Monday, September 22, 2008

The Short Selling of Art

It is a bad analogy, but it may be apropos.

Last week papers seemed tickeld by Damien Hirst's London auction sales. The record sale of nearly $200,000,000 of art "produced" by Hirst is certain to astound anyone, but Liz Gunnison's assertion that "Art Hangs On" when the US economy is in bedlam is hard to swallow. It may be the irrelevant silver lining in what is otherwise grim economic news, but Hirst is hardly the champion to be celebrated. As the Wall Street Journal was reporting, his buyers were owners of Sotheby's, owners of Christie's, and Gagosian and White Cube Galleries - Hirst's dealers. Oddly no judgement was attached to that report. At least, no negative judgment was attached to that report.

For an artist - Hirst - with diminishing sales and interest, jacking up the price through auction is hopeful. It is a hope fulfilled when the galleries that represent him drive up the bid (because they have a backroom filled with this crap) and inflate the market for his work. But, in the end, it smells like a conflict of interest. Kinda like having someone rate a bunch of "toxic" home equity loans as AAA, only to sell them off to other banks. Granted, if Francois Pinault's investment breaks from its glass vitrine, Christie's won't get pickled in formaldehyde.

As previously stated, a bad analogy. But, will there be any surprise if these bozos don't find a market for Hirst's work outside their little cul de sac?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Portraits of Power

It'll be a while before I make grand comments on The Corcoran Gallery of Art's newest exhibition, Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power; I have 24 students writing essays on the exhibition and I'd like to do as much as possible to mitigate any of them borrowing my words (this has happened to me before).

This is by far one of the most powerful photo exhibitions I have encountered, and Paul Roth deserves big kudos for a job well done. Last year when he spoke to me about the Adams and Leibovitz exhibitions he mentioned the Avedon exhibition. I'll have to get on my iTunes and dig some of that up for a later post.

Unlike my perception of the Adams exhibition last fall - where I preferred the intimacy of his calendars (blasphemy!) over elbowing for room at the opening - the Avedon exhibition requires the gallery, the scale, and the grandeur to truly capitalize on the experience. That is to say, the companion book of the exhibition sold in the book shop for $60 is nice. But, looking at the book versus the exhibition is like listening to a tape of Chopin versus listening to it performed live at the Kennedy Center (somewhere out there an Adorno fan is smiling).

Monday, September 15, 2008

God Bless You, Mr. Hughes.

Having read recently about Damien Hirst's lots of work going directly to auction - avoiding all together the gallery setting - I was pleased to learn that on Sept 7, art critic Robert Hughes called Damien Hirst's work tacky, and the overblown commercial success of the work was a disparage to the art market. A couple days later, Hirst responded that the commercial quality of his work is no different than Velazquez or Goya.

Over the weekend, Hughes's response to Hirst's defense (and proclamation that Hughes is a luddite... a man who finds the work of Paik and Turrell amongst the best of the 20th Century) was published in the Guardian. Apart from such zinggers as, "...Charles Saatchi, that untiring patron of the briefly new," I think the following is my favorite paragraph/sentence.
The now famous diamond-encrusted skull, lately unveiled to a gawping art world amid deluges of hype, is a letdown unless you believe the unverifiable claims about its cash value, and are mesmerised by mere bling of rather secondary quality; as a spectacle of transformation and terror, the sugar skulls sold on any Mexican street corner on the Day of the Dead are 10 times as vivid and, as a bonus, raise real issues about death and its relation to religious belief in a way that is genuinely democratic, not just a vicarious spectacle for money groupies such as Hirst and his admirers.
Pure poetry.

Whenever irony became the chief buzz word to defend a work of art as significant, Hirst's work is without question a reminder of how thin that veil can be. In the case of Hirst, or for that matter Koons - to borrow from Dennis Miller - that veil can get as thin as "used Neutrogeena," and tends to be as ironic as Alanis Morissette's moronic song about unfortunate circumstances.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Unpacking the issue: Jessica Dawson

After Jessica Dawson's review of Picturing Politics, a little brew-ha-ha erupted over it, the most visible of which is over on Jeffry Cudlin's blog. Mostly, the article left a few of us wondering what she was referencing and why the vitriol.
Contributors to the exhibition "Picturing Politics 2008: Artists Speak to Power" wield opinions like loaded muskets at a battle reenactment -- they're packing so much firepower that they quickly overwhelm.
If people are overwhelmed by any of the pieces, they haven't been paying attention. (Understandably, the reviewer is finishing a degree in art history at GW, so maybe she hasn't been.) The work exercises an approachable restraint in most cases... with the exception of watching a Black man get slapped around by a White man for eight minutes... or that six channel video opera in the basement that plunges the viewer into light deprivation. Otherwise, restrained.
The result reminds us how hard it is to get politically minded exhibitions right.
We need a judge on this one. If right means "correct," then who has written the rules on this subject and where might they be found? Sometimes political art piddles in the pool of political cartoon, mining a subject for a punchline. I'm not laughing when looking at any of these pieces, and that's a good thing. If right means "conservative," well... frankly I've yet to encounter conservative political art. It's kinda like conservative journalism which, as we've recently learned, gets talking points from The White House. But, I digress.
With few exceptions, "Picturing Politics" batters us with its liberal agenda -- an agenda as rife with polemic as the rightist politics its artists oppose. Its artists distrust surveillance, doubt the media and hate George Bush. So what's new?
Well, I wouldn't expect apologia. As for the last statement, where does she get this? I suppose at a cursory glance a viewer might glean that interpretation from America's Grave (which is in reality a critique of the corruption that has occurred during this presidency due to fanatical religious extremism in the most conservative wing of the Republican party, how that has trampled on civil liberties, how there is an historic precedent for such action (slavery), and how it has bankrupt the value of the word America... but I think Dick, Rummy, Condi, Falwell, Robertson, Osteen, Parsley, etc. take some of the blame - it isn't just Bushy. Don't forget to tithe folks!) But I don't think that judgment fairly comments on any of the other work because commentary on The Media, surveillance, or a hatred of George Bush simply. isn't. there.

But, not getting it "right," and "liberal agenda" makes me wonder if Dawson has straight blond hair. (What's a blog if not for a few zingers?)
What's missing is the patience to unpack the issues -- immigration, gay politics, the invasion of Iraq. Too many of these artists take the easy road.
Well, space and time are major considerations: space on the part of the gallery, time on the part of viewer attention spans. But those are weak excuses. There is a point about a thesis to a work, or a body of work, that should never be over-looked, and I'll wager most of these pieces are building on the body of that thesis rather than encapsulating the whole. It's how we artists roll! No one single piece will unpack the issues, or more appropriately, an issue, because each issue is bigger than one work or one room. Only art historians and survey texts roll up the body of an artist's work into a single work... two if you're Picasso... three if you are Michelangelo... and the footprint of the Sistine Ceiling is at least twice that of the Arlington Arts Center.

It is evident that "what is missing is the patience to unpack the issues." And the onus is on you (the viewer). It always has been. If you lack the patience to unpack them, then pack up. Art is intended to contemplate when not decorating. The artist addresses the issue and helps further awareness, opinion, angle, and interpretation. History unpacks the issues. Criticism unpacks the issues. Dialogue unpacks the issues. Action to correct unpacks the issues. Art is the catalyst, and the job of the artist (in this case) is to leave enough open to the viewer to start the unpacking.

"Artist's Medium: The Sledgehammer?" Not at this show. That was playing at Transformer a couple weeks back. Here's the highlight reel.