Babylon as Usual


Since American culture in general, and the art world in particular, have more or less picked up where they left off on September 10, I will too.

This isn’t the end of the art world as we know it, but the apparatus of bringing art to the public, the delivery system we call galleries, has gotten hackneyed. The paradigm of the clean, well-lit, minimalist white cube—the pristine box, with sleek Sheetrock walls, cement floors, and a surfeit of space—seems as prevalent as it is played out. This doesn’t mean big galleries are worse than small ones or that they have inferior shows. But when iffy exhibitions take place in similarly swanky spaces or all in a row, and when packaging impinges on art, the bad feels worse, and the worse, obnoxious.

Disconnection is in the air. A disturbing gap has appeared between the making and exhibiting of art: Artists work in ever more cramped and compromised situations, yet what they make is often shown in basketball-court-sized palaces of art. Too much work looks as if it’s made for lobbies, mansions, or museums. I’m not knocking Chelsea, cash, or flash. Some artists are naturally flashy; art and money have always been bedfellows, strange or otherwise; and gallery architecture is fashion (though, of course, one day this particular style will look as dated as 19th-century salons). But the whole enterprise has gotten corporate. Even though being an artist requires a certain amount of professionalism, we need to remember: Professionalism is the enemy.

As for art itself, it’s time to say no to work that is entirely dependent on external explanation, simply a re-presentation of reality rather than a transformation of it, or purely process (sometimes sharpening a pencil for five years is just that). Jasper Johns famously wrote, “Take an object. Do something with it. Do something else with it.” These days, too many artists follow only the first two steps, or only the first. (Duchamp is no longer a good enough excuse.) Art is a very mysterious and complicated thing; it can take years to understand what an all-white painting, for example, might be about. Nevertheless, art should have everything you need to know about it in the work, not on a wall label. It should take us beyond language.

People are aching for alternatives. Yet as the art world expands and business booms, success—which is still measured mainly in terms of money—dominates and reduces much else to background noise. As with Hollywood, too many artists are talked about not because they’re talented but simply because they’re successful.

Chelsea is the prime art neighborhood we have, and I’m glad we have it. Without it—well, I don’t want to think about New York without a concentration of galleries; it’s one of the great things about being here. Excellent shows happen in Chelsea. By now, however, its supposedly neutral spaces are no longer neutral. Once they worked; now they don’t. At their worst, they detract from the experience of looking at art, homogenize it, or make talking about ideas seem trivial. In any event, they’re not enhancing feelings of creativity.

Still, we can’t blame neighborhoods, architecture, and dealers for our problems. It’s patronizing to say a gallery is better because it’s smaller, or because it’s in Williamsburg or Harlem, or on the Lower East Side. Anyway, dealers catch on fast and adapt to change well. New galleries are popping up, older ones are staying loose, and promising artists are emerging. Which tells you the bubbling pool of underground artistic energy essential to New York is still oozing.

But all is not well in the ooze. Costly housing and studios aside, too many art schools are teaching artists to have 30-month rather than 30-year careers. Not all of these institutions employ only fast-talking post-structuralists and retrograde formalists, but many do, and are becoming what critic Matthew Collings says British art schools already are: “hollow, vacuous, and repetitive places where the same nonsense gets spoken again and again.”

As for where some of that “nonsense” ends up, institutions are in perilous straits. Museums have become mega-businesses (according to Collings, Tate Modern’s 2001 attendance was 5 million). Catering to the widest possible audience, many present art as good for you rather than contentious, and are gradually turning their backs on their first constituency—the art world. If this continues, we will be compelled to turn our backs on them as well.

In New York, while the Guggenheim remains mired in its season in hell, the Studio Museum is shaking things up, P.S.1 lurches forward, ICP and Artists Space are enjoying comebacks, and Dia—in spite of its narrow definition of high art—is looking good again. MOMA’s moving to Queens, the Queens Museum has a new director, the Met is the Met, and alternative spaces are battling for relevance. The Drawing Center has gone toney and the New Museum vacillates between excellence and earnestness. Things are only exacerbated when the Whitney mounts a biennial that is as un-visual as it is uninspired.

For anyone discouraged by the 2002 biennial, the shaky state of our institutions, the magisterial look of many of our galleries, the big bucks and the hype, these are challenging times. New York is still the trading floor for the art world, but that’s all we’ll be if this continues. Crisis may be too strong a word for it, but it’s not an entirely inaccurate term to describe the moment.

Archive Highlights