Overproduction

My friend (and Great Whatsit contributor) Lane Twitchell is a painter. His paintings are amazingly elaborate and take a long time to make. As a painter, Lane has a line on photography. “It’s too easy to make too many photos,” he says. “It’s a problem of overproduction. There are just too many photos.”

Well, this last weekend I attended the Armory Show, New York’s gargantuan international art fair. The twenty-buck admission fee buys you access to two piers’ worth of contemporary art and some of the best people watching in town: cute young art-gallery assistants, foppish Europeans, middle-aged collectors with bad facelifts and age-inappropriate clothing.

I’ve gone to the Armory Show for the past four years or so, and I notice certain trends. Two years ago was the Year of the Penis — in drawings, paintings, sculpture, and photography. Last year that happy trend was in decline. I shouldn’t have been surprised this year to see vaginas all over the place. Especially freaky were a few photos of vaginas with pubic hair styled into mustaches, smoking cigarettes or cigars. Eeww. Or a life-size and lifelike sculpture of a female australopithecine (or something like that) holding a baby, with half-prolapsed anus and cervix distending from her monkey-red ass. I can see it when I close my eyes.

There were also lots of bunnies (including bunny slippers made from real taxidermied bunnies). And lots of the usual things: Thomas Struth photos, slick Japanese pop art, and the chic scribbling that somebody recently dubbed MFA outsider art.

The fair is exhausting — and people like me have it easy, attending just for the fun of it, taking it at our own pace, anding leaving whenever we want. And whether you try to at least walk by every gallery space on both piers or limit yourself to one pier or less, you very quickly confront one of the darker facts of the art business: Overproduction isn’t a problem just for photography.

To be fair, overproduction isn’t a problem just for visual art, either. Check out any large bookstore, CD shop, 100-station cable TV service, or Myspace if you need proof — keeping in mind that for every shitty book or CD or TV show there are a hundred that didn’t get published or released or greenlighted (greenlit?).

It’s unfortunate that overproduction isn’t a problem in non-cultural fields. If only twentysomething Williamsburg residents would build a glut of affordable apartments in Lower Manhattan instead of half-finished, underconceptualized, faux-naive oil paintings. But painting is more fun than high-rise construction — and somehow writing sensitive memoirs of losing your mother to cancer seems like a better use of that Bryn Mawr degree than bricklaying.

We consumers of cultural production deal with the glut of stuff by finding filters that cut out the stuff that’s worth ignoring and highlight the stuff that we’ll probably like. Magazines, websites, and knowledgeable friends help us stay afloat in the sea of shit that threatens to swamp our limited resources of attention.

For those of us who also sometimes engage in cultural production ourselves, the problem of overproduction can be daunting, even discouraging. There’s no more ubiquitous and banal form of “self-expression” these days than a blog, yet we at The Great Whatsit and I in particular ask you to pay attention to our little essays here on a site that looks suspiciously like a blog. And try doing creative work on a larger scale, expecting to get paid for it: I’m now working on a screenplay, like about a third of my fellow New Yorkers (another third are working on a novel, and the last third are doing those faux-naive oil paintings I object to), and odds are it will wind up on the cultural scrap heap like the bunny slippers made from real bunnies.

But something as massive and vomitous as the Armory Show can also give hope to those of us who are trying to make something. Because a lot of the stuff is pretty good, some of it’s even kinda great — and a lot of it is really bad, which means there’s an opening for my stuffed-bunny penis art in next year’s fair, or my screenplay (once I’ve written it) in Harvey Weinstein’s lovely, fat hands.

I had a few genuinely nice aesthetic experiences at the Armory Show this year, including getting turned on to some fantastic John Lurie watercolors by a kind gallery staff member from Roebling Hall (who also gave my friend and me mints to cover a bit of whiskey breath from the night before), and spending a few minutes walking two other friends through the basics of Why Donald Judd Is So So Great with the help of one of his plywood-and-plexi wall pieces.

But in general, art fairs are no way to see art. The best you can do is come away with anecdotes about realistic sculptures of prolapsed anuses or the unfortunate fashion choices of the well-heeled (small black cowboy hats atop sixty-year-old women who’ve never been west of the far end of Pier 92: a mistake) — even the best art writers are reduced to this kind of thing every year in March.

The Armory Show and other fairs, and even their cousins like the street-level Chelsea gallery scene on a typical Saturday, are good for little more than gossip — in the Heideggerian sense of Gerede, what They (das Man) say — including the gossip that passes for cultural conversation but amounts to nothing more than handicapping the horse race. The commercial gossip that happens at art fairs is a necessary and important part of the larger conversation that is the art world, but it too often tricks us into thinking it’s the only component of the conversation. And if talking about ups and downs, who is selling well and who is involved in scandal, is all there is to the art world, we’d all be better off switching to investment banking and actually making real money from that kind of talk.

Looking at art — encountering art in a way that’s worthwhile, that makes it more valuable than tracking stock prices — means paying attention, and most of us don’t have nearly the skill at tuning out distractions to be able to really look at art at a fair. What we need is a “slow art” movement: You can’t see it all, so you’re better off savoring what you can. Go to the art fairs if you must, but don’t expect to see anything there. Instead, try a museum or a gallery, or the living room of a collector friend. Even mediocre stuff can be worth looking at when you have time to pay attention, and when you’re not pressed on all sides by hipsters and facelifts.

3 responses to “Overproduction”

  1. andrea says:

    I am so glad you liked the John Lurie. Did you meet Katy? I’ll bet she gave you those mints…Anyway, I am a fan of Lurie. He is mean and funny and simple and at times beautiful and transcendant through mean simplicity.

  2. Riptide says:

    Some of the vagina art wasn’t bad, Dave. There‚Äôs John Wesley of course. And I recall a delicate, lovingly rendered pencil drawing of a young woman in post-masturbatory slumber.

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    This just in, from the NY Post:

    “A THIEF hit the Armory Show last weekend. Of the hundreds of artworks on display at the piers, only one piece went missing: the head of art critic Charlie Finch from a cookie jar sculpture by Elliott Arkin titled, “Charlie Finch Eating Mary Boone.” Boone, of course, is a top art dealer. The sculpture shows the Falstaffian Finch gnawing on the petite brunette’s right arm. A collector of Arkin’s work has offered a $2,500 reward for the capture and return of the head.”