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.
Because the Caucus for Marxism and Art had been granted a very brief time slot, only three artists were scheduled to speak, each to discuss her/his work in the context of social change. Martha Rosler noted in her introduction that each of them dealt with violence—physical or social. Later she addressed the need of political artists to gain control of language, to move away from the media definition of “violence.”
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.
“Folk Art and Neo-Folk Art” was both exhilarating and illuminating. Panelists touched on important points of original research, while much new territory was explored. However, a cloud of doubt may still linger as to where and when folk art and naïveté give way to professionalism. Betty MacDowell and Rachel Maines asserted that training is the key, but their fellow panelists freely interspersed untrained artists’ work without distinctions. One was left to make one’s own deductions.
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.
What do artists want from critics? Barbara Zucker answered for us all: “I want them to be my fairy godmother, champion my career, say I’m a genius, and stand behind me unequivocally.” Although she and others went on to discuss the importance of dialogue and the wonderful insights that artists might derive from criticism of their work, nothing rang as true as these opening remarks.
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.
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.
Titled “What Price Art,” and provocatively subtitled “The Economics of Art: An Agenda for the Future,” the conference promised to explore the economics of the visual arts market, with practical details on costs and price structure provided by “national experts in economics, finance, law, public policy, art and journalism.”
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.