The Importance of Being Unimportant
For the first time in six years I will get to spend the inaugural Thursday of the art season as one of the yahoos I used to serve wine to as a gallery employee. After 15 years, the gallery I worked at closed, one of a number of high-profile casualties of last year’s art market. Anyone who’s had feet in both the commercial and the critical worlds, as I did, recognizes the stark difference between the two. The critical world is pretty much like any other art viewer’s world, except the judgments a critic makes get collected and fashioned into writing. The commercial art world is a more complicated and, by most estimations, a less savory entity. It is however, crucial. The trophy hunters have become drivers for other parts of the art world we take for granted. Nevertheless, talking about this culture is not well tolerated in most critical circles. By avoiding the subject, though, critics risk relinquishing control of the contemporary art discourse. As we enter an acid-test of a season in the art world, I thought it important to mention that a little tough, critical love is the best medicine for an ailing commercial sector.
From a commercial perspective, for the most part, there are two groups of people in the world: those who buy art for investment and those who buy art because they like it. I’ve met many collectors who bastardize this statement, claiming they “like to invest in good art.” Speculating on art is fine—it’s a free country—but treating art exclusively as a commodity hurts the market in innumerable ways, which I won’t go into except to say that it has been instrumental in raising prices to a point at which 2000 people in the world support the careers of 200 artists. Most critics believe that it isn’t their duty to follow the money in the system, only to maintain critical vigilance and to separate the good art from the bad art. The only problem is, over the course of the last 20 years we’ve watched “bad” work somehow turn into “sensational” work, “sensational” turn to “provocative,” “provocative” into “important,” and “important” back into “good.” It’s a collecting world’s semantic shell game.
Several months ago I encountered a collector who, while admiring a painting, declared it to be “important.” He looked at it discriminatingly for 10 or 15 minutes and then, as if channeling a divine order, he said, “this is an important painting.” I took it simply as an affirmation, indicating that he enjoyed the work. It was like someone trying on a new suit saying, “Wow, I look sharp, I think I’ll take it.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in hindsight the choice of words seems very curious and I’ve heard it uttered by collectors and curators on several occasions since. After puzzling over the word for a while, its significance hit me while stuck on the C train with a coverless, 10-year-old copy of Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar.
Hickey’s essay “Frivolity and Unction” is an assault against “puritanical,” non-profit interests in the 1990s that aimed to sanctify the practice of artmaking, leaving it immune to real critical appraisal. He says in the essay that art would benefit from being considered a “bad, silly and frivolous thing to do,” for, if we could admit that art was frivolous, it could fail, and thus, by contrast, be allowed to succeed in ways sacred objects aren’t. The essay is a staple of art criticism courses and is usually met with fierce resistance, as it ruffles most people’s sense of what’s proper too much to actually listen to what Hickey is saying. By “silly, bad and frivolous,” he means art should be unimportant enough to be criticized. Ascribing general terms like “silly” and “frivolous” might seem belittling, but they should be distinguished from more active and specific terms about how art directly communicates, such as “unmoving” or “ineffective.” “Art” can be unimportant and still allow for the experience of a work of art to be life-changing. I value the memories I have of listening to baseball games on my grandparents’ porch, but Baseball, as a concept, remains entirely unimportant. Such concepts as baseball, art, and Hickey’s example of rock and roll, are wholly unimportant except for the experiences they foster and the history to which they contribute.
Hickey wrote his essay 13 years ago and was aiming his gun at art organizations that no longer have the strength they did at the time of his writing. Much of the power has since shifted from non-profits to commercial galleries and from public museums to private ones, all largely indebted to the money of private collectors. Hickey was right about the rhetoric, though; there is no better way to secure your treasures than to make them untouchable, literally and figuratively. There is no better way to shield something from real criticism than to make it taboo or sacred. When that collector said “important” he was without knowing it creating a protective cloak of mystique around the work of art, because “important” is to culture what “holy” is to religion. Though he wasn’t consciously aware of how he was twisting language, he is part of a consciousness and culture of collectors, just like Jerry Saltz is a part of a culture of critics, and all cultures cultivate ethics that reinforce their own view of the world. When one owns art, one tends to want the physical artifact to take precedence over its intangible qualities, and when one knows art, it’s the other way around.
Because of this, collectors and institutions involved in the acquisition of contemporary art tend to maintain an interest in declaring cultural importance before the dust of cultural history has settled. They hope to imbue a contemporary object with history and brand it with cultural significance as early as possible, even, as I witnessed, while it’s still on the wall. But determining actual importance is history’s chore, not critics’ nor collectors’; contemporary art for all its benefits is nothing if not ahistorical. Art can be historical, but contemporary art can’t, shouldn’t be, and thankfully there is a well-organized field of social-science called Art History to undertake that type of assessment anyway. Perhaps then we should acknowledge the moneyed elephant in the room and admit that if we abstain from real judgment someone will fill the void with an alternative judgment, one that only appears to be critical, but is actually defensive. So, as we return to a hobbled and hamstrung commercial art world this September, drink its wine and scuff its white walls, we might remember that even if it seems to be suffering, the best way to save it is to remember how unimportant it is and to remain critical of its offerings.