I’ve drawn up a few notes for those of you who attended the College Art Association Conference and weren’t reading their blog, or for those readers who have done neither, but wouldn’t mind an update. First, if you like discourse about the “aesthetic criteria of compression” or “virtuality as the ontology of art”, then this conference will suit you well. The quotes are two of the more comprehensible phrases I managed to glean out the session Virtualities: Contemporary Art between Fact and Fiction, with star panelists David Joselit of Yale University, Vered Maimon of Columbia University, Tim Griffin editor of Artforum International magazine, Mark Godfrey of Slade School of Fine Art and Hannah Feldman of Northwestern University. Not that these positions mean much of anything if the majority of papers presented litter attendees ears with inpenentrible academic jargon. David Joselit and Tim Griffin proved to be the two exceptions to this problem, and though their essays were not providing particularly ground breaking information, I thought they were well thought out, and clear. Vered Maimon on the other hand, presented writing so dense it was very difficult to know what she was saying. It did not however escape me that she managed to give an entire talk on Walid Raad and The Atlas Group, an archive of fictional Lebanese war documents without mentioning the fact that Raad casts a Lebanese film star in The Bachar Tapes, a video that poses as the translated diary of an arab prisoner who apparently sports a ridiculously fake accent. The fact that the entire country of Lebanon is in on that joke while we aren’t would seem to be a fairly significant content point in the work particularly on a panel titled Between Fact and Fiction.
There were however, panels and papers that weren’t quite so flawed and certainly the best example I experienced came from a session that took the form of a Q&A. Living up to our expections expressed here, A Faustian Bargain: Emerging Artists, Critics, and the Market, hosted dealer Jeffrey Deitch, collectors Mera and Don Rubell, and critics Peter Plagens and Jerry Saltz, managing to fill a medium sized conference room with 300 plus people (this is an estimate – I have no idea how many people were there, only that most of them had to sit on the floor.) The conference blog offers a brief synopsis of the session which I recommend reading, though I have a few additional points to add. First, to my mind, by far the most interesting comment came from Jeffrey Deitch who about mid way through the session explained that the rise of importance of auction houses has meant the creation of an art history cannon dictated almost wholly by the market. Backing this sentiment up, he pointed out that the limitations of the contemporary evening sales are such that the work of roughly ten artists from every decade are available for purchase, and that that the dominance of these corporations means that that those ten practitioners have come to represent the most important figures of their time. I doubt Deitch is the only person to have thought that auction houses play a greater role in defining a cannon, but it was the first time I had heard a concrete example of exactly how it might effect the way we consider art. Deitch clearly seemed to think that the market alone should not determine what constitutes the most important art, which led him to the sentiment that critics are in fact, not powerful enough. He suggests blogs, myspace, and other web publishing tools that don’t have any cost to them as a possible avenue for independent critics, and while I tend to support that thought, I also notice the increasing difficultly for individual bloggers to compete for traffic as large publishing houses move over to the web. These days, if you don’t know the name you are looking for, Google brings up an array of heavily linked articles that predictably come from mass media sources.
Jeffrey Deitch also put forth the idea that we beyond the art market, and now part of the entertainment industry. This predictably set conservative critic Peter Plagens off, as he responded by asking Deitch if he planned on paying an penance for this. The quip served as comic relief, though notably there were a number of pious members in the audience incensed with the thought that Fine Art might reach a larger audience, and picked up on that thread in the question period. My thoughts on this particular matter have never been that participating in larger entertainment market some how taints art, since good art should remains so regardless of how it packaged, but rather, that as a profession we need to become much more savvy in order to be seen. To use a rather old expression, we are in bed with an elephant.
Outside of Deitch I got the most satisfaction from the clever one liners and occasional banter between the panelists. Jerry Saltz offered a number witty remarks, most nobably his response to Jeffrey Deitch’s assertion that critics need to do more. “I agree,” said Saltz, “though sometimes I feel like a Democrat being asked whether I have a plan to get out of Iraq.” This statement was consistent with Saltz’s earlier claim that critics didn’t have any power, and if they did Martin Eder would not continue to have such a strong exhibition history. We’ll all have to check this artists auction results this spring to see if Saltz’s comments hold water.
The Rubells provided a good counter point to the panel as they were a little less intellectual in their approach to evaluating art. Mera Rubell’s description of her feeling of periodic doubt in her belief in the golden age of art provides a good example of this, “It’s like everyone’s having sex and you’re not!” she said “You’re sitting at home alone.” Appealing sentiments like this were quickly eclipsed however when she express the thought that their choice to live in a “dangerous” neighborhood in Miami, somehow put them in a better position to evaluate the art they purchased. Nobody called her on that statement, but it was so problematic even she seemed to realize it probably wasn’t something she should have said out loud. Interestingly, she closed out the session, expressing the desire that Saltz be able to collect and escape his three figure salary (his words). Her thoughts came from her own appreciation of art and her wish to share it, though she had clearly never considered of the conflict of interest involved in critics sharing her practice.
And on that note I leave you, (albeit abruptly.) Keep in mind that next year’s CAA conference will be in Dallas, which means all us New Yorkers will have to ditch a cheap subway ride in favor of air transportation.