Anyone who’s taken even a single 20th Century Art History course, or done a little reading on the subject, has gotten the simple, take-home version of the lesson of Duchamp’s readymades: that “it’s art because I say it is.” This sophism makes life a lot easier for artists (and perhaps more so, educators) who are faced with the question, “What is art?” Allowing ourselves to accept anything as an artwork, so long as its creator so designates it, simplifies the task of delineating the definition of art by eliminating them. It also opens up a vast field of inquiry, discovery, and creation, by allowing creative people access to modes of expression far beyond pencil, paint, and pixels.
Some challenge the openness of this definition, or rather this refusal to define, as too easy. Objections to it from our students, families, and friends outside the art world are either dismissed as naïve, or lead a conversation down the same rabbit hole of irresolvable issues as Thanksgiving dinner politics or dorm-room theology. It’s easy to forget that the question of what is, and what is not, art, is merely a matter of how we define a word. (Birds didn’t wake up feeling different, the day we decided to call them dinosaurs.) There is a sphere of human activity, encompassing everything from impractical object-making to practical experiments in philosophy, and since the activities in this sphere seem to share some traits, we’ve got to call it something, so we might as well call it art.
The cause and consequence of this open-ended definition of art has been a dizzying range of activities falling within its scope. Rirkrit Tiravanija prepares and serves Thai food. Marina Abramović played the knife game thirteen years before the android Bishop made it famous in the movie Aliens. Bas Jan Ader fell off of things, rode his bike into a canal, and ultimately tried to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat, after which he was never seen again. Here in Chicago, Stan Shellabarger goes on 12-hour walks celebrating equinoxes and solstices, and Chicago-based artist Meg Onli walked the length of the underground railroad.
In the name of art, I’ve participated in a Japanese-style game show, played basketball and volleyball, and received a small black tattoo of a dot. In each of these cases, I was a participant in a project created by someone else, but I’ve also done some weird stuff myself and called it art. Stephanie Burke and I had coffee sitting in the chairs people left to reserve themselves a parking spot in the winter, and we’ve taken artists to Indiana and taught them to shoot guns. These projects have been a lot of fun, and have given us the chance to explore avenues of expression other than my usual practice as a painter, and hers as a photographer.
There is a risk, however, inherent to this open, anything-is-art kind of world, and that is that if anything can be art, it is tempting to turn everything into art. If we accept ol’ Douchie’s claim that anything is art if an artist says it is, then an artist can, with a word, turn everything he or she makes or does into art. This power is irresistable. Like Ice-nine, it spreads throughout an artist’s life, turning everything it touches into art. Or at least, it can, if we let it. And it’s hard not to, especially for those of us who are constantly surrounded by and immersed in the art world. If we earn our livings by teaching or working at a gallery, odds are that we have precious few contacts or activities that are entirely separate from our lives as artists.
I would suggest here that it is essential to maintain exactly this kind of separation in some aspect of our lives. Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and as good a justification as any for why we do what we do, as artists. But when one’s workweek consists of making art, teaching art, and writing about out, and then the weekend rolls around and it’s a couple of nights of gallery openings, and maybe a barbecue or party with some art-world friends, art becomes the dust of everyday life. Not art itself, of course, but the infrastructure surrounding it, the networking, the applications, the paperwork…all of the stuff that comes along with the special thing that happens in the studio. And sometimes we need to get away from it all.
One of the advantages of teaching is the relatively open summer schedule it affords one, and both Stephanie and I take advantage of this freedom as much as we’re able. While we do some teaching at community art centers over the summer, we’re still able to get away quite a bit. This past May, we flew out to California and did some camping and backpacking in Yosemite National Park. Then we drove up to Humboldt, crashed an old friend’s party, and then drove across Oregon to Crater Lake, stopping on the way to play with some baby animals at a wild animal park. We explored some caves in Lava Beds National Monument, and then spent a week in Stephanie’s home town of Grass Valley. We wrapped up our trip in San Francisco, where we saw the metal band Rhapsody perform, and then got up the next morning to hike around Muir Woods.
We returned to Chicago for a week, then headed down to Missouri for a few days of camping, canoeing, shooting guns, and watching shitty zombie movies on a jagged rock in the middle of nowhere. We faced sunburn, ticks, and an adorable little scorpion, and ate a strange kind of pizza that is apparently a St. Louis specialty. We came back sore, filthy, and exhausted, but also washed free of the shimmering but sometimes stifling layer of pixie dust that builds up on the soul of we who live this particularly extraordinary life, as artists.
Public art suffers from the same limiting factor as the music you’ll hear piped into a retail store: there’s no requirement that it be great, so long as it doesn’t offend anybody. This simple formula has virtually guaranteed that public art will nearly always fall within a rather narrow envelope, usually, but not always, mediocre. Chicago has some great examples of public art by well-respected artists (Kapoor, Calder, Picasso), but it is not without its problems.
Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” embodies one principle of public art: the public can appreciate art so long as they misunderstand it. This sounds harsh and unfair, and of course it can always be argued that “there’s no wrong way to appreciate a work of art.” But it seems true that, in the public sphere, the distance between an artist’s intentions and the average viewer’s interpretation of it will be greater than in other venues. So Kapoor’s sculpture gets nicknamed “The Bean,” and serves primarily as a funhouse mirror backdrop for tourist’s snapshots.
In this role, ironically, “Cloud Gate” is an overwhelming success, as far as many stated goals of public art are concerned. It’s for everybody, it is a centerpiece of the city, huge numbers of people interact with and enjoy it…it is, in some ways, everything public art “should” be…from a politician’s perspective. A generous observer might call it a case of everybody enjoying a work of art in their own way; a cynic might call it a case of casting pearls before swine.
As an abstract form with a pleasing surface, made of a durable material and inviting a whimsical interaction, “Cloud Gate” hits a sweet spot for success in the eyes of the public. Calder’s “Flamingo” is similarly innocuous, and while it’s not quite so interactive as Cloud Gate, it does at least stay more or less out of the way: unlike Serra’s Tilted Arc, similarly placed in a public plaza surrounded by offices, which confronted viewers (with an “ugly,” rusted surface), divided the space rather than tucking itself into a corner or loitering overhead, and ostensibly provided a lurking place for muggers. The basic similarity of these three public sculptures (large abstract forms, made of metal, placed in public squares) and the wildly different responses to them on the part of the public (an almost giddy embrace of Cloud Gate, a cool indifference to Flamingo, and a vitriolic hatred that led to the rapid removal of Tilted Arc) shows the fine lines tread by public art in terms of their acceptance by a seemingly fickle public.
The frustration which artists working in a public sphere must feel, and which I as an observer feel when I read these accounts, stems largely from the public’s refusal to take public sculpture seriously. This is of course a product of the art professional’s perspective; we are often unconsciously guilty of expecting everyone to act as though they had an MFA, or at least adopted a hushed reverence for anything they were told is “Art.” This despite the fact that few of us pay similar reverence to other fields, what we might call hobbies, from dog shows to scrapbooking. There is a usually-unconscious double standard here, a belief that our interest (art) ought be treated differently from others (sports, stamp collecting, and the like) because “art is important.” It is this hubris which often leaves the public feeling alienated by the world of art, and leads to allegations of elitism, which are at times entirely justified.
Still, whatever the crimes of the art world in regard to art in the public sphere, it’s hard to overlook the juvenile irreverence with which public sculpture is often treated by the public. Posing with one’s reflection in Cloud Gate is a bit of harmless fun, about on par with “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it doesn’t stop there. Witness the indignity of the sports paraphernalia which has been slapped onto the Art Institute’s lions and Picasso’s baboon-like sculpture. Adorning a piece of sculpture with an oversized ballcap interferes with its aesthetic function no less than installing Tilted Arc in the middle of Wrigley Field would interfere with the playing of baseball. Actually, I think it would make the game a lot more interesting. But such is the attitude of the public towards public art that this interference goes unnoticed, the entire idea that a work of art might be DOING something, providing an aesthetic experience, which might be interfered with, goes entirely unconsidered.
In interpretation, that is, the stuff that the park ranger does when she tells you about this-or-that woodpecker, it is said that the recreational visitor to a park or museum has an attention span operating at about a 4th grade level. That is to say, if you talk to tourists like they’re a bunch of 4th graders, they’ll have fun; anything more and it starts to feel like work. We can debate whether or not this is a good thing, whether it would be better if the public were more intellectual, but the point is, they’re not. Tourists want to act like a 4th grader, probably because that’s the most relaxed, fun state to be in, rather than trying to analyze everything like you’re going to have to write a term paper on it later. As art world professionals, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is as vested in intellectualizing everything we see.
So why the surprise, then, when the public’s first response, on seeing Seward Johnson’s sculpture Forever Marilyn, is to try to look up her dress? Why would you expect anything different from a public who put a Blackhawks helmet on Picasso’s sculpture in Daley Plaza, and Bears helmets on the Art Institute’s lions? Tourists on vacation, and locals on their day off, aren’t going to look at a piece of public art the way artists and critics are going to. As any interpreter will tell you, they’re going to act like a bunch of fourth graders, because that’s what people do when they’re on vacation. This situation isn’t going to change until or unless the mass culture embraces intellectualism as a virtue, until it becomes cool to think, to ponder, to take seriously not only works of public art but also historical landmarks and interpretive signs about migratory birds. Unlikely, to be sure, but this long shot is the only hope for a more mature public response to public art…and that, in turn, is the only hope for a public that will support riskier, more challenging, and in short, better public art.
Last month would have been the latest round of NEXT/Art Chicago, Chicago’s annual art fair at Merchandise Mart. I say would have been, because early in February, it was announced that NEXT/Art Chicago had been cancelled. The announcement came suddenly, and on fairly short notice: we had already received our VIP invitation, and were planning on sending our students to the fair on a field trip. News of the fair’s cancellation first came to my attention via Facebook, the New American Paintings blog, and Chicago Art Magazine. By the following day the story had become the talk of the town, and WBEZ ran a story including an interview with Tony Karmen, VP of Art Chicago from 2006 to 2010, who recently left to start his own Chicago art fair, Expo Chicago.
As the dust of the announcement has settled over the past two months, we’ve been left to reflect on the potential consequences of the cancellation of Art Chicago, and perhaps more importantly, its significance as an indicator of which way the wind is blowing for Chicago’s future as an art city. At the end of that WBEZ story, host Tony Sarabia asked Allison Cuddy for her closing thoughts: “It’s a fascinating story, I think we’ll carry through the day working on the story, and think about the relevance of art fairs to the overall art scene in Chicago.”
The end of NEXT/Art Chicago and the beginning of Expo Chicago invite some speculation as to the role art fairs can play. In her recent article for FNews Magazine, Sarah Hamilton interviewed some local art world players, including Tom Burtonwood, Aron Gent, and Tony Karmen about their thoughts on the end of Next Art Chicago, and the dawn of Expo Chicago. Hamilton also cites an article by Jerry Saltz in which he describes Adam Lindeman’s view that art fairs should exist solely for the benefit of high-dollar collectors as “autocoprophagic.”
Must the merit of an art fair be determined on economic grounds alone? Who do they serve? Are art fairs a simple facilitation of the business transaction between gallerists and collectors? Not that there’s anything wrong with this; those transactions are how artists make their livings. But need this be the limit of what an art fair is?
As an educator, I had been bringing my college art classes to NEXT/Art Chicago (facilitated by the really easy access to free passes), and had been looking forward to having Expo Chicago as a Fall Semester counterpoint. Of course, the very accessibility that would have facilitated this access for my students is the antithesis of the “wall…[made] out of gold or marble,” which my friend Tom Burtonwood, in Hamilton’s article, suggests Karmen build to “keep the riff raff away.” If Karmen follows Lindeman’s advice, and Burtonwood’s, he wouldn’t let my students anywhere near the place.
It’s easy for a teacher like myself to expect art fairs to provide students with a free art-viewing experience, but if art fairs aren’t profitable, they’ll cease to exist…at least, under the current, profit-motivated model. Tom (along with Lindeman) may be right about what’s good for the art business, and if he is, access may be a zero-sum game: what’s good for the art viewing public, having art fairs serve as a traveling carnival of art from around the world for their viewing pleasure, may be exactly the opposite of the exclusive atmosphere that allows them to exist in the first place.
But, and this may just be me and a bunch of other Johnny-and-Janie-Come-Latelys trying to ride the Occupy bandwagon, we could even wonder whether art fairs could exist under other terms, which need not even necessarily be profitable. Alternative models have been tried, including the numerous satellite fairs that spring up around Art Basel Miami Beach (Aqua, Scope, Pulse, Fountain, Verge, and about a dozen others), which can be seen as symbiotic organisms whose relationship with their host may be either parasitic, commensalist (beneficial to one, harmless to the other), or mutualistic (beneficial to both). The satellite fairs may draw buyers away from the main event, they may increase the overall buzz and street cred of an otherwise conservative event, or they may pick up some table scraps from the periphery without really affecting the main fair. Satellite fairs have followed both for-profit and non-profit models.
At the end of Hamilton’s article, Aron Gent muses that the loss of NEXT Art Chicago, and the success or failure of the upcoming EXPO, is no big deal: “Maybe we don’t need to worry about having kickass fairs. Maybe we should focus on taking artists and galleries down to Miami.” As an artist, I’d love to get my work in front of a new group of collectors, and any excuse to skip out on Chicago for a few days in December is a good one. I imagine the cost, and therefore the risk, for a Chicago gallery doing a fair are much higher when the venue is out of town, though, and for a lot of them it may not be worth the risk.
A homegrown fair, whether NEXT/Art Chicago, Expo Chicago, MDW, or something new, could conceivably be a means of attracting collectors local, national, and international, to look at and hopefully collect works by Chicago-based artists worthy of an international audience, without imposing the burden on artists or dealers on traveling and shipping the work to rent a booth at an art fair in another city. The challenge, though, remains as always to convince collectors that Chicago is a good place to spend their money. I was recently fortunate enough to have one of the pieces from my show at Linda Warren Projects acquired by Howard Tullman for his collection, and so at least at the moment, I am optimistic. There are collectors who buy from Chicago artists, and whether it’s at an art fair, from a gallery, or otherwise, they are the supporters who enable artists to continue making their work.
“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” (Proverb attributed to Native Americans, tribe unkown.)
Late February, I attended the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles, where I ran into my friend Jenny Kendler. She told me about an event she was involved with, “In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists,” at UnSpace Ground, which as I was to discover was situated in the outdoor plaza in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where CAA was taking place. Street vendors were selling baggies of sliced mango dipped in lemon juice, cayenne, and sugar, and I managed to buy one before security ran the vendors off, and my friends and I munched mango as the event unfolded. (In the photo below, you can just make me out, in my fancy new sunglasses, chatting with artist Conrad Freiburg, in the upper right.)
For this event, eight artists and one biologist collaborated to create 35 art works representing endangered species living in southern California. In order to spread awareness of the endangered status of these organisms, viewers were invited to sign up to take custody of a work of art, in exchange for a commitment to learn and care about the species represented, and to reproduce or represent the artwork online. This article is my fulfillment of the pledge that I took on that day.
The format ran something like a silent auction, with viewers selecting the work and species they wanted to care for, and signing up on form. As the event unfolded, Jenny announced each species, artwork, and its new caretaker, auctioneer-style. Both Stephanie Burke and I took custody of pieces by Jenny Kendler, a friend of ours whose work we have admired for a long time. Kendler’s work frequently addresses issues of ecology and conservation, but what I’ve always appreciated about its soft, quiet beauty, which has always reminded me of the animated film The Last Unicorn. This delicate aesthetic carries through her drawings and paintings, her sculptures, and makes an important subject palatable, avoiding any possibility of being called shrill or preachy. It is pretty with a purpose.
Kendler’s contributions to “In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists” were rendered in graphite and watercolor on little circles of paper, which were then mounted on vintage ribbons, like one might get for “Best Pig” at the county fair. They are similar to, although I believe separate from, an installation called “Selection: 23 Endangered Species,” executed in the same medium and also mounted on ribbons. Stephanie took custody of Muntz’s Onion, and I went for the Southern California Steelhead Trout.
Steelhead are a unique type of rainbow trout, which are classified along with salmon, char, and other trout as salmonids. Unlike other rainbow trout, steelhead, like salmon, are anadromous, spending most of their adult lives in the ocean but spawning in freshwater streams and rivers. The Southern California Steelhead Trout is an “evolutionarily significant unit” (ESU) of the coastal steelhead/rainbow trout, Oncorhyncus mykiss iridius. Since the end of the last glacial period, some 12,000 years ago, steelhead of the southern ESU have evolved several unique characteristics uniquely adapted to the semi-arid climate of Southern California. Compared with northern populations, southern steelhead have the ability to tolerate warmer water, the juveniles grow faster and migrate to the ocean more quickly, and they may “stray” more frequently from the exact river or stream of their birth when returning to spawn.
Southern California steelhead face two major threats to their survival. Water diversion and extraction cause many streams to dry up for much of the year, much more frequently than previously. Secondly, various barriers can prevent the fish from returning to their spawning ground: dams obviously from a major obstacle but flat, concrete-lined channels and narrow culverts can also create high-velocity “wind tunnels” of water which the fish are unable to pass. The loss of riparian vegetation, the introduction of non-native predatory fish and amphibians, the filling and destruction of estuaries, and pollution from industrial and agricultural runoff have added to the difficulties.
The steelhead was listed under the Endangered Species Act in August 1997, and various populations listed as threatened or endangered. However, the listing excluded any area upstream of an impassible manmade barrier, leaving most of the vital spawning grounds unprotected, and inaccessible. Organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, the Audubon Society, the Friends of the LA River (FOLAR), and the California Coastal Conservancy have fought to revive southern California’s steelhead populations. Efforts have included the redesign of channels to slow water flow, provision for means for fish to get around barriers, restoring riparian vegetation, and eliminating invasive predators.
There have been some major setbacks, for example in late January 2011, when the California Coastal Conservancy abandoned its efforts at reviving the San Mateo Creek population, in part because of hindrances presented by USMC Camp Pendleton. There have been successes as well. The Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara worked with city planners and the Army Corps of Engineers to redesign the concrete channel framing Mission Creek, slowing its flow, and adding step pools and rock weirs to allow fish to migrate upstream. The Matilija Coalition in Ventura County has been working to remove a dam, modify bridge structures, and restore shade trees along the Ventura River.
The best news is also the most recent. In January 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration completed its roadmap to recovery for steelhead in southern California. For the fewer than 500 steelhead remaining in southern California, this plan outlines the best chance of survival. But the NOAA warns: “Recovery Plans published by NOAA’s Fisheries Services are guidance documents, not regulatory documents, and their implementation depends on the voluntary cooperation of multiple stakeholders at the local, regional, state, and national levels.”
The information in this article comes from the following sources, which should be consulted for additional information on the status of the southern California steelhead, and what still needs to be done:
I recently attended the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles. Before leaved, I asked my fellow alumni from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art whether any of them planned on attending. (MICA hosts a reception for its alumni at the conference.) One of the responses, from alum Raymond Majerski (Hoffberger 2003), was typical of the understandable frustration many job seeking MFAs feel towards the conference: “Hundreds of black-clothed people wringing their hands for two teaching jobs? I’ll pass.”
It is a perfectly common and reasonable response, especially when one considers the standard format for employers interviewing at CAA. You apply for the job, and they ask you to indicate on your cover letter “whether you plan on attending the College Art Association conference, as that is where we will be conducting interviews,” or something similar. It sounds innocent enough, until you think about it: it rougly translates as “Do you plan on paying your own airfare, lodging, and other costs, to attend a conference at which we may or may not choose to interview you?” Those of us with terminal degrees in art are seeking to sell our skills, and unfortunately, it’s a buyer’s market. Fair or not, it’s the way things are, for the same reason that you collect your paycheck after completing two weeks’ work, but you pay your rent before you spend a month living there.
It’s easy enough to become embittered by the process. I certainly felt a pang of resentment as I typed out those cover letters, saying at the time something to the effect of, “I am happy to travel to the College Art Association Conference for an interview scheduled well in advance, but will not otherwise be attending.” None of those applications resulted in an interview, and as I walked through the Interview Hall, seeing those same institutions conducting interviews with, what did Commodus say in Gladiator? “Which wiser, older man is to take my place?” Certainly I felt some jealousy.
I made the decision to attend the conference even after I had become fairly certain that I wasn’t going to be interviewed there. There is a lot more to the conference than the job search. This was my third time attending, and I made the decision to attend based on the panel sessions I saw the last two times (New York 2007, Chicago 2010). The CAA panel sessions cover a wide range of topics pertinent to contemporary art, art history, career development for artists, pedagogy, and related topics. Some highlights:
We headed to “Perceptions and Assumptions: Whiteness,” hosted by the National Alliance of Artists from Historical Black Colleges and Universities. We came in partway through a presentation on “race movies,” which were basically films made by and for African Americans at a time when they were largely denied starring roles in mainstream (white) cinema. Because movie theaters were segregated at that time, at least in some areas, these movies were either shown in theaters catering specifically to black audiences, or in mainstream theaters at special midnight showings for black audiences, called “midnight rambles.” Midnight Rambles is also the title of a documentary film on the subject. The last presenter presented images from the exhibition, “Perceptions of Whiteness: New Works by the National Alliance of Artists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Both of these presentations were welcome exposures to pieces of visual culture of which I would have been otherwise unaware.
I headed over to see “Native American Surrealisms.” I had to find out the answer to a riddle inherent to the title of one of the presenters: “The Opposite of Snake.” It turns out, the opposite of snake is bird. Also, the opposite of one is ten, and the opposite of water is ice. These were the revelations of a narrative from the childhood of Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham, as retold in this presentation by Mary Modeen from the University of Dundee. As I watched the presentation, I realized that I’d seen a piece of Durham’s recently, at the MCA Chicago. I hadn’t been previously familiar with Durham’s work, but his Self-Portrait (1986) is included in the exhibition “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.” Like all of his work, it displays an absurdist wit and a sharp-edged sense of humor. It’s included in the section “Gender Trouble,” perhaps because of the rainbow phallus captioned, “Indian penises are unusually large and colorful.” Like the kid said in Goonies, “That was my favorite part.”
I went to “What Makes a Competitive Candidate?” Unfortunately, I spent too much time at lunch, and missed the first presenter (Scott Contreras-Koterbay from East Tennessee State University), but from what I heard he had some good advice. I’m going to look him up and see if I can’t get a copy of his paper or notes. Dennis Y. Ichiyama from Purdue University talked about some of the challenges you’ll face once you get that full time job: useful, I’m sure, but one of those “let’s cross that bridge when we get to it” things for me. Linda Neely from Lander University was more straightforward to the topic, and gave some basic suggestions for job seekers. They were pretty common sense (have a good cover letter, etc.) but solid advice, especially for those just starting out their search. Lastly, Sam Yates, listed as an “independent artist” but actually a teacher with experience at a variety of institutions, gave his take. He gave some good, if also common sense, advice, like: Don’t get too chatty in your cover letter, and if you do, make sure your chat is accurate: for example, the disastrous cover letter, perhaps and perhaps not hypothetical, attributing things about Kentucky to Tennessee, and another mis-locating a university from Nashville to Knoxville. He also stressed how disastrous a single typo can be in a cover letter or resume. The Q&A session that followed revealed a lot about the hopes of the aspiring college art teachers who’ve come to the conference hoping for their first teaching job. “Is it really necessary to do an adjunct job before getting a full time job?” (The panelists agreed that yes, that’s usually the way it happens, but I know of exceptions.) “If a job specifies a minimum of a certain number of years of experience, is it even worth applying if you’re short of that?” (The panelists, Ichiyama in particular, were emphatic that you shouldn’t waste the selection committees time applying if you don’t meet the minimum qualifications, but again, I know of at least one case in which an applicant with only two years experience got hired for a job when the posting said you needed four.) “Aren’t adjunct jobs basically just word-of-mouth? Or can an unsolicited letter of interest work?” (The consensus was that yes, they were usually word of mouth, but Koterbay mentioned that he’d gotten his first adjunct job via an unsolicited letter of interest, and I myself got my first adjunct job by walking into the art department’s office, packet in hand, and asking to meet with the department head.)
My favorite panel session, though, was “Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid.” This session was amazingly well-attended; people were standing or sitting against the walls, although predominantly because of an insipid tendency for audience members to sit in the seats on the outside of each row, forcing subsequent sitters to shuffle awkwardly past, a la Fight Club: “Now a question of etiquette as I pass: do I give you the crotch, or the ass?” Many professionals opt out of the ass-crotch dilemma and stand awkwardly in the back until their legs get tired, at which point those under 30 sit on the floor for “story time,” while those over 30 finally mutter “Excuse me” while grinding their nethers into the fashionably bespectacled faces of those who sat first but didn’t think to move to the middle of the row…or, perhaps, love the scent of art historian ass. This crowding at least spoke to the popularity of the topic…wait, museum labeling practices? No, not the popularity of the topic: the importance of giving your panel session a clever title.
Clever titles aside, though, the session was really good. “Space, Seam, Scenario: The Many Operations of the Museum Label,” presented by Laura H. Hollengreen, Georgia Institute of Technology, contrasted the National Gallery of Austria in Vienna with the Donald Judd museum in Marfa, Texas. In Vienna, each painting in a room has a wall label discussing a different aspect of that painting. So for example, one painting might have its provenance discussed (but nothing about technique, or subject matter, or artist’s biography), while the next might have an explanation of the life of the artist (but nothing about the other topics). On the other hand, in Judd’s museum, there is no wall text whatsoever, allowing the monolithic aluminum sculptures to speak for themselves against the silent backdrop of the desert. Both solutions were presented as viable antidotes to the formulaic “name, date, title, short paragraph about the work and the artist” format common to most museums.
Kim Beil, of University of California, Irvine, presented “Countercheck Your Crude Impressions”: Interpretive Texts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1872-1912. This was basically a description of this museum’s accompanying catalog and guidebook, the latter of which was presented as a narrative in which a Virgil-like friend guides the Dante-analog protagonist through the exhibition, explaining it all the way along. Elitist undertones (the protagonist had been to Europe and fraternized with the Queen’s gardeners!) belied the founding statement of the museum as a place for people of all classes to be improved by culture.
Things really started getting hot with Kate Green, University of Texas at Austin, discussing “Nazi Wall Text: The 1937 ‘Degenerate Art Show’.” For those unfamiliar with the exhibition, it presented the work of early Modernists alongside that of mental patients and “primitive” cultures, as evidence of its inferiority, foreignness, and Jewish and Communist influences, all of which the Nazis sought to contrast with the pure, Neoclassical, and oddly homoerotic Socialist Realism they championed in a simultaneous exhibition in an adjacent (and much more opulent) building. The Degenerate exhibition is infamous for the sloppy, propagandistic curation, which sought not to present the work in its best light, but in its worst. It’s easy to condemn the Nazis for co-opting art in service of their ideology, but, Green asks us, is this because we object to the intellectual dishonesty of their argument, or merely because we disagree with their premise of Aryan superiority and German nationalism? It’s a thought that gives me pause when I reflect on recent and powerful exhibitions with a strong message, such as “This Will Have Been: Art, Love, And Politics in the 1980s” at the MCA Chicago.
Leo G. Mazow, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville presented “‘Holy Rollers’ and the Dual Nature of Labeling, “ in the wake of some minor controversy following an exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s work. Benton depicted members of Pentecostal Christian churches, whom he (Benton) called “Holy Rollers,” a term now widely considered pejorative. In some accompanying text, Mazow failed to indicate that he was using Benton’s preferred term for his subjects, despite the negative connotations now (and perhaps then) associated with it. Mazow was adequately contrite, and the audience laughed sympathetically at the appropriate moments. It functioned for me largely as anecdotal evidence for the importance of being careful with one’s choice of words, particularly when dealing collectively with a population who could be offended by those words.
Last, and most salient to my interests, was Jennifer Tyburczy of Rice University, discussing “Warning: Explicit Display in Museums.” She gave numerous examples of the kind of “you might not like what you see” cautionary signage which often accompanies exhibitions or otherwise potentially offensive subject matter. The presentations’ point, or at least what I got out of it, was this: Cautionary signage does indeed allow parents to steer clear of a Mapplethorpe exhibition when they’re not ready to explain to their children in tow what fisting is. “You see Timmy and Sally, sometimes when two people love each other very much…” But, at the same time, it validates that viewer’s conception of that artwork as offensive. In the case of Mapplethorpe, this may not be much of a problem. But when the Old Master’s nude paintings of women carry no warning labels (despite John Berger’s analysis of their problematic history in Ways of Seeing, as well as the Guerilla Girls’ campaign re: the same), but an exhibition including images of transgendered nudes does, then the museum implicitly agrees that (or at least fails to question why) a nude non-transgendered women is inoffensive to a reasonable person, but a nude transgendered man or woman may be offensive to a reasonable person. Ditto a photograph of two men kissing, or of two women kissing. Similarly, if a religious icon carries no warning that it may be offensive to atheists, but a piece critiquing religion does carry a warning label, then the religious point of view is upheld as normative or at least meriting special consideration. These issues should come to mind when, in the future, we see exhibitions that carry warning labels, and also when we see those that don’t…and we might ask why, or why not.
These panel sessions were the main reason Steph and I attended the conference, but they weren’t the only reason. The conference was a great excuse to get out of Chicago during the winter (the weather in LA was great), and to put real life on hold for a few days. It was also a great chance to check out the art scene in a new city. On Thursday, we checked out the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’ “Naked Hollywood: Weegee In Los Angeles,” and “Kenneth Anger: Icons.” Steph’s a big Weegee fan; I’d never heard of him.
After a pretty brisk circuit of the museum, we headed down to the Westin Bonaventure hotel for a reception for alumni of the Maryland Institute College of Art. Meeting up with old friends is another, often-neglected aspect of CAA. Faculty member Barry Nemett was there, and he remembered me and my work, which was cool, and I met some people who turned out to be friends of friends in that pleasant, “what a small world it is” kind of way. We also ran into Jenny Kendler, a Chicago artist whose work we’ve curated as part of the Chicago Artist’s Coalition BOLT residency (and who hosts our portfolio websites through her company, Other People’s Pixels). The next night we headed over to the Velaslavasay Panorama, for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumni reception. Steph and Jenny both got their MFAs from SAIC, so they were there, as was our friend Oli Rodriguez. Then, as a very pleasant surprise, we ran into our friend Conrad Freiburg (BFA SAIC 2000), and a fellow Hoffberger MFA who had gone to SAIC for undergrad, Katherine Rohrbacher.
Saturday we visited Conrad’s studio, he played us some tunes on his ukulele, and got some burritos, then headed out to see the art openings in Culver City and Santa Monica. We hear a lot about LA’s art scene, as being the sort of parallel equal to New York, consigning Chicago to a bronze medal third place, at least in terms of reputation. In practice, what we saw seemed fine, equal maybe to a good night in Chicago, but nothing to be intimidated by. Blum & Poe was showing “Requiem For The Sun: The Art of Mono-Ha,” a lot of monumental, resource-intensive looking sculptures. Carter & Citizen, friends of Conrad’s, were showing my favorite work of the night: “Dmitry Strakovsky: The Way We Tell Stories That Tell The Way.” Due to some zoning restrictions regarding the side of the street they were on, they were also the only gallery able to serve alcoholic beverages, so while everybody else was handing out grape juice and peanuts, they had beer. Luis de Jesus, the one LA gallery whose name I was familiar with, was showing “Tilt Shift LA: New Queer Perspectives on The Western Edge,” a group show that was very solid, albeit appearing (at least superficially, to me) to have been made by artists who happen to identify as queer, rather than of artworks specifically addressing queerness. The last gallery we hit, Honor Fraser, was showing large monochromatic paintings by Rosson Crow, “Ballyhoo Hullabaloo Haboob.” As we were leaving, Conrad pointed out to me that Dustin Hoffman was standing in the window of the gallery, talking to someone. I turned, looked, and realized that seeing him standing there, a celebrity, but in an art gallery, was the perfect ending to my trip to LA.
The next, 101st College Art Association Conference will take place in New York, from Wednesday, February 13th to Saturday, February 16th, 2013. I plan on attending…interviews or no. I hope to see you there.