Work of Art isn’t done yet. A week and a half after the final episode airs, and there’s still all kinds of discussion occurring about the show. Some is more productive than others. Artist/art world critic William Powhida wrote a rant last week on the show (he didn’t like it, thought Saltz demeaned himself on the show, and stopped reading AFC because of my coverage). Powhida and critic Jerry Saltz discussed the post on facebook, in one of the more substantial exchanges I’ve seen on Saltz’ page. Long story short, Powhida lightened his assessment of Saltz “demeaned” to “you didn’t embarrass yourself”, and complained that the show poorly represented what the top of the art world should look like, by portraying it as only celebrity driven, and fortune hungry, with only a validating source of museum shows. Both seemed to agree that Powhida’s exhibition #class was a more significant way to discuss art, (though Saltz never explicitly weighs in).
Less significantly, Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian declared Powhida’s post, “the take we’ve all been waiting for“, and used the article as opportunity to discuss the higher minded “soul searching” it took to found his own blog. This was almost as sanctimonious as Powhida’s rant, but unlike many, Vartanian at least avoided engaging in pettiness. For that we can look to the ruffling of pre-ruffled feathers, namely those of L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight and his most frequent link source, ArtInfo blogger Tyler Green. Green, who has barely said a positive word about Saltz since the New Museum conflict of interest debates turned ugly last fall, went to the trouble of pointing out all the petty slights in Christopher Knight’s response to Saltz’s final wrap up and assertion that the show changed criticism. This is tedious but to sum up: Green thinks Saltz mischaracterized Knight’s review in this final vulture post, presumably by contextualizing Knight’s assessment of the show being “vacant television piddle” with criticisms from others for Saltz’ poor decision to “interact with the laypeople”. I don’t see the issue here, but I’m sure Green will clarify. The blogger also notes that Saltz didn’t name Knight in his final post on Vulture, so, when Knight counters that real criticism only occurs when you see art in person, he doesn’t name Saltz.
Get over yourselves people. Of course, criticism doesn't work as well when you're looking at art through the lens of reality television, but that doesn't invalidate Saltz's claim that criticism is changing, nor does it mean we shouldn't discuss the show. Is Work of Art an accurate reflection of the art world? No. Does it perpetuate myths? Yes. Is the engagement Work of Art produced significant? Yes. I've never experienced a time when people within the art world talked so much about one show. Still, I'd argue that if Work of Art hadn't sparked this activity, it would have been something else. The general public may still harbor the belief that the art world is a sham, but they're at least ready to talk about it in a public form. We can thank Internet comment boards for that change, even if the quality of discussion isn't that advanced.
Following the Knight kerfuffle, Saltz offered another take on the various critical reactions to Work of Art over facebook, attributing “art is sacred” to old critics, and “nothing is sacred” to new critics. I agree these two camps exist, though, I'd argue “old” critic Dave Hickey most successfully articulated that position in 1998 with his essay Frivolity and Unction in Air Guitar. In it, he discusses the debate that erupted after Morley Safer revealed the contemporary art world a “fraud” for its art speak and hype on CBS's 60 Minutes.
In the following weeks, people who should have known better filled the air with self-righteous bleats of indignation and defense — no easy task since one could hardly attack Safer without seeming to defend the perspicacity of West Side collectors, the altruism of Sotheby's auctions, and the gravitas of Christopher Wool. Even so, the art world just capitulated. Far from exhibitioning magisterial disdain, the director of a major American museum even appeared with Safer on The Charlie Rose Show. Challenged by Safer with the undeniable fact that contemporary art lacks emotive content, this director of a mjor museum insisted, in effect, that “it does too have emotive content!” confessing that he, personally, had burst into tears upon entering Jenny Holzer's installation at the Venice Biennale. Well, didn't we all, I thought (there being tears and tears), and at that moment, had there been an available window or website at which I could have resigned from the art world, I should certainly have done so”.
Coincidentally, Work of Art's stance on art needing to have an emotive quality is not that different from Safer's. This is a problem, but there's at least visible push back on Work of Art itself on that point from less scripted guest judges. Hickey goes on elsewhere in the essay to describe a pie in the sky type scenario whereby art would be afforded the new found freedom to be wholly frivolous and would grow and change in doing so. I have a hard time imagining a genre of art making and art makers who wouldn't be dismissed by the community for taking on such an attitude, but I for one, would feel a little more relaxed if I didn't constantly feel the art's import weighing upon my shoulders. From Hickey,
”¦the presumption of art's essential goodness is a conventional trope. It describes nothing. Art education is not redeeming for the vast majority of students, nor is art practice redeeming for the vast majority of artists. The “good” works of art that reside in our museums reside there not because they are “good,” but because we love them. The political fiction of art's virtue means only this: The practice and exhibition of art has had beneficial public consequence in the past. It might in the future. So funding them is worth the bet. That's the argument: art is good, sort of, in a vague general way. Seducing oneself into believing in art's intrinsic goodness however is simply bad religion no matter what the rewards, it is bad cult religion when profession one's belief in art's goodness becomes a condition of membership in the art community.
This is one condition Work of Art hasn't challenged a bit, but often I wish it would.