SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER

12/04/12 10:00am

Senior Curator Paola Antonelli announced last Thursday that MoMA would add 14 video games, ranging from Pacman to Portal, to the museum’s design collection. The reaction online was predictable: this is a good thing; video games are definitely art now; yo, Sorry MoMA, video games are not art.” Here he goes:

Casting my mind back to the philosophical debate I spied on in Oxford, I remember a pretty good argument for why interactive immersive digital games are not art. Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.

The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one “owns” the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.

Firstly, don’t get confused: this isn’t actually backlash from the conservative sections of the art world. That sort of thing will take the form of sneaky reclassifications and rearrangements over decades, as museum curators fight over whether games belong to art or design, in gee-whiz tech exhibitions or in the main galleries, or whether they should ever be in the same room as, say, a Donald Judd. You can keep track of that by watching to see if video game-based artworks like Feng Mengbo’s Long March (Restart) (2008), which was on view at MoMA PS1 last year, ever get exhibited next to their primitive ancestors. No, Jones is simply a self-made bogeyman, who’s realized there’s easy notoriety in sounding like an angry dad. Artists produce art; the art world produces attention.

Still, Jones makes an argument. Video games are not art, he says, because art requires a singular, personal expression with a clear author. But that’s not true about art, is it? Art can have a lot of creators; after all, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is art. Art can also require the viewer’s participation; we know that from the Op Art in the New Museum’s recent “Ghost in the Machine” exhibition, from the camera-based installations of Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, and from every artwork ever to include a mirror, from Robert Rauschenberg (in his Combines) to Robert Morris and Robert Smithson. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s heartbreaking Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), on show at the Met right now, is nothing without an audience to complete it, but nobody doubts it’s art.

Besides which, some of the most art-y games out there are singular in their vision and linear in their execution. Braid, Jonathan Blow’s standout 2008 puzzle-storybook, was the result of a single programmer plus an artist, and gives the player no agency at all: there is a single correct way to progress, and your creativity in finding that single correct way is never revisited or particularly rewarded. Passage, a game created by Jason Rohrer and one of the games selected by MoMA, uses interactivity mostly under false pretensions as a crutch to engage the viewer, and never offers to share meaning in the way Jones suggests. His argument just doesn’t work.

With that said, I do wonder what good it does to triumphantly declare video games “art” in the first place. “Art” is a word we say when looking at something to indicate to others that it’s especially worth looking at, as a sort of token of attention. This is useful because the primary goal of most contemporary art wasn’t to get your attention in the first place; the artist who made the work was too busy interviewing rape victims in Ecuador and splicing together their responses with magazine covers from the 1980s, or whatever, to make everything shiny and accessible for the viewer. Video games are in the opposite situation: they’re crafted from the beginning to capture and hold the player, and because of that their more creative elements get noticed without needing to be noticed as art.

So let’s give it a break, shall we? Not all good things need to be art, any more than all art needs to be good. Not all things we could call ‘art’ would benefit from the label, because many things—video games, babies, pancakes—do not need the hagiographies, physical conservation, and endless cocktail parties the “art” label can provide. People who think video games are for kids are the same middlebrow assholes who point out wrestling’s fake, and we don’t need to win their love by appropriating words like “art” that middlebrow assholes respect. Can video games be art? Sure, why not, if you’re gonna make a big thing about it? Can they be design? Absolutely. But aren’t they more interesting as games?

11/19/12 4:00am


Here’s a recipe for sexy art: find panes of glass and stack them. Glass is transparent, which makes it like empty space but not, and sometimes it reflects things, which means you can “implicate the viewer” so that they meditate on themes of selfhood and identity (or, more likely, fix their hair). Worked for Dan Graham. If the reflections are all pointing so the viewer can’t see them, like in Robert Smithson’s “Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust” (1968), that’s “disruptive”; “disruptive” is an additional adjective that can be applied to your work, so that’s a net plus, too.

The very best thing about a pane of glass is that it’s absolute. It’s inorganic, brittle, sharp at the edges, and probably rectangular. If you juxtapose it with an organic, squishy, soft, or round thing, viewers will notice how different these things are, and hasten to translate “DAMN THAT’S SEXY” into something smart to say in front of their friends. Anyone who’s been to Dia:Beacon understands this: its collection of Robert Smithson glass-plus-dirt works is second-to-none, and even sandwiched between the Donald Judds and the Joseph Beuyses, it’s a clear standout.

Smithson had a good reason for dirtying up all that perfectly good glass, too. He was working in the early 60s, when Formalists like Judd and Robert Morris were beginning to dominate the scene with their hard edges, strict dimensions, and industrial fabrication, and art needed to be reminded of the messy aesthetic potential of nature. He managed to make something not only sexy, but edgy besides, and even without the context, the works themselves remain appealing.

If you’re an artist working today, though, Smithson outranks you. He juxtaposed his glass with dirt, and also with rocks (as in the exceptionally stack-y “Untitled (Micra and Glass)” (1968-9)), and that means dirt and rocks are off-limits to sculptors today. If you want to stick with the material interplay thing—if you don’t, we’ll come back to you—you’ll need to find something else dirty and earthy to put next to your glass. Here’s a hint at one obvious answer: it should be the material with the most soul, because glass has no soul. Juxtaposition.

If you’re thinking wood, you’re well on your way to an art career. Wood is super organic, comes in cylinders—the opposite of rectangles—and has a ton of soul. Plop a log on some shiny panes of glass, and you’ll be making sexy sculpture like Rochelle Goldberg’s “Access” (2012), now up at Joe Sheftel Gallery, in no time. In fact, you’ll pretty much have already made it. Get ready for a lawsuit.

Are trees too nature-y for you? Want to tap into some of the messiness of the urban jungle? Go find some dirty old soft things on the street to stack on top of your glass, so that people go like whoa that glass is pure but then like whoa that other material is from the street. Then apologize to Dave Hardy, because he already did it better than you can in works like “Chinook” (2012), which everybody saw at the Dependent and then at Regina Rex.

You don’t have to make your materials fight, though. Since glass is shiny and clean and Web 2.0, you can put it next to other “classy” materials, and let the viewer compare and contrast. They’ll know these things go together in a Design Within Reach catalogue, but they won’t know they go together in an art gallery; you’ll be subverting their expectations of design, by playing directly into their expectations of design while in an art gallery (because art galleries make everything the opposite). Maybe you even feel like all the fancy sexy glass around us is a little tacky, so you can put the stacked glass next to something slightly tacky. How about rhinestones? Kayode Ojo did that in SVA’s BFA show this spring.

If you’ve got real skills, like new Bortolami recruit Ben Schumacher, you’ll notice glass is so absolute that what you put on it doesn’t even matter; anything, up to and including another pane of glass (like in Gerhard Richter’s “11 Scheiben” (2004)) will work. A tie? Totally works. A picture of a pen? Why not! Even the supports you use the hold the glass up will somehow look like important features of the work.

Glass panes plus crap plus more glass panes is a formula that works, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, good artmaking almost requires a formula. Think of process as a machine that you push creativity into and get art out of: if you’re like the artists I know, you can’t much control the impulses you’re putting in, but you can control the process-machine and that means you can control the results. Calculators are similar: I can shove anything from pi to Four Loko into a calculator, and all I’ll get out if it are the numbers zero through nine, a decimal, and the occasional beep. That’s order from chaos right there.

All I’m saying is, don’t go overboard with this stuff. It’s super sexy; we know. It’s “now,” whatever that means; we know. But nobody gets to be the next Robert Smithson until somebody comes up with a real reason—a reason you can write down—to stack glass panes on top of crap. Hmm. Are there political undertones to fixing your hair?

Robert Smithson’s “Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust” (1968)

10/24/12 4:00am


Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, now up at the Met, has obvious appeal. It’s the first major exhibition to examine manipulated photography, and manipulated photography—and learning to spot it—is fascinating to anyone with a pulse. To be honest, I didn’t think the exhibition could possibly come through on the promise of the topic. Curator Mia Fineman, though, has created an exhibition that manages to give a comprehensive history of manipulation, cast doubt over photography’s potential for authenticity, and provoke and reward close looking. You should go, and you should bring your mom, because she’ll get it too.

The show arranges its 200-odd photographs in roughly chronological themes, each arranged around a motive: as you walk through the rooms, you see doctoring for perfection, for art, for propaganda, for amusement, for publications, and to express pyschological states. The processes involved often take a backseat, but many works are accompanied by studies and negatives, placed next to the final images to show exactly which bits were replaced or blocked out with india ink.

The arrangement of the works is a highlight throughout, and creates more than a few punchlines. At one point I spent a few seconds looking at each of three ho-hum 1850s seascapes by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray, wondering where the manipulation was. It wasn’t until I read the wall text that I noticed Le Gray had inserted the exact same sky into each photo. A room away, a vitrine of Soviet-era history books each show the same photograph of Joseph Stalin and Sergey Kirov, then the local Party leader in Leningrad, standing with three other Communist Party members at a regional conference. Looking at the photos from left to right—in chronological order—you can watch as officials are picked off one by one in Stalin’s purges. Ultimately, only Stalin and Kirov remain. Kirov, meanwhile, was assassinated in 1934; many suspect he was killed by Stalin’s secret police to produce a justification for the first Great Purge.

As Ken Johnson of the Times has pointed out, Faking It runs parallel to the photographic canon, never bothering to provide the counterpoints to Alfred Stieglitz’s “straight photography,” which in the 1910s pushed for “absolute, unqualified objectivity,” or the generally honest industry of mainstream 20th-century photojournalism. One of the exhibition’s surprises, though, is how often photographers known for their straightforwardness crossed the line into photomanipulation: Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, two of the photographers that Stieglitz championed most fervently, are both featured in the exhibition, along with Weegee and many of the best-known photographer-experimenters of the 19th century.

That said, some of the most revealing moments come from looking at the work of photomanipulators who weren’t very good. In the exhibition’s constellation of man-holding-his-own-head photographs—there are many—a late-19th-century photomontage of a “murder scene” by an unidentified French artist looks downright amateurish. The way it looks amateurish, though, is strikingly familiar: the artist composed the scene from photographs taken under different lighting conditions, got messy clipping around the disembodied head’s hair, and left the seams of his montage on areas that should have been consistent—a wall in the background—rather than along the edges of figures, where they would be less visible. They’re exactly the sort of flaws we’d expect in a poorly done Photoshop today.

Unavoidably, many of the photographs are funny. A whole room is given over to trick photography, with motives ranging from advertisement to simple humor. One stereoscopic photograph shows a stork delivering a baby in 3D. Another group of photographs from the turn of the century tell tall tales, purporting to show the giant fish, giant lightbulbs, and giant corn of the American West, often accompanied by a jokey caption. Much of the work in the room would look perfectly at home on your aunt’s Facebook wall.

10/10/12 4:00am


This spring, wandering around the mini sculpture park at Frieze New York, I noticed a tiny canvas propped against the back of one of the expensive steel cubes. I don’t remember what was painted on it—based on that, I’ll guess geometric abstraction—but the attached business card indicated it was the work of some not-yet-famous artist seeking a bit of free publicity. I liked the spirit of the thing, but I still had work to do, and I figured walking around an art fair with a canvas under one arm wouldn’t please security. Still, there’s some wisdom in bringing your art to collectors, rather than waiting for them to come to you.

That’s something of the thinking of La Fin du Monde, an online show curated by Julien Levesque and Caroline Delieutraz up now at LaFIAC.com. The exhibition venue is a cybersquat, established in 2010, intended to catch visitors looking for FIAC, the major Paris-based art fair this weekend. Instead of the fair, they’ll find a clever, fairly encyclopedic exhibition of recent net art, ranging from established continental artists like Mouchette and Systaime to relatively fresh faces like Emilie Gervais and Sarah Weis.

Cybersquatting isn’t particularly new to net art. The collective/corporation etoy were famously sued over their domain by the dot-com failure eToys.com, and two Belgian artists squatted that country’s two largest contemporary art museums in the late 90s. I’ll admit to buying up more than a few of ArtReview’s Power 100 myself. The specificity and timeliness of LaFIAC.com, though, makes it a particularly well-aimed effort to attract mainstream attention.

One clear standout in the show comes from cocurator Julien Levesque: Books Scapes, a landscape collage made by connecting 19th-century etchings from Google Books. It’s well-enough composed that I didn’t immediately notice it was a collage, but the level of detail is overwhelming: every cloud, for instance, seems to have four or five different sources, and one scribble on the left side hardly looks intentional, but turns out on closer inspection to be a tiny flock of birds from a Napoleonic battle scene. To his credit, Levesque makes a point of linking each image back to its source, adding depth and context at once contrary to the idea of a collage and in perfect harmony with the idea of a collage online. The artist has received some well-deserved press for Street Views Patchwork (2009), an earlier series of landscape collages he made using Google Streetview; they’re equally masterful, and well worth checking out.

Another highlight is Systaime’s President Barack Obama DNC Silences Complete, the most recent in a long series of silent videos. It’s just what it sounds like: a supercut of all the silences in Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. At first glance, it seems a bit like the recut video of Sarah Palin breathing that circulated a year or so ago, but the effect couldn’t be more different: where the Palin video was simply creepy, DNC Silences Complete is torturous, an 82-second-long series of cliffhangers. The obvious connection here is John Cage, but Systaime doesn’t expect the same patience from his viewers that Cage’s work does; instead, we get rapid cuts and an easy subject, which acts to keep the YouTubers from getting distracted. That’s probably pandering, but it’s practical too.

The best one-liner—this is net art; there’s always a one-liner—is Anthony Antonellis’s Blue Brightness, a trompe-l’oeil GIF that faithfully recreates the experience of turning down your laptop’s brightness and seeing your own reflection. There’s nothing else to it, but it’s a convincing effect in a medium where purely visual work can struggle to hold a viewer’s attention.

Don’t tell Nicholas Sassoon that. The Vancouver-based artist, who’s been in seemingly every net art show over the past year or two, contributed one of the few entirely visual works in the La Fin du Monde, an unabashedly beautiful piece called Flood. Like most of Sassoon’s pattern-based works, it’s a little harsh up close; the artist prefers his pixels hard-edged, and chooses his colors from the sickly palette of early 90s computing. Unfocus your eyes a bit, though, and the pattern falls in hypnotic cascades across the screen, evoking every bit of the particular violence and general magnificence of its namesake. It’s not the best work he’s made in this vein—that award goes to the gentle rolling of his Tides series—but it’s more than good enough.

Do all these artworks add up to anything? I don’t think so. I can count on one hand the number of online shows I’ve seen with a coherent theme, and La Fin du Monde isn’t one of them. Then again, that’s hardly the point. The venue dictates that this is a show about grabbing someone at random and convincing them of the virtues of net art, quickly; if Levesque, Systaime, Antonellis, and Sassoon can’t do that, I’m not sure who can.

09/26/12 4:00am


Contrary to popular belief, writing negative reviews isn’t much fun. Sure, there’s pleasure in coming up with the perfect put-down for an overblown art star, but by and large you’re attacking working professionals doing an already difficult job. You feel like an asshole, even when you’re sensitive, even when you’re apologetic, and even when the artist’s dealer calls you up to compliment you on the review (as has happened to L Mag Art Editor Paddy Johnson). Peter Schjeldahl, the current art critic for the New Yorker and a master of the negative review, decided he was sick of criticism in 1976. In the lengthy poem he wrote to say goodbye, he pours word after word into an apology for every time “I mistook my hand-me-down taste / for the light of election, and poured ink on the worthy.” Like every good critic, he’s specific: “That supercilious dismissal of William Baziotes—horrible,” he writes, “Jim Dine, how could I, Joan Snyder, how could I … Richard Hamilton, where did I get off?” It’s a poem every critic—art or otherwise—should read in full.

Besides which, negative criticism is not an effective vehicle for change. In Don Thompson’s book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, celebrity megacritic Jerry Saltz tells the author, “I can write that work is bad and it has little-to-no-effect, and I can write it is good and the same thing will happen.” Unless you’re at the absolute top—Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith at the Times, and… okay, that’s it—any negativity is likely to be written off or drowned out. After all, you’re working in an industry where every single other person, from curators and dealers to advisors and collectors, is essentially in the business of producing hype. If you want to change an artist’s practice, an MFA is a whole lot more efficient than a bad review.

It’s also unprofitable. For years, it’s been the case that many major publications—Artforum chief among them—review their advertisers first and everyone else never. Whatever the value they place on critical integrity, no publication is going to run itself out of business for the sake of a few righteous paragraphs. Newspaper criticism has been a better home for the negative review, since newspaper critics are essentially in the business of entertainment (Schjeldahl said as much in a recent interview with Frieze). Those jobs, though, are always the first to be jettisoned in the slow death of print.

Perhaps, as with everything else, the Internet can come to the rescue? Fat chance. Art Fag City makes a point of being critical, but it’s clearly to our disadvantage: positive reviews have a guaranteed audience in the artist’s friends and colleagues, and get passed around as a mark of pride and accomplishment; negative reviews are encouraged to die quietly. Any blog based on traffic would be well-advised to go for the easy back-pat tweets, rather than playing the long game of stature and respectability.

The only time it’s financially advisable to go on the attack is against the art world’s public villains: Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Any takedown of those two is likely to get a huge response, whether or not it uncovers anything new to hate. If you stretch the category a bit to people who generally have more money than sense, you can include artists like Erwin Wurm, Maurizio Cattelan, or Takashi Murakami, but these are less popular targets: you’ll get plenty of nods from artworlders, as with the near-universal panning of Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, but those names don’t have quite the same stench of excess for the hoi polloi.

In fact, artists that successful are often beyond caring. Two weeks after Johnson wrote an article titled “On The Total Vacuity of Richard Phillips,” she ran into the artist at an opening; by all accounts, he was perfectly friendly about it. Any successful dealer has mastered the art of picking and choosing what the press collectors see.

Perhaps the only good news for bad reviews comes as a corollary to that fact: because successful artists can weather bad reviews, and because it’s bad business to go after small fish, a negative review can be a mark of distinction, a sign you’re good enough to merit a takedown. When The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico opened at El Museo del Barrio in 1973, Puerto Rican art wasn’t much thought of. It was a major show, spanning from pre-Columbian artifacts to contemporary artists, but it was a major show of a tradition outside the canon that wasn’t likely to get in. Schjeldahl, true to form, criticized much of the show in the New York Times, declaring that the painting was “pretty bad” and even the artifacts were not “remarkably unique.” By doing so, though, he showed he wasn’t pulling any punches with Puerto Rican art, that it would have to succeed in open competition with Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and the remnants of the New York School. Schjeldahl understood that rejection isn’t disrespect—done properly, it can be just the opposite.

09/12/12 4:00am


At some point, everybody stopped caring that the Internet is really big. In 2001, DirecTV was advertising the speed of their DSL with a video of a middle-aged guy reaching the end of the Internet; it was funny because at that time the Internet was big enough for that to be absurd, but new enough for bigness to be interesting. The meme the ad was playing off—any of various websites declaring themselves the end of the Internet, and telling you to go play outside—had already been circulating via newsgroups and forums for two or three years.

The main reasons the joke got old aren’t very interesting. Jokes get old, and it wasn’t a super-amazing punchline anyway. Somewhere in there was the growing realization that the Internet wasn’t a thing unto itself so much as an extension of real life. And we always knew real life was big.

Then again, there’s a difference between knowing the world is big and really starting to comprehend its bigness. It’s the feeling of the sublime you get when looking at mountains, or the sea, or when looking out the window of a plane. Artists have used it to shock a response out of their audience for hundreds or thousands of years. And when we gave up on the idea—even as a joke—of the Internet having borders, we also brought that sublime onto our desks.

Predictably, the artists followed. And they’ve made some fantastic art out of it.

Take Jeremiah Johnson’s Wave Muse, for instance. It takes the form of a text adventure, and lulls you in with a bunch of Internet metaphors in the form of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. The first time through, I wasn’t much excited by the metaphors. You find a stone, and when you pick it up you find you’ve left the original untouched; that’s digital reproduction, yeah sure. You find some “sigils lost in time and bound up with meaning”; one turns out to be the Netscape logo, yeah sure. By the time it turned to ocean metaphors, I was starting to get bored. Then the steady ‘>’ of the command prompt turned into the familiar ‘http://’, and the work gave me a simple command: “Go somewhere that you have never been before.”

It doesn’t sound like much, but I was stunned. Nobody’d ever asked me to do that before. It was, of course, the motive behind most of what I did online, even the reason I was looking at this artwork in the first place; but nobody’d ever said it outright. Just go somewhere, without a link, without a purpose, without some logic or narrative to the journey? It took me a minute to answer.

Hesitantly, I typed in an address I’d never been to before: catfuckers.com.

Obediently, the artwork turned it into a link, and sent me on my way with some guiding words: “Go to this place, and onward from there, to find the balance between making choices and being lead,” it said. “Let the INFOspirit guide you.”

After all that, Catfuckers.com was a disappointment. I think it would have been a disappointment whether or not cats had gotten fucked. For a moment, though, Johnson had struck at something core, something that tore down all the filters and social circles and search results “tailored for you” that the Internet insists upon today. For a moment, I sat at the shore of an ocean and really started to comprehend its immensity. And because the Internet is an extension of real life, it wasn’t an immensity of pages, but of people, and the billion possible selves I’ve given up to become who I am today. It was a big thought. I’m a little embarrassed it took a text adventure to get me there.

09/07/12 10:02am


“No, really, you need to read this issue of Artforum,” a friend told me Tuesday. She knew she had to clarify: “It’s actually good.”

So it is. For its 50th anniversary, the magazine has put together one of its most relevant issues in years, headlined by a series of essays that look at the magazine’s hot-and-cold relationship with new-media art. Most begin with a photograph of some old Artforum cover depicting a new-media artist, as if to say: “See? We were there!”, while a series of short, boxed-off profiles aim to prove that that tradition isn’t yet dead. One of them, on page 407, uses a screenshot from FAILBlog.

The most interesting essay—and the one that has New Media circles talking—is “Digital Divide”, in which Claire Bishop questions the mainstream art world’s fear of New Media. Firmly ensconced in the establishment, Bishop takes it for granted that contemporary artists in the Chelsea set have generally avoided commenting directly on technological developments; she then sets to looking for more indirect evidence of a Web 2.0 zeitgeist, in an attempt to prove that our newly digital society is affecting its artists, consciously or no. It’s a well-written essay, and if nothing else it cobbles together a number of new media’s best conversation-starters: “Debord is out, Manovich is in”; “Hey, you can copy a video-art DVD”; “Man, everybody’s curating everything now.” It ends with a fatal pronouncement: “At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.”

By only discussing a vaguely-defined “mainstream,” though, Bishop manages to piss a lot of people off. For one thing, she starts out with the question “Whatever happened to digital art?”, which is the kind of lede that makes New Media adjuncts everywhere shit themselves. She then explains away New Media art as “a specialized field of its own” that “rarely overlaps with [commercial galleries or major international exhibitions],” and therefore falls outside her consideration; that’s all true, but it’s certainly not what those specialists want to hear.

Online, the battles have begun. The most obvious line of attack pushes along the criticism-as-evangelism front, asking why Bishop would write a piece bemoaning the lack of new-media art without also writing a piece trumpeting the greatest of new-media art. They ask: hasn’t she heard of so-and-so? Does she not know that Cory Arcangel, the commodifiable distillate of internet art ca. 2006, had a show at the Whitney just last year? Why continue this ghettoization of capital-N New Media, rather than taking action to end it once and for all? It’s a line of rhetoric that aims to distract from the often-depressing task of criticism and observation in favor of the uniformly pleasurable experience of seeing your friends’ names in Artforum. It’s not an argument that does much for the world, unless you really need to prove to somebody that you’re smarter than Claire Bishop.

Other lines of attack go at that task more directly. When Bishop calls code “inherently alien to human perception”, she sounds dumb to programmers. Many programmers would like for you to know this. Nearly every point might have been made with a slightly more fitting example, or else phrased differently, and at one point, Bishop uses “digital art” to mean “new media”, a specialist faux pas; each of these facts angers a different segment of the internet.

Artforum’s actual readership—mainstream gallerists, parents of art students who never changed their mailing address, and coffee table owners—has pretty much been silent. They’re not a crowd, by nature, that sets itself to long internet arguments about the state of art today. But we shouldn’t forget that they are for whom Bishop was writing: a great analog horde who can hear the digital apocalypse coming but don’t know which way to run. Rather than reading Bishop’s article as ignorant navel-gazing from art’s ruling class, we should read it for what it is: a proposal for change, the beginnings of a pivot, and a way for mainstream art to claim it’s moving forward without either making everything free (because of digital reproducibility) or lolcats (because lol).

08/23/12 12:58pm

Alas, no more.

  • Alas, no more.

In an art world dominated by meaningless spectacle, empty-headed celebrity, and the self-indulgent concretization of biography, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist was a rare breath of fresh air. Like many “reality shows”, it gave us not reality, but an idyll: a world where creativity was so prized that all artworks were displayed to prominent critics, gallerists, and Chinese restaurant heiresses, and where a string of good weeks could earn you an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Kymia Nawabi, The Current Great Artist, earned her title the way everyone should: through hard work, talent, and flashing her tits on an elimination-based game show funded by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Bravo, though, seems to prefer the art world to art, and the delusional banshee-clowns of Gallery Girls to the monkish aesthetes of Work of Art. It was with great sadness that we learned this week that the network will not purchase Work of Art for a third season. The show’s producers, Magical Elves, are in talks with other networks, hoping to find somewhere in the godless realms of television another channel willing to stand up for human creativity. Their odds are slim.

We have become accustomed, in an age of recession and Batman, to the rhetoric of nightfall and daybreak. It is appropriate here. For two seasons, Work of Art was a fire in the darkness, a point of warmth and safety for those few remaining champions of the creative soul. Now, as its embers slowly die, we turn again towards the night, setting out one-by-one into a world that has no place for our kind. American high culture begins again its slow decline.

Lift up your heart, all will come right. Out of the depths of sorrow and of sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind.

—Winston Churchill
08/15/12 4:00am


Mitt Romney’s recent threat to eliminate the NEA, along with other useless government programs like Amtrak, PBS, and Obama’s healthcare reform, got me thinking: is threatening to cut the NEA, with its measly $155 million budget, actually a good political move? Why does America seem to hate its artists?

One clue lies in the political groups that would be affected by such a cut. To figure out whether the funding on the block would have gone to red states or blue states, I broke down the grants the NEA has awarded through 2012 so far by state, and compared them to both census data and poll projections from FiveThirtyEight, the election metrics blog run by statistician Nate Silver that successfully called every state but one (Indiana) in the 2008 election.

Some of the results are unsurprising. First, states that lean Democrat (those that poll below 47% for Mitt Romney) got the bulk of NEA grants, averaging about $0.44 per capita annually (compared to a national average of $0.34). We probably could have guessed that, since art tends to live in urban centers, and urban centers vote Democrat. Eliminating the NEA, then, would disproportionately affect Romney’s enemies, which is just good politics.

There are also a few kinda-surprising results, like the fact that big rural states in the Mountain West and Great Plains, which have been shown to take more money in general from the government than they pay in taxes, are also relatively overfunded in the arts: Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana all sit above $1.00 per capita for the year so far; Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska are well above the national average.

The real good news for Romney, though, is that swing states—which I’m defining as states FiveThirtyEight projects as between 47% and 53% in favor of Romney—receive, on average, less funding than either red or blue states. The average swing state has received just $0.25 per capita in grants this year, and some of the least-funded states are also the most important politically: Florida, under noted funding-refuser Rick Scott, is second-to-last in the nation at $0.11 a head, and Ohio is right behind it at $0.14. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, and North Carolina get short shrift, too. For Romney, that means threatening to cut the NEA has little effect on the voters that matter, who don’t see its benefits anyway, while giving him a nifty talking point for the any-government-is-bad-government crowd he’s trying to rally. For the rest of us, that means the voters potentially deciding the fate of arts funding in this country have probably never seen arts funding in this country, and have every excuse to believe it’s useless.

That raises the question: why isn’t expanding arts funding a goal for the Democrats? If artists generally vote blue, it should be politically advantageous to attract artists to electorally important states like Florida and Ohio. It wouldn’t even need to be so obvious; simply expanding the provisions for per-capita spending-equality between the states, which are already built into the NEA’s structure, would accomplish much of the work of bringing these underserved states up to the national average. In Florida, the national average would mean three times as much arts funding. And shouldn’t more grantees mean more voters with a good reason to support the NEA?

Unfortunately, it seems like it doesn’t quite work that way. Paul DiMaggio and Becky Pettit, two sociologists at Princeton, conducted a study in the late 90s that brought together much of the information we have about people’s opinions on the arts. They found—and subsequent studies confirmed—that while the majority of Americans support the arts, they aren’t as motivated as a hard core of “fifteen to twenty percent of the public” who really, really don’t:

But Americans’ attitudes toward government arts programs are considerably more ambivalent. Support for some form of public spending on the arts is substantial—about two thirds of U.S. adults—and has been remarkably stable throughout sharp fluctuations in the NEA’s political fortunes. But evidence also suggests that people are somewhat more supportive of local or state than of federal programs and of aid to museums and libraries than of assistance for artists. Moreover, whereas support for federal government aid to the arts is broad but shallow, about fifteen to twenty percent of the public have opposed federal arts programs with fierce conviction. Over the past decade, by attacking the NEA at its most vulnerable points, the right has created a powerful, if small, coalition of Christian conservatives and Republican partisans committed to ending thirty years of federal support for the arts. What the Endowment’s enemies have been unable to win in the court of public opinion, they have won (in large measure) in the stadium of political strategy.

The problem is that most voters, while generally supportive of the idea of having some arts funding around, don’t rank federal funding for the arts as a major issue on the same scale as, say, social security, immigration, or the economy. And who could blame them? I wouldn’t care much about 34 cents a head, either. But now that Mitt Romney has made those thirty-four cents a talking point, why shouldn’t the president continue to differentiate himself? He’s unlikely to convert any of the small-government true believers by equivocating, and the states most in need of funding increases are also the states most crucial for a win in November.

Pundits on both the left and the right agree that the choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate turned this election into a referendum on the proper size of government. But for the arts, it’s an uneven threat: you can vote Romney and get drastic cuts, or vote Obama and get the status quo. Hey, Barack: throw us a bone! It might even help you out.

08/10/12 2:27pm

Now that I’ve seen the first episode of Bravo’s new reality series, Gallery Girls, I can confirm: You’ve got some excellent hate-watching in store. The first boobs are three minutes in. “I got the job because my dad is a major collector” gets uttered six minutes later, along with “I don’t want to ruin my outfit.” It’s only two ad breaks to the first blackout drunk trust-fund kid. Gallery Girls isn’t going to be the forgivably kooky characters and good-hearted middlebrow creativity of Work of Art: this is pure reality TV at its finest.

You’ll be familiar with the characters. There’s the gregarious alcoholic, the uber-bitch, the attention whore, the slimeball, and the chump, all perfectly cast. Divided up into factions of “Brooklyn” and “Upper East Side,” they spend their days in office politics and their nights in outright girl-war. The show is regularly and viciously offensive to the pantyline-impaired.

As Blake Gopnik pointed out at The Daily Beast, the show isn’t in any real sense about the art world. The galleries involved are marginal, the art is largely offscreen, and the girls spend more time talking about fashion than art. To anyone familiar with the industry, there are little absurdities sprinkled throughout. When the Brooklynites close their struggling fashion-art hybrid space for the night and head out to an opening at Eli Klein’s SoHo white cube, for example, they receive a warm welcome and an invitation to the post-opening dinner. In the real world, they’d have stood around awkwardly and quietly left when the wine ran out.

Of course, any interaction between these characters would need to be manufactured: the art world’s cliques and caste systems are quietly self-enforced, and open conflict is an unseemly rarity. Gallery Girls, then, is something like ancient armies sending out champions to decide a battle in single combat: rather than involve real people with real careers in such a grisly class war, we send out somebody expendable and watch from the sidelines. The ensuing bloodbath is excellent entertainment.

For months during the show’s production, the obvious question was, “What art-worlder in their right mind would take part in this?” Surely no one who properly understood the art world would think this could be good publicity, and reality TV is no way to build your reputation for good taste. That’s what makes a bit of background picked up by Dan Duray, of GalleristNY, so fascinating: despite their current positions at essentially anonymous galleries, a few of the cast members have held blue-chip internships. The sloppy drunk, Amy Poliakoff, has done tours at David Zwirner and Paul Kasmin, while the stressed Brooklynite gallery co-owner, Claudia Martinez-Reardon, worked at Gagosian and Matthew Marks. Official chump Maggie Schaffer, according to her online bio, worked for a time at Christie’s.

That adds an interesting angle to the show. The bile may be real, but one suspects some of the obliviousness isn’t. In one scene, Maggie Schaffer wanders through a gallery with her boyfriend, angrily telling him that Eli Klein insisted he was the only dealer in New York showing Asian art; she points to a collage on the wall as proof of his deception. It’s impossible, though, that anyone could work in the New York art world for any amount of time and believe such an obvious lie (Schaffer has interned with Klein for three years straight, a fact which he is crushingly oblivious to).

Then again, people can be pretty dumb, and they can be petty, and self-centered, and pretentious, too. If Schaffer’s (unlikely) problem is inexperience, it’s more than balanced by the sheer arrogance of fellow Gallery Girl Liz Margulies, or the already-tiring exhibitionism of model-turned-photographer Angela Pham. And in the end, this isn’t really a show about art, and it’s certainly not a show about the lives of gallery interns. It’s a show about deeply flawed people tearing each other apart for no good reason, and it’s great TV.

You’ll be familiar with the characters. There’s the gregarious alcoholic, the uber-bitch, the attention whore, the slimeball, and the chump, all perfectly cast. Divided up into factions of “Brooklyn” and “Upper East Side,” they spend their days in office politics and their nights in outright girl-war. The show is regularly and viciously offensive to the pantyline-impaired.

As Blake Gopnik pointed out at The Daily Beast, the show isn’t in any real sense about the art world. The galleries involved are marginal, the art is largely offscreen, and the girls spend more time talking about fashion than art. To anyone familiar with the industry, there are little absurdities sprinkled throughout. When the Brooklynites close their struggling fashion-art hybrid space for the night and head out to an opening at Eli Klein’s SoHo white cube, for example, they receive a warm welcome and an invitation to the post-opening dinner. In the real world, they’d have stood around awkwardly and quietly left when the wine ran out.

Of course, any interaction between these characters would need to be manufactured: the art world’s cliques and caste systems are quietly self-enforced, and open conflict is an unseemly rarity. Gallery Girls, then, is something like ancient armies sending out champions to decide a battle in single combat: rather than involve real people with real careers in such a grisly class war, we send out somebody expendable and watch from the sidelines. The ensuing bloodbath is excellent entertainment.

For months during the show’s production, the obvious question was, “What art-worlder in their right mind would take part in this?” Surely no one who properly understood the art world would think this could be good publicity, and reality TV is no way to build your reputation for good taste. That’s what makes a bit of background picked up by Dan Duray, of GalleristNY, so fascinating: despite their current positions at essentially anonymous galleries, a few of the cast members have held blue-chip internships. The sloppy drunk, Amy Poliakoff, has done tours at David Zwirner and Paul Kasmin, while the stressed Brooklynite gallery co-owner, Claudia Martinez-Reardon, worked at Gagosian and Matthew Marks. Official chump Maggie Schaffer, according to her online bio, worked for a time at Christie’s.

That adds an interesting angle to the show. The bile may be real, but one suspects some of the obliviousness isn’t. In one scene, Maggie Schaffer wanders through a gallery with her boyfriend, angrily telling him that Eli Klein insisted he was the only dealer in New York showing Asian art; she points to a collage on the wall as proof of his deception. It’s impossible, though, that anyone could work in the New York art world for any amount of time and believe such an obvious lie (Schaffer has interned with Klein for three years straight, a fact which he is crushingly oblivious to).

Then again, people can be pretty dumb, and they can be petty, and self-centered, and pretentious, too. If Schaffer’s (unlikely) problem is inexperience, it’s more than balanced by the sheer arrogance of fellow Gallery Girl Liz Margulies, or the already-tiring exhibitionism of model-turned-photographer Angela Pham. And in the end, this isn’t really a show about art, and it’s certainly not a show about the lives of gallery interns. It’s a show about deeply flawed people tearing each other apart for no good reason, and it’s great TV.