by Patrick Gantert
The art world has limits. Like a city, it radiates outward from a small center, the glow diminishing the further away you get. The vast majority of us exist in the twilight of that glow; physically not far, but conceptually light years away. That majority comprises what could be called a rural art world, one concerned, by virtue of status, with the community oriented endeavors and enacting resistance to the status quo.
With every passing day, I, and many others, wonder when and if a change to the system will happen or if the rampant complacency and subsequent silence of the ‘haves’ is ultimately a death knell. The conversations I have with my peers regarding career follow a similar narrative, that they’d like to work their way up to art related financial independence and then eventually end at some ill defined ‘goal’. That unspecified end is a constant in these conversations and an impetus for endless tributaries of discussion. It’s that end that interests me. I’d say it suggests studio related financial stability and maybe a retrospective or something, and I think it does for most, but isn’t that line of thinking a product of willful blindness? A huge percent of canonized artists are still relegated to academia or other means for financial support. So what then, beyond money, is the point? A marginal and remarkably relative amount of fame (ask a random person on the street in anywhere that isn’t NY who their favorite living artist is and see what they say)? Sure. At the risk of sounding corny, isn’t the point, or at least part of the point, to learn something through questioning? To analyze, synthesize and represent culture? I understand that sounds romantic but it’s the only way to stave off the depressing reality of the situation, that most artists aren’t going to find financial stability or marginal fame so if that’s an end point, we may as well quit or decide to work toward something else.
In the last year or so, the constructs of a corrupt and unregulated art market were exposed through a number of critical assessments by influential voices (Jerry Saltz, Christian Viveros-Faune and less recently Sarah Thornton). In his Village Voice column ‘Art’s Dirty, Big Secret’ from January 1st, 2014, Christian Viveros-Faune reproduced an e-mail he received that bragged about insider information informing sales of artwork and concluded that:
‘...looking back at a year of unprecedented graft, I find that this email constitutes an important kernel of proof. Proof that, in New York especially, art is no longer just art — it's crooked finance. The kind of crooked finance that today is not merely accepted among otherwise reputable folks, but encouraged.’ 1
It’s safe to say that the realities of buying and selling artworks are less than desirable and perpetuate behavior that, in any other sector, would be instantly construed as deplorable and unethical (it’s the reason Martha Stewart sat behind bars). As a result of this liquid asset free for all, the current iteration of the art world creates an environment that works to perpetuate a very real divide, those who are in and those who are not. And that doesn’t end with the buyers and dealers, it ends with and includes the artists, which produces a climate fueled by quantity and apathy that runs on competition instead of cooperation. Artist Aaron Graham summarizes this in part of a lengthy Facebook post from January 9th:
‘...the market has broken down any political ambitions. the market has created a competitive environment where there is no time or space to build communities or solidarity between artists. artists are pitted against each other. when an artists puts forth a critique or a vision they are shot down by their FELLOW ARTISTS! artists are labeled as complicit and hypocritical if they talk about the problems within the art world and their desire for something better. artists have become protective and paranoid of change.’ 2
The entire post, which comes closer to a short essay, is worth a read but even in this snippet, he’s correct. Part of the way that power is preserved in and around the art world is through accusatory means and a weird, uncharacteristic shaming of vision which, as Aaron notes, manifests as a kind of navel gazing paranoia. It’s troubling to think that, with the way things are at the moment, any critique leveled is instead written off more or less as a failure to assimilate, to be perpetually not getting a very unfunny joke. Those who try to at least think radically and envision alternatives are dismissed as pontificating armchair critics too butt-hurt about being labeled outsiders to do anything. That dynamic is changing.
We’re starting to see activism on a structural level, notably in institutional designations. Take Bushwick’s Interstate Projects as a recent example. They kicked off 2015 by confirming their decision to become a non profit space. From their Director Tom Weinrich:
‘As the art market expands and the commercialization and commodification of trends speeds up, there is less room for experimentation, weirdness, and fortuitous failures. Interstate Projects has been and will continue to be a place where things are valid, sought, and nourished for their outsider, outlandish, and experimental states.’3
Tom hits on a something that typifies the current market dynamic, namely the commodification of trends and the rate at which they are turned over. Even in his short statement, he addresses three things that are all but absent from commercial spaces; Experimentation, Weirdness and Fortuitous Failures. Those things that are ostensibly necessary to change the dialogue and progress. We’ve become more concerned with availability than with accountability and responsibility. To his point about trends, the rise and commercial sublimation of the very delicious ‘post internet art’ is quite telling in that it marks a scene whose aesthetic and attitude has been snapped up by galleries and collectors with a blinding and stupefying intensity in the span of two years. It’s the flavor of the week(s) being happily sucked dry by the market. Writer and critic Brian Droitcour perfectly encapsulates the sentiment in his essay ‘The Perils of Post Internet Art’ from the October issue of Art in America:
‘After a century that has witnessed art in newspapers, art on the radio, art in the mail, art on television and art on the Internet, here's a self-styled avant-garde that's all about putting art back in the rarefied space of the gallery, even as it purports to offer profound insights about how a vast, non-hierarchical communications network is altering our lives.’ 4
Elsewhere, outside the art world, alternatives have flourished. The Occupy Movement in particular has produced myriad offshoots of varying degrees of effectiveness, notably their Rolling Jubilee, a campaign that raised $700,000 to buy and eliminate over one million dollars of medical debt. It was a successful idea that consequently led to the formation of Medical Debt Resolution, an organization dedicated to raising funds (through private and corporate donors) to eliminate medical debt. Beyond Occupy, the internet has long been an incubator of alternative models, most recently The Silk Road. The Silk Road, now defunct, was a thriving marketplace for anything from baseball cards to contract killing. In some ways sordid but another successful alternative that has already given way to imitators and innovators. The base concept provided fertile ground on which to stand. Even the beast itself, the Frieze Art Fair, was eventually convinced to hire at least some union workers.
Simply put: change is not a product of complacency, it is a product of frustration. It arises from the corners and fringes inhabited by those who are shut out and disenfranchised. This is a classic narrative that we see repeated over and over and it’s the reason that real and visible shifts will extend from rural factions instead of the city center. We’ve seen the reality of promising deviations from the norm in other social and political spheres. Why then is art seemingly bent on the perpetuation of a hierarchical status quo that prioritizes glad handing and empty gestures at the expense of relationships and inquiry? Is it not more enticing to create something that could potentially help to restructure a system that the bulk of us would agree is corrupt? This is a shared responsibility that rests on the shoulders of everyone. To uproot the prevailing system is a task that necessitates cooperation and cross-pollination.
This essay so far has been a simple statement of facts. We’re all circulating in and around a deeply flawed and wildly unregulated system. That is not a criticism, it’s the truth. But the argument here is not anti-commercial and is not intended to tear down a system that does, sometimes, provide a legitimate livelihood. Instead it is against being silenced by commerce. It’s too often the case that market demands not only alter or steer an artist’s work but also relegate their personality to the shadows to silence any derision. To avoid that silence, the creation and support of rural spaces is paramount. I’ve mentioned Interstate Projects already but there are others working with a rural model and hashing out individual methodologies for sustainability. Small Editions is a gallery and book bindery in Red Hook that also hosts monthly exhibitions. Their funding is derived mainly from client work and the sale of artist books. Not only do they provide a beautiful venue, they also organize visits with other artists and writers, help to design and print a catalogs for the shows and consequently sell that catalog to libraries and museums. Daylight Savings Gallery, a nomadic space that collaborated with Small Editions, ran a year of programming on a shoestring budget, borrowing other venues and taking flexibility as a curatorial imperative. Similar to Hotel Art, they relied on shared perspective and social networks to physically locate their output. The benefit of such practices is that freedom and experimentation drives the programming and makes room for work that may otherwise be deemed too difficult or non-saleable and not have an outlet.
To refer to something as rural is not a geographic designation but rather a conceptual one and even an ethical one. It’s an attitude of sustainable transgression that applies to a vast and varied contingent of cultural participants; Artists, curators, critics, musicians and more. The unified rural stance, no matter how it is enacted, is one that is at odds with a venomous and downwardly cascading marketplace bent on the division and consequent weakening of the thing on which it hinges. A rural art world is one privy to the wack machinations of the market and therefore deeply invested in fostering viable alternatives, becoming ever more publicly critical of its intentions and, in turn, striving to carve out hybridized spaces where real and effective change is possible.
2 Aaron Graham. Facebook post. January 9th, 2015.
3 Interstate Projects press release.
4 Brian Droitcour. The Perils of Post-Internet Art. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/the-perils-of-post-internet-art/. October 30th, 2014.