GO, Dumbo: The Problem With Including Everyone

by Whitney Kimball on September 11, 2012 · 28 comments GO


“What makes us decide what has worth and what doesn’t?” asked a painting in a stairwell in the Brooklyn Navy Yard this weekend. There are, actually, many answers to that question. Good art selects one image or a set of images, to the exclusion of infinite alternatives, in order to express a specific thing; failing to do this summed up what was wrong with most of what I saw at GO.

The Brooklyn Museum’s open studio weekend should be applauded for being the latest in a line of initiatives (the Brucennial, Hi Jack!Hennessey Youngman’s open call for art at Family Business) to tear down the wall between the art world that gets discussed in the New York Times, and the much larger one that watches. But even in the last shows like the Brucennial, or David Zwirner’s staff show, or Jack Shainman’s art handler takeover, the outsiders are often Bushwick gallerists and emerging artists, people who have a pretty good chance of squeezing in eventually. This one was really open. After this weekend, I was glad the two are separate.

Arbitrary decision-making and random imagery dominated what I saw of the painting scene. Repeatedly, I was told “It looks like wood…but it isn’t!” or “If you use x kind of ink on x kind of paper, you get x kind of texture!” And that was it. The subject matter only conspired to make things worse; I saw paintings of swirls, birds, forks, blur, and a hell of a lot of bad geometric abstraction. My photo album would have looked similar had I spun around and shot at random.

To be fair, I only spent one day in DUMBO, and I did see some work that was made better by long conversations with artists. Hearing about Kyle Goen’s practice, for one, made me think about the political issues he’s identified in his work. Through large-scale screenprints made with Ben-Day dots, he speaks to the war in Iraq and draws ties between resistance movements like the Black Panthers and those in the Middle East. The intent was clear, as he’d intended, which was a relief.

Others were in it to win it (“it” being an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, selected by a public vote and the museum’s curators). One art dad shut me and a bunch of other visitors in his studio, turned out the lights, and sat us down to watch a video about his abstract-expressionist-styled paintings. As he explained his process in voiceover—he started making Ab-Ex paintings with his kids’ toys about twenty years ago, and never looked back—jam band jazz started playing. The names of his exhibitions intermittently scrolled up the screen, as though indicating a rise to success. The film cut to a bouncy blowfish, a remote control car– and then other things: a woman walking on her hands, a wheelchair rolling in paint. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach when a toy dog on wheels drove around in circles with a paintbrush attached to its ass. Maybe I would have had the patience in the beginning of the day, but by 5 PM, it was starting to get to me.

Bad art can be really disheartening. It means not having the self-awareness to challenge or question oneself, and worse, pretending that we’re developing an idea when there never was one. As I saw over and over this weekend, not everybody wants ideas. As one collector said to me, and I quote, “Fine definition, realistic drawing, a range of materials…this is high-quality stuff!”

The best idea I found was not in the art, but in a Duchamp quote used in an artwork by Bridget Mullen, my last studio of the day. It read: “To grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina.” Wish I’d seen that earlier.


PradaStole September 11, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I totally agree. I am an artist, and I didn’t participate. I feel fine about my decision. I prefer to promote my work organically, rather than in weird acts of desperate self promotion, never mind that a lot of the work described seems to be willfully ignorant of what kind of art becomes ‘successful’. Put a bird on it! Hahaha.
ETA: I don’t want to open a can of worms about whether artists should make work they ‘know’ will be shown, but it is what it is.

Angela Washko September 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I’m hearing a lot of “hey, there’s a lot of mediocre/bad stuff in this event” but you haven’t addressed the “why is this happening?” which is a bigger problem than there are lots of “arbitrary decision-making and random imagery” in these paintings. Maybe it’s because artists don’t know how to get their work shown or get people to talk with them about their work anymore. Maybe it’s because a few years ago everyone was told they would be great if they got an MFA and a studio- and there’s a sense of entitlement there. Maybe it’s because artists see other similar but more social media and press savvy artists getting bloggers and other press to write about similar projects.

But most likely it’s because organizations are capitalizing on the desperation of artists to find an audience and using them as free promotional tools for their shitty not-actually-community oriented events. Let’s dig in here. It’s easy to say “hey I saw a lot of shitty work in this show” it’s much harder to investigate why. LET’S GET INTO IT! 🙂

WhitneyKimball September 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Hey Angela,

You’re right, most people can’t have the privilege of going to art school, but it’s ultimately on you to figure out what’s going on. I think a good step to starting an open and honest conversation is to admit that some art is bad. This art was usually bad because decisions were arbitrary and images were random. That’s an easy fix.

I don’t think the Brooklyn Museum is taking advantage of anyone. At least from my conversations with GO organizers, it sounded like a long-term project which is consistent with the community-oriented goals of the museum. Sharon Matt Atkins told me that they were considering leaving out the competition aspect, but thought of it as “a way to bring all of the activity and excitement of the weekend back to the Museum in a meaningful way.”

But yes! Let’s talk about it. What would you like to see us addressing?


Angela Washko September 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I have to disagree with a number of these points. Admitting that some art is bad I never see as much of an issue? Is this an issue? I don’t think that going to art school is necessarily a privilege – and that many interesting artists practicing today come from education models that are not art-oriented.

I think the bigger issue is why i

WhitneyKimball September 11, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Myeaa, it sucks, but that’s the risk you run of putting your shit out there, in any field. And I know it’s not useful to take people down just for the sake of being a jerk, so I didn’t name names. But I also think everybody deserves to have their work discussed honestly. Isn’t the point of an event like this to include people in the conversation?

WhitneyKimball September 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm

So I guess that means I probably should have named people.

Angela Washko September 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Yes – it’s nice that they included lots of people sure. But don’t exploit them by making them their pr slaves for an ultimately poorly received event that they will ultimately get made fun of for being in via a snarky blog post…which they desperate to participate in because of fundamental issues in bigger system.

ChristopherM September 11, 2012 at 4:07 pm

“Also – art is being marketed in colleges across the US as an economically viable pursuit – producing tons and tons of lost artists vying for audiences. This model is obviously problematic too.”

Excellent point – though I admit I don’t really know how art degrees (especially the least commercially-viable ones) are being marketed to students. I bet there is enough for a huge article on that up there, either way. Anybody have a link/recommendation for any good one(s) already out there?

Personally, I feel like telling any art students out there who can’t themselves of their own accord – or don’t come from a family who can – comfortably absorb the cost/debt incurred by their art education, to think through what they are doing a good six, seven or dozen times. Regardless of what they decide (they can still be an artist, after all!). It’s tough. Also, those who CAN afford it should think just as hard about that, and all those implications. Did school give them something they wouldn’t be able to find by other means? Where does art-making fit in, if it does? Just good to think about, I think.

Unfortunately I live nowhere near NYC, so I can’t really comment on the art/event in the article. Interesting comments though.

Misha Rabinovich September 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm

There are some really good points here, especially about the downside of the artist becoming the relentless email spammer asking people for their click. This article from Hyperallergic (called Good Intentions and Big Ideas Feel Good Grants that Exploit Artists) I am linking here gets into more detail of the exact kind of exploitation you are talking about.


Brian Edgerton September 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm

It shouldn’t be surprising that most art is bad (although you seem to have a certain myopia toward what counts as an idea, one which excludes material exploration; can’t say for sure because no one knows what specifically you’re talking about when you disparage types of work generally–I have a hard time believing AbEx dad is really emblematic of a trend rather than just an easy target). What’s more surprising is that you expected it not to be and seem to have chosen the galleries to survey with the same arbitrariness that you accuse the artists of engaging. The difficulty of wading through the bad is exactly what is at stake in this kind of event, but you treat it as an obstacle to some other problem. It’s no easy thing to move beyond the arbitrary, as your trek through DUMBO demonstrates, but you take that movement as though it were obvious from the outset. Moving beyond the arbitrary is perhaps the problem of art, but you take it as prerequisite. The test of GO won’t be this past weekend, but the exhibition that results from it. Then we’ll see if what the Bk Museum presents is a better or at least an equally viable model than the good ol boys club we’re used to. You’re welcome to your disenchantment with the weekend, but by remaining at this level, it sounds like you miss the point.

Brian Edgerton September 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Actually, I know you didn’t choose arbitrarily, because I remember AFC did a great deal of work to highlight promising studios. However, from this, that’s how it sounds.

WhitneyKimball September 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm

I tried to make it clear throughout that I saw only a very small fraction of the studios that were open (I only spent one day in DUMBO), and I did report on the good conversation that I had, which I think was the point of the weekend. I appreciate the fact that the Brooklyn Museum made it possible, and that seemed to be happening in several studios I visited.

But am I supposed to pre-select the studios I visit, in an event that’s aimed at getting people out to studios which you wouldn’t otherwise visit?

I didn’t name too many names because I didn’t want to publicly pan someone from a studio visit alone.
And I just don’t think material exploration has to stop at convincingly making one material look like another material.

Jennifer Chan September 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Sometimes I wonder whether these posts give me a good idea of “traps to not fall into as an emerging artist in New York” if I decide to move there. But then those definitions of where one should exhibit would be so paralyzing. I have inferred that if I put my work in a show full of tons of “bad work” by bunch of artists who might not have gone to art school, my work will inevitably look like the open office garage sale it purports to be? Or will I take a chance so I can have another line on my CV? lol

WhitneyKimball September 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm

That’s too bad. I don’t want to give the impression that being involved in community shows is a trap!

uffthefluff September 11, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Plenty of bad art exists. Same goes for bad bar tending and bad risk management at an investment bank.

What is the aim of this discourse? What are you/we even criticizing? That certain artists are not self-conscious (enough) to know that silly self-promotional videos are only okay if used ironically/critically? Studio visits often involve process oriented discussion so that can’t be it. Did these (bad) artists really fail entirely to “express a specific thing” because that seems like quite an accomplishment rather than a shortcoming. You just think the things they expressed were pointless/thoughtless/boring/bad.

WhitneyKimball September 12, 2012 at 10:53 am

In no other field are people given a pat on the back for just showing up. If something is clearly not working, then it’s in everybody’s best interest to address the problem. Given the choice between misleading reaffirmation and the truth, I know which would help me get better.

I actually find it insulting that we’re encouraged to turn a blind eye to the work, with everybody but the artist aware of how much their efforts are valued. If we’re supposed to talk about the problems without acknowledging the issues in the studio, then what’s the point?

ChristopherM September 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Good point, Whitney. Given the alternatives (apathy, critical blindness to mediocrity, diminishing returns from both artists and audiences, rampant permanent lameness, etc), I’d much rather that critics do their jobs and risk being wrong/disagreed with or whatever. I’ve had reviews I disagreed with and still do, I don’t care. Art and people are separate things — art is fair game. Artists can deal with it (it beats being ignored completely). Otherwise, keep it in their studios and lock the doors. We need more criticism, not less … more critics, all kinds of them (good + independent ones, so they can keep their ‘power’ in check).

uffthefluff September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I’m somewhat confused by this response. Is someone recommending that all artists be given a “pat on the back” and that “just showing up” is sufficient artistic endeavor? Further, by definition, none of these artists “just” showed up as they appear to have also presented various art-objects.

The problem, if there is one, is that the art that was created and presented is in some way deficient. By all means criticize those shortcomings.

You admit that some patrons found some of these works satisfactory even though you did not. Are we really surprised that middlebrow or even lowbrow visual art exists? Is it shocking that Duchamp won out over a lowly “art dad”.

ChristopherM September 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

One of my favorite things about criticism in the internet age (I mean the published kind with a comment board underneath) is how it can take a healthy amount of the gleaming authority out of it, makes it clearer that it is what it is and nothing more. Just a piece. There is a lot of good stuff all over this one, published along with (and against) the article itself. Pretty cool, better than the old days – especially when it works. I don’t mean to be corny, I just like it.

WhitneyKimball September 13, 2012 at 10:51 am

Cheers to that.

WhitneyKimball September 13, 2012 at 10:38 am

Hey there, sorry for the delay. I’ve been traveling for the past 24 hours and haven’t had internet access.

I thought I did criticize specific shortcomings. No, sadly I’m not surprised that so much lowbrow visual art exists, I just think, from the sample I saw, that we could afford to raise the level of the dialogue. What’s wrong with hoping that the general public is capable of producing better-than-mediocre art?

I’m not attacking the art dad for self-promoting (and “art dad” not intended to belittle, just information that pertains to his own presentation). Hopefully, the event helped people sell some work. That work was just one example of art-making which favors branding over depth.

JosephYoung September 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm

criticism is good, necessary, etc, but as someone else pointed out i think, everybody needs to start somewhere. doing art takes keeping so many balls in the air, trying to deal with material, idea, craft, history, personal expression, composition, etc etc. if you are playing games with ‘it looks like paper but it’s not,’ it may be because you are lacking self awareness but it might also be that you are just trying to figure something out about material. that at least seems like one way of learning to juggle, play with material, then add in idea, then whatever’s next, until you can get it all going, sort of. it seems to me it’s always playing one game or another, trying to figure out something, but just that the game gets more complicated as it goes. a mix of encouragement, suggestion, mirroring, and criticism can help people play bigger games.

mcreegan September 13, 2012 at 4:58 am

You know, as a teacher and artist I find that the system creates a condition that makes it difficult for most artists to be able to challenge or question oneself. Of course that is really what an art practice should be about but we make it so that by one’s senior show all their stuff needs to be figured out and they are “complete”. Add to that the way an artist has to carry themselves in the public, how they present themselves to gallerists, collectors, etc. They have to completely confident and sure of their own ideas and work and make and write these statements that are usually on the pretentious side to justify everything. I am just as guilty as the next guy. But thats how it is isnt it? Any other way of being is really not valued.
I sometimes think that the artists who are in galleries and museum shows are just a) lucky enough that their ideas and methods were really unique b) lucky that someone with power recognized that and c) dont have to do much else but make the work because other people do all the convincing and can subsume any direction the artist takes into the overall narrative of the artist’s “greatness”.
And I say all that completely devoid of any cynicism or resentment for other’s success.

ChristopherM September 13, 2012 at 9:10 am

Great comment, Mark – thanks for posting it. I agree. It definitely is a tangled up problem.

Duane Thomas September 14, 2012 at 7:23 pm

What were seeing is that that anyone can make mediocre art. Yet almost no one can make great art.

Cojo Art September 17, 2012 at 6:15 am

Whitney, when art is insultingly bad and oblivious to how bad it is, it is almost your duty as an artist or art writer to address it. Bad art brings all of us down by fucking up the curve in the wrong direction. Events like this where potential patrons are perusing a sucky art studio nearby to your own can not only taint their palate for further studios, but may also make them opt out of the art walk completely to hit up a local watering hole to try to get the taste of shit from their mouth.

JRapp September 11, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Yo Whitney ! You missed my studio ! I only had like 7 people come by all weekend : ( … that was my critique of the whole weekend. The whole thing was completely arbitrary. I like to think I have some pretty good stuff that would have been less depressing to you ! But i guess that comment also becomes arbitrary since it’s coming from me. All the best –

WhitneyKimball September 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm

What? The event was great, the art I saw was not. I don’t like the idea that we should pre-filter what gets criticized, based on assumptions about how desperately people need exposure. These are adults who’ve made the decision to exhibit their work.

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