Make American Art Great Again

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The audience gathered in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery of the Art Students League, a midtown Manhattan art school founded in 1875, was mostly middle-aged folks and senior citizens, with a scattering of younger people who were probably students. They arrived to see and hear James Little, an abstract painter and professor, give a lunchtime talk. I was unaware of him prior to the event—I did not know if he was a critic, an artist, or some other art professional before showing up. Born in Tennessee in 1952, Little earned his BFA from the Memphis Academy of Art in 1974 and two years later received an MFA from Syracuse University. June Kelly Gallery has shown his work since the late 1980s.

New Realism at Museums

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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.

End of Bohemianism

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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.

Art Image as Consumer Product

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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.

The Market Is the Moment

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The question “How the Market Gives Form to Art” is one I ask not at all cynically. I think it’s the question of the ’80s and a difficult one to answer. My premise is that the drastic change in the art market over the last twenty years has effected a change in the condition of the artist as modernism defined it, that is, as outsider. The artist’s life is still difficult, the speculative nature of his or her work remains the same, generating insecurity and so providing a continuum with earlier times. However, today, opportunities are far more numerous than they were two decades ago and this seems to have reduced the artist’s identification with the marginal.

The Fever Peaks

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In April 1987, New York magazine ran a story on “Art Fever,” picturing socialite art collectors on the cover and evoking the hum of art rapidly transmuting into gold in the text. By 1989 the business press was routinely showing graphs that proved the superiority of art over stocks as long-term investments, and art-talk events across the land took on the flavor of “Cashing In”—a panel held, please note, at a business college.

Welcome to Post-Modernism

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I went to this really weird panel last night called “Post-Modernism in Art and Literature,” only it was mostly John Simon, Michael Graves, and Hilton Kramer in the same room, so the place was packed. To start off, they had a beautiful lady with long blond hair and a really great black dress who talked about something you couldn’t understand because we were still trying to find a seat in the crowded room. She must have been a doctor, though, because when she finished the moderator said, thank you Doctor Soandso.

 

IN TERMS OF

Reviews of lectures, panels, interviews, conferences, and other live speaking engagements in the visual arts.

 
Funding for In Term Of has been provided by the Arts Writers Grant Program.