Under my capacity as managing editor for the College Art Association, I live-tweeted a session at the 2016 CAA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. It was the first time I had attempted to write about an event as it was taking place. Sponsored by CAA’s Committee on Intellectual Property, the session addressed how the organization’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, published in February 2015, has been used by artists, publishers, and museum administrators.
John Canaday, for those of you too young to remember, used to be senior art critic on the New York Times, and hence, some felt, the most powerful art critic in the country. I remember a Sunday column of his about a woman in the art department of Appalachian State University who had put together an exhibition so fine that he praised it unstintingly. This was particularly impressive to a New Yorker because at the time the very name of the university conjured up an isolated pocket of insularity where it was hardly expected art would be taught, let alone exhibited—and abstract art at that. Canaday’s Appalachian connection appeared again at College Art, as we saw him on the panel, “Recurring Regionalism: The Southern Rim.” The title came from an earlier conference of the same name.
Because the Caucus for Marxism and Art had been granted a very brief time slot, only three artists were scheduled to speak, each to discuss her/his work in the context of social change. Martha Rosler noted in her introduction that each of them dealt with violence—physical or social. Later she addressed the need of political artists to gain control of language, to move away from the media definition of “violence.”
Since the original title of this panel was “Museums and the Reality Principle,” the artist-listener might have expected an adrenal in-rousing discourse on exhibition politics, how artists are chosen or ignored, the manipulations of trustees, the perfidy of curators and their lovers, etc. Instead, the Reality Principle at issue quite reasonably concerned the costs of running a museum, the problems of attracting a broad public, and how, having done so, not to go broke being popular. Hilton Kramer described the task of a museum over the past thirty years as changed, from an agency showing classics of modern art to an institution whose function is also to introduce new and emerging artists and movements.
“Folk Art and Neo-Folk Art” was both exhilarating and illuminating. Panelists touched on important points of original research, while much new territory was explored. However, a cloud of doubt may still linger as to where and when folk art and naïveté give way to professionalism. Betty MacDowell and Rachel Maines asserted that training is the key, but their fellow panelists freely interspersed untrained artists’ work without distinctions. One was left to make one’s own deductions.
Future generations researching the good old days at the College Art Association’s Annual Conference may take this panel for a distillation of its moment, as it casually splices ideals, philosophy, jargon, celebrity, and non sequitur with talk of art-as-money. We see also the intense longings, the search for uplift, the demands for salvation that are increasingly deposited in art. The most interesting discussion of the panel addressed whether they belong there.
After being asked to participate on this panel, I wanted to know what kind of writing on socially engaged art is already out there. My conclusion is that there’s a lot of writing on socially engaged art out there. We have books devoted to the subject by Grant Kester, Claire Bishop, Pablo Helguera, Tom Finkelpearl, Nato Thompson, and Gregory Sholette, among others. We have essays by the above authors, as well as by Ben Davis, Steve Lambert, and Yates McKee. (Why so many men, I wonder?) They write on Project Row Houses, Theaster Gates, Suzanne Lacy, Tania Bruguera, Superflex, and the Yes Men, as well as projects sponsored by Creative Time, Art in Odd Places, and local and state arts councils across the country.
To conclude the conference “Exhibit A: Authorship on Display,” two speakers—a curator and an art historian—offered their thoughts on the day’s events. Dieter Roelstraete, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, spoke polemically about the conference theme, wanting his remarks to be “a case and a plea” for a curatorial attitude that “shouldn’t be ashamed of its aesthetic ambitions and its aesthetic aspirations.” In contrast to this passionate approach, his session colleague, David Joselit, professor of art history at the Graduate Center, commented briefly on several points raised during the conference.
What happens when artists act as curators, organizing exhibitions for museums, commercial galleries, and other venues? Well, they become curators, if for one show only. Is this new? Is it a trend? What advantages and complications result when an artist takes on a different professional role? The third session for the conference “Exhibit A: Authorship on Display,” simply titled “The Artist-Curator,” explored these ideas and more.
The keynote address, delivered by Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bounded quickly across the history of museum art buying in the United States and settled on the future role of the art museum. According to Hoving, whose own museum has escaped the financial crunch plaguing art institutions in the 1970s, all is changing for the better. He foresees an emerging “technotronic era” which will not, as Orwell warned, snuff out creativity, but enhance it. “Our Western artistic manifestations will tend to diminish in importance, and we will begin to recognize a multiplicity of centers and styles,” he said, adding that the tastes of a few critics and a small group of curators won’t wield the power they do today.