Thursday, August 12, 2010

Miami's non-existent critical discourse

Sandow Birk, Average American (32 Donuts, 17 Bars of Soap, 1 Book), (2005).

Alfredo Triff

Let’s go straight to it. We don’t really talk about art anymore. What we do is chat and nod and casually interject on worn down themes. We echo the words of art magazines, the blurbs written by curators. We feel comfortable.

Critical discourse means taking things apart, discussing with passion, avoiding complacency. Always looking with new eyes, with fresh minds. This is not to say that the writing has to resemble an academic treatise, a conservative harangue or a philosophical essay. What I’m talking about is a voice that is not afraid to call a spade a spade. A writing that elaborates some kind of defensible scheme, whose style is consistent, reliable, complex, a bit adversarial and why not, entertaining. I’m defending the kind of criticism that aims at quality and avoids self-indulgence and mannerism. Criticism as reflection of judgments, not as parading of judgments. 

Unfortunately, this kind of criticism is gone. What Miami writers (let’s bracket the term “critic” for the time being) produce today is art advocacy plain and simple. They have become the media mouthpiece for the gallery and the museum system. Art-writing for the art market.*

What happened? The demise of the printed media has something to do with it. One could argue that sometime during the early 2000’s Miami had a variety of choices: The New Times, The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Street and The Sun Post, all competing for attention. They provided different points of view (and we thought it needed to be improved!). Today only the first three in the list above do some kind of art covering. To make things worse, they converge ideologically.

 Norman Rockwell, The Art Critic, (1955).

I present some examples, taken from recent art reviews (my purple ink interjects to point to the obvious). The first two by Carlos Suarez de Jesus. The style here is to declare and embroider with a “groovy” sleight-of-hand:
Arguably the highlight of the slow summer art season and one of the most anticipated events of the year, the freewheeling show features a zany half-hour-long video collaboration featuring a Cecil B. DeMille cast of coconspirators.--“Dadarhea, the absurdist funstravaganza opening at O.H.W.O.W.” New Times, (August 12).
Or this one: 
The provocative show ploughs the fertile furrows of macho/male positioning in contemporary culture from sweeping perspectives, shifting seamlessly from macho-man swagger to female and childhood notions of manliness and the complex relationships between young boys and girls. – “Three art shows in Wynwood probe manliness, devastation and the passage of time”.—(Idem, August 8).
This sample is by Tom Austin:
In the end, the Lowe exhibition proves that artists don't care for politicians and, for the most part, find the world a crummy place, a sensibility that crosses all strains of humanity. This show is a wonderful opportunity --for a change-- to see angry art that's about changing the world, as opposed to all the narcissistic nonsense of contemporary art, the navel-gazing that changes nothing. “ArtLab at the Lowe examines centuries of revolts and bad behavior”, The Miami Herald, (August 8).
Our digital media is not far behind. Observe how the writer apologizes for her words and proceeds to beg the question on her own declaration:
This is by no means a criticism of Miami artists nor of the exhibition. It’s a good show, plain and simple. I challenge anyone to argue differently (and if that naysayer is you, by all means, leave a comment). It’s no easy task to sum up the production of a city in just a few rooms.—Art Lurker, (August 2).
Sadly, El Nuevo is not that different.**

 Sandow Birk, Average American (60 Hot Dogs and 60 Sticks of Butter a Year), (2005).

Why is the writing so vapid? The writers feel they have a mission to educate, which brings me to the next point. The alleged decline of reading, which art writers whine so much about, has nothing to do with the so-called dumbing down of America. There is nothing more condescending than to assume people cannot understand, which -conveniently- puts the enlightened writer on the moral obligation to dilute the information for them. It all reflects the ignorance -and hypocrisy- of today’s editors,*** whom flatly reject the idea that the dumbing starts with their presumption that the public is dumb. They live in blind, pathetic denial: On the one hand, they don’t feel it’s their fault that people don’t read, on the other hand, they bathe in this glow of being America’s educators.

Why not assuming that people don’t read because they are tired of feeling stupid?

Miami’s printed media doesn’t do criticism --if by criticism one means a serious engagement with the work that avoids political conflict of interests, enthusiasm and bias. Let me explain. There are two modalities of what I see as plain art advocacy in this town:

1. “Augmenting” the event, conceptually framing it with the purpose of “selling” a show. Think of the typical 200-word-blurb of today’s gallery-circuit ads magnified now into 800 words. The writer doesn’t bother to present the reader some sort of ideological stand-point reference from which to evaluate. Generally, the writing feels like dictum clothed in ad-parlance or cool, groovy, sophomoric description --depending your take. In any case, the “selling” takes the form of obvious partisanship (only rarely it looks as nuanced-defense).

2. De facto artwriting: This out-and-out positive approach falsely presumes that since the writer is entitled to engage only what he/she likes, he/she can go all the way in his/her de facto defense of such-and-such artist or art work, and yet come out as “honest” and “truthful”. The writer justifies his/her bad faith with the dubious claim that not writing about something transparently shows a normative choice. In other words: If I don’t write about it is because I don’t like it (or don’t care about it). Really? Meanwhile, the public, to whom the writer supposedly “owes full disclosure” is left in the dark as “why” this is the case. 

Both forms increasingly recur to social coverage, which makes the writer and the paper look socially engaged, or the news story, which has nothing to do with art criticism. So, we “hear” the protagonists: the voice of artists, gallerists, curators, being interviewed to shed light on the context of the art. The writer becomes a medium for truthful reportage. Art becomes cultural news to be digested by the masses.

So, on the one hand we get an indulgent version of the critic’s preference, on the other hand, an amplified, distorted, cultural message.

John Heartfield, Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages!, Photomontage, (1930).

Doesn’t Miami deserve better?
_________
* Whether inspired genius or avant-garde cynic, the artist is a cultural ambassador of capitalism. The gallery owner and curator are just bona fide facilitators between the artist and the public. The art writer takes the role of the publicist: His/her job consists in 1- creatively reporting on opening night, 2- building a richly adjectival import in order to help reflect on the event’s cultural impact, i.e, attendance, general mood and public appreciation. The more they (the public) consume (to consume is to attend), the better it looks. The writer’s job consists in embroidering an allegorical moral play, stitched with the protagonists’ voices (artist, curator, gallery owner and curious public) -as if all descended from the aesthetic heavens. **I’m not disputing these writers don’t believe what they say, or that they are hypocrites. All I’m saying is they (inadvertently at best, willingly at worse) play the game. ***You can always locate the editor’s hand in the review’s heading. The choice of words is either redundant or banal or both. Check this one: “Miami Art Museum's "New Work Miami 2010" showcases breadth and scope of local talent”. --The Miami New Times, July 22.

20 comments:

The Mike said...

I almost wrote that mainstream media doesn't do criticism, that it's not the newspapers' job to do much beyond review, to let us know what they think we shouldn't miss experiencing. The issue in Miami, however, is precisely in your crosshairs. I was speaking with two professors and artists who are hungry for real criticism in Miami. Their take is yours, that no one in Miami is willing or able to dig beneath the surface to get at what is really happening in the art and the art world. Though they both show regularly in Miami, they bemoan the curatorial climate as less critical than it is promotional. Perhaps, their thinking (and mine) goes, if there were more true criticism (critical thinkers and writers who actually publish their work) in Miami, the work and shows would improve. Instead, we are left waiting for Basel to roll into town and for the papers to tell us where the parties are. The spectacle is the spectacle and grows inversely spectacular. By this, I mean that the artist as rockstar cum factory trademark produces ever more prodigiously, but the art is too safe, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, artifice in purest and most profane form, no function save to make money and promote the brand. Artists have had it too easy in the magic city for too long, and artists whose work has depth have gone under-appreciated far too long, as well.

Feminista said...

Yeah, Triff. I want more!

R.L.R. said...

Right on Triff. Brilliant piece of art criticism on our local art critique field.

Dissey said...

Hey Triff not to sound agreeable but yes! we're stupid and need to be educated by the system.

Its being a while I don't read these publications you mention. Keep the torch.

Dissey said...

by the way good art for the piece. Hate donuts.

La Mano Poderosa said...

Right on the money. The problem is that for the most part, in Miami, it is not about buying art, but, the art of buying.

miamibourbaki said...

The spectacle is the spectacle and grows inversely spectacular.

Well said. Thanks, The Mike. I'm glad you keep visiting.

Feminista: I can't stop.

RLR: Thanks, brother.

Me too, Dissey!

Thanks, La Mano. Welcome.

Matthew said...

is it fair to say that miami critics are emotional but analytically-challenged?

jehan alonzo said...

Excellent, fratello. You're keeping the critical torch, but why do you feel lonely on that work? To push the question one step back: what would the conditions of a more critical culture (and critique of culture) in Miami be? Then I'd guess you run up against the structural blocks and double-binds that grips life in most places today. I'd say capital's got something to do with it -- which begs a whole set of further, political questions. Keep it up, brother! Abrazos.

Justo J. Sánchez said...

At last somebody has the courage to say: "the Emperor has no clothes." Let us look at THE MIAMI HERALD. Charming as she is, a good friend, Fabiola Santiago may be a fiction writer but not an art expert. How can she be in charge of visual arts in a metropolitan daily? This is the priority given the arts by the McClatchy Group. Shall we consider EL NUEVO HERALD? Gloria Leal, the Diego Restaurant Sancho-Panza Award winner journalist has blindly put her trust in the local factotum: Carlos M. Luis. The local encyclopedist, Miami's answer to Diderot, is a painter, poet, does art history, lectures, curating, and even taught el Padre Alberto at the local Catholic seminary. While working for EL NUEVO HERALD, he still found time to issue certificates on the authenticity of Cuban paintings. Other contributors issue "magnificats" on all sorts of contemporary conceits sold in Wynwood. Serious exhibitions in local museums have to wait until Carlos M. Luis issues first-person singular tirades about his connections with Lezama Lima and Cuban modernism or other writers exalt the virtues of newcomers in Wynwood bazaars.
The editorial policy of ART NEXUS or ARTE AL DIA is a complex mix of networking with gallery-advertisers, fairs and important collectors who support the career of upcoming artists. Behind writing assignments, one sees the work of museum directors who in turn can bring reputation and further important networks to these publications and courtesans (critics and art historians) at the service of collectors and the institutionally powerful. A careful study would reveal the connections behind each article and the economic and institutional engines behind it.
Art Basel - Miami Beach has been the legitimizing force for four protagonists who would otherwise have no credentials outside this area: the Rubells, Margulies, Robins, and the De la Cruzes. Using Miami as a base, Ella Fontanalls ex-Cisneros (a Cuban briefly married to a Cisneros) positioned herself as a player in the art world. Cleverly using the international press to their credit and to advance their roster of artists, they have all found themselves international megastars. They have proceeded unchallenged by the local media.
Does Miami have a critical voice? No. The press goes from Rubell bagel breakfast to ex-Cisneros gala to De la Cruz bocadito event, a pitiable herd.

Justo J. Sánchez said...

At last somebody has the courage to say: "the Emperor has no clothes." Let us look at THE MIAMI HERALD. Charming as she is, a good friend, Fabiola Santiago may be a fiction writer but not an art expert. How can she be in charge of visual arts in a metropolitan daily? This is the priority given the arts by the McClatchy Group. Shall we consider EL NUEVO HERALD? Gloria Leal, the Diego Restaurant Sancho-Panza Award winner journalist has blindly put her trust in the local factotum: Carlos M. Luis. The local encyclopedist, Miami's answer to Diderot, is a painter, poet, does art history, lectures, curating, and even taught el Padre Alberto at the local Catholic seminary. While working for EL NUEVO HERALD, he still found time to issue certificates on the authenticity of Cuban paintings. Other contributors issue "magnificats" on all sorts of contemporary conceits sold in Wynwood. Serious exhibitions in local museums have to wait until Carlos M. Luis issues first-person singular tirades about his connections with Lezama Lima and Cuban modernism or other writers exalt the virtues of newcomers in Wynwood bazaars.
The editorial policy of ART NEXUS or ARTE AL DIA is a complex mix of networking with gallery-advertisers, fairs and important collectors who support the career of upcoming artists. Behind writing assignments, one sees the work of museum directors who in turn can bring reputation and further important networks to these publications and courtesans (critics and art historians) at the service of collectors and the institutionally powerful. A careful study would reveal the connections behind each article and the economic and institutional engines behind it.
Art Basel - Miami Beach has been the legitimizing force for four protagonists who would otherwise have no credentials outside this area: the Rubells, Margulies, Robins, and the De la Cruzes. Using Miami as a base, Ella Fontanalls ex-Cisneros (a Cuban briefly married to a Cisneros) positioned herself as a player in the art world. Cleverly using the international press to their credit and to advance their roster of artists, they have all found themselves international megastars. They have proceeded unchallenged by the local media.
Does Miami have a critical voice? No. The press goes from Rubell bagel breakfast to ex-Cisneros gala to De la Cruz bocadito event, a pitiable herd.

Fernando y Gaby said...

Well said but don't blame the dailies. They are dinosaurs and won't change.

The shame is that anyone with something to say could open a blog just like you did. There is no interest. This is not a very good time to be an artist and keep honest.

A.T. said...

Welcome, Jehan. True, we need your pen. Pity you're in Europe.

Thanks, Justo.

F&G, you're right, but then, why don't we have more outlets for interesting debate? What stops people from doing it?

Pat said...

People are creatures of habit, they read what is available. and whats worse, they believe it.

The connection writing art market is right on target. But everybody need money these days.

I was recommended to this site by an artist friend that knows you. I'm glad I visited.

swampthing said...

"Be patient, for the swamp is broad and wide." Edwin Abbott Abbott

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, Pat. Keep visiting.

Good point, Swampthing.

Ana Maria said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I bumped into this which reminded me of your art writer-cum-social journalist:

"During a visit this past Sunday, a trickle of visitors, mostly women and children, approached with almost reverent silence a 16th-century polychrome altarpiece by an unknown artist. As the women were looking at the scene of the Virgin and Christ child next to two biblical prophets, a young boy furtively pointed at a striking untitled photograph by Roberto Marossi depicting a staged modern re-enactment of the Lamentation of Christ.

The boy stared at the photo's two sweater-clad middle-aged women, ostensibly the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, tending the prone body of a bare-chested young man playing the role of Jesus at the moment he is removed from the crucifix. The boy's mother offered him a sweet before bending over to explain the picture's symbolism and point out the similarities between the two works."

Local news, or Living, yes. Art criticism, no.

HeFe said...

Bourbaki... Who says that there is no Critique in Miami.
Check this out
http://www.miamiurbanthinktank.com/

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks HeFe. I'll add you to my friends.

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