Nothing left to say – Modernism and after: Theme Parks for the 1%

Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy. Puck magazine cartoon by Louis Dalrymple, 1903. From Wikipedia.

Along with the New York Times, I recently have subscribed to The New Yorker. (I’m obsessed with New York right now. Maybe because of the immanence of the NY Art Book Fair? ).

Two articles in the August 27th issue of The New Yorker, combined, have some interesting things to say about today’s art world.

“The veneration of the musical canon leds all too easily to a kind of highbrow theme park that trades on nostalgia for a half-mythical past.” – Alex Ross, “The Sounds of Music”, The New Yorker, August 27, 2018

“An ever larger and richer upper class is amplifying its influence through large-scale [charitable] giving in an era when it already has too much clout.” – David Callahan, “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Guilded Age,” on Callahan’s website Inside Philanthropy, quoted by Elizabeth Kolbert in her article, American Chronicles “Shaking the Foundations,” The New Yorker, August 27, 2018.

The popularity and pervasiveness of contemporary art in the modern style is something many of us back in the day wished for, or at least wished that the avant garde we aspired to was not so avant as to be completely inaccessible to a general public, leaving the idea of “making a living” laughable. Implausibly, the general acceptance and even popularity of modern art (contemporary art, post-modern art, performance and so on) has come about and now we face the opposite, the “theme park-ification” of, everything possibly, but certainly of the contemporary arts.

Is there a correlation between the 1%’s increasing wealth, and their use of the tax savings tools of charitable giving, and this efleurescence of progressive artiness of the institutional art world?

Is it time perhaps to dismantle the charitable tax exemption? As Kolbert points out, “In 2016, the tax deduction for charitable contributions cost the [US] federal government at least fifty billion dollars.” Kolbert worries that wealthy people, even while they are trying to help address social ills and economic imbalance, don’t really want to give up their privilege. System disruption and real change are not on the table at the 1% banquet. Should they be?

Kolbert talks a lot about David Carnegie, the great granddaddy of American philanthropy, who, not coincidentally, built most of the public libraries in Canada. Carnegie made a staggering fortune, possibly still the biggest in U.S. history. And he gave most of it away. He believed in Spenserian unbridled individual entrepreneurship, but with a social conscience. 

It’s a different philosophy than the one we have grown up with and live by, where wealth is distributed by social agreement expressed through democratic process, an elected and responsible government that makes balanced decisions, rather than by individual whim and fiat. Not that there’s anything wrong with celebrity giving. It’s just not reasonable to expect one person to know enough about where resources are needed, let alone to truly care.

What’s in a Name? WordPress’s “Gutenberg” Editor

Title of WordPress’s post sent to all WP user’s blogs: “Of Mountains & Printing Presses”

Today when I logged into WordPress, I was prompted to try out the new editing interface called Gutenberg. Great name for citation on a blog about reading. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press was the beginning of public literacy and one could argue that everything since then that promotes writing and reading sort of belongs to him. 

It’s a big name for WordPress to appropriate, like Google adopting “Alphabet”. By the way, how exactly did they get away with that.  Isn’t “alphabet” a generic term lacking the distinctiveness required to be capable of intellectual property protection?

Anyway, below are some sample “blocks” from the WordPress announcement. Looking good. I think I’ll like using it:

What you are reading now is a text block the most basic block of all. The text block has its own controls to be moved freely around the post…

… like this one, which is right aligned.

Headings are separate blocks as well, which helps with the outline and organization of your content.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Beautiful landscape
They sure got nice images for this post launching the Gutenberg editing interface.

The editor will endeavor to create a new page and post building experience that makes writing rich posts effortless, and has “blocks” to make it easy what today might take shortcodes, custom HTML, or “mystery meat” embed discovery.

Matt Mullenweg, 2017


“It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams…Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men”


― Johannes Gutenberg

T

If you want to learn more about how to build additional blocks, or if you are interested in helping with the project, head over to the GitHub repository.


Thanks for testing Gutenberg!

You’re welcome!

Drop cap block. Cool.

👋

Publishing ups and downs

Keanu Reeves rushes in (to publishing art books):

Where angels fear to tread (a great magazine editor runs screaming from the field):
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/style/tower-bar-gabe-doppelt.html.

As you may gather from the links above, I’ve subscribed to the New York Times! My friends know because I’m sending them articles like the ones above daily. Or posting them to Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve long thought the NYT is amazing. The best of the best. I thought that because every time I picked up a copy, which was very rarely, I would find at least two stories that were right up my alley; great reportage on things that matter to me, like art, art books, museums, cultural matters generally, politics (on the progressive or social side). I often felt it uncanny how the NYT would have an article so bang on. I felt tuned in, and turned on.

Now, reading the headlines daily (I get their Daily Briefing to my email inbox and then go to the full “paper” for the rest of the major stories and usually a quick scan through the Arts section) I find it much less interesting. There’s still something special about the NYT. It’s just a little less impressive as it’s becoming more familiar.

I guess the big news for me is really not about the NYT but that I’ve finally accepted that to be well-informed today, you have to get the news online, and for the most part, if you’re serious about it, pay for it.

Sort of… I see the Globe and Mail has instituted a paywall. I’m not going there, yet.

Worth reading

Which is better, reading a print newspaper or getting the news online?

Picture of international newspaper kiosk in Paris France, source Wikipedia
International newspaper kiosk in Paris, France. (Source Wikipedia)

This article in The Guardian says print, every time.

I agree. The reading experience is better.

Digital media read differently. With the New York Times, for example, online there’s no longer a clearly defined daily edition. Stories may be featured for several days so if you read it daily, there’s an annoying redundancy, and if you don’t read it every day, you can’t be certain what’s current.

Sections are also more fluid. Web pages linked from side bars or footers offer “related” stories on an assortment of topics. When you’re finished one article, you’re as likely to flip to another topic area as stay with the business or arts section you were on. It’s like an invitation to ADHD.

Online, it doesn’t matter how big your digital viewing screen, the page is truncated. Text is too small or too big, runs off the page.

And much of your time is spent clicking and scrolling, basically wayfinding. It’s like being lost in the woods; you are hardly going to stop to take in the view when you don’t know where you are or how to get home.

In a print newspaper, you read bits here and there too, a headline here, a paragraph there, but you always have a sense, reinforced by your peripheral vision and the feel of the paper in your hands, of where you are, how much or little there is of that article, and where it fits in the editorial scheme of things, above the fold or below.

Online, “home” is just a metaphor. It might as well be a randomly selected page. They might call it a front page but it is not a front page. There is no prominent title/name, no heft as with a 13″ x 26″ piece of paper backed up with 50 to 100 or more solid pages of content, no table of contents.

Fundamentally, online, once you get there, there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein once quipped, there is no “whole” to be taken in at a glance, no fathomable project to begin, no sense of what completion would consist of, what you might get out of it.

Instead we have an unfathomnable, bottomless pit of more or less undifferentiated stuff casting around for a reason to be. I’m sorry, but we, the readers, cannot alone provide that reason. We look to newspapers to help us make sense of the world, as a tool that helps us formulate opinions, and ultimately make decisions.

No wonder, as Neil Thurman has found, people read on average 30 seconds of news online each day, compared to 40 minutes immersed in a newspaper. And no wonder somebody can dismiss it all as “fake” and, though it is puerile and ignorant, we are relatively powerless to contradict them. There IS something wrong with the news; it may not be the news itself so much as the failing digital media. All spectacle, you can call it what you want. It’s just a show.

Now, which is the best paper? For me, in order of quality, importance and scale; the New York Times, Guardian, Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Free Press, Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, and our own very local Sioux Lookout Bulletin.

The unexceptional economy of design

The economy of the art world, or of the design world – how things are valued and how the money flows – is not so different than how money works within the production and distribution systems of consumer goods, say purses or fast food.

From Dwell magazine, May 2016
From Dwell magazine, May 2016

However, the art+design world holds itself apart, perhaps because the people who work in these fields are not like you and me; they are more driven by and drawn to emotion, and to truth perhaps. Living a life chasing insight is a peculiar vocation, one without the proverbial bottom line of cost effectiveness.

Or perhaps the art+design worlds hold themselves apart because they are, and want to be, more like luxury goods. In the book The $12 Million Dollar Shark – The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, York University business professor Don Thomson shows that “the art market, and contemporary art in particular, is as much brand-driven as any other high-end luxury market, through case studies (the dealers Larry Gagosian or Jay Joplin, the artists Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol, the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the collectors Charles Saatchi or Ronald Lauder…) and broader considerations on the overall economics of art. (Reader review on Amazon.com, link above)

Another popular conception of the difference between the art+design fields and other “normal” economic activities holds that artists, and creative types generally, are “not good with money.” How many artists and designers hesitate to talk about money matters with their clients, galleries and dealers? And end up suffering, underpaid or unpaid altogether?

Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer
Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer

In this regard, this letter, from the office of architect Marcel Breuer (best known for his elegant tubular steel and leather chairs) to a prospective client, is refreshingly forthright about what it costs to hire the firm. Kudos to Dwell magazine for reproducing it. Both consumers and producers of good design need to see how it’s done.

Change, period.

Art. Future. Change. Canada Council for the Arts report on the state of the visual arts in Canada, 2015The Canada Council for the Arts’ new report on the state of the visual arts in Canada could well have used the imperative tense in its title, just plain “Change.” It’s a road map for the visual arts.

Based on extensive consultations over the past three years, “Art. Future. Change.” reflects current economic and cultural shifts. It also introduces the term “ecology” as a way of looking at the arts, to gently promote holistic and adaptive thinking.

Below are some highlights from the report, with added comments to bring out what I see to be the meanings between the lines:

“Pervasive in the consultations was a strong resistance to being viewed through business frameworks that are seen as insufficient representation of the arts sector. However, much can be learned from innovative strategies in start-up culture, social enterprise and experimental development; as well as emergent non-profit business models that are being explored across other sectors.”

The arts have for too long simultaneously spurned and feared business; mystification has kept both business and the arts from learning from each other. A business plan is neither sufficient nor insufficient, but a tool. Like a chisel or paintbrush, trowel or spade, the magic is in what you do with it.

The reference to social enterprise and startups is especially gratifying since we have been drawn into this sphere since 2012. What is a social enterprise? The most succinct definition I’ve found yet is: “a business that solves a social purpose,” which comes from this Reuter’s article about how Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is raising funds via a social impact bond.

Read more about that project in relation to public art museums, with other examples inspired by the report, on our other blog: Four innovative social enterprise concepts for art museums.

“Organizations are motivated to do too much.”

Capacity has been identified as a critical issue in the arts for well over a decade now, and still it’s not going away. Organizations over-reach because they have so few options. Scaling up appears to be the only way to attract more resources. And it’s true; the bigger you are, the more resources you can attract. But not everyone gets to be the AGO. Some end up like the ROM. Growth cannot be an end in itself. Thinking ecologically, growth results from favourable conditions and should naturally produce greater impact too (more fruit, more shade).

“There is a strong fear of communicating failure.”

This is probably the most important insight of the report and also the most difficult. We don’t understand failure well, not just in the arts but everywhere. We avoid talking about it. (Why would we?) But this is changing: a fertile discourse is developing around what failure is and how important it is to success. The Harvard Business Review has embraced it. In Canada, there’s a brilliantly named project, Fail Forward, supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, that has this to say about failure:

“When everyone speaks openly about failures we can implicitly say ‘If you have no failure to discuss, you are not being honest, or you are not being innovative.’ It’s a paradigm shift. An acceptance of failure genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you aren’t under-performing if you fail; you’re under-performing if you don’t admit failure, because when we admit failure we all learn from it.”

“The sector has experienced a loss of long-term philanthropists.”

Baby boomers give differently than the industrialists of old. The generations coming after the baby boomers will give even more differently. It’s not that boomers don’t give, or that younger generations won’t when they get there, but attitudes to what is worthy of supporting are evolving. In the cultural ecosystem, institutional authority is decaying, fresh sprouts are springing up everywhere and those with means are noticing. Increasingly they want to see how their dollars are making a difference. The days of giving for the prestige of your name on a building or donor appreciation wall are numbered.

“There is a lack of evidence-based research on the arts.”

In the business world, a qualitative assumption about what should work will fail nine times out of ten. Nobody gets it right the first time, or forever. Entrepreneurs are people for whom the desire to succeed is greater than their attachment to a particular idea. They test, pivot, and test again. Artists do this in the studio every day, yet arts organizations find it difficult. This isn’t to say that there’s no a place for challenging, critical ideas, just that what is contrary can be self-serving; like advertising it often puts the impression ahead of the substance.

Evidence is about measurement. Measurement can’t tell you everything but everything can be measured. We learn by comparing things: measurement. But we also learn from the process itself. It is a mindset to focus on impact.

“Audiences are stressed and can’t afford to participate.”

This is a refreshingly frank acknowledgement that the arts aren’t just an ecology but also an economy, and part of the larger one. “Afford” is an interesting term for the report to use. I don’t think it’s meant literally but refers to the fact that many, if not most, people feel that high culture doesn’t address their real lives and in any event isn’t meant for them. As Jason Luckerhoff found in a study called Visiting Art Museums published in Québec in 2009 that the typical public art museum visitor is not defined so much by how much money they have but by other kinds of “capital”; in terms developed by the sociologist Pierre Bordieu, they have enough cultural, social and symbolic capital to feel entitled to enter the museum and participate in the art world. To understand what is going on here will take many kinds of measuring: either the amount of “capital” needed to gain entry to the museum needs to be reduced, the type of capital needs to change or people need help to develop the necessary capital.

“The public wants “social experiences” and not necessarily “arts experiences.”

This observation is not that unique or particularly surprising except that it comes so late to the arts; retailers have been selling “experiences” for years now. The “science” is telling us that everything we do is, at least partly if not primarily, motivated socially. The point of highlighting it here is to show how the report is persistently pointing out a need to look at things differently.

“Peer assessment’s influence has led to safer choices.”

Back in the day, peer assessment – the process of gathering groups of artists together to make grant decisions about each other – was indisputably a brilliant and disruptive innovation. It allowed a new generation to supplant an older one with reasoned selflessness. The principle is sound: so long as artists are gathered to sit on juries based on nominations and experience, the art they decide to fund should theoretically continue to evolve. Alas, no system is infallible. Which is not to say that a lot of brilliant art wasn’t supported thanks to the peer assessment process, only that limits were reached. There are a lot of ways to make grant decisions. How refreshing would it be for Council to itself innovate, trying out new grant assessment processes to capture the art that is truly outlying and deserving of support.

Some conclusions:
Canada Council’s budget has been frozen for years now. Calling for change feels something like a witch hunt: if she drowns, she’s innocent. But if anything can improve Council’s chances for increased funding, it is this report and the direction it stands for. It plainly states where change is needed. It acknowledges that culture looks different today than it did 50+ years ago. It suggests ways to address the differences: talking openly about failure, getting serious about measuring impacts, and trying out new things with the passion and agility of the entrepreneur.

Council isn’t just preaching. It’s setting an example by doing these things itself. More will be known this June, when Council intends to report details about how it is reshaping its programs.

The elephant in the art museum

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy, from Wikimedia
The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

If the white boxes within art museums have grown larger and larger over the years, is it perhaps to accommodate the increasing girth of the elephants that museum communities would rather not discuss?

One of the largest of the herd is the question of de-accessioning, an elephant that became starkly visible on or about May 24th, 2014 at the Detroit Art Museum, before being quickly re-cloaked by a unanimous Michigan State Senate Committee.

It is taboo for museums to ever consider selling art from their collections in order to meet expenses. But it is generally considered okay to sell something if the money is used to acquire other art, e.g., to better focus a collection.

There are good reasons for this taboo. Public galleries are very literally not-for-profit. If a practice of selling works from collections was condoned, galleries might quickly drift toward profit-centred acquisitioning, as in “I wonder how much we could get for that 10 years from now?” That kind of market play should be left in the hands of dealers and collectors who are better equipped to speculate and suffer the consequences.

The mission behind museum collections is to preserve great art and give the public access to it, neither of which can be done as effectively in private hands. Selling work has nothing to do with either.

On the other hand, it has been said that too much art is now trapped in museums. Once all the Van Goghs or Tom Thomsons are in public hands, the intrigues and competition of the private market aren’t there to stimulate interest.

Are there other constructive ways of thinking about collections that are still consistent with their purpose? How about a cycle of “catch and release,” taking work into public collections, divesting it after a time (such as 50 or 100 years) so the museum can financially benefit from the phenomenon of market inflation and the work can be coveted and fought over and celebrated in the marketplace once more, eventually to be donated again to another museum, creating both new tax benefits for the philanthropist and new thrills in the museum world?

Closing the book on Inspire! The Toronto International Book Fair

Here’s a great way to show a panel of authors, adjacent their books.

If this particular panel isn’t looking too cheery it could be because their host, the Toronto International Book Fair, held for the first time last fall, was in the process of imploding around them. Now it has been announced that it won’t be back.

“The big players should have jumped on board,” said Sandra Kasturi,  participating poet and co-publisher of fantasy and genre fiction ChiZine Publications, “I feel like the publishing industry is frequently hide bound and reluctant to embrace anything new, especially if it’s not an instant million-dollar success.” – http://metronews.ca/news/toronto/1283828/toronto-international-book-fair-closes-after-one-year/

Here’s what another commentator had to say:

“A larger expansion of the vendors and publishers on offer will be needed in order to sustain interest. Organizers intend to focus more on the international element of the fair next year as well.

“The downside to attending the event for multiple days is that after touring the show floor to see all the publishers and exhibitors, there isn’t much else to look at. There needs to be a larger amount of exhibits or activities to see and do to engage visitors. In addition, the set up of the various stages needs to be re-examined, as often throughout the day activities from one stage interfered with interviews and readings on others. Given that the Convention Centre is a large, open space, the sounds echoed and traveled across the show floor disturbing audiences and authors. All elements will likely be improved for next year. Organizers may also want to consider moving it to a different time of the year where the event calendar is not already so crowded.” – http://theroaminglife.com/inspire-toronto-international-book-fair-2014-day-2/

It was a big ambition, the kind of thing we need in today’s lachrymose economy.

But the plug has been pulled. Which means no opportunity to fix and grow. Too bad:

Where was the art community? What about hooking it up with the also struggling Art Toronto fair, already gearing up for 2015, or the thriving NY Art Book Fair, embraced by the likes of The New Yorker?

Or the critical-alt communities? http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/10/24/elaine-henry-edinburgh-independent-radical-book-fair/

Or even, how about 12 days out of doors!? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolkata_Book_Fair

Inspire! Book Fair by the numbers (info from Metronews, link above)

  • 400 authors, including big names such as as Margaret Atwood
  • 200 exhibitors
  • 3 day event
  • $1 million reported original budget
  • 50,000 original attendance goal
  • 20,000-25,000 actual attendance

The brief obit in Publisher’s Weekly.

 

The perfect Christmas book

ISBN-13: 9781603201742; Publisher: Time Home Entertainment, Inc; Publication date: 10/30/2012; Pages: 112; Sales rank: 122,161 (Dec. 26); Product dimensions: 8.70 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

The publication this season of JESUS: Who Do You Say That I Am? could not have come at a more perfect time, coinciding with the unveiling (re-birth really) of a special stained glass window at my church, Emmanuel Howard Park United in Toronto. The window’s image, of Christ holding a lantern, is based on a painting entitled “The Light of the World” by the PreRaphaelite William Holman Hunt. So perfect was this painting that it was for a time the most reproduced image in the world. (At Emmanuel Howard Park United there are no less than three versions of it.)

This particular stained glass window has an exceptionally perfect story. Commissioned by the church janitor to commemorate the life of his son killed in WWI, it was the only window to survive a church fire in the 40s, but remained virtually unseen in a little used stairwell for over 70 years until this fall when it came to the attention of a few people at the church who worked through a labyrinth of unusual to say nothing of improbable circumstances until this December, when the window was cleared of obstructions and backlit. It is now a beacon of light that presents a welcoming message directly on to the main street of our bustling community.

The LIFE publication appeared on magazine racks by the cash registers at my local grocery store just at the same time as the Emmanuel Howard Park window was lit up. One can imagine the enormous number of people this little publication is reaching, putting it into that special category of (publishing) miracles.

JESUS, Who Do You Say That I Am? is a perfect publication is so many way. It fleshes out the details of Christ’s life with stories and pictures that bring the places, the geography and culture of the times alive. It lays out the story from the Bible with a mixture of interpretiion, theology and history so we can understand, without judging, what people believe and where there are doubts. It’s an exquisite balancing act.

The Light of the World, stained glass window after an original painting by William Holman Hunt

The final section, “He Is All Things to All Men,” shows how Christ figures into the work and lives of organizations and individuals around the world. But then, after consulting notable scholars, the Surgeon General of the U.S. and the Cardinal of New York City, LIFE settles on three of the unlikeliest of characters to draw the whole thing together.

They choose three artists, musicians Moby, Aaron Neville and Willy Nelson, to deliver personal accounts of how Christ figures into their lives.

Moby relates most to the glorious side of the Son of God. He believes in Jesus, he says, but isn’t going to make a big deal about it; he’s content with the idea that the universe is “an unknowable but fascinating and wonderful place.”

Neville relates most to the compassion of Christ, describing personal feelings of empathy for Christ’s suffering and joys, and recalling a moving prayer/story about footprints in sand.

Nelson takes things in completely different direction that for me cuts to the quick of thinking about Jesus. He begins by quoting Matthew 5:48: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.’ then goes on to say, “The purpose of life is to reach perfection. The rose starts as a seed or cutting, then grows and prospers with the sunshine and the rain. After a period of time, the perfect rose blossoms. The human experience is much the same, except the time span is much greater because man, before he can reach this state of perfection, must return again and again through many incarnations in order to conquer all disease, greed, jealousy, anger, hatred and guilt. In order to achieve perfection man must use his imagination to create an image of himself in his mind as a happy, healthy person, perfect in every way. He must pattern himself after the master of perfection, such as the great master Jesus.”

In today’s world, so fraught with violence and misunderstanding, it’s odd to hear someone holding out for the possibility of perfection. Yet there is perfection in this little publication with the not so little circulation. And there is perfection in its timing, coinciding as it did with the most perfect resurrection of the heart of a modest downtown church in Toronto.

With the brilliance of perfection all around, the darkness of doubt is extinguished.

 

Concrete Contemporary art auction promises excitement

Michael Snow, Carla Bley, photo litho, 16 of 100

Judging from the preview last night, Steve Ranger has shaped Waddington’s Concrete Contemporary art auction to be an exciting event, filled with surprises.

Everything is priced to sell, with minimum bids verging on on the ridiculous: a Michael Snow for $1500? A lovely Joanne Tod fashion drawing for $2000?

There are the usual suspects, priced in the low five figures and a nice mix of artists you might not necessarily know, reasonably priced, for example this pair of collages by Andrew Owen or a 1980 Charles Ringness with it’s elegant, self-conscious primitiveness.

Andrew Owen, Lilies and Bamboo Excavation. Lot 38. Estimate $4-5000.

 

Steve Ranger has put extra attention into the auction catalogue, which is beautifully designed with substantial texts about each work and artist.

Concrete Contemporary is a thoughtful  sampling of contemporary Canadian art, showing both its depth and variety.

Will tonight’s event build momentum in the marketplace? By all rights, it should.

 

 

Joanne Tod, Pansies. Estimate $2-3000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Roblin, 2012. Estimate $12-15,000. (Thank you to Senaca College acquisition committee member and painter Paul Woolf for posing for scale.)