“Modern art was once deemed serious because it derived from an avant-garde, and what the garde was in avant of was the market.”
– Searching for Jean- Michel, by Stephen Metcalfe, The Atlantic, July/August 2018
The above quote is from an article in The Atlantic about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988). It’s a tender, heart felt search for the substance of genius and an answer to the artist’s premature death. Metcalfe turns up the usual suspects: poverty, abuse, mental illness, random circumstance that would drive the average person to despair, but against which talent and intelligence not only provide defence but turn desperation to advantage, only succumbing to the poison of excess.
A bunch of unconvincing cliches (who but a critic could say that Basquiat couldn’t draw or imagine that art derives its value from “deep study”?) riddle the piece but the history of Basquiat the person and artist developing in the midst of an art market catching fire is insightful and seems true to the times (that miserable decade, the 1980s).
By article’s end, you feel like you are standing before the paintings, stroking your chin and nodding beside Metcalfe: can’t explain it, the money is crazy, but that is truly something to behold.
Another most quotable quote, attributed to Picasso: “For paintings to be worth a lot of money, they must at some point have been sold cheaply.” But that is a topic for another day.
401 Towards London No. 1 by Jack Chambers is my favourite Canadian painting of all time. Chambers’ “perceptual realism,” capturing a moment of perfect clarity, is something that once experienced is never forgotten. Chambers’ genius was to sort that kernel from the chaff of experience and to then painstakingly translate it to canvas.
So what follows is in no way intended as a criticism of Chambers. No one could have imagined the consequences or how difficult it would be for him to evaluate and change course. Apologies to The Walrus for the long excerpt.
“In July 1969, after months of feeling unwell, Jack Chambers was diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukemia, a terminal illness that kills its victims in approximately three months if untreated. Unsure of how much time he had left, the painter from London, Ontario, turned his attention to the practical matter of providing for his family. He informed his dealer Nancy Poole that unlike other artist representatives she would no longer determine the price of his work based on current market values. He, Jack Chambers, would now decide what his paintings were worth, and, says Poole, “it was my job to find a buyer.”
“Still, she was stunned the following spring when Chambers demanded $25,000 for Sunday Morning No. 2, a picture of his pyjama-clad three- and four-year-old sons watching television in the family living room. “To put that amount in perspective,” says Poole, “it was five times” what had been paid for his last major painting, 401 Towards London No. 1, just a year earlier. She was skeptical about making the sale, but in June 1970 Eric A. Schwendau, a local financial consultant, bought the piece for its asking price, and overnight Jack Chambers became “Canada’s highest-earning artist.” He told the press, “Now I think I’m getting about what my work is worth. But until recently, I thought I was underrated and underpaid.”
“The sale of Sunday Morning No. 2 caused controversy. Greg Curnoe, the well-known London painter, was so angry he stopped speaking to Poole, believing she had undermined the Canadian art market. “Of course, he stayed friends with Jack,” says Poole. “Jack said, ‘I’m a dying man. He can’t get mad at me.’” But for Chambers, the discord couldn’t have come at a better time. In September 1970, the Vancouver Art Gallery opened a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, which, coming just months after the fracas surrounding the sale of Sunday Morning No. 2, put him front and centre in the Canadian art world.
“Reviews of the exhibit unanimously asserted that at age thirty-nine the country’s best-paid artist had hit his stride. Chambers had painted Sunday Morning No. 2 in a style he called perceptual realism, which he adopted in 1968, reinvigorating his reputation as an artist. Before perceptual realism, wrote Geoffrey James in Time, Chambers was “not smiled upon by the Canadian art establishment.” Many of the cognoscenti had dismissed him as a copyist, but as Alan Walker observed in Canadian magazine, he was praised now for “his poetic sensibility and his subtle colouring.” Along with Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Greg Curnoe, and Tony Urquhart, Jack Chambers had arrived as one of the most notable artists of his generation.
“More than a hundred paintings were exhibited at the 1970 retrospective…”
And he completed another thirty before succumbing to his illness nine years later.
I’m grateful to James Fowler (@jamesfowler), Social Media Director at aKimbo.ca, for tweeting to ask what the term “new art economy”means. It prompted me to start writing things down that have been swirling around for quite some time now. Here’s what I think the new art economy is and why it has to, and is, coming.
What is the new art economy?
The new art economy is an open, transparent marketplace in which artists and others working in the arts are recognized and rewarded for their work in ways and proportions that are comparable to other fields. In the new art economy, art circulates freely at all levels of society, is well understood and appreciated, abundantly created and collected, and as a result everyone working in the arts makes a decent living.
Why is this new?
In the “old” art economy, there is room for only a precious few artists to “make it” through to cultural recognition and economic self-sufficiency. They stand at the pinnacle of an edifice shored up by the vast majority of artists, who subsidize their work in myriad ways. This chronic subsidization has adverse consequences: the art world is generally impoverished, artists are chronically poor, but as importantly, tens of thousands of artworks never get to the public for whom they are created. While many people complain about this “system,” about its arbitrariness, hardship and also how opaque it is to real understanding, it is nevertheless widely believed to be inevitable (things must be as they always have been) or, worse, working as it should (true excellence is exceedingly rare, and the sieve must therefore be extremely fine to ensure only the best seeps through).
If the old art economy works so poorly, why do we hang on to it?
This is a good question but one that can divert attention away from finding solutions. Historically and ideologically, there are arguments for and against the status quo in any discipline. As fascinating as such arguments may be, if artists are poor, and it is generally felt that this poverty is a bad thing, then things should change. If analysis and theory are to have a role, it must be to further understanding so things can be designed differently, not to justify and therefor preserve the status quo.
Roughly, my view is that the condition of scarcity – very few art works accessible to very few people – survives because we do not want to let go of antiquated notions of art’s limited availability and how art acquires significance. Historically, few artworks could be produced and access to them was very limited. Many people believe that is still true today when clearly it is not: people are well-educated generally and have access to resources and time. More people understand art better than at any other period in history and moreover have time and the technology to be creative themselves. The mechanics of access, or distribution, are also completely different today. Art is everywhere in public, in museums and private and public buildings of all kinds. Books, magazines and websites abound with information about art and artists.
The artificial condition of scarcity also obviously reinforces historical economic and political divisions by making the control of wealth and power appear legitimate, even necessary. A perhaps clumsy analysis might argue that the patronage of, and association with, art is instrumental, helping elites appear both better educated and more culturally sensitive than the rest, therefor justifying their authority and status. However, the question who should be responsible for identifying and preserving the finest creations of society is complex. It involves layers of expertise and institutions developed over centuries. And there is no question that encapsulating art within the hard shells that money and power can afford to build protects it while promoting its importance to future generations. Still, for publics that are generally more literate and economically more secure than ever before in history, the idea of exclusivity, afforded by the few for the benefit of all, increasingly rings hollow.
Surely somebody is working on this already.
Yes they are. Many people want to see the arts work better economically. However, somewhat too often, since 2008, this conversation pivots on the idea of art’s survival in the “new economy.” Economic survival is taken to mean injecting more money into the existing art world system in the belief that more dollars will mean that artists (and the institutions that support and surround them) will not be poor, or at least poorer than they already are. But analysis shows this is not what happens. More dollars attract more competition and the pie gets split into smaller and smaller pieces.
More interestingly, many people, artists in particular, are interested in, and discussing, alternatives. For example, this series of discussionsThe New Economy of Art organized by Artquest, the Contemporary Art Society and DACS in the UK: “Many artist projects and collaborations not only question the ability of established organisations to provide the systems they require; they seek to prototype alternatives to take power back from the perceived gatekeepers of the art world.”
Artists’ efforts on this front are to be lauded but creativity alone will not solve a systemic problem. Everyone with a stake in the game needs to be at the table engaging in open and frank discussion. Profound change won’t be possible until there is a clear understanding, shared throughout the visual arts, of how things are working (and not working) now.
So how do we get from the old art economy to the new one?
The new art economy is not a thing, a pre-imagined solution, but a goal and perhaps a process. The movement from “old” to “new” begins with conversation. All we know so far is that the old art economy isn’t working. We also know it is run by a series of gates, with gatekeepers minding each; passage through the art world is controlled by limited information about, and access to, art, artists, galleries, museums, etc. To cite only two examples: esoteric [unreadable] texts that say more about who will not be allowed to understand art than who can or should; or dealers who will only sell to the most prestigious collectors in order to create economic bubbles that inflate prices. When a conversation happens that is not about the art, its merit or who owns it, but about the gates, they begin to become transparent, allowing us to see through to other, hitherto secret sides. In time, once everything can been seen, the gates will become obsolete.
About the term “new art economy”
The idea of a different art economy has been percolating for many years here. The idea that there is a distinct economy, an economy unique to the arts, was uncovered around 2004 through a book by Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor, reviewed here. Interest in looking at the arts through the lens of economics grew through the editing of the book Decentre: Concerning artist-run culture, available from YYZBOOKS, in 2008. But the heat was really turned up over the past 14 months or so through many conversations with artists and dealers, art museums curators and directors, arts councils and foundations, as well as friends, family or just about anyone who’ll stop to listen. Everyone is fascinated to hear about the esoteric but troubled economic conditions within the visual arts, and intrigued and excited (and perhaps a bit relieved) at the idea that things could be different, better.
Most recently, two things led to the crystalization of the actual term “new art economy.” The first was the idea of “living out loud,” which I discovered thanks to a tweet by Geoffrey MacDougall about a pending deadline for applications to the Shuttleworth Foundation. Their use of the term living out loud led me to ask myself whether I am truly living my ideas out loud. I resolved to try, or try harder.
Then, living out loud as it were, with my friend and colleague, artist Jack Butler, he asked, in response to a rather rambling explanation of my preoccupation with how the money works in the art world, “So what is it exactly that you are working on?” It needed a few words, a single phrase, and the title of the elevator pitch was born: “It’s the new art economy Jack.”
p.s. some future posts we are contemplating, about the gates:
“I was studying criticism and poetry, and then started making ceramics as a hobby; there was a whole crew in Santa Barbara getting really into that. I loved it so much that I ended up in Berkeley in 1963, studying with Peter Voulkos in the art department. Of course when I moved to New York I couldn’t get any attention for that kind of work. So I started painting. Everyone in the city hated painting, including me! We thought it was the lamest thing. But by 1972 I was building stretcher bars and really getting into it.”
RL: This work consists roughly of boards covering the windows of the Convenience Gallery with some posters and graffiti. How did this work come about?
AA: I think it would be really indulgent to make work without considering the context, the neighbourhood, the viewers. My first urge was to re-double the storefront window across the street, to mirror it. And my second thought was to do something for the people at the bus stop that’s right outside the gallery, something with text that talks about waiting.
RL: How did you end up, between the mirroring idea and the waiting idea, doing something that is quite different than either?
AA: If it’s a facade, it has to be more than a window display. I’m interested in windows but I have a lot of anxiety about window design. It’s something art can fall into; it can become either theatrical, coercing you to feel something, or just a decorative window store display. I have done quite a lot of work dealing with the entrances to galleries. My early work had a lot to do with domesticity and trauma, the politics of the nation state enacted in the family – father on mother, mother on kids, kids on pets – so I ended up doing a lot of work about the home, moving from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom and then gradually to the window and beyond, like the piece I did in Hank Bull’s apartment in Vancouver, with curtains hanging out of the window. It just looks like he forgot to pull them in, but in Vancouver’s gentrified neighbourhoods, you’re not allowed to have your curtains flapping in the wind.
I was interested in the Convenience window because it is a space on the periphery, between the household and the street, so there was the adjacency to domestic space and the neighbourhood. I was very aware of the political moment: the space was across the street from a polling station [for the May 2nd federal election] and I’m not a supporter of the right wing movement so we moved the opening from the 3rd to the 2nd, hence the title, 2nd May Day. May Day has resonance with worker’s national day, activist uprising and also there’s the distress signal May Day doubled, “May Day May Day,” hence the title “2nd May Day.” In this work, like more recent works, my practice is more and more mimetic, taking things and displacing them to different locations. And I’m interested in ‘realness’, pitching realness that is not “art real.”
RL: This kind of fake real is interesting. On the viewer’s side there’s a kind of fakery, fooling them into believing what they are seeing is something it’s not.
AA: I’m not interested in tricking the viewer but in getting them to read it as non-art so they’ll read it as ‘real’, so it’s about bridging the gap, in sort of a historical nostalgic way, like art that looks like life. I have an iconoclastic relationship to making work. I don’t like creating new images or figuration. If I am projecting a narrative onto the work that is otherwise absent from the work, it kind of corners you but hopefully it doesn’t push a meaning onto you. Like the curtains in Hank’s window, they’re just hanging out the window, but in Vancouver this accident was like a flag, waving against the new economical etiquette. Often people don’t read the work as art, as in the case with the laundry I hung outside my studio in Spain – the colours corresponded with the flags of the countries playing against Spain during the soccer finales. I wanted to talk about patriotism, but did not want to hang flags. So since it was laundry exposed in a very rich neighbourhood, it was read as indecent or unbecoming and as I hoped, the laundry was read as obscene and viewers found it extra offensive because of their heightened patriotism, yet the colour coding was subtle enough to insert doubt in the reading of the work as flags.
The work is made to be read as art and hopefully as something beyond it, for example the piece with flowers, there’s something about memorial accidents or accidental memorials, there’s text on the buckets of flowers that says “Everything must go.” So people would take flowers or leave flowers, and the city didn’t try to take it down; it couldn’t be read as vandalism.
Aside from the curtains and flowers at Western Front, I also placed shoes just outside the building entrance. The flowers were based on something I saw a few blocks away where somebody had placed flowers on the boulevard where an accident had occurred and the shoes were based on the dance studio at Western Front where I saw people leave their shoes outside the dance studio. I repeated that in the entranceway. After leaving a few pairs of shoes there, visitors to the gallery would remove their shoes before entering the building.
So at Convenience I was thinking about hurricanes and the Harper government’s policy towards the environment. So there’s a reference to boarded up windows before hurricanes where people write things like “Earl blows” [referring to Hurricane Earl] on the boards. In this case, with the election, I spray painted “Steve blows” on the boards, which had another kind of resonance with [Toronto mayor] Rob Ford being against graffiti. Then there’s also reference to homophobia, which with Scott and Flavio [proprietors of Convenience Gallery] was also provocative. And there’s a reference also to funding cuts to the arts: the idea of the gallery being boarded up. And also to the G20 when downtown shop windows were boarded up with sale signs spray painted on them. And then I’m also interested in the story of the Big Bad Wolf, “I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down.”
RL: I saw the work for the first time when I was riding my bike over to visit my friends who live just down the street. I always look forward to seeing the gallery window on my way there but this time when I saw the wood, I said to myself “Oh no, somebody has thrown a rock through the window.”
AA: At first my urge was to cover up the window from the outside, but that is too literal, it’s not implicated, so I put the boards directly behind the glass. You go through this sort of editing process. It’s about being in a visual relationship to protest, not a literal one. I put posters on the inside and also on the outside hoping that other people might poster the windows. I don’t know what it needs to do in order to explain to people what it’s doing. It’s a bit confrontational I guess.
RL: It’s not a megaphone broadcasting a message, but it’s carrying a meaning. It’s low tech. Anybody paying attention to the gallery would get what it is, that it’s an art exhibit.
AA: We aged the sign for the show that’s beside the doorway so it looked like it was from an older show, months ago, the last show before the gallery closed.
RL: Yeah, that definitely gave rise to doubt; it made me think twice. It was so faded and curling, it looked like a sign for a show from some months ago, so that is when I got very clearly that it was the idea of the closed gallery. Within this iconoclasm, I wonder why artists don’t go all the way; if you are against art then why don’t you just stop making it?
AA: I am not against art but I’m totally against the spectacle of it. I am interested in the lowness of the work. Often I’m not interested in high tech. For this kind of work it is important that, like Martha Rosler says, you don’t use a video camera to its full capacity, you use the media for your own purposes and not the other way around.
RL: There are many clues in the work that there’s something else going on.
AA: There’s a kind of iconoclasm. We might read it as “no image”, “no art,” “no window,” like “post no bills.” A woman came off the bus at the stop beside the gallery and she paused, then she went up and touched the glass. There was like some kind of slippage. She had to see if it was real. And that’s when the work is still ‘art’, and not the real thing. A friend phoned me to tell me that my work had been vandalized after she saw spray paint on the window.
My interest is in the specific situation. I can’t ever reshow this work. I like doing site-specific work and I think it can be read as anti-careerist. Even for applications, it takes so much to explain the work. There are so many micro-politics that inform the work. Typical applications give you no space to explain, they are designed according to conventions of what art is supposed to be, like painting, no context, just title, dimensions, and medium.
RL: Speaking of grant applications or applying for exhibitions, this raises another question: how much do you write? All MFA graduates today are educated to write. It’s a peculiar post-1970 part of art practice. At the time of the Group of Seven, nobody wrote much about their work. It’s kind of shocking to learn that artists just didn’t do that in those days. It’s too bad because nobody’s alive today to recount the history. Somebody should have been doing the research in the 40s and 50s but it’s taken until today and now it’s very hard to reconstruct what was happening then.
AA: I have a confession. I’m a really bad reader and writer. I mean I do read and write but it’s more like I enact research. I read but mostly it’s a time for daydreaming, and I walk a lot and that’s when I think through things, or I learn through talking with friends. Reading and writing is just a small part of my research.
RL: Do you have an ambition to write, as in art history or theory or criticism?
AA: I don’t have that kind of intelligence. I’d like to write criticism but I don’t do that. I do give artist’s talks. I talk about other artists’ work. But I do wonder where’s the critical writing these days; it’s all like catalogue essays.
RL: There is no critical writing right now. Writers seem to think their job is to explain the work but also to validate it. This is understandable because it validates the writer’s position academically or within curatorial circles.
AA: But it’s too often like a sales pitch.
RL: Yeah, but within the historical idiom. I used to think this was more of an issue than I do now because it’s hard to imagine a context in which criticism would be meaningful right now. If you go back to the days when Don Judd was writing criticism for Arts Magazine and Art International, he’d see all the shows in New York and he wouldn’t pull punches. He’d say, for example, something like “this work has been done before, it’s not that interesting.” But it’s problematic because that kind of journalistic criticism is often completely wrong, dismissive, and over time turns out to be irrelevant. From an artist’s point of view, what would you want criticism to do that’s it’s not?
AA: If the work is rich enough, the criticism should be a window to other things the work wants to talk about as opposed to just what the work is about. So much criticism is just descriptive of the work. Somehow the curator-artist relationship overshadows everything. The closest thing I can think of to explain what we don’t have is food critics, people who are willing to put their reputation on the line.
RL: What about curating?
AA: I don’t do that either. Despite my schooling, I am not of the Vancouver school that writes, curates, shows, critiques, etc. Sometimes that can be fruitful, but sometimes that can be read as an assertive self-insertion into multiple discourses, multiple histories – giving way to master narratives.
RL: I find that I can’t really relate to the Vancouver school either, despite their strong conceptual underpinnings. I don’t understand it really.
AA: During a talk in Vancouver, Martha Rosler described Vancouver as the land where artists have become stars, and progressively moved onto becoming kings, millionaires, empires, and so on.
RL: I wouldn’t want to criticize artists for whatever success they can achieve. But I’m interested in the art economy, how artists make a living or don’t. For example, in the book I’m working on I’m hoping to do a chapter comparing sports to art because athletes experience the same kind of precariousness artists do.
AA: For athlete’s it’s about exhausting the body, and it does expire. I’m not sure it’s the same for artists. Artists can (hopefully) keep making work into old age.
RL: Persistence used to mean more than it does now. I think it used to be that if you hung in there and at 50 or 55 or 60 you were still making art, people would pay attention. I’m not sure it works like that anymore. There are so many artists. How much do you think about these things?
AA: Every day. I come from a poor family. I have student debt. I have mixed feelings about commercial success. I have a dealer, Third Line in Dubai, but most of my work is shown in artist-run-centers and museums. And when I did my last show at Third Line, they were incredulous that I wanted to do an installation that seemed impossible to sell. It was a map of Dubai done with imitation gold leaf on the gallery wall. The wall was priced relative to Dubai property values and the prices increased as more sections sold, just like real state. We basically sold sections of drywall, removing each piece as it sold. As the show progressed and sections were removed, the work changed, giving way to another map, one showing the desired areas of Dubai but also revealing the shows success or failure. So the economy of gold, the land, the gallery, and the art market was all woven into the structure of the show. I did other work for the show, photocopies of images showing the pre-oil economy of Dubai, date farming, sheep herding, etc. Each photocopy had parts gilded by hand with 22 Carat gold, however the images were made in endless multiples. I was interested in the artist as gilder rather than originator but also reflecting on the economy of the photocopy. People didn’t like the repetition, didn’t think the work was unique enough and as I predicted, the multiplication devalued the work.
RL: The legacy of art against the economy goes way back and the question raised by people like Isabelle Graw is that every effort to oppose the institution or the spectacle or the economy gets absorbed.
AA: I think it is nearly impossible to negate the art market when you show in a commercial gallery and live as a full time artist, but I think one can complicate that relationship or render it visible or at the very least be critical of it.
RL: But isn’t it the case that there is a gain in your cultural capital as an artist in proportion to the critique or resistance in your work. Isn’t that the gamble?
AA: I know a lot of artists that are trading in critique and doing really, really well. If you make digestible work, like all the current “Middle Eastern looking” art works that cater to the market – the aesthetics of politics – they do really well. Carpet factories… a demand-supply relationship. It’s really easy to slip from jester to clown. Ideally you want to be wedging the circle open, not occupying the space assigned to you.
RL: I don’t think most artists preconceive their work that much, as if there’s a space there for me to occupy so I’m going to go there. But you are more conscious of that kind of contrivance than most and of the art world as a market, so you are working harder not to fit into the conventional spaces.
AA: I’m not interested in being a curator’s artist, doing work that makes other work look good.
RL: That brings up the idea of the artist’s artist. There used to be artists who were appreciated by their peers but didn’t fit into any of the current trends but I’m not sure that exists anymore.
AA: There are artists who are like that for me, like Marina Roy, who lacks a signature style and is not making a brand. She chose to teach and make work. She is a great artist and a great teacher. I taught at Emily Carr and liked it, but then I had this dream of being a full time artist, so I came to Toronto with no money. And since I could not find a job, I just became an artist; it was like jumping in and then learning to swim.
RL: Paul Butler once told me, if you take the plunge people respect that. But it’s hard. I don’t know that I have the discipline. You’ve done a huge number of shows since graduating. You must be very self-disciplined.
AA: There is no blue print or structure, so I make it up as I go. I don’t spend that much time making work but I am working all the time in that when I am not making, I am thinking. If I take on a project, it’s intense. I won’t sleep to get the work done in like six days. You talked about the suffering artist and I was prepared for that, but I woke up one day and I was just scared. I didn’t expect that.
Reading art is one thing but what happens when the art includes text? What exactly is it in text-based art that is to be “read?” Let’s take two great examples of art that uses text.
Billy Mavreas is a gifted draftsman, a master of asemic writing whose work spans cartooning, graphic design, drawing, collage and visual poetry. His art is challenging to describe: it reflects a kind of view of the world as cipher. For Mavreas, it’s as if “things” are building blocks of meaning—letters, words, phrases, chapters, books—in a world that is tenuously held together by our ceaseless effort to make sense of it all, to “read” things. His practice is immersive, diving at times to depths where imagination becomes hallucinatory, seemingly splitting reality. His practice is also idiomatic, working within genres that are familiar to us: illustration, music posters, correspondence art and (more or less) underground comics.
“This is a book I’m writing.” is a text handwritten over a salvaged canvas reproduction of a Tom Thomson painting, “Afternoon, Algonquin Park” of 1914. Mavreas’ “painting” begs several questions: what is a book, what is writing, and who is writing. For example, the work is part of the unfolding story that is Mavreas’ lifework, a book in progress as it were. It also implies that the act of creating an artwork, any artwork, is a kind of writing, a contribution to the story of art perhaps, another book in progress. It is also an invitation to read the underlying painting by Thomson (and, I might add, its shamelessly poor reproduction) as another kind of story or stories, the story of Thomson’s life, the story of Canadian art or of art in general. And finally, this piece has a remarkably coincidental meaning for me personally because I have begun to write a book, Artists Anonymous, in which Thomson figures large, so Mavreas’ “This is a book…” is, for me, a literal symbol or cipher of that project (and, one might imagine, of the ongoing publishing projects Thomson’s enigmatic life and untimely death continue to inspire.)
Ron Terada is a Vancouver conceptual artist who grabs text from elsewhere and puts it into a different context where its meaning slips, creating a lacuna–a gap or silence–that resonates artfully. Terada’s works with existing cultural forms and, by twisting their context, calls attention to their status as signs, symbols, language as such. He is not quite as fluent as Mavreas but nevertheless something of a polyglot, moving easily between different “languages,” using gallery, city and government signage, posters, brochures and even exhibition soundtracks.
In his recent “Jack” series, Terada takes his process to a new level by reproducing, on exquisitely crafted canvases, a full chapter of first person narrative by Montreal-born American painter Jack Goldstein as it appears in the book Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia (Minneola Press, 2003, ISBN: 978-0964016545, 223 pages). Terada’s “paintings” capture many tragic, personal stories from the life of an artist who came to prominence in the 1980s, struggled with addiction, was left behind by the artworld and, like Thomson, came to a tragic end, committing suicide in 2003. Like Mavreas’, Terada’s work begs many questions about what a book is, whose story it tells and who is telling it. Terada is more than just copying a text; he seems to identify with the story, but so do we, the way all readers invest in the stories in books. And insofar as “Jack” talks about the harsh realities of Goldstein’s life, it’s of personal interest to me because one of the main themes of this blog is the economic reality of the art world.
Both “This is a book..” and “Jack” have a lot to tell us about the artist’s life. Both refer to the stories of the lives of artists who came to tragic ends. Thomson was murdered in 1917 in a dispute over money, or so concludes Roy MacGregor in the most recent book on Thomson’s mysterious death, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him (Random House Canada, 2010, ISBN: 978-0307357397, 357 pages), while Goldstein committed suicide in 2003. At the end, Thomson and Goldstein were both isolated and destitute. Mavreas’ and Terada’s works have embraced these harsh realities: impoverishment and withdrawal is embedded in them. For Mavreas it’s in the salvaged faded reproduction, a certain of ambiguity about authorship created by his text, and the simplicity of the handwriting. For Terada it’s in Goldstein’s sad story, ambiguity about authorship created by his wholesale use of Goldstein’s words, and a similarly spartan presentation.
But another compelling reason to compare these works is how they reflect the contexts in which the artists work. Terada enjoys the shelter of high art but also suffers somewhat from isolation in high art’s rarefied discourse: a kind of insider cleverness, with art (Terada’s “Jack”) referring to art (Goldstein’s powerful black and white early paintings) referring to art (Goldstein’s biographical reflections). Mavreas on the other hand suffers by standing outside the heavy gates of the high art world but enjoys a less mediated and, arguably deeper engagement with a broader and more diverse audience. There’s poetry in his work that is more difficult to value because it crosses categories and does not fit as comfortably within the contemporary art gallery or the professionalized discourses of high art.
It is impossible to reconcile these works or these two artists or declare one superior let alone the victor. Were it not the case that the art economy is so drastically skewed towards the professionalized high art world, one might not want to.
High Price by Isabelle Graw is one gorgeous book. The royal purple page edges are so lux and so apropos the subject: “Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture.”
The focus of this book is, like Don Thompson’s $12m Shark (reviewed here) and Sarah Thornton’s 7 Days in the Art World (review forthcoming), the culture of extremely expensive art promoted by the wealthiest people acting in a global marketplace. But Graw, as an art historian (founder of the Institute of Art Criticism and the journal Texte zur Kunst), approaches the topic less as curious observer and more as participant, i.e. with a vested interest in the success of this enterprise called “art.” As she said during a public lecture at the NY launch of the book in January, she hopes by examining the capacity of art to work critically in relation to the market “to designate potential spaces for action.”
Graw’s most pointed criticism is that the market has become so dominant in determining what is or is not art that the art object ceases to have much more meaning than a YSL sack.
Graw lines up her arguments up in accessibly short bursts of two or three pages, building tension by showing successively how the idea of independence or “autonomy” in all the various part of the visual arts has been lost to market determinants. A few examples:
a critical establishment now almost completely in tow to commercial dealers who commission writers to “fill in” the historical, theoretical context for the artists they choose to represent;
the end of exclusive contracts between artists and dealers by which the dealer could serve as “agent” running interference between the public, the market and the artist, affording the artist some degree of refuge, privacy or independence;
a museum community invaded by private collectors calling the shots, threatening to build their own museums or actually building them;
individual artists succumbing to pressure to create more and more “spectacular” work to get attention;
glamourization in the popular press of the social, “celebrity” aspects of the art world: the people attending and the gossip around art fairs, openings and auctions where price records are repeatedly broken;
appropriation of “the artist” as a model of the ideal worker in the new entrepreneurial, safety-net-less, capitalism;
This progression creates a sense of anticipation that Graw will, when all the facts are in, render judgment and perhaps even deliver a theoretical coup de grace to a market gone mad. Sadly, that moment never comes. Graw leaves us in the end with the rather limp conclusion that it is in the nature of art to hold itself apart from the world and markets in particular; has always been thus and always will be. This leaves for artists the task of finding ever new ways to stand apart from the market while also participating in it, a task that will, for the majority, be thankless, but incredibly, disproportionately rewarding for those who “get it right.”
That this is a disappointing conclusion is not to blame Graw. Such is the impasse in critical theory at this moment. Gone are the days when you could reliably turn to Bourdieu or Buchloh for analysis and conclusions with commitment. We still read them of course, and are inspired by them (Buchloh is in Graw’s acknowledgments), and refer to their arguments (she cites Bourdieu 15 times, Buchloh 4), but cannot further their arguments except perhaps by the smallest of increments. They have become rhetorical tropes. We appreciate their scholarship and intelligence and know they signify value though we are not quite sure why or what exactly, not unlike art itself.
Which isn’t to say this book isn’t an important read or that progress is impossible. A new vocabulary is developing today that describes art in a more contextual or “relational” way and Graw is contributing to this evolution. For example, Graw takes the work of Renaissance scholar Michael Baxandall, who suggested in 1974 that we read paintings not only in terms of aesthetics and art history but also as “fossils of economic life,” and ties that idea to Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics movement. Looking for signs in older, more traditional works, of contingent conditions, specifically economic conditions, Graw singles out A.R. Penck (a favourite of mine from art school days) who in the Sixties said he worked in only four colours because that’s all he could afford. Graw points out that can’t be the whole story—there are the usual aesthetic considerations, contexts and effects—but the point she makes is that art, all art, works to some extent in relation to economics and a market and there will be signs of those relationships embedded in the work if we choose to look for them.
Graw’s general reading of art in terms of what she calls its “market reflexivity,” the way it explicitly manifests and comments upon its economic and political context, is very important; less, I believe, because it gives us a way to look anew at the current vogue of contemporary art and recuperate certain works over others (which is after all, what the critic, historian and theorist’s are supposed to do to rationalize, sort and reinforce the market) but because it opens the door to critical identification and appraisal of art practices that are not merely challenging the status quo but are clearly working outside the existing value framework of the gallery-museum-critic-artist system.
This would seem to be the point Graw wants to illustrate In the final chapter where she examines the work of various artists to apply her theory, to see to what extent their work is “reflexive” in relation to markets. Call me grumpy but I have to question here that Graw drags out all the usual suspects, herself adding “reflexively” to their market valuations for the upteenth time. Coubet, Duchamp, Klein, Warhol, Morris, Asher, Hirst again? Really, are these guys just that good?
Of course I “like” these artists as much as the next person and it’s interesting to see Graw suss out their “progressive” tendencies, identifying particular works that show more focus on the issue of autonomy in relation to larger institutional, social and economic systems. However… What would be at risk if the theorist championed lesser known, less validated and not so obviously “priceless” work? Moreover, what is the cost to potentially new theory if the theorist remains safely tethered to her craft orbiting in the privileged space of high art observing already identified and appreciated stars?
Perhaps there can be no progress except from within, but as Graw amply demonstrates, that kind of thinking (that art’s autonomy will keep it insulated from the market) seems to have fed rather than challenged the current market excess. The biggest disappointment in this section is when it comes to contemporary work. Graw chooses Andrea Fraser and Merlin Carpenter, in whose works the concepts of “commercialism” and “criticism” are so clumsily rendered they suck the life out of her arguments. Fraser’s fake prostitution gig and Carpenter’s use of gallery funds to “go shopping,” are at best 2nd year art school ideas, showing a certain kind of promising if naive exuberance. That these artists have made it so far in the art world surely testifies to the very malaise Graw is drawing attention to: gates left open, gatekeepers nowhere in sight.
But let’s end on a more positive note. Graw suggests some healthy things may be coming about as a result of the tighter relationship between markets and art. For example, a robust market has softened the edge between private dealers and auction houses. Whereas it was once the case that gallerists were wary of the secondary market, driven as it was by the auction houses—because prices at auction pressured them to adjust their prices up or down—today, the aggressiveness of dealers like Larry Gagosian spurs the market and everybody benefits, including the auction houses. Like “market relativism” for art, market relativism in art world relationships and institutions suggests possibilities of alignment of forces which could be productive. I would venture to add that the transparency created by books like High Price, the $12m Shark and 7 Days is also likely to contribute constructively to the reshaping of the art world that is underway.
The current situation—or the story we tell ourselves about the art world—still characterizes artists in terms of their relative autonomy, as either masters or victims of the galleries, museums, critics and collectors. As Grau points out, artists are not innocent players in this double game, they hold themselves apart, disdaining or criticizing the market even as, or even in order to, enter it. It is a kind of double life that cannot be sustained.
There used to be models for this kind of gamesmanship, rules even. The poet (or artiste) maudit of yesterday has been replaced by the preening genius of today but both are postures perpetuating notions of art’s special, exceptional status. Fortunately, as today’s writers, Graw included, continue to deconstruct these myths, they are losing their mojo, their hold on us, making it possible to imagine artists in new relationships with the public, with art history, and, one hopes, art’s critical establishment as well.
__ Where to get the book __
Published by Sternberg, I was surprised when I asked about the book at my local bookstore and it didn’t come up on their computer. Evidently Canadian art galleries aren’t the only ones having trouble getting their books onto the radar of the worldwide book trade. You can order direct from Sternberg or in North America from RAM in California. Or just for fun you could order it from a cool bookstore like WorldFoodBooks.
__ Some thoughts on the book object itself __
I like to add some technical observations to my book reviews when I can and this book certainly warrants them.
The translation (from German) by Nicholas Grindell is quite remarkable, using familiar vernacular English and sophisticated theoretical terminology so well that one never “feels” the translation at all. Given how well the translation was done, it is somewhat surprising that the translator is listed only in the acknowledgments and on the copyright page (which is, European style, at the back of the book) but not on the cover or the title pages. This is a trend in publishing and a bad one I think. Translators are hugely important. Lazer Lederhendler, translator of the 2010 Canada Reads award winning book Nikolski won a much deserved Governor General’s award for his exquisite and highly original translation. His name appropriately appears on that book’s cover.
I am a big fan of indexes in books and this one has two, names and subjects, both short but useful. It’s interesting to see there are three Smiths listed, Adam, Jack and Roberta, amusing to find pairings in list order like Philip Johnson and Angelina Jolie, or to know that “market euphoria” and “self-exploitation” are topics covered in the book.
The book has a very long table of contents, due to the use of subheads every few pages. While there are only four chapters, chapter 4 has 23 subheads over 71 pages. I like this style of writing. It’s accessible and makes the Table of Contents itself useful when considering whether or not to buy the book and later to find certain passages again.
Some other nice touches include: ragged right column layout which minimizes hyphenation and gives the pages a friendly feel; left hand chapter title pages giving the titles some space while also letting you get right into the content without having to flip the page; a smattering of b/w images of artworks referred to in the text; and the placement of footnotes at the bottom of every right hand page, something I’ve not encountered before but is an interesting idea of economy. I was not so crazy about the placement of page numbers top left on all pages including the right hand ones where they are hard to find, getting lost in the gutter.
I found very few typos in the text (pages 76, 94 and 107) and these were the kind of errors a spell checker would not detect, e.g. “marked” instead of “market”. The acknowledgments indicate they used actual live proofreaders though (hooray!) proving, I suppose, what Bruce Mau once said, sighing: every book, no matter how carefully done, will have mistakes. I wonder what monks illuminating manuscripts or Gutenberg would have had to say about that.
Modern art is a disgrace. Never have so many people used so much stuff and taken so long to say so little.
– Banksy [Quoted in a comment on the CBC’s website]
With the movie Exit through the Gift Shop, UK artist Banksy and co-conspirator Shep Fairey set out to clean up modern art while cleaning up in the process. The movie proposes to be about what it’s not, the story of a guy, Thierry Guetta, who was supposed to make this film about street art but couldn’t. For sure, there’s a lot of good footage of Banksy, Space Invader, Fairey and others, but the unexpected twist at the end, which is literally an exit through a ginormous gallery as gift shop packed with the most preposterously derivative and directionless “pop” art shoots straight for the heart of the bloated commercialism of the art world. Pity the poor suckers who’ve paid, if the movie is to be believed, tens of thousands for the crap art Banksy and Fairey concocted for the movie.
Neither artist needs the money; they’ve done very well for themselves, having been elevated from street to “high art” galleries, but with their creation Mr. Brainwash (MBW) they have fabricated a monster of proportions unseen since Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein channeled lightening. One can only imagine the gales of laughter reverberating through their cavernous warehouse studios as they try to outdo each other with the worst possible ideas for new art by MBW.
Don’t get me wrong. My 12 year old and I loved the movie, graffiti, and stencils in particular, are a great use of both media and the ineffable, gallery-like blankness of our cities’ decaying surfaces. How can you not love cheap, lo-fi, diy reproduction that is yet full of the auratic value of handicrafts, vintage clothing or faded photographs? (And I must say, it was, having dabbled in such murky waters myself, a pleasure and revelation to learn about Banksy’s “Princess Di” pound notes.)
No one begrudges artists like Banksy and Fairey making some serious do re mi off the movie and the ersatz work of MBW. Artists live with contradictions. As Hans Abbing points out, artists will at one moment among themselves spurn the market and in the next congratulate each other if one manages to get a sale. This is, Abbing, says one of the many contradictions that make the art economy “exceptional.” So in a way it is unexceptional that Banksy and Fairey should send up the contemporary art scene while also cleaning up. There’s also a history of sending up the art “market” that’s tempting to cite. But really, do we need to regurgitate Duchamp (again?) or trace his legacy through Rauchenberg’s “erased” De Kooning drawing to Manzoni’s canned shit? Oops, I just did.
Cut it any way you like, Exit through the Gift Shop mines contemporary art’s Catch 22; you can’t entirely dismiss anything that puts itself forward with enough… I don’t know what to call it… oddness? single-minded-ness? Integrity derives from critical distance, but, as we have learned so well over the past thirty years, the market is infinitely elastic, able to absorb even the most polemical, or as the movie demonstrates, inane assaults.
At the end of the day, the extent to which the flic leaves you with a strangely uneasy, incomplete feeling testifies to a kind of success. Nobody should feel comfortable with it (though street artists come through relatively unscathed) or complacent about the state of art today.
Wikipedia is useful to learn more about street art, and the guy Exit is allegedly about, Thierry Guetta.
Evidently no one’s losing their sense of wry humour over at the Canada Council for the Arts. The image on the cover of their just-released 2010 grant deadline calendar is a work by Adrian Stimson called Shaman Extermination Sunrise 2, photographed by Happy Grove.
Notes from FREE SCHOOL at SAW Gallery, Ottawa
Saturday, March 13, 2PM – 5PM / Le samedi 13 mars de 14 h à 17 h
(see whole programme below)
It’s nice to think that successful artists are successful because they do certain practical things that anyone can do. It takes some of the mystique out of the art world and makes it all seem more possible. But when a successful artist talks about these things, it also quickly becomes apparent how good they are at doing things that many artists find very challenging. It’s not just in the concept and execution of their art; it’s in everything they do. Continue reading How to Run an Efficient and Successful Studio with Adad Hannah