The art world loves community. Well, the art world loves the word, “community.” Or, at least, it might, if we could figure out what the “art world” is, anyway, which is by no means a new problem. The issues may in fact be quite closely related. The art world is one of those subcultures that, while in reality a fuzzy-edged cluster of individuals, is easily perceived both by those within and without its borders as being the hard-edged rounded rectangle of an Illuminati card (Liberal, Weird). “The CIA is going to attempt to control The Art World, and I’m going to put…50 Megabucks on that attack.” (Which, by the way, actually happened.)
At least, we’d like to think that if the art world were an Illuminati card, it would be Liberal and Weird. (If you’re not familiar with the game, just translate that as, “We’d like to think the art world is liberal and weird.”) But that presumes a certain homogeneity that just isn’t there, as in fact did my own presumption that we (me, and you who are reading this) both want the art world to be the same, certain thing. That is by no means a sure thing. If for sake of discussion we can continue to refer to the art world as a single entity, then along with “community,” it also praises “diversity.” That value is tested when one learns that diversity means hanging out with a bunch of people with whom one doesn’t agree, and whom one might not even like.
So what, then, does the concept of community really mean within the context of the art world? The answers that spring to mind come in the form of analogies: the art world as ecosystem, the art world as family, the art world as neighborhood. Any of these metaphors can provide insight into the nature and structure of a subculture, but they can also be misleading, as well as potentially offensive and therefore divisive: the vulture is an invaluable part of the ecosystems it inhabits, but few would want to be called the vultures of the art world. (“He only collects work by dead artists. Also, he’s bald, and when it’s hot out, he shits on his legs.”)
So it’s like Hannibal Lecter says in Silence of the Lambs: “First principles. Read Marcus Aurelius: ‘Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?’ What does he do, this man you seek?” And as we try to piece together exactly what it is that we do, in this so-called art world of ours, to answer the question, I cringe, expecting any answer I give to be followed by Anthony Hopkins shouting, “No! That is incidental!”
But nevertheless, the immediate answer, the “He kills women” answer that Lecter would have rejected as superficial, reveals part of the problem. Mostly I paint, and draw, and I also teach, and write, and sometimes I curate, and perform, and basically do a whole bunch of different stuff. All of this is part of what it means to be a member of the “Artist” subset of the art world. There are also critics and curators and collectors and dealers, and while there is a lot of overlap, those who excel in one field tend to be specialists, if only in that the expenditure of time is a zero-sum game.
While each individual participant may bring something else to the equation, our individual efforts add up to a collaborative result, and that conglomerate of artwork and text and ephemera is the collective production of the art world. And to what end? I’d like to think, I think we’d all like to think, that our goal is to make the world a better place. Like the fictional Weyland-Yutani Corporation from Aliens, perhaps our motto is, “Building Better Worlds.” But isn’t that a bit vague? After all, isn’t that how everybody, in any field, likes to see what they do? Doctors save lives , lawyers fight for justice, invading armies are delivering freedom, and timber harvesting companies are creating jobs. Any human activity can be rationalized in terms of making the world better in one way or another, and that includes a lot of things that are antithetical to the individual ethics to which many artists subscribe. How can we be sure that we’re really making the world a better place, rather than merely producing luxury commodities ultimately no different from a BMW or a yacht?
One metric, and I’m not saying it’s a perfect one, might be that, rather than ends justifying the means we use to reach them, the means we use to reach our ends might give an indication of the worthiness of those ends. In short: If you have to do shitty things to reach your goal, maybe it’s a shitty goal. Sometime around 1999 or 2000, Google informally adopted the corporate motto or slogan, “Don’t be evil,” and while opinions are varied on how well they are living up to this, the principle is a good enough starting point. If it has a limitation it’s that “evil” as a word carries connotations of such unmistakable atrocity that it may be hard to see how it applies in morally ambiguous situations: if we use the word “evil” to refer to something on the level of genocide, its hard to apply the same term to something like failing to credit the inspiration for an artwork. In its place, we might simply say, “Don’t be a dick,” or in polite company, “Be cool.”
The question of the ethics and etiquette of the art world has been on my mind a lot lately, for a few reasons. Last August I bought and reviewed “I like your work: art and etiquette” by Paper Monument; actually my “review” consisted of answering the same questions that they asked of those they interviewed for the book. More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the idea of ethics and etiquette in the art world, and about art communities, and ultimately about what we’re all doing and why, because I’ve got some smart, awesome friends who are putting in serious work to make Chicago’s art scene a better place. Claire Molek, formerly of This Is Not The Studio, is behind those ads you’ve seen on the Brown Line for the “Brave New Art World.” The BNAW manifesto describes it as “an arts unification movement dedicated to the service of consciousness,” dedicated to the belief that “there is infinite, inherent value in the practice, product and distribution of art as a vehicle for consciousness.” What makes BNAW different is that, unlike a lot of the other (and also very worthwhile) alternative art organizations, it doesn’t seek to colonize an up-and-coming neighborhood with for-now cheap rent and no history of art exhibitions (or collectors).
The Brave New Art World kicked off this past Thursday in River North, a neighborhood with a long history of art exhibitions, high rents, and a reputation (deserved or not) for conservatism and an aging base of collectors and patrons. It’s the neighborhood the cool kids love to hate, characterizing it as a bastion of old money and boring art. By launching in this context, BNAW eschews the romantic appeal of the anti-establishment revolutionary ideology, and seeks instead to work within existing structures to renew and reform, rather than to destroy and replace. It’s a smart move for everybody involved, if this mutualism proves sustainable, because it brings a new generation of innovative and experimental artists into contact with long-established galleries and collectors. The galleries need new artists to remain relevant in an evolving art market, collectors (we’d hope) are eager to see things they haven’t seen before, and artists benefit by showing their work in established spaces where people actually buy art. Some River North galleries have a strong history of showing emerging artists, and several have dedicated space or programming to this end: David Weinberg has dedicated a portion of his space to The Coat Check, Catherine Edelman has a long history of supporting emerging photographers through The Chicago Project, and Jennifer Norback recently added The Project Room to her gallery. The Brave New Art World has the potential to build upon and expand these programs and others like them, to breath new life into this long-established gallery district.
The launch of a new endeavor raises again the question of ethics and ideology, of what means shall be used to achieve these ends. Another of my smart and awesome friends, Jake Myers, recently wrote a sort of opinion piece (published on the Brave New Art World site) on some of the dirty aspects of the art world, and opportunities to better, from an ethical perspective. Some of what he wrote is prone to misinterpretation, and one passage in particular bears closer examination:
Instead of backstabbing, manipulating or using people for short-term gain, some people like to maintain healthy, friendly, long-term working relationships. Reward people who support you and bring other thoughtful, like-minded people into your cohesive crew. This is how communities and art movements begin.
Preceded by the heading “Friends who curate friends, “ and followed by a reference to a certain collaborative team, it would be easy to read this paragraph as a guilty plea to a charge of cliquish nepotism, but I read it differently.
We once bought a pair of feeder mice for our beloved ball python, Snake, but she was about to shed so she wouldn’t eat. We kept the mice for a couple days in a small cage, fed them granola and made sure they had water, so they would be comfortable while they awaited their fate. One morning I awoke to find that one of the mice had killed the other and eaten its face (here we are back to Hannibal Lecter again). Apparently, I’ve since learned, mice kept in too close proximity will suffer stress, which can result in them killing each other and eating each other’s faces. If you compare the number of graduates from art schools and MFA programs (to say nothing of the self-taught), and compare that to the number of available galleries, collectors, teaching positions, and other opportunities, we shouldn’t be so surprised to see an unfortunate number of young and not-so-young, struggling and not-so-struggling artists kill each other and eat one another’s faces, metaphorically speaking.
What I think Jake, and Claire, and a lot of other smart, awesome people, many of whom I am privileged to call friends, are saying right now, although maybe not in these terms, is that we need to stop being a bunch of mice, which are bitchy, murderous, face-eating piss and shit factories. (I know, I know, they’re cute. But they’re also really gross, and eat each other’s faces.) Instead, we need to be more like vampire bats. Now, if you’re familiar with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and with the discussion of biological altruism, you may have an idea of where I’m going with this, and may in fact already be mouthing the words to you rebuttal. But bear with me. Dawkins gave a good summary of the Vampire Bat model of Reciprocal Altruism on a radio interview with Tom Morton:
Well, vampire bats have a kind of blood donor scheme; vampire bats, as you know, eat blood, and it happens to be a case of reciprocal altruism that’s been well worked out. These bats roost by day and then at night they go out and look for an animal to suck blood from, and then they come back and roost for the next day. Well if a bat is lucky, and manages to find an animal to suck blood from, it usually engorges itself and becomes very, very full, has much more blood than it actually needs. But that is quite a lot of luck that goes into that, and there are other nights when a bat will come home hungry, having not found any blood. And that can be fatal. These little animals need constant topping up in order not to die. So the situation is tailor-made for reciprocal altruism. When these bats come back into their cave after their night’s work, so to speak, some of them will be almost overflowing with blood, and others will be near death from starvation, and so there’s a lot to be gained from the ones who’ve got a lot of blood giving some to the ones who haven’t got much, and they do it by regurgitating it, by sicking it up, and the others eat it. And they can expect to get paid back by those very same individuals on another night, when the luck has been reversed. And that actually happens, that’s been demonstrated and it’s a very good example of reciprocal altruism in nature.
The game theorists point out that because these bats know they’re going to see each other again, it’s not true altruism, but rather an investment in a community. This may be an argument for the evolution of true altruism, but it’s an argument for, rather than against, its use as a model for behavior within a community. Be cool to your friends, because they might be cool to you in the future. Don’t try go game it, to only hook up your friends whom you expect to be able to do you a favor in the future. Just do everything you can, to help anybody you can, because in the long term, it is in your self-interest to do so, as long as we’re all doing it. So, let’s all help each other out, whenever and however we can, and everybody profits.
In other words, you barf blood into my mouth, and I’ll barf blood into yours. That’s community.
It’s a busy time of year and a busy week on top of it. MFA and BFA events left and right, writing and grading papers, final presentations, vacation plans, residency plans, devised escape attempts, and closing remarks. That’s right folks, summer is almost upon us. #huzza But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. This week in review —
Episode 400 y’all! Duncan and Richard published their road trip. What is estimated to be a five hour drive between St. Louis and Chicago was boiled down into a healthy 45-minute reduction of audio sauce. Get your fill of those fellas here.
Otherwise, some Monday T from our favorite gossip columnist, Dana Bassatt. Bassatt asks after G.R. N’Namdi Gallery’s vacated storefront, offers insider reportage about her Dinner Party field trip, and offers a great eye-spy on an easily overlooked building in all its freaky grandeur (shout out to Kokorokoko — this building seems right up your alley, perhaps?). All that and more here.
I reposted a link to The Highlights: an online arts journal who’s latest issue presents blog works/art/articles that touch on labor, Marx, and biographical statements while presenting images of honey glazed turkey, black rectangles and to do lists.
One more reason for a road trip courtesy of Kelly Shindler who published a great list of things to look out for art-wise in STLA:
“It’s the first of May, which means that it’s May Day, International Worker’s Day, and you may as well watch the Bee Gees perform this. It also means that lots of art spaces and museums are getting ready to open their first round of summer shows. In solidarity, I present to you my (rather long) shortlist of what’s on in St. Louis in the coming weeks…”
Stephanie Burke posts the TOP 10 shows-to-see (obviously everyone has been hard at work all winter, and the fruits of labor are now, this very moment, EXPLODING). Which is to say, all good things are upon us. HERE
Another new columnist arrives at the scene, adding one more reason to open that bottle of champagne. Yes, that’s right, Mairead Case published the first post in an on-going series, MAINTENANCE. In her words:
I want this column to be about maintenance, because endings get so much press right now—education is increasingly privatized and teachers are undervalued, slow media is undervalued, pedagogy and art practice and criticism are going weirdo Cerebrus on us—and instead of getting ever-crabbier or just throwing in the towel, I want to talk about how we’re living. How we’re taking care, how we’re keeping the wheels turning. How we’re supporting ourselves long-haul. (Why books? I spend most of my time in libraries and classrooms, and reading, so books seem like a good place to start.)
MAINTENANCE will focus on reviewing new publications, but there’ll always be older ones in the mix. Again, if there’s something you’d like me to cover, please be in touch: mairead dot case at gmail.com. Hi!
So — with that, hope you had a good weekend, and let’s plan a day of hooky. Meet me at the beach, noon on Wednesday. Call it a National Day of Wellness and Leisure. Wear your best suits. I’ll bring the cold cuts if you bring the beach ball. Maybe we can look as dapper as the old timers downstairs. See you soon.
A. The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:
The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death—do your own thing, dynamic, change.
The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
– Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Publications discussed here (an asterisk means it came out less than 365 days ago):
- Let It Sink by Jim Joyce (victimsofmathematics at gmail, 2013)*
- Filmme Fatales Issue 1, ed. Brodie Lancaster (filmmefatales.com, 2013)*
- Cha-Ching! by Ali Liebegott (City Lights/Sister Spit, 2013)*
- Collisions by Brendan Monroe (brendanmonroe.com, ??)
- Life Form by Amélie Nothomb, trans. Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2013)*
- Rumspringa by Tom Schachtman (North Point, 2006)
Right now I’m taking a class with some painters—mostly we read, and talk—and the other day, we were talking about endings. For painters, I’m learning endings mean say, photography, and intubated paint, and Rodchenko. I’m a writer so I started thinking about Samuel Beckett, the Independent Press Association, Kathy Acker’s parrots and pirates, her red/read. But more generally, meditating to “This body will be a corpse,” and to be fair that really just used to crack me up. It is very hard for ex-Sad Teenage Girls like myself to meditate to that, because for so long we were like “Yes I know, hurry up already.” [Read more]
Work by Jenny Kindler.
The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Caleb Charland.
Schneider Gallery is located at 230 Superior St. Reception Friday, 5-7:30pm.
Work by Marissa Lee Benedict.
Threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria St. #2C. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Daniel Bauer.
Alderman Exhibitions is located at 1138 W Randolph St. Reception Saturday, 11am-5pm.
Work by 23E Laboratories, Jason Robert Bell, James Fotopoulos, Kari Gatzke, HALFLIFERS, Lauren Marsden, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Bjørn Melhus, Shana Moulton, Caspar Stracke and MASTERS OF TIME AND SPACE, and Jennet Thomas.
Gallery 400 is located at 400 S. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Carol Jackson and Julie Potratz.
slow os located at 2153 W 21st St. Reception Staurday, 6-9pm.
Work by Kelly Kaczynski.
Comfort Station is located at 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-8pm.
Work by Amanda Ross-Ho.
Shane Campbell Gallery is located at 673 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-8pm.
Work by Emily Carter and Meg Leary.
ACRE Projects is located at 1913 W. 17th St. Reception Sunday, 4-8pm.
Work by Kaoru Arima.
Queer Thoughts is located at 1640 W. 18th St. #3. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
It’s the first of May, which means that it’s May Day, International Worker’s Day, and you may as well watch the Bee Gees perform this. It also means that lots of art spaces and museums are getting ready to open their first round of summer shows. In solidarity, I present to you my (rather long) shortlist of what’s on in St. Louis in the coming weeks.
The River Between Us
Laumeier Sculpture Park
April 13–August 25, 2013
A symbiotic traveling exhibition coorganized with Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans, The River Between Us is the latest in a series of projects at Laumeier that explore the theme of place. This time, the mighty Mississippi provides the inspiration for the show, which will feature both new commissions and historical documents. Featured artists include Ken Lum, Allan McCollum, and Alec Soth, among many others.
Rudely Interrupted Evening with Mr. Manners
May 3-5, 2013
Local guerilla curatorial collective The Transients stage shows in recently vacated commercial spaces. Their newest project takes place in the old downtown YMCA, which piques my interest. This weekend-long series of events includes collaborative videos and screenings, a brunchtime screening featuring a twenty-one-gun salute (!), and a performative event by the Archeospiritist Study and Consortion Initiative Illinois (!!).
Andrew James: Without the zeroes and ones,
the big and the huge don’t mean dick (v.1)
Isolation Room/Gallery Kit
May 3–June 1, 2013
Worth going just for the title—and the fact that Andrew James also runs St. Louis’s excellent Good Citizen Gallery—this show at the petite apartment gallery Isolation Room features a new kinetic object by the artist that, notes curator Daniel McGrath, “scoots on wheels like a Minecraft translation of an intravenous drip.”
Contemporary German Art: Selections from the Permanent Collection
2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University
May 3–September 7, 2013
The Kemper showcases highlights from its formidable collection of contemporary German art, including works by Thomas Bayrle, Isa Genzken, Charline von Heyl, Sergei Jensen, Wolfgang Tillmans, and others. Also on view is the latest MFA Thesis show of work by twenty-three new grads.
Mike Newton: Contact
Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts
May 4–June 1, 2013
I’ve sang Fort Gondo’s praises elsewhere on this site. Its latest exhibition curated by new director Jessica Baran features several videos by New York-based artist Mike Newton that draw inspiration from the question of how to represent and understand interpersonal communication, particularly as it relates to eye contact.
Whole City: St. Louis
Luminary Center for the Arts
May 4–25, 2013
The latest in a series of guest-curated exhibitions collectively titled How to Build a World That Won’t Fall Apart, this show by Minneapolis design studio Works Progress takes the form of an intensive short-term residency that seeks to better understand the cultural landscape of St. Louis. Starting with the question “what makes us whole?” the interviews and conversations that they conduct in the city will be made manifest into an exhibition and free newspaper.
White Flag Projects
May 4–June 10, 2013
In typical White Flag fashion, the curatorial conceit remains a mystery, but I’m listing this for Peter Hujar’s photo of Susan Sontag alone.
Donald Judd: The Colored Works
Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
May 10, 2013–January 4, 2014
Former Chinati Foundation director Marianne Stockebrand curates the first show focused exclusively on Donald Judd’s works in color. Everything in the show was made late in his career between 1984–1992. Modern Art Notes’ Tyler Green will speak with Stockebrand on the occasion of the show at the Pulitzer on May 11. Not to be missed.
Hiraki Sawa: Migration
Saint Louis Art Museum
May 3–September 8, 2013
Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa presents a new animation in the latest in SLAM’s ongoing New Media Series curated by Tricia Paik.
East Building Expansion
Technically opening on June 29, this long-awaited expansion gives the museum’s substantial collection of modern and contemporary art room to breathe. The inaugural hang will feature much of its strong postwar holdings of works by Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, and others, as well as an art historical overview of work by the Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, and more contemporary artists such as Kiki Smith and Julie Mehretu. The expansion also marks the premiere of Stone Sea, a new site-specific commission by Andy Goldsworthy.
Bad at Sports
April 24–May 5, 2013
Kerry James Marshall
May 24–July 7, 2013
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
In a stunning turn of events, CAM has an exhibition by Bad at Sports up right now. Duncan and Richard recap their road trip to STL here, and interviews with many of the curators and organizers behind these very shows will be released soon. CAM’s summer season opens with solo shows by Lari Pittman, Mika Taanila, and Kerry James Marshall on May 24.