Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Study in Petulance

At the bottom of this post is a recent piece. Like last week's "Criticism In Search of Its Critics", it is drawn from expeditions in the Art World.

I am posting the piece here because the publication in which it is to appear did a messy job of assigning quotation marks to its speaking parts. As well, the publisher supplied a sub-header that compromises the gender-neutrality of the piece (to say nothing of the publisher's insertion of the masculine pronoun "He" in what is now the second sentence of the third paragraph) -- and in doing so revealed the very assumptions that inspired the piece's gender-neutral attribution strategy.

For those interested in seeing the piece in its hard copy form, with excellent illustrations by Walter Scott, you can find it in the next issue of Mousse (#52). 

Thank you to Mousse Editor-in-Chief Edoardo Bonaspetti for allowing me to post the piece in advance of its hard copy publication and to artist Carolee Schneemann, whose Interior Scroll (1975) photo-documentation appears up top.



The artist’s assistant, who makes the artist’s rebus-filled thought balloons, says to the artist, Can I surprise you with a work of yours, for fun? and the artist says, By all means. With this agreement in place, the artist’s assistant then asks the artist when would it be a convenient time to use the artist’s studio to make the work, and the artist says, Never, and the artist’s assistant says, But you said, By all means, and the artist says, Figure of speech, and walks off.

The follow day, with the artist in the studio reading Kant, the artist’s assistant strolls in with a rebus-filled thought balloon, the sight of which causes the artist to sit up and say, Hey, that is so something I would do! and the artist’s assistant says, It’s yours. But is it something you can sell? and the artist says, No way – it’s a gift -- I love it! Great, says the artist’s assistant, but it’s not really a gift because I would like to recoup the cost of my materials.

The artist looks puzzled, looks back at the work, then back at the artist’s assistant. There’s, like, five dollars worth of materials here, says the artist, and the artist’s assistant says, Up the street they make the best pho tai for five dollars, and that’s what I’d like more than anything else in the world right now – a bowl of their pho tai. O-kay, says the artist, now more incredulous than puzzled, but the studio pays for your lunch, so I don’t see why you would want to pay for it when you’re getting it for free. I don’t know, shrugs the artist’s assistant. You pay me for my labour, but just once I’d like to get paid for my materials.

Fine, says the artist hurriedly, let’s sell it then, but I’ll add the material costs on top of the usual price. But that will look stupid, protests the artist’s assistant; none of your dealers will go for it. That’s the point, says the artist, I want it to look stupid, so when collectors ask the dealer, Why is it twenty-thousand-and-five dollars? the dealer will tell them it’s for material costs. And when they say, Don’t you usually include those costs in the price of the work, then round it off, I’ll get the dealer to say, Yeah, but the artist’s artist’s assistant wanted it that way, and that’s when things will get interesting.

The artist’s assistant understood what the artist meant by things getting interesting, that whoever asks about the price could then say to the dealer, Does the artist always take instruction from the artist’s assistant? to which the dealer could say any number of things, variations of which would position the artist closer to dog-rolled-over vulnerability, a humble position, but ultimately a phony position because whoever is asking will no doubt challenge the artist’s sincerity, after which the artist, as the artist’s assistant knows the artist all too well, will get pissy and back off, insisting that this is the artist’s true nature -- fearless, top dog, dominant – like those who line up to collect the artist’s work.

Which of your dealers do you trust to make things as interesting as you think they will get? asks the artist’s assistant, knowing full well how little the artist thinks of the dealers who represent the artist’s work, to which the artist says, Well, I could script it, with different responses based on the predictability of the questions it’ll generate. Sound’s complicated, says the artist’s assistant adding, Not really your style, is it, to be complicated? And what is that supposed to mean? asks the artist, more than a little perturbed. Well, says the artist’s assistant, when I started working here, you said anything that requires too much thinking is not worth finishing, and because that seems to have worked for you all these years, why mess with it? Because it’s time to change things up, that’s why, says the artist, slamming the door on the way out.

The artist’s scheme and how it unfolded continues to be talked about today, not only among those who asked about the price of the work, but among those to whom it had spread; all of whom – other collectors, gallerists, artists, curators and directors – have added their own tonal flourishes. But for all its variations, for all its speculations and moral judgements, one thing is agreed upon: that the artist’s attempt to make something more of this work (not just five dollars more) did nothing to make it more desirable. In fact, the opposite held true. But it gets worse, because not only did no one want the work, they wanted nothing more to do with the artist. Soon, the talk was not of the artist but of how poorly the artist’s work was selling at the auction houses – until not even the auction houses wanted it. As for public institutions that hold the artist’s work in their collections, none have shown any of it since.

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