Has Success Spoiled the American Art World?
February 19, 1987
College Art Association, 75th Annual Conference
Marriott Hotel, Salon E, Boston, MA
The title question of this panel is the sort that rarely gets asked unless the answer is meant to be yes—and the answer for this one did seem to be “Yes, but….” Yes or no, the panel articulated feelings about “success” that had ripened in the ’80s.
Moderator: Hilton Kramer
Panelists: William Bailey, Sylvia Mangold, Sidney Tillim, and Robert Pincus-Witten
The most talked-about art writing of 1987 College Art Association week was Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker profile of Ingrid Sischy, editor of Artforum. Hilton Kramer, introducing “Has Success Spoiled the American Art World?,” explained how Malcolm found Sischy not “profilable” and so profiled instead a “Cook’s tour of the seamy aspects of the world [Sischy] is obliged to move in.” We, apparently more accustomed than Kramer to the ways and means of artists, thought the scene sounded like just folks and began to wonder anew about Kramer’s sense of the fitness of things.
From there he segued into a depiction of the runaway art world of the last five to ten years—the proliferation of art critics, the inflation of indifferent art, and the turning of art into a commodity for the moneyed middle class.
Kramer traced the blame for the decade’s art sickness to his years at the New York Times. Something happened in the ’70s art world that was expressed by his editors: the burning question asked every week at editorial meetings was “What’s New?” But, as Kramer saw it, the impetus for this question, and what changed American journalism, was New York magazine. It was New York that advised readers each week where to buy the ten best hamburgers, see the ten best exhibitions, find the ten best artists, discover the ten newest movements.
So Kramer’s editor at the Times wanted to know what was new that week in art. The high point of his career at the Times was the week he answered that “no new trend was discernible in the last seven days,” and the editor asked, “Is that a trend?”
Kramer advised his audience to resist sentimentalizing the “old art world,” reminding us that those now-famous artists were impoverished at the time, had no public, only hostile and ignorant response (if any), no solo exhibitions until they were 40 or 50 years old, and sold at outrageously low prices. Was the American art world a finer place in the “good old days,” he asked, when Willem de Kooning didn’t have an exhibition until he was 42 and Milton Avery sold his paintings for $50?
William Bailey had pondered the question “Has Success Spoiled the American Art World?” and was prepared to say “Yes, in the sense of a spoiled child.” Then, with carefully weighed words, he added that the problems of the art world emanate not from success but from a sense of failure. As the successful get more successful, the unsuccessful get, in comparison, even more unsuccessful. The gap between them widens, rending the art community. Bailey also disdainfully likened today’s success for artists to the success of rock stars and movie stars. (But why not? We have lived to see moments when even women artists were mobbed by fans at openings. We’d like more—more famous women artists, more mob scenes.)
Bailey said that when he started out, “art” was what came from Europe; he himself had no expectations of “success.” He made the point that most painters today still live marginally and under increasingly difficult conditions, especially in New York. The community of artists has broken up; it is no longer possible even to share poverty. Bailey knows young and old artists who have never had the kind of success heaped today on the art world’s darlings but are instead involved in the daily conflicts of the studio and haunted by a sense of failure. The talk now in SoHo is only about money, while at the old shrines (museums) curators are preoccupied with enticing the fun people, as though to a disco. Bailey asked if all this “presages the decline of the West.” However, it was reassuring to have him tell us this is not just New York, but all over.
Sylvia Mangold, the only woman on the panel (added, we understand, as token, at the insistence of Natalie Charkow, chair of the conference studio sessions), said success means money. She enjoys being able to live off her art. Though she lives apart from the New York world of careerism, she still faces her own problems in the studio.
In preparation for the panel, Mangold had read Suzi Gablik’s Has Modernism Failed? and works by Willa Cather. From Cather she came away with the reassurance that success is never as interesting as the struggle (though there might be some argument on that from the strugglers), and that every artist needs to find some motivation other than money. Money brings problems, Mangold observed, expressing her certainty that most artists she knows care more about their work than about making money. But sensitive, gentle Sylvia, doubtless selected because of her friendship with the moderator and the knowledge that she wouldn’t make trouble, was no match for those macho image-makers on the platform—though one wished it were otherwise. A scrappy hard-hitting woman puncturing some of the blather would have been refreshing.
If Sidney Tillim had some gift as a raconteur, his garrulous drawn-out tales might have been more appreciated. He, too, assured us, in case we didn’t know, that most artists don’t work just for the money, and that he, personally, doesn’t have enough of it. He, too, harked back to the art world of thirty years ago. Asking himself “Why am I here?” (at the panel), he concluded it was for his career. Tillim resumed writing some four years ago, after a lapse of fourteen years, because he wasn’t showing. “I just couldn’t get a dealer.” He was surprised when an article he wrote, “The View from Past 50,” got an enormous response, mostly from people under 30. Then, in an attempt to share his thoughts on the subject, he launched into a soliloquy, “The Art World Today Is Like Baseball,” an extraordinarily boring ramble on his life-long interest in baseball, which may of course have been less boring to a person with a life-long interest in baseball.
The passive among us grabbed forty winks, the decision-makers got up and left; the masochists toughed it out. Finally back to the subject at hand, Tillim proposed to document changes in the art world, as, for instance, the evolution of the Whitney Museum of American Art from humble beginnings on Eighth Street to MoMA’s backyard to Madison Avenue and its present postmodernist imbroglio. These changes, showing the movement of money and upward mobility, have occurred, he said, not just in art but throughout modern culture. Then, before relinquishing the mic, Tillim got in yet another personal anecdote. He had sought advice from Robert Pincus-Witten about how to approach the art magazines. His first submitted article was rejected (by an unspecified publication). He next decided to approach Betsy Baker, an old friend who happens to be editor of Art in America. His call was fielded by a young man who asked what he wanted to talk to her about, explaining that it was necessary to “prioritize topics.” Tillim’s topic evidently didn’t make it to the top ten because he didn’t get through. Next he approached Artforum, where he finally got published. Running into Baker at a later date, he described his failure to reach her. She told him, “Next time just say you’re returning my call.”
Robert Pincus-Witten was introduced by Kramer as “the kid” but admitted to being not much younger than the others present. My neighbor whispered to me that she’d been in his class at art school and they were the same age: 52. Pincus-Witten, simultaneously arch, pleasant, and snide, smiled and demolished all previous nonsense. The basic situation has not changed, he said. All artists want as much as they can get and good-looking lovers, and always have. But this has no effect on art. For example, “Has success spoiled Hilton Kramer?” No, Pincus-Witten assured us. “Whatever he does is not affected by his being a successful man.” Reading from a column by Kramer, he quoted statements about the lack of talent among this year’s famous—David Salle, Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, and company—can’t draw, can’t paint, etc. He added that success is very revelatory of character; in fact, you can’t tell what a person is until they get what they want.
Kramer then shifted the discussion to museums and their keepers, describing the enormous pressure on curators and directors to be first with the new stars and to beat the Europeans to it. Mangold questioned who holds the power, and Pincus-Witten said power is in the hands of those who make the newest art—small groups acting in concert. This led to a diatribe against the gang of four: Fischl, Schnabel, Salle, and Mary Boone (speaker unidentified by now-sleepy reporter). Kramer tossed in the fact that MoMA is an ailing museum and no longer representative, quoting Harold Rosenberg’s phrase about “the herd of independent minds.” Everyone, Kramer explained, thinks they’re making “independent decisions,” but they turn out to be identical with all the others.
Mangold said she found the volume of art being produced frightening, but another panelist reassured her that two kinds of business will surely prosper—storage and conservation.
Assorted Quotes and Choice Lines from the Panel
Pincus-Witten: Agnes Martin’s withdrawal can be seen as a strategy for self-promotion.
Bailey: Critics don’t see very well; that’s part of today’s problem. There is the question of how well Picasso draws and how badly Salle draws. [Bailey added that he regretted having to speak ill of another artist but was driven to it.]
Kramer: The problem with Salle isn’t that he doesn’t draw well, but that he draws.
Pincus-Witten: Although we think of certain galleries as central emporia for significant artists, art actually moves into the world as a function of stylistics. Hype doesn’t sell art, stylistics does. Work enters the marketplace because it sells itself, and that’s what the consumer wants. Significant collections are made up of works bought by people who don’t have to have things “sold” to them.
Kramer: The shift to Neo-Expressionism was the result of a strong sense by a new generation of what was missing in art; something more important than fashion and avarice, a sense that the vitality of art should be restored. Also, there are now so many artists, dealers, museums, curators, and collectors, that it’s tougher for an artist to get a serious review than to sell a picture.
Unidentified: At least we are finally rid of the mythical bohemianism of the lonely painter living in isolation and neglect.
Unanswered Questions from the Audience
Are these phenomena of “success” aspects of some larger cultural decay? Does the success of young artists, like the success of young ballplayers, inspire other young artists? Who markets the artist?
And Answered Questions
Audience: Aren’t artists involved in object commodification, as opposed to writers or dancers?
Kramer: There’s a whole new group of short-story writers similar to the Schnabels of our time.
Audience: How does one achieve fame and fortune quickly?
Answer: It’s easier if you start young.
Audience: Would you prefer to be a successful Picasso or an unsuccessful van Gogh?
Answer: One lived three times as long as the other.
Audience [referring to the breakdown of the star system in Hollywood]: Can it happen in the art world?
Kramer: We all liked it better when the movies had stars, but it’s not a true comparison.
We heard that the panel originally included Robert Hughes and Alex Katz, with the expectation of a face-off between them. Hughes, it seems, had disparaged Katz in print, and Katz was furious. When Hughes cancelled his panel appearance for a trip to Australia promoting his latest book, Katz cancelled, too. The large sensation-hungry audience was disappointed.
In Terms Of count: unknown.
 Apparently painter Clyfford Still also had a lifelong interest in baseball and also drew analogies between art and baseball, which he shared with his students in California, but their response is not on record.
Written by Cynthia Navaretta, “End of Bohemianism” was originally published in Women Artists News 12, no. 2 (June 1987); and reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 266–68. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.