…making way for golf courses by getting rid of hikers. This is so unbelievably wrong. In a part of the country that is an icon of the great outdoors, golf carts are taking precedence.
(Pic snapped at the Tamarron development in Durango.)
…making way for golf courses by getting rid of hikers. This is so unbelievably wrong. In a part of the country that is an icon of the great outdoors, golf carts are taking precedence.
(Pic snapped at the Tamarron development in Durango.)
Sandy Says So, 2012, by Lisa Adams. Part of the artist’s solo exhibit, Second Life, at CB1 Gallery. Opens Sunday at 5pm, in downtown Los Angeles. (Image courtesy of the artist and CB1.)
In other news: The Ken Johnson kerfuffle has reared its head again. I’m on deadline, so here’s the short of it: Johnson just penned a piece in Art in America in response to a critique by David Levi-Strauss about his work reviewing shows concerning female and African-American artists. (While I generally agree with some of Levi-Strauss’s points, the whole “my students say this” and “my students say that” set-up of his essay is totally passive aggressive.) Johnson defends his positions in his new essay, and, in response, the white male status quo has taken to Facebook to give the New York Times critic some hearty bro slaps.
While I haven’t been wild about all of the critiques of Johnson’s work (I think the petition could have been more nuanced and Levi-Strauss just needed to strap on a pair and not lay his arguments on his anonymous students), I agree with many of the points being made. Johnson has a real bee in his bonnet about shows built around gender or identity. That is, gender or identity that isn’t white or male.
A lot of the Facebook comments keep going on about how Johnson’s work is being taken out of context and that this is all some sort of witch hunt. It is most certainly not. (The original petition, to be clear, does not call for Johnson’s censure. It merely asks that the New York Times acknowledge and address Johnson’s “editorial lapses.” This could have been done in the Public Editor column, or by running a letter to the editor with a response. The petition’s language is vague. But it is most certainly not calling for Johnson to be fired.)
For the record, I don’t have a problem with all of Johnson’s work. I’ve quite enjoyed some of his reviews in the past. But in the arena of gender and identity, I find him distressingly narrow-minded. I think a close read of the new Art in America essay is evidence of that. And certainly, a close read of some his previous work is, too. I did that the first time around. See my previous essay on the subject.
What bums me out the most in all of this is the artists — the ones who won’t get a nuanced criticism of their work in the New York Times because of who they happen to be.
Ghetto Merchant, ca. 1965, by John Riddle. Part of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80, on view at MoMA PS1, and the subject of one heck of an unsavory review in the New York Times. (Image courtesy of the Hammer Museum and the collection of Claude and Anne Booker.)
Last month, Ken Johnson, an independent writer who serves as an art critic for the New York Times, published a review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80, on view at MoMA PS1. The piece was critical of the show on a number of points, most notably that many of the works promoted a racial solidarity that could be alienating to white viewers. There are also some very uncomfortable paragraphs about the ways in which Black artists have employed the medium of assemblage:
“[Marcel] Duchamp’s work is a piece of deracinated, intellectual mischief-making designed to question relations between language and reality. [John] Riddle’s is about a particular population of people digging itself out of a real-world debacle.”
Something that could easily be read as: the sculpture by the white-guy European artist addresses universal themes; the piece by the Black artist, not so much. (If you haven’t read Johnson’s piece, I’d suggest clicking over and giving it a gander before you keep reading.)
That review, in addition to a preview produced by Johnson (about a show of women artists in Philly), has since generated an anonymous online petition/open letter directed at the New York Times. “Using irresponsible generalities, Johnson compares women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking,” reads the opener. It goes on to state:
“Rather than engage the historical work in the exhibition, Mr. Johnson states that he prefers the work of mostly contemporary black artists who have been widely validated, without acknowledging the social progress over the last 50 years that might allow for the next generation of artists to ‘complicate how we think about prejudice and stereotyping.’”
It asks that “the Times acknowledge and address this editorial lapse and the broader issues raised by these texts.” As of this writing, the petition has garnered almost 1,000 signatures, including prominent art world figures such as Glenn Ligon and Coco Fusco, who confirmed to Artinfo’s Julia Halperin that they did indeed sign it.
Earlier this month, Johnson’s review also generated a raft of lengthy partially-deleted/disappeared discussions on his Facebook page, which includes posts by Kara Walker, as well as curator Dan Cameron, both of whom challenge his conclusions in very articulate ways. The discussions were in turn heated, articulate, rancorous, illuminating and all kinds of internet crazy pants. (I’ve posted some of the most interesting outtakes after the jump, but if you need some interesting reading the whole mucky schmegagie can be worthwhile.)
Now Dig This! was organized by independent curator and scholar Kellie Jones and originally debuted at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last year as part of the Pacific Standard Time (PST) series of exhibitions. It was very well-received. In fact, Johnson’s colleague, Roberta Smith, described it as having “a visionary power.” It was the only PST show to travel to New York.
I personally dug Now Dig This! Among all the shows I saw during PST (and I saw a lot of them), this was one of the three that most stuck with me. It was an introduction to artists and works with whom I had only cursory familiarity. It provided an important sense of lineage for the work of contemporary artists such as David Hammons. It revealed a lot about the region that I grew up in and that I thought I knew. And it provided an important social, geographic and political context for a group of artists who, for a variety of reasons related to race and class, did not have the luxury of being included in the Ferus Gallery scene.
Johnson’s review is problematic for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that he appears to be prickly about shows that take as their organizing principle the race or gender of the artist — and he employs the work of white artists as the ultimate gold standard. As with Now Dig This!, he gave a skewering to the LACMA-organized Phantom Sightings, which examined art made in the wake of the Chicano movement, railing ainst the idea of the “identity-based show” as an “evil whose necessity would disappear in a more equitable world.” Likewise, in his review of Seductive Subversion, the exhibition of women pop artists held at the Brooklyn Museum two years ago, he judges the work against the production of male pop artists. (Sample line: “If it does represent the best female artists of the first Pop Art generation — and there is no reason to think otherwise — you’d have to admit that there were no women producing Pop Art as inventively, ambitiously and memorably as their male counterparts. That is not to say, however, that there were no interesting women mining the Pop vein.”) His listing for The Female Gaze, in Philly — the one that also happened to draw the ire of the petition writer — makes a similar comparison between the production of male and female artists.
To be fair, when reviewing individual artists, this doesn’t seem to be an issue. In a review of a show of Kara Walker’s art in 2003, he addresses her aesthetics and her message straight on. In a piece covering an exhibition of sculpture by Anne Truitt, he does much the same. And although it contains a few catty lines, he generally enjoyed an exhibition of feminist video that went on view at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009.
But there nonetheless seem to be some issues at work here. In one of the various Facebook posts that went up during the long discussion of his review, Johnson stated, “Personally, I think race is a fiction that far too many take as real, which, as a consequence, makes it all too real.” It was something that was echoed in his book on art and drug consciousness, in which he discusses pieces that get at the illusory nature of race. (I’d quote from the book, but I’m in the middle of moving and everything’s in storage, so I’m asking y’all to trust me.) And there are some statements he made about Black artists and solidarity at a panel of art writers in New York earlier this month — in which he alludes to his Now Dig This! review — which would seem to imply that he finds shows built around racial solidarity difficult to criticize because they are more about moral righteousness than anything else. (It’s not a direct transcript, so draw your own conclusions on that last one.)
Johnson is right in that race is a fictional concept. There is no biological basis for racial classifications. We all have the same teeth and heart and lungs, even if we come in different shades. But the social and political structures that race generates imbue every aspect of our society, not to mention our history: slavery, indentured servitude, apartheid, Jim Crow, housing covenants. As a result, race shapes experience and world view — and therefore art. To not recognize this is a gross omission. Race can determine a person’s economic status, their social status, even where they live. And in a society that is obsessed with it, it is a perfectly valid lens with which to examine art.
I will admit that there are identity-based and gender shows that are sloppy and uninteresting, exhibitions in which some curator seems to be saying, ‘It’s Hispanic heritage month, let’s put a bunch of Latinos in a room.’ But Now Dig This! and Phantom Sightings were the opposite of that. These rigorous, well thought-out exhibitions tell a story about a place and time. Now Dig This! provided historic and material context for a group of artists whose work doesn’t generally get pride of place in museums. (Jones once told me that many of the pieces in Now Dig This! actually reside in major museum collections — but they never get shown.) Phantom Sightings addressed ways in which Chicano artists employed conceptual language in the wake of 1970s conceptual art and civil rights movements. These exhibitions connected dots that weren’t previously connected and for that reason, they are important. (For what it’s worth, I addressed some of this in a piece about Chicano art that I did for ARTnews, which was, in part, a response to Johnson’s Phantom Sightings review.)
But in his critiques, Johnson is so busy railing against the idea that there are shows built around fictional notions of race or that some piece of art might not be as good as that of some long-dead male artist, that he fails to notice that these groups of artists, in the collective, might have something interesting — even important — to say. And that as a critic, he should be listening to what that might be. At its heart, this is intellectually lazy criticism: seeing what you want to see rather than letting the art speak to you. (For a point of reference: read Christopher Knight’s reviews of the same exhibitions, here and here.)
At the top of this post is an image of a sculpture by John Riddle that was made sometime around 1965. Ghetto Merchant is an assemblage crafted from cash registers that the artist rescued from a burned out store after the Watts Rebellion. In its structure, it is part Ibram Lassaw geometric monster, part musical instrument, part abstracted figure — all of it evidence of the ability of an artist to turn tragedy into something inspired. Until Jones put it on view in Now Dig This!, it sat in the home of a private collector and was rarely, if ever, seen by the public. And there were so many other pieces like this in that show. Melvin Edwards’ torqued industrial wall sculptures left me feeling suffocated. Senga Nengudi’s pantyhose installations grabbed me by the tubes, then twisted and yanked them in aggressive, uncomfortable, hilarious ways. Noah Purifoy transformed the basest junk into something greater than its parts.
It’s too bad Johnson missed this — all because he was so focused on race. That is, any race that isn’t white.
There are journalistic tropes that are so long running that it seems that they are no longer even recognized as tropes. One of these is the whole East Coast/West Coast, New York/L.A. view of the world — applied liberally to the world of hip-hop in the ’90s. The other is that L.A. is a provincial agglomeration of Variety-reading, plastic surgery-enhanced, vacuous show business wannabes who care about nothing other than their Q ratings and their cars. Both of these clichés received ample column inches in Adam Nagourney’s story about Pacific Standard Time in the New York Times.
One of my standing rules on this blog is to try not to complain too regularly about the New York Times because a) it gets boring, b) that’s what everyone else does, and c) life is too damn short. But this story sent the little Califas chola that lives inside of me reaching for the razor blades she keeps tucked inside her hairdo (partially because I spent a LOT of time researching my own story about PST). And reach for those razor blades is just what I’m gonna do.
My paragraph by paragraph breakdown of Nagourney’s piece of…
1.) Nagourney kicks off with an East Coast/West Coast Narrative Arc.
This is articulated thusly right in the second paragraph (the “nut” graf, as it were): “This multi-museum event, in all of its Los Angeles-like sprawl, suggests a bit of overcompensation from a city that has long been overshadowed by the New York art establishment…” So a project that was about establishing a record of haphazardly covered movements, artists and communities becomes about loopy L.A. trying to be like it’s big, more cultured brother New York. Aren’t we over this? Isn’t this what killed Tupac and Biggie? Isn’t this just…boring… at this point?
2.) He then adds in a line about The Vapid Angeleno.
Again, let’s cut to the nut graf: “…a place that — arguably unfairly — still suffers from a reputation of being more about tinsel than about serious art, and where interest in culture starts and ends with movie grosses and who is on the cover of Vanity Fair.” Okay, so he qualifies it with “arguably unfairly.” But seriously, are we still on this? Of all the music, art, architecture and literature the place has produced and we’re still harping on the three mile radius around Beverly Hills? Has anyone told Nagourney that L.A. is 80 miles wide? That it’s majority minority? That people do stuff like work in defense, manufacturing and engineering?
3.) He then includes a horrible Dave Hickey quote.
Hickey says: “It’s corny…It’s the sort of thing that Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time. It is ’50s boosterish, and I would argue largely unnecessary.” This unfortunate quote isn’t entirely Nagourney’s fault — because Hickey comes off like an asshole all on his own — but when the first quote of the story is given over to a guy who lives in New Mexico, and who it seems hasn’t been to any of the shows, well… (And let’s hope Hickey doesn’t have to make any appearances in Denver any time soon, a city that, incidentally, is about to open a museum dedicated to painter Clyfford Still.)
4.) And it’s followed by a Peter Plagens quote.
Which is inoffensively uninteresting (more East Coast/West Coast), but again: second quote in a story about PST and no one who currently lives in California has been quoted. This is then followed by a generic quote from Jeffrey Deitch, who has lived in Cali for all of five minutes and will likely be there for only five minutes more. Clearly, all the news that’s fit to print.
5.) He then tosses in a random list of shows.
Which refers to the Hammer Museum’s Now Dig This! exhibit as showcasing the work of “local African-American artists.” Is he for serious? Does he know the show contains work by artists such as David Hammons? Who could crush Nagourney’s skull with his thoughts? And whose works are a part of MoMA’s permanent collection? And whose piece African-American Flag can be currently seen in MoMA’s second floor galleries and hanging from the façade of the Studio Museum in Harlem? Does Nagourney even go to museums when he’s in New York?
6.) Then we’re back to more East Coast/West Coast.
“No one is suggesting that Los Angeles is about to supplant New York as an art capital; it is not lost on people here that the executive directors of three of the four biggest museums in Los Angeles came here from New York.” Blah blah New York blah blah Los Angeles blah blah New York blah blah. Are New Yorkers capable of writing stories about Los Angeles that don’t mention New York?
7.) Obligatory reference to Venice Beach.
He then lets us know that he knows that there are some artists living in Venice: “The sheer sprawl of the city means that it is hard to have the kind of concentrated art district that has characterized New York over the last 50 years, though there has long been an influential colony of artists out in Venice.” Except the point that PST makes is that there were and are vibrant artistic clusters all over Southern California from the O.C. to Wilmington to East L.A. and downtown — they just haven’t always been relentlessly hyped and commercialized like some communities in Greenwich Village and SoHo and Williamsburg that I know. Update: Also, as a friend just pointed out to me: Who the hell is spending $6000 a month to rent studio space in Brooklyn?
8.) Then cut to line about how sunshine makes everyone uninterested in culture.
“And there are obstacles that come with living in this part of the country: Curators talk about the difficulty of encouraging people to walk indoors for anything but a movie in a city that has glorious weather so many months of the year.” Because all anyone does in SoCal is sunbathe and do sit-ups. Would love to know who these “curators” are.
9.) Season with more Deitch.
Who is described as the director of the “Los Angeles Modern.” That just made me snort-laugh.
10.) And with that we’re pretty much over and out.
No real references to art or movements or discoveries… Just a quote by James Cuno of the Getty, who is required to address the whole East Coast/West Coast thing AGAIN. Zzzzzzzz. Thud.
Wieners, everywhere. (Photo by paladinsf.)
There’s been some online kerfuffling on the interwebz about the stunning lack of ladies present in Modern Art Notes March Madness-style tournament, in which he’s asking readers to vote on the “greatest work of art since World War II.” The list, which was developed by a guest panel of five curators, features a total of 64 works of art. Of these, a sum total of three are crafted by women (Cindy Sherman, Maya Lin and Marina Abramovic). Two are by artists who are non-white (Kerry James Marshall and Lin, who is in for a two-fer). Almost all of the artists represented are from the U.S. or Western Europe. Andy Warhol makes the list five times. Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns are each represented by four works. And Gerhard Richter is in for three.
I’d never be the sort to oppose a good gimmick to goose web traffic, but it did rankle me to see this list. For one, it seems to tell a very narrow of art history. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, provided the labels are cleared up: In which case, we could re-baptize the tournament “The Best Art Work Created by a Dude Living in in London, New York or Berlin Sometime Between 1945 and 1960.” (But I suppose that doesn’t have that same ring to it.) Two, I was disappointed to see that a blogger who has taken arts institutions to task for being less than diverse, would publish a list that appeared to be the exact opposite. Three, I had to wonder if the world really needs that many Jasper Johns flags. I mean, really.
Green has defended his decisions on Twitter, stating that he wasn’t going to tell his invited curators which names to submit and that the list represents the “most-settled” artists in the 1945-60 canon. (Again, here.) To Green’s first point: I’d argue that the story a writer tells is colored by the sources he or she chooses to consult. Perhaps a more diverse group of experts would have yielded a more diverse result. To the second, I’d say: if the time-frame here is “since World War II” as originally stated (instead of 1945-60 as later implied on Twitter), then the canon ain’t even close to being settled.
Now, why could any of this possibly matter? After all, it’s just a silly game. Well, I think it matters a lot. For one, Green’s blog is an important outlet for coverage about arts institutions. This tournament will get linked to, it’ll get Facebook liked and it’ll turn up in Google searches when some student somewhere does a search for “greatest works of art since World War II.” Some little newspaper or arts journal might even run an item about it. In other words, it will become part of the record — a record for a system that already excels at excluding women and minorities from the larger narrative about art. (Something I’ve written about.) Which is why this is all such a bummer: an opportunity to provide a more comprehensive view of art, in a fun and interactive way, ends up being just the same old story.
For more: Brian Dupont has a blog post deconstructing the list. And Two Coats of Paint has a one- and two-part post that features various folks (Dupont, Jennifer Dalton, Michelle Vaughan, Hilary Robinson and many others) making some fantastic suggestions. You’ll find my list after the jump. (Although consider it more of a riff than a definitive list because it’s late and I’m TIRED.)
Pondering the future (and burritos) at Stanford. (Photo by C-M.)
For two days last week, I traveled to Stanford to participate in a conference on The Future of Freelancing. Needless to say, any gathering of journalists these days is akin to attending a deer-in-headlights convention. It’s a fraught time to be a freelance writer. Newspapers are shutting down left and right. Magazines, which have historically paid the livable wages, are thinner than ever. And everyone seems to want journalists to write for free, or almost free — or, worse yet, for “exposure.” And any time anyone even utters the word “exposure,” I am seized with a terrific desire to bitchslap Arianna Huffington.
The conference was interesting, if not earth-shattering. We had magazine folk (among them, Esquire‘s David Granger) talk to us about the power of story-telling, a slew of digital media types told us all about e-books and the internet, and a parade of panelists dissected the intricacies of “marketing,” “product” and “branding.” (Apparently, that’s how being a freelance journalist is referred to these days.) What will happen to our industry remained unclear. Though, to be fair, I didn’t expect the conference to answer these bigger questions because, really, who the hell knows?
What was clear is that, over the last decade, there has been a big shift in what is expected of a journalist. No longer is it sufficient to report and write well and be amenable to over-editing. There was a clear expectation by all of the VIP figures present (both digital and dead tree), that writers need to be deeply engaged with the public, that they need to cultivate their own built-in audience, and that they need “leverage their networks.” (As part of this, there was plenty of obsessing about Twitter and Facebook and blogs — and whatever other social media stuff the Redbull-saturated set may yet have in store for us.) There was also lots of talk about marketing. In fact, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that “marketing” was the most oft-repeated word of the conference. And it wasn’t in a sexy, Mad Men kind of way.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that journalists these days need to self-promote. I do it relentlessly. But I worry when it starts to feel like the focus of what we do. I think part of the reason that we’re in this shit-hole to begin with is precisely because of marketing. Because for decades, publications have focus-grouped their content to death, creating cover lines about 17 ways to get flat abs and pumping out written-by-committee stories about lifestyle “trends.” In fact, barring a few key titles, I think it’s safe to say that much of our media is nothing but marketing. And as a result, it feels empty and dull.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the web in all this, it’s that there are people so passionate and so committed to certain thoughts and ideas, that they’re willing to put them out there for free. (And I’m not referring to opportunistic content mills who churn out crotch shots of Miley Cyrus.) If we expect to continue to be paid for our work, we’re gonna need a little bit of that fire in the belly, a willingness to explore new ways of telling stories, to convey a passion for what we do. What we certainly don’t need is any more marketing.
Line up the body bags: All, 2007, by Maurizio Cattelan, at the New Museum. (Photo by C-M.)
Since New Museum curator Richard Flood doesn’t understand what blogs are, I’ve helpfully saved my prairie dog opinions for WNYC, where I’ve got a two-parter on the hot mess known as Skin Fruit. Part one: my take on the show. Part two: Skin Fruit by the numbers, or how a museum that is supposed to be all about ‘new’ is doing a show that is everything but.
Boans, aka Booker, in NYC. (Photo by Jake Dobkin.)