Illustration by Lydia Epp Schmidt for Artsy.
In the month since returning home from the annual art world offsite that is Art Basel in Miami Beach, one topic has dominated conversations. It was not the typical post-fair recap of impressive new artists (there were many) or mega-million dollar sales (there were fewer, relatively). It wasn’t an even more typically Miami (and more problematic) rundown of evening escapades up and down Collins or whatever it is that Kanye did this time around. Instead, the Art Basel Stabber, as Siyuan Zhao has come to be known (the 24-year-old graduate student has since been charged with attempted murder), gripped attention.
That an assault taking place within a major event, which caters first to those within the 0.01% of private wealth, would garner popular media attention is not surprising. The misinformation and intrigue that followed (“It was a performance” or the still inaccurate “She picked up a pen right off the gallerist’s table”) and the “UPDATED” caveats that soon graced headlines should also not shock, even if appalling; it is a status quo reinforced in our current media landscape, where rewards are doled out for being first more often than they are for being right.
If anything can be called out as being “degrading for art and artists,” it’s the art world’s current distraction from the substance of those artists’ work.
But the extent to which the wordpresses of the art world were stopped for a live ticker of iPhone snaps picturing a bloodied victim should be surprising. If anything can be called out as being “degrading for art and artists,” as one headline towards the end of the week proclaimed Art Basel was, it’s the art world’s (or at least a loud portion of it) current distraction from the substance of those artists’ work.
The reasons behind this distraction are many: Contemporary art’s continued push into the mainstream; a soft art market where eye-grabbing records are less often being set and sales, at least so it seems, are down; fatigue at the now expansive yet largely unshifting and undramatic art fair landscape; and a more serious shift in the news cycle and art practice at large, among them. With less to talk about, save that serious, earnest stuff, which is ultimately more difficult to sell an audience on (though, this is something those of us in publishing, myself included, need to keep at the forefront of our minds), the margins of conversation have gotten pushed wider. And, to the very extent that most of this is reflected in the media landscape, it’s equally a mirror of mass appeal, most digital publications living and breathing clicks.
There is a certain justification for the resulting gossip, takedowns, and joke- rather than idea-laden dialogue around shows and fairs. Criticism in its academic form hasn’t expanded much beyond the niche audience it has previously and will continue to engage. Negative critique too is largely dead, replaced instead by untouchable art brands and often sincere but always powerful PR machines. So the logic goes, snark and cynical news-telling is the only thing holding those big brands—artists, galleries, fairs, and auction houses alike—to account, keeping bad art and bad business at bay.
If widening the public touched by contemporary art is at all on the art world’s list of goals, fostering this kind of culture built on attacks and skirted substance won’t get us there.
In select cases, that may be true. But it is a pretty short-term solution. (That is, other than as a form of entertainment for those on the inside who’ll continue to get a laugh.) Catering conversation to what’s popular among the masses and then making fun of them for wanting to talk about, read, or see it, probably isn’t going to make them want to come back for more—you know, masochists aside. So, if widening the public touched by contemporary art is at all on the art world’s list of goals (it certainly should be on the art market’s list, given its current state), fostering this kind of culture built on attacks and skirted substance won’t get us there.
Ultimately, snarky rhetoric and aesthetic critique breeds the very kind of non-committal, unengaged art, art dealing, art buying, and art flipping it most salivates to take aim at. (Pretty convenient, you might say.) And it does a disservice to the very people most of us got into this field to support in the first place: the artists who are making engaged, interesting work that on some level is changing the world or at least commenting on and critiquing the macro-level issues and actors that definitely are, events last year like Charlie Hebdo, ISIS’s rise, Black Lives Matter, income inequality, labor relations, and marriage equality among them. Those artists have done so with an increasingly accessible brand of conceptual art that can speak to those outside of the highly codified inner art world milieu. But conversations of depth about that work—and the much wider field of art of substance, whether conceptual or otherwise—have failed to grow apace.
Rather than the cliquishness that cynical chatter speaks to, we need to become a cartel colluding to make earnest discussion of ideas cool again.
Before you go point a finger and make fun of those still stuck on bro painting or who Drake just introed to James Turrell, remember: That is our fault. Rather than the cliquishness that cynical chatter speaks to, we need to become a cartel colluding to make earnest discussion of ideas cool again. Not just in publications but in every conversation. That is a scary mandate. It’s much easier to hide behind a string of one-liners about stuff that your audience (whether a million eyeballs or four friends at a bar) agrees is, well, shitty, than it is to put your brand behind a set of ideas, beliefs, and work in earnest. But in order to get the world excited by and engaged with art, the art world needs to lead by example.
The best way to ensure a disaffected public towards art’s power is to talk incessantly about a random act of violence instead of the works by Matthew Lutz-Kinoy and Tobias Madison that sadly served as its backdrop. In 2016, we can and must do better.