, a thermoplastic that is a staple of the rapid-prototyping industry. K.150 delights in the sectioning and intersectioning of regular three-dimensional forms: Stella’s newfound star form is present, twice, one in Irish green and the other in cyan. Both have been sliced by the digital knife and merged with a series of circular springs, apparently a favorite form for CAD jockeys in training. All of this is held up by a folded, polka-dotted plane, which returns the work, at least rhetorically, to the problem of relief, with which Stella has con- tended in one form or another for decades. As if to push the point home, K.150 is placed next to Creutzwald(1992), a duo of earlier mangled steel constructions, one compact, the other winglike, situated on a low base.
These pairings are unsubtle to say the least, but that’s a complaint about curating, about the logic of selection, not the logic of the work. Stella deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the new pieces, and here the comparisons to the earlier work are helpful, at least as heuristics. Because what the new works speak to is the kind of techno-utopia that has largely been confined to screens, both film and computer, but which is coming to the civilian sphere in the form of MakerBot and other 3D printers, the capacities of which K.150 is just an advanced example. If the historical works in this show speak to the apocalyptic obdurateness of heavy metal, then Puffed Star II and K.150 speak to the formal promiscuity of our plastic future, which will be big on shape, but lack weight, let alone substance. The works are there, and yet their being there, or here – their being at all – seems inconsequential. That, this, is what the world of 3D printing promises, and Stella has been ahead of his time before.
Tara Donovan, Untitled (2014)
Tara Donovan’s recent work does not hold up to the promise of what she was making a decade ago. The two large sculptures (both untitled, both 2014) occupying one of Pace’s 25th Street galleries are impressive feats of labour, and like much of Donovan’s sculpture, they are remark- ably mimetic evocations of organic forms, in these cases a monumental profusion of quartz or salt crystals and a series of towering stalag- mites. And that’s the problem: these sculptures have been made largely to look like the outcomes of certain kinds of physical processes or conditions, while the process or condition that is actually on display – and which the sculptures in some sense must be about because they broad- cast it through their accumulation of identical (in the case of the stalagmites) or similar (in the case of the crystals) units of construction (styrene index cards in the case of the stalagmites; acrylic rods in the case of the crystals) – is the repetitive labour expended in producing them.
Anyone familiar with Donovan’s work of the last 15 years will recognize the signature decision-making: find a mass-produced unit, one with little, if any, cultural specificity – no plastic water bottles or Coke cans here – and then find a way to combine that unit with itself to achieve an unexpected yet familiar form. In the best cases, what was unexpected were the capacities of the units to combine of their own accord, as with Donovan’s Untitled (Toothpicks) and Untitled (Pins) (both 2004), where static friction between the units themselves when massed into a cubic form was enough to hold them in place. And then there were effects that the combined units sometimes produced, as with Haze (2003), an ineffable surface built from translucent plastic drinking straws stacked perpendicular to the wall. What these works demonstrated was that, with a deep sensitivity to material potentials, quantitative changes can produce qualitative transformations, that differences in degree can become differences in kind, that, in short, more is different.
Not so with the new work, where the equation is nothing more than quantity is quality. The more labour on display (and the bigger the thing gets) the more valuable the thing becomes. The striking mimesis of natural forms is presumably what then qualifies it as ‘art’, but it also interrupts our recognition of the material potential that is actually at work in the work: all of that repetitive, unskilled labour. That stacks of index cards can be made to look like stalagmites is a testament to Donovan’s feeling for novelty. That this is the only feeling issuing from her new work, though, is unfortunate, especially at a time when questions of work and labour are more pressing than ever.
One doesn’t want to say that labour is what Donovan more self-consciously needs to make her work about; in its present state, and on the evidence of these two new works, it cannot but be about it, and how Donovan chooses to address this labour and the ends that it serves must be accounted for. Making it look natural, and so somehow neutral, is no accounting at all.
Point of View: Do we moan about the dominance of the market over art to cover up the fact that we’re just too timid to value art ourselves?
Leigh Ledare, Double Bind (2010/2012)
Artists curious to understand what ‘commitment’ means in the practice, let alone the discourse, of the visual arts, would be wise to pay close attention to the work of Leigh Ledare, because no other young artist I’m aware of approaches artmaking with as much honesty as he does. But of course such words of praise demand defence.
This is easily mounted with the resources of the two projects presented at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Neither body of work, Double Bind (2010/2012) or An Invitation (2012), is brand new, though this is the first time that either has been given a public airing in New York (Double Bind was shown in LA in 2012, and reviewed in these pages by Andrew Berardini; An Invitation has never before been shown in the US).
Both projects involve Ledare personally. For Double Bind, he spent time photographing his ex-wife during a short sojourn in a cabin in upstate New York. He then arranged for her and her new husband, also a photographer, to undertake a similar sojourn and photographic campaign at the same cabin. The results are juxtaposed against one another and clippings from old print magazines (from porno to fashion to culture). With An Invitation, Ledare accepted a commission from a European high-society couple to make erotic photographs of the wife (who is some 20 years her husband’s junior) over the course of one week in July 2011. A set of these pictures were kept by the couple, but as per their agreement, Ledare kept a set for himself and produced a series of screenprints that show the pictures, with the wife’s face redacted, juxtaposed against the front page of The New York Times from the days of the shoot.
There is much to be said about the language of photography in both cases, about questions of power, both statutory and otherwise (a redacted version of the contract and confidentiality agreement that subtends An Invitation is also on view, for example), and about the kinds of subjects that photographs and photographic imagery produce or interpolate. But in these projects – as well as others that Ledare has pursued, such as, perhaps most significantly, Pretend You’re Actually Alive (2008), a portrait of the fraught, Oedipal relationship that Ledare shares with his mother – there is always a palpable feeling of risk.
Ledare hazards what we cheaply call ‘difficult situations’, not by staging them but by getting into them. His aim isn’t transparency, however, but complication – at the affective rather than intellectual level. Ledare does work as much inside of photographic theory as practice, yet without his work becoming either esoteric or didactic, as so much contemporary conceptual photographic work does today. Perhaps this is because the central paradox of photography – this image is there, fixed; but its meaning can never be – serves Ledare as an amplifier of the many vulnerabilities – his own, those of his subjects, ours – that we all try to keep from public view.
Elliott Hundley, It Will End (2014)
Since 2006 or 2007, just after he earned his MFA from UCLA and began to gain serious institutional recognition – Eden’s Edge at LA’s Hammer Museum; Unmonumental at the New Museum, New York; The Shapes of Space (all 2007) at the Guggenheim Museum, New York – Elliott Hundley has relied heavily on straight pins as a kind of signature material. Those pins have held together, precariously and variably, accumulations of all kinds of flinty detritus, from photo cutouts to Styrofoam insulation, and this work walked a fine line between painting, collage, relief and sculpture, though Hundley made singular moves into each of these genres as well.
His new work is more self-consciously painting and sculpture. The pins are mostly still there, of course – what would a contemporary artist be without a signature material standing in for style? – but the precarity is not. Instead, Hundley has toned down the manic accumulations in order to more earnestly address composition, which has the best works coming out as straightforward, considered, compelling abstractions – and lacking pins! – such as Silent Factory (all work 2014), which channels the palette of a Frankenthaler while weaving in the feel of Rauschenberg’s Canto series (1958–60). It Will End is another good example, tipping as it does over into the anamorphic dreamscape of some lesser-known science-fiction set designer.
The confidence manifest in these paintings is matched in the ribbonlike meshes of a series that Hundley calls Scaffold. Perched above rough-hewn wooden ladders, these works are composed of lengths of heavy-gauge bronze wire held in near parallel by solders of the artist’s signature straight pins. Like some latter-day ‘cold structures’ of a Karl Ioganson, the Scaffold works are constructivist in their simplicity and transparency, yet resolutely bourgeois in their aesthetic – one wishes Hundley would have made these with something other than the pins, which, even as ‘found objects’, remain too closely identified with his self-legislating and self-marketing ‘I’.
One also wishes he had left behind the two biggest works in the show, Destroyer and The Hesitant Hour, both large, four-paneled tableaus that rely too heavily on staged photographic portraits. The images are clumsy, and for all their supposed theatricality, the works come off as quick and amateurish. They play at being big, but bear none of the balance of the abstractions.
‘When in doubt, keep working it’ is not a mantra Hundley should stick to. Whether the unevenness here is a fault of his needing to fill a big space or just a lack of self-critical judgement in the studio doesn’t really matter. The modestly scaled but hugely effective abstract paintings and sculptures are enough to keep one wanting to see more.
Anxiety is the emotion one might most associate with Michel Majerus’s work, both when thinking about the artist’s too-short career and when confronted with the array of works that Matthew Marks has mounted across three spaces, the largest-ever showing of Majerus’s art in the US.
Majerus, Luxembourg-born and Berlin-based, died in a plane crash in 2002 at the age of thirty-five. According to his biggest supporter, the Moderna Museet’s Daniel Birnbaum, by the mid-1990s Majerus was the most ‘contemporary’ artist he knew. That assessment comes in part from a familiarity with Majerus’s omnivorous approach to imagery and the apparent ease with which he was able to discard debates over painting that had consumed the previous decade and generation. Mournful or melancholic? Critical or complicit? Once the stuff of shouting matches in museum lecture halls, such questions about painting’s remit must have been hard to hear under the thump of techno beats in Berlin after 1989, when the wall fell, history ended and we all became contemporary.
Whether you take your end-times thinking in the original Hegelian or prefer the lighter, more easily readable neoliberal version that Francis Fukayama began to peddle at the dawn of the 1990s, the period between 1989 and 1995 was indeed anxiety ridden. The only two works in the Matthew Marks show that date from this period, SOMEBODY WANTS TO BUY ALL YOUR PAINTINGS! (1994) and o.T. (69) (1994) betray a cheeky paranoia, not just about the market (‘Who wants to buy my paintings?’) but about art history: both works appropriate pieces that Warhol made in between 1985 and 1986 – end-time works in themselves (Warhol died in 1987) – and o.T. (69) includes nods to Anselm Kiefer and “The World-Ash”; so, back to Hegel and the ‘end of history’ via Wagner. Is it any wonder that we needed raves the early 1990s?
But then it is easy to get stuck in the web of Majerus’s links: ‘Is that from Super Mario Bros.?’ ‘Is that late De Kooning or camouflage?’ ‘That looks like Ruscha’s OOF but in inverted colours and crappily done.’ ‘Whose face is that next to Tron?’ By the time of the browser wars of the mid-1990s, the tech business and the economy were beginning their boom, so no one was thinking too hard about the answers.
Given all the cribbing and quotation and the speed with which it all appeared (Majerus produced something like 1,500 works during his short career), what’s obvious to note, at least, as many have, in retrospect, is that Majerus brought the promiscuity of the Internet’s image culture to bear on his artistic work in a manner that few artists have. What’s also important to note, as few have, is that Majerus relied heavily on scale – going big, very big – to give his work weight. Many works’ dimensions go over two metres, the effect of which is to inflate their contents to foreign proportions. It’s a quintessential pop manoeuvre. Warhol introduced it. Rosenquist probably perfected it. In Majerus’s hands it’s symptomatic of a tenuous touch, a need to get across to and, perhaps, connect with, or touch, an audience that is being blown ever further away from painting, and itself.
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.
When Elvis Mitchell, the well-known film critic and, since 2011, curator of the indie film series, Film Independent, at LACMA, took the stage on March 25th to introduce Ryan Trecartin’s four new ‘movies’, he stressed that ‘movies’ are indeed what Trecartin makes, not ‘films’ or ‘videos’, which terms conjure musty art house repertory theaters or white-box galleries turned into black-box screening rooms. No, Trecartin makes ‘movies’, which are meant to be seen on the big screen, and with big sound.
So what the audience was treated to on that Tuesday night, a back-to-back screening of Junior War, Comma Boat, CENTER JENNY, and Item Falls (all 2013), we were being told, was something like seeing rare charismatic megafauna in its natural habitat. It was as if Trecartin’s work had finally arrived at the place, Tinseltown, and the apparatus, an actual movie theater, to which it had always belonged or, rather, from which it had issued in the first place. (There is some banal truth to this: in 2010 Trecartin relocated his studio to Burbank, where most of the new work was produced.)
Then, for the next 139 minutes, the audience was subject to an audio-visual ballistics test of which Paul Sharits, he of near seizure-inducing avant-garde films from the 1970s, would be proud.
There is nothing wrong with such eye/ear/mind assaults in themselves, and anyone familiar with Trecartin’s previous work would have been well prepared for his latest offerings, which debuted last year at the Venice Biennale in their own ‘sculptural theaters’, the installation-cum-set-pieces that Trecartin produces with his long-time artistic collaborator Lizzie Fitch. Though the movies are integral to those set pieces, these ‘sculptural theaters’ are not integral to the movies, which theatrical screenings, such as this one at LACMA and a similar one last December at BAM, in Brooklyn, demonstrate. And as is well-known, Trecartin also makes his ‘movies’ available on Vimeo, which is why it was all the more strange for Mitchell to claim the movie theater as the natural environment for Trecartin’s work.
Let me state this plainly: it’s not.
Junior War is a key here. Whereas Comma Boat, CENTER JENNY, and Item Fallsshare sets and players to explore what one could only loosely call ‘themes’ – doubling, belonging, identity, self-aggrandizement, social positioning; but then plastic pint cups, Beyoncé, and body paint might also qualify – Junior War is composed from footage that Trecartin shot in 1999 while still in high school, and its theme, in short, is belligerence – the kind that comes from being young, drunk, and stoned, surrounded by friends, and in possession of an uncomfortably fat cache of hormones, bad judgment, and cars.
Using a night-vision video camera, Trecartin captured his friends – and this is just a random sampling – drinking, smoking, playing drinking games, running around the woods, running from cops, smashing mailboxes, smashing televisions, stealing ornamental lawn sculptures, smashing ornamental lawn sculptures, getting pulled over by cops, hiding in basements, riding in the backs of trucks, sleeping in cars, and saying some humorous but never intelligent things. Even at this early stage, Trecartin’s style of in-your-face camera work is evident. When edited with his signature attention to pacing and masterful use of the jump cut, the result is a frenetic and anxious picture of kids getting up to stupid shit.
You are nervous for them. Their behavior is of course typical, a brief puncturing of the suburban familial authority that, like wet wool, chafes and weighs you down yet keeps you warm. What will happen to them when they leave? What kind of prelude will this be?
Just why the ‘we’re-gonna-fuck-shit-up’ impulse is so prevalent in late-teen life is a question, thankfully, that Junior War doesn’t seek to answer. That kind of moral or didactic image making is miles away on cable television somewhere, or deep in a pile of indie film festival submissions. This footage was made in the age of the Internet, but before the advent of social media or YouTube. The computer screen is its home turf. It’s footage that isn’t meant to be ‘screened’; it’s meant to be shared, in the old sense – that is, to be viewed by its participants, to be laughed over and cringed at, and then left in the shoebox that lives in the back of a series of closets – dormitory, shared apartment, first solo pad, house – until old classmates are awkwardly reunited and it is brought back out to be laughed over and cringed at once more.
So if Trecartin’s works are indeed ‘movies’ as Mitchell claimed they are, then they are of a special domestic variety, the kind of ‘home movie’ that only the kids make, the ones in which they don’t so much act as ‘act out’, for themselves, for their friends, and for no one in particular. Junior War, though far from Trecartin’s first work, is something like his ur-movie then, a kernel of raw affect and energy around which all of his other work, in all of its ornamented, camped-up absurdity, orbits, and to which one wishes it could find a way to return.
Published on artreview.com, 1 April, 2014
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.
By the time this column is in print, it’s quite possible that the record for the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold will have been broken. That record either still does or did belong to Gerhard Richter’s Domplatz Mailand(1968), which sold for $37 million just this past May, but Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000), with a low-end estimate of $35m and a high of $55m, may now have surpassed it.
What does this mean? Probably very little if we think of purchases like these as the ‘trophy hunting’ of an exceedingly small capitalist class. Confirming the masses of capital that the very wealthy have available to spend on assets such as art will be news to no one. So why bring it up? Because it is interesting to think about just what kind of assets these works of art are.
Now, to opponents of the term ‘asset’ being used as a description of works of art: grow up. Even when works of art were not selling for many millions of dollars, they were assets. The works you have traded with other artists or that you have bought, the works that belong to you, that you own – these are assets, pure and simple. The works sitting in public trust in our museums are assets, even if they don’t enter into the accounting as such.
Wishing it weren’t so, dismissing the language (which is in fact very precise; ‘art’ is the loose term here) or continuing to trot out classical or eighteenth-century aesthetic theories of art’s purity or nonutility are examples of intellectual laziness and blinkered thinking. Art is many things, and an asset is one of them.
What kind of asset is a Koons’s Balloon Dog or a Richter painting, then? One definition, whose author I’ll withhold for the moment, would hold that they are ‘assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else will pay more for them in the future… This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the future.’
This is a reasonable description of the way we think about works of art, in particular expensive ones like the Richter and the Koons. It could be objected that such works of art, though assets, are not ‘investments’, strictly speaking. Art, as the economists say, is a ‘consumption good’. And these works were bought for no other reason than that they satisfied the buyer. That may be, but remember that both of the works under discussion are in the secondary market.
The Koons was originally sold by Anthony d’Offay to Peter Brant in the late 1990s for a reported $1m as part of the financing of the larger Celebration series, of which Balloon Dog is a part. And the Richter has gone on the block before, at Sotheby’s in London back in 1998, where it sold for $3.3m. In other words, these works were bought with some expectation that there would be a ‘future’ in which ‘others’ would ‘desire’ these works even more ‘avidly’ than before. From the other direction, it could also be objected that these works ‘produce’ aesthetic experiences for their beholders, or happiness in their owners, or some such. But it beggars belief to think that selling the works at a loss wouldn’t find the seller thinking hers was a bad investment.
It’s helpful to note that, as the author of the definition above points out, ‘the major asset’ of this kind is not in fact art but gold, and it is also helpful to point out that the author is Warren Buffett. Buffett of course is one of the most successful and richest investors in the world, all because of ‘value investing’, which means, in his words, the ‘transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power in the future’. In Buffett’s world, this means transferring purchasing power to things like businesses and farmland, investments in entities that produce. Little wonder that Buffett is not an art collector of any note.
But if the asset that art most resembles is gold, the prime motivation for buying it, at least according to Buffett, is fear – fear that capital invested anywhere else, and in currency-backed securities in particular, is a bad bet. Currency is only as good as the credibility of the country that issues it, after all, and when countries such as the US – whose currency is the global reserve – print money to shore up their credit and labour markets, and then threaten to default on their debts, those currencies don’t look safe, and so the search for ‘harder’ assets, less ‘scary’ ones, begins. You can’t print more gold, the theory goes, so it must be safer, just as long as someone else is more scared than you. And it’s easier to bet on someone else’s fear than it is to bet on your own conviction in the productive value of an investment.
About the buyers of the Richter and the Koons, few will have said that they were or are scared, but in a sense that is what they are, if we take such assets to be ‘as good as gold’.
This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of ArtReview.