Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Work Miami 2010 @ MAM: When politics and aesthetics collide

(Photo taken from Miami Art Exchange)

Alfredo Triff

¿Can we discuss an exhibit (here referred to as New Work Miami 2010) that has the characteristics of an inclusive event showcasing Miami's young talent and fails -precisely- for this reason?

New Work Miami 2010 is the kind of effort one expects from a local museum like MAM. The show makes the featured artists look good. It also distributes and promotes certain positive market values across a space that includes artists, curators, critics, collectors, etc. I'm sure the organizers (both curators whom I respect), did their best to present what they considered was the most representative work within the given parameters of the show.* It's good news for all the parties involved.

Michelle Weinberg, Social Origami, (2010).
Photo: Sid Hoeltzell (Courtesy of Miami Art Museum).

Some Miami media are really enthused: The Knight Arts Website's line is politically blunt:
There have been good local museum shows before, indeed at MAM several years ago; so what is striking is how many of these artists were not included in previous shows, underlining the depth of what is now here. (Italics not mine).
Carlos Suarez de Jesus of The New Times was impressed with the event. He puts it this way: "This is a can't-miss show you'll want to visit again and again and rediscover something fresh each time." 

A local blogger relates a similar experience:
"New Work Miami 2010," conceived as an exuberant salute to Miami’s artistic community, will provide a partial snapshot of the Miami art scene at this moment. Approximately 35 artists based in the Miami area will present new and recent artworks executed in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, environmental installation and performance.
Miami Art Exchange's Onajide Shabaka remarks:
What makes this exhibition so good is that the curators did an excellent job, and the quality of the work really shows that the level of art in Miami has gotten better over the years.
De Jesus' praise emphasizes the timing of the exhibition under the present economic crisis (which fits Rene Morales metaphor of "artist-as-weed," resiliently showing through the cracks of hard life). The second blog stresses the number of artists featured (talking about the crisis, there was only one artist that addressed the present crisis head on). So it seems that de Jesus' point -in passing- looses steam. Shabaka's short note openly congratulates the curators for the quality of the work presented, but he doesn't justify why.

True, a show can score points for timing and inclusion. But this is art.

From this point let's address political and aesthetic concerns. I'll try to show that when it comes to aesthetic merit, not only these other concerns are independent, but even oppugnant to each other. I'd like to explore the shortcomings of the inclusive approach which (judging by the writeups) makes New Work Miami 2010 a likely political success.

Fabian Peña, Overdose, (2010)
Photo: Sid Hoeltzell (Courtesy of Miami Art Museum).

Let's start with the premise that any show presupposes a theme. And anything can -in principle- work as a theme (I'll suggest my own titles to the following choices). Take color (The Reds of Constructivism and Futurism), a marginal social issue (Crossdressing Europe: American Paintings of the 1930's), a historic factum with political overtones (Surrealism & Misogyny), the tragic life of an artist (The Van Gogh Brothers and Fin de Siècle Dutch Paranoia), or a theme within a theme (Cubism, 1907-1908: The Hip-Hop Years), etc.1

I'd like to point out that any theme has "internal" and "external" aspects to it. How? The very structure of it. In the case of "color," it may refer to certain extension (i.e., all things -or ideas- which are colored). Take "Conceptual art in the 1960's" as a genus and "documents" as species. The work of the curators would be specified within certain internal parameters within this theme. The organizers could stop at this level and present a pretty general show, or they can go on to a subspecies, say, "FLUXUS." Presumably, going the next step sacrifices scope for the sake of simplicity, thus increasing overall consistency (I'm not necessarily saying that big things -or classes of classes- cannot be cohesive).2

 Kevin Arrow, Cluster 3, (2010).
Photo Sid Hoeltzell (Courtesy of Miami Art Museum).

What was the criteria used by the curators? I venture that they took the idea of a Miami Art show as genus, with "Contemporary Miami Artists" as a species, "artists who have not exhibited before" becoming a subspecies. Now, "Miami Contemporary Artists" (or "emerging" or would have you) becomes internal to "Miami art," but "artists who have not shown before" is not. Why? There is nothing about the latter that grabs any aesthetic relevance. "Inclusion," as subspecies, will not make the show better or worse. I'm even suggesting that an exhibit could succeed politically where it fails aesthetically, as is the case with this one.3

One has to admit that working ad hoc presents some challenges for overall consistency. Imagine the curators: a- begetting a possible list, b- visiting different artists' studios, c- tweaking more the initial criteria, d- debating which piece goes where. Suppose an artist already included in the exhibit doesn't cut it (it's conceivable that not everything they looked at was equally worthwhile and they harbored second thoughts). What to do? Aesthetic merit suggest the artist should go; inclusion demands the opposite.3a At this point someone may say that I'm treating art as some sort of merchandise. You tell me: What does it mean to apply a "political" criteria of inclusion if not an exchange value within a given market of aesthetic perceptions and goods? 4

In favor of aesthetic consistency, some of the pieces presented had no place in this show. For example: What justifies the distribution of artwork vs. wall-space? Is it individuality, novelty, plasticity or showmanship? I looked at what can be called "reluctant proximity," by that I mean a work "A" that prefers to not share close quarters with "B", and found some likely candidates. The clash has to with internal fitting. Just as some art works "get along" with others based on pre-established shared constellations, some simply don't, can't.

Coubert's Femme nue couchée, (1862).

Lissitzky's Lenin Tribune, (1920).

What if the organizers and this writer have incommensurable ideas of what constitute "fitting?" Fair game. Aesthetic discussions are more about rightness than truth.5

New Work Miami 2010's main flaw is structural, i.e., its internal consistency weakens when aesthetic merit is supervened by an "external" criteria of inclusion.

Finally, some may rejoin that my review becomes as political as the show I criticize by not disclosing artists' names for this review. Peut-être. Take it as a tit-for-tat critical response.

*Observe that the title of the show: "New Work Miami 2010" cannot be more general and particular at the same time; its "pointing to" meant as "bracketing" a fact. To the observer: "What you see here belongs in this 'time and space' bracket."  1 My bombastic titles only seek to stress the connection we  place between theme and scope when applying the criteria for a show. 2 Though thematics should be constructed as close as possible to Ockham's razor, according to Nelson Goodman (See his Languages of Art). Which brings me to this question: Is the universe cohesive? If you agree, you have something in common with Spinoza. Many people disagree with this view, amongst them Goodman himself, who would say that "cohesiveness" is just another manner of constructing and sorting out universes. This month, WIRED magazine presents an article about how people make "surprising connections." According to the piece, if I like WIRED, I'm attracted to redheads (?). See, Devin Leonard's "Should You Read This Article?", (WIRED, 18.08), pp. 118-128. 3Though a crucial component, aesthetics is not the only grade of art discourse. 3a If such a thing ever happened in this case, it would be a sufficient reason for internal inconsistency (from the curatorial standpoint). 4 Jacques Rancière calls this overlapping of values a regime. 5Arguments can buttress rightness. And the critic works hard at making sense. I hope I do.


Feminista said...

Interesting take but I have not see the show. Until then I reserve my judgment.

Dissey said...

hey triff, nothing new. politics and art are part of the game.

miami artist said...

Triff: I agree.. the show had good pieces and some bad pieces, particularly the installations. They looked as if they were done by school kids.
Some pieces were really good sort of out of the norm.
The show looked as finished in a hurry.

miamibourbaki said...

Feminista: I understand. Go see it. It will be up for a while.

Sure, Dissey. My point is not that politics and aesthetics should not go together, but that their being together can be quite problematic.

miami artist: Thanks for visiting.

Matthew said...

well said man.
went to see the show and there was good and not so good and boring.
crisis? what crisis?
art has never been for the masses.

artist shabaka said...

I didn't write more than I did because, as usual, during an opening it's nearly impossible to do more than chat with people and down a few drinks. I didn't even have a chance to see all the works. I will return and write something more. Thanks for the photo credit, too.

R.L.R. said...

Triff you are becoming a new paradigm of what an art critic should be nowadays within an international contemporary art scene ruled by relativism, compromise and vested interests. Thank you.

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, RLR.

silentmonk said...

i didnt know what to expect coming into this show, i read your review on it and it wasnt until more than a week later that i was able to go in. I walked through the show and felt like expected so much more from my city and the representation of the artist that reside within our city, the show was underwhelming , my first thought was to walk into something that would show the diversity of local artist with a two floor show, but 35 named artist roster felt like there was only 10 when i walked into the main floor gallery of the miami art museum. i can only hope that for the next exhibition show casing our local artist that it would be grander than this small scale show of a pin hole view created by the curator of what miami is.

the only piece that bothered me was the bert rodriguez piece , that is far from being original but feel like an after thought that came to him after seeing the previous exhibition of carlos criz-diez.

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