Art & Development

Arts Initiatives, NYC to MCR to OAK

Check out Jerry Saltz’s “Glimpse Art’s Near Future at No Soul for Sale” (New York Magazine, June 24, 2009) to read about the X-Initiative,

a makeshift four-day art fair… an exercise in “radical hospitality,” inviting more than 30 respected not-for-profit centers, alternative institutions, artist collectives, and independent enterprises from New York, the U.S., and around the world to exhibit whatever they want…. The spaces are free.

I love this idea because (1) it’s an art fair with noncommercial intentions, and (2) it’s perfect timing for collaborations among artist-led arts groups. I imagine the X-Initiative to be experimental, grassroots and also (hopefully) challengingly conceptual.

Coincidentally, I just learned about Contemporary Art Manchester,

a new, not-for-profit consortium of visual arts organisations, comprising of established, high-profile partners, independent galleries, young artist-run projects and curatorial agencies … generating new forms of exchange…

Contemporary Arts Manchester Trade City postcard

Contemporary Arts Manchester Trade City postcard

CAM’s inaugural project will coincide with the Manchester International Festival:

Trade City [is] a dynamic international exhibition … Introducing a number of Manchester and UK premieres and stimulating new commissions from regional and international contemporary artists…. Each participating organisation has selected … the work of twenty-six emergent to established artists….

It’s a brilliant move to extend the International Festival’s commissioning of new work to local artist-run organizations and artists.

I appreciate these initiatives in grassroots exchange, collaboration and reciprocity. Just because the art market has crashed doesn’t mean that artists should retreat to the margins of society. Instead, these artists and art promoters are GOING FOR IT — inventing new platforms for dialogue and creating spaces and networks for mutual support.


And what of the Bay Area? Like Manchester, our region is rich in alternative art spaces, great schools and bright artists, and we’re overshadowed in commerce by larger markets elsewhere. What the Bay Area lacks in glamour, though, we make up for with collaborative, grassroots activity. I’d love to see something the scope — and edginess — of an X-Initiative or CAM here in Oakland.

I think it’s a matter of vision — not just what the community here aspires to, but how we see ourselves within an international context. Like the Paul Arden book goes, “It’s not how good you are, but how good you want to be.”

Artists cultivate our local and international communities. In contrast, though, our public agencies seem tightly restrictive.

For example, in 2005, a few dedicated individuals created the Bayennale, a Bay Area biennial. It was grassroots, inclusive and site-specific (using shipping containers as exhibit spaces). That the “biennial” was under-attended and hasn’t yet recurred seems besides the point. What sticks for me was that it was a chance for an emergent scene to see itself and its collaborative capacity, and that in addition to local art there was a strong international presence, including a mixed media kinetic installation by a Berliner, I think, the likes of I haven’t seen since.

One of the problems is at the civic level. I think the city agencies haven’t been able to reconcile their strong commitment to cultural programming (read: diversity and community engagement) with a commitment to contemporary art and excellence.

The art scene in Oakland has grown a lot in the past few years; credit is due to the scrappy artists-gallerists, and to the city which has figured out how to support these groups and artists. But I can see Oakland being more than a network of modest galleries showing mostly local artists. It has the potential to be known for outstanding contemporary art and culture (and design, BTW), if it can sort out its convictions.

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Art & Development, Values

Criticism v. opinions

I really wish I was in NYC right now to see Charles Ray’s show at Matthew Marks. It sounds amazing.

I also appreciate Jerry Saltz’s write-up of Ray’s installations:

all brilliant examples of post-minimalist/conceptual sculpture, each created in the late eighties and new to New York, rattled my perceptions, jangled my faculties, and made me go “Wow!” … Ray’s sculptures, part of a long tradition of minimal installations, are also forerunners to much of the theatrical Festivalism of recent times (e.g., Maurizio Cattelan and Olafur Eliasson). Each piece is nearly invisible and formally economical. Yet each is outrageously labor-intensive….

–Jerry Saltz, “Dude, You’ve Gotta See This”, New York Magazine, June 7, 2009

Brilliant! I’m impressed with how concisely Saltz formally and historically situates the art, and conveys his viewing experience, enthusiasm and rationales.

And, I love that Saltz seems to be taking a stand. The public (including artists!) can harbor so much skepticism (if not outright antipathy) towards postmodern/minimalist/post-minimalist art, it’s nice to see a critic try to bridge the gap, and say, Yes, this is art, even if it looks like nearly nothing. And it’s hard work to make this kind of art.

He goes on to tell the viewer You have to look closely and think before you get your rewards.

All three of Ray’s pieces … are more than Merry Prankster sight gags. Each makes you ultra-aware of spaces outside the one you’re in, of rooms above and below you, the things that make these rooms and effects possible, and how your own body relates to all of this. They put you back in the realm of the unknown, of double vision and oddity.


Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for great art and arts coverage is sometimes marred by readers’ comment boards.

It takes a lot of time, work, consideration and nerve to make art and to write art criticism. So when it’s met with knee-jerk reactions from people who are convinced they could do the job better, I’m reminded of drunken ringside smack-talkers. The reality is that few people have the heart to wake up for 6am runs, much less step into the ring–not just once for their fantasy Rocky moment, but again and again, in spite of the anxiety, exhaustion, injuries and the constant availability of easier paths in life.

Likewise, in art, anyone can make an expressive gesture, but few have the nerve to dedicate themselves to a lifelong creative pursuit.

And in art criticism, any yahoo can have an opinion, but few have the patience and skill to form thoughts into well-reasoned, timely essays.

Recently, I’ve heard from artists who believed that MFA programs are scams, grad students are mindless sheep, and if they leave with anything, it’s how to regurgitate trends. Attacking participants in order to critique a system is lazy and immature. I attribute this attitude to learned helplessness and inadequate self-actualization. When you see the art world as a separate entity from yourself–rather than a group of people that includes yourself, in which you participate and shape with your words and actions–you cease to be accountable for it. You’re free to bash it, thereby legitimizing your own disappointments.

As one of my esteemed professors liked to ask,

What’s at stake?

When it comes to offering knee-jerk reactions, I’d like to see more armchair critics toe the line. You think you can make better art? Write better criticism?

Game on.

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Art & Development

Dreamy utopian radicalism in art

I find the backwards-looking tendency in contemporary art to be a bit nostalgic, so I was really glad to hear a respected art critic rail against the trend of valorizing the sixties…

[Martha] Rosler’s show is simply mediocre. What is points to, however, is far worse and more widespread. Too many younger artists, critics, and curators are fetishizing the sixties, transforming the period into a deformed cult, a fantasy religion, a hip brand, and a crippling disease. A generation is caught in a Freudian death spiral and seems unable to escape the ridiculous idea that in order for art to be political it has to hark back to the talismanic hippie era—that it must create a revolution. It is sophistry to think that everything relates to Europe and America in 1968. The very paradigm of revolution, of right versus wrong, good versus bad, is a relic with no bearing on the present. Yet artists, exhibitions, and curators valorize the sixties [in a generational cycle of critical writing]…. It’s a trap set by a previous generation in order to preserve its legacy a little longer, or at least until its members relinquish their positions in academe, museums, and media. Many things happened in the sixties, but the period is no more significant, better, or more “political” than today. It’s time to turn the page.

Jerry Saltz, “Welcome to the Sixties, Yet Again,” New York Magazine, October 13, 2008.

Last year I wrote about the sixties trend, but never published it. Here are excerpts…

If art by emerging artists is any indication — recurring images include utopias, rainbows, communes, self-help books and God’s eyes — we’re entering a new New Age.

god's eye
God’s eye

Authenticity is IN. Irony is OUT. And many contemporary artists and curators are looking back at the 1960s and 1970s’ youthful idealism and radical social change.

For example, sixties- and seventies-style collectives were celebrated in Whitney Biennials past, museums all over are taking a look at Feminism, and Sixties poster art shows too. Maybe it’s nagging White guilt, or a feel-good riposte to 1990s Identity Art, or Presidential Regret (Blame my administration—not me! We ARE the world!) towards a more humble, human-scale, wishful we-can-change-the-world movement.

I like the idea of an injection of radicalism. I like cooperation and collectivity over competition and materialism. I like authenticity, not irony and distancing oneself from the world. But artists in their 20s and 30s weren’t there, and much of this recent contemporary art idealizes radicalism. Symbols of hippie communes abound, while images of war, the tumultuous end of colonialism, and the beginning of the Cold War are largely ignored. It seems like the 1960s and 1970s is standing in for an age of innocence. And I think that’s a problem. Why? The widespread politicization of hippies (read: white people) in the 1960s stemmed from two things: the groundwork laid by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s (read: people of color–who took real risks: Where to send the kids to school? Go to work or stare down the fire hoses today? and made real, permanent change in groundbreaking Federal-level legislation–and white allies), as well as a real cost to the middle class (read: the draft).

The 1960s and 1970s wasn’t an age of innocence. It was a time of radical social and cultural change, yes, but it wasn’t the idealized, nostalgic era that many artists seem so enamored of.

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