John Canaday, for those of you too young to remember, used to be senior art critic on the New York Times, and hence, some felt, the most powerful art critic in the country. I remember a Sunday column of his about a woman in the art department of Appalachian State University who had put together an exhibition so fine that he praised it unstintingly. This was particularly impressive to a New Yorker because at the time the very name of the university conjured up an isolated pocket of insularity where it was hardly expected art would be taught, let alone exhibited—and abstract art at that. Canaday’s Appalachian connection appeared again at College Art, as we saw him on the panel, “Recurring Regionalism: The Southern Rim.” The title came from an earlier conference of the same name.
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.
“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.
You know how lyrics from pop songs look trite and sometimes embarrassing when written down, but come alive convincingly when performed? It’s the same for artist’s talks. Some excel when presenting in public. If an artist is charismatic, unremarkable work becomes good and good work becomes great. The opposite is also true: interesting work can come across as ordinary. The renowned first-generation Conceptualist Robert Barry is one of those artists whose work—which explores speech, memory, light, time, belief, anticipation, fragility, making connections, and states of flux and change—shines when interpretations are expanded on by others. It’s not that he’s inarticulate. Far from it—the artist speaks clearly, in a straightforward manner. But there was a lack of excitement to his reflections on a six-decade career during a lecture at the Hunter College.
Tehching Hsieh created among the most radical, strenuous, and bizarre bodies of work in all of art history. Only prisoners with life sentences or captured soldiers could ever relate to the parameters Hsieh set for himself for his five One Year Performances, which he described in chronological order during his lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts. Prisoners of crime or war rarely elect to put themselves in a position that isolated themselves, mentally and physically, for long periods of time.
A panel on “The Changing Landscape of Museums Today” coincided with the release of the Asia Society Museum’s anthology of essays, Making a Museum in the 21st Century. Responding to a question asked by Josette Sheeran, president and chief executive officer of the Asia Society—“What does a successful museum look like in the twenty-first century?”—the museum directors Richard Armstrong and Melissa Chiu talked about collections, buildings, and exhibitions, while the bureaucrat Tom Finkelpearl zeroed in on diversity and audience.
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?
The internet was once the “meat market for the undatable,” said the journalist Erica Lumière. Now, meeting people online for dating and sex has nearly become completely normalized in American culture. Which is good news, especially for couples who no longer must make excuses for how they met—“at a party,” “through mutual friends,” or something of the sort—and just say “on OKCupid” without feeling ashamed. In fact, men and women older than fifty is the largest growing segment of online dating (and the market cornered by a company called Our Time).