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.
It’s no secret that the tuition for all kinds of schools has increased significantly over the last thirty years, and thousands of students take out huge government and private loans to cover their educational expenses. Those armed with BFAs are unlikely to make tons of money right out of the starting gate, as the familiar narrative goes. Yet we live in a time in which euphoric articles pronounce the MFA as the new MBA appear with alarming regularity. What should a young artist do?
Based in New York, the six-year-old advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) has supported a single issue: payment to artists working with nonprofit organizations in visual art. Three months ago W.A.G.E. launched a voluntary certification program for institutions that wish to publicly signal their commitment to compensating artists for their work in exhibitions and for speaking engagements and writing, among other things. The group also debuted a fee calculator that establishes a minimum wage, so to speak, for creative labor, as well as a progressively scaled payment schedule based on an institution’s annual operating expenses.
Carter Ratcliff, art critic, author, and lecturer, spoke at the New Museum on “Fads in Art.” His diagnosis, delivered in a dryly clinical manner, depicted a horrendous condition with tinges of sin, damnation, and guilt. Art faddism is like a “junkie addiction” in which neurotic need meshes with the market forces of our consumer society, he said. Stressing neurosis as explanatory structure, he touched only briefly on economics that encourage such phenomena.
“I was wondering whether anyone has anything good to say about age as an organizing principle?” someone asked during the audience Q&A for “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect,” a discussion hosted by the School of Visual Arts. Jenny Jaskey, director and curator of Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute, recoiled, “No one thinks it is.” When the next audience member rephrased the query—Is there an artist under 30 that you do like?—the five curators on the panel, all based in New York, were smiling but clearly looked uncomfortable. Alaina Claire Feldman, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International, said flat out, “I think that’s exactly what we’re here not to talk about…. I kind of refuse that question.” Then why, I scratched my head for the hundredth time, are we even here?
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.
In her opening remarks for “The World Wide Web at 25: Terms and Conditions” at the art fair Frieze New York, the panel’s moderator Orit Gat remarked that conversation about net neutrality has changed in recent years. Indeed, public awareness regarding the controlling forces behind the delivery infrastructure of the web has risen sharply after two pieces of federal legislation introduced in 2011—the House of Representatives’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Senate’s PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)—failed to develop, along with the “internet blackout” protest on January 28, 2012, and the onslaught of related op-ed pieces over the last couple years.
George Segal said a certain amount of “cruelty” in the art world is necessary for the making of good art, although one could reply that sufficient cruelty would exist in the art world even if artists got 15 percent residuals.
Rubin Gorewitz, coauthor of an artists’ rights bill under study by Congress, noted that the mafia is now buying art for profit and that his bill would discourage them. He also said it would deter thieves. This reporter doesn’t see how a thief would be prevented from selling to a secret buyer who wants the work only for himself. Moreover, work could still be held for ransom, a common purpose of art theft.
The panel got off to a late start because Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Scull were still out to dinner—together. Then Lawrence Fleischman opened by objecting to the residual agreement, a not-unexpected position for a dealer. Artists would be more hurt than helped, he said; anyway, “90 percent of artworks go down in value.” Paula Cooper was in favor of the 15 percent, but pessimistic about implementation. She has one artist who uses the voluntary contract, but says she meets buyer opposition.