The five-ring circus

There is an air of mystery about the exhibition and distribution systems of contemporary art. (Even to those of us in these systems.) The term art world suggests something solid, whole and empirical. It is also grossly misleading. The simple addition of an s so that it reads art worlds could improve an observer’s understanding.

But in the worlds of contemporary art, misunderstanding, illusion, and confusion are part of the game. They are, in fact, not only part of the appeal of this glamorous world but also part of the mission of art itself: to take a person outside the ordinary, to a place where new possibilities emerge, old rules don’t apply, and the world is remade.

So allow me briefly to introduce the constituencies that compose this global system of art. They are, in random order: dealers, critics, artists, curators and collectors. Each of these has a role and anyone can occupy any role or occupy more than one.

Although generally an artist, I am now, I mean right now, as I type this, functioning as a critic. I’ve tried doing a couple “curatorial” things, without much luck (or enthusiasm). I’ve never been a dealer although I did sell a John Wesley painting to a friend in the back room of Andrew Freiser’s gallery (and collected a catalogue and a lovely Burgandy as commission). And the high point of my collecting experience was buying two James Yamada photographs from Andrew Kreps.

I was at the home of a collector once and he remarked, “Yeah, but it’s the collectors that sit at the top, they make everything go.” And I thought to myself, “Perfect, that’s exactly what the artists and the dealers want you to think.” But I said to him, “Actually I prefer the model that Roberta Smith suggested at a panel of the College Art Association.” This was a smart thing to say; invoking Ms. Smith is one of the smart things everyone in the art world loves to do. And throwing in that line about the college convention gave it an air of seriousness. (But as everyone knows, the art world is anything but serious and that convention has nothing to do with the art world.)

So back to Ms. Smith. She proposed, in opposition to the ranking system which is so popular, a model of a ring, with art in the middle. Besides the fact that this really does make sense (which is why she is Roberta Smith), it also elevates her position, and the position of all critics, which in the last few years has been, in her words, “between the market and a hard place.”

Now prior to hearing this proposition of the ring I had developed a theory of “the five deadly sins of the artworld,” one for each of our players. So here I would like to unite these two ideas.

Artists are vain. We think everything we do is “Art” by definition. This is a crap idea. Any system of aesthetics that is not grounded in the response of the viewer dooms itself to inconsequence. We get our heads so full of quasi-therapeutic, self-expressive nonsense in art school that it takes us years to learn that basically it’s only art after a whole lot of people say it is. And make some pretty serious investments in supporting the claim, investments that I and my dumb little MFA are completely unqualified to make. If we weren’t such fascinating dinner guests we’d be useless.

Curators are pious. Having grown up in a fundamentalist cult I know religious people when I see them. Curators want to think they are engaged as the new priestly class of the secular cathedrals of the museum age. Museums were built to house works of art that private citizens loved, in a spirit of public good. It was these private citizens who made the money, paid for the art, and built the building where these tin saints now work. But in fairness to them, curation is really a pretty tedious matter. It involves loads of paper work and most recently fundraising. Uhhgggg!

Critics are bitter. Nobody listens to them, especially right now. I have a soft spot for art critics and good art writing. I have read Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar as a kind of secular scripture. But really, art criticism is about writing and reading and has nothing to do with making and seeing: “Thinking in the neighborhood of art,” to quote Ms. Smith again. And despite the fact that Mr. Hickey has called art writing “a weak genre,” to me, it is an important one. I will go to my grave knowing that whatever my work amounts to, I did not conceive of it alone, for better or worse. However, in the present moment, while my work seems to be on its feet, these good writers will never get any more than my thanks. There are no residuals in this system. Thus the bitterness.

Dealers are greedy. Someone once said to me, “Artists are like mushrooms, to get ’em to grow you gotta keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em a lot a bullshit.” (That would make a good New Yorker cartoon, no?) Dealers are business people and they have a very difficult kind of business. They have to watch the bottom line and squeeze every penny from that sale because their “suppliers” are a little crazy and their buyers . . . well, I’d better stop. The Joni Mitchell song “Freeman in Paris,” although it is about a musical agent, puts it well: “I deal in dreamers and telephone screamers/Sometimes I wonder what I do it for.” They really do take crap from all sides, but hey, it’s better that running a “real” business.

Collectors are gullible. Hey, these are very busy people. They rely on experts for everything: the lawn, the cars, the kids, the travel arrangements, and yeah, the art, too. “If Larry and Damien say it’s art (and can give me evidence of a 260% annualized return over 15 years) then yeah, have my people write you a check.” What can any of us say? But in fairness, in my experience there are lots of collectors who really think about what they see, and want to see something better. And after all, these folks are the ones who have to have the day jobs.

So there you go. These are the players in the system known as the artworld. I know it looks like a bunch of nonsense and a big, silly waste of time, and it is … like basketball, which, as any anthropologist will tell you, is also a critical human activity.

So when you walk around your local gallery district imagine all these people standing in a circle around the dumb thing in front of you, whatever it might be, talking to each other, rolling their eyes, laughing, and nodding or shaking their heads. ‘Tis a small thing, but our own.

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