In academic art history, the single-author, single-subject monograph—an extended study on an individual artist, a group of artists, or a chronological or geographic range—is typically considered the pinnacle of scholarly achievement. A parallel to it in the hierarchy of subject matter in Western art would be history painting, a large work that addresses a biblical, historical, or mythological subject. To continue the analogy, a coauthored or edited book is comparable to a portrait, and an essay in a book is a genre scene. The article published in a peer-reviewed journal would be the landscape. The lowest form is the book review—the still life of academic writing.
Olivier Mosset was in town for the opening of his exhibition at Parapet/Real Humans, a project space run by Amy Granat in a storefront in the Fox Park neighborhood of Saint Louis. On view was a framed set of four lithographs of two thick black stripes on a square of white paper. The set, it turns out, was made for a Swiss Institute benefit in 2004. Granat said the work reminded her of September 11—I suppose any two vertical lines will do that. The artist compared them to an optometrist’s vision test. As someone who can’t see six inches past his nose without glasses or contacts (and who never skips his annual eye-doctor visit), that made more sense.
“Language is forced on art,” quipped the artist Rachel Harrison to an audience member during the Q&A session of this event. “We’re just throwing words at art all the time. Is that really best for art? Is that really good for art? Does that make art happy? It might. It employs a lot of people.” Such is Harrison’s self-consciously funny and cynicism-free outlook for giving titles to her works. That outlook is also a good way to understand her art practice over the last twenty years. I lost track of how many times I chuckled to myself during this hour-long talk.
Two years ago I stopped attending panels of art critics discussing the state of the field, mainly because the subjects such events would cover could easily be predicted: (1) money, and how there is little to be made writing about art; (2) a perceived loss of power in the art world, ceded to dealers, curators, and collectors; and (3) the differences between writing for print and online publications. Speakers overwhelmingly wrung their hands over problems that have existed for decades. The numbing repetition—I can’t even.
I first discovered the work of Lee Lozano (1930–1999) in 1997, when reading the reprint of Lucy R. Lippard’s classic chronology of Conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. The descriptions of Lozano’s experientially based art from the late 1960s, including Dialogue Piece, General Strike Piece, and Grass Piece, were among the most compelling in the book. Because of the radical nature of these works—making art from talking, from art-world protest, and from the desire to “stay high all day, every day. see what happens”—I thought everyone knew about her. So when Lozano was rediscovered in the early 2000s, having left the art world for good thirty years earlier in her infamous Dropout Piece (1970/72), I was surprised.
The subtitle of this panel, “Is Jerking Off Getting Out of Hand?,” could mean anything from, “Once you’ve seen one jerk-off in an art context, you’ve seen them all, so a painting renaissance is inevitable,” to “Painting itself is the equivalent of jerking off, so why paint?” In either case, if you’ve been waiting tensely for the verdict, the panelists agreed that painting is not now, nor is it likely in the foreseeable future to be dead. In fact, one assumes that the four painters convened exactly in order to reach that conclusion. It did, however, take them three-quarters of the evening to start to explain why.
The journalist and sociologist Sarah Thornton was interviewed about her latest book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, at the New York Academy of Art, where she was also the school’s commencement speaker for this year’s graduating class of MFA students. The book chronicles the upper crust of the contemporary art world—the kind you read about in the Scene and Herd section of Artforum.com—from 2009 to 2013. Benchmarks in conversations and studio visits with the dozens of artists that Thornton interviewed were Jeff Koons, whom she considers to be conservative, and the high-risk Damien Hirst. Other recurring characters include Maurizio Cattelan, Ai Weiwei, and Andrea Fraser, as well as the artist couple Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons and their daughters, Grace and Lena Dunham.
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.
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.
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.