MSB brainstorming

21 January 2014

Curators' World, Artists' World, Artworld

The latest issue of Schweizer Kunst concerns itself with curators. I wrote one article in it, which was published in German. Here is the English Version.

This article is an antisophistic analysis of the current artist-curator interface. "You only get what the system allows." The contemporary artworld is a surprisingly rigid structure, determining what gets seen. It is divided into two differing, dominant power blocs which mirror the Cold War, a time before our current artworld. Both serve as gatekeepers. First, we have the mega-galleries and auction houses working with speculators, a form of hyper-Capitalism resembling the approaches of hedge fund bankers. Second, we have the "international jet-set-curator" dominated circumstances. Exhibition-makers in bureaucratic positions create events wherein they are more important that the "Consensus Correct" artworks they show in grant-funded spaces or international biennials. This makes us all apparatchiks in a benign form of quasi-Stalinism. This results in an academicist, mannerist situation that both artists and curators should evaluate. Whereas we probably cannot affect the first, we can rethink the second situation. Now would be an excellent time to change the support structure of the artworld to encourage self-reliance and the acceptance of responsibility on the part of both artists and curators.

Curators' World, Artists' World, Artworld

Looking at the Larger Picture; Can We Change?
This issue of Schweizer Kunst concerns contemporary issues of curation. In addition to closely studying specific examples, we need to clearly look at the larger picture, which is my goal in this article. Such analysis is important now in particular as our current system, in our very historically amnesiac period, is often taken to be a given, a state which has always existed, when it fact it is a rather recent development, one existing since the advent of Postmodernism in the 1980s. And it is the often unacknowledged stage upon which most other discussions of curator-artist relations transpire.
"You only get what the system allows to exist," an old folk adage that is more true than ever. In fact, one might go so far as to claim that the power structure of any system determines exactly what output occurs. And the artworld is indeed a system, a surprisingly rigid set of interacting components and relationships, determining what gets seen, supported and discussed. The contemporary, Postmodern artworld is clearly divided into two dominant systems. (There are other alternatives and options, but these largely are only tolerated and ineffective, often even self-ghettoization.) The two dominant power blocs express their clout in opposing fashions, ones which oddly enough, mirror the two power blocs of the Cold War, a time when our current artworld system did not yet exist.
On the one side, we have the extensive and atrocious amounts of money spent on art at the top the "trade," as it is called. Mega-galleries such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace and Hauser & Wirth  --- and moreover the auction houses --- are working far more with what could be called speculators rather than what was earlier envisioned as collectors. The "middle," the traditional smaller galleries who do the work of discovering and developing artists are fading. This is a form of hyper-Capitalism resembling the approaches of those bankers who recently crashed our western economies. There is much to scrutinize and critique in this approach, but that is for another article.

On the other side, we have the "Kunsthalle" and contemporary art museum artworld (as most art museums now behave more like Kunsthallen than like traditional museums). This is the "international jet-set-curator" dominated state of affairs where exhibition-makers in somewhat bureaucratic positions create events wherein they themselves generally are more important that the artists and artworks they show. This is usually accomplished in grant and government-funded exhibition spaces and/or international biennials and the like. The defenders of this half of our model often proclaim that they are inherently more ethical as they do not sell objects. This is blatantly untrue. The economy at large has not been based exclusively on retailing concrete commodities. For example 'futures' are bought and sold, wherein one simply purchases the opportunity to buy farm products later. And there are the myriad "financial instruments" that occupy finance investors, all far more abstract and theoretical than any Conceptual Art work. Kunsthallen and the like are doing something similar when they package and "sell" an idea of art, a trendy theory of production or even simply a name. When Neo-Conceptual or Event Artists write extensive plans and grant applications to get funding, that is known in marketing as "selling yourself," and in fact one is doing that. The idea and the artist are also commodities. In this half of the artworld, official bureaucrats work with art and artists who already fit their preconceived notions or are willing to bend to them, thus making them in essence apparatchiks. It is a benign form of quasi-Stalinist organization. Something I have termed being "Consensus Correct."
This is the situation that I think both artists and curators have to look directly in the eye and decide if we indeed want it, for now would be an excellent time to change it, as I believe the other half, the hyper-speculator artworld, is beyond our control and will probably crash of its own accord. Serious reconsideration requires some soul-searching; artists must take back self-responsibility and a sense of agency beyond simple career-building, curators must let go of their gatekeeping power and retrieve a sense of responsibility to art beyond their careers (which I am certain most had when they found their interest in art). 
How this half of the artworld came into being is a process I dub "The Artworld Pyramid Shift." There has been a shift in the functions of the various strata in the artworld since the end of Modernism. Something far stranger than a power realignment alone has happened 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.
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 (as in early Modernism). 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 itself was relatively new and rather specifically so-called late-capitalistic (from around circa 1945), that it has mutated so drastically since the creation of the "exhibition-maker" notion of curation in the 1980s is intriguing. In the Renaissance artists of genius in general and Michelangelo in particular were referred to as "god-like;" in the most recent Basel Art Fair there was a cafĂ© bar titled "God is a Curator." 
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, and an admirer of all those curators struggling at the lower levels. The influence of the Curator Stars 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, or that this has reified into a power elite, but that all tiers of my hypothetical diagram sketched above have clearly slipped a notch or two.
The exhibition curators have in effect now appropriated the position of the artists. Their exhibitions are the works of art, populated by artists who assume the position previously held by periods or styles or movements. The artist becomes merely an aspect of the work. This continues across the board. Museums often act like galleries. Gallerists seem uncertain as to what it is they do --- having functions stolen from them on both sides and by the mega-galleries. Most disconcerting is that although visitor numbers are increasing, the number of collectors is certainly not vastly growing. This makes one wonder what kind of effect the experience of blockbuster shows actually has on the viewers. In the 60s and 70s at the expanded exhibition's birth. It was thought such exposure to good art would be enough alone to enlarge the understanding public. If anything, Event Art has shrunk the serious public and developed a new more superficial one based on spectacle.
Once again, this is a new situation. A little history lesson. The words curator and curation do not even occur yet in our current senses in our major dictionaries. Originally a curator (from Latin: curare meaning "take care") was a keeper of a cultural institution such as a museum, taking care of the collected works. Not exhibition organizers, which is closer to being A and R men for their own careers.
Gianni Jetzer took exception to my portrayal of curators when I first published part of this discussion. He felt personally offended and pointed out that curators are underpaid generally and even have to write grants to drum up their own salaries. That is certainly true, difficult, and admirable. We artists should appreciate them for their often very financially unrewarded long hours and hard work. But my point is that they have become gatekeepers, albeit without much compensation beyond a bit of power in a not extremely world-shattering field of endeavor, which probably will make it even more difficult for them to accept the responsibility to change. Similarly, the egotistical and childish tendencies of most of us artists will make it difficult for us to accept responsibility for our own agency.

Most important, though, let us ask the big question. Do we artists and we curators want the situation as it lays: academicist, mannerist and in general of less and less importance to the world beyond our little enclave?
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 "use value" is important, to use a William James' idea. 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. But stay clear-sighted about this. Do not use muddy overlapping simply to avoid facing criticism ,to evade the utmost (and most dodged) question--- that of quality. Namely, do not use slipperiness merely in order to be intellectually lame. 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." 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 and curators. However, not all critique is bellyaching. In our Prozac-framed culture, very often even justified analysis and protest are immediately condemned. Have the gumption to speak openly and clearly about what you perceive of as objectionable. As my father Earl Brandl 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. Consensus is the death of creativity.
Now is the time to change. Up until now there have been tons of artists with only a limited number of curators (and very very few international ones, the true power). But art schools are turning out as many curators or "Kunstvermittler" as they are graduating artists nowadays, if not more. There will be increasing competition and this could be a window of opportunity for curators to become ever more self-sufficient and artists ever more self-reliant.

What can we artists do to improve the situation? First of all, make extremely high quality art. Particularly with well-honed technical abilities. If you do not now have these skills, this is no surprise as they are infrequently taught in art schools any more. This is known as "deskilling" --- so re-skill. Ability can not be denied nor taken away from us and will outlive many an overblown justification. Second, openly criticize the situation. Step on toes. Stop kissing butt. Third, offer and create constructive alternatives, even perhaps to the point of creating your own artworlds, venues and so on. Attempt to add a positive answer to every correct criticism you level. Fourth, encourage others who do the same. Help build critics and curators and especially other artists who pay attention to what is around them, who have independent minds, who are more than simply careerist toadies. Even support your "enemies" (to an extent) if they finally seem to see the light. Just don't trust them behind your back. Fifth, network in a POSITIVE sense, even internationally. Sixth, leave doors open. Tell the truth, be upset about hypocrisy, but be willing to "let it go" if they improve, if the purveyors of pedantry and their groupies gain a conscience or make overtures toward reparation.
What can curators do? First of all, make extremely high quality shows based in your own unique perceptions and ideas, not trendy repeats of consensus notions. Second, openly criticize the situation. Use some of your power for good. Third, offer and create constructive alternatives, by going out to studios and the world to see what artists are doing before you make theories. Do not seek out ways to make already famous artists fit some exhibition conceit. Fourth, encourage others who do the same. Help encourage curators who pay attention to artists outside the small consensus correct clique, who have independent minds, who are more than simply careerists. Fifth, stop networking as an end in itself. Be an individualist. Do less "apero-ing," more looking and contemplating. Be more than dedicated followers of temporary fashion. Sixth, let artists retain their position as creators. Work with us, but do not usurp our one small realm of competence. Your realm is equally important, but different.
Can we do this together?

Mark Staff Brandl (1955 Chicago) has lived primarily in Switzerland since 1988. Studied art, art history, literature and theory at the University of Illinois, Illinois State University, Columbia Pac University, and received his Ph.D. in Art History magna cum laude from the University of Zurich. Brandl is active internationally as an artist and art historian since 1980, has won various awards, had many publications and had numerous exhibitions.

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