Saturday, April 15, 2006

The "Art Scene"

I know,I know. There's generals to talk about this morning. And your Rumsfeld, Bush. And Iraq and Iran. And the Enron trial. Along with all kinds of other weighty matters. But today my attention was grabbed by a front page article in the New York Times about the art scene--a subject near and dear to my heart--so I thought I might as well take the opportunity to throw in my two cents' worth. (It's some time, too, since I promised a response to a question from a reader who asked what kind of art I like. I've been mulling that question at odd moments for a while now, but I don't yet have an answer. Sorry.)

Anyway, the article I refer to was not about art but about the art scene--in particular the relatively new phenomenon of dealers and collectors rushing off to art schools to see if they can spot the latest blossoming superstar amongst the graduate students. As a result, the galleries hereabouts (and I believe also in New York) are flooded with the latest and the newest and the hippest, with prices that escalate by the month from the absurd to the obscene.

There was a time--not more than thirty or so years ago, when my wife Ellie was opening up a gallery for new young artists--when it was considered decent to give the artist at least a couple of years past graduate school to mature enough to risk a solo show. Even then, though, it was clear that the commercial machinery of the contemporary art world had brought about some baleful effects in the career path of artists: they were peaking early, and fading quickly into obscurity. Dealers, museum curators, collectors and yes, even art writers, would swarm around to hatch usually premature reputations which immature arists simply could not sustain. The quaint old notion of an artist maturing slowly through the thirties and forties and achieving a kind of mastery only after long years of dedication--that was thrown out the window in favor of instant fame and commercial success, and slow descent into disappointment and often bitterness as the vultures moved on to swoop down on fresher meat.

I hate to mention this, but as we cleared out the art storage racks in preparing for our move last year, Ellie and I turned up work by a dozen artists who were "hot" for a couple of years around the early seventies--one even a museum award-winner, and two or three who had been included in the prestigious Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York--whose names would be unrecognizable today. We could not even give the work away. One art school teacher consulted for this morning's New York Times article has her students read reviews of the 1993 Biennial, then asks them how many of the artists they have heard of. "It's quite sobering," she says.

I guess it's the same phenomenon today only more so, as the metabolism of the art market's consumption has accelerated to indecent speed. The schools have certainly played their part in it--and not, in my mind, to their credit. Hot schools like UCLA, here on the West Coast, have acquired reputations as baking ovens for the future superstars, and attract the regular attention of dealers and a new generation of collectors who like to match wits with them. It seems to me that the concept is still king in the art schools, thirty years after the demise of "conceptualism," and that students are trained in the belief that the better they can theorize about their work, the better it will sell. Go to a studio these days to learn more about an artist's work, and they'll talk your ear off. Go to a gallery, and you'll be greeted by an elaborate "artist's statement" that explains the work to you. It's all about strategy and placement.

Listen, if I were an artist I hope I would be strong enough to buck this deplorable trend and have the gumption to let my work go through the slow maturation process that could give it depth and dimension. One young woman quoted in the New York Times piece said this: "I don't want to be discovered and then canned in five years. I'm in this for the long haul." Good for her. May she find out a whole lot more about the depth of her humanity before she puts it out on the open market.

1 comment:

Fred said...

Peter, some friends and I were having a discussion about the early peaking of some professions--poets and physicists for example. None of us could think of a poet who was doing his best work late in life. Can you? Any comments?