Yo-Yo Ma and the Meaning of Life

Talk Nov. 20, 2020

By David MarchesePhoto illustration by Bráulio Amado

The immensity of Yo-Yo Ma’s talent is such that he would be globally admired if all he ever did was appear onstage or in a recording studio and then vanish after the last notes faded from his cello. That Ma has instead used his gifts in the service of spreading humanistic values — via cross-cultural musical collaboration, civic engagement and huge amounts of heart — means that his connection with the public goes far deeper than mere admiration. Ma’s compelling instinct for compassion has been on much-needed display during this pandemic year. In the spring, he streamed a performance series, “Songs of Comfort,” on YouTube and social media. During the summer, he broadcast a performance of Bach’s Cello Suites in honor of those lost to Covid-19. And on Dec. 11, he will release “Songs of Comfort and Hope,” an album recorded with the pianist Kathryn Stott. “People need each other for support beyond the immediate staples of life,” Ma says. “They need music.”

Do you think music is fundamentally good? That’s a good question to ask and very hard to answer. It’s as if you’re asking me “Are people fundamentally good?” I don’t think people are fundamentally bad. But in the interaction of figuring things out or wanting more of something or less of something, then complex things come into play.

I ask because your work is rooted in the idea of music as a value-positive, ennobling thing.11 For example, as part of his ongoing Bach Project, Ma, who was honored as a U.N. Messenger of Peace in 2006, organizes discussions on social progress with activists, educators, students and local leaders in the cities where he performs. But music is also used in every possible awful context. Can we delineate music from the intentions of the people using it? Music connects human beings. It brings people together. You can also describe it as energy: sound that moves air molecules. So a marching band will energize an athletic game or bring people to war. The bagpipe is used for war, for entertainment, for funerals, for weddings. Music is not one thing. It’s something that people react to. But your question — “Is that good or bad?” — it depends on circumstances and individuals and timing. The invention of something starts out being more or less value-neutral. Agriculture: Nothing bad about it. But if you’re able to grow a lot of vegetables and I can’t grow any on my land, I might want to get some of your vegetables.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about, particularly over the last four years, and I’ll raise it with you fully aware that my engagement with music is minuscule compared with your own. Don’t say that. I know you like music. You’re interested. You think about it. So don’t assume I know more than you.

I’ll accept that! All right, I’ve been wondering if in the past I had too easily allowed myself to believe that engaging with music — or culture more generally — was also a way of engaging with politics. In the sense that doing so was implicitly promoting humanistic values or empathy. Now I can’t help thinking that was at least partly a complacent waste of time, and while I was doing that, some parallel Neanderthal was probably spending the equivalent time figuring out how to advance odious politics. Is my rambling making any sense to you? Of course it makes sense. It’s about whether you believe in a utilitarian world or you believe that if you look out on the night sky, you see the infinitude of variety in nature and the unreachable wonders of what it is and how we fit in. Morons are generally not thinking about the infinitude of the universe. They’re thinking of a different world. And you have to be able to extract certain truths. When you write something that’s beautiful, you think you’ve found a bit of truth. It flows. It sings. You can do that, David. Is that useful? I know the lady22 Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who is the director-general of the CERN nuclear research facility in Switzerland. who spent 20 years helping to find the so-called God particle, the Higgs boson. Is that useful? I just read this piece that says that Newton, because of the bubonic plague, had to leave university and went back to the family farm, and during that time he developed all these incredible theories that we are the beneficiaries of hundreds of years later. Is that useful?

Physics is useful. Is spending years overvaluing the political utility of art? All I’m saying is, if you dropped out and just focused on politics, then where are you drawing from? Where are your inner resources? What’s going to keep you going for 50 years? And do you know that you’re actually going to make more of a difference by focusing on politics than on the culture you’re passionate about? You don’t know what you might help make happen. Our world is full of the result of unintended as well as intended consequences. The two naturally go together.

What was your own evolution with music and politics?33 Ma’s politics have been more gestural than overt, but the gestures — like performing at the U.S.-Mexico Border and for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the U.N. — are clear in supporting values of global unity and cooperation rather than division and isolation.I think of it almost in terms of young children and how they engage in the world. Growing up is becoming familiar with a series of rolling concentric circles. You’re kind of circling your space, your home, your family. You’re exploring all around. So to your question, becoming a parent was a huge thing. Once you have a child, your sense of time completely changes. You start thinking about a longer stretch of time, where you have to be responsible for another person’s life. You have to think differently about responsibilities. If you have a parent who becomes ill and you’re there, that’s a familial responsibility. A friend is in trouble; you help the friend. These are extensions of that concentric circle. New neighbors move in; you try to welcome them. It’s all the connections we make in life. Once you’re connected, you feel responsibility. And “connected” means that it’s a circular loop. I know you, but you have to know me, too. There’s an energy circle that goes back and forth.

And you believe culture can drive that? That’s right. I knew fairly quickly in my career that you had to create memories. In order to have a career, you have to make sure that somebody remembers your name — as opposed to “Oh, that Asian dude who does the violin-type instrument.” It’s about connection. And culture — I used to ask people, “What is culture?” It’s so complex. My latest try for “culture” is that it’s everything that humans have invented that helped us survive and thrive. Think about language, think about agriculture, think about navigation, think about engineering. Think about politics: We invented our nation. And guess what? The people who invented our nation — they were younger than you. That’s my vote for giving custodial responsibility to younger people sooner rather than later. They’re willing to sacrifice certain things in order to have an authentic life in what they buy, whom they buy from, how they live. They’re going to live through moments of change that I know I’m not going to be capable of helping with, but I can be a cheerleader. That’s one way of looking at responsibility. It’s not about: “Oh, I have to care about society. I’m using culture.” It doesn’t need to be defined as “I’m going to play for you this piece of music.” It’s not that. It’s more like you and I talk, and a connection is activated. Because you’re a thoughtful person, I’m going to get something from this conversation that is going to help me build a mental structure: “I met this guy, David, who’s interested in a broad number of people and really does his homework and is a modest person, but he cares a lot and is curious.” That’s a good frame to remember somebody by. That’s important.

There have been arguments in the air lately about cultural appropriation. I’m curious how you see them, because you’re someone who has obviously thought hard about how to engage with other cultures.44 Most notably through his Silkroad Ensemble, which performs music inspired by the Eurasian silk road trade routes. Ma has also recorded tango, bluegrass and Brazilian music, among other styles. That’s in addition to music from the European classical tradition.Look, my favorite subject in college was anthropology.55 Ma graduated from Harvard, where he studied anthropology, with a degree in liberal arts in 1976. Studying early cultures was interesting because so much of this conversation that we’re talking about is stuff that comes from essentially the last 500 years. Anthropology gave me a method of looking at value structures of different societies. These things take me into beyond the contested 300-to-500-year era that we’re all really focused on.

So you see contemporary cultural arguments as blips? In order to try to understand, I’m trying to gain perspective. The anthropological part of that is that you start out from a position of beginner’s mind. No judgment. Tell me about yourself. What’s important to you? I just want to know. I’m not going to be judgmental. Later on, I can go back and think: Who is David? What made him curious? Was he born that way or did something happen in his life? And how did having children change him? Because he said something about “the last four years” — his kids are 3 and 5. So is that sort of family, child-related?

Are you asking me for real? Yes!

The change comes from having kids and then looking at the way politics is going and thinking about what kind of world my girls are going to grow up in and what I can do to make it better. Exactly. I’m a grandparent.66 Ma and Jill Hornor, an arts consultant, were married in 1978. The couple have two children, Nicholas and Emily. Teddy and Oliver are both preschool age. Teddy’s going to be 83 years old in the year 2100. I will be long dead by then. But what kind of world is he going to live in? It’ll be past the singularity moment. Are there going to be 500 million people already washed under the ocean? Are we going to live with this fractured sense of the world? This is my two little grandchildren. It’s not an abstract thing.

Are you confident that your work is helping bring about the world that you would like your grandkids to live in? Not that you’ll necessarily get the result you want, but that you’re doing what you can to achieve it. [Pause.] I don’t know. That’s the kind of question that I ask myself.

I can’t tell if the way you answered my earlier question about cultural appropriation — by talking about anthropology and getting beyond a post-enlightenment perspective — is just how your mind works or was a noble way of sidestepping a potentially controversial subject. Well, subjects are controversial for a reason. This is something that people have to argue out. I can tell you, my mind is very weird. The bushmen of the Kalahari desert — I actually studied them, and I loved that group.77 Ma’s collaborations with the Kalahari are the subject of the 1996 documentary “Distant Echoes.” I spent time there. And the thing — I’ll give you the fast takeaway — is that they did trance dancing. They did this dance for hours. Women in a circle clapping; they got into trance. The next day, I interviewed the women and said, “Why do you do this?” They gave me the answer, “Because it gives us meaning.” Their answer has been my answer for culture since that time. I’m not a crackpot person. I am absolutely a science-based, evidence-based person. But because of the practice of music, I delve into the inner life of whatever we are. I don’t have any answers, but I keep poking around to try to figure out a little bit more. So in terms of cultural appropriation, I just want to say that academia has certain standards. Business has certain standards. The arts have certain standards. Politics has certain standards. They’re very different standards. If you tell me something that’s precious and I then take it as my own, when I use it I need to give credit. We do that in academia. We don’t do that in the arts. Acknowledge where it’s coming from and share in the wealth.

During the pandemic, people, as always, turned to music for solace. Have you noticed common denominators in music that comforts? I’ve been asking myself all my life, “What is the purpose of music?” It’s like trying to find the meaning almost every day, because the purpose yesterday may not be the purpose today. What the pandemic has crystallized in my mind is that we need music because it helps us to get to very specific states of mind. It’s not like, “Listen to my music; it will help.” But rather, everybody wants to get to certain states of mind during the day, during the cycle of the season. And during a pandemic, with the alienation of not having social contact, music is also that physical force. It’s energy. Then you get to more complex things, like how certain songs elicit memory. Certain smells can get to an immediate childhood memory of your grandmother’s baking apple pie. Music can do the same thing. Your first kiss. Your wedding. And unfortunately, during this time, we’ve lost a number of friends, and you have virtual memorial services and you play music for that. All of which is to say that you do whatever is needed with music. We need music to make us feel at equilibrium through hard times and good times.

People have drawn so much from Bach’s Cello Suites88 Ma has released three recordings of the cello suites, in 1983, 1997 and 2018, which he said would be his last time scaling that particular mountain. this year. Those pieces were originally composed as study exercises, and yet they’ve become these icons of catharsis. What’s their magic? A couple of things. Bach wrote the Cello Suites in the only time that he was not in the service of the church. It’s something like 1720 to ’22. This was a time when he didn’t have to write cantatas for Sundays. He could experiment further. So the way I look at the Suites — and this is a roundabout way of getting to your question — is that I imagine Bach saying to himself: “Hey, I play a lot of instruments. I play the organ, I play the piano, I play the oboe, and there’s the cello. I’m going to figure out what I can do with the cello.” He says, “I’m going to learn everything about the instrument.” He writes the first suite, second, third suites. What does he discover? “Wow, I now know exactly how the cello functions.” Then he says, “Now, because I have an experimental nature, I want to figure out what the cello can’t do.” One thing the cello can’t do is hold many notes at once. So he says: “OK, how am I going to do that? Maybe I can figure out a way to invent something. Aha! How about if I use the listener’s ear to fill in what I can’t do polyphonically? I give you one note so it’s in your memory, then maybe I leave it, but do it in such a way that in about seven seconds I have the following note but you still remember the first note.” He does that with different voices, and especially with the bass line. And starting with the fourth suite, he gets more and more inventive in creating larger structures — sort of like a universe filled with neutron stars and galaxy black matter. Sort of like saying, “I can get you into a different world by fiddling with my permutations and your subconscious reception of them.” The fourth, fifth and sixth become more experimental. The fifth one, he tunes down the cello by a note, so he gets richer chords. The sixth one, he actually writes for a five-stringed instrument instead of a four-stringed instrument, the viola pomposa.99 There isn’t consensus on the nature of the viola pomposa or how it was played, and it has often been conflated with another small cello-like instrument, the violoncello piccolo. He’s expanding the range of the instrument and literally changing it.

Where does emotion come into this? What does this have to do with healing or solace? Let’s say if you’re depressed and you’re stuck, you’re essentially kind of paralyzed. Your neurons are operating at low level and low capacity. Music is a stimulus. You respond to it, but you’re responding subconsciously to something that makes your brain active.

So the ingenuity of Bach’s music fires the neurons, which causes positive feelings? Exactly. In a way, it’s the Socratic method: Musically, the Suites are asking, “How would you find an answer?” Maybe that’s all a fantasy of mine, but the evidence is that people find something in this music. I know I do.

Do you think about your public presence at all in the context of being Chinese-American? We are in this moment of rising anti-Chinese racism in the United States, and your persona seems directly in contrast to negative stereotypes about Chinese-Americans. Is that intentional? You’re asking a pretty broad question vis-à-vis the United States. It’s almost like six or eight different countries of very different characters that have been stitched together to form the United States of America. But here’s one way of answering: When I started playing concerts on a regular basis in my early 20s, in Europe the most often asked question was, “How can an Oriental like you understand music?” That was a bit of this stereotype of the Asian with a slide rule. Being a musician at that time was an anomaly. Now the numbers of Asians in orchestras, it’s fairly large. When I started out, Seiji Ozawa1010 The Japanese conductor was the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1973 to 2002. was the conductor of the Boston Symphony, and I always credit him with breaking the mold. He was a long-haired, hippie-ish kind of conductor. He was a cool guy. Because of him, I’m almost second-wave. It was easier. Now people are talking about, “How does it feel to be one of very few African-Americans in a major orchestra?” — Anthony McGill1111 The principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic. is now being featured. He’s a great artist. He is such a beautiful soul. There are fabulous African-American musicians, but I think the environment needs to be more comfortable.

More broadly, how do you think about the specific environment in which you’re playing music? For me as a musician, I try to be aware of where I am. As a performer, my job is to make the listener the most important person in the room. The only way to avoid burnout is to care about where you are. My good friend Manny Ax1212 The pianist Emanuel Ax, Ma’s longtime friend and collaborator. would always say to me that it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday; if you’re here today, that’s what counts. Being present. Caring. You’re working with living material. That goes back to memory. The living material is only living if it is memorable. Not only that it’s memorable but that you pass it on. That is what I’m thinking about with every single interaction. Whether it’s a kid, someone on the street, in a concert hall or with you, David. It’s the same thing: How to be present. Because if you’re not?

Then why are we here? That’s it. You are acknowledging someone’s existence by being present. It may take a lot more energy, but boy, is it much more rewarding. It makes me happy. It makes people happy. It’s wonderful.

Malleable Paper Sculptures by Polly Verity Expand and Contract Into Mesmerizing Shapes

July 8, 2019

Kate Sierzputowski

Polly Verity (previously) has been experimenting with three-dimensional paper sculptures and intricate folds since the age of eight, when she was given a paper folding book by her step-grandfather. Instead of following an ancient origami tradition, Verity finds her inspiration in the more modern technique of abstract tessellations developed by Bauhaus experimentation in the 1920’s. Through the years she has focused primarily on repetitive abstract geometric patterns made with uncut pieces of white paper to allow her audience to focus on the works’ shapes rather than be distracted by her chosen color. In addition to small sculptures, Verity has also created one-wear-only dresses for weddings, performances, and photo shoots. You can see more of her repeated paper designs on Instagram.

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The History of Street Art


July 29, 2014

Any type of history is a discourse in its own right. What is more, when talking about art history, the discourses seem to flourish immensely from one into another, and so on into many more. In the context of the beginnings, one cannot but firstly reflect upon the artwork of graffiti. Later on, by the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, street art has evolved into complex interdisciplinary forms of artistic expression. From graffiti, stencils, prints and murals, through large-scale paintings and projects of artistic collaboration, to street installations, as well as performative and video art, it is very much safe to say that street art has found it’s way into the core of contemporary art. And rightly so.

The History of Street Art
The History of Street Art

Where Did it Come From?

Some of the earliest expressions of street art were certainly the graffitiwhich started showing up on the sides of train cars and walls. This was the work of gangs in the 1920s and 1930s New York. The impact of this subversive culture was extraordinarily felt in the 1970s and 1980s. This cultural movement was recorded in the book The History of American Graffiti, by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon. These decades were a significant turning point in the history of street art – it was a time when young people, by responding to their socio-political environment, started creating a movement, taking the ‘battle for meaning’ into their own hands.

Soon, this subcultural phenomenon gained the attention and respect in the ‘grown-up’ world. From the fingers and cans of teenagers, it had taken a form of true artistic expression. One of the most respected names in the field of documenting street art and artists, who would gladly testify to this, is photographer Martha Cooper. Soon enough, photographs weren’t the only medium for capturing and ‘displacing’ street art into different contexts. Essentially an illegal activity, a process of creation through destruction began its evolution into numerous forms of artistic expression which found it’s way to galleries and the global art market. Although still subversive, and in its large part an illegal movement, through art enthusiasts and professionals, street art earned its place in the contemporary art world.

The History of Street Art
The History of Street Art

What about Street Art Today?

This is not a story just about graffiti. Although street art owes a part of its glory to this kind of artistic expression, it is a marvelous art form in its own right and it is amazing to follow the evolution and diversity of street art in the 21stst century. For example, stencils have been a part of history parallel to graffiti and have been vessels for socio-political activism for those in power, and even more for those who resisted. The evolution of street art became evident through such artists as Banksy, who transformed views of this art form with his documentary Exit through the gift shop. With the emergence of artists such Vhils or BLU, street art became a ground for experimenting with different kinds of methodology, but never giving up on its rebellious position in front of the hegemonistic patterns and structures of popular culture and mass media reality.

Thus, street art gave birth to artists who create breathtaking murals, and those who have incorporated video art and other performative aspects to creative work ‘on the streets’. To understand the history of street art, one must immerse oneself into the energy of this sublime cultural phenomenon, as an admirer, but perhaps as a creator as well.

Editors’ Tip: The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti Hardcover by Rafael Schacter

From painted murals in Latin America in the early 20th century through Latino gangs spray-can graffiti in the 1950s, street art has traveled a long way to become what it is today. Omnipresent globally, it has evolved into a complex art form encompassing various practices. The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti is a survey of international art scene and brings together the world’s most influential urban artists and their work. This illustrated volume also features specially commissioned “city artworks”, as well as the evolution of street art and graffiti within each region. Organized geographically, the book presents the work of more than hundred important street artists such as Espo in New York, Shepard Fairey in Los Angeles, Os Gêmeos in Brazil, or Anthony Lister in Australia.

The Influences of Street Art


While fidget spinners are the latest trend in handheld amusements, spinning phenakistiscope discs such as the example shown here charmed 19th-century audiences. These discs were the first widespread devices that created an illusion of fluid motion. Before cinematography, adults and children alike were captivated by objects that combined art and optical illusion, and much of the content on phenakistiscope discs used the effects of animation to create amusing and fanciful scenes. When in use, the disc pictured here would show a loop of a male figure whose head is in a constant state of distortion, transforming from a thin elongated face to a broad one, with brief moments showing the figure in more natural proportions.

The tongue twister of the name “phenakistiscope” owes its origins to Greek roots and literally means “to deceive the eye.” This was the popular name for the optical amusements in France and Belgium, but optical inventors in other countries and distributors for other companies called the devices by a range of names so that they are sometimes known as “stroboscopes,” “phantasmascopes,” and “fantoscopes.”

Regardless of what they’re called, phenakistiscopes all operate in the same manner, using the physical principle of persistence of motion to create the appearance of animation. The hole at the disc’s center allowed it to be attached to a vertical handle shaped like a spindle. The device would then be held up to face a mirror and spun like a wheel. Peering through the rectangular slots on the back of the disc, the viewer would see the animation by looking at the reflected advancing images in the mirror. Like the individual pages of a flipbook, the small rectangular perforations limit the amount of time the eye can physically see the spinning images, which prevents them from simply blurring together. The number of rectangular slots varies based on the design of the disc, but it always corresponds to the number of still images that make up the animation. Other examples in Cooper Hewitt’s collection, pictured above, feature multiple animations so that different scenes could be viewed at the disc’s perimeter and center. After the success of the phenakistiscope, the zoetrope soon borrowed the principle to create strips of advancing images—the resulting animations could be viewed by many people at once.

Julie Pastor is Research Cataloguer in the Department of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Will Galleries and Museums Ever Embrace Animated GIF Art?

The beloved Internet image format is still looking for art world acceptance.

Manuel Fernández, Dolly GIF (2013). Courtesy the artist. Via Tumblr.

The year 2012 was a momentous one for the animated GIF. The popularity of Dump.fm was just beginning to fade, but the platform, which facilitates real-time chat with images, had sparked GIF-making among countless creatives, from programmers and musicians to designers and visual artists. With the rise of Tumblr, and the launch of Google+—social networks used extensively by artists to connect with each other and share GIFs—the medium became so ubiquitous that it was even dubbed the “Word of the Year” by the Oxford Dictionary.

Two years on, has the mass popularity of GIFs affected art GIF-making communities? Rich Oglesby, who runs the Tumblr blog Prosthetic Knowledge, reminded me that GIFs have been present in online culture since the early days of the web, long before the rise of the GIF industry—Giphy, Gifpop!, Giphoscope, NewHive, etc. Back then sites like Word, Geocities, and B3ta were hosting familiar GIF archetypes that remain today: animated illustrations, stop-motion, glitchy discolorations, and digital low-res vectors. “And let’s not forget the glitter-vomit of MySpace pages,” Oglesby recalled.

Since that time, GIFs have become increasingly visible, in commercial as well as non-commercial settings. There is a long history of GIF sales, but more recently, in 2011, Rhizome sold a selection of animated GIFs at the Armory Art Show; and, in 2012, Klausgallery.net offered a GIF by Nicolas Sassoon. Just this year TRANSFER has opened a store that sells, among other things, limited edition lenticular prints made by artists.

It’s this history of relatively widespread accessibility that informs the artists making art GIFs. Artist Tom Moody, an early adopter, described what makes the art GIF distinct. “It’s a matter of context,” he said. “You have to catch the movement of images—the reacting or punning flow of one into another as people respond to each other’s posts. If it’s a ‘surf club’-type situation, if it’s happening on Tumblr or Dump.fm… to me that can be very much in the art domain, like a performance, whether the individual GIFs are self-consciously ‘art’ or not. That’s not the only ‘art’ use of GIFs, just one of the more subtle and difficult to identify (and document).” Another GIF-maker and artist, Anthony Antonellis, preferred to describe successful GIFs as silent “melodies”. They can take on as many different shapes as a song has stanzas.

Moody, like most GIF-makers I spoke to, cited the ease of loading the file format in a browser as a large part of its appeal. The recent rise of platforms friendly to the medium has also made a big difference. “Social media opened [the field] up,” curator, artist, and GIF-maker Lorna Mills told me over the phone. Mills highlighted her co-organization of Sheroes with Rea McNamara as an energizing force within the community; that project was a series of monthly, limited-run art parties that ran from 2011 to 2012 and asked artists to make GIFs and other works responding to “legendary ladies.” Dolly Parton, Grace Jones, and Yoko Ono were each honored with projection-backed performances and installations, and the event, which began with only a couple of artists, quickly grew to include over 45 participants. “We were one of the first to do events where GIFs were central, and we were doing it with large groups of people,” Mills said. “The community grew, and with it going offline, the file size [of the GIF] wasn’t issue. People could get quite extravagant.”

Sheroes has become just one example of a growing number of events that bring out audiences. Now, similar offline parties are everywhere: Antonellis and Mills co-organized “When Analogue Became Digital” in Berlin; there was “DUMP.FM IRL” at 319 Scholes; every closing reception at TRANSFER gallery; the David Bowie GIF opening for the Art Gallery of Ontario; and the projection fundraiser “Liquidation,” which was organized by Jennifer Chan. Even online events such as The Wrong Biennale seem to bring in repeat visitors and spark new work. The Biennial’s still in its first iteration (and closed, so the site is down for the next two years), but the energy and enthusiasm of participants and friends stands in contrast to many of the art world’s online, time-based ventures, which seem to quickly fizzle out—the short-lived VIP Fair being the most notable example.

Sometimes it wasn’t the events or available platforms that got people involved in making GIF artworks, but the image format’s limitations. Like many artists I spoke with, San Francisco-based artist Andrew Benson started making GIFs mostly as a means of enticing Tumblr users to click on his videos. “I really thought of animated GIFs as being like the underwear drawer of my artistic career,” he said. “It’s a bunch of stuff I was sort of doing on my own, but it turned out there was an audience for it.” For Benson, the aesthetic appeal of GIFs is closely tied to their accessibility: “The lowbrow quality of animated GIFs opens up the opportunity to do something off-the-cuff and experimental.”


And while people have theorized, criticized, and categorized GIFs to no end, they remain in a kind of browser-based Neverland that is unfamiliar to many of those in the art establishment. A. Bill Miller, a GIF-maker and art professor based in Wisconsin, told me that he asks students to evaluate GIFs less on concept, and more on the qualities particular to the file format: “How it loops, file size, compression, and color and that sort of stuff.” Mills, for her part, deemed smooth GIFs undesirable because they become “boring” and look too much like video.

Notably, most evaluation criteria assume the distracted viewing experience of a browser, which is also the kind of viewer you’re going to get at the offline parties and GIF events mentioned above. Nobody wants to quietly contemplate art at a party. According to McNamara, these events have only received a kind of half-acceptance from the museum world. “GIF-focused events come from that DIY exhibition format tradition of Speed Shows, BYOB, etc.,” she said. “But I’ve seen certain open call group shows happen via institutions and the like that are these one-time-only events deemed separate from their broader programming initiatives. They’re treated like stunts.” The Tate’s call to GIF their art collection from the 1800s smacks of the kind of marketing strategy that seeks to exploit a pre-existing interest for quick attention.

This speaks to the persistent problem of GIFs’ validation within the art world. As McNamara noted, for all the listicles of GIF artists you need to know, there seems to be precious little by way of historicizing or critical discussion. “That’s really where we decide whether its a viable creative medium,” Moody said, lamenting the replacement of discourse with “GIF of the Day” posts (a series we run on Art F City).

There’s some question as to whether GIF-makers benefit from this validation, and many without art backgrounds tend not to seek it. In some ways, their situation is similar to those of comics artists, who have never been embraced by the art market. Do these fields benefit from the art world’s relative indifference? For those GIF-makers who have professional arts degrees, the desire to evaluate the art GIF in art terms can create tension.

“I feel like there’s not a good way to view [GIFs] in the gallery setting,” Benson told me. “They really belong on your browser.” And the problem with a web browser, according to Benson, is that it’s “a pretty terrible art viewing context.” The physicality of an object in a gallery commands attention in a way that the online artwork does not. “Because [the browser] is a general, all-purpose context, it doesn’t feel special,” Benson added. “It’s kind of like when I see art in a coffee shop; I’m there to drink coffee and do work. I’m not there to study the art.”

This anecdote highlights the challenge of even describing the medium, a problem Chan articulated in an email. “The GIF finds difficulty in occupying a genre and even resists many categorizations (it’s not photography or video, and there isn’t something else you can apply dither to and load in browser),” she wrote. “If there are inherent properties to GIFs like we mentioned (movement, jerkiness, short messages, repetition), maybe people can’t assess them with the same contemplative lens they bring to the fine arts.”

And while that mentality seems very much behind the rise of the art GIF party, sustained growth at the level seen in 2012 seems almost impossible. The Dump.fm community has shrunk over the years, and nobody I spoke to uses Google+ anymore. “I really do think of that first summer with Google+ as a beautiful era for GIFs,” Antonellis recalled. “It did something more than Dump.fm could,” he said, referring to the extended time users had to respond to posts. Google+ acted more like a blog than Dump’s chat room.

Conversations like these reveal just how much GIFs live or die by these platforms. “We’ve come to rely on these consumer-grade solutions because that’s what’s available, but it was never the intention of the makers. It was never the intention of Google+ to be the platform for sharing animated GIFs,” Benson said. “It feels like the community has contracted a certain amount in the last year. Maybe it’s just the fossilization of my own social network, but I’m not seeing these big expansive GIF group shows.” A. Bill Miller, by contrast, is a little more optimistic in his assessment. “It feels like [the community is] always growing and contracting.” he tells me. “It’s in a middle stage.”

When TV Logos Were Physical Objects

by Christopher Jobson on May 15, 2017

It goes without saying that nearly everything made with graphic design and video software was once produced using a physical process, from newspapers to TV Logos. But some TV stations and film studios took things even further and designed physical logos that were filmed to create dynamic special effects. Arguably the most famous of which is MGM’s Leo the Lion which first appeared in 1916 and would go on to include 7 different lions over the decades.

Recently, television history buff Andrew Wiseman unearthed this amazing behind-the-scenes shot of the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française logo from the early 1960s that was constructed with an array of strings to provide the identity with a bright shimmer that couldn’t be accomplished with 2D drawings. The logo could also presumably be filmed from different perspectives, though there’s no evidence that was actually done.

Another famous physical TV identity was the BBC’s “globe and mirror” logo in use from 1981 to 1985 that was based on a physical device. After filming the rotating globe against a panoramic mirror, it appears the results were then traced by hand similar to rotoscoping. One of the more elaborate physical TV intro sequences was the 1983 HBO intro that despite giving the impression of being animated or created digitally was in fact built almost entirely with practical effects. You can watch a 10 minute video about how they did it below. (via Quipsologies, Reddit, Andrew Wiseman)

MoMA Takes a Stand: Art From Banned Countries Comes Center Stage

The Matisse gallery, where the masterworks “Dance” and “The Piano Lesson” hang, has been refitted with a large, intricate work on paper by the Iranian artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. In his “Mon Père et Moi” (1962), stylized gold hands and feet accompany jam-packed squares containing concentric circles and dancing glyphs. Are the two figures performing sujud, the act of prostrating oneself during Muslim prayer? They are too abstract to say with certainty. Like Matisse, Mr. Zenderoudi translated bodies into pure shapes, informed by patterns gleaned from the decorative arts.

“The Prophet” by Parviz Tanavoli, center, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

An untitled canvas covered in dried, cracked earth, by Marcos Grigorian, who grew up in Iran, now hangs amid similarly geological works by Alberto Burri and Antoni Tàpies. The gallery devoted to futurism has a small bronze totem by Parviz Tanavoli, one of Iran’s foremost sculptors. (Mr. Tanavoli, who divides his time between Iran and Canada, was briefly detained last year by Iranian authorities.) Now, next to Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” is a painting by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect who died last year.

Hadid’s depiction of Hong Kong as an allover composition of interlocking shards satisfyingly fractures the gallery’s timeline of art around 1900, and other works, too, are installed almost as intentional disruptions.

A massive 2011 photograph of three billiard balls by Shirana Shahbazi — who has German citizenship but whose Iranian birth means she is now barred from this country — incongruously dominates the gallery devoted to Dada, right behind “To Be Looked At …,” Marcel Duchamp’s impish painting on glass. Next to a large, Expressionist street scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a 2007 video, “Chit Chat,” by Tala Madani, who was born in Iran, plays on a loop. The frames of the stop-motion animation derive from bold, brushy compositions Ms. Madani paints and repaints. But where Kirchner depicts the streets of Dresden with a certain alienated distance, the video — depicting men grabbing each other by the throat and vomiting up yellow paint — is quietly urgent.

“Chit Chat,” a video installation by Tala Madani, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

America’s leading museums have been vocal in the past week about their opposition to Mr. Trump’s executive order, which is still being enforced at some airports. James Cuno, who leads the Getty in Los Angeles, called the order “ill advised, unnecessary and destructive.” Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggested that the blockbuster “Assyria to Iberia” might never have happened under Mr. Trump’s rules. Artists have participated in protests, especially in Los Angeles, home to the largest Persian community in the United States. The order will also have a negative effect on arts journalism; Roxana Azimi, the arts correspondent for Le Monde, is no longer able to enter the United States, as she was born in Iran.

But the speed and directness with which MoMA — not an institution usually thought of as nimble — has responded to Mr. Trump’s ban are especially impressive. Its particular force comes from the curators’ decision to present these works on the fifth floor, in the galleries most steeped in MoMA’s flowchart narrative of Modernist development. The Iranian, Iraqi and Sudanese art does not merely disrupt the old timeline of art history; it disrupts MoMA’s own institutional character. It says: Even the room in which Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” hangs is not irreproachable, but rather a particular story told by individuals, who at times must speak out.

The institution, of course, has never been divorced from power and politics. (MoMA’s continued sponsorship from Volkswagen — which admitted to installing illegal software in 11 million cars worldwide, resulting in more than $4.3 billion in fines — especially rankles.) But in the years to come, all institutions, from the most experimental to the most established, will have to decide whether to keep their heads down or whether to reply. This welcome new voice, less Olympian and more pluralistic, is not how MoMA has spoken in the past — but, then again, this is not how presidents have spoken in the past, either.

How to Fix the Art World, Part 2



Welcome to Part 2 of ‘How to Fix the Art World.’ If you are just now tuning in, here’s a link to Part 1, and here’s a little background:

Back in August my staff and I embarked on an epic project: we wanted to know what inhabitants of the art world think is wrong with it and how they would fix it. In the ensuing months we spoke with more than 50 individuals—artists and curators, critics and historians, art dealers and an art fair director—to gather a range of perspectives. Some wrote longer essayistic responses; some artists responded with visuals. We finished our research and put the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews to bed on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. Subscribers will receive the print edition later this month. Because some of our respondents wanted to speak about what’s right with the art world, we are posting a portion of the many responses in these days before the Thanksgiving holiday. We hope you will read them with the same great interest, and the same open mind, with which we did when we received them. We hope that you will continue the conversation. —Sarah Douglas, Editor-in-Chief, ARTnews
(Please continue reading the other parts of this feature: part 3 and part 4.)


Puppies Puppies Marc Spiegler
Rose Marcus Adriana Zavala
Carlo McCormick Liam Gillick
Stefan Simchowitz Alexander Dumbadze
Pope.L Barbara Rose
John Miller


Puppies Puppies


Bas Jan Ader, I’m too sad to tell you, 1970.


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Marc Spiegler
Global Director, Art Basel

The art world and all its players—from curators, collectors, and artists to museum leaders, arts critics, advisers, and beyond—are more international, interconnected, and hyperextended than ever before. We throw ourselves into a state of perpetual motion, forever shuttling from the newest museum’s opening to the next must-see biennial. That vibrant development is great, but the accelerated pace places a tremendous pressure on artists to be in a constant state of creative production. Yet artists need time and space to fully develop, and the frenetic atmosphere tempts too many artists toward overproduction, with long-term risks for the quality of their work and the longevity of their careers.

Of course, we all take part in shaping this hyperactive environment—fairs such as Art Basel included. This is one of the reasons why we place such a priority on works not made merely to feed the market (like those in Unlimited, our film series, and performance programs). We also aim to highlight especially those galleries that try hard to insulate their artists from the market’s pressures—for their own good and for all of us who love to see great art coming from all over the globe. In the long run, a slower-paced, content-driven art world is more rewarding than a jet-set treadmill. (Back to top.)

Rose Marcus, Girl, left (legs with Imagine circle), 2015. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND NIGHT GALLERY

Rose Marcus, Girl, left (legs with Imagine circle), 2015.


Rose Marcus

Warren Buffett said, “Never invest in a business that you do not understand.” The art world is replete with problems but, here, I will address class. There are some artists who can continue to make work without becoming established because they have a financial safety net or have decided to make art that requires no overhead. Fine, but an inept system should not determine our work, its means, or the source from which it is made. Artists who have not made it into the top tier of the market cannot live on their art. These artists often work multiple day jobs, and often in the form of precarious freelance labor without benefits. If they are lucky, these day jobs are “flexible,” yet artists have to pay—in the form of time off to work—to meet the demands necessary for being a part of the market. This leads to compromised work. By the nature of making things, usually in a studio, artists’ life expenses are doubled and their stable income is partial.

These numbers simply do not make sense. If we define Buffett’s word “business” here as art, then artists know they are participating in a system in which they are not fully valued (or again in Buffett’s terms, understood). Therefore, they have one option, to opt out, or follow Duchamp’s advice: “go underground.”

Let’s treat radical ideas as living things, ones that deserve to thrive, or at least be sustainable, regardless of the market’s temperament. The art world increasingly favors highly productive individuals who make explainable objects. This is not congruent with making art; it is linked to the logic of the greater economy. Artists should not be defined as part of the “creative class.” Artists make work from messiness, from not knowing what they are doing, from trial and error. Time spent doing nothing is required in order to unwind the construction of daily life, which is so tightly wound.

At the national level, benefactors and consumers of art should be required to invest in livelihoods, not just specific objects. If one dollar were added to every institutional entry fee and every collector were required to devote an additional percentage in proportion to their total annual purchases, we could create a consistent stipend for artists. This would not be a government program; it would be the art industry investing in its own future. If this won’t work, let’s figure out what will, or follow Duchamp’s advice. (Back to top.)

Adriana Zavala
Director, U.S. Latina/o Art Forum

Notwithstanding the art world’s so-called global turn, institutions across the board (museums, galleries, art fairs, biennials, and universities) are still not reflective of this country’s, much less the world’s, demographics. The Euro- and Anglocentric canon and the Occidentalist norms and hierarchies of difference that sustain it still dominate.

Educate to challenge timeworn hierarchies and values that sustain settler colonialism’s racialized and gendered cultural logic; this includes the framing of alternative narratives and histories in ways that ultimately serve only to perpetuate established hierarchies of value. Support organizations and individuals committed to developing and disseminating new conceptual structures that more accurately reflect our society and the world.



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Carlo McCormick
Critic & Curator

These questions of what is wrong with the art world and how to fix it are ones we should probably have been asking ourselves more often in past years, but I suppose everyone was too giddy over the stupid money, blind ambition, greed, star-fucking, and petty gossip to spare a moment for crucial self-reflection. Despite the shadows of crisis that threaten a brutal contraction in the playing field, it is certainly not too late at least to ask them now.

Let us begin by being clear about what we are addressing. The art world is not the same as the art market, and this persistent confusion is at the root of our troubles. The art world is not such a big domain and, for all its dysfunction and sprawl, it is a cozy place in which many of us have made a comfortable home for ourselves, a community we share that ameliorates those forces that continue to make it somewhat colder, ruthless, and more alienating. The art market is as vast as it is soulless, the antithesis of the creativity, honesty, and empathy that both engender and define the very best in the arts.

Here are some of the most obvious suggestions:

Get rid of the speculators, they don’t give a damn about art and are profoundly detrimental to its health.

Get auction houses out of the contemporary art game. They are pure poison and you all know it.

Stop all the funny money floating through this unregulated market. The art market has always been complicit in the most egregious financial schemes, but it has only gotten worse and one of these days a bunch of you will rightly end up in jail.

Prevent flipping works by creating major penalties for the sale of them within ten years, especially for profit.

Bar the shipment of art directly to free holds for indefinite storage just so a bunch of vulgar monkeys can dodge taxes while moving around their wealth in portable lucrative commodities.

Stop writing about art as if it’s an investment. Its true value is one of usage, what it brings to the people who actually live with it.

Stop with all the putrid gossip about rich people and celebrities. They have nothing to do with the real conversation we need to be having. Put an end to clickbait on these brainless art websites. Refuse to reduce the chaotic and unruly nature of visual art to dumbed-down listicles.

Disrupt the patterns of ratification that make art so damn boring half the time. Greatness has never been found nor fostered by conversations among collectors who are all ears and no eyes. Remove the inherent conflicts of interest on the boards of most cultural institutions. Remember that art has never been served well by the academy, so stop trolling that short list of MFA programs that churn out market-ready, debt-burdened victims of our pathetic addiction to meaningless novelty. Look to the streets and other nontraditional venues for art, listen to those vernaculars that exist beyond the politesse of art-speak, and wonder for a change why there are so many artists out there who never show in galleries but have millions of followers and real fans who are deeply invested in what they are doing. You might be missing something a lot more vital and important than the next wave of empty formalisms. (Back to top.)



Liam Gillick

There are two things guaranteed to undermine any self-respecting artist: One is the word “career”; the other is the notion of having a “career” in the “art world.” There is something wrong with the whole concept. A world-conquering imperialist claim that overreaches combined with a diminished sense that we are just part of a “world” within the world—a special bubble apart from reality. Maybe there is nothing wrong with art and artists and curators and galleries and collectors, but there is a big problem with this concept that there is an “art world.” There is an existing world and we operate within it. Maybe there wouldn’t be a perceived problem with the art world if we considered ourselves as operating within the world as it seems to be. The problem is that it is not that simple.

So let’s assume that there is art, and there are artists, and there are galleries and curators and institutions. And let’s assume that there are good ones and bad ones. Even when we do this, there is still the nagging feeling that there is also an art world, and there are problems with it, and that we need to fix them.

So the art world is a thing in itself. It is a malignancy that threatens the active artist. It has unique qualities. Yet those deep inside the art world bubble also complain about the art world. It is something exterior and interior simultaneously. We are of it and not of it at the same time. The art world is all the things about our work that we do not like. The art world is also other people; alongside them, it is all the things we can all agree are irritating.

There is no fix to something that we are in and simultaneously hate. It is an expression of self-loathing to complain about the art world, for when we do it we are complaining about ourselves. The art world does not exist unless we keep locating its presence and feeling its heat. The art world is a put-down. It suggests a place of pretension and frivolity in equal measure. The art world is all the bits and pieces, moments and tedium that surround our work.

Art world is a phrase that has been increasingly deployed as people who have no empathy or taste enter what they perceive to be a coded system. It is a term that can be used to identify new markets where experiences alongside art can be presented and consumed. The art world cannot be willed away through conferences and good deeds. It is a system that feeds off a deliberately weakened host. It surrounds the vulnerability of subjective art and conscious critique.

The art world creates stress and touchiness. It is not really a world at all, it is a state of anxiety. The best way to fix it is to shut your eyes and will it away. (Back to top.)



Stefan Simchowitz
Art Dealer, Advisor, Agent, & Collector

The Swiss army knife: Sometimes a bottle opener, often a knife, many times a toothpick. The art business must adapt to a nonlinear environment in which traditional hierarchies are constantly in transition. This is a world where no one is actually in charge, much as it comforts us to think there is order and authority in fixed positions. This is the global position for all socioeconomic, political, and cultural environments. The art world is not comforted by this. The traditional system likes the new system about as much as the newspaper industry enjoyed the creation of the blog.

One can imagine the art business like a knife: blade, handle, sharp edge, point. An object with a simple and singular purpose and mission. It knows where it must be held and knows exactly where to cut or stab. However, the knife does not work when you are trying to open a bottle of wine or remove spinach from your teeth. The art world needs to transform itself into a device that does not define itself with the singularity and safety that comforts the elites who hold capital power and/or intellectual authority, a device that is highly responsive and adaptive to changing environments in which no one really has a grasp on what is truly going on. So in the words of Bruce Lee, my advice is simple:

“Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” (Back to top.)

Alexander Dumbadze
Chair of Department of Fine Arts and Art History, George Washington University

You know, that’s a really tough one. The more I think about it, the more I think that how people feel about the art world is generational. When you are young, the art world is new and exciting; it’s still a world of wonder and full of possibilities. That said, I think there has been a malaise hovering over the art world for years. There’s too much going on. People are oversaturated, overcommitted, or simply tired.

There is still good art being made, and a larger contemporary art world means that different types of people can participate. But with that world being nonstop, there’s also little room for experimentation. It’s hard for an artist to have a bad show, and to recover from that. Or just to goof around. There’s constant pressure. That pressure is mostly economic; critical pressure doesn’t hold much water right now. The idea of relevance is so short-term at the moment. It’s like quarterly reports; there’s no model for a slow burn.

There’s a lot of noise, and the problem is to find the signal within the noise. That’s one of the big challenges right now. It’s boring to talk about things in terms of the market because the market is always a problem. But there are too many art fairs, too many shows, too much pressure.

I don’t know if there is a structural fix to this. I think it’s really key for people to figure out what generates meaning for them personally. I often joke with students and friends that there are easier ways to make a living. So people are making art and writing about art for a reason. I think it is because they have a fundamental belief in art’s power to communicate. The mystery and wonder of art—those things don’t fade in the face of increasing professionalization, of the demand to produce.

What’s great about the art world is that it’s still really personal and it’s still face-to-face and people getting together, and those little communities matter. The way a show affects someone, or being in a studio with other people, matters.

I think people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that making art and looking at art is an intellectual project. Maintaining a community and a discipline for a whole lifetime is hard, and it’s something that needs to be constantly rethought and reinvented.

In terms of a structural fix, perhaps the five biggest New York galleries should provide subsidies to the other galleries to help redistribute the money. Or maybe there should be an art sales tax that goes to a general fund to support the art world. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to pay their bills. (Back to top.)



Pope.L, What You Can Do With Advice, 2016, ink on paper.


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Barbara Rose

Once upon a time, in the land of fantasy, there was a boy with no front teeth, dirty glasses, and funny hair who became a rich and famous artist before he was 24 years old, internationally critically heralded and feted as a world champion painter. Believing they, too, could immediately roll in dough by learning the rules, ambitious future generations registered in MFA programs, seeing art as the springboard to a life of carefree luxury, Tribeca penthouses, sophisticated dinner parties with the likes of aesthete Aby Rosen, and the movable feast of the art fair–Biennale yacht and private-plane crowd.



In the real world, however—or at least for Frank Stella—the story is somewhat different. Stella never went to art school anywhere. His parents were Italian immigrants. However, his mother was a painter and his father, sure the boy was destined to be a doctor like himself, or at least a lawyer, sent his son to top schools. At Phillips Academy, Andover, two of Hans Hofmann’s best students, Maud and Pat Morgan, passed on Hofmann’s lessons to the teenage wrestler, who spent perhaps even more time in the art studio than he did playing lacrosse. At Andover, he and his friends Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton discussed aesthetics, history, poetry, and music, as well as art.

He kept up this dialogue at Princeton University, where he majored in English constitutional history, with fellow art buff Walter Darby Bannard and philosophy student Michael Fried. He studied medieval art history and took classes with painter Stephen Greene and painter and curator William Seitz, as well as with art historian Robert Rosenblum. They took him to important art shows in nearby New York and introduced him to their friends, like John Bernard Myers, director of the Tibor de Nagy gallery. Upon graduation in 1958, Stella decided to move to New York rather than Montreal to play lacrosse—his other choice of profession. He lived in a one-room flat with Andre, Frampton, and a composer named Mark Schapiro, who worked at Nedick’s and supplied them with hot dogs. There was only one mattress, but Frampton fortunately worked the night shift in a photography laboratory, so he slept days, while Stella had the mattress at night. (Andre, forced to sleep in a sling chair, constantly complained of post-nasal drip.)

Stella got a job sorting scarves and began painting his “Black Stripe” series, which impressed Myers, who offered him a show in fall 1959 at Tibor de Nagy. When Myers, known to spend summers drinking at Harry’s Bar in Venice, never returned from holiday, Stella accepted Leo Castelli’s offer to have a show at the gallery he had just opened. Castelli usually got his information from other artists, who pointed him in Stella’s direction. On a visit to pick paintings, Castelli brought with him MoMA curator Dorothy Miller, who decided to include Stella, now 23, in “Sixteen Americans.”

Miller was used to making risky choices, but the critical reaction to Stella’s black paintings was extreme. Emily Genauer, a critic for the New York Herald Tribune, found Stella’s “huge black canvases carefully lined with white pin stripes [sic] unspeakably boring.” In agreement, Brian O’Doherty called Stella “the Oblomov of ennui.” Hilton Kramer wrote in 1966 that Stella’s Castelli show left him “with too great a sense of all that has been lost from the universe of artistic discourse.”

Stella sold a few black paintings to friends for $75 apiece, but Castelli couldn’t find any buyers for works in that show, nor for the next six annual shows he held of Stella’s paintings. His career sorting scarves cut short, Stella turned to painting over the cockroaches in Bedford-Stuyvesant cupboards. Castelli made it possible for him to paint full-time by agreeing to a monthly advance—a munificent $300—really all he could afford, since he was also advancing money to his other artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Chamberlain, and others, who did not make enough to pay their studio expenses, let alone to eat. Fortunately, Rauschenberg and Johns were both excellent cooks and often invited fellow artists over for Southern delicacies. Rauschenberg was famous for his gumbo, which, if you walked in at dinnertime, you were invited to share.

When Stella showed in 1961 in Paris at the Galerie Lawrence, the only collector who came was Joseph Hirshhorn. Hearing that Frank and I had just been married, he offered to send a case of champagne up to our suite. Embarrassed to tell him we were staying in a fifth-floor walk-up, I said, “My husband doesn’t drink, but we’d really appreciate it if you bought a painting.” He demurred. “No,” he said, “They aren’t speaking to me.” But was there anything we needed? “Frank,” I said, “can I tell him I don’t have a winter coat?” And then and there, Joe, always a sport, peeled a hundred-dollar bill off his wad. So I had a winter coat by the time we went back to Spain, where I had a Fulbright that allowed me to spend the days in the cathedral archives while Frank drew the paintings he would make for the next five years at a nearby café. We spent a lot of time looking at old masters in museums. Frank was particularly struck by Francisco de Zurbarán’s St. Hugo in the Refectory now in the Museum of Seville, originally painted for the Carthusian order founded by St. Bruno, which became the inspiration for his irregular polygons.

When we came back from Spain, it was to the tenement at 84 Walker Street that Frank had rented, where his studio was on the top floor and Virginia Dwan stored art and artists on the second.

We slept on the first floor in a double sleeping bag. I was pregnant and very ill, and there was no heat. Steve and Sigrid Greene took pity on me, and I took advantage of their couch until Frank convinced Leo to shell out an extra $100 a month to rent a telephone booth–size room (again a fifth-floor walk-up) until I had baby Rachel. Then it was my job to mooch the extra funds for diapers and formula from Leo.

Once again, with Leo’s aid, since Frank was selling no paintings, we were able to move to an actual apartment near Union Square. Frank made me a desk and the frame for a couch, which I topped with a slab of foam I bought on Canal Street. The old sling chair became the home for Andy Panda, the six-foot stuffed panda that Warhol brought as a gift for the baby. Our parents having written us off, it was the only baby gift we got. Clem and Jenny Greenberg had just had a baby too, and they gave us their English stroller, since we couldn’t possibly have afforded a carriage. Fortunately, Mickey Ruskin opened Max’s Kansas City a few blocks away, where he traded food for art, so we had a running tab when Frank traded him a painting.

Frank and I could never afford to go out without baby Rachel, who got to sleep through La Monte Young concerts and visit a lot of artists’ studios. Don Judd lived nearby and he suggested we might pay his artist neighbor $2 an hour so we could go to a movie. The artist turned out to be Yayoi Kusama, who stared at Rachel and said “very nice pretty little woman.”

All this happened in the art world before there was an art market. Then, in 1973, the Robert Scull auction turned into multimillions the peanuts Scull had paid artists for their work. Johns’s Double White Map, bought for $10,000, sold for $240,000. Rauschenberg’s Thaw, a combine painting purchased for $900, went for $85,000. Sounds like small change today, but it was proof that fortunes could be made trading contemporary art, which was suddenly converted to global bitcoin. Once art became big business, of course everything changed, and profit became the dominant, if not the only, motive. As for idealistic young artists and gallerists, greedy landlords have made sure they can’t survive in Manhattan, which is today a coffin for creativity.

Today’s art world is not the art market. Indeed, the two are growing further and further apart. There are groups of artists who form communities and support each other. Small regional and university galleries have exhibitions not geared to drawing as many people as would fit into a sports stadium. But there are no longer collectors like Dorothy and Herb Vogel because of the income inequality that is the scourge of the world today. The Museum of Modern Art, where the greatest artists used to learn from the greatest existing art, once had a rental gallery from which the public could rent excellent works for eventual purchase. Now they have showcases supported by “emerging collectors” who bid up highly publicized pieces at auction by “emerging” artists whose brands are granted the museum seal of approval. Nothing will be done about this state of affairs as long as the leisure class has no culture and the cultured class has no leisure, and until a different set of values “emerges.” (Back to top.)

John Miller

John Miller, When I Kissed the Teacher, 1993. COURTESY MUSEUM VOORLINDEN, WASSENAAR

John Miller, When I Kissed the Teacher, 1993.


The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the tendency toward monopolization. In the last several years just three or four big galleries have come to dominate the art market, squeezing out the small and mid-level galleries. This is fundamentally undemocratic, and it reflects the larger, global question of increasing income inequality. The economic reasons for this are complex, but one exacerbating factor is internet technology. Starting with Roman roads, all networks have served to consolidate power, i.e., to create hegemonies, but they do not do this unilaterally. Income inequality is also reproduced in our educational system in the form of high tuition costs. Internationally, the United States is the worst offender on this score. Vis-à-vis art schools, students increasingly tend to consider their practice in market terms, if only to pay off their student loans. The real estate bubble is yet another manifestation of this: What are the spaces for art? How can it be presented to a “public” and under what conditions?

In framing prospects for a solution, I’d reference two texts: First, Adrian Piper’s essay “Cheap Art Utopia” as a heuristic principle. Second, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century as a pragmatic critique and an outline for change. I don’t think any ironclad solutions are possible, but changes in public policy would be a good way to start. One of these possibilities would be to rethink the role of the National Endowment for the Arts. After the Culture Wars of the 1980s, conservatives effectively gutted sponsorship for individual artists and in that regard NEA policy has changed very little since. Ironically, many of the sexual issues that conservatives once considered so unacceptable and so transgressive have become more or less mainstream, but NEA policies remain bound to what has become an archaic battle. Most important, though, a renewal of NEA funding for individual artists would also help recast art making as a matter of public discourse, rather than one of personal accumulation of aesthetic goods. A second solution would be tuition reform. Low or free tuition would immediately help democratize art production and help foster a climate of critical artistic autonomy. (Back to top.)

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 62 under the title “How to Fix the Art World.”

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

How to Fix the Art World, Part 1



Back in August my staff and I embarked on an epic project: we wanted to know what inhabitants of the art world think is wrong with it and how they would fix it. In the ensuing months we spoke with more than 50 individuals—artists and curators, critics and historians, art dealers and an art fair director—to gather a range of perspectives. Some wrote longer essayistic responses; some artists responded with visuals. We finished our research and put the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews to bed on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. Subscribers will receive the print edition later this month. Because some of our respondents wanted to speak about what’s right with the art world, we are posting a portion of the many responses in these days before the Thanksgiving holiday. We hope you will read them with the same great interest, and the same open mind, with which we did when we received them. We hope that you will continue the conversation. —Sarah Douglas, Editor-in-Chief, ARTnews
(Please continue reading the other parts of this feature: part 2, part 3, and part 4.)


Jeffrey Deitch Hank Willis Thomas
Martha Wilson Klaus Biesenbach
Naima J. Keith Christy MacLear
& Rachel Harrison
Luis Camnitzer Coco Fusco
Carrie Mae Weems Yvette Mutumba
& Julia Grosse
Robert Storr Daniel Joseph Martinez
W.A.G.E. Mitchell Algus


Luis Camnitzer, Two identical Objects, 1981, banknote and newsprint. ©2016 LUIS CAMNITZER/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COURTESY ALEXANDER GRAY ASSOCIATES, NEW YORK

Luis Camnitzer, Two identical Objects, 1981.


Jeffrey Deitch
Art Dealer & Curator

There is always something wrong with the art world. There was something wrong [with it] in 1874, when the Impressionists took on the official Salon with their own exhibition. Artists, writers, gallerists, and collectors who are engaged with the art of the present have a continuous mission to “fix” the art world. The next generation will then have to fix the problems that we are creating.

The most challenging problem in the art world today may be the conflict between the enormous new global audience of visually fluent people versus the traditional art-world elites. Can a small group of influential people leading the major museums, galleries, auction houses, and art publications continue to define which artists will become celebrated?

I remember how some of the establishment art critics resented the way artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and other ’80s art stars received acclaim from dealers and collectors before there were significant critical reviews. What will happen when artists emerging far from the critical consensus get thousands of Instagram likes and legions of YouTube followers, leapfrogging the entire gallery/museum/magazine system?

With the increasing professionalization of the art enterprise, there is also an increasing tendency for art to focus on the art world itself, rather than the immense societal and environmental challenges that we face. Ultimately, we depend on the emergence of some remarkable individuals—artists, writers, curators, gallerists, and art patrons—who can inspire us by fusing their insights into the contemporary world with a sophisticated artistic vision. (Back to top.)

Hank Willis Thomas

Artists are almost forced to live between polarities of super success or “not living up to their potential.” There is not a good working model for the “middle-class” artist with a retirement plan.

I think art schools and institutions should do more to help students, artists, and enthusiasts understand the industry of the fine art world even as it continues to be in flux. It’s a vast global industry with a multitude of opportunities. There are several ways to make a decent quality living while maintaining self-respect. The trouble is that you have to luck into it. There is also not much support in small business management and life skills. I think there is something to be said for the MBA/MFA in fine arts. There should be an infrastructure for thousands of artists to make an equivalent of $50,000 to $75,000 per year off their art. The problem is, as soon as most of us get any money, we pay some of our bills and live a subsistence lifestyle in hope of striking it big. If we learned how to build our careers and savings over time, investing in the market, trading, along with grants, commissions, fellowships, modest sales, and residencies, there could be a nice rotation of income over 10 years. Many would still choose to roll the dice, but at least it would be a choice. (Back to top.)


Martha Wilson, Mona Marcel Marge, 2015.


Martha Wilson

The MacDowell Colony is one of the things that is right with the art world. It was founded by Edward and Marian MacDowell, but as I understand it, Marian did most of the heavy lifting—fund-raising during the Depression to buy adjoining property and to erect cabins. Now MacDowell is a well-endowed place—though they still have to ask for money.

What’s wrong with the American art world is that the arts are not represented on the cabinet level as they are in, say, France. Plus, national governments think the arts are the first place they should cut support; this is happening now in Canada, the United Kingdom, and France.

How to fix this? Arts support could be reframed as a social-justice issue. Children who have different learning styles (read: not logical) can flourish by inventing dances, making movies, drawing graphic novels, for example. In 2011, Franklin Furnace, the space I run, saw English Language Arts scores improve by 13.58 percent at PS 20, an elementary school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, after the kids participated in our SEQuential ART for KIDS workshops. Why not improve learning through the arts? I realize this flies in the face of the belief in art for art’s sake, but what’s the harm in putting the arts at the center of political and educational policy? (Back to top.)

Klaus Biesenbach
Director, MoMA PS1; Chief Curator at Large, MoMA

In 2016 the biggest dilemma facing the art world is that, seen from the outside, it is often mistaken for the art market, and from within the art world, people conflate the significance of the art and its monetary value. If we weren’t so concerned with the art market, but rather with the art, then in a time that is so politically challenging around the globe—with all the conservative and right-wing movements and Brexit—we would react differently and face these challenges more creatively. In the end, the artists anticipate what is to come and offer ways of looking at things differently.

At Documenta in 1972, Joseph Beuys started the Office for Direct Democracy. For three months he was available, and talking to everybody. I was a primary school student at the time, and I remember the discussions, which included the public, not just the art world. There was an awareness that everything one does is political and implies civic responsibility. Things like civil disobedience represented a courageous way of looking at society as a movement and at everything that changes in a society as an opportunity as much as a challenge.

I am looking to the artists I know and the artists I work with to offer different ways of looking at a very challenging national and international political, economic, ecological, and societal situation. (Back to top.)



Naima J. Keith
Deputy Director, California African American Museum

My first instinct in considering what might be wrong with the art world is to foreground diversity, a pressing issue generally and personally. Recent surveys by the Mellon Foundation reveal that people of color represent only a small fraction of directors, curators, educators, and conservators. I have found that the answer to addressing the imbalance lies not only in diverse hiring practices, but also in purposeful opportunities for mentorship. I’ve benefited immensely from working with, and under, people who have committed themselves to engaging meaningfully with their employees as mentors, as well as advocating for them in future employment opportunities.

But while diversity is paramount, another subject has more recently presented itself in my work as deputy director at the California African American Museum (CAAM): philanthropy. After almost a year at CAAM, thinking deeply about raising money for this amazing institution’s exhibitions and programs, here’s what I can tell you: it’s complicated. At a moment when one major institution can be flush with record-setting donations while another is forced to undergo unprecedented layoffs, what constitutes a viable middle ground?

For most institutions, there is a shrinking pool of patrons, many of whom look increasingly at how they might benefit from their donation. Many donors prefer a targeted approach, earmarking their money for acquisitions, education, or even endowed positions. Grants and foundations often have these same requirements, and titans such as the Getty and the Met are frequently turning to the same sources as small-to-medium-size institutions to fill budget deficits, so fund-raising for general operational support has become nearly impossible.

CAAM is a state-funded organization, meaning the government provides much of its general support. While this offers a certain degree of stability, the funds—which come with a number of restrictions—are at the discretion of the State of California and thus subject to fluctuation. The museum must therefore look to outside sources to pay for many aspects of its day-to-day operations, including exhibition catalogues.

Yet in the current philanthropic climate, it’s nearly impossible for museums like CAAM—places that aren’t fund-raising for sexy new buildings or blockbuster exhibitions—to raise enough money. With few alternatives, museums often turn to galleries to support exhibitions, lessening their distinction from the commercial sector. It’s my fear that, rather than become inclusive spaces, museums will move away from supporting emerging artists—particularly artists of color, who are woefully underrepresented in the blue-chip galleries that can afford exhibition-related costs.

At this critical time, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a compelling solution. To open its doors, it reached out successfully to remarkably diverse sources, from churches to private donors (Alfred Street Baptist Church offered $1 million; TV producer Shonda Rhimes pledged $10 million). African Americans represent 74 percent of the individuals who each gave $1 million or more, figures almost double the museum’s expectations. And African American organizations represent 28 percent of institutional support for the museum, including black sororities, fraternities, and civic groups. So how should an institution go about achieving similar success? I can only assume that the NMAAHC thought outside the box, particularly about how its specific mission could appeal to all communities. Museums need to make their mission not only clear, but also pertinent and accessible to the constituents they are courting. They need to do the hard work of determining how they might expand their mission to truly benefit new segments of society that might, in turn, also become patrons—constituents that institutions may historically have overlooked. Fortunately for institutions like CAAM, this sets a much-needed example not just for the future of museum philanthropy, but for the very future of museums. (Back to top.)

Christy MacLear
CEO, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Rachel Harrison, Heir Fresheners, digital collage, 2015, from Rachel Harrison G-L-O-R-I-A, exhibition catalogue, Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK

Rachel Harrison, Heir Fresheners, digital collage, 2015, from Rachel Harrison G-L-O-R-I-A, exhibition catalogue, Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015.



Set them free. Images for scholars, teachers, museums, and stewards. Images to be reused creatively by other artists. Even fair use comes with fear and some still seek a free pass or approval. Stop asking—start using—go forth and flourish. Share smartly and avoid a fear of legal retribution; we all trust you. Use art to teach and share knowledge or inspiration. We love more people loving art.


Gifts of art to charities propel our culture but inure no direct benefit to the artist. Taxation should be redefined to move from agrarian labor models to addressing contemporary contributed works. An artist’s contribution to society must be recognized for more than simply the value of raw materials. Art must be valued as a donation equally for the creator as it is for the collector. Wealth and tax equality for all.


There is no true art market. A market is a transparent forum of exchange—public and private pricing combined. We must resist the desire to keep this forum sacred—and put the data into the hands of all. Digitize to revolutionize—put your pricing online and level the playing fields—putting more power into the hands of the artists and creating a new currency for them. Create the digital pricing forum to create the true market.


Support non-portable art—the non-product. Buy shares in the experience. Be a pilgrim to land art or social practice and leave a check on the table for your transformation. Teach your children that art is not just on the walls but all around them to be experienced. Invest in artists for their risks and grand gestures. Art is life.


In our world an artist needs to be at every table. Creativity is the strongest force in problem-solving. We must join hands with the sciences to solve our world problems. Studio practice now includes social practice and the artist is in the world—a renewed force of nature. Build a bridge between disciplines and watch our world improve in the most unexpected ways. (Back to top.)

Luis Camnitzer

In the late 1960s Uruguayan sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca told me that artists should work under the threat of capital punishment. Having to choose either to stay away from making art or be executed would radically improve quality. This may be true, but I’m against the death penalty (and so was he). His remark reflected his frustration while seeing exhibitions, and didn’t address what “quality” might mean. I think the problem is deeper and takes shape in two directions: The art maker (and the market) tends to confuse art with art objects, emphasizing production of things over cultural change. The art activist tends to confuse political action and social service—two duties to be shared by anybody who wants to be a good citizen—with art. Neither considers as its primary mission challenging the limits of our knowledge and helping us enter the territory of the unknown and the unpredictable.

Education presumably trains students to enter the labor market, participate in a meritocracy, and contribute to the good of the country. To achieve these ends, educational institutions have introduced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), a curriculum that confines creativity within the named disciplines. Creativity is promoted, but only as it pertains to rational and quantitative knowledge (or capital). The other kind of knowledge is disregarded, and art is relegated to the realm of entertainment, market feeder. In this scenario, originality is not a way of contributing to culture but rather a way of creating a competitive brand.

There is no quick fix, but there is an indirect way, which involves radical change in the education system. Art should not be considered a separate discipline designed to identify gallery meat or to manufacture cultural capital. Art should be viewed as a way of knowing that includes both predictability and unpredictability and allows for unbounded imagination, which, after critical evaluation, may yield functional knowledge. To maintain freedom of expression and the possibility of attaining critical distance, art thinking should be integrated into the whole of the educational process. If after an integrated education, outstanding artists emerge as the product of a separate process of rarefied competition, great. These artists may then join the pedagogical enterprise. (Back to top.)

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira, Observations of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist, 2013. GENE PITTMAN, WALKER ART CENTER/© 2016 COCO FUSCO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY/COURTESY ALEXANDER GRAY ASSOCIATES, NEW YORK

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira, Observations of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist, 2013.


Coco Fusco

Some artists claim they want to live in an art world without an art market. My response to them is, what planet do you live on? The art world is awash in cash, even when there are down moments, like 2008. I have my criticisms of what I think are the excesses of the art market, but I no longer dream of an art world without a market. I just don’t think that’s possible. The flow of money may not touch everyone but it undergirds the nonprofit dimension of culture as well as the market.

Sadly, I live in a world in which conservatives love to rail against women and people of color whose art is informed by politics. As a result, it is often expected that I will criticize the art world for being too white. It is undeniable that most of the people in the world who have a lot of money are white. That is the result of a long colonial history. It’s also true that since the 1990s, more art works by nonwhite people have been in circulation in the art market. Do those artists represent the majority? No. Do those artists consider it a good thing that their work sells? Yes. Are they less likely to produce work that challenges those in power? Probably.

There are very few political causes that people in the art world invest in in a serious way. The AIDS crisis was one such instance, and I think that this was because the profession was so deeply affected by the epidemic. But the art market is not seriously affected by the fact that there are a few poets in jail, or by the pervasiveness of police brutality against ethnic minorities, or by maximum minimum sentencing.

There are many artists who engage with the political, and I count myself among them. I find ridiculous the attempts to demonize artists who work with the political—many artists deal with relationships of force, and politics is one of those kinds of interactions. Much in the same way that Chris Burden made an installation in which you walk through a turnstile and slowly move the walls of a museum, artists dealing with politics test the limits of established structures and try to foreground those limits. (Back to top.)

Carrie Mae Weems

The first question is: How is progress to be defined and measured, by what means and against what? It has never been enough for me to measure myself against myself. My sense of achievement is based on the overall forward movement of my people. By progress I mean a decided shift in one’s relationship to the means of production, coupled with the way one is perceived and treated by the larger society. Trapped by historical circumstance, our work—like our people—is systematically undervalued. This is made evident in the marketplace, where the work of blacks and women artists sells for substantially less than the work of white men.

Everywhere I look, I see artists of color playing in the field. Their practice is creating new pathways and fields of exploration; we are inventors redefining contemporary art. While listening to Michael Jackson, it occurred to me that a part of our contribution is that we’ve expanded and extended the field of contemporary art practice. Inventing new ways of making, developing an art practice that would not exist but for us.

Our work is expected to deal with social issues related to the black experience, and when the work ventures into other terrain it is not well received. I’m invited to participate in any number of exhibitions, rarely with white artists. I live in New York City, the most diverse city in America, but often I’m the sole black person in the room. So this is Negro progress now, as I see it. It’s difficult for black people to imagine the future, even as we make it. It’s hard to create new narratives when you’re trapped by what has been. It’s a paradox, a conundrum. (Back to top.)

Carrie Mae Weems, Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me, 2012. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Carrie Mae Weems, Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me, 2012.


Yvette Mutumba & Julia Grosse
Cofounders, Contemporary And

Inequality in regard to women and the visibility, as well as the featuring, of non-Euro-American artists is still a problem. A challenge that connects all these problems and applies to the in crowd as much as to the out crowd is that it too often feels as if the art world is much more about being connected with the right people and knowing the right names and networks—in a nutshell, about knowing how to play the game—than it is about serious work that has the power to open new perspectives that matter. Networks and exchange are important, but should develop naturally and be based on interest in the same content and in achieving common goals.

The “globality” of an exhibition topic/artist list/collection, for example, often seems to be the sole or critical quality criterion: it seems to be problematic only if it is lacking the “global art” aspect. An understanding of art as global is without a doubt a positive development. But let’s go beyond the tendency of capitalizing on a “global art quota,” which also tends to get fed by the same names.

By doing sustainable work that goes beyond hype, the art world can be fixed. For example, there is clearly a growing hype around contemporary art from African perspectives, which is great; however, we have been working with that topic for many years and will continue to do so even after the hype has moved on to something else. With Contemporary And (C&) we want to establish a platform beyond the “game.” This means, among other things, connecting bigger biennial names—seen from the art circus perspective—with “new” names that don’t have any relation with the usual art-world networks but do have a successful standing in their own art scene, from Bahia to Bamako. (Back to top.)

Robert Storr
Artist, Critic, Curator

Yes, it can happen here. And it has, while most of us stood by or—more accurately—sat by our televisions in horrid fascination. This presidential election was indeed a reality show, and much if not most of the electorate treated it as such, giving one candidate high ratings because he understood the genre better than the other or was more entertainingly ruthless in using it. A compulsive liar luxuriating in his attention deficit disorder, he was born for this moment, emerging from a chrysalis of inherited privilege to express sociopathic “empathy” for the common man and deliver motor-mouthed, testosterone-drenched double-talk.



Undeniably, Herr Drumpf enthralled a large portion of the disenchanted “masses” as well as many zealous elites, because he personifies a zeitgeist of resentment, envy, and a sense of unlimited entitlement. He is not Hitler; this is not Germany in the 1930s. As dire as much of the writing on the wall about the economy and foreign affairs has been, we have not—yet—had a second worldwide Great Depression. Nor have we suffered any humiliating defeats, though part of the genius of this nemesis is that he was able to convince the aggrieved that they were confronted on all sides by unprecedented existential threats to their way of life. As his opponents have learned, facts don’t matter anymore. Only fantasies and fears count. Big Brother is here at last. Not, however, as the grimly nondescript postwar monster that George Orwell imagined but in the form of an absurdly colorful Grand Guignol grotesque straight out of Stephen King.

So what does all this have to do with contemporary art, other than the devastating effects he is bound to have on the world as a whole, the art world being among the brightest but smallest of its many subcultural moons? The bitter truth is that some of us on that satellite are as complicit as his avid supporters in having prepared the zeitgeist he so effectively exploits, though none are likely to admit as much.

I am speaking of postmodernists who popularized the concepts of critical theory and repackaged them for general consumption, of academics and cultural journalists who disseminated the received ideas and conversation-stopping buzzwords that have become the bane of public discourse. For them, history is a kaleidoscope of abstract teleologies rather than the contested sum of lived experience. For them, the “Enlightenment” is an ever-ready straw man suitable for ritual immolation whenever sustained logical analysis threatens to upend uncritical theoretical speculation.

In the modern era, most of that speculation has been purely Utopian–we’ll perfect humankind by means of Reason (Classicism/Constructivism/Minimalism) or Unreason (Symbolism/Surrealism/Expressionism). Disillusioned by the dashed hopes of the past, postmodernists tend to be reflex pessimists and dystopians convinced that things have never been worse and will only get more so. Caught in the headlights of total negation while mumbling apocalyptic conceits and deterministic sophistries, they have been blinded by the glare of the catastrophe bearing down on them. Having cried wolf so often, they’ve deafened themselves to the rising din of the mob and have fallen more than half in love with the forces about to overrun them. After having flirted with the rhetoric of anti-parliamentarian tendencies, they are contemptuous of practical politicians and pragmatic organizers trying desperately to shore up, change, and defend flawed democratic institutions against those bent on definitively delegitimizing and dismantling our constitutional government.

Consider this recent ad from one art organization.

“With the election looming, help artist Pedro Reyes & Creative Time hold up a funhouse mirror to democracy with Doomocracy, a political haunted house coming to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Our Kickstarter was 36% funded in the first week, so it’s looking like the Doomocratic process just might work. To make this madness happen, we’ve launched first Kickstarter camPAIN! But we need your help to keep that momentum going and reach our $80,000 goal in just 20 days.”

We were just weeks away from the polls as I wrote, and with the clock ticking on our society, wouldn’t precious time have been better spent in getting out the vote? What happened to the ad-hoc art world coalitions of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s? Have hipster deconstructivists become too cool for that? Have institutional critiquers become too smart to risk their careers raising a ruckus while making their activism up as they go along?

Well, this was not a fight anyone serious about this country’s future could afford to sit out. Nor was it a struggle where anyone could afford to be too choosy about his or her allies. Moreover, failing to act on this occasion should permanently disqualify those who did so from claiming the moral and intellectual high ground when it comes to intramural art world debates about the politics of culture. This was not a test; it’s the real thing at a moment in history and in a media-saturated context where a great many people have been persuaded or have persuaded themselves that there is no such thing as reality. As phony as the persona of its messenger is, the authoritarianism Herr Drumpf epitomizes is horribly real, and we have only begun to feel its effects. It remains to be seen if he can be stopped. (Back to top.)



Daniel Joseph Martinez

Live from the American Academy in Wannsee, Berlin
October 2, 2016
34 days before the U.S. Presidential Election


If it is true that art is a mirror of, a reflection of, an echo of, an interpretation of, and a response to human existence, if it is perhaps even the consciousness of the human species, then what is wrong with the world at large is compressed and intensified in the art world. We find ourselves in a state of crisis so extreme that it is beyond our ability to describe or define, much less solve.
Perhaps we need different questions.
What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?
When will we acknowledge that we are all complicit in the behavior and the events of the world?
Is it possible that being an artist doesn’t mean anything anymore?
How can other modes of symbolic inscription and other forms of representation be conceived?
Has art lost its value in contemporary society?
How can we represent ourselves in a history that is being written in terms of the global economy, the free market, technologically advanced forms of surveillance, government data collection, the corporate museum, and the absolute commodification of our lives?
Have artists mutated into something new, or nothing at all?
What forms do we use to represent ourselves here and now?
How can we organize an evolving, radical democracy, the equilibrium of which is just and self-sustaining?
Can we embrace the unknown categorically rather than reject it?
Is it possible to conceive of an emergent aesthetic? (Back to top.)

Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.)
Activist Organization

What’s wrong with the art world is no different from what’s wrong with the rest of the world. In fact, it is the art world’s perception of itself as having a unique form of wrongness, as being other than—as being exceptional—that impedes it from realizing in material terms the political and moral claims it makes for itself in theoretical ones.

The fact that over many decades little to no progress has been made to correct the systemic racism and institutionalized white supremacy that underpins it, despite ongoing attempts to demonstrate otherwise, makes clear just how unexceptional the art world really is.

Even though it is made up of a for-profit and a non-profit sector, the world of art is an industry just like any other. All of its supporting institutions, including philanthropy, contribute to its perpetuation and growth as such, and all those who contribute to its economy by facilitating the production and distribution of art products, including and especially artists, are wholly unexceptional in their support for and exploitation by it. The role of art and artists within this multibillion-dollar industry is to serve capital—just like everyone else.

But there is an important distinction between the role of artists in the art industry and our status. Unlike our role, our status can be described as exceptional. Even though our participation inevitably serves capital, artists are uniquely enabled to work both for and against it at the same time. Today institutions expect artists to question and attempt to subvert the aesthetic, political, material, social, and economic conditions from which we operate. This makes it sound like we get to have it both ways and it appears to be a privilege. But this privilege comes at a cost: our status is only exceptional as long as we don’t get paid.

Here is the problem: we have been led to believe that getting paid to work against the very forces that render our art world an industry just like any other means that our political potential will be rendered meaningless. But think of it this way: not getting paid by an industry in which you and your work circulate around a billionaire class is precisely what renders meaningless your political potential as an artist. The demand to be paid is a political one.

Here is what we must do: we must put our exceptionality to work. Putting our exceptionality to work means claiming the privilege of having it both ways. It means dissenting from the industry that we serve by demanding to be paid for the content we provide. And this demand can no longer be made on the basis of being an impoverished, marginalized, and exploited constituency. While there is still steep class stratification between artists, the art field is inarguably an elite one. This means that the demand for compensation must be made on behalf of a broader class struggle that extends well beyond the field’s impossibly high barriers to entry.

W.A.G.E. agitates for the wholesale redistribution of resources within this industry and proposes forms of union building based on individual self-organization grounded in collective struggle that must take place laterally across class. Keep your ear to the ground. WAGENCY is coming. (Back to top.)

Mitchell Algus
Art Dealer

The art world has been pretty much the same for me since I opened in 1992. But given current trends and problems, some actions might improve how the art world functions and how art as a part of the culture develops.

Go to gallery shows. It’s all right to look at shows online, but if you have not visited the gallery you have not seen the show. Gallery shows are art’s principal cultural platform. Art fairs are not cultural events; they are commercial forays. Although museums are seeing record attendance figures, the galleries have been sidelined. Without the galleries—and the alternative spaces—the living art culture does not exist.

The art fair model is destructive and unsustainable: Saturn Devouring the Galleries. The fairs co-opt culture at the altar of commerce the same way the auction houses do: conjuring a world detached, serviced by rampant publicity, social inequality, and economic fantasy. Rather, set up viable permanent art fairs in venues similar to the Essex Market or the International Design Center in Long Island City. I love my gallery space: My office is set up for conversation and art, and the exhibition space, for doing the shows that are the gallery’s raison d’être. But traffic is a big problem and has gotten worse, given the internet, the fairs, and the social rewiring of the art world. Suppose art fairs were perpetual in permanent locations. Some developer could take a large building and, in New York, for example, let Brooklyn and Lower East Side galleries move into it at $24–35 per square foot. That would do a lot for the community—get more people out to see more shows and promote dialogue among those involved. (Shared experience is the best thing about the art fairs.) Maybe Manhattan Mini Storage could figure out how to make money with this, or the subsidized space that the Warhol Museum was going to occupy at the developing Essex Crossing megaproject could be repurposed for an enterprising art world.

Restore art’s now-diminished significance in the culture at large. When standing in front of a Warhol at Castelli, a Judd at the Green Gallery, a Vito Acconci installation at Sonnabend, you were standing at the center of the culture of the day. Same with a Keith Haring at Tony Shafrazi, a Philip Taaffe at Pat Hearn, a Cady Noland at American Fine Arts, even a Julian Schnabel at Mary Boone. But not so much anymore, and not because the art is not there but because the cultural context is gone. Money, social geometry, obscurity of content, lack of visual rewards, and an overabundance of artists have all played their part. The culture is somewhere else. The art world was a cultural organism with social structures. It has evolved into a social organism with cultural structures (some vestigial). Even if galleries like Gagosian can provide accessible cultural services for free by doing the shows the museums should be doing—and in a fraction the time—the social context of such venues often overshadows the art. To see “museum-quality” shows at the mega galleries is to marvel at the mind-boggling resources such organizations can bring to bear. Without the imprimatur of money and social capital, museum quality as a concept is meaningless to the wider cultural audience.



Avoid the tyranny of consensus. Art should dismantle consensus, not construct it. Yet value arises from consensus and art is preposterously overvalued (at least monetarily). But in the current market, art needs to be overvalued. Since sales can be few and far between, what sales do occur must be at high enough prices to pay the bills. If art cost less, maybe a larger, smarter, more middle-class market could develop, and cheaper art sold in higher volume could sustain parts of the art world that are now struggling.

Do not buy or sell at auction any art that is less than two decades old. The auction houses will not remove themselves from this game, nor will the art speculators/market manipulators. Collectors need to sit on their paddles and buy from galleries. There is nothing to steal until it has been forgotten by the market, and nothing should be put out to auction until it has been forgotten at least once. Buy from the galleries, steal from the auction houses.

Reestablish a truly critical critical apparatus. With few notable exceptions, criticism is rarely critical and it has been that way for a while. The magazines are generally beside the point (with the exception of Artforum, which is, functionally, a glossy social register setting the standard for the display of gallery entitlement against a predictable backdrop of insiderism). The good news here is ARTnews and Hyperallergic. They are the best new things going and get lots of information and some criticism out there in real time.

Still, there is lots of room for improvement here, beginning with many more real-time reviews of current exhibitions and a revival of roaming show reviews where momentary context and critical comparison of artworks from multiple galleries are paramount. The New York Times has been and remains the print standard; more Jason Farago and less pulp piped in by gallery and auction house public relations firms. (Lifting lines from Wikipedia is less ethically problematic than flipping unedited copy from publicity agents.) Yet even here, as Ian Parker wrote in a recent New Yorker article about Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells, there are problems: [Wells may have the power to determine the fate of a restaurant, but that power] “has seeped away from reviewers of theatre and painting.”

The internet has not helped. [Certain] sites, . . . with their listicles and paid content, are pernicious. They undermine dialogue and preempt a considered view useful to people new to the art world. Restore the critical weight of the newspapers and magazines. Despite the auction houses’ repeated pronouncements, the market is not the ultimate critic. (Back to top.)

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 62 under the title “How to Fix the Art World.”

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