“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.
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.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about biennials,” mused the artist Michelle Grabner, seemingly without irony. No kidding—she’s one of three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which opened to the public on the day of this panel, held at the Armory Show. “Here and Now: Biennials in the Twenty-First Century,” moderated by the curator and scholar Lynne Cooke, assessed not so much the current state of biennials—of which the Whitney’s signature exhibition is a leading example—but rather demonstrated how she and two other panelists have shaken off what some call “biennial fatigue” to reinvent the form and scope of these large-scale, super-hyped exhibitions that take place around the world every two, three, or more years.
“Is it ethical for an artist to make work that sells?” was the first question asked of Randy Cohen, who responded by saying that terms like “sincerity” and “ethics” do not apply in aesthetic situations—you judge an artwork on its own merits. He then asked the room, “Is it shameful to produce work that people enjoy?” If a person has an urge to make money, he mused, then art is a quirky field in which to earn a million.
Halfway through this conversation, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith was asked, “How do you choose what to write about?” She responded by stating that it’s the art she really likes or dislikes, no matter if the artist is super popular or under recognized. “I’m interested in the unit of a show,” she noted, yet “we’re in this post-post-post period.” Although Smith gravitates toward “rematerialized objects,” a play on Lucy R. Lippard’s famous notion, “any kind of work can be made now.” This was all good news for the crowd of fifty-plus that gathered in a crit room at the New York Academy of Art, a small graduate school known for figurative and representational work.
“Is it possible to define a cogent code of ethics in art writing?” asked the promotional statement for this panel, presented by the MFA Art Criticism and Writing Department at the School of Visual Arts. The answered offered by the giddy, often flustered moderator, Aimee Walleston, a graduate of the program, was something like “I think, um, I don’t know. It’s an interesting thing to think about!”