What Chicago’s Art Scene Can Learn From Vampire Bats

May 6, 2013 · Print This Article

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.