Tag Archives: Jerry Saltz

The Imperium of Analytics

In my previous post, “Invisibility and Criticality in The Imperium of Analytics,” I discussed the personal background and implications of the rating of Criticality 95, Visibility 5 that I received from artist William Powhida this past winter. In this post I examine further some of the conditions of writing and publication for me when I first started to publish and today.

The Imperium of Analytics

Because of the instantaneity of online publication [particularly the case for self-administered blogs with no editorial filters beyond the blogger], there is an expectation of instantaneous response. If you don’t get it, you’re incensed–at any rate I am, that is until I remind myself that I don’t read most of what comes my way via links on Facebook and email because I can’t keep up, I don’t understand how anyone else does (more on that in a minute). Or, put another way, you can see right away if you have not gotten  instantaneous response, since you can track reception and readership by the day, even by the minute: how many “likes” clicked on Facebook, how many views, shares, and comments on Huffington Post, Google +1, how many re-Tweets, and finally, the daily Google Analytics graph that tracks blog readership.

As you can see, in the case of this blog, the graph drops abruptly within a day or two after a post. If you don’t write anything for a few days, it flatlines.

When Susan Bee and I published the biannual journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s (the history of our friendship, our collaboration on M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and the reasons for founding the journal are detailed in our “Introduction” to M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism), we would work on the final proof of each issue in a concentrated fashion for a couple of months, having gathered material for a couple of months before that, following up on questions we and other artist/writers around us had about artmaking and the artworld of that time but with no artworld schedules in mind.

Our magazine was distributed partly through a small-journal distributor whose public manifestation was Niko’s Smoke Shop at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th street, a tiny crowded space that could well have doubled as a CIA drop, and partly by Susan and I ourselves lugging heavy, filthy Post Office mail bags filled with our subscribers’ copies to the nearest Post Office that would accept the non-profit permit we were able to use, where after a clerk would put us through the maximum of bureaucratic hell in his or her small power, we would leave feeling we had just thrown our hard labor down a well. In fact one time early on we had to leave the Post Office after we had deposited our magazines after much bureaucratic interrogation and corrections, paid but not yet gotten our change or receipt, because they thought the station was on fire and when it turned out it wasn’t, they decided to close the station anyway so they could get the rest of the day off! A worker took pity on us and handed us our change through the half-shut back door to the street.

After this thoroughly analog ordeal in the distribution process, reader responses were equally analog, if any: a short note scribbled on one of our subscription slips, the occasional out of the blue phone call, or actually running into one of our readers in the street.

When our first issue came out, containing my essay “Appropriated Sexuality,” in which I critiqued both David Salle’s representation of women in his paintings and the complicit critical apparatus supporting this work, the phone rang and a woman introduced herself as Carol Duncan, one of the art historians I admired tremendously and held as a model for my writing: “Who are you?” she asked. What a thrill.

Shortly after we published my essay “Figure/Ground” in M/E/A/N/I/N/G #6 in 1989, an essay in which I posited that a primal, somatized disgust with the “goo” of paint underlay the supposedly objective critique of painting as a relevant medium for contemporary expression (in the process attacking some of the powerful critical voices of October magazine as “aesthetic terrorists”), I ran into a fellow painter, Guy Goodwin, in the Canal Street Post Office at the end of my block in Tribeca: “I just love that essay about goo,” he drawled in his deep Alabama accent.

This kind of analog response made us feel that we were part of a real community. It was small but tangible in a way that gave a stable and organic basis to what we were doing. And for me, those few interactions with individual readers were present and precious, but aside from that I had little idea of who was reading what I wrote and little expectation of finding out. Time was longer. In fact, as an amusing aside, I wasn’t absolutely sure that Salle himself had read “Appropriated Sexuality” until 7 years after its publication, at which point I felt I had lobbed a canon ball by hand and it had taken 6 or 7 years before it finally landed behind enemy lines.

At the same time the relative paucity or slowness of response was not always a good feeling, but it also insured, it almost enforced a private space for the development of ideas, a move onto new research rather than an absorption in what I had just written.

“Figure/Ground” lurked in my mind for a couple of years and then took more than a year to write and it came out a year after a previous essay in M/E/A/N/I/N/G. Now if I let two weeks go by without writing something new I feel a biological impulse and a commercial imperative for some kind of author’s equivalent of first aid biofeedback to keep the graph line up. The longest I’ve worked on a blog post on A Year of Positive Thinking has been about two months, though of most that just thinking about it on the back burner, with the actual writing compressed into a few days, and even the quickest entries require a full day’s work chained to the computer all day, in my nightgown, without ever leaving the house. I’m not sure I could write an essay like “Figure/Ground” today, but I’m certain I couldn’t do it in two weeks or two months.

Even though I’ve embraced the challenge presented by the blog format and the time frame of the web to try to keep in the current discourse as at close to its requirement of instantaneity as possible, it’s likely that I’m trying to do something perhaps antithetical to this ecosystem: I’m drawn to creating a hybrid text in which a contemporary spark, my penchant for associative thinking, and my enjoyment of research are compressed into an accelerated research and writing process in order to hit the stream of the web within its time frame. I’m trying to get to what I want to say as quickly and as succinctly as I can but the nature of my particular intervention even when compressed and accelerated may go against the grain of its current medium.

Granted, blogs are meant as a vehicle for instant commentary, less formal than even the newspaper article or column so that increasingly even professional journalists who already work in a much tighter relation to the time frame of the news cycle are adding a blog to their newspaper or journal profile for even quicker, though possibly less digested or edited reaction to news. Blogs get better analytics stats if they come out everyday or even several times a day, to establish a brand presence, and I would guess that it hardly matters what the content is, although many are interesting and useful to their audience.

I appreciate the aplomb or maybe it’s the sang-froid of someone like Raphael Rubinstein on his blog The Silo: Rubinstein’s stated aim is to, occasionally and according to no apparent calendar or exhibition schedule, write usually quite short texts that “challenge existing exclusionary accounts of art since 1960 and to offer a fresh look at some canonical artists” that you may or may not have heard of such, from Daniel Spoerri to Biala. At the same time, I appreciate blogs that keep me informed about a wide range of art and art news, such as Hyperallergic; painter Sharon Butler‘s blog Two Coats of Paint; and critical writing that does keep current with art exhibitions but in an idiosyncratic way, like painter Bradley’s Rubenstein‘s reviews on Culture Catch.

Expectation of instant response is paired with expectation of instant reading. As a reader it is hard to keep up with the surfeit of material that comes at you everyday from every source and of every register of writing, from academic research to news editorials to entertainment gossip. I don’t understand how anyone keeps up. But it’s clear that shorter is better, you maybe can read a few things online a day if they are 100 words long, 700 is the limit recommended to its bloggers by The HuffingtonPost, you are probably not going to be able to read 2000, much less 4000 (this post weighs in at a hefty 2672, so if you’ve gotten this far, dear reader, you are definitely above average!). Oh by the way, Google analytics also tells you the average time people spend on your site:

Oops! Now I know how people keep up or try to with the daily flood of links. A minute is about enough time to find out that Arnold isn’t giving Maria alimony. No, actually that took about 5 seconds, so I guess a full minute is a web eternity. The Huffington Post Arts page launched a “Haiku Reviews” section last year but checking the site today there seems to be some slippage from the definition of 17 syllables, because in classic form the haiku requires rigorous and exquisite concentration of ideas into each word–a reduction that takes time to refine, distill, and compose. In 2000, curator Stuart Horodner put together “Haikuriticism – 17 Art Reviews (in 17 Syllables) by 17 Writers,” in Art Issues #63: he sent me a couple of the Haikuriticisms today. About “Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt at Met” I wrote : “Little girl mummy/ ‘Why can’t you grow when you’re dead?’/ Encaustic flesh can”; Amy Sillman on Will Cotton: “Photorealism?/Audrey Flack was much better?/(Not a cute boy, though.)”; and Katy Siegel on Chuck Close: “Agnes said to Chuck,/”I’m ready for my close-up.”/They know grid is good.”

Of course, the analytics graph rises highest when the post is about things, people, artists that everyone already “likes” so their likability will rub off on you, or things that have a frisson of the prurient or the scandalous. Links to names that attract search engines and to websites with a lot of traffic will bring traffic to yours. It also is important that the post be in response to the immediate news cycle. This focus on the immediate shrinks the writing time further because you know that if you don’t intervene in a timely manner, now, another story will push this one aside. Add to that the preference for the known and already liked and alternative stories or ways of thinking–or “think pieces”–are of course even more likely to be pushed aside, especially if they are not likable, that is to say, not positive–hence the title of my blog, which is at once perfectly sincere in its goal but inevitably ironic. The impact of this system on art discourse and politics is quite evidently disastrous, since both political events and artworks are quickly dropped before their meanings are really sorted out while the implications of the “old news” continue to influence the present, whether we see it or not.

Of my writings published online on this blog and The Huffington Post since last April 2010, the ones that have in any small way gone viral, very relatively speaking, were those in which I wrote fast enough about current hot news items or ones relating or engaging with artworld celebrities: as one example, “My Whole Street is A Mosque,” written within 24 hours of the news cycle surrounding the proposal for a Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, was picked up by various web aggregators; “Looking for Art to Love, MoMA: A Tale of Two Egos” also did very well because of my speculation about how or whether Marina Abramovic peed during her performance “The Artist is Present” at MoMA,  a subject of much prurient curiosity (interesting speculation was illustrated online at New York Magazine and resolution of the mystery came in the Wall Street Journal’s blog, “Speakeasy”); “Anselm Kiefer@Larry Gagosian: Last Century in Berlin,” where I tucked a critical response to Kiefer’s recent show into a bit of reporting about how Gagosian Gallery was using the NYPD as its private police force, also created a spike on my Google analytics; more recently I could perceive a noticeable uptick in my readership as well as in the number and enthusiasm of my Facebook friends’ comments for “Should we trust anyone under 30?,” most likely because it was written in relation to a piece by Jerry Saltz and because Jerry participated in the comments discussion to this post on Facebook, bringing his devoted fan base with him.

As I write this blog post I’m reading Give My Regards to Eighth Street, the quite delightful collected writings of the American composer Morton Feldman. A wonderful sentence at the beginning of his 1965 essay “The Anxiety of Art” falls into my lap. The essay caught my attention today, the day the awful debt ceiling agreement has been reached in Washington, D.C., because Feldman begins with the figure of Dr. Zhivago as a figure whose “identity is crushed by history,” and here we are in a summer which feels to some of us like the summer of 1939, a fake calm after war has been declared, a summer of the most glorious weather in European history before the cataclysm, though for us the cataclysm is of a nature that perhaps is more like the summer of 1929 or maybe that of 1933, economic and ideological wars on the individual and ideals of an egalitarian society. Shifting from the large scale cataclysms of history, Feldman shifts to the impact of history on art:

We see it in life; why do we fail to see that in art too, the facts and successes of history are allowed to crush all that is subtle, all that is personal, in our work?

Yet the artist does not resist. He identifies with this force that can only destroy him. In fact, it has an irrisistible attaction for him, in that it offers him known goals, the illusion of safety in his work, the tempting knowledge that nothing succeeds in art–like someone else’s success. In a word, because it relieves the anxiety of art.

Mira Schor, Sketchbook Drawing, August 2, 2011, in sympathy with Morton Feldman’s distinctions between sound and noise

If your eye is on the imperium of the news cycle and of the instant tracking number capabilities of analytics, market /entertainment/promotion/herd positivism dominate.  The subjects that take hold on the web are news about news, news about celebrity, already tied to the market’s tastes and schedules, feeding the known rather than exploring the unknown, critically or otherwise. To maximize your “like” clicks and keep your analytics from flatlining, best to write about things that everyone already knows and likes.

One of the nicest responses to A Decade that never made it into a review was from a fellow painter who wrote to me, “you are writing things I feel like I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time but didn’t know it.”

It goes without saying I hope you have “liked” this post.

*

The conditions of contemporary publication on the web that I’ve touched on here have made me interested in researching the conditions of the writing and publication of two essays I particularly admire and yet whose publication has always seemed in some sense mysterious to me. These are two essays by John Berger that are among my favorites, both included in Berger’s 1988 book of collected essays, The Sense of Sight: “The Moment of Cubism,” originally published in the 1969 book of the same name, and “The Hals Mystery,” originally published in the British journal New Society in December 1979. I will discuss these in my next and third post in this three part series, “The Berger Mystery,” coming soon.

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Should we trust anyone under 30? (with some excerpts from “Recipe Art” and other essays)

In Jerry Saltz’s recent New York Magazine piece, “Generation Blank,” he expresses some concern about young contemporary artists making “work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.”

I don’t disagree with Saltz’s assessment. In fact I examine in great detail the phenomenon he notes in this article in “Trites Tropes,” which is the last section of my book A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics and Daily Life (Duke University Press, pub. date 2009, appeared winter 2010).

I hope people will read my book–of course!–so I won’t (& can’t) quote the entire section of the book relevant to this subject, which included an analysis of contemporary trends in art education, and a long examination of journalistic coverage of recent MFA generations’ entry into the art market, but I will refer to it here and I’ve inserted some relevant quotes at the end of this post.

Saltz writes that a “feedback loop has formed; art is turned into a fixed shell game, moving the same pieces around a limited board.” Again, I agree. In fact amusingly enough I can make the small claim to my place in a chronologically earlier spot on the chain in the “feedback loop” of criticality of the system: in my introduction to A Decade, I wrote that, “I want to address artists who are encouraged on many fronts to operate in a limited field of new cookies by exploring instead the potential of a critical but productive temporal counterpoint, a constant movement between the undertow of the past beneath the wave of the present, and the powerful counterflow of the present over reiterations of the past in contemporary art works and ideologies. Contested histories, networks of influence, and feedback loops of recurrent tropes emerge as major themes.” (emphasis added for this post). Well, neither of us invented the term nor its overuse!

Carl Pope, from the "About Bad Art"poster series, 2008, Letterpress broadside, 17"x26"

Throughout the book and in some recent blog posts, I note the apolitical tendencies of many members of these recent generations of artists: even when as individuals they have progressive politics, they are undermined by a certain passive despondency and their tentative critiques of socio/artistic situations and conditions they sense are problematic are unsupported by any radical movement in our society as a whole.

A general atmosphere of a new conservatism among twenty and thirty somethings is evident on all societal registers: just yesterday an article in the New York Times, “How Divorce Lost Its Groove,” examined attitudes towards divorce among a younger generation of upscale people with small children. Without wishing for a moment to diminish the anguish that this generation, many products of divorce themselves, may have experienced, it was disturbing that the article did not look at other contemporary trends (overall drop in marriage rates, more children born out of wedlock, more unusual family arrangements) nor did it raise any kind of feminist analysis of the return of normative pressures on young women to marry and have children in a Leave it to Beaver sort of way, albeit in the igeneration mode where mothers work outside the home.

The conservatism emanating from the opprobrium and shame experienced by these affluent young divorcees is also apparent in the MFA generation of artists who have learned all the rules of the art market, are incredibly professional and well-behaved, and would never dream of questioning the status quo of the art market beyond a certain point of academic correctness. And why would they when most of the contemporary critics who these artists follow inevitably preempt any tentative attempts at critique of the obscenities of market by prescriptively concluding that it is naive to imagine one could avoid it. Resistance, one is told every which way, is not just futile, it’s unrealistic, stupid even. Or, as one of my friends said to me once, in the early 80s, when I started not being with the new program, “Oh Mira, you’re such a hippie!.”

While my friendship with some young artists with an impressive commitment to social justice troubles my ability to make blanket statements, I have a lurking fear that a terrible generational reversal has taken place that almost goes against the laws of nature: my generation used to say, “don’t trust anyone over thirty,” and when I consider that my fate as an older person is to live in the world that will be led by the privileged few among the current generation Saltz is calling “Generation Blank,” I would have to say that I don’t trust anyone under thirty! under 40, even under 50! the farther you get from the generative decade of the 60s and yes the 70s, the worse it gets–that is to say the overall 25 to 40 demographic group with its corporate smoothness of operation and its Darwinian positivism, not the wonderful individuals scattered within that demographic who have the desire but lack the will towards a critical mass necessary for a movement of social change.

Or, let me put it this way, the faculty evaluation I take away from this past year is one anonymous student writing, “and she made us watch a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.”  This, about one of my graduate seminar classes in which, with the encouragement of one of my more radically minded students mind you, I had them watch King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which he delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, a year exactly before his assassination, was a bad thing, from her (I’m guessing) point of view.

Perhaps this student was right to complain because listening to a great anti-war speech by Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed a waste of time in that it would do nothing to enhance her competitiveness in the current gallery scene in New York City or the art world in general, but on the other hand you could argue that only by taking such unorthodox breaks from the usual suspects of art academia’s prescribed reading lists and listening to speeches like that is there any hope of developing an art practice that would go beyond the predictable politesse of Recipe Art.

In this case Saltz should at least qualify his recommendation that young artists stop looking in awe at their elders: it all depends on which elders, the ones who created something interesting and then got complacent in the international art market or those who have retained some kind of radicality, whether political, or a radicality of individual critical thought and personal necessity within a rigorous formal practice. It also depends on whether the radicality of the gesture is foregrounded, its context and meaning before it was chosen to be consecrated by art history and the market, or whether the orthodoxy of the image, that is to say the appearance of radicality, once it has been sufficiently absorbed by the system and given the sheen of celebrity, is the focus of instruction.

Saltz doesn’t seem to question his own underlying assumption that interesting new work would come only from the young or that it would be easily visible or foregrounded in mainstream exhibitions and media. This is a reflexive point of view shared by many in art journalism and academia, where only the new and the young are conceived to be contemporary or marketable, even though given the generational political conditions many including now Saltz have noted and that I describe in my book, it is possible that this new and young generation has been shaped for conformism to a corporate ideal, albeit a newly global one, in such a way that they are the last place to look for interesting art that would break any molds.

My response to my unidentified student’s evaluation was to devote a couple of classes the next semester to the applicability of the concept of non-violence to art (see my earlier post, “While Working on a Syllabus on a Winter’s Afternoon”). I assigned a number of atypical (for a standard first year MFA Graduate Seminar) texts such as War and the Iliad, with Simone Weil‘s  essay “The Iliad or The Poem of Force” and Rachel Bespaloff’s contemporaneous but lesser known essay, “On the Iliad,” and Mark Kurlansky’s Non-Violence: The History of A Dangerous Idea, because I wanted to bring attention to the model of patricidal Oedipal rebellion as central to many avant-garde gestures. I wanted to look to principles of non-violence as a political strategy to think of ways of existing in without slavishly adhering to the values of a market-driven, spectacular, declarative art economy. [Glad I got that particular class in, because it was very meaningful, I think, in its content and its diversion from the usual course of study in an MFA program, and because the course, which otherwise included the usual suspects of art writings intended to bring students coming from a variety of educational backgrounds up to speed, was displaced from the curriculum at the end of the semester in favor of something new.]

But, to trouble my own point, because recognition of contradictory forces and truths is one of the ways forward, there are many works by young artists that do indeed “[enlarge] our view of being human,” (Saltz), though perhaps in ways that we find disconcerting, for the political reasons touched on above. I’ve always looked with great interest to work that is antithetical to what I had thought was my viewpoint, because it is all political utterance, no matter what I, at first and perhaps finally at last, think of it, and I learn from it.

Here are some excerpts from A Decade of Negative Thinking:

from the “Introduction”

A few years ago, during a break from teaching, I was enjoying my favorite snack: a Madeleine dipped in espresso. One of my students asked me what I was eating. A Madeleine, I said. I explained that it was an important part of the history of literature, that, in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the act of dipping a Madeleine into Lime tree tea, or “tilleul,” released the totality of the author’s memories of his childhood and the meaning of the work he was undertaking. “Oh,” my student said as he walked away, “I learned something new today.” “About Proust?” I said hopefully, ever the pedagogue. “About a new cookie,” he said.

This book is not exactly about new cookies.

It is perhaps a liability to advertise that to my prospective readers! People are interested in books that will give them a heads up on the next cookie – I look for such volumes myself. But, in fact, most books are about the past: only the journalistic publishing cycle and Internet manifestations occur in the present, everything else is by necessity retrospective or predictive. In a culture focused on the celebrity of the new, there may be some material of interest nestled elsewhere.

The first several pages of Du Côté de Chez Swann are devoted to an extended, detailed to the point of being soporific, description of the mechanics of falling asleep. I considered reading it out loud to my class that year but thought that the slow pace would seem like abuse to them. Yet we all need sleep, we yearn for deep and restful sleep; desperate, we skip the stages of experience described by Proust and just reach for the Ambien.

In this space bracketed by artificial stimulation and sedation, I want to address artists who are encouraged on many fronts to operate in a limited field of new cookies by exploring instead the potential of a critical but productive temporal counterpoint, a constant movement between the undertow of the past beneath the wave of the present, and the powerful counterflow of the present over reiterations of the past in contemporary art works and ideologies. Contested histories, networks of influence, and feedback loops of recurrent tropes emerge as major themes.

….

…[T]he section of the book titled “Trite Tropes” … groups four distinct yet interrelated essays. The second, third, and fourth follow from the first, but each has a different focus, tone, and timeframe. “Trite Tropes, Clichés, or the Persistence of Styles” calls attention to the continued currency, in American art and art education of a multitude of obsolete styles, often transmitted to and practiced by art students with an eroded consciousness of these styles’ original histories. In “Recipe Art” I examine the flip side of this phenomenon: the success in recent years of a style that is constituted by the ability to successfully configure a set of diverse but predictable tropes in terms of subject and types of appropriated material–one from column A, one from column B–into an art work that can be quickly described. In “Work and Play” I look at political video cartoons from the 2004 election cycle, and in “New Tales of Scheherazade” I examine recent art videos with political content, all works which offered me as a viewer an escape from the predictability of much recipe art.

From “Recipe Art”

While the persistence of styles may be fostered by those art teachers who teach what they learned in a two year window of time of their own schooling, gradually transforming art philosophies into sets of visual habits while overwhelmed by the increasingly corporate academic frame, recipe art emerges from the complicity of some fine art departments and schools with the values of the art world and art market. In fact such complicity is a prerequisite of success for the institution, whatever its actual impact on art. … A couple of years ago, one of the institutions I teach at sent out a card announcing a panel on “self-promotion for artist and designers,” “The Brand Called You” and a 2008 course offering, “Internet Famous,” is described as “the first class in the history of academics where software awards each student a grade based on a quantitative measurement of their web fame,” or whether they are “famo.” Many MFA programs have professional practices courses, in which students hone their skills at, for instance, “the elevator pitch,” where they have to condense a spiel on their work that will last no longer than an average elevator ride with a prospective collector or dealer. These are certainly practical and realistic studies in the current cultural economy. But one of the effects of this pressure is to encourage the formation of work that can be boiled down to a few words: recipe art. Then the art world grabs the graduate school product the most likely to rely entirely on clever recycling of currently appropriate obsolescent styles. The predictability of the work produced in this system creates an undercurrent of nihilistic cynicism that is expressed in the often extremely nasty dismissive tone of the comments on websites that discuss recent art work.

[m]arket pressures disable artists from moving through stages of influence at the pace each individual might need. Only the most facile, the quickest studies succeed in the short run, freezing into formulaic product what might in the past have been just a stage towards more individualized work. Market success makes one stubbornly resistant to change. And who am I to argue with success? Or, put differently, the young artist can think to himself, who is she to argue with my success? The artist who has learned to deploy the most current tropes is likely to be showing their work and even selling it, and it is hard to critique artists at such (usually fleeting) moments in their career.

….

In fact you don’t have to force capitalism down the throats of young artists who have been bred into an unquestioning acceptance of its rules and recipes, even if they will in most cases ultimately be among its many victims. There have always been business savvy artists and there have always been very rich, socially ambitious collectors. The media has always participated. The difference is one of scale of money, amount of artists, and of lowering of the age of entry. Most importantly, this generation of art students was formed during the Reagan Bush era when anything resembling true critiques of authority and power have been methodically ridiculed, demonized, or erased, creating a cohort that is surprisingly obedient and conformist, when not imbued with a sense of hopelessness.

[M]ost contemporary critics who even attempt a critique of the obscenities of market conclude that it is naïve to imagine one could avoid it. So in the guise of a rather fatalistic realism, we are always returned to the market’s axiomatic presence, its existence as essence. The nature of what might be an alternative system is not given the time or space by mainstream art media — “Artforum/Karybdis,” the whirlpool who regularly swallows up all those who cross its turbulent waters operates according to the dictates of a commercial calendar that does not allow attention to ideas and art works that are not immediately part of a specific market economy. In fact, when something does appear in print without a commercial hook-up, you look for one anyway because there is no way that it can be there just because it is interesting.

If it has always been so, nevertheless, read against the backdrop of incipient global war, over resources and religion, with a tremendous toll on not only the poor of the world, but also the educated middle classes and women, the triviality of much of this artistic and commercial discourse has been hard to countenance.

….

Recently, in an effort to reinforce the link between seminar readings and studio practice, after my students read various standard texts on appropriation and simulation, including Hal Foster’s “The Expressive Fallacy,” I asked them to make two art works on the same subject, the first using appropriational techniques and strategies, the second working expressively. The results were disappointing. At first I felt that their use of appropriation was timid and inept, which seemed strange considering the pervasiveness of appropriation in the culture at large. Next it occurred to me that the real difficulty might lie in doing something expressively, with any authenticity or necessity at the level of the image, the story, the stroke, the line, the object. It is a strangely complex paradox: self-expression and authenticity form the bedrock of the rhetoric of art practice, yet the critique of authenticity and originality have been so effective (even when the artist is uneducated to theory), and also simulation, conventionalized commodification, and sampling are so present in every day existence, that the hardest challenge for an artist today is to make an authentic mark that represents personal or formal investigation. My students’ predicament suggests that current cultural conditions are such that Recipe Art may be the only solution for a majority of artists who are trapped between a surplus of cultural quotation and the present loss of access to anything passing for an “authentic” artistic gesture.

[…] come Saturday it will looks as if a tornado has picked up a Prada store and dropped it on a desolate strip of U.S. 90 in West Texas. That is where Prada Marfa, a permanent sculpture by the Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset will be installed. […] The sculpture is meant to look like a Prada store, with minimalist white stucco walls and a window display housing real Prada shoes and handbags from the fall collection, But there is no working door.

So, I walk into a studio and I see something I’ve seen a million times before, at best the successfully articulated latest model of the latest style. I walk into a gallery, and I see – the same thing I just saw in the studio, a mis-en-abyme of cultural reference, yet another endless loop of appropriation. The work was made to be incorporated into the market and the discursive stream of the academy. That its originality is homogenized is part of its ethos. It may be chillingly, even heartlessly proficient, but that proficiency is a good indicator that we find ourselves in the Neo New Academy.

….

from “Work & Play”

For the inaugural exhibition of its satellite location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the artist Emily Katrenik is eating the wall that separates the gallery’s exhibition space from the bedroom of its director […] Video of her ingestion is included in the exhibition; she also removes some of the plaster and bakes it into loaves of bread, which are available for gallery visitors to sample.

What really matters, I mean, really, beyond the rhetoric of it mattering, is having something to say that can truly reinvest familiar materials and forms with cultural energy. What makes something at least temporarily uncategorizable in relation to history and to ambient cultural language may require a self- and other-criticality that in some artists takes decades, not months. Yet now there is no time for the slow aesthetic growth that used to be one of the standard myths of origin. Meanwhile every stroke, blob, or pixel has been analyzed, recycled, branded, as every trope has been trumped.

The question is where to look for the work that really alters your world, not just the work that tells you why this world is so mutantly oriented to the commodification of tropes. Or, having had my methamphetamine, my hit of the latest re-articulation of the near-past and the “next-modern,” I need something I would describe as real food. I walk into a museum and have an intimate relationship with a random artwork or artifact from the past that suddenly speaks to me – if I am in a museum that still allows for private experience. Or I take advantage of the exit conveniently gnawed open by the artist ingesting or regurgitating the possibly toxic confines of the spaces of art, step outside, and turn to other modes of expression and cultural action than high art.

For more of this material I hope you will look at my book. You can also check out the following:

“The Art of Nonconformist Criticality.” This talk, on Feb. 14, 2006, was the second in a series launched by the newly formed MFA Art Criticism and Writing Department at the School of Visual Arts (90 minutes, also available as video on SVA’s itunes University site, under Lectures in Art Criticism).

And forthcoming: a new essay, “Fail!,” in a forthcoming issue of Paper Monument.

 

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