3.26.2013

Corridors of Decadence and Decay

Sat down for coffee with a friendly group of young Salvadoran artists yesterday afternoon and the conversation turned (as it inevitably does with me) to everything that's wrong with the art world (which is to say, everything). Coincidentally, that morning I'd gotten into an argument with a Very Stupid woman via Twitter about "democracy and museums," - a subject she raised because she's Very Stupid and doesn't realize that democracy and museums are like two very slow, dumb animals that don't play well together (I imagine a very drawn-out, bloody scrap between two sloths, but feel free to invent your own metaphor. Nevermind. The initial concept is so absurd it doesn't even merit symbolism).

First, on the art world, if only because it's been a very long time since I've pissed anyone off (I have been overly conservative in recent commentary and it's time to smash the silence with a sledge hammer).

The art world has nothing to do with what you see in Art News, Art in America or Art Forum. While sometimes good for bathroom reading or making fun of some sucker who just spent a fortune on a Damien Hirst (buy the yacht next time, fella), art magazines exist because galleries pay Big Money to advertise in them. Galleries, therefore, are the hands that feed art magazine writers and this is one reason we end up with con artists such as Hirst to begin with. Payola. Corruption. Greed. In other words, traditional American business.

The art world is in your head, in your heart, down on the corner in Chicago where that homeless guy sells tin cans cleverly turned into windchimes (or whatever), and of course, at Gone City. You can sometimes find art on Facebook. You can always find it on the walls of rundown buildings in El Salvador, Memphis, Austin or anywhere else bored kids get together to paint things. The art industry has existed for a few centuries. As far as anyone knows, art has existed for 30,000 years. Art does not need an industry. But the industry needs art, because after all, industries have to produce something to survive as industries.

We agree with Robert Smithson that museums are where art goes to die. It works like this: Somebody makes something good and calls it art. Somebody likes it and buys it. It goes up in the happy buyer's home. Happy buyer dies (because with the exception of bad art, everything dies). Good and useful object ends up at small auction house because the happy buyer's heirs don't particularly think Matisse/Otto Dix/Jackson Pollock are important or relevant to their lives. Very wealthy private collector picks up art object for a third of its estimated value, before (like everything else) dying and donating his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Art object is filed away in a warehouse for possible exhibition sometime in the future (but probably not).

Stupid Woman argued yesterday that if it weren't for museums, good art would wind up in warehouses. But given the fact that some major museums only exhibits five to 10 percent of what they owns (because museum property is not the same as public property), most art owned by museums is warehoused anyway.

Museums are good places to go and contemplate the gold ingots of the Fading Empire of the Moment (see MOMA and United States). If you want to be exposed to new ideas, or think about the future, museums are no good at all.

The art industry, meanwhile, is a giant, used car lot where a guy named Larry who spends all his money on vodka and cocaine tries to convince rich people of what they should buy, and poor people of what they should like. In the end, we would prefer a visit to Spiral Jetty (however improbable) to even five minutes at any used car lot (although we are crazy about very fast cars).

In the end, I confess, the problems with the art world pale in comparison with those impacting the real world. But the two are not unrelated. Museums filled with bad art are responsible for helping create cities full of people who are unemployable despite their college degrees. And moving in the opposite direction, dumb people create dumb art. Where does that leave us? Either we burn down the Guggenheim (which we actually kind of like for architectural reasons and not for anything it contains) or we invent new reasons to create art; new ways to share-sell-exhibit it. We're already doing the latter.