I can’t stand (for) art – Dear Dan Fox – “energy, dedication, love”
[The following is a response to the piece highlighted and linked to below]
Thank you so much for this update. I think you might be the most interesting person in the art world – or I should say the “capital A” art world. Since you asked “What kind of art do you stand for?”, I thought I would endeavor an answer. Thanks for the opportunity to consider this.
The short answer is I can’t stand (for) art. Or rather, I am tired Dan, too tired to stand up (for art). I am tired of all the fretting, all the “legitimizing footnotes” and the curatorial pomp and circumstance. I look around me and see creative people everywhere – some of them wear white caps, a lot seem to wear sports jerseys, but almost none of them seem to have an opinion about documenta. And it seems to me that this is okay, that people make meaning where they are, whether watching Seinfeld reruns, gardening, arranging their Ikea furniture, or writing for frieze.
I agree that setting aside big claims like ‘This show challenges your preconceptions’ is probably for the best. And I think we should do our best to put art in its place – as one form of aesthetic enterprise, one form of meaning making, with no special purchase on fascinating ideas. If we focus on the “energy, dedication, love” rather than “the art fairs, biennials, mfa programmes, magazines, dense jargon and newspaper articles about how to make it in the art world,” I think we’d be off to a great start.
So I said I’m tired of art, but that was only because of the wording of your question. Looking closely, I notice that you engage in a kind of sleight of hand, asking what kind of art someone stands for, but then talking about Claes who advocates for an art. You too close your piece advocating for an art, rather than art. The “an” implies one among multitudes rather than a singular field, this I fully support. I stand for the art of things – the art of cookie decorating, the art of writing letters, the art of fly fishing, the art of comedy, the art of mixing music, the art of playing poker, the art of the cocktail, the art of kayaking, the art of knowing when to share a story at dinner…
I even stand for the art of making art, as long as it sees Jesus in a piece of toast not as a sign of the Second Coming (as you rightly suggest), but as one miracle among many – the miracle of people, even ones that don’t have clean drinking water, pressing on, finding beauty in small things. Or the miracle of folks making meaning from the clouds, their mom’s laugh, a reality TV show, or a gossip magazine. I stand for an art engaged in by everyone. I stand for any art of “energy, dedication, love.”
‘I am for an artist who vanishes, turning up in a white cap painting signs or hallways.’ A sceptic might call you out for indulging that middle-class fantasy of the artist as blue-collar worker, but I reckon you’re too savvy for that. Perhaps you meant it as a reminder to take pleasure in things in the world and not fret about their pedigree as ‘Art’. You’re certainly reasserting the old avant-garde desire to dissolve art into life, and although that’s an act of self-erasure few seem to chance nowadays – what would happen to all the free dinners, institutional glory and symbolic labour for urban gentrification? – it’s one that nevertheless begs the question of art’s influence beyond art; grubby questions about taste, audiences and who this whole game is for.
Art has obviously developed fascinating, complex ideas, but it’s had to work hard to explain them and to prove their worth in society. Yet nobody quite knows how much reach these ideas have beyond specialist circles. The industry superstructure is today so noisy we can’t tell whether it’s the structure or the art that’s having the effect. From outside, the art industry looks like a rarefied cultural activity. Newspapers like to portray it as a place for extreme shopping for the one percent. Neither of these views is entirely wrong, but nor are they entirely correct either. So much energy, dedication, love – entire lives – have been put into art’s hard-fought battles over identity, appropriation, feminism, abstraction, institutional critique, Conceptual art, Pop, Op, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, De Stijl, Arte Povera, Fluxus, Mono-ha, Postmodernism, Happenings, Abstract Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, realism, photorealism, painting, sculpture, performance, installation, video and so forth that we crave a sign that it’s all been worth it. (The legacy of Minimalism can’t just be ikea tables.) The problem is that the art industry longs to have the mass appeal and legitimacy of pop culture– the same stripes awarded to cinema and music – but it still has to sell itself with some ingeniously gussied-up new angle on ‘high culture’ to justify its extravagances. We want the person in the white cap painting a sign also to have an opinion about this year’s documenta.
Big claims are made in our industry that leverage contemporary art as a form of salvation-cum-revolutionary-gesture such as ‘This show challenges your preconceptions’ or whatever toothless assertion of radicalism you wish to name. And still the world turns. Nothing changes. We’re quick to see a Jesus-shaped silhouette in a piece of toast and declare it a sign of the Second Coming. Cognitive dissonances have developed that allow for all kinds of mental contortions: a hair-shirt criticality that sees artists decrying capitalism in their commercial gallery shows, for instance, or artists having successful ‘practices’ making work ‘about failure’. All the pr, all the iconic museums erected in the hope of instrumentalizing art as an economic adrenaline jab, all the art fairs, biennials, mfa programmes, magazines, dense jargon and newspaper articles about how to make it in the art world – look at all that from outside the art industry, and it doesn’t add up to what we think it does. The signal-to-noise ratio is out of whack.
Our noses are pressed too close to the screen. We fret so much about the legitimizing footnotes – the art-historical lineages, the curatorial contexts and paradigms – that we forget to measure the proportionate importance of our discussions as they intersect with ‘social life’. I am for an art that knows where it stops and life starts. I am for an art that doesn’t see Jesus in a piece of toast.