I recently heard about, ordered, and read I Like Your Work: Art And Etiquette. (Edited by Paper Monument, Brooklyn NY. 2009.) The book consists of a series of questions and the answers to them given by a number of art world personalities, mainly but not entirely New York based. (Chicago artist, critic, and curator Michelle Grabner is among the contributors.) After finishing it, I thought about what I would have said, had I been posed the same questions. My answers follow.
What are the rules of etiquette for the art world?
I’d like to think it’s “Don’t be a dick.” In practice, some people get away with being dicks because they have enough power, influence, money, attractiveness, or other exchange commodities that they can essentially buy the freedom to be dicks. They get away with it insofar as people tolerate their behavior in exchange for access to these exchange commodities, but their reputations as dicks still circulate. It has been my experience that only a small minority (between 1-10%) of people in the art world are dicks.
Was etiquette foregrounded in any memorable situation?
A while ago, my wife Stephanie Burke and I noticed that at every gallery opening we went to, people were drinking wine out of disposable plastic cups and then throwing them away. Few if any showed any means of recycling. It occurred to us that those Lexan backpacking wine glasses they sell at REI, where the stem unscrews and stores in the bowl, would be a fun way to bring our own glass and save on waste. So we bought a pair and started bringing ‘em with us to the galleries. Most gallerists and their staff responded somewhere between “Oh, how cool! Where did you get those?” and “Huh, that’s weird, but okay.” But we did have a problem at one gallery. The bartender actually thought they were totally awesome, and confided that she’d been bothered by the fact that they didn’t recycle either. We checked out the show and enjoyed our wine, and then went to leave. The gallery owner stopped us at the door, saying “You can’t take those outside,” indicating our empty wine glasses. “Oh, these are ours,” I said, unscrewing the stem and locking it inside the bowl to demonstrate the principle, and how these were clearly not the disposable plastic cups the gallery used. “You brought your own glass? Actually…THAT’S ILLEGAL.” I think it was just a case of misunderstood intent; here we were trying to do our part to cut back on waste and save the planet all all that shit, because at heart we’re just a couple of nature-loving hippies from California, and this gallery owner probably thought we were up to no good, trying to get larger portions of wine or something. It was an awkward interaction but I’ve tried not to hold a grudge (see below re: “Tit For Two Tats”).
What customs or mannerisms are particular to the art world?
There are a lot of specifics, like what to do during a studio visit, or how to approach a gallery, or how to deal with collectors, but the one thing I’ve noticed is the role of niceness and/or sincerity. On one level there’s this veneer of civility where everybody acts nice towards everybody else because you never know when you’ll need them professionally, even if there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes shit talking. But on another level, there’s a hierarchy. It seems sometimes as though everybody loves a collector, likes a writer, and tolerates an artist. If you’re an artist, a gallerist or dealer is as good as a collector, as is an institutional curator, because they can get you in the show. I’ve worn all these hats in one capacity or another, and it’s really interesting how people have acted differently towards me in subtle ways. I should add here that almost everyone has been very civil, polite, and friendly towards me no matter what. Also, I’m sure I act a little differently around people with different roles in the art world, but I do make an effort to be friendly and respectful to everyone, whether or not they’re in a position to advance my career.
When does breach of etiquette play a role in embarrassing or awkward encounters?
There’s the above example about the wine glasses, of course; here’s another one: A well-known artist whose work I really like, but had never met, made some very caustic remarks about my wife and I, calling us “idiotic hipsters who eat their way through the openings and don’t know anything about painting.” This was in response to The Snack Report, a weekly column I authored for several years in which I went to every art opening I could but wrote criticism only of the refreshments. Following the principle of “tit for two tats,” that is, forgiving anyone their first breach of conduct (again, see below), I engaged in a very civil dialog with this artist, and despite the rude phrasing, actually did become convinced that the joke had gotten old and the Snack Report had become more of a chore than a joy for me, and stopped doing it. The artist and I became friends, I did a studio visit, and we’ve had some other professional engagements together. It would have been easy for me to take offense at the initial remarks but by turning the other cheek I’ve allowed us to have some very positive interactions.
How should people behave? What would be a maxim for conduct?
“Don’t be a dick.” Really, that should cover it, and any more specific rules merely serve to clarify this one overlying principle. For example:
- An artist’s opening is not the time for a critique.
- An opening is not a good time to talk to the gallerist about showing your work there. The gallerist is busy talking to collectors, trying to generate sales. Or at least they should be. This is also true of art fairs.
- If your friends are writers, they are under no obligation to write about your show. If your friends are curators, they have no obligation to include your work in an exhibition. As a curator and writer, I have certainly written about and curated my friends’ work, but never felt obligated to do so. If I curate a friend’s work into an exhibition, it is because their work fits the theme well; if I write about a friend’s show, it is because I have something to say about their work. Or, in either case, because it’s a paid gig.
- Show up when you say you’re going to. If you arrange to do a studio visit, for example, and then don’t show up, or cancel at the last minute, you’re saying “My time is more important than yours.” This is related to a power dynamic. We live in a world where artists court gallerists, not the other way around. A gallerist can cancel or reschedule a studio visit without any real consequences on his or her career, whereas an artist who cancels or asks to reschedule might very well find themselves quickly forgotten. But it’s a dick move either way.
- Conversely, respect other people’s time. Nobody owes you anything. People are busy. Pushing yourself on a gallerist to do a studio visit with you is making a big demand on their time. Act accordingly.
This raises, of course, the question of what to do when someone else violates the basic principle of “don’t be a dick.” I advocate a position I learned about while reading about memetics. Basically these researchers were running a computer simulation of game theory, in which computer programs were written to play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which they could choose to either cooperate or betray one another. You can read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine to get the whole story in context, but the short version is, the first time they ran the game the winning program was “Tit For Tat,” which would cooperate until betrayed, but would retaliate if betrayed (that is, would not cooperate again with a player who betrayed it). So, the conclusion seemed to be that it’s best to be nice to others until they fuck you over, at which point you never trust that person again.
But, they ran a later version of the game, in which a new program was introduced, and proved even more successful than “Tit For Tat.” The new program was called “Tit For Two Tats,” and operated on this principle: It would forgive a single instance of betrayal, but not a second one. This was superior to Tit For Tat because it avoided getting into cycles of mutual betrayal with programs which were programmed to betray randomly, or merely occasionally. This seemed to map perfectly to social behavior in the art world: If someone says something rude to me, criticizes me publicly, or whatever, I’ll extend the olive branch, let ‘em know we’re still cool, and try to be their friend. In the few instances this has come up, it’s proven effective. It’s hard to punch someone who’s hugging you. (Although it occurred to me recently that it’s actually only a -4 penalty to attack while grappled.)
Has their been a shift in etiquette as the financial climate has changed?
To be honest, if it has, I haven’t noticed.
What constitutes bad manners?
The same stuff that constitutes bad manners in any context: Making people wait for you. Interrupting someone who’s in the middle of a conversation. Tying up the shitter for half a goddamned hour because you’re in there doing coke with your friends. (Everybody knows, sweetheart, you’re not fooling anyone!) Taking a couple of beers for the road out of the tub and sticking ‘em in your pockets. But…uh, nobody’s perfect.