(I forget which magazine this was first published in, but it’s still true)
I get this a lot at every Armory Show, and this year I got it three times, from two collectors and a curator:
"What are you doing here? Artists shouldn’t go to art fairs!"
Why not?—there’s lots of art, it’s conveniently heaped in one place, it’s free if you’re in the show…
"But," they say, "art fairs are so much about buying and selling." One of them says, "I mean, I eat sausages but I don’t want to see how they’re made…"
So he’s saying: sausages are money. And so the art is a pig. Which makes Pier 94, the location of this year’s Armory Show, like one of those hog-choked mazes of rust and blood-mist through which the four-legged raw materials of the modern pork industry stumble as they are funneled toward death. (And I suppose this mean that some of the work, the work that’s in the show but isn’t for sale, is like somebody’s pet pig, but whatever…)
Now, personally, I like to eat sausages and I’d say it’d be unethical of me to eat them if I wasn’t willing to watch a hog get stabbed in the neck after being shoved in a box and shocked with tongs. The mental image of artists held by those curators, critics, collectors and dealers who suggest artists should stay away from the Armory Show is apparently of a sensitive but useful hypocrite that likes, or at least needs, money, but goes all skittish and confused at the sight of commerce.
Which begs the question of just exactly what illusions they think we frail and imaginative creatures have about what happens to our stuff once we drop it off downtown: what exactly do they think we think they do all day? Do they think we imagine the work lies in well-lit state somewhere sending out aesthetic vibrations until generous patrons who have made their fortunes by feeding hungry Sri Lankans are inexplicably drawn to hail taxis and demand that the cab drivers follow the spiritual ache to its source? You have to wonder why they’d have any respect at all for art—it being the products of such painfully deluded minds. (All this is especially baffling considering that maybe 20 percent of all the work you see at any art fair self-consciously and explicitly comments on the commercialism of the art world in general and occasionally art fairs in particular.)
For the record, we actually imagine it goes like this: Hi! Kiss kiss! How’s the baby? How’s the renovation? I have a great new artist you have to see! Wonderful! You see he’s from bullshitbullshitbullshit and his work is based on bullshitbullshitbullshit. Oh really? Well lately I’ve been interested in bullshitbullshitTOTALbullshit. In that case, you should buy this, or maybe the bigger one over there. The big one? Do you think I should? Yes, I think you should! Sold! Sold! Sausages for everyone!
And professional artists have to decide to either be ok with that or else get another job and make much less art, just as carnivores have to decide to be ok with sticking-knives and sustained and horrible squealing or else eat tofu.
There is, I suppose, another possibility, and I find it almost touching: perhaps the patrons and presenters don’t fear the revelation of themselves as businessmen, but the diminishment of themselves as impressarios.
Have you ever heard a dealer or curator describe their space? “We’ve put in a new center wall running fifteen yards from here and we’ve just installed new lights from here to here and we’re showing a lot of female artists and artists of color and there’s a video projector here and…” It is cute. And the artist who is thinking about maybe showing there numbly nods and goes, “So it has a floor and a ceiling and walls, right?”
"Oh yes! Certainly! Wonderful floors…"
"Fantastic. I’ll call you."
"Ummm…do you want to see the space first?"
"See it? Uh…why?"
Why? Because, hilariously, many of the art middlemen and middlewomen who caution artists to stay away from art fairs believe in context—that is, they believe that a Degas in their collection is different than the same Degas in their cousin’s collection, that a video projected on the wall of Luhring Augustine is different than the same video projected on the wall of the Guggenheim, that your art on a gallery wall is different than your art on a flimsy wall at a fair, and, of course, that a urinal in a bathroom is different than a urinal on a pedestal. They believe, in other words, that their job is necessary for some reason other than the basic realities of life between the gears of capitalism. And they think artists also believe this. Supercute.
Of course, there actually are artists who think like that, and they are well paid for it. In fact, many critics, collectors and curators are so flattered by artists who think and act just like them that the artists have managed to carve out a very sizable and cash-efficient subgenre of art by creating works which do nothing but criticize, curate or collect things that other people have made and seen long before. You can see how these cautious and conservative souls might be shy of gore and grunts and deathsqueals—maybe they despise the fact that their sublime re-captioning of a USA Today photo or the delicate charm of their display of precisely the right number of pictures of Sheryl Tiegs to match their age when they first masturbated to a picture of Sheryl Tiegs must compete for attention with something painted primary colors and dipped in resin and three guys on cells and a waiter asking you if you want a stuffed mushroom.
The rest of us, however, got into this business in the hope of seeing exotic and desirable new things, and, as of the early Zeroess, have long ago become impatient enough to ignore pretty much any kind of lunacy, including wading waist-deep in doomed hogs, to do it. In fact, most artists I know consider art fairs to be, given the options, the best way to see contemporary art. It beats randomly doing galleries—tottering through stairwells and elevator shafts for eight hours and realizing on the subway ride home that you saw about ten artists total and didn’t like any. And it beats big museum surveys—which are pretty much like the Armory only with less to see and the constant, looming threat of explanatory wall text.
Granted, we prefer our own work to be displayed in solo shows or in museums, because we know this generates an underlying assumption that people who control large rooms think our work is worth looking at and therefore keeps us fed, but in order to honestly judge people’s art, we like to see it at its worst. Pamphlet-free, curatorial-strategy-free, context-free. To the viewer grown suitably desperate, the good stuff bats its lashes like a smart piggy going through the last gate—Please look at me before I’m bacon!
And aside from the delights of pure and unfiltered volume, art fairs offer, like any confrontation with reality, healthy reminders and object lessons for anyone bent on making very good art. You need to know that that guy will make up a story about your father dying in order to sell the work, you need to know that no-one recognizes the celebrity you painted, you need to know that they’ll walk by without looking, you need to know that they’ll look and keep walking, you need to know that his show happened because his mother was on the board, you need to know they’re putting it in the nursery, you need to know they’re sending it straight to the warehouse, you need to know that the dominant tone in art this year is a sort of aggressive mildness or indecisiveness epitomized by huge objects in beige or light grey, you need to know that they wanted their money back when they heard it was done by computer, you need to know that they wanted their money back when they heard it wasn’t, you need to know your drawing will be mistaken for a collage, you need to know your sculpture will be possessed carnally by small dogs, you need to know that the person who bought it owns a small dog, you need to know that the people who like it still don’t get it, you need to know that the people who get it still think it’s stupid, you need to know people who say they get it keep buying things strongly implying that they don’t get it (and for more money), you need to know things were like this long before you showed up, you need to know things will be like this after you’re dead. You need to know because artists need to know that whatever the things they make are supposed to do, they must be things that can be done under these conditions.
So when the show comes to town, go see the show. See the pigs while you still can—they are headed elsewhere.
If you’re in New York for the Armory Show this coming weekend (March 6-9), my stuff’s at Pier 94, Booth # 909 —Fredericks & Freiser Gallery.
Also: check out this site—it has some of my newest work up in a format where you can click and zoom in—which I love.
Dear Artists at the Upcoming Whitney Biennial,
You’re going to hear a lot in the upcoming season. Some of it will be about you, a lot more will pretend to be but—secretly—will actually be about using you as an example of someone’s cranky thesis about the Whitney Biennial or the State Of The Art World or The Meaning of America In A Post-Scarcity Creative Economy or whatever.
None of the second group of things is worth listening to. The writers are, like you, engaged in an endless propaganda war whose object is to prove to someone with money that they, the writer or author or blogger or student, deserve better than to die in a ditch without health care—just as your weapons are your works and whatever words you manage to slip under the wire, their weapons are the ferocity of their stance on the Art Issues Of The Day. They need their ferocity—everyone knows, as always, Something Must Be Done and, as always, nobody agrees what that is.
Anyway, have sympathy for them but don’t believe them: you’re not part of a thing and, more generally, you’re not a thing. Or, rather, you’re only a thing if you’ve made the conscious decision to do bad art that’s dumb—in which case stop reading now, this isn’t for you (take heart: lots of other things are).
The Biennial might feel like a slick-walled pit filled with a million reasons to compromise—but then so is every other place and every other time anyone has ever seen art.
Do your thing and then when it’s done do it again better, over and over forever until you’re dead. In the end some of the good you do will be noticed, some won’t and it’ll all be totally arbitrary and hopefully you’ll get something out of it and the world will continue to be terrible, with some consolations. Be one of them.