I think the best thing A.I.R. [Gallery] could do would be to have men. I hope there won’t be any more women’s panels and I hope this is the last one I’m on. You get what you want in this world by surprise, by doing the unexpected. They expect us to continue the way we are…. I don’t think feminism is the real world any more. The point was to get women artists taken seriously. Women still aren’t as equal as men, but I don’t think women’s galleries are helpful any more. I don’t think it helps to be in A.I.R.
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.
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.
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.
Once upon a time in a constantly collapsing and re-rising city, the inhabitants made buildings with large spaces where people sweated to make things for others to sell. But one day they painted the spaces white and displayed mysterious and precious objects there. At last, on a night in spring, 1983, many people gathered in such a space to hear messages from shamans who made the precious objects. They worried about a tool producing these objects quickly and easily, and wondered if the new objects would be precious in the old way. So they gathered to DEFINE THE DIFFERENCE.
Craig Owens, senior editor of Art in America, sat with the six panel members and spread his hands, butterflylike, cigarette dangling from the long fingers. We, seated on the floor of the crowded gallery, were, mercifully, not permitted to smoke, having squeezed in while others less fortunate clamored at the entrance and pressed against the window to see “Painting and Photography: Defining the Difference.” Owens’s hands seemed to point to two points of view even while he hoped those who had come for the latest installment of the historical battle would be disappointed. They were there, he said, to “define difference,” not define or create false oppositions.
Art is a conveyer of status, a vocabulary of power. Men and women of wealth and influence, after they have acquired their money and power, need signs and symbols of their importance. Collecting art is often a way to gain entry into a desired social stratum. How do dealers “make a market” in a living artist’s work?
Back at A.I.R. again, there was at last an exception to panel chaos, perhaps because only two panelists—Marcia Tucker and Barbara Haskell, both of them Whitney curators—showed up. With Mary Beth Edelson moderating, their talk was focused. “Changing and Stabilizing Women’s Art from the Curator’s View” was the title, but discussion was about the woes of the curator.
Anticipating yet another version of the standard critic’s disclaimer, “We have no power and no one reads us, anyway,” I found the New School’s auditorium overflowing with an expectant audience, which, as Barbara Rose put it, did not look “as if they were about to ask the usual 1960s question, ‘How do I make it?’” Did this imply that the audience looked successful? Secure? Sophisticated? Shrewd? Savvy? I did see a lot of familiar faces.
The New School auditorium is an antiseptic affair after the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union and the raunchy amphitheater at the School of Visual Arts, but its acoustics are much kinder to amateur speakers. If that suggests I’m reviewing these programs as entertainment, I am. Douglas Davis remarked that the panel is itself now “a generic form.” It’s also a form of entertainment with aspects of performance, social arena, soap box, forum, and lately, gathering of lost lambs. This time, though, Barbara Rose came down like the wolf on the fold: “If you publish in an art magazine … you are writing ad copy,” she said, “and if you don’t know that, you’re stupid.”