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Open Enrollment | Let the Good Work Prevail: Navigating Social Practice, Object Making, and the Market

Part 1: Art World Retirees

Most of us at this point have read Dave Hickey’s “retirement” letter. He has announced to The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and to the world at large that he is sick and tired of the whole art world mess. “Money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore (Dave Hickey, from The Guardian).” He calls those dictating the art world “hedge funders,” and questions their intellect as being no more complex than that of batman comic readers.

Hickey’s retirement comes shortly after a similar stance taken by art and culture writer and sociologist Sarah Thorton, author of Seven Days in the Art World. Her recent article published in TAR Magazine outlines “The Top 10 Reasons NOT to Write About the Art Market.” Similar to Hickey, Thorton points a finger at art world players, whom she calls conmen, frauds, oligarchs, and dictators. She also blames the art market for giving too much exposure to artists who attain high prices at market, while good work is being under-appreciated.

Hickey, in his (semi) retirement announcement, said, “I hope this is the start of something that breaks down the system. At the moment it seems like the Paris Salon of the 19th century where bureaucrats and conservatives combined to stifle the field of work. It was the Impressionists who forced a new system, led by the artists themselves. It created modern art and a whole new way of looking at things. Lord knows we need that now more than anything. We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way–to start challenging the preconceptions instead of reinforcing them.”

Hickey then goes on to bash responses from young Yale MFA-ers concerning their post-grad goal of moving  to Brooklyn–not to make the best work, he insists.  Trust me Hickey, I’m with you. But take it easy on the MFA crowd. As young artists beginning to traverse the convoluted art world laid before us, it’s hard to know if our fate is to fight against it, or fit in (if it means rent and dinner). The truth of the matter is we all need to sell work to support ourselves, or else we’ll wait tables into eternity. I am all for Hickey’s call for a re-working of the art world. Yet, as far as I can see, the “new art world system” that seems to be formulating involves artist-run spaces. Just as Hickey is leaving the world of contemporary art criticism, artists are leaving in droves from the gallery and museum systems, in trust of the alternative. In my experience, artist-run spaces and projects don’t facilitate the kind of market on which artists rely in order to be able to afford the making of their next piece. I am skeptical of the way in which this new faith in artist-run spaces tends to demonize the art object as being implicit in art market capitalism.

Jeff Koons’s “Baroque Egg with Bow” (1994). This baby brought in $5,458,500 at market.

Part 2: In Validation of Objects

I don’t mean to denounce artist-run spaces, as I myself have been involved in a number of them. I do, however, tend to have a love/hate relationship with them: I love the excitement and dialogue that they incite between my peers and artist networks, but as a full-time practicing artist, these types of projects take time, organization, energy, and (here comes the dirty word) money that pull me away from the studio. At the end of the day, I am often left wondering what it’s all for.

Yet, despite my complaints, my love for spaces like these is prevailing. I am currently involved in a project called Vessel & Page, which was set up as a space to curate programming and exhibitions, bridging Cranbrook Academy of Art and a larger midwest art community.

Currently we are hosting a lecture series, and recently had Chad Alligood (Cranbrook Museum of Art’s Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow) speak about the limits of social practice. In lieu of more and more emphasis being put on artist-run spaces as a counterpoint to our capitalist art market, Chad argues for objecthood, and shines a light on the current canonization of social practice work. I want to be clear here that social practice and artist-run spaces are two distinct camps, yet they often travel in pairs. Often, artist-run spaces favor social practice types of projects, as both have the inherent goal of engaging the community.

Chad writes, “But I contend that participatory art, and especially that which professes to effect actual sociopolitical change, is perhaps even more susceptible to capitalist systems of exchange and administration than strictly object-based art practices…As corporate hierarchical structure dictates, someone must serve as the project manager for such an operation, and who better, really, than the curator?…These thinkers ultimately insist on their own importance, as organizers, administrators, managers, and interpreters of social practice (Chad Alligood).”

Tom Marioni. “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art,” Hammer Museum, 2011.

Citing Tom Marioni’s “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art,” Chad went on to explain in the Q&A that social practice projects, while they might not directly lead to money through object-based sales, allow the museum presenting them a certain repute of edgy coolness (which in the end may contribute to money coming in through donors and fundraisers).

Chad is insisting on an important point here: objects don’t equal market.

The market has expanded to include capitalizing on participatory and social practice work. This argument, while slightly depressing, is also a needed encouragement to me as someone who is deeply invested in refining my craftsmanship of discrete objects and photographs. Chad allies the object, rather than throwing the baby out with the art-market-bathwater. “I reject the notion that objects outside of the emergent canon of ‘participatory art’ can’t incite meaningful conversation and subversive social action. Sensitive manipulation of materials, keen attention to formal concerns, and well-considered craftsmanship will always carry resonance in the observer’s perception, because objects invested with such consideration transcend their workaday objecthood. Objects of aesthetic contemplation existed before the advent of worldwide capitalism, and people found meaning and comfort in them long before the west named them ‘art’ (Chad Alligood).”

Preach it!

So, apparently objects and beer drinking (my two favorite things) have both been bastardized by the market. I suppose what I am asserting here is that the art world will always be flawed, yet as artists we must band together and defend our practices. And, social practice and artist-run projects aren’t necessarily the only way to do it. Instead, I’m with Chad, in fighting for a strong tradition of object making, and following in this lineage. One that predates the bat-shit-crazy art market, and all of its “batman comic reading players.” It’s not that I am against artist-run projects, I only question turning to them as a way out of the art market, and a way with which to banish objects into the corner.

Chad’s argument points out that social practice projects can be as capitalized by the market as objects are, so perhaps we are getting stuck in polarized options: objects vs. social practice. Are artists stuck between a rock and a hard place? Why are we placing such value in the format, when the real value should be placed on the work?

I am full of questions and uncertainties of how to change / be a part of / dip my toe in the art market pool, yet my one constant driving force is the work. Rather than argue for “this or that,” let’s argue for a redispersion of our value systems, where GOOD work prevails. Not a type of work. Not a specific venue. Not what brings in the most at auction. I posit this article somewhere between faith and speculation, and will end with a final wink to object makers as we continue to pursue our work despite the convolution of the art world. Let the good work prevail–onwards and upwards makers, onwards and upwards.

“Nobody puts baby in the corner;” scene from Dirty Dancing.

 


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