Friday, October 25, 2013

The Pan Review of Books: Recent Readings

Robert Boyd

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei by Barnaby Martin (Faber & Faber, 2013). This is a scattered book. Barnaby Martin is not just writing about the arrest of Ai Weiwei, but also about his life leading up to the arrest, the life of his father, the political situation in China from the the Qing dynasty to the present. The amazing thing is that he sort of succeeds. If you are, like me, woefully ignorant of China and the situation that Chinese artists and intellectuals labor under, Hanging Man is actually a good primer.

On April 11, 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested. Held incommunicado, he was abruptly released on June 22. At first he didn't want to talk about his captivity because if there was one thing he knew, it could happen again at any time. (Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is still a political prisoner, so fame is not a perfect shield.) But he finally opened up to his friend Martin. The story had to be told not for his sake, but for the sake of the 55 other known artists, writers and activists who were rounded up at the same time and are still missing.

Ai describes his questioning and the fantastic gulf between him and his interlocutors. It is the same gulf that exists between many artists, particularly conceptual artists, and the public. The public can't see what they are doing is art and assume that there is some kind of scam happening. The police thought that perhaps it was a form of money laundering. But in the United States, the worst a conceptual artist suffers is a kind of invisibility or scorn. Explaining his work to a barely educated chain-smoking cop was a life-or-death matter for Ai.

Ai's international fame probably mitigated his improsonment. But why were all these artists and writers rounded up in the first place? It was the Arab Spring--the uprisings that over-through dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. These scared China. They were afraid that a "jasmine revolution" could happen in China. Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia and four months later, Ai Weiwei is arrested as a result. Cause and effect.

China experts will find lots of potted history and things to disagree with here. Martin acknowledges this as best he can. He knows this brief book is not--cannot be--the whole story of any of its subjects: Chinese history, Chinese contemporary art, Chinese activism, Ai Weiwei, etc. I wish he had included an appendix of further reading suggestions.  But as an introduction to these various subjects, Hanging Man is excellent.

Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art by David W. Galenson (Harvard University Press, 2001). David Galnson, an economist at the University of Chicago, presumes to write about art history. It's as if someone took all the propaganda about interdisciplinarity seriously. Even art critics find the narrowness of art writing intolerable. As Nancy Princenthal wrote in her essay "Art Criticism Bound to Fail" (2006): "Semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Maxist economic theory, structural anthropology--these are all fascinating fields, but they have no more compelling claims as explanatory systems for art criticism than do theology, mathematics, or the physics of color (to name some heuristic precedents)." I've always favored looking at art through the lenses of the social sciences, particularly economics and sociology. But it is one thing to do this in a highly theoretical way (as do most Marxist art critics, like Benjamin Buchloh) and quite another to use the basic substrate of those fields--data. It's one of the reasons that Pierre Bourdieu's writings about art and its audiences carry so much weight--he collected the data and looked at what the data told him. That's what Don Thompson did in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, where he found that statistically speaking that art magazines and critics had very little direct effect on the value of works of art (which was a load off my mind).

Galenson takes one of the most popular data sets available for the art world--auction results, and combines it with the birth dates of modern (impressionism to about pop and minimalism) artists, the dates they started their careers, and the dates they did works that had come up at auction. What he wanted to see was if an artists' most valuable works came at a particular time in his life. This turns out to be true, but he discovered something more interesting--that some artist's most valuable works come very early in their career while some come relatively late. If he had made of histogram of this (which is a kind of graph of the distribution), it would have looked like a bactrian camel. This is a great, somewhat surprising result. Once you have data showing you something like this, your job is to try to construct a plausible theory for why it is so. Galenson's theory is that there are some modern artists who reach their goal after long years of trying things and experimenting and honing their ideas and their skills. Cezanne would the the obvious example of this sort of artist. There are other artists who come up with an idea and execute it fully formed, like Athena emerging full grown and armored from Zeus's head. Picasso with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is an example, as are the stripe paintings of Frank Stella. These usually come early in the artist's career. Galenson calls the first group experimentalists and the second group conceptualists, and suggest that their way of looking at art is fundamentally different.

One problem with this theory is that it assumes that the importance or quality of a body of work from an artist's career is, on average, congruent with the paintings that got highest prices at auction. But he finds a couple of other data-driven ways to demonstrate this. For example, he assumes that broadly speaking, there is a consensus among art historians about which are the most important works of a given artist (obviously there will be disagreements among individual art historians). To figure out what that consensus might be, he looked at the pictures used to illustrate 33 English-language art history surveys published sine 1968. He compared those images with the auction leaders for each artist and found a high overlap, which indicated that the highest priced works also tended to be the ones considered important by art historians.

Of course, he also backs this up with non-numeric data sources--art history texts, art criticism, and original texts by artists themselves (Pissarro's letters look like they must be quite entertaining, based on the bits quoted here).

There are big problems with this approach. It removes the artist from his historical setting. For example, all the abstract expressionists are seen as experimentalists, but considering that they spent the beginnings of their careers 1) in the Depression and 2) somewhat cut off from what was happening in Europe, they had little choice but to get to where they were going through a process of gradual change. They couldn't easily look at what some slightly older artist was doing and take a leap form there. Picasso, on the other hand, could see all the experimental modernism he wanted--he could see the last Cezannes shortly after the master painted them. In a sense, he was in the position to use Cezanne's lifetime of gradual experimentalism to launch his one great conceptual advance, cubism. In short, artists respond to the circumstances they're in.

That said, it's an interesting way to think about the past 150 years of art, and the data is the data. Even if Galenson's interpretation is wrong, the data still exists for some other art historian to examine and draw conclusions from it. But that will only happen if they, like sociologists and psychologists and economists, take a couple of stats classes and learn the math.

cover by Killoffer

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, translated by Marshall Berman (Penguin Classics). "A spectre is haunting Europe--the spectre of Communism." So begin one of the most important political documents of modern history. It's ending is equally famous: "Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have the world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!" But why buy a copy of The Communist Manifesto? Many copies can be found for free online.

At 43 pages, The Communist Manifesto is a pamphlet, not a book. To fill out this Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, they had to include an introduction by the translator (the recently deceased Marshall Berman) and introductions to the subsequent German, Italian, English, Polish and Russian editions by Engels. So why did I spend $13 on it? Because I love the cover by Killoffer, one of the great French Comics artists who came to prominence through the legendary collective comics publishing outfit, L'Association. Not that much of his comics have been published in English--a few stories in Mome and the amazing solipsistic book Six-hundred and Seventy-six Apparitions of Killoffer. (You can see an excerpt of the latter here.) His cover for the Communist Manifesto is incredible--he uses every square centimeter--the french flaps, the front and back covers, the spine--to present a single continuous image. What did Marx say about commodity fetishism? Excuse me please while I go and admire my new possession.


1 comment:

  1. I'd enjoy an analysis of the data on wealth distribution vis a vis patronage. My inkling is plutocracy translates to fewer professional artists selling for greater sums. Fry's utopia cheers me: '... that if wealth were more evenly distributed , if no one had a great deal of wealth , those who really cared for art would become the sole patrons, since for all it would be an appreciable sacrifice, and for none an impossibility. The man who only buys pictures when he has as many motor-cars as he can conceivably want would drop out as patron altogether." Galenson, conversely, is really living up to the dismal if not the science (big problems). I'll skip it, but try to remember to click your button for 9.5 Thesis on Art and Class.