Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Whitney Biennial's Castor Oil criteria of art inclusion

Susan Cianciolo's Untitled (2000), watercolor on paper (a chosen artist for WB 2017)

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The paragraph below is taken from Brett Sokol's recent article for the NYTimes entitled Whitney Biennial to Miami Artists: It’s Not Us, It’s You. Throughout Sokol's piece Miami curator Gean Moreno basically explains why no Miami artist has been chosen for the Whitney 2017 Biennial.
They simply didn’t fit into the curators’ vision of engaging the social moment,” he said. “It’s not that there aren’t good Miami artists, but the determining factor was art that addressed the social upheavals of the last six years, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to all the thinking around climate change and sea-level rise.
Isn't it essentially conflictual for art to have to express "X" or "Y" social issues to be selected for a Biennial?

Not to take Moreno's words as litmus test (Moreno is a personal friend whose instincts I trust), but isn't "social moment" arbitrary as criteria for art selection?

Here's Whitney's mission:
As the preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents the full range of twentieth-century and contemporary American art, with a special focus on works by living artists. The Whitney is dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting American art, and its collection—arguably the finest holding of twentieth-century American art in the world—is the Museum's key resource. The Museum's signature exhibition, the Biennial, is the country's leading survey of the most recent developments in American art.
Is the word "social" or "political" anywhere in the mission?

Isn't the Whitney Biennial supposed deliver the most relevant trends in contemporary art in the United States?* And by which criteria one defines "contemporary trend"? 

Back to Sokol's article:
 “Who are the artists in Miami working on these issues?” Mr. Moreno asked. “It’s been taken up by the scientists at universities here, some journalists are addressing it, you’re seeing civic responses from some mayors. But I couldn’t name one local exhibit that has taken climate change seriously.”
Why would artists have to address "climate change" as a topic?

As anyone knows, artists work in their particular themes, be it political or social or formal, as a result of years of development. Changing one's language, style or topic, is complicated —and just to fit a museum's criteria, may seem even opportunistic.  

Is climate change an aesthetic property?

It's not news that The Whitney is perceived as partisan, a fact which Sokol recaps:
In years past, many critics of the Biennial have felt that agitprop has dominated at the expense of truly transcendent artwork — so much so that the Whitney’s own publicists embraced the controversy and once cheekily promoted the Biennial as “the show you love to hate.”
Is The Whitney not perversely revisiting an American version of Socialist Realism?

Chemi Rosado-Seijo’s Salón-Sala-Salón, 2014 (a chosen artist for WB 2017) 

For example, one of Socialist Realism's influences is Narodism, the populist land movement of end-of-Nineteenth-Century Russia. Here is a quote from apparatchik Georgi Plekhanov (an important ideologue behind Social Realism) addressing the artist:
... (he) strives to alter the social relations…he is a protester and fighter by virtue of his position. His attention is totally absorbed by struggle…therefore in his case social interests dominate all else…purely literary questions are of little concern to him…He is concerned not to give artistic form to his works, but to grasp and convey the social meaning of the phenomena which he depicts. There can be no doubt that art acquired a social significance only in so far as it depicts, evokes, or conveys actions, emotions and events that are of significance to society.
"Social" and "political" concerns remained the favored criteria for art under Zhdanov's reign in the USSR.

Why is this comparison between Social Realism and The Whitney's social criteria relevant?

Polish art theorist Stephan Morawski in his Inquires into the Fundamental of Aesthetics mentions Zhnadov as responsible for the evolution of social realism towards what he calls its "institutional version" around 1936, with the publication of "A Chaos of Sounds instead of Music." Morawski writes:
What strikes us in this article is that instead of entering into a discussion with the artist, it simply pronounces an anathema permitting of no appeal. The principles feasible and discussable were offered without an offer of justification. It was official now that socialist realism was the only permitted current in the Soviet Union.  
Back to our present, The Whitney's extraneous criteria remains inappellable in the sense that curators already entertain their choice based on institutional consensus —which (as we'll see ahead) they refer to as "the conversation."

I don't want to get too much into this theme of ideology vs. the arts, which also has counterparts in the Nazi's Reichskulturkammer and Fidel Castro's "Palabras a los intelectuales."

On the other hand, a Whitney advocate may argue that on the contrary, the institution is not imposing anything on American artists, the institution and its curators merely decide what topics are relevant for inclusion—given the constantly changing social contexts. Let's not forget that The Whitney was accused as being "too white" during the 1990s, a perception that this more recent consensus is set to change.

But that's a naive assumption. The Whitney advocate may retort that no matter how inclusive the institution is, people left out always complain. Point taken. Social or political straight jackets don't represent artistic merit, a deserving aesthetic property successfully expressed in the art —whether abstract, formal, conceptual, social, political, or whatnot.

The Whitney is the foremost American Museum to show American contemporary emergent talent. One thing is to be inclusive, the opposite is to stereotype standards of inclusiveness as implicit forms of exclusion.

More worrisome: is The Whitney not stirring art tendencies by telling artists what to do if they want to be paid attention to? Isn't this a form of art depletion? 

The disconnect is more pronounced when Sokol brings the voice of The Whitney's chief curator Scott Rothkopf:
“I don’t want to say what Miami’s artists are doing is irrelevant. They just weren’t the artists our curators were most interested in bringing into the conversation,” he explained. “Because I’m involved in the process, what I’m aware of is that as much as the curators hope to represent the breadth of the country, the diversity of different art forms and art makers, at the end of the day, with 63 spots, some boxes will be left unchecked.”
The statement in yellow above is a sad case of curator hubris, what I call Whitney's Castor Oil criteria of inclusion. 

My advice to Miami artists: No matter what you do, be true to yourself. That's success enough.

* If an art trend is a fact of society, what needs to be done is to show it, not to stereotype it and enforce it into a overarching criteria.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Yves Klein's poses and Benjamin Buchloh's ressentiment

AlFreDo tRifF

I'm a fan of Yves Klein's art. There is something unique about his messed-up theology & outlandish cerebration, his ability to reinterpret, reinvent and re-appropriate the avantgarde that is very telling of his time. Above all, I enjoy Klein's perverted sense of humor. He may have pursued his art with an obliged doses of [avant-garde] "seriousness."1 But one would surely miss a great deal in Klein's "actions" if one is looking for a pellucid correspondence between what he said and what he did -or what he did and what he meant.2 So, I was baffled when, in recapping some of the existing literature on Klein, I found Benjamin Buchloh's Klein and Poses, an article for Artforum International (Vol. 33, Summer 1995).

Buchloh’s tone betrays ideological ressentiment:
The property claim and the administrative, legalistic approach are a measure both of his mania and of the misery to which the neo-avant-garde would advance in postwar Paris (and by no means would he be the last in the decrepitude of his art).
According to Buchloh,there is a moment, after World War Two when the avantgarde could've -as in the Munchausen paradox- pulled itself from its straps out of the swamp of late Capitalism. Buchloh's discussion conflates “ought” with “is” in matters of art-making. Art history (as well as Capitalism) has its Black Swans, no matter how much one milks the Sacred Cow, revising and reinterpreting in order to accommodate one's ideological paraphernalia.
The dubious distinction of having claimed a natural phenomenon (the blue chroma of pigment, or of the sky) as private property, a brand name, and of legalizing this preposterous pretense by a signature or by the quest for a patent, is Yves Klein's. The property claim and the administrative, legalistic approach are a measure both of his mania and of the misery to which the neo-avantgarde would advance in postwar Paris (and by no means would he be the last in the decrepitude of his art). 
Precisely! "Inventing" certain chroma of blue pigment makes perfect sense in a post-World War Two epoch where technology is driven by manic administrative/legalistic approaches and incipient shortermism.

Klein's gesture is akin to "serious" art presentation, as in Manzoni's Merda d'Artista:

As with Marcel Duchamp (whose legacy Klein pilfered freely, with no concern at all for the property rights of earlier avant-garde paradigms), it has sometimes been difficult not to resent the messenger for delivering the message (…) While Duchamp announced his decision to abandon art in favor of chess only late in his career (while clandestinely elaborating one of the most important works of the postwar period), Klein would from the start insist on an alternate public persona, identifying himself with a non-artistic activity.
Who? Duchamp, Mr. Appropriator himself, inventor of the objet trouvé?

In which Art Constitution -of an epoch as topsy-turvy as the avantgarde- is Buchloh's "breach of morals" stipulated? 

Buchloh's "who-copies-who" account reminds me of the Derrida/Searle debate, over the nature of "unserious."

So, Duchamp's public "serious" announcement of abandoning art for chess earns the German critic's blessing; not so Klein's "unserious" announcement after –as Buchloh puts it- "his plans for a career in judo failed."

Does it matter?

I do however agree with Buchloh here:
Klein is the quintessential disenfranchised European male artist of the postwar period: images of him (accompanied by a pompier) searing a "virgin" canvas with a giant gas-torch, or harassing nude models as they smear themselves with blue paint to become "living brushes" before a gaping audience, secure him a place in an art history of protagonists desperate to resuscitate the lost tools and torments of artistic virility.
And here:
For they had in mind the needs of a specific segment of France's postwar reconstruction culture: the art world's elitist bourgeois consumers, whose political leanings seem to have oscillated between a nostalgic royalism and authoritarian, antidemocratic impulses eventually absorbed by Gaullism.
Buchloh's politico-disciplinarian approach to Klein the charlatan and Klein's art are treated indistinguishably. Why? Wagner the antisemite changed the course of Western music. Heidegger was a great philosopher and a Nazi. Balthus was a pervert and his perverted art turns out to be unique. François Mitterand turned a vichyste coat for a socialist coat.


In a climate as ideologically charged as post-World War II France, many art reversionists, revokers and backsliders have been exempted, excused & forgiven –depending the judge's political persuasion.

Buchloh's negligence to address the distinction between Klein's art and Klein the person is deliberate, of course -as this paragraph makes very clear:
Klein's ostentatious association with Rosicrucianism and with the writings of its 19th-century popularizer Max Heindel (which he acquired by mail order from the Rosicrucian headquarters in Oceanside, California), as well as his subsequent induction as a knight in the order of Saint Sebastian, have an analogue in Beuys' alignment with the anthropasophy of Rudolf Steiner.
Who cares? As if Symbolists like Les XX, Expressionists and other avantgarde avatars, including Mondrian, did not fall for the Rosicrucian conjuration?
Klein as haunted by a paranoid fear of the predecessor: wherever evidence of continuity or contact between his work and some earlier example was irrefutable, he effaced his traces, renewing claims for originality and authenticity that manifestly contradicted the actual conditions of his painterly practice as production and as design. Duchamp's rotoreliefs, Jean Dubuffet's eponges, Man Ray's rayo-grams, Ellsworth Kelly's monochrome paintings, Robert Rauschenberg's blueprints from 1949-51, all resurface in Klein’s opus, covered in a homogenizing layer of IKB, and with an average delay of about ten years. 

Buchloh's detailed account of Klein's ethical/aesthetic violations misses the point.

Without "sampling" there would be no Hip-Hop culture. Are the DJ's from the hood to blame for Capitalism's ponderous "legalistic and administrative" system?

Buchloh, the rigorous and superb critic of the neo-avantgarde cannot understand that art is an endless playing of inventions and reinventions, appropriations and re-appropriations?
Klein’s shrill claims of originality are almost a standard condition in the responses of the neo-avant-garde to its predecessors. He is almost unique, however, in his capacity to reinvest strategies and concepts of the historical avant-garde, from Duchamp through Ray to Rodchenko, with irrationality, a dimension of metaphysics, and a rabidly affirmed claim for the validity of cult and ritual, be it that of the genius artist or of the spectatorial experience.
What is to be learned from Klein?
Among the lessons to be learned from Klein is that not a single semiotic “revolution” of the avant-garde - neither the readymade nor the monochrome, neither non-compositionality nor the indexical procedure - is secured by its own radicality, or protected against subsequent operations of recoding and reinvestment with myth. 

Paradoxically, the German critic now gives Klein more than any poseur would expect: How can a charlatan teach the avantgarde on revolutionary issues such as "radicality" or "reinvestment of myths"?

Buchloh's veiled ambivalence with Klein only reveals ressentiment.3

He cannot forgive Klein for being a neo-avantgardist charlatan.

1One has to be stuck to take Klein "seriously". 2 The fallacy to assume that behavioral states can be scrutinized from mental states. 3 Ressentiment can be defined as Theory's Pyrrhic drive: "Work hard to win the front, just before losing the rear."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

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 art themes. We echo the words of art magazines, the blurbs written by curators and their publicity minions. We feel comfortable.

Critical discourse means taking things apart, discussing with passion, avoiding complacency. Always looking with new eyes & 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 amounts to mere declarations embroidered 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 (she even challenges anyone to disagree with her redundancies):
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).
El Nuevo Herald is -sadly- much of the same.**

 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. “Enhancing techniques,” i.e., conceptually framing the writing 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 analysis or stand-point reference from which to evaluate. Generally, the writing feels like dictums clothed in cool, groovy, sophomoric descriptions, depending your take. 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, they can go all the way in their de facto defense of such-and-such artist or art work, and yet come out as “honest” and “truthful”. The writers justifies their 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. There is a trend of interview pieces: We “hear” the protagonists: artists, gallerists, curators, being interviewed with benign questions generally asking what’s the work about, the process, & whatnot. The writer becomes a medium for subjective reportage and art becomes cultural news to be digested by the masses.

Two choices: Either an indulgent version of the critic’s preferences, or 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 avantgarde cynic, the artist is presently a cultural ambassador of the art market. The gallery owner and curator become bona fide facilitators between the artist and the public. The curator take the role of producer while the art writer becomes the publicist. The more the public consumes -to consume is to attend- the better the whole thing looks. The writer’s job is to embroider this artplay, stitched with the protagonists’ voices (i.e., the artist, the curator, the gallery owner, even the curious public). **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.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

a soul searching questionnaire for trumpians (in 9 points)

dear trumpian, is this your future president?

you vote for the Donald because,

1- Miami's multicultural climate is too humid. You're considering relocating to Pampa, Texas,
2- you have a big wall fetish,
3- Donald is 6'2 tall, rich and blonde, what else can a man or a woman desire? 
4- you dislike people with foreign accents (just that),
5- you approve of the Donald's taste in young tall slavic-looking women,
6- you admire the Donald's proven ability to avoid paying taxes,
7- you're in awe of the Donald's deep understanding of international relations,
8- you're proud owner of two AR-15s, one for you, one for your wife (yes, she's a Woman For Trump),
9- though you're an anti-government alt-right republican, some members of your family receive government assistance (& you still blame the government) . 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

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