MSB brainstorming

16 October 2013

The Artworld Pyramid Shift

(A reprint of an article I published originally in 1997, then again in 2005. Still of interest today, I believe.)

"There has been a shift in the functions of the various strata in the art work in recent decades. Something far stranger than a power realignment alone has been happening in the art world. Earlier, historical changes were relatively transparent transpositions of domination. Novel now is the seeming shift of interest, of focus --- almost of aesthetic object."

Way back in 1997 I wrote these words in an essay which was published in Switzerland in German and English as a part of a small book on contemporary art. The book was not that important, but I think some of my points are even more relevant to the art scene of today. I will excerpt and rewrite parts of it here for discussion.

In the history of art, the weight of influence and determining power has often shifted this way or that. Predominance has transferred from church to patron to galleries, sometimes to museums, in some places to collectors, every once in a while to artists themselves. There have been short-term moguls, such as John Ruskin in the late 1800s, or Clement Greenberg in the 40s, 50s and early 60s of this century. At times these people may be powerful enough, such as in the case of Greenberg, not only to draw attention to specific artists and away from others, but even to determine what is accepted as art at all.

If one envisions the art world as a layered pyramid, there is a slip of levels and their roles. Let us delineate a possible pyramidal illustration. The (1) artists make (2) aesthetic objects in their (3) manner (4) exhibition curators (institutional or not) put these in (5) exhibitions they organize. These artworks, and artists, may or may not -but usually at some point must be - taken on by (6) gallerists in their (7) galleries. where they are hopefully bought by (8) collectors and put in their (9) collections. Ultimately with enough acceptance the art works wind up being put by (10) museum directors in (11) museums. At least that is the diagram most of us have in our minds. Independent of the fact that this model is relatively new and rather specifically so-called late-capitalistic and predominantly American, that it now mutates is intriguing.

This change may have been happening slowly over quite a length of time. With Picasso, Duchamp, Warhol and later Beuys, however important their art, the focus tended to shift to the person, or rather to an image of each that had more to do with the drives of publicity and fashion than with humanism. Within our current pyramid or hierarchy of artworld functions. it seems that the true stars are the exhibition organizers. The Harald Szeemanns, Hans-Ulrich Obrists, Jean-Christophe Ammanns etc. I do not intend to plaintively deplore their success. I am in fact a fan of the work of several of the exhibition-maker superstars. Their influence has often been refreshing. and is certainly preferable to a narrow thralldom under someone like Greenberg. My design is to comment on our general cultural context. The point is not only that these exhibition curators have the spotlight, or even that they have become more original and creative than earlier organizers, but that all tiers of my hypothetical diagram sketched above have clearly slipped a notch or two

This exigency raises the question of what is to be done within it, through it. after it, or even against it. How can this situation be enlisted into the service of art? As in any situation. its "cash value" is important, to use William James' term. That is, what good is it, what can be done with it? Let us consider our state pragmatically. In the real world, no situation has been ideal for art or the artist. Whether working for the king, church, state, merchants, whatever. How do art aficionados react, given the new hierarchy?

One choice has been to ignore the circumstances, practicing the old tried and true ostrich tact, denying history, saying it was ever thus so. Mapping culture as nature is a popular approach of atavistic style mimics. Or alternately one can cynically get on the bandwagon, a prevalent stance in much Neo-Conceptual art today. A careerist achievement of success as its own and only goal has even been promoted by some theorists. This amounts simply to sophistry, to train to win with no concern for why. True thinkers such as Socrates have criticized this know-nothing stance since 400 B.C. Wanting to convince people, without caring what you speak or paint about, or where you are going, seems to be an historically repeating infirmity of weak wills. A third reaction, and perhaps the most effective one, is to simply live in conditions as given, but to pry a little content in whenever possible. Not blatantly heroic perhaps, but nonetheless admirable. This has been a tenable option at many times and in many locations. Goya, for example can be seen in this light. The final and best reaction of all is to strive to make a very material itself of the situation, to incorporate it and force it to be creative by using art's ontological and metaphoric expansiveness. This should not, however; be the only material. Creative interpolation is called for, doorways of opportunity for new and necessary experiences of art. If we have no positive comprehension, then we will simply be the blind purposefully misleading the blind.

How does this concretely apply to us now? What shall be done? I have only a very few suggestions. For one, there is a collapse of roles? Well then, collapse your own roles, define yourself. In fact probably ones varied plural selves, "each of those creatures called one's self," in E. E. Cummings' words. Be "multiapplicable," depending on and following the nature of your thought. Be an artist, curator, writer, thinker, activator and more. When proper interpretation is valued, a more dialectical relationship with experience results. Mikhail Bakhtin has stressed the way that expressions not only reflect controlling interests but more importantly can be made disruptive. thereby unshackling alternative views. This comes about, he states, by developing a "polyphonic"' or "dialogic" form, utilizing varied and not subordinated points of view. A concern for context and meaning permits one as well to allow multiple approaches to retain their quirky individuality.

In addition, we need to reinstate a positive historical memory, yet one without a melodramatic "burden of the past." As Elaine A. King rightly points out, "an acute case of historical amnesia" is one of the factors killing art today." A historical consciousness operating against the amnesiac academy, rather than promoting it as history painting did. Plainly, the lack of any real acknowledgement of the past serves now chiefly to allow the continuous re-sale of the same few, stale notions as "cutting edge." If I go into a Kunsthalle one more time an see a bar stretched across the display space, on which "found" items of clothing are hung on hangers wall-to-wall I'll regurgitate. I've now seen that five times, each claimed to be shocking and new and cutting edge. Furthermore, stop yer whinin', but increase yer criticizin'. Yes, all artworld denizens have a tendency to whimper about their difficulties. It is hard, for almost all of us, not just artists. However, not all critique is bellyaching. In our Prozac-framed culture, very often even justified analysis and protest are immediately labeled as "whining." Have the gumption to speak openly and clearly about what you perceive of as objectionable. As my father said, if you have no enemies, then you have never spoken clearly enough. Not everyone needs to, or can, be fond of you and your ideas.

When I wrote these words, in their original form, I meant it as a call to artists to become curators themselves. Instead, the opposite has happened. The roles have shifted farther and solidified more densely. In German a new word has been forged to legitimize the situation. Historians, curators, organizers, critics, museum educators and so on call themselves as a group "Kunstvermittler." They even give themselves art awards for this "Vermittlung" activity. They frequently ask me to translate this into English. Fortunately, it cannot be done. And laudably, Raphael Rubinstein at Art in America assures me that such a term has been actively combated by better writers on art in the English-language world. For your information, that word could be framed as "art-intermediary" or "art broker" or "art middleman" or even "art procurer." Most of these, especially the last term, reveal more of the truth of the situation than the "Vermittler" would like, far more than the rather self-flattering connotations of the German neologism.

Now I am asking you: what more can we do now in this situation? To pragmatically exist in it, but also to criticize it, cure it or use it as material?

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