August 27, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by James Pepper Kelly
Imagine that a writer named Judith H. Dobrzynski boards a plane. She’s ambivalent about her recent op-ed for the New York Times, “High Culture Goes Hands-On,” in which she mourned the loss of a classic, passive museum experience. The response was decent (63 comments and a spot on the “most-emailed” list), and the negative response didn’t go much beyond baseless ad hominems (“crank,” “elitist”). But real-world impact? Judy sighs. She tries not to think about institutions these days, their obsequious rush to digitize, crowdsource, and create a “fun experience” for all. Instead, she thinks about real change: about her upcoming fellowship at the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, and how she helped influence the country’s new Holocaust restitution laws. Judy sinks back into her business class seat (being a Fellow has perks!), orders a tomato juice and relaxes, thinking of all the reading she’ll be able to catch up on in the air.
Imagine that a writer named James Durston is excited. He’s boarding the brand new Boeing 797 Dreamliner and is going to be live tweeting the experience from business class (dimming windows PLUS free booze!). He’s got way too much editing to do, but right now he’s feeling good about his latest op-ed for CNN Travel, “Why I hate museums.” Sure, only 400 comments (something like 10 times that many for the “fat tax” piece) but he did score official responses from the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Alliance of Museums. He makes a mental note to re-stir the pot with a follow-up in early December. James tosses his bag in the overhead and sits down, mentally composing a tweet about the woman beside him and WHY anyone drinks tomato juice on planes?? Still, he did use SeatID–they must have something in common. He’ll save the introduction for later when he runs out of content for his posts.
Imagine that now, today, both look back and still wonder what happened. They remember the start—the Eyjafjallajokull volcano waking up, their flight being grounded in Greenland, the nervous stewardesses plying them with drinks, and more, and more. The introductions, the argument, and then the gradual, dizzy belief that their two opinions needed to be reconciled. Had to be, in fact. What if this was the end of world? Reconciliation–for humanity, for the future. So they set about writing the op-ed of op-eds, tapping out the characters on James’s phone. Finally an op-ed truly for everyone. The Dobrzynski/Durston piece appeared on a brand new WordPress site, shocking the likes of Robert Connolly, Dana Allen-Griel, Dennis Kois, Ed Rodley, and all the other voices of studied moderation stuck further back in economy, sipping orange juice, thoughtfully biding their time. As Judith and James know, sometimes the world needs action. We should thank them for reminding us of that. Below is the full transcript of the Dobrzynski-Durston article.
The Greatest Proposal for hi-fiving high culture
The current institutional climate is unsustainable. And no fun. Most museums are in grave financial straits, mostly because there are better things to spend money on. It’s time for institutions to become the friendly, self-supporting, no-gift-shop entities they always should have been. The following is a list of proposals we urgently urge to be effected.
1. We’ve heard about museums, especially smaller, local ones, creating wonderful exhibitions on tight budgets. Maybe so. Those people sitting back in economy can really chew your ear off with examples. We both enjoy periodic visits to the provinces, and writing about them too, but let’s be honest—it needs to start in New York or Hong Kong. Trickle-down culture is real.
2. Institutions claim to generate 7 public dollars for every $1 invested. (Right. Where’d they get those numbers?) The people of Detroit did vote to raise their own taxes to support the DIA—it’s called millage, James—but that’s an exceptional case. Ann Arbor residents were forward-thinking enough to reject a new art tax. Bleeding heart art lovers need to be realistic: public funding = not the answer. Private funding = yes.
3. Museums do need to sell off work—that’s called deaccessioning (thanks, Judy). Some call up the auction houses and rush the work out the door on a stretcher. Others are models of ethical responsibility–the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example, lists all the work being sold on its site along with reasons for each sale. That’s good, but not good enough. They should show their reasons, not just tell us about them. Imagine if the DIA did something like: [pic of Diego Rivera mural] = [pic of 25 million open lunchboxes with PB&J, apple, milk]. #Prioritize.
4. Old vases are boring (especially ones from Iran, imo). They should be sold to established patrons of the arts and other old rich people. Who else cares about/truly appreciates them anyway? Same goes for anything more than 30 years old or that doesn’t inspire transcendence. If in doubt, just tweet us a pic.
5. In the spirit of compromise, museums should divide their days between different audiences. On Wednesdays through Saturdays they should distribute free popcorn and edamame, fill the gallery with animals from a local petting zoo, and encourage full interaction—touching, smelling, licking—with the entire collection. On Sundays through Tuesdays, the cicerones will make sure that no more than four people are in any one room at the same time, monitor how fast individuals walk, and confiscate any and all electronic devices. Individuals will be required to spend set minimum amounts of time contemplating each piece. If any individual fails to adhere to these measures, they will be required to write an essay explaining why.
6. Eliminate gift shops and cafes. They’re so bourgeois.
7. To generate revenue, offer paid chances to feed the animals and the option to limit the gallery to even less than the standard four people (on respective days, of course). Employ local actors who will alternate between impersonating art world authorities, historical figures, and general celebrities.
8. Reenact the creation and history of items throughout the week. It will be a little like Dante’s Inferno, each actor trapped in a different area, telling his story over and over again (Judy’s description, my idea). For example, one of the actors can be Leonardo da Vinci: put the Mona Lisa on an easel in front of him and have him paint and tell the sad story of Lisa over and over to the general audience. Add drama when appropriate, regardless of accuracy. Reach out to Hollywood and book publishers, offering to add their narratives to the “official” institutional version in exchange for sponsorship.
9. Fully integrate work on display with life by created rentable, themed rooms, e.g. The Birth Room, The Death Room, etc. True art lovers will be able to pass with their eyes locked on an original Georgia O’Keeffe, or to bring a new being into the world under Van Gogh’s sunflowers, or to make love under the Venus de Milo. Anyone attending that day will be able to watch. Both sides will pay—
Phone’s about to die, got to post now. Whatever happens, this is the truth. Follow me online!
Imagine that that this is how the op-ed ends. The volcano went back to sleep and the sky over the Atlantic cleared. Fifteen hours later the Boeing landed at Heathrow, the passengers half drunk and half hung-over, but otherwise unscathed. There, Judith H. Dobrzynski and James Durston seem to have parted ways, never to collaborate again. Judy went back to lucid commentary on the art world, James to commissioning and writing popular travel articles.
If the phone had been fully charged, how would the Dobrzynski-Durston op-ed have proceeded? What unfortunate circumstance might the expert commentators have leant themselves to next? Whether “real people” can or can’t actually afford to collect art? Would we be more prepared to address how an elderly Romanian woman destroyed several masterpieces in an effort to protect her son? How much change to give beggars outside famous institutions? The alleged difficulty Chicago’s south siders have had in visiting Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects, even as the art star is lauded for the project’s success at Art Basel?
What further op-ed wisdom could we have learned from? We can only imagine.
James Pepper Kelly likes words, images, and the plants in his apartment. He writes for ArtSlant and Bad at Sports, and he serves as Managing Director of Filter Photo. He is currently studying to be a pataphysicist. For a little while, back in the early ‘00s, he was really good at Ms. Pac-man.
I was reading about James Turrell’s epic series of museum shows in The New York Times recently and recalled a moment of my own recollection of his work.
It’s simple enough: I follow The Mattress Factory on Twitter. On November 26th, they tweeted an image of a room being painted.
I suppose because they mentioned that the lights were actually on, I assumed it referred to Turrell’s pitch black piece, Pleiades (1983). (It does not — as I was told later, but bear with me, I’ll account for that discrepancy in the end).
I understood it to be a picture of a James Turrell’s Pleiades (1983) installation getting repainted. The image drastically transformed my reaction to the installation. Indeed, I had such a profound reaction to the tiny, banal image, I pulled it off twitter, and put it on my desktop where it has been sitting ever since.
There is no reason that that image should be particularly captivating. It is a familiar enough: gallery walls must constantly be painted and repainted, and if it didn’t have anything to do with Turrell, it would hardly be of interest. However, appearing as it did within the context of social media (and all the misunderstandings tweets can lead to) that is exactly why it made my jaw drop: because this tiny image challenged everything I had assumed via sensory experience of Pleiades.
Pleiades, is the first of Turrell’s “dark pieces.” At The Mattress Factory, as I recall, you go up an elevator and on the designated floor, you go through a doorway, down a pitch black corridor and into a pitch black room. You stop a metal rail. I have visited this room about three or four times over the course of ten years. Each time that one room has baffled me.
I went there first as a Sophomore in college with a group of friends. One friend in particular was an upper classman and seemed to have a better handle on contemporary culture. As such we deferred to his authority; to do so was pleasant; he rattled on about various rumors (and possibly fictions) that seemed to walk a tightrope between gossip, mysticism and art history. As someone with very little contact to contemporary art at the time, I relied on the banter of my peers to overcome whatever sense of alienation I might carry into unfamiliar situations. Standing in a pitch black room for an indefinite period of seemed both provocative and confusing. If I thought about it too much I wouldn’t know what I was doing there. Still the narrative of the artist had me intrigued. Stories about Turrell’s alleged arrest for helping young men dodge the draft. His Quaker background. His life in California that yielded an interest in minimalism, light, and science. As I prepared myself to walk down this very dark corridor in the year 2000, I was told that at the end, in the pitch black (and if I waited long enough) I would begin to see light, like stars (I thought), or a halo. My friend suggested it was the result of a primordial and biological fear of nothingness.
Whatever his prescribed cause, this is what is supposed to happen:
“Pleiades, a work of darkness, utilizes the difference in function between the two types of photoreceptive cells, that is, cones and rods. The cones are suitable for discerning colors at light places. crowding toward the center of the retina. The rods serve to make out delicate shades in dark places, mostly gathering near the periphery of the retina. In the darkness designed by Turrell, the viewer experiences the difference between the two kinds of cells during the period of time when the eyes of adaptation to darkness takes place.”
According to another visitor, you are supposed to see this:
It never happened to me. I waited in the dark for that thing to take place for about thirty minutes. Or maybe it was an hour. It could have also been 10 minutes that were simply so distilled from movement that they slowed and lengthened my sense of time. As I waited, all of my attention strained toward an event that was supposed to take place within my body and end up projected outwards, as a type of vision. I waited to see a white eye-shape in the dark. I was excited at first, and then defeated, slightly. Nothing happened. I remembered looking at countless Magic Eye posters in dorm rooms; I could never make out the subliminal texts/images in those either, no matter how many times I had been instructed to fuzz out my vision with the image pressed up against my nose.
Subsequent visits to Pleiades were no different. No vision appeared before me in the dark. Because I no longer expected it, however, I had grown more interested in thinking about the darkness that space afforded. I suppose I still waited, in an almost existential way, for something to happen, but the sense of waiting became more interesting than the event I waited for. I realized that the whole project of Pleiades was existential — whether something emerged in the darkness or not. I began to appreciate the feeling of that darkness, the way it seemed to extend endlessly, the slight terror at its unknown breadth. I distinctly recall a very faint breeze which enhanced the dimension of the room, but that too could have been my imagination. I preferred to inhabit the space by myself, perhaps it seemed more noble that way. When strangers came and stood beside me, I was distracted by my attempts to anticipate their movements and, even, their physical shape. Remember, it’s impossible to see anything, even another form. It was more complicated to inhabit an Unknown when others, particularly people you don’t know, are trying to do the same. On several occasions, I accidentally stepped on a foot and had to apologize, breaking the spell of silence through my clumsy, miscalculated movement. The moment of contact, my foot on the strangers, the exclamation of paint — it established a common, temporal location in the room, overshadowing the otherwise relentless blankness everywhere else. I stepped back. Held my breath for a moment and settled again into my feet. The room would grow still once more and with it our sense of the darkness grew. At times it felt oppressive, at others benign, certainly it felt ambivalent towards me. It was larger, more constant and self-assured than I was. I sort of enjoyed being intimidated by it — because I began to develop a relationship with that room. I didn’t see any lights, but the darkness became “something.” I’ve ever experienced such spatial endlessness. And while I never saw those lights, there was some part of me that enjoyed the incongruity of my own experience; perhaps I felt I had a more “true” experience because it seemed more nihilistic to experience nothing.
You can imagine then, what shock that tiny jpeg. of boys painting a room would give me. It looks like they could be in a closet! I was so shocked at the thought that I had misunderstood the room, I instantly believed it to be true. The vague confirmation provided by the tweet-conversation I had with The Mattress Factory seemed to confirm my sense, which was so exuberant as to lack self-consciousness, that everything I assumed to be true about that dark room was wrong in so far as it could have existed in a tiny-tiny-tiny room. I realized that even though I did not see “the light” I was still projecting dimension and psychology into Turrell’s darkness. It was affecting me. I was affecting myself through the medium of darkness provided by Pleiades.
As I said, I since learned this is not Pleiades itself, but rather an image of the elevator landing on the Turrell floor of the Mattress Factory. While the true dimensionality of that room remains a mystery, I am all the more certain of the evocative uncertainty it yields.
Pleiades is a Dark Piece where the realm of night vision touches the realm of eyes-closed vision, where the space generated is substantially different than the physical confines and is not dependent upon it, where the seeing that comes from ‘out there’ merges with the seeing that comes from ‘in here,’ where the seeing develops over and through dark adaptation but continues beyond it. It is the first piece in a series of works. While it relates to the last piece of the Mendota Stoppages, 1969-70, in that it develops over time, it is definitely a departure in that after the seeing develops, it is no longer static. The thing that gave me the idea to do this was the fact that I needed to work with very low levels of light for the night seeing in the crater piece. The last time that I had really worked in that arena was with the Mendota Stoppages where I had some very dark pieces that took a long time of dark adaptation, sometimes as much as fifteen minutes. When you actually had that seeing, though, the space that was generated was a static space – you saw it and could walk in it, but it didn’t change. In this work, what is generated in you and what is actually out there become a little more equal. - James Turrell, The Mattress Factory
Chicago Artist Writers hosted a workshop with Lori Waxman at Gallery 400 on March 14, 2013. The following is an attempt to collect some of the many illuminating moments of her two-hour lecture and Q&A session.
“Today I’m going to talk about a lot of forms of art criticism that don’t actually exist — yet.”
Lori Waxman has her feet in two critical worlds. As a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, she takes on the role of a traditional art critic: she has a large audience, keeps her distance from the artist and organizers of the exhibitions she covers, and maintains an objective viewpoint. In contrast, her personal project 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic takes a more experimental approach. The public is invited to come with their work for a review written by Lori live, in person, with a secondary monitor displaying her writing process as it evolves. The project has been featured numerous times domestically and most recently at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany.
Lori posited that criticism has largely not changed much since its first appearance with Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1765, and the writing that we see in major outlets like the Tribune or Artforum holds the same basic values of that style to this day. This default approach to art criticism doesn’t reflect the drastic changes in art and technology’s influence on the contemporary conversation as much as it could.
She used Documenta as a case in point–-it embodied a sprawling, time-intensive experience for the viewer, and the critical responses to it suffered as their structuring was inadequate to cover the exhibition’s curatorial conceits. Critics who were only able to visit 3-5 days and print 1000 words were ill equipped to critique the event in its totality. “Who goes to NYC for a weekend, and tries to see everything, and if they can’t, it’s New York’s fault?” Lori asked. She used Dieter Roelstraete’s review of the Documenta in Artforum as one example; one of his main critiques was that it had too much going on. Similarly, Roberta Smith’s review in the New York Times was schizophrenic, unable to deal with the scope of the massive three-month undertaking. Lori suggested that despite the stubborn precedent of “objective distance” in traditional criticism, she herself might be the best critic of Documenta, having spent her entire summer there.
Platforms for alternatives to the traditional model exist in small handfuls but some are promising. Lori noted that online versions of specialty magazines like Artforum fail to leverage the malleability of the web and stick to the values and format of their print counterparts. Websites like hyperallergic, the former artnet.com, and temporaryartreview.com (which covers cities off the major art map) may increase turnaround time and coverage of lesser-known projects, but again resist transforming the dynamic of the critical approach itself. Triple Canopy is a capable platform, for not only its scholarship but, in the case of David’s Levine’s take on the dissolution of the Rothko estate, its willingness to embrace an insider’s view at the sacrifice of traditional objectivity. Art Fag City features critical writing but is bolstered most importantly by the active comments sections as a new center of gravity in critical writing. This very blog (the Bad at Sports blog) also embraces the more diaristic, personality-driven, multi-tangential style of critical reflection over objectively toned assessment. In the early 2000s, Lori contributed to Fucking Good Art, a feverishly produced zine spearheaded by Pedro Velez and Michael Bulka. Critics would go out to openings, type up reviews as soon as they were sober (or not), and photocopy and distribute the zine for free the next day. The reviews, sometimes nasty and anonymous, were the main way apartment spaces were getting critical feedback.
Lori wondered if models like Facebook and Twitter could be used seriously as venues for criticism instead of flippantly; these platforms have a multi-directionality that could support a more nimble and relevant conversation to artwork being produced. In addition, their immediacy has the potential to be paradigm shifting–what happens if something is written in front of/within the work? “Gonzo” reviews — long form, unedited stream of consciousness reviews — also have yet to be fully realized in art criticism.
Perhaps criticism that leans towards more relational and embodied writing is called for by today’s art practices. Lori suggested “embedded criticism” – a term borrowed from journalism, in which journalists are “embedded” with soldiers – as a term for art writing that celebrates, rather than discourages, the subjective experience in order to strike a critical observation. In her piece Practicing Trio A in the Spring 2012 issue of October, Julia Brian Wilson spoke about taking a class with Yvonne Rainer in which she learned how to perform Rainer’s seminal The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I (Trio A) from 1973, and how this direct involvement in the piece changed her mind about it. Hannah Higgins is well known as a scholar and writer about Fluxus in part because of her upbringing in a canonical Fluxus household; her embeddedness creates a unique opportunity for scholarship and complexity. Later, during the Q&A, an audience member suggested Kathy Acker as an additional example of someone who writes about artwork while having a close relationship to it.
Art writing authored from a fictional perspective or persona is another area ripe for exploration. Lynn Tillman has written fiction at the artist’s request (perhaps skewing its definition as “criticism,” but an example of a new form of art writing nonetheless). Her short story “Madame Realism Lies Here” from 2002 is composed from the perspective of a woman who dreams she has turned into a Jeff Koons sculpture, experiencing life in a weird and grotesque way that mimics Koons’ work. Tillman’s series TV Tales about Barbara Kruger from 1976 also is another example. As well, we can look to novelists: Gertrude Stein wrote in a “cubist” style, coming out of a deep experience with cubist painting. This kind of art writing acts as an analog to the work itself. Stein’s unique, unexpected way of using language sidesteps “International Art English” altogether: it doesn’t even require a dictionary. One can hold up a piece of hers in front of a painting and see how they work together. The Family Fang, a novel by Kevin Wilson, consists of a fictional narrative about a family of performance artists. Philadelphia artist Jayson Musson’s satirical comedy as Hennessy Youngman occasionally offers thoughtful and to the point responses to art, although Lori noted that Youngman can be surprisingly conservative – here she reminded us that a new form doesn’t necessarily mean a radical idea, as form and content are extricable. But an outside-the-art-world persona like Musson’s can make it easier to call the emperor naked. Another example brought up by the audience was artist Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, who produced a collection of erotic fiction about James Franco.
Lori stressed that to write about museums and commercial galleries is to write about art that has already been filtered and processed, versus writing about experimental spaces showing lesser-known artists who have yet to be critically acknowledged. When writing about the latter spaces, one should remember that criticism of ephemeral or emerging practices may be the only record that exists, and so one must be intentional as his or her writing will eventually become historical fact. “Some dogged art historian in 20 years will rely on these reviews, and they will quote [them]; and if you got it wrong and weird, they’re going to think that’s what happened.” For this reason, she also suggested inventing a way to respond to a work instead of writing something explicitly negative.
Television shows such as Work of Art and School of Saatchi, whether we like them or not, are emergent examples of new forms of art criticism. While only persisting for four episodes, BBC’s School of Saatchi featured six artists, asked them to make interesting commissions, and gave them a decent amount of time and money to do so. The show rendered the actual process of making contemporary art transparent, “and was surprisingly accessible and intelligent.” After the work is completed, a good fifteen minutes of each hour-long show is devoted to serious discussion of the artwork that is then communicated to the artists. The judges’ remarks are often off the cuff and funny, speaking with authority but sometimes contradicting one another. Their multiple voices created a critical environment similar to a class critique. Bravo’s Work of Art, in contrast, equated art with other subjects like cooking or getting married. Artists were given $100 and 24 hours to make a series of asinine projects. Notable, however, was the involvement of Jerry Saltz, the most recognizable critic in the U.S. Most of the criticism on the show was demeaning, puerile, dumb and one-liner; criticism was consistently of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Yet, Lori said, Work of Art nevertheless represents one of the ways that art is being thought about today by the general public—and perhaps even some parts of the art world; this show is part of the public’s access to the art world, and it is sadly misrepresentative.
Some of Lori’s more experimental ideas—stolen, she willingly admitted, from her students at SAIC—included gif criticism (what can a gif do that words can’t?) or criticism using image combinations (like on tumblr). During the Q&A, the audience pitched in: we suggested hyperlink criticism – a review composed entirely of links, in line with the ways we read, think and click; another participant proposed a review composed over Skype, where one person views the exhibition at home, one in the museum, highlighting the differences; or a (live/recorded) performance positioned as a review. Does criticism need to be site specific to the work – like the precedent of dances that directly respond to artwork?
If criticism can be art and vice versa, how can one be sure these forms don’t stray too close to art and too far from criticism? Where is that line placed and is it important? Lori pointed out that studio experience might be valuable for a critic, “and who thinks criticism is so objective anyway?” 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic attempts to take some of the agency that the art critic normally assumes away, and to see what happens when it’s given to the artist him or herself. The agency Lori gives up is the ability to choose who and what she writes about. But if this critical agency we assume is important is taken away from the critic, can something of substance still materialize? What happens if criticism is available for the asking? Is it still interesting, critical?
Another participant asked Lori about What Happened to Art Criticism, the 2003 panel discussion and book in which Jim Elkins and others complained that the majority of art criticism being written today is “descriptive.” Lori responded that she believes there’s no such thing as a truly factual description” of something. She pointed out that one can’t recreate a painting backwards from a description, no matter how detailed or “straightforward” it is. A good piece of description, she noted, can do “almost anything.” One can’t have criticism without description; and in shorter lengths, these combinations can be powerful — look at the New Yorker’s 100 word reviews of exhibitions in the Goings On section.
An audience member asked if art history helps or hurts art criticism. “If you love October, you should stay in art history and not try to be an art critic,” Lori responded. Most critics come from art, not art history, and there’s “plenty to make of that, in terms of experience and commitment.” She relayed the under-discussed fact that most of the notable art critics working today do not have art history degrees. Peter Schjeldahl started out as a poet; Saltz was a painter and truck driver; Robert Storr and Matthew Collings trained as painters.
How about artists criticizing their own artwork as an interesting new form of art criticism? Lori responded with an anecdote from her husband, the artist Michael Rakowitz, who had recently been part of a discussion in which the moderator complained afterward that the panel’s artists hadn’t talked more about their work’s problems. Her husband countered that he didn’t know of a professional artist who would do that, that it’s not their job: let the critics take issue, and the artists deal with the problems in their own way. One takeaway for us is that the space for self-criticism in between the artist statement and the art review is ripe for experimentation.
We left thinking about the burgeoning potency of crowd-sourced criticism. Mimicking the current form of value-production bolstered by the Internet, where value is dispersed into tallies, “aggregate,” rhizomatic or crowd-sourced criticism may be starting to replace the good old New York Times review. One audience member wondered if all types of feedback to an artwork could be located in a single place, including documentation, short and long reviews, responses on Twitter, Facebook, etc.? Although Google might seem good for this on its own, it isn’t organized: someone should take advantage of this opportunity for a new start-up.
We found this sentiment the driving force of Lori’s presentation–an implicit and collective call to action:
“Technology has changed and art has changed, and that should be radically impacting the kind of art criticism that we write, how it gets published, how it gets received and who we write it for, and how it gets commented on.”
Chicago Artist Writers is a platform that asks young studio artists and art workers to write traditional and experimental criticism that serves under-represented arts programming in Chicago. CAW was founded by Jason Lazarus and Sofia Leiby in 2012. This is our first guest post on Bad at Sports. www.chicagoartistwriters.com
Click here to download an mp3 of Lori’s lecture.
The following petition has been circulating response to dubious (at best) statemtents made by New York Times reporter Ken Johnson. As Blouin Art Info puts it “An anonymous petition expressing concern about recent New York Times reviews of women and African-American artists has hit a nerve, sparking a wave of support from some serious bold-faced names. Artists Glenn Ligon and Coco Fusco confirmed to ARTINFO this morning that they had signed the letter, while other (currently unconfirmed) signatories include artists Paul Ramirez Jonas, Janine Antoni,Louise Lawler, Julie Mehretu, Kara Walker, and Martha Rosler as well as art historians Rosalyn Deutsche, Miwon Kw0n, and Robert Storr. As of this writing, the petition bears 312 signatures and is growing by the minute.” I have included a portion of the petition below after which you can follow a link to read the entire thing and sign it as you wish. I signed it and was proud to do so. Johnson’s reviews are precisely the kinds of articles that encourage the further marginalization of race and gender. The lens and tone of media coverage — particularly when printed by such a prominent newspaper — affects all of us.
Dear New York Times:
At my house there is an unhealthy obsession with forgeries, all kinds of forgeries. I can trace this back to our interest in Han van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger. Although there had been much written about van Meegeren, it was in 2008 when two books came out and a long series of articles by Errol Morris appeared in The New York Times that our interest intensified. Concurrent with Morris’s story was a photo quiz where they’d show you an original Vermeer and a van Meegeren and ask you to pick the one you prefer, then an art historian told you why the Vermeer was better. (Sadly, I can’t find the link to this.) Without exception, I picked van Meegeren. This tells me a couple of things. First, I’d better brush up on my art history. Second, maybe I don’t really like Vermeer. Lastly, perhaps I have bad taste. But I still have this question, why are we so interested in forgeries?
Often books and articles about forgeries center on the idea of money, being ripped off, and the dollars lost. Simply put, money is just a signifier of value—a way to apply something tangible (money) to the intangibility of genius and beauty (art). The excellent book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, tells the story of Hardy Rodenstock and a case of “lost” bottles of wine that purportedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. He fooled everyone. Wine critics. Auction houses. Everyone. One of these “lost Jefferson bottles” sold for $156,000. Why was that? Because this specific wine was just thing to serve with Saturday night’s porterhouse? No, because the purchaser wanted to be close to something grander than himself. In this case Thomas Jefferson. He was filthy rich and wanted to own a piece of history. He wanted to open that bottle and consume Jefferson in a transubstantitive way. And who can blame him?
Back in episode 164 of Bad at Sports, Joanna McKenzie and I reviewed Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Israel was a well-respected biographer before booze and a series of bad decisions turned her into a forger of letters. While it was amusing to read about her escapades and how great she was at forging the words Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, I found it upsetting to discover that her forgeries had made it into academic studies and are cited in authoritative texts. At that point it no longer seemed funny, like she’d pulled one over on snotty memorabilia collectors, she’d pulled one over on researchers and those with an honest desire to know more. She pulled one over on us.
There have been quite a few dust-ups in the last decade when people got so upset at authors who were later discovered to have inflated their memoirs. Remember James Frey’s Million Little Pieces? Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors? Even more recently the This American Life retraction of Mike Daisey’s episode on Foxconn? These events spawned surprisingly smart public discussion on the nature of authenticity and the meaning of truth. Birthed from the whole imbroglio was a new word, “truthiness.” I mean we already had “verisimilitude,” but somehow truthiness was just so much more truthful.
There’s a line in Orson Welles’ film about art forger Elmyr de Hory, F is for Fake (1973), where de Hory says “if you hang them in a museum, in the collection, and they hang long enough, then they become real.” Once we move beyond the financial ramifications of fraud, who is hurt by a forged painting, a counterfeit bottle of wine, a couple fabricated letters, or a memoir made a little more exciting? Perhaps de Hory hit the nail on the head, that the fraudulent will eventually become real. Maybe what is so fascinating and so frightening is that a good forger is a good liar. A good forger can fool even the most educated people in their field. And if we can’t trust what we read, or what we drink, or what we see in the museum, then who can we trust?