The Battle for Babylon


This time last year I wrote that the art world had passed into what I called a “Super Paradigm” period, by which I meant a phase of continual growth. That’s still true. In fact, the art world has never been so flush with money. There are almost 300 galleries in Chelsea, with more than 30 expanding or relocating there this season. A 20-story “gallery condo” is under construction; Matthew Marks is opening a fourth gallery space, Perry Rubinstein a third, Pace a second; Marianne Boesky is building her own building. No one’s closing. There are also hundreds of contemporary galleries outside Chelsea. So New York truly is Art City. Or is it?

Even with all the buzz, we’re in a predicament. Partly, this is because while this hyper-driven phase allows more artists to show quickly, it reduces art to its exchange value. Popularity and market viability are measures of quality; things are considered successful if they sell; selling means selling big. Consequently, the system is making people offers they can’t refuse when it should be making them offers they can’t understand; too many have too much invested in the system as it is to change or challenge it; a sameness has set into the operative model of what a gallery is.

Flush or not, people are frustrated. In private many say most of the shows they see are safe or conservative. Yet most reviews are enthusiastic or merely descriptive. Too many critics act like cheerleaders, reporters, or hip metaphysicians. Amid art fair frenzy, auction madness, money lust, and market hype; between galleries turning into selling machines, gossip passing as criticism, and art becoming a good job; the system, while efficient, feels faulty, even false.

Perhaps it was ever thus, but today it seems more thus than ever. Now the system regularly replicates conditions it’s familiar with, defaulting to known positions, producing pathogens of itself. It knows art is a good investment and traditionally made by men so more men show and sell while fewer women show at all. The ratio of one-woman shows in New York galleries between now and Christmas is a deplorable 17 percent. Thus the discourse is being driven from a place that suppresses difference. This system needs to be starved into submission or changed.

The good news is that many people seem ready to do something about this situation, rather than just get through it. Things are simmering. More and more artists, gallerists, and curators, disturbed by the status quo, are taking matters into their own hands. Much more needs to happen. Artists should curate shows, write about them, and make their own publications. The agenda needs to be set by artists, not the market. Supply-and-demand thinking has to shift to production-and-experience thinking. Small communities or cells of artists, curators, and critics should band together, take positions, make cogent arguments, and put those things out there. If these positions are hostile to one another, fine; art isn’t about getting along. Disagreement and criticism are ways of showing art respect.

Everyone maintains there’s new content. If so, there should be new forms to house this content. We need to reimagine what a gallery is. Galleries shouldn’t be seen primarily as shops or salesrooms but as test sites and arks. Few gallerists are flesh- eating zombies who only want to sell art; most want to shape culture. Many are disgruntled with only being managers of the trading floor. Galleries should have attitude. Most already have positions. These positions have to be heightened and emphasized, which is where attitude begins.

Other not-for-profit and profit-making models need to be considered. Alternatives need to be tested. Nonjoiners and lone wolves can take private stands. Galleries might band together. After losing his lease, Andrew Kreps has opened a three-floor temporary space in which much of the programming is being carried out by artists. Meanwhile, alternative spaces could really step up. A few are. In Chelsea, the Kitchen has sprung to life under Debra Singer, while the dynamic director of White Columns, Matthew Higgs, fires a shot across everyone’s bow, asserting, “I want to change the New York art world in 24 months.” That’s attitude. So is gallerist Michelle Maccarone beginning her latest press release, “Maccarone is fuckin’ psyched to announce its Anthony Burdin exhibition.”

We also need to acknowledge that much of the local work we see and talk about is seen and talked about only here. This provincialism could spell trouble; although interestingly, Berlin, London, and Los Angeles are becoming more provincial too. Perhaps this is intrinsic to the Super Paradigm; maybe these regionalisms will eventually mingle or war with one another. I’m not advocating an aesthetics of negativity or oppositionality. That brand of radicalism is sclerotic. Rebellion may be a better word for it. Whatever, art shouldn’t only be about tweaking middle-class values or critiquing and redressing the art world.

The New York art world has extraordinary people in it. The infrastructure is here to do amazing things. I think those things are starting to happen and that the Battle for Babylon is about to begin.