Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Plutocrats on Parade

Mary Heilmann, Yellow Wave (left) and Dottie Digi (right), both 2007, from the 303 Gallery booth at the 2008 Armory Show.

After reading Roberta Smith's piece in the Times (with the accompanying photo of the Bellwether booth), I went to the Armory Show with very limited expectations. But I found an awful lot to like, and it got me back on to a subject that's been in my thoughts quite a bit lately: contemporary curation.

It's interesting to contrast the Armory Show (the biggest and oldest of the ten, count 'em, ten, fairs in New York last week) with the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Both present an encapsulated version of the state of contemporary art. Both shows tell a very different story, and the Armory's is a much more interesting tale, even with its more nonsensical moments. Meanwhile, the Biennial's grad school banality (that litter box piece, oh, god) was numbing.

From the Events page of the 2008 Biennial blog:

"Many of the projects included in the 2008 Biennial explore fluid communication structures and systems of exchange that index larger social, political, and economic contexts, often aiming to invert the more object-oriented operations of the art market. There is an evident trend toward creating work of an ephemeral, event-based character, in the form of music and other performance, movement workshops, radio broadcasts, publishing projects, community-based activities, film screenings, culinary gatherings, or lectures."

Yes, it does say "culinary gatherings" in that last line. In contrast to this highly considered thesis, the Armory Show essentially tumbles together based on the criteria of salability - to whatever extent it is curated, it is done so according to the taste, or perceived taste, of the very rich.

There is a great deal of talk about the "democratic" aspect of the fairs; the result of the absence of centralized curation. But if one wanted to compare it to a political system, one would have to call it a plutocracy given the target audience - a true democracy is when people of all economic strata get a vote. I'm a red (and I'm not talking about red states, either), and I find it very hard to say anything nice about capitalism and the wealthy, especially at this juncture in history. But the show curated for, and to an extent by the rich turned out a lot better than the show curated by the PhD's. How can this be?

Both shows cover a broad spectrum of activities, but there are some notable differences between the two. Apparently, the rich have no beef with art that looks good. It sounds like I'm being entirely glib here, but I'm not - the humble materials and/or amateur artist aesthetic looms large over the Biennial: Karen Kilimnik's thrift-store-esque paintings immediately come to mind, but there are many more examples in the show of a studied low-craft approach. The Armory Show, has many things that look like they were made by people who know their stuff, and unapologetically so.

There still seems to be a reflexively negative response to the professional artist - art that displays any level of finish and/or expertise is often written off as purely facile. There's some mild sneering about this in the Times review of the Armory Show: "An air of orderly professionalism pervades, outrageousness of any kind is rare." But at this point in history, isn't the shocking or ephemeral or crummy-looking every bit as orderly, professional, and expected as any other codified style or technique? And equally salable?

Another key difference in the Biennial and the Armory Show is the amount of painting involved. If one were to believe that the Biennial represented the full spectrum of artistic output at present, one would be forced to draw the conclusion that very few artists are painting. The Armory show flies in the face of that claim; painting was everywhere, and it was wildly varied. Many would say that painting finds a cozy home in the sales-driven fairs because it's so easily commodified. But all art, once embraced by the big institutions and magazines, becomes a commodity - the idea of making art that is truly resistant to reification is infinitely appealing, but ultimately a fantasy.

At the racetrack, year-in and year-out, with or without the aid of speed figures and detailed past performance data, the favorite comes home one-third of the time. What this means is that the crowd as a whole is a decent handicapper; it can pick winners at a rate of 33%. Not enough for a winning season, but highly respectable (a professional bettor can pick around 40%, and those claiming to be able to pick 50% are generally lying).

The art quality level of the consensus opinion of the plutocrats is nowhere near 33%, but in this instance it clearly surpasses the number of winners picked by the Biennial's aesthetes. As it turns out, the wealthy are, as a block, pretty good handicappers, but I guess I shouldn't be so surprised by this.