Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Loners Need Not Apply: Your Everyday Art World

Robert Boyd

I literally just finished reading Your Everyday Art World by Lane Relyea, which I found to be a frustrating experience. In it, he posits the idea of the network as the engine of new art. And he seems taken with the idea, often comparing this new art favorably against older kinds of un-networked art that don't meet his approval. But as you read the book, you realize how selective he is. Indeed, if there is a perfect example of critical selection bias, this is it. Anyone forming a theory of art engages in this--it's pretty much unavoidable, and let's face it: art history is not science. But what was weird (and in the end, kind of satisfying) is that Relyea is constantly undercutting his own argument by showing how these newish tendencies are not unadulterated good things. His enthusiasm shows through, but he is constantly arguing the other side as well.

Anyway, as I read it, I kept folding down corners on pages that contained things that interested me. And because I'm a fundamentally lazy writer, I've decided that instead of writing a review that addresses the entirety of Relyea's tome, I'd just look at the pages that I bent the corners of.

Page 11. Right at the start, Relyea seems to realize that this new networked art world reflects some of the most pernicious aspects of the modern world as a whole:
Artists and designers are the role models for the highly motivated, underpaid, short-trm and subcontracted creative types who neoliberals imagine will staff their fantasy of a fully freelance economy--what ex-Al Gore speechwriter Daniel Pink has titled "Free Agent Nation" and the Tony Blair government pithily christened "The Talent Economy." As Andrea Fraser sums up, artists "have become poster children for the joys of insecurity, flexibility, deferred economic rewards, social alienation, cultural uprooting and geographic displacement."
Hear that all you adjuncts out there? This kind of networked art world that Relyea seems to be championing is the same one that engenders groups like W.A.G.E., who fight for artists working on "projects" (essentially freelance art jobs) to get decent pay for that work.

On the same page, he quotes Miwon Kwon:
"... the presumption that dematerialization = anticommodity still persists in structuring the contemporary art discourse," this despite the fact that "services, information and 'experience' are now quantifiable units of measure to gauge economic productivity, growth and profit. Ideas and actions do not debilitate or escape the market system because they are dematerialized; they drive it precisely because so."
And yet, Relyea occasionally evinces a knee-jerk antipathy to "objects" in favor of experiences. Kwon is a regular touchpoint for Relyea in the text, and after a while, I started to wish I was reading a book on this subject by Kwon instead of Relyea.

Page 13. But like I said, Relyea seems to realize that his ideal of "networks, databases, platforms and projects" is ambiguous. "To take one glaring example, the accumulation of prestige, contacts, and information by those who are 'international' and jet around constantly is routinely won off the backs of those left behind, the assistants, adjuncts, and other lower-ranking and less well-known professionals..." I always laugh when an artist's bio says she lives in "New York/Mumbai" or "Berlin/St. Louis/Mexico City." Saying this about yourself is like driving around in a Porsche--it signals to the world your (relative) wealth. Internationalism is not inherently progressive, but in the art world it is often treated that way.

Page 39. An interesting aside on the gradual demise of the Frankfurt School's idea of an all-powerful culture industry whose purpose was, to quote Thomas McEvilley, to "psyche-out the working class." It was replaced by the idea of media that resisted dominant culture (the Birmingham School) like the material produced by activist groups and subcultures--'zines, hip-hop, flyers, etc. Relyea gets personal, here, talking about editing Artpaper in the 1980s and advocating DIY culture. But he accuses his younger self of naivete, pointing out how easily this stuff has been co-opted and neutralized. Don't be too hard on yourself, Lane--all of us who lived through those times thought that was stuff was cool. My review in 1991 of the catalog for High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture ended by saying that the D.I.Y. work that arose from subcultural sources was far more interesting and authentic  than what the curators of High and Low called the "big box" (the museum) and the "little box" (TV).

Page 67. A network implies communication which implies sociability. While he called out the problematic nature of the jet-setting artist, he returns to it. Discussing Douglas Gordon (one of the touchstones of Your Everyday Art World), he writes, "And that's why Gordon writes the formula as he does: art relates to place relates to international practice and dialogue. Or talk plus travel, using [Christine] Borland's more concise math. A few years later, Miwon Kwon would nod in agreement from across the Atlantic, writing in October that 'if the artist is successful, he or she travels constantly as a freelancer.'"

Reading this, my first thought was, what about shy artists? Hold onto that thought. Later on the same page, Relyea writes, "As [Luc] Boltanski and [Eve] Chiapello describe the change, against an older assumption that 'people are creative when they are separated from others,' today 'creativity is a function of the number and quality of links.'" So for all of you who are awkward in social situations, who lack the gift of gab, who don't have magnetic personalities--fuck you!

First of all, this binary distinction which threads its way throughout the book (solitary versus networked) seems too extreme. Obviously there are gradations, and over time, one might exist in both extremes at different times. Plus, while there is the romantic myth of the "solitary genius," most people are aware that creativity has often arisen from social scenes--groups of artists and writers in particular places at particular times, trading ideas and pushing each other along. All that's changed recently is cheap airfare and the internet.

But it also seems to imply that a solitary person can't be creative. But would Henry Darger have created better art if he hadn't been so isolated? (His life might have been better.) My problem is that Relyea seems to assign an ideological rightness to the networked artist, that this inherently tosses up better art, "better" being defined more-or-less as "more aligned with contemporary culture."

Page 102. In this chapter, Relyea has been discussing scenes that grew out of specific locations that support his thesis. Glasgow starts it, then he moves to Los Angeles, writing initially about MOCA's group exhibit Helter Skelter in 1992. That was an important exhibit, but he writes as if prior to the 90s, L.A. was an impossible environment for artists. To which I say, Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Edward Keinholz, etc.

But the point of this chapter is not so much an argument about L.A. as a description of a scene that developed there in the 90s, especially the rise of apartment galleries such as Bliss, founded in 1987 by Gayle Barkley, Jorge Pardo and Ken Riddle. (Interestingly, we Houstonians recently had the opportunity to see Jorge Pardo's work in a local apartment gallery, Front.) The rise of DIY spaces in Los Angeles was a major movement that was noted even by Roberta Smith in the New York Times. Words like "flexible," "modest," "grass-roots," "spontaneous" and "organic" were used to describe this movement. But Relyea notes that this movement didn't exist outside the art world (and I would say that about all the art he writes about in this book). Despite the fact that these DIY spaces were off the beaten path, located in residential neighborhoods, etc., an exhibit there was still an exhibit. "It didn't affect the rent, but it did get listed on one's CV."

Furthermore, these spaces "mostly addressed themselves to niche or insider groups." It was very hard to see these shows. In fact, if you didn't see one on opening night, you probably never did. This is true of the equivalent spaces that operate in Houston today: Front, Cardoza Fine Art and Scott Charmin Gallery. It takes a certain commitment to see work there, and unlike a big, bad top-down institution like the MFAH, the average attendee seeing a show at one of these galleries is part of a pretty small art clique. (That doesn't mean that I don't love them, though.)

page 111. Here Relyea tells the story of LACE, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. LACE is a non-profit art space similar in size and mission to Diverse Works in Houston. But move the clock back to 1990, when LACE was "one of the nation's biggest alternative art spaces outside of New York City, housed in a two-story abandoned warehouse in downtown L.A." The space had been purchased with help from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. It was a beautiful space, and I loved going there when I lived in L.A. The nearby warehouses were usually filled with flowers, so the streets around LACE had an unexpectedly lovely smell. I had the privilege of co-curating a show there of art by contemporary alternative comics artists. We originated the show, Misfit Lit, in Seattle in 1991 and then installed it at LACE early in 1992--which was perfect timing because it meant I could see Helter Skelter.

For Relyea, LACE was the opposite of DIY. "Its operation was anything but 'spontaneous' and 'organic'." As a non-profit, it depended on moneys from the city, state and federal governments, as well as tax-deductible donations. It was therefore publicly accountable. Every jury had to be unbiased and impersonal, "fair, democratic, and neutral." It had a bureaucratic existence like any similarly-sized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This resulted in decisions that were seldom "forcefully coherent" but instead were "muddled by compromise." (To which I say, that's democracy for you. You know who was "forcefully coherent"? Hitler.)

In 1990, LACE's finances collapsed, its director was fired, and half its staff laid off. Relyea contrasts this to the growth in prominence of the L.A. scene fed by the new D.I.Y. spaces. But he's not doing so to condemn LACE (although he does that), but rather to point out that as budgets for the arts declined and the popularity of supporting art with tax dollars waned in the 80s during the Thatcher/Reagan years, D.I.Y. conceptually took the place of bureaucratic institutions like LACE. The idea here is that while D.I.Y. seemed acceptable, even progressive, it was actually just another symptom of a growing neoliberal environment. Those D.I.Y. gallerists were just more entrepreneurs, like the guys who started Apple or H.P. in their garages--heroes of the new economy.

It's a good story, but deceptively told. Relyea never says why LACE ran into financial trouble. Was it actually because of disappearing government funds? Furthermore, he fails to mention that LACE survived this--I know since Misfit Lit was exhibited there after the financial meltdown. LACE is still a going concern.

Page 119. "Trust" was an exhibit at Tramway Gallery in Glasgow in 1995. The idea for the show was hatched in bar (i.e., through talk in a social situation). The idea of trust was built into the way the show came together. According to one of the curators, Charles Esche, the work was selected according to a rule: " of us had to had to have met the artist, and to have had some sort of reasonable personal encounter with them; that trust should be there on a personal level." The show featured a bunch of artists who are now international art stars (including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Carsten Höller, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Andrea Zittel and Cady Noland); I'm not sure what their reputations were then."'Trust' was an exhibition about not only talk and travel but also about artists who talk and travel." In other words, it was a result of the network.

But not surprisingly, "Trust" was a bomb locally. The art was incomprehensible to the public. There is a network here, but it's a closed network. Relyea quotes a review by Clare Henry: "[The show's] presentation ignores the punters in favor of an inner circle." This, I would suggest, is the problem with much of the work described in Your Everyday Art World. But as I've mentioned, Relyea doesn't shrink from these facts:
As for the wider audience, they weren't buying it. From their position, as noninitiates and constituencies beyond the art world, defined precisely for being on the far side of the boundary between inside and outside, what they saw was separation. But this time it wasn't just the typical alienation from the museum's or gallery's patrician condescension or from art's broken promise of wresting freedom from necessity--this time they were further offended by confronting what appeared to be a closed network, a clique. Like a picture behind glass, the sociality of "Trust" existed apart.
That last metaphor, "a picture behind glass," is a good description of what a shy, awkward person feels at a party or a crowded bar. There's stuff happening, conversations, conviviality, and it seems like you're just looking at it without being able to access it. That guy doesn't get to be part of Relyea's everyday art world. He's made to feel like an uncool rube when in the presence of the artistic elite. The only one who'll talk to him is Laurel Nakadate, and that's because she wants to put him in a video that ridicules him.

Page 160. Relyea posits that art school has grown more important in recent years because it provides access to the network. And of course, it does provide that access. But he writes, "If the value of school once owed to it's solitude, its encouragement of the  undistracted pursuit of studies, today it's the opposite..." The art school that offered "solitude" and "undistracted pursuit" is a total straw man. When did that ever exist? Schools, including art schools, have always been about crowding people together and creating connections--at the very least between students and teachers. But even more so, I think prospective art students have always wanted connection and sought it by going to art schools. I recall an interview with Spanish artist Javier Mariscal in the magazine Escape from the early 1980s. The interviewer made a cliched condemnation of art schools, and Mariscal disagreed. He said (quoting from memory, so I might get it wrong), "When you're in high school and you want to be an artist, you feel like a martian. But when you go to art school, suddenly you're surrounded by martians." In other words, you go to be part of a group--a network--that you can't be a part of where you were before. You want to be on the other side of that "glass wall."

Page 184. I'll close with Relyea on critics, a class of people he says have been made obsolete in the new networked art world:
Critics [...] have no equivalent of academia or the museum world, they lack institutional grounding and organization, there is no well-organized system of training that erects high educational barriers and weeds out the unqualified. They don't have the transcontinental academic archipelago of professionally linked colleagues and symposia, through which to travel, mingle, connect. Compared to professional historians, critics are unincorporated, amateurish, and undisciplined, a motley crew lacking the filtering, disciplining, and coordinating of a highly codified system."
Fuck yeah!