The art world is like high school with money. These hyped-up days, that school seems to have morphed into the one on Beverly Hills 90210. It even has what might be called its own paper: the gossipy Diary section of artforum.com. Although the regular Artforum remains rigorous and the diary entries from other cities aren’t as overheated, the gushy New York items read like the Us magazine of art criticism, regularly reporting the flings and bling of an insular group of art worlders who regularly mingle with and applaud one another. I love the art world and the social life it generates. We all spend huge amounts of time alone, so going out is a way to avoid going insane. Yet the Diary can make you think that the same 55 people are bounding from bash to bash like some giant high-fashion molecule.
In the Diary we read tidbits like “Throughout the day following the opening of Rachel Feinstein’s second solo turn at Marianne Boesky, all anyone wanted to know was who had been there the night before.” Or “Marc Jacobs was there at the head table with a very glam Anna Sui, who had the ear of Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer, who had the eye of art consultant Mark Fletcher, who was at the elbow of collector (and sometime John Currin model) Dianne Wallace, who was opposite Rachel Feinstein and Currin.” One morning I read about Jeff Koons’s 50th birthday party at Jeffrey Deitch’s with its “forty-one piece marching band and an escort of ponies” and caught myself simpering because I hadn’t been invited.
That’s what the Diary does: It makes you feel shallow, irked, envious, or nauseous. Sometimes, as in the following two morsels—the first about Koons’s party, the next about Damien Hirst’s—you feel all four at once: “Jeffrey had promised me an excellent table and he delivered the Rosenblums, the Mardens, our own Jack Bankowsky, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, and Marc Jacobs”; or the Hirst bit, “Gallery reps from London, New York, and Los Angeles strolled past each other whispering bons mots like ‘If your guy decides not to take it, my guy is definitely in.’ ” Soon you’re thinking, “I need an excellent table with a guy who’s definitely in.” As Rhonda Lieberman shrewdly meowed in her Diary entry about the Fendi-sponsored rap act of art adviser Yvonne Force, “The band was bee-oo-tiful, the crowd was bee-oo-tiful . . . it felt like Weimar in Chelsea.”
The parties and Diary may be only background radiation, yet combined with the crazed tenor of things, they’re adding to a collective frustration, notably at the lower end of the food chain. These days it’s not unusual for grad students to fret if a dealer hasn’t picked them up yet, or for people still in school to already be making tens of thousands of dollars off their work while their critic-teacher is making next to nothing. Not long ago, in a group crit at Hunter, I was blathering to a student about how his work was skillful but kitschy. Throughout, he maintained a benevolent grin. The next day I learned that he had just signed with Leo Koenig and that Larry Gagosian wanted to buy a batch of his paintings. If I were him I wouldn’t have listened to me either.
Gallerist Kenny Schachter describes the phase we’re in as “economics-ism” and “bottom-line aesthetics,” by which I think he means that now art is considered successful if it’s shown in a gallery or bought by collectors. Fitting in and conforming have become aesthetic criteria. Tautology rules.
Many artists find all this depressing and regularly disparage the carousing and ask if it’s possible to get their work out without behaving in bogus ways. Not to sound like a Creed song, but no matter how serious an artist is, it’s almost impossible to behave this flippantly and still maintain one’s credibility. There’s nothing wrong with showing work when you’re young, but art has to be its own reward. Artists have to not only think about having 30-month careers but about 30-year careers. Almost every artist has two lives: The outer one of career and success, and the inner one that we all got into this for in the first place, the one about work, obsession, and discovery. These days the outer journey is being mistaken for the inner one. This has to change. The characters in the Diary are only actors in a passing infomercial. If enough young artists and dealers start turning away, this turning away will turn into something else.
Recently, painter Richard Aldrich wrote, “Now, integrity can be a medium in art.” He’s right. Artists needn’t give up partying; everyone should have as much pleasure as possible. Some claim the glibness of the Diary is causing ‘brand erosion’ to Artforum. Perhaps, but despite the superficiality of the Diary, the general situation is actually improving. Artists don’t have to say the destroying “no” of punk. A promising cast of newcomers is taking the stage, and they seem ready to deploy the seditious “yes” that says, “I’ll participate, but on my own terms.”
Consider what the 34-year-old Walker Evans did two days before the opening of his 1938 MOMA survey—the first exhibition in that venue ever devoted to a photographer. Evans didn’t like how the curators installed his show, so he took down every photo, mounted a third of the pictures on cardboard and pasted them directly on the wall, then reframed and rearranged everything else. More artists need to act this way and take matters into their own hands. More are. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any choice.