Citizenship, Meta-Practice, Values

Points of reference: Income inequality, empathy, artists, and capital

There’s something in the air…. Articles have been popping up about the intersection of the tech sector and extreme wealth, and status and the empathy gap, just as my artist friends in the Bay Area are reeling about news of galleries closing and venerable artists being evicted. To consider income inequality, class, and how artists got into the position we’re in in relation to the high-powered wealth-corrupted “art world,” I’ve been thinking specifically about capitalism.

Here are some points of reference, of which I’m still trying to make sense:


In New York, Bill de Blasio‘s NYC mayoral campaign.

This past weekend’s Creative Time Summit. I didn’t go, but will watch some of the videos, esp Rebecca Solnit’s keynote on gentrification in SF, and My Brooklyn’s mapping- and data-driven anti-gentrification efforts.

“Will Work for Inspiration,” David Byrne’s op-ed for Creative Time Reports, includes this bit on preserving NYC for all:

I don’t believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art. That’s bullshit. But I also don’t believe that the drop in crime means the city has to be more exclusively for those who have money. Increases in the quality of life should be for all, not just a few.


The title says it all: “Rich People Just Care Less” is an op-ed by psychologist Daniel Goleman posted in NY Times (October 6, 2013):

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. …

Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.

Over at the Greater Good Science Center, Jason Marsh posted “Why Inequality Is Bad for the One Percent” last year (September 25, 2012), and though it opens with then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, it’s furnishes more background to Goleman’s op-ed…

…in a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) were worse at reading other people’s emotions—a skill known as “empathic accuracy,” a basic part of empathy.

… inequality may be self-perpetuating: The lack of compassion the rich feel might make them less likely to out look for the less fortunate, thereby increasing the gap between rich and poor—and the worse this gap gets, the research suggests, the less inclined the rich may be to do anything about it.

… insularity is an enemy of empathy.


In trying to get a foothold in NYC as an artist, it’s nice to hear David Byrne acknowledge the difficulty:

As one gets a little older, those hardships [of surviving in NY in the 1970s] aren’t so romantic – they’re just hard. The trade-off begins to look like a real pain in the ass if one has been here for years and years and is barely eking out a living. The idea of making an ongoing creative life – whether as a writer, an artist, a filmmaker or a musician – is difficult unless one gets a foothold on the ladder, as I was lucky enough to do. I say “lucky” because I have no illusions that talent is enough; there are plenty of talented folks out there who never get the break they deserve.


Maria Popova recently posted “Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living” on Brain Pickings:

Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.

Jerry Saltz, who seems perpetually in a pickle about being an art world insider while trying to critique the art world’s narrow halls of power, did have this worthwhile critique to share, in “Saltz on the Trouble With Mega-Galleries” in NY Mag:

The artist is a brand, and the brand supersedes the art. The scale and pace of these places often turn artists into happy little factories with herds of busy assistants turning out reams of weak work. It’s the new Capitalist Realism.

Andrea Fraser’s “1% Art” came out last year in Adbusters, but only recently crossed my path. It’s really good, so I’ve quoted it at length:

A broad-based shift in art discourse may help precipitate a long overdue splitting off of the market-dominated subfield of galleries, auction houses, and art fairs. If a turn away from the art market means that public museums contract and ultra-wealthy collectors create their own privately controlled institutions, so be it. … It is time we began evaluating whether artworks fulfill, or fail to fulfill, political or critical claims at the level of their social and economic conditions. We must insist that what art works are economically determines what they mean socially and also artistically.

If we, as curators, critics, art historians and artists, withdraw our cultural capital from these markets, we have the potential to create a new art field where radical forms of autonomy can develop: not as secessionist “alternatives’ that exist only in the grandiose enactments and magical thinking of artists and theorists, but as fully institutionalized structures, which, with the “properly social magic of institutions,’ will be able to produce, reproduce and reward noncommercial values.”

Fraser’s post made me ask myself, “What am I doing?” If I resent how much Saltz bags on others for writing too much about the 1% art world and mega-galleries, when they and he should write about the 99%, shouldn’t I focus my efforts in the 99% as well? What does that mean for me as an artist, in relation to other artists and institutions? What does that mean for me as an art worker—an installer and assistant?

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books).

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books).

Finally, I read Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books) in an informal book club. The book was provocative, but I’ve really enjoyed exchanging ideas with bright artists, curators and art historians in our little self-organized book club. (You can participate in a virtual book club hosted on Temporary Art Review, thus far here and here.)

Our final meeting yesterday, ended with a fascinating discussion about how our future selves might look back on this contemporary moment in art history from a post-capitalist perspective. How will we historicize this Capitalist art? What will it be like to be distanced from such narrow conditions of production?

What if artists are at the center, not the power players that Davis spends so many chapters discussing? What if I went on a 1% Art World diet, ignoring the art stars, yacht parties, the market, celebrity gossip, and auction records, how much time would I have for thinking about materials and processes?

What might a post-capitalist art world look like? What kinds of structures and institutions will artists work within? How do I turn my attention towards those alternative futures now?


Saltz, NYC galleries, and spaces for dialogue

Jerry Saltz makes some interesting observations in “Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show” in NY Mag (3/31/13).

His main point is that

A great thing about galleries …  is that they’re social spaces….  places where one can commune with the group mind.

But due art fairs, mega-collectors, and skyrocketing rents in Chelsea, galleries are

playing a diminished role in the life of art.

The problem is

When so much art is sold online or at art fairs, it’s great for the lucky artists who make money, but it leaves out everyone else who isn’t already a brand. This art exists only as commerce, not as conversation or discourse.

….Many artists are now in “abundant production,” seducing collectors on the prowl for stuff to fill their oversize atriums.

Baffinglingly, Saltz goes on to make these statements about NYC-centrism:

Art doesn’t have to be shown in New York to be validated. That requirement is long gone. Fine. But… a good Los Angeles dealer chided me for not going to art fairs, not seeing art in L.A. and London, and not keeping track of the activity online. He said I “risked being out of touch with the art world,” and he was right….

I brooded for months over this. Then … I started thinking about “the art world.” Something clicked and brightened my mood. There is no “the” art world anymore. There have always been many art worlds, overlapping, ebbing around and through one another. 

This last realization seems a bit belated. Artists outside of NYC have had to cultivate their own art worlds for ages, not because of the recent overabundance of fairs, but because of long-standing NYC-centrism. NYC is home to major publications and art commerce, yet artists outside of NYC have found ways to persist—regardless of the facts that NYC critics focus on NYC shows (ahem!), and art fairs diminish Chelsea galleries’ audiences.

And, paradoxically, it seems as if Saltz is using the de-centralization of the art world to justify his own NYC-centrism. No one critic could see all the art in these different art worlds, but could certainly try harder to get out of his own city—and borough—more often.

He ends on an upbeat note:

When I go to galleries, I now mainly see artists and a handful of committed diligent critics, collectors, curators, and the like. In this quiet environment, it may be possible for us to take back the conversation. Or at least have conversations. While the ultrarich will do their deals from 40,000 feet, we who are down at ground level will be engaging with the actual art—maybe not in Chelsea, where the rents are getting too high, but somewhere. That’s fine with me.

That Saltz has been able to seek out dialogues in commercial galleries seems like a fluke, in my book. Most Chelsea galleries feel too-cool-for-school to strike up conversations.

Those spaces where dialogues happen, where art by artists’ artists is shown, are non-profit, alternative, and artist-run spaces. NYC has its share, but nothing like the vibrancy of SF Bay Area’s community, in my opinion.

I also sense that many NYC alternative spaces show a higher proportion of artists with commercial gallery representation (artists further along in the “emerging” spectrum) than those without. It would be fantastic to take a survey comparing the proportion of represented artists shown at Artist’s Space, White Columns, Sculpture Center, Socrates Sculpture Park, Smack Mellon, Momenta Art, Art in General, Apex Art and Flux Factory against those at Southern Exposure, Intersection for the Arts, The Luggage Store, The Lab, SF Camerawork, Pro Arts, and San Jose ICA. It would beg the question of what alternative art organizations are for, who they serve, what kind of dialogues they  create, and with whom.

What if more commercial galleries fold in NYC, but an equal number of new non-profit and alternative spaces sprung up in their wake? What if they focused on truly emerging artists—not trying to compete with commercial spaces, but were real, imaginative, risk-taking alternatives? What if big-time critics visited and wrote about alternative spaces more often, not just when they mount shows by established artists or shut their doors? What if, essentially, NYC can learn a thing or two from other cities like San Francisco?


Via ArtInfo: 10 Pieces of Advice for Artists From Jerry Saltz’s Keynote Speech at Expo Chicago

Stay the course, fellow artists. Some words of wisdom from NY Mag art critic Jerry Saltz, via ArtInfo:

1. Go to an art school that doesn’t cost too much. Those who go to Yale and Columbia might get a nine-month career bump right after graduation, but you’ll all be back on the same level in a year, and you won’t be in as much debt.

2. Envy will eat you alive.

3. Stay up late with each other after all the professors go to sleep. Support one another.

4. You can’t think your way through an art problem. As John Cage said, “Work comes from work.”

5. Follow your obsessions. If you love the Cubs that much, maybe they need to be in your work.

6. Don’t take other people’s ideas of skill. Do brain surgery with an axe.

7. Don’t define success by money, but by time.

8. Do not let rejection define you.

9. Don’t worry about getting enough sleep. Worry about your work.

10. Be delusional. It’s okay to tell yourself you’re a genius sometimes.


read: fine sentences

If I were a purveyor of fine sentences I would stock gems such as these.

In his post comparing jury duty to conceptual art, art critic Glen Helfand wrote on SFMOMA’s Open Space (“Justice Redux,” June 22, 2011):

Here’s my account of the case to which I was assigned: Ms. E drank something troubling, a crystal clear bottle of water with its Harrah’s label intact. It may have been standard transparent plastic, but was corrosive all the way down. She described burning up inside, but not as dramatically as her lawyer, who also relished, in words and sometimes pictures, the horrors of esophageal surgery….

What might be the real costs of a Drano cocktail, in PTSD dollars? It was as if there was a short circuit in my thinking patterns—all of a sudden, this was capital R real. Unlike forming a critical position on the Gertrude Stein exhibitions, our decision would have some measurable impact on someone’s life.

Lots of pleasing word-smithing here. The double duty of “capital”—both financial and figurative—is nice. Plus it’s nice to take the enterprise of criticism down a notch sometimes.

Though critics do articulate fine ideas too:

the seemingly infinite archive of world events produced by photography conflates surface appearance with psychological depth, iconicity with memory, publicity with history….

Eva Díaz paraphrasing critic Siegfried Kracauer in a review of Drawn from Photography at the Drawing Center, NYC (Artforum, Summer 2011). Díaz goes on:

Artists… hand-copy photographs and photo-based media, thereby lengthening the duration of the image’s production and, for the viewer, transforming perception by fastidiously rendering what once presented itself with glossy immediacy.

Also in Artforum, Catherine Wood previewed the Manchester International Festival and this summer’s iteration sounds equally high-brow and low-brow—and totally fun. Adding the MIF to my bucket list.

One more Artforum goodie*: Graham Bader considers Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes paintings. In doing so, he quotes David Joselit, who characterizes painting’s “reification trap” thusly:

maximum prestige with maximum convenience of display

which means, as Bader writes,

[painting] is inevitably and intimately linked to the commodity.

The Brushstroke paintings are Ben-Day dot paintings depicting painterly strokes. Very cheeky. They are funny and interesting because they’re quotations, and I can’t help but think about Jerry Saltz’ recent rant against tired postmodernism:

The beautiful, cerebral, ultimately content-free creations of art’s well-schooled young lions…

…many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.

in his reaction to the Venice Biennale on Artnet. (Though he did like some things, including an installation by Argentinian Adrián Villar Rojas, who made a massive beached whale for Moby Dick at the Wattis in 2009. Congrats to AVR, and to his collaborator Alán Legal!)

The June 27th issue of the New Yorker is a good reminder of why I’m a subscriber. Rebecca Mead’s profile of Alice Walton, the Walmart heir opening a major museum in Arkansas, is quintessentially New Yorker. It’s about an individual of influence, yes, but the story is far from the stuffy Upper East Side. That I’ve yet to hear about this museum via typical art channels makes it even more intriguing. I’m also looking forward to reading Adam Gopnik’s essay on drawing. But in the meantime, Ian Frazier’s Talk of the Town contribution counterposes events in Harlem: a mostly-POC poetry reading and a mostly-white Socialist film screening. The description of the latter setting will ring a bell among radical buddies in Berkeley:

At a counter by the entry, racks of densely printed leaflets, the left’s traditional accessories, sat near new paperback editions of books by Leon Trotsky….

“O.K., everybody, can we all sit down…?” The last words were pronounced in the hopeful, rising tone that might be called the Leftist Exhortative….

The watchers in Freedom Hall roused themselves for a lusty booing and hissing of Dick Cheney when he came briefly into the frame….

…even the familiar pleasure of hating horrible things didn’t seem to buoy the Freedom Hall crowd. In the flickering dark, a palpable gloom.

Having been to a few gatherings like this myself, I found Gopnik’s humor winsome. The activists’ pessimism in the final couplet is too close for comfort. I suppose whatever inspired me to make the Activist Complaints drawings in 2007 still resonates with me.

*This issue of Artforum is called “Acting Out: The Ab-Ex Effect.” Talk about tired of Ab-Ex.

Artists, Community, Research

College Art Association: artists, ideas, inspiration

[Apologies for the duration since the last post. I’ve been busy working towards an exhibition—Portraiture: Inside Out, opening at the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University in New Jersey on March 3rd. I’ve also been preparing for a stint as a contributor to SFMOMA’s Open Space blog from March through June.]


The College Art Association (CAA) 2011 Annual Conference is in New York this week, so I took some time out to attend. I first heard of the conference from classmates seeking academic jobs, but it turns out that the conference has a lot to offer non-job-seekers as well.

My personal highlights are:

During the “Data As Medium” panel, Brian Evans (University of Alabama) talked about cognitive linguistics (someone’s been reading Lakoff/Johnson!) and found similarities between Kandinsky’s point-line-plane schema with databases’ variable-array-table. He also drew parallels between the hierarchy of information (noise-data-info-knowledge) and the experiential spectrum (reality-sensation-perception-cognition). I was fascinated.

Penelope Umbrico, Img Collection #6: Universal Remotes, (for sale on the Internet)

Penelope Umbrico, Img Collection #6: Universal Remotes, (for sale on the Internet). Source:

Penelope Umbrico, For Sale/TVs From Craigslist

Penelope Umbrico, For Sale/TVs From Craigslist. Source:

I adored the artist’s lecture by Penelope Umbrico (Bard College and School of Visual Art). She uses mundane sources like Flickr and Craig’s List to find images of mundane things, like sunsets and armoires. What made her talk especially engaging and funny is the way she structured her narrative to follow her thought process. First came the sunsets, then armoires followed, then televisions. Then photos of people in front of her installations of photos of sunsets at museums, such as the nice installation at SFMOMA’s 75th Anniversary collection show. The worm eats itself.

Curiously, Umbrico cited numerous authors already on my list of to-reads:
Walker Percy, a 20th century fiction and non-fiction writer interested in cognitive science; Vilém Flusser, a Czech philosopher whose writings are oft cited by artists; and Milan Kundera, Czech author of books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The discussion was especially provocative after reading “The Postmedia Perspective,” a recent article by Domenico Quaranta on (brought to my attention by the astute and curious ET). Quaranta, summing up Peter Weibel, says:

postmedia art is the art that comes after the affirmation of the media; and given that the impact of the media is universal and computers can now simulate all other media, all contemporary art is postmedia.

Or in Weibel’s words:

This media experience has become the norm for all aesthetic experience. Hence in art there is no longer anything beyond the media. No-one can escape from the media. There is no longer any painting outside and beyond the media experience. There is no longer any sculpture outside and beyond the media experience. There is no longer any photography outside and beyond the media experience.

I also attended “Making a Living With or Without a Gallery,” in which the panelists could offer little beyond common sense career advice (dealers aren’t parents {or peyh-rints, in the New York idiom}; getting a gallery is not an end; artists should make their own scene). Thus my highlight was running into art critic Jerry Saltz. I think his writing is accessible, smart and unpretentious. Indeed, I’ve heard people say that the New York Magazine and Work of Art critic is–aided by social media–populist to a fault, but I think in the art world, where playing nice-nice for self-advancement seems like the rule, I find his willingness to say what he really thinks, to engage mass audiences, and to be uninhibitedly enthusiastic at times to be refreshing.

A panel on residencies hosted by the Alliance of Artists Communities exposed me to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. It sounds like a great residency if you can commit to seven (winter) months in New England.

I did not manage to formulate my comment into a question during the Q&A session, but I wanted to say that after all the hours (and fees) I’ve spent applying to residencies (14 applications to residencies, fellowships and studio programs in the past 12 months), I have come to appreciate specificity. I am grateful to those organizations that state what kind of artists should apply, and frustrated by organizations who cast very wide nets, even if the artists they have awarded in the past fit a specific profile—perhaps they are international or established, or comfortably 2-D or 3-D work.

Even if application fees merely offset the costs of the program, and organizations want to attract the largest pool of entries in order to secure the best applications since you never know what the jurors will go for, it seems like being specific about which artists should apply would behoove the jurors and applicants. While I wouldn’t want any artist to lose out on opportunities, let’s be realistic about the odds of success and the wasted efforts of hundreds of applicants.

For example:

The A.I.R. Gallery’s 2011 Fellowship program received 250+ applications for six fellows.
//////////////////////////////////////////////////     or 1:41

Smack Mellon’s 2011 Artist Studio Program received 600+ applications for six studios.
//////////////////////////////////////////////////     or 1:100, or 1%

The Public Art Fund’s In the Public Realm new work commission program received 400+ applications for a 10-person shortlist, for up to three commissions.
//////////////////////////////////////////////////     or 1:133, or 0.7%

The Lower East Side Printshop Special Editions Residency Program received a whopping 600+ applications for four awardees.
//////////////////////////////////////////////////     or 1:150, or 0.6%

[See more art competition odds.]

I don’t intend to discourage artists from applying (quitters never win!), and I do not mean to imply that these programs don’t warrant their desirability and high level of competition. What I’m trying to say is: Don’t say your program supports emerging artists if rarely awards them in actuality. Save us the time, effort, and dashed hopes. There are certainly easier ways of generating income and finding great artists. The Jerome Foundation is very clear about who and what it funds, and I think it’s a great model.

Unsurprisingly, my favorite panel featured major artists talking about life as artists. Parallel Practices featured Petah Coyne, Philip Taafe, Vija Celmins, Robert Gober, and Janine Antoni. That’s a mind-blowing group of artists. Initially, they responded to the question of what they do when they’re not making art: gardening (Celmins), travelling or walking to observe (Coyne & Taafe), nothing (Taafe), purposively driving cross-country to stop in post-Katrina New Orleans and Laramie, WY (Gober), and seeking to release the unconscious through dance (Antoni; she demonstrated an amazing five-part sequence of movements inspired by Jungian unconscious. To boot, she also mentioned flow, the concept by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, one of my favorite authors at the moment. Of flow, Antoni said, “I live my life for it,” and I think many artists would agree.)

But the Q&A session made me realize that this discussion was not just good because these were great artists, but because the talk focused on two fundamentals of being an artist:
1. Creativity—where it comes from, and how to find it when it’s gone; and
2. Resolving life of an artist, which can feel like an anomaly in conflict with the status quo.

I think hearing these artists speak about such fundamental and personal matters provided a sense of wholeness; implied was the vision of the integrated self, in which being an artist did not conflict with being a committed partner, parent, worker, or invested citizen. While these artists are arguably among the most important living artists of our times (I’m in agreement with Gober, who said such of Celmins), and their realities are much different from the mass at CAA (few know the pain of a bad Venice Biennale show, but most can relate to bad reviews), there was a sense that common conditions to being an artist, like finding balance in art and love, can be resolved. It was hope-inspiring.

At the International Association of Art Critic’s panel, “Artist-Critic: The Critic-Artist,” my negative emotions narrowed in on one critic—I didn’t catch his name because I couldn’t see who was who—but he caught my attention with glib, disparaging statements like,

“I don’t find contemporary art that engrossing.”

“Forty years ago, poets and painters all went to the same events,” (as if there were ever only one scene, or one scene that mattered) “and that’s not so today, so I think that’s why there are no poet-critics.” (What about Kevin Killian and a lively, arty lit scene in San Francisco?)

With the rise of blogs, “there’s rampant amateurism” that the panelists stood against, and deservedly so, because “If you were going to get your car fixed, you wouldn’t take it to a repair shop that’s just been open six months. Likewise, we’ve been looking at art for thirty or forty years, and that experience sets us apart.” (What a bad analogy. I would totally trust a newly certified mechanic with basic repairs. The inexperienced would never become experienced otherwise. Plus, while excellence may be aided by experience, it is not exclusive to the experienced.)

Ironically, someone else on the panel told a joke about critic’s kingmaker complex, for which this self-important critic seemed to be a case study.

Mel Chin, Safehouse

A safe house in New Orleans that will store the hand-drawn “Fundred” dollar bills before they are brought by armored truck to Congress. Source:

Mel Chin is my new favorite artist. His interview by Miranda Lash of the New Orleans Museum of Art revealed a thoughtful, intelligent, politically-engaged, humble and personable artist. Besides the utter charm of a Southern-accented Chinese American contemporary artist (seriously!), he talked with sensitivity and generosity about his projects, which could be considered social practice or political art, yet seems to come from such a place of intellectual clarity and moral certainty, it seems free of the politically-correct baggage. It is not aesthetic theory that lends these projects value. They are compelling because they act in the world with efficacy.

In Chin’s view, “Art is a catalytic structure that forms the possibility of options.”

Watch a PBS Art 21 video of Mel Chin discussing Revival Field, a scientific experiment to show how plants can remove toxins from soil. Chin’s animation explains the project in greater detail.

I am also a huge fan of the Fundred project, a participatory movement to lobby Congress to clean up the lead-contaminated soil in a New Orleans neighborhood. Get involved and draw a Fundred!

Fundred is an art project envisioned by Chin and executed by children, adults, teachers, and all of us.

Between sessions I attended the California College of the Arts alumni reception. It was really great to see former instructors, catch up with alumni, and connect with other artists new to New York. Being surrounded by bright, thoughtful artists and art workers is still one of my favorite activities.

Meta-Practice, Research

Cultivating inefficiencies

As S. Barich pointed out to me, Jerry Saltz recently wrote:

“Like most people in the art world, I’m basically making this up as I go. The art world is about trying to invent new definitions of skill.” (Jerry Saltz, “Work of Art Season Premiere: Judge Jerry Saltz Recaps,”, June 10, 2010)

One of my skills, if I could call it that, is procurement. Even after all these years, I’m surprised at how much time and energy I spend sourcing materials.

Since I respond to the materials that I work with, I often can’t start a project until I have them in hand. Yet identifying and getting the right materials can take weeks. Beyond brushes, paint, paper, frames and the usual, Dick Blick and Aaron Bros aren’t much help. Besides, I’m too self-conscious a consumer; I know their target audiences are Sunday painters and scrapbook keepers. One must get creative.

As an artist, I’m constantly negotiating how to materialize my ideas. The frustrating thing is reaching limits persistently and pervasively — a recipe for pessimism, according to Martin E. P. Seligman in Learned Optimism.

For example, recently I envisioned producing a multiple: a circular, printed on newsprint in full color, of about 100 copies, at the size of a standard advertising insert, roughly 11×12 inches folded or 22×12 flat. This, it turns out, is not feasible. I’ve become a customer service nightmare, making ridiculous requests.

Digital printers don’t want to run newsprint (which is lightweight, only 16-18#s) in their machines; the lowest weight they’ll accept for double-sided full color jobs is 60-70#. Further, they’ll resist anything but standard sizes: 11×17, 13×19, 12.25×18.25. These sizes are efficiencies that work across multiple industries — paper mills, presses, reprographics — but not me, not now. What I need to use, like what I need to produce, are inefficiencies in the system.

Circulars are typically printed on offset web presses, the massive kind that fill warehouses. These presses take too long to set up to produce my piddly quantity. I could do it if I had to make like 5,000 copies, or had about $5k to spend.

Newspaper Club in the UK produces bespoke short-run newspapers. Too bad they don’t ship internationally. An article on Time reveals that Newspaper Club prints on large newspapers’ presses during their inactive times. I contacted some small, local papers to see if they’d bang out an odd job for me, and they courteously but firmly denied my request.

When I produced Sorted, a gilt badge, I contacted many vendors, who would only take on jobs with minimums of 200-250 pcs, way out of my budget. I finally found a vendor that specializes in badges for schools (such as “hall monitor”) that would make smaller quantities of custom badges at reasonable prices. So I took the same tack and looked up school newspaper printers. (I remember buying indie newspapers at Epicenter about home schooling; which couldn’t have had a large circulation.) But times sure have changed. It turns out the young whippersnappers today produce online school newspapers. Of course!

So maybe I have to do this myself. I could make a relief, intaglio or screen print. But that would mean four color separations and a week to produce the edition. The result would be Fine Art. Bummer. I’m just not interested in making a crispy-clean print to mat and frame for this project. I want to make a circular — a big, glossy, tacky, cheap, off-gassing circular. Viewers would handle it with bare hands. Gasp!

Now I’m thinking about freedom and familiarity, and how once again, even the most mundane materials are irrevocably tied with a feeling of constriction. That what I can imagine must be shoved through the machinations of capitalism and global manufacture, and it risks being extruded in unrecognizable form.

To make objects is to direct form-making. I don’t think twice about 8.5×11 inch Letter-sized sheets most days, but today, it seems oppressively inescapable.

The process of de-materialization is ongoing. I’m thinking more about making less. Returning to examples like Chu Yun and Jeremy Deller.

To be optimistic is to take a selective perspective. I’m refusing to let these vendors’ limitations become my own. This project will materialize with the right materials, or not at all. Time to get creative.


Why Not Blog About Art?

Do bloggers have the right to have opinions about art?

On March 28, as reported by Lisa Radon on on March 29, Richard Flood, chief curator at the New Museum, said

I just found out about blogs three months ago…

The internet is still a ghetto.

[Does Flood really only research artists in person or via 35 mm slide?]

Blogs … are not communicating with each other. They have no idea. History means nothing to them. Truth means nothing to them. They have no mechanism in place for checking [facts].

Flood then called out New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote a response entitled, “How the New Museum Might Stop Annoying People” in which he advised Flood

Don’t hate the Internet.

A few days before that, on March 23, James Foumberg posted “The State of the (Visual) Art” on New City:

…information tailored to a digital audience promotes emotionally reactive and flippant responses, and somehow seems unserious. This is not, traditionally, how critics like to proceed.

As the Internet is all about audience,… the voice of the critic fades. For some types of art, … it’s an unwelcome flood of amateurs, hobbyists and Sunday critics. …the need for expertise, and good writing, will resurface….

Foumberg’s remarks strike me as rather tired re-hash of the blogger-vs-journalist debate. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend following how critics traditionally “like to proceed.” For example, I once read two reviews by Clement Greenberg in a writing course. In the first, he slams a painting by Piet Mondrian. In the follow-up, he decided that he liked it—a lot. He also recanted his initial observation about the color (something along the lines of mistaking yellow for lavender). This demonstrates two ideas. First, just because Greenberg, the critic of critics, published his ideas in print, it doesn’t mean that he enjoyed what Flood holds so dearly, “a mechanism in place for checking [facts].” Second, the appeal of tradition for its own sake is conservative, and its place in contemporary art ought not be so sacrosanct.

It’s also interesting that Foumberg appropriates the term Sunday painter in the service of maligning recreational critics. I hardly think sanctioned art critics will gain sympathy from the artist-bloggers who Foumberg sees as infringing on their turf, because just as any yahoo can open a WordPress account and call themselves an art critic (myself included), so too can amateurs set up online portfolios and call themselves artists. While I also chafe at being lumped together with hobbyists — it disregards the years of education, work and sacrifice I’ve invested into my practice — I wouldn’t make the mistakes of blaming the Internet and finding fault in other people’s right to share their hobbies online.

On March 26, Bad at Sports contributor Claudine Ise posted “Hot (okay maybe only lukewarm at the moment) Topic Alert: the Crisis in Art Criticism” in response to Foumberg and more chatter on another blog post about art criticism. She helpfully points out that

…ALL writers need editors. …writing for a publication that actually employs an editor … has become a luxury that only the luckiest of us is afforded from time to time….

From their inception blogs have always been about commentary derived from a personal standpoint…. It’s not really fair to criticize art bloggers for their lack of objectivity, or for not holding to certain journalistic or critical standards.

I stand with Ise’s points here. Most bloggers aren’t purporting to be journalists or vying to usurp seasoned art critics from their dwindling numbers of staff positions.

Readers of art blogs are fairly intelligent. We’ve got critical faculties of our own. We read, dissect and disagree with opinionated blogs and critical publishing alike.



I think what’s incredible and incredibly maddening about the art world is its openness, its idiosyncrasy, its nebulous criteria. The lines between art, non-art, craft, kitsch, high art and low art, are all blurred—yet, people like what they like and defend their tastes. So be it.

I read art reviews to learn about exhibitions, but I’m always aware of critics’ subjectivity. In fact, my favorite critics, like Holland Cotter of the New York Times and Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, balance descriptive exposition with opinions and a discussion of praxis—helping viewers see how artists put theory into practice. The feeling I get is that they aren’t writing because they have a deadline to meet, but because they have something they want readers to know.

Some critics, though, are primarily descriptive, revealing their own position only implicitly. I thought this was the modus operandi of East Bay Express staff writer, DeWitt Cheng, so I was surprised to read a recent review:

The comedian/actor Will Rogers once dismissed communism as “one-third practice and two-thirds explanation.” One might similarly criticize a fair amount of contemporary art that is conceptual rather than visual in its orientation, thus requiring some explanation on behalf of viewers. The idea that priorities are askew is especially problematic when the verbiage seems unsupported by the artwork, or inflated.

DeWitt Cheng, “Tangible Modern Art,” East Bay Express, December 23, 2009

I think when critics articulate their positions, it’s fantastic. I’m for transparency in the art world. Having a position explains why critics review some exhibitions or venues and not others. It also suggests to readers and young artists who may not know any better (poor things!), that critics are not objective, do not speak for the art world as a whole, nor are they authorities whose opinions are exempt from questioning.

These institutional structures that we kneel and bow and defer to are not inviolate institutional structures…. They’re not entitled to exist without challenge…. So you have to put yourself in a position where you are capable of knocking them off the position they occupy, because we are not bound to defer to anything that exists. Everything is available for critique—and also displacement….

—From Kerry James Marshall lecture at SFAI (via podcast)

Furthermore, readers would be well advised to seek out multiple critics, including ones of different critical positions. In this case, critics whose interests in visual art extend beyond art with “visual orientations” could make the East Bay contemporary art print journalism more balanced. (Some places to start: Artopic, ArtPractical).

My position is well documented on this blog (the world’s most rambling critical statement?). Another way to sum up my boosterism of art that is not primarily visual in orientation might be articulated in Lee Johnson’s recent interview with Ryan Gander:

LJ: Has your artistic practice i.e. the aesthetic of your work, been effected in any way by the turbulent economy?

RG: Not really, in the beginning I worried about it, but it had no effect. I don’t think the type of collections that buy my work stop collecting, people don’t buy my work for investments, they buy it because they want to own it, share it with others, or take care of it. They are collecting and preserving art history in the making in some way. I guess it would have more effect on artists that make things that sit pretty in people’s homes. The things I make are a bit beyond that, very little of what I make looks good, the things I make are by-products of the idea, so the Collector has to fall in love with the idea, not the thing.

LJ: Your practice draws on multiple layers of fact and fiction, and you work in a variety of different media including photography, printed word, film, performance, intervention and sculpture. Is it vital for your life-force and inspiration that you mix things up in the way you do, and keep surprising people?

RG: Its the nature of art making, it is in fact the only way of making art. I don’t trust anyone who starts everyday knowing they will make ‘a photo’, or only ‘a painting’ to be an artist. Art has to precede craft otherwise it isn’t ‘art’, its ‘the arts’. I love painting, it makes me sincerely happy, but I can’t do it everyday! I am an artist and I have a job to do, and the process of painting doesn’t fit every idea and starting point (in fact very, very few – only really ones that talk about the history of painting itself). I see being a painter, or a photographer in contemporary art like masturbating a bit, just pleasing yourself, really selfishly, but sharing nothing.

“Lee Johnson talks to Ryan Gander at Frieze Art Fair 2009,” White Hot Magazine, November 2009.

Gander makes his position undeniably clear. It seems grounded in a belief shared by many conceptualists: that the art medium has to be appropriate to the idea; that to work in a visual medium because the artist is most interested in its visual orientation, without considering its appropriateness to the idea or content, is conventional and inexcusable, perhaps even willfully ignorant. I don’t include Gander’s comments to knock our dear, much-maligned painter friends and uni-disciplinarian artists, but to help explain that art of a visual orientation, too, is subject to criticism, and can fall short when you consider different criteria.

Finally, two other ideas to explore—to know one’s position as a critic might be to also recognize the limits of one’s subjectivity. I am a young writer, and writing intelligently about work I don’t like or understand is challenging. Further, to take a position as a critic is to identify the work you’d gravitate to, as well as that which would leave you unaffected. But the third kind of art—arguably, the reason we keep looking and writing—is that which surprises you, and challenges your assumptions.