Art About the Art Worldby Michael Pepi
The Decline and Fall of the Art World, Part I: The One-Percenters
FREIGHT + VOLUME | JULY 11 – SEPTEMBER 7, 2013
With The Decline and Fall of the Art World, Part I: The One-Percenters, Freight + Volume assembles several subversive gestures that expose the various dysfunctions and inequalities of contemporary art production. Michael Scoggins produces oversized replicas of ruled notebook paper bearing incendiary messages that mock the collector’s impulse and the value system that supports it. His “Decorative Piece #2” (2013) asserts itself as “apolitical and designed perfectly to fit over your fucking couch.” Alex Gingrow’s hand-painted wall labels deviate not a bit from the format used by the industry elite; it’s their text that airs the power broker’s dirty laundry to hilarious effect. Loren Munk maps the environs of the art world and its toilers, documenting not only the vaunted East Village, Bowery, and SoHo scenes, but also the more recently flowering neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick. In so doing Munk draws a tacit narrative of the shifting loci of creativity, forcing the viewer to consider the fragility of the bohemian ecosystem, subject as it is to the vagaries of real estate finance and of taste. Karen Finley’s “The Art World and Its Discontents: A community board Mandala” (2013) is a work in progress—visitors are encouraged to fill the wall with their own illustrated complaints. The read/write imperative smacks of the anarchist’s disdain for authority or the conceptualist’s opposition to the artist’s hand. The show is anchored by selections from William Powhida and Jade Townsend’s series of collaborative drawings mapping the decadence haunting a marginally fictive art world.
One historical precedent for the works assembled here could be Ad Reinhardt’s “How to Look at Modern Art in America” (1946), a cartoon sardonically mapping various influences on the formal tendencies of his contemporaries and demonstrating how subject matter, regionalism, and landscape weigh down the vast tree of Modernism. In an unassuming corner of Reinhardt’s depiction two fish tangle together in struggle, respectively marked “art” and “business.” Generations later, Powhida and Townsend observe the escalation of this entanglement into an all-out war. In the large-scale, dystopian “Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes” (2013), the epic battle narrative of the Bayeux Tapestry meets the whimsical illustrative style of Where’s Waldo. A legend illuminates our journey through the art world: narrative and content are anthropomorphized as raving pagans “banned by high modernism”; the opposing corner houses the isolated fortress of conceptual solitude, powered by a Duchampian porcelain furnace. Meanwhile, the Shiny Object Factory—a thinly veiled New Museum—is processing constant back-door shipments to art fairs. Skirmishes flame throughout: there is a never-ending civil war between abstraction and representation; conceptualists fire salvos at traditional studio practice; research-based art struggles to aestheticize knowledge; and “craft armies of the hand fight for pride and the place of the object.” Impoverished critical discourse is a barren field, abandoned bohemias and gallery neighborhoods are bombed out structures, and the bacchanal “party art shallows” host phallic gestures of hangers on. At the top we see the art fair—the great bazaars—lording over this farcical economy. “Bellum”achieves impressive depth and wit in excoriating the mechanisms of our current practices. Powhida and Townsend mix their Wikipedic knowledge of the industry with fresh visual metaphor to create a memorable tableau of self-reflection.
Consider that the exhibition seems shot through with the recent reinvigoration of leftist illumination. Perhaps this assembly of works constitutes agitprop for the iPhone proletariat, that vanguard pseudo-class that was so animated by Occupy: poor enough to align ideologically with the working class but privileged enough to nod at the Joseph Beuys references. Yet even as these artists express deep dissatisfactions, their angst is written against the backdrop of a long history of avant-gardes disgruntled by entrenched predatory structures and unregulated intuitions. Does the group at hand posit a mythology of bohemias past, in which artists, the academy, and the market coexisted in a pure spiritual economy organized around modernist truths? Where and when did this high Modernist Shangri-La exist? Even Reinhardt hinted at trouble in postwar paradise.
Some time ago we realized that art had reneged on its promises of a happier and more just society. “Now [art] has become the expression of our terrible class distinction. It exists only for the few, and these are far from being the most admirable and beneficent of mankind; they seem to show all the characteristics of the degenerate.” Meanwhile, “pictures become like securities, which can be kept locked up like papers” while “the greatest artists toil in poverty, to enable a few dealers to grow rich after their deaths, and a few fanatics to hoard their works in warehouses.” As perceptively as these words presage our contemporary grievances, these are not bon mots from the L-train Moleskine of an embittered (and indebted) M.F.A.; instead they belong to the Austro-Hungarian critic Julius Meier-Graefe, describing in 1904 the decadent position of the arts of his time. He argued that the root cause of this ethical decline was the separation of art from religion, after which the work of art was brought into immediate contact with everyday life: “the church is now a booth in a fair.” Powhida and Townsend might agree.
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