Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spare Some Change?

It's hard to believe that's it's been a year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, whose bankruptcy filing on September 15, 2008 was the first domino to fall in the biggest Wall Street crash since 1929. It seemed like a fitting end to the deregulation mania of the Bush years, and it also seemed at the time like capitalism itself was drawing to a close. The art world looked on grimly, knowing that the stratospheric prices it commanded for nearly a decade were coming from the hedge fund cowboys who made zillions in exotic, unregulated investments.

But most of the artists I spoke to at the time, none of whom were Chelsea insiders, actually thought it was a good thing. A lot of ridiculous stuff was selling for mind-boggling prices, and it seemed like a shake-out couldn't be bad. Only the people who really cared about art and artists would still want to do this once the glamour has been tamped down by the rapidly disappearing Wall Street money.

The feeling that the dismal wreckage of supply-side economics would result in a change for the better was intensified by an event even more astonishing that the Lehman collapse: a black liberal was elected President! His posters promised change, and it seemed like the beginning of a whole new epoch.

When I read Jerry Saltz's review of the 2009 Venice Biennale, I could almost hear the paradigm shifting. It's not that what he said was so shocking - he addressed the same themes that many of the artists I know have been talking about for a long time - it's the fact that it was being said by an establishment critic in an establishment magazine that made it so surprising. It's worth quoting at length:

"[Curator Daniel] Birnbaum’s show, containing the work of 90-plus artists, doesn’t offend or go off the rails. Rather, it looks pretty much the way these sorts of big international group shows and cattle calls now look; it includes the artists that these sorts of shows now include. It’s full of the reflexive conceptualism that artists everywhere now produce because other artists everywhere produce it (and because curators curate it). Almost all of this art comments on art, institutions or modernism. Basically, curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are "about" something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color or strangeness.

Any critic who says this, of course, is accused of conservatism, of wishing for a return to painting. I’m not for or against video -- or any medium or style, for that matter. Nor am I wishing for a return to painting, which can never come back because it never went away. (That said, it’s hard to imagine anything more conservative today than an institutional critique. That sort of work is the establishment.) My beef is with the experience that "Making Worlds" produces. It’s just another esthetically familiar feedback cycle: impersonal, administratively adept, highly professionalized, formally generic, mildly gregarious, esthetically familiar, totally knowing, cookie-cutter. It is time we broke out of that enervated loop."

I want us to break out of that loop, too! But alas, look at the current landscape: The taxpayers bailed out the investment banks, paid the bankers their bonuses, and Treasury Secretary Geithner, himself a Wall street veteran, has put no new regulations in place. Exotic investments are once again being made with no oversight. And in the galleries, museums, and big group shows there is still the same monotonous drumbeat driven by the overarching mission of "critique" - the magic wand which has the power to transform the mundane into trenchant commentary. I'm starting to think the change might not be coming after all.

To be fair, maybe I'm being a little impatient. A friend pointed out to me that there are a lot of vested interests who are not going down without a fight. And these interests are not simply the people making money selling art, they are also the people who have PhD's and curatorial positions and university chairs; people whose entire careers revolve around the idea that the current era in art-making is not simply a passing phase or an in-between Mannerist period.

The fact that institutional critique is now completely institutionalized is an irony which I hope we can some day look back on and laugh. I just hope that day isn't too far away.