I’ve experienced a lot of great art in Miami – which makes the nightmarish parking and traffic seem vaguely worth the aggravation. I learned too late last night about the midtown protest against the horrific decision in New York – and it was from an art dealer who complained that the protest was disrupting her important dinner plans. The protest was simply unknown to or ignored by seemingly most at the fairs.
I hate to generalize about a thing as vast as the Miami art fair phenomenon. There are too many well meaning and passionate artists and dealers who spill an awful lot of blood and sweat in pursuit of their craft. And, after my post yesterday pointing out the numbingly flattening quality of the standard art fair architecture, I was asked why I participate. Why is my work here and not someplace else?
If contradiction and irony disqualified critique, situated as it often is in the midst of structures we struggle to comprehend, challenge, and transform, then critique wouldn’t happen. Nipping at the hand that feeds you is risky. Art is a public and very human enterprise, and that fact demands examination of how art is made visible. Nothing new here, nor in yesterday’s remarks about how the structures of capital and commerce eclipse all else in the art fair experience. So, again, sadly and maddeningly, no surprises that this bastion of the 1% looks the other way when a real tragedy of injustice is unfolding, and when the real demands of action come calling. Art likes to refer to this kind of injustice – in fact the liberationist ideal in the exigesis of art is well established. Art wants us to examine our political and social blind spots, to make visible in our personal experience what otherwise goes unexamined, remaining the source if unwitting prejudice and limitation. But rarely does such enlightenment translate to real transformation in action. My point yesterday was that the very architectural structures of art fairs militate against the liberationist ethos at the core of art’s desire for itself, not just by reducing every decision of inclusion (galleries and works) to a profit potential equation, but further, and more insidiously, by crushing engagement with art into bits of ephemeral sensory experience. At least, you have to work for the real encounter with the object.
And this is exactly what capital wants from art objects – to take the risky and uncertain nature of engagement out of the equation, to enhance the work as the empty vessel of value. When I was mistaken for a potential collector (some were that desperate), a gallerist would assail me with the artist’s stat line: how many museum shows, whose collection, which curators have written about them, etc. The work itself was presented as the offshoot or byproduct of all of this, rather than its potentisl source. The experience of the work, then, becomes the experience of the stat line – presented as a way to couple the collector’s own ambitious ego enhancement project with that of the work. Obviously, the riskiness and uncertainty of the work’s content (especially for tricky social or political ideals) is not just unimportant in this equation but also – and especially if it challenges a collector’s or institution’s ideals – can be a real drag to the flow of commerce.
It’s no surprise then, that the collective consciousness at an art fair is blind – has a collective blind spot – to the real content of life going on in and around it. I am lamenting that the art fairs ignored Eric Garner; I am lamenting that the manifest content of most works is buried and sublimated in its commodified exterior; and I am lamenting that this form of art encounter has assumed a central – even dominating – place not only in art experience but has become a source structure (‘but will it sell in Miami?’) of how artworks and artists are made publicly visible.
So back to the question – why do it? Why participate? Why is my work here?
There are no confident answers. The truth is I am not free of the consciousness that wants to sell and sees selling as a source of more than commercial value for my work. The truth is I want the work to be visible – to be seen and considered. And the truth is that I also witness, as I have witnessed this weekend, the real encounter in action: people witnessing the very structures I am bringing to light here, including that knowledge in their experience, and fighting through the fog-of-art-fair to an authentic, intimate, expansive encounter with art works. I had one encounter with a curator who offered a deep and pentrating and valuable critique of a work.
I am also not lamenting that the art dealers do what they do in this context, a context that minimizes their creative and curatorial role to the role of clerk functionality. They, after all, are doing the work of making art visible in ways in which it can gain a toe-hold into a real, transformative encounter. I met many passionate dealers this weekend who do their best to couple their commercial imperative with an honest desire to Sherpa a real encounter with works.
Any analysis must include this acknowledgment. It’s an acknowledgement about what persists in the desire to make and present and encounter art: the desire to evolve in and as truth – not to discover the one truth but to midwife the evolutionary nature of personal and collective truth. In other words, the desire for freedom. Freedom – not as some ideal of unfettered free will (which is what capital ultimately sells) but as continual and interested (indeed, passionate) movement out of encountered limitations and restrictions in consciousness. That, after all, is what art – and I think art viewers – seek. And that is what art can deliver. As corny as it sounds, it is the heartfeltness of this endeavor that keeps me coming back for the good fight.
That rapture stated, do I think there’s another, better way? Yes. Would I have liked to see a full scale protest and acknowledgment of the Eric Garner case (and Michael Brown and…and…and)? Yes. Would I like to see art and the Artworld do more than point to political content and then politely take its place on the walls of the Rubell Collection? An emphatic yes.
I think art and artists and curators and dealers and collectors and institutions can do more. Yes. I will approach some ideas in Part 3. But let me generally suggest that the means and tools of collective understanding and action are with us now.