Tuesday, February 24, 2009

establishment of rank

Last night I began Seven Days in the Art World. I can tell already that a few things have changed since its publication – we are supposedly no longer in the heady boom times the author Sarah Thornton describes. But she nails some things which haven’t changed yet at all and brought a smile to my face.

She’s amused by what she calls the “status anxiety” of nearly every player, whether they are mighty dealers, collectors or critics. Everyone is always after something they’ve yet to attain and artists might be the most insecure of all. “I find it tedious when I bump into people who insist on giving me their CV highlights,” says John Baldessari. “I’ve always thought that wearing badges or ribbons would solve it. If you’re showing at the Whitney or at the Tate, you could announce it on your jacket. Artists could wear stripes like generals, so everyone would know their rank.”

This establishment of rank has sometimes given me a very circuitous route to finding out on the radio just what the hell an artist is doing. The exhibitions, where they are at and who has curated them, have been divulged as though we’re following a very Grand Tour. 15 minutes later, I’m still wondering, yes, but …now, what was the work?

This happens in small and large ways but it’s something which right now concerns me because KBOO is first and foremost for The People. Not really just the art world. I want to serve the art world but I have bigger responsibilities than that. And when The People hear about where and with whom someone got their MFA and where they showed after that and who curated them, well, you know this is a language the art world understands very clearly, but The People start tuning out. Because they thought Art Focus was a show about art you see.


Anonymous said...

I loved your show ArtStar on KPSU, and it is great to hear you on KBOO. You are right, in any context when the artist begins to ramble into name dropping, arbitrary insight, longwinded reasoning and justification it becomes very easy tune out and cite the artist as enveloped in narcissism. Keep up the great work!

CAP said...

I think a big part of the problem is that too many people in the art world think of these 'career paths' or qualifications as a short cut to assessment of works. It skips having to talk about the work, interpret it. By promptly restating their CV, they assume this tells you how valuable the work is, possibly what the work is about. And to some extent this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I've often concluded that work in some prestigious curated show is mostly about the artist's networking and status-awareness. I've often found the work formulaic and academic in equal measure. And it’s not a new thing by any means.

The huge growth industry in MFAs and PhDs in fine arts taps into the belief that there are qualifications to art - that it's just another profession like medicine or law. But of course this is wrong. Any number of examples from art history show that revered artists come from all kinds of educational and social backgrounds. What they may have learned about art is largely unquantifiable, and favourable reception of their work rests on a vast array of shifting factors. Trying to regulate or qualify that is really a symptom of a society in trouble.

There is a flipside to this, but I've probably said more than enough already.

Eva said...

By all means, CAP, tell us about the flipside.

I fall into it myself. "Oh you know so-n-so and you did it at blah blah." Then I never explain who so n so is and what blah blah means. You can fall into it very easily. But a minute of that is all you ever want to do.

Sheree Rensel said...

This post is so interesting. I am not even close to that art league. However, I don't think I could fit in or take the stress of it anyway!
As I read your line:
"This establishment of rank has sometimes given me a very circuitous route to finding out on the radio just what the hell an artist is doing."
for some reason I thought about this awful television series about the rich "Housewives of New York". I don't know if you have ever seen it. Originally, I refused to watch it because it makes me ill. However, now I am addicted because it is like watching a train wreck. I think this show came to mind because it is all about ego, status, and money. Everything about the show is obnoxious. However when I watch it, I always wonder "WHAT IN THE HELL DO THIS PEOPLE DO??" (besides go to parties, go shopping, or brag about what they have).
It is all about our societal values. We have been led to believe the image in the mirror is not our true self. Rather, we hold our CVs over our face and tell people "Look at ME!"

CAP said...

The flipside I had in mind is that there are always competing factions, one school against another, one fashion against another. Also, whatever qualifications you might obtain are never going to be enough. It’s that X factor that sets you apart, gives the work distinction.

I think most artists are aware that any training is never going to be enough. It mostly helps, but going beyond that is what is needed. It’s a bit like research and development in the sciences – you need to learn a science before you’re in a position to do any notable research. You can’t really discover anything until you know what’s been discovered so far.

It’s not quite the same in art – I think it’s easier for a ‘naïve’ to blunder upon something interesting, or without really knowing what it is that they’ve found – at east for a moment -but I think for most of art history, you find artists diligently paying attention to their tradition, formally or informally, before hitting on something new.

And the competition and experiment is true of curators, critics and collectors as well. True, there are fashions and factions, but there’s always pockets of opposition and divergence, so for every smooth CV or agenda, there’s usually readers indifferent or impatient with the lack of achievement there.

David Hinske said...

A very sad, heartless, and discouraging book. If I thought it was genuinely about art, I'd stop painting.

Eva said...

It is true David that the scene it describes - "the art world" - only engages a very small percentage of those working in art. You can read it and think that it has nothing to do with you even though you're an artist.