“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

J-M Basquiat, “New”, 1983

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.

Craft vs. art: the scapegoat, inclusivity and the work of Jack Sures

Tactile Desire: The Work of Jack Sures book cover
ISBN 9780929021607 – Mackenzie Art Gallery and Tom Thomson Art Gallery, 2011, 216 pp.
This is a short review, the first of what I hope will be many, of a beautiful book produced to accompany the retrospective exhibition Tactile Desires: The Work of Jack Sures.

Co-published by the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan and the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario, the book features essays by Sandra Alfoldy, Virginia Eichhorn, Julia Krueger and Matthew Kangas, and pictures of every work in the exhibition in full colour.

To focus on only one of the essays, Timothy Long’s approaches the everlasting (still) debate about craft vs. art, in an unusual way. Art relies, like religion, he says, on scapegoating, excluding others as non-believers. Art is historically tied to religion, devotion and the experience of the divine in a way that craft never was. So, while the avant gardes have tried to reveal, mock, dismantle, and thereby overcome that religious bigotry – think of Picasso’s goats or Rauchenberg’s – craft, has, to its advantage, never had to force a separation; it is already integrated into daily life, more readily accepted and accepting. For those of us with a soft spot for craft, this could well explain why.

The other essays trace Sures’ career and place his work in historical context, showing how he stands on the cusp between previous generations of arts and craft revivalists inspired by Bernard Leach and the generations Sures himself taught and influenced, who went on to create conceptual and funk ceramics.

Overall, the book is good read, accessible and thoughtful. And it is also beautifully designed, with French flaps, by Adams + Associates.

Buzz Hargrove or Lee Iococca: the search for business models in the arts.

Creative Enterprise book cover
ISBN-13: 978-1441188205

For decades now, everyone from artists to arts organizations to public and private galleries and arts councils has been under pressure to operate in a more transparent, business-like fashion. When combined with artists parallel creative pushing at the limits of the institutional and discursive frameworks that hold art apart from (and above) audiences, it is hardly surprising if traditional ways of explaining or justifying the arts look less and less convincing.

Two new books step towards the idea that it may be fruitful to start looking at the arts through the same lens as we look at other things people do; cost vs. benefit, profit vs. loss, labour vs. management.
Martha Buskirk’s Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace, is characterized as “[a] dryly skeptical account of the nuanced and complex relationships between artists, museums and the marketplace.” – interview with Martha Buskirk here: http://hyperallergic.com/54766/arts-corrosive-success-an-interview-with-martha-buskirk

Buskirk focuses on roles and methodologies, relationships and institutional frameworks, basically the infrastructure of the arts,  attempting to identify the models that are at work. Among her observations:

  • It is  increasingly difficult to distinguish between art and other forms of commerce or production: Alan Kaprow called himself a “service provider,” a labourer in other words.
  • Artworks today are often iterative, meaning the artist changes them as they move to new venues. It is not a matter of a discrete object being produced in the studio and then sent out for display. It is more like how the marketplace works for other types of products, where design, packaging and promotion  evolve in response to demand. Creating and presenting artwork has always involved “management” – by the artist and by curators and dealers – but today that management is increasingly like management anywhere in the marketplace.
  • The visual art market, particularly since the bubble of the first decade of this century, has been increasingly revealed to be driven by the same things that drive business: profits and tax breaks. The language is shocking, but so is the idea that there might be pretty straight forward business model at work.
  • Artists today are more frequently invited to work in situ, to work withing a gallery context or other setting. They are increasingly seen as people who can be brought in to “fix” any range of institutional or corporate ills, from public profile or office culture. operate like management consultants, except they are paid far less.
  • Institutional critique has become popular even among public galleries, because it is popular with the public who like to see the inner workings of the musuem. The avant garde that once was tied to the ruling elite with a rope of gold (Greenberg) is effectively taking down the velvet
  • The explosion in collections, museums, galleries, no less than the number of art schools and art school  graduates add diversity of points of view and practices that will inevitably change the character of the field.
  • Artists like Murakami are brands, managing processes that have all the attributes of the industrial assembly line. The results are both hi art and low or no art. The gift shop item no less than the one off monumental sculpture being part of a conceptual project that challenges both the meaning of ownership and the value of the art object.


Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells book cover
ISBN-13: 978-1844676903

The second book, Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, further stirs the pot by examining the political effectiveness of social or “relational” art practices, provoking a similar kind of questioning of what models exactly are at work.

She looks at “the tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions.” http://hyperallergic.com/55068/claire-bishop-artificial-hells/

Bishop takes art practices that seek validity outside of the proper institutions and discourse of art at their word, as if to say, if your  first commitment is to social change, then put up or shut up. Don’t dress up like Buzz Hargrove if all you’re doing in the end is reinforcing the investments of Lee Iococca’s shareholders.

It’s a fair point – how can one champion the working stiff while also protecting the shareholders’ exclusive interest? – but only to the extent that the art falls so strictly along ideological lines, which most art, and most art institutions for that matter, do not.

While we may expect debate to rage now about what exactly Bishop is “for” or “against,” or thinks “better” or “worse,” and whether all that is still rooted in the same modernist cricial traditions it will be more interesting to consider what it means for  a critic of Bishop’s stature to be digging down to look at the foundations of current art practices, or what fresh hell she may excavate.

Bishop has provided an important spur to critical debate, which pretty well everyone has been saying for over a decade has become moribund: “boosterism is the only form of dialogue and lack of hype around an artist suffices for criticism.” Buskirk has similarly expanded the way in which we can speak about and analyze the infrastructure that validates and promotes certain practices and certain artists over others.

Whether looking at art or its context, the search for internal validation for art now seems not so much frustrating, even Quixotic, so much as misdirected. Validation occurs in art, just as in other kinds of human activity, in relatively predictable, but more importantly, knowable, describable ways.


This article was first posted on View on Canadian Art. (Thanks to Andrea Carson.)