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?
This week: A PULITZER PRIZE WINNER! Holy crap. San Francisco once again brings it with an amazing guest, Holland Cotter.
Holland Cotter has been a staff art critic at The New York Times since 1998. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, for coverage that included articles on art in China.
Between 1992 and 1997 he was a regular freelance writer for the paper. During the 1980s he was a contributing editor at Art in America and an editorial associate at Art News. In the 1970s, he co-edited New York Arts Journal, a tabloid-format quarterly magazine publishing fiction, poetry, and criticism.
Art in New York City has been his regular weekly beat, which he has taken to include all five boroughs and most of the city’s art and culture museums. His subjects range from Italian Renaissance painting to street-based communal work by artist collectives.
For the Times, he has written widely about “non-western” art and culture. In the 1990s, he introduced readers to a broad range of Asian contemporary art as the first wave of new art from China was building and breaking. He helped bring contemporary art from India to the attention of a western audience.
Born in Connecticut in 1947, and raised in Boston, Cotter received an A.B. from Harvard College, where he studied poetry with Robert Lowell and was an editor of the Harvard Advocate. He later received an M.A. from the City University of New York in American modernism, and an M. Phil in early Indian Buddhist art from Columbia University, where he studied Sanskrit and taught Indian and Islamic art.
He has served on the board of directors of the International Association of Art Critics. He is under contract with Alfred A. Knopf for a book on New York City modernism. He is also working on a study of contemporary Indian art, and on a poetry manuscript.
I came across an article by Martin Patrick, Restlessness and Reception: Transforming Art Criticism in the Age of the Blogosphere, that discusses at length the role of art criticism today and — unlike most pieces I read about the state of the world — ends on a seemingly hopeful note. It thought I could post something about it here because I find I’m often thinking about the web-context and what it means as a medium. I don’t especially feel like I have a handle on how best to exercise its talents, but I like chewing on the idea periodically, no doubt in hope of some Eureka! moment. “The web becomes a tool for ‘housing’ certain materials, indeed a virtual archive, or in Andre Malraux’s famous phrase a ‘museum without walls’ but then it is more important to ask how can newer arrangements, actions, conversations be created on the basis of these contextual settings” (Patrick).
I’ve seen a dramatic shift in Chicago’s critical dialogue. When I first moved here about seven years ago all anyone could talk about was the death of the New Art Examiner. Its demise added salt to the already throbbing (and ever hysterical) wound of Chicago’s second city syndrome. The Midwestern art market was not even capable of supporting a magazine that represented its interests and the rest of the country was disinterested in the activities of its midriff. While I’m likely misremembering the past (again, I’d just come to Chicago and did not yet understand its nuances), it seemed like that pang of insecurity propelled a number of other projects forward, as they insisted on creating modes of dissemination and representation. When I came here NAE had been out of commission for two years and its lament was continuous for the following four. Now, there’s an amazing vitality located largely on-line with artslant, art21, BadatSports (though I suppose B@S would resist the art criticism label standing somewhere between Vice and Cabinate) and many others. The mechanics of this phenomena are reflected in Patrick’s piece, as he points to the once-professional potential of The Critic (even in so far as it possesses archetypal potential); now much of the critical dialogue is activated and sustained by amateurs. Even those who are paid rarely expect a living wage and at best peddle together a variety of wages. “The blog—apart from the vast amount underwritten directly by corporate sponsorship—is most often an amateur/volunteer’s virtual space involving a greater probability of being generated and launched quickly, randomly, even haphazardly, and with more chance of rapidly ensuing back-and-forth discussions, responses, dialogue than a traditionally formatted journal, magazine or newspaper can generally allow.” That’s not to say the article is all positive.
This model of free labor is quite attractive to corporations. Additionally there some very real suggestions that the bite has been taken out of critical remarks (for instance, Mad Men’s ironic appropriation of the past that nevertheless collapses into a complicit reprise of old hierarchies, or how response to the Yes Mens’ NYTimes prank neutered the fake newspaper’s very serious critique message.) These aspects are also endemic to an Internet age, where we can constantly rewrite history. Then of course there’s the Internet’s shady origin story: “The origins of the Internet itself derive from the American attempt to establish a communications system in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack under the aegis of the the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) a wing of the Department of Defense, or ARPAnet[work]” (Patrick). Additionally the web facilitates a kind of sloppiness. (At this time I would like to retroactively apologize for my typos. If you want to be my editor without pay, give me a holler). But beyond slights of hand, on-line appropriation is fast, constant and cheap — it’s so easy, for instance, that images, text and ideas are borrowed, spliced, reiterated, misrepresented and so on and so forth. While on the one hand the frontier-like openness of this space, a space not yet settled and defined, is exciting; it lacks a codified rigor. It is still experimental and malleable and capable of much more. The question then remains: How to exhaust its potential as a response vehicle for cultural production? How do we embrace its shortcomings with its strengths? And does it truly challenge canonical ideas of art historicism?
“The internet offers a seemingly open public space that is simultaneously private, solipsistic, restricted. Within this reconfigured environment the digital archive acts as a kind of indirect critical mechanism and virtual repertory house for essential material to be potentially drawn upon by interested parties. That is to say, the accessibility lent to previously arcane and unusual avant-gardist phenomena goes a long way towards setting a tone for the integration of the wildly eccentric and experimental practices that are too long overlooked rather than solely the widely accepted canonical material which is in turn overexposed and despite its merits altogether lifeless. Thus the existence of new sites such as Kenneth Goldsmiths’ www.ubu.com facilitates the permissive and promiscuous notion of having experimental strands of poetry, prose, music, film and visual culture inhabit a treasure hunt/database ready to scavenged and relived via the use of mp3 files, YouTube-style streaming video, text files and so on means that Hollis Frampton, Marcel Broodthaers, Luigi Russolo and many more are incrementally closer to becoming household names” (Patrick).
The American Folk Art Museum in New York has been in the news a lot lately–and sadly too; it looks like they’re closing. Faced with the pressure of massive debt, the AFM sold its flagship building on West 53rd Street to MOMA and shrank to its smaller, auxiliary 5,000 sq ft location in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects specifically for the collection and opened in December, 2001. At the time “it was widely hailed as a sign of hope, both for the museum and New York. Here was evidence the city could recover from the terrorist attack of a few months earlier: a shiny bronze structure smack in the heart of Midtown that would be the first major art museum to open in Manhattan since the Whitney Museum in 1966,” (NYT, August 24, 2011). Since then the AFAM seems to be a lightening rod for particularly relevant trouble. “For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicks’s ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud,” (NYT, August 19, 2011). Perhaps again, as an indicator of our socioeconomic environment, the AFAM was forced to default on its construction loans in 2009. Their projected income from ticket sales and donations alike exceeded the reality of their position. The museum defaulted on its debt and this past May, its board decided to sell the building to its neighboring institution, the MOMA. While the sale got the museum out of its immediate hole, they were unable to raise additional funds for operating costs. Now the question seems to be, how to dissolve the institution? Where will these objects go?
What happens when a museum with such a carefully and specifically curated collection sells/donates its collection? The work itself seems as much defined by its relationship to the institution as the institution is defined by its work. If, for instance, Henry Darger is repositioned within the Brooklyn Art Musuem’s repertoire, and should they exhibit his work in conjunction with contemporary works does that change the way we view Darger? Does he start to emerge from the margins of “Outsider Art” into a space with different categorical potential (and therefore influence)? Obviously and for various reasons, Darger would never (nor should he) hold the status of a Pollack, for instance, but would his position and relation in our history-of-art-timeline change depending on his status within a specific collection? Would the same apply for the quilts in AFAM’s collection–how would these objects be integrated in other exhibits? Were everything to end up in a National History Museum, would we forget to think of these objects as art objects, considering them first and foremost practical artifacts endemic to a new country developing a cultural vocabulary? The historical implications/academic associations created by an institution’s curatorial hand suddenly becomes apparent to me.
As AFAM collected and exhibited this particular body of work it sought to define the significance of its collection, simultaneously reinforcing the significance of its own institutional contribution. Suddenly the work of curators shows its essential contribution to discussions around art. (While an obvious point, well curated experiences are often so seamless, that I take their curatorial authority for granted. I hardly notice it, focusing instead on the narrative it propagates.)
That said, and appealing to the internet ether (sometimes I feel I’m sending messages to outerspace) I don’t want the AFAM to close. Obviously I’m not in a position to fully comprehend the circumstances or needs of this institution as it goes through what must be a devastating time, but here are two postcards to metaspace:
Dear American Folk Art Museum, While we never shared the same state, your presence has helped me develop over the years, pressed me to follow paths of my own work and insight that I might have otherwise diminished and dismissed. Thank you so much. Yours truly.
Please don’t tear down the AFAM building. It would be such a waste! Perhaps instead you could incorporate its structure into your own and bring a new life to the building’s history. We must all protect one another, somehow. Yours truly.