My friend, fellow-artist and collaborator, Odin, has just written a great piece on the recent David Byrne fluff and the riposte/retort “Boo hoo, fuck off” from artist and curator Ric Kasini Kadour. Those two call-response pieces are fun to read, and they say more about the writer’s views than anything indisputably true about the state of art in these Untied States. Byrne is a rich art insider who’s partnered with another rich art insider, and he makes stuff, and he’s complaining about how people don’t make stuff he likes. Kadour’s point is that there are lots of people working hard to do their piece, and so, y’know, Byrne’s view is quite beside the point. And he’s surely right. But, really, both Byrne and Kadour are right. Sure, they’re talking past each other, but everyone knows that. On the other hand, Odin’s piece is a moving disputation against mediocrity and nonsense. And though he’s right, I disagree with him. This, mostly because I think that art, right now, is enjoying a pluralist effulgence that I hope persists well into the future, and, further, that it extends out to other views on art, craft and its practice.
Art-effulgence-pluralism-enjoyment! Okay. By all this I mean that you can make whatever work you want, however you want it. Talent is as talent does. And if no one sees it, you can still paint; if you’re a painter and you have absolutely no talent, you can still paint. I do! In fact, you can riff and run your work at all levels in whatever art world you live near–though, yes, unless you’re Judy Pfaff or some other high’ish-level art star, you can’t show your work in more than one level (and if you were a “capital S-T-A-R” art star, and you weren’t also Banksy, why would you want to show at different tiers of the market?) The art world is tiered in ways that allow for both diversity and enigmatic materiality–if you’ll allow me this bit of enthusiasm. Good or bad, mostly unfortunate, the vast majority of artists in this country are working away at their work in relative discomfort, but also in utter freedom from nagging art-writer/critic-types like me. Sauron’s Pink Eye that we call the gallery scene isn’t searching out for those people, though some people who make utter crap are getting good money for it, and I’m watching it all go down. So what’s new?
Still, the art world’s tiered-structure is, trenchantly class-colored. This, because a huge number of the young stars who show in galleries and outer-borough museums in NYC often step right out the gate of their ivy-lite MFA programs. Here I have in mind un-scholarshitted Yaleies and RISD’iers. We know that “the set that goes to these schools” is selected very much on class; we know that “who graduates from these schools” is very much class-based. And, finally, we know there are costs to entry to show in NYC. Why then wouldn’t we think that showing in NYC is based on class and its strictures, even if that’s not the whole story.
Part of the whole story right now is that there is no real art-world “center”, and that this is not just verifiable; it’s actually falsifiable. Again: the art world is falsifiably not-centered in NYC. Artists in their small art worlds are reacting to a world that is not premised on a dyadic center-periphery dichotomy. Most artists in these Untied States live in places that art “centrists” would call the periphery, and they’re having their go at art, anyway, and, usually, productively so. If, say, more artists are working this way, it’d be odd to call that an outlier phenomenon, in the periphery, the hinterlands.
It’s a hard slog, but artists around, say, the Hudson Valley are showing their work in ways that don’t require them to judge their work on a NYC based value-function. Their work requires only the endorsement of local artists, curators and gallerists, canvasing their world in the same same way. Artists away from NYC are showing in collectively owned galleries, in vanity gallery, in college galleries, and yes, even in their own homes. All the while, artists in NYC are doing the same thing, while suffering through a hard slog of it there. Those who haven’t found their niche in whatever scene de jour someone has cooked up are finding it very difficult to make a living off their work. Their response to their hard slog has been to set up studio tours, and random open studios to undercut a mercurial market. Add to that the fact that Brooklyn and, increasingly, other cuts of New York are getting too expensive for most artists, and no wonder you see 1. the Times printing shite on how every other city is like Brooklyn, as if the appreciable value of any city relates only to how closely it resembles Brooklyn, and 2. most Brooklynites, as far as I know, are wringing their hands about the Times’ coverage of the creative bleeding out of Brooklyn.
And, yes, I have huge problems with the institutionalization of art. I suppose, it would be more interesting if artists just made work and didn’t go to graduate school to enroll in programs that taught them how to be an artist, not how to make good art. That’s a problem. But that’s a problem only within a broader, and larger scaffolding of art-shit that’s put brothas and sistas down to an indentured life doing unrewarding work. Do unrewarding work to pay for your painting supplies, I want to say, like Arshile Gorky, not to make your monthly student loan payment. Chicken or egg, art education now forces people to seek out jobs they don’t want, at pay scales that can’t sustain life with dignity. Some, who are foolish, insist on seeking out those jobs within art. I hope most don’t. The problem’s the greater scope of consumption, commerce and incentivized credential inflation that’s fucking shit up. The problem isn’t that MFAs are churning out more artists than any local economy (including the New York-based art economy) can handle. I have no problem with artists making whatever work they want to make, in order to get whomever they can to buy their work. The more the merrier. Or if not the merrier, the more interesting, and if not more interesting, well, that means I’m surrounded by boring artists. And anyway, there’s always a steady-state: Some artists will quit making art soon after finishing their MFAs.
No, the problem is a structure of pay-to-play dice throwing that’s ramped up the MFA model as-art-instruction, and now is about to make the MFA a mid-tier degree: bring on the PhD in art, man! And that will lead to mostly didactic nonsense that has nothing to do with talent, with effort and with intelligence. It will have EVERYTHING to do with the “publish or perish” model that will take over whatever ink and space there’s now left for getting tenure by showing your work out “there”. Consider: the huge boom of art school enrollees tracked the 90s boom and as those people are aging out, art schools are having to face cuts at the prospect of dwindling enrollment. Ask any MFA trained art school prof, and she’ll tell you this is the case. I hope to god she has tenure.
We live in the age of loneliness. Art is for many, for me, a way out to connect and to communicate with/in my small world, where most of the people I know are quite nice–they need to be nice to help their own work take up space on some wall somewhere. Mostly, I do all that, badly, but in the comfort of my own home, the work feels like a stab in the dark to fit out the world. Showing that work, in whatever form, coaxes up a bit of anxiety here and there, but, mostly it helps me outfit my world. And then I go about stabbing in the dark again, and again, and again.
Odin’s writing and the two other art-pieces I mention really raise the question whether artists should care about the issue of a wealthy strata of the art world and uber-untouchably rich strata of that same same (art) world. It’s an issue, or maybe a concept that people who work in technical renderings of political theory call Irrelevance of Independent Alternatives (IIA). I tend to think, no, not necessarily: consider putting aside ego, and aspiration to art-world superstardom, and everyone should try to do his work like some non-sad Henry Darger. But, that’s a static picture. I’m much more interested in the dynamic picture of art, its cravings and strivings, and I am utterly hamstrung by the issue of costs of entry. It’s very expensive (not just in materials, but also in time) to make the kind of work that gets shown on white-washed walls (at whatever tier of art-exhibition) so some of the modest, casualist work is related to that. Though, yes, an artist has to do what she’s gotta do, or she’s liable to go postal up in this piece, her entry into any art world is run through with issues of class, agency and commerce. The question is: are those commerce-grounded alternatives to sole-alone-unknown genius- art making truly independent and, therefore, irrelevant to the cause of the artist?