Over the past few years, I have slowly become a bit disillusioned with the art world. Instead of a place celebrating creativity and the fresh bursts of inspiration that all art should joyously derive from, I have had to balance being a conceptual artist working on my own career with making a living over the past decade as various things from museum marketing person to art gallery director to arts public relations professional to art critic all in the name of making a living so I can afford to buy art supplies to fuel my true life’s blood. Because of this, I have unfortunately been privy to much of the blood-sucking reality of the market in all its permutations.
As a gallery director I was often on the receiving end of multiple artist submissions a day. I know how it feels to put your life into your work only to be casually dismissed by someone on the other end of an email who may or may not be having a bad day or may or may not like the work you are doing. That’s the spine part of what we artists need to cultivate. Rejection is part of the biz just like anything else and it’s important to build a confident shield if you believe in your work. Because of this, I always took the time to write artists back and let them know that I appreciated their passion but that it was just not right for us; I tried not to be flat out rude or mean. This is unfortunately not the norm. I know better than anyone what it’s like to walk into a gallery and be greeted with a smile only until “I’m an artist” passes my lips and the smile turns to a condescending frown and a sudden hurriedness that tells me this person simply doesn’t have the time to talk to me.
As a museum marketing person I learned about the academic track that artists needed to take if they were ever to be considered worthy of getting into a museum. The right college, the perfectly timed MFA, the right galleries to exhibit your work, the right number of shows in the right geographic locations, and all the other “invisible” rules that exist out there that show you exactly how to suck the lifeblood out of your art making process and place you on the treadmill that will get you noticed by the honorable institutions and collectors. And for all the renegades who hope to become a part of these hallowed organizations, you are basically told not to bother unless you are one in a million who gets noticed after your death like Bill Traylor who spent his life homeless, drawing on cardboard pizza boxes by a dumpster until he was miraculously discovered by a man who would help catapult his career. Of course these things do happen but again, you are more likely to get struck by lightning.
As an art critic who is supposed to anonymously peruse the gallery openings to collect my thoughts on the current climate of exhibitions at any given time or place, I find myself jaded. Jaded, because I go to openings, most recently of which have all taken place in Los Angeles (touted as the current “it” place of the conceptual art arena) and I see the same people mooching the free wine and cheese and not taking a single second in their social agenda to actually look at a painting that is on the wall; but practically bowling over the cater staff to get past to the society photographers so that their pictures will be strategically placed in the who’s who section of the art magazines’ pictorial spreads denoting the authentic people of the scene. I hardly ever see a collector at these events because the collector’s deal directly with the directors of the gallery to buy their desired pieces at another time to avoid the cattle call.
As a collector myself who has an extensive collection of works that deal in psychological concepts of being human, I find myself doing the same thing, avoiding the openings and dealing directly with gallery personnel. This brings up another notation, the idea of being a collector. I once worked for a very savvy gallery owner who told me that people should buy art because it makes their soul sing; even though, and perhaps because of the fact, that most of his sales had to do with someone wanting a piece because of its trendiness or prestige and exactly opposite the fact that it made their soul sing. I have always bought based on this premise but it’s really not a standard thing amongst all the rich people buying art for investment who purchase something because its popular or because it came from the brain of the latest kid to be honored with a place in a major art fair or popular biennale. Last week I attended Jill Greenberg’s opening at Katherine Cone in Culver City and tortuously scanned the photographs of manipulated and horrified children with crap on their faces, a frog shitting, a decapitated body and pulsating photos of still warm organs, wondering what Andres Serrano who had already done this thing for years thought of his female emulator, while also imagining in my mind some chic New York City debutant showing off her newest acquisition of a versatile man peeing in his own mouth to her wide gazed dinner parties all in the name of art market popularity.
And then as a lover of art, with my own set of tastes and preferences towards what I find outstanding or banal, I relegate myself to all the aforementioned criticisms I have just written of others because I am an individual who isn’t going to like or respond to everything I see as much as the next person. So I am a walking contradiction; a victim of my own stereotyping of others, because I, too, am at fault for all the crimes against the individual artists such as myself that I internally despise.
The truth is I am as much a part of what I love and that which I abhor simultaneously and it doesn’t make me want to stop even though I am a walking contradiction. I will continue to make art, love art, judge art and buy art because I can’t live NOT doing it. It’s as essential as breathing and the fact that it puts a prickly space in my body is more good for the soul then bad for the soul because it keeps me real.
I had a good dose of my own perpetual art world bullshit propensity recently when I attended the pop up Mr. Brainwash show in Los Angeles. I know this because I was the first person to hate on Thierry Guetta, the European shop owner whose road to being an artist after idolizing street artists, was documented in Banksy’s film “Exit to the Gift Shop.” I hated on him hard core after jealously seething over his success on the coattails of our biggest anonymous street artist mystery man Banksy and seeing his sales of re-done Andy Warhol type pop cultural art fare propel him into riches.
But, when I went to the actual show my tune changed. Although the art wasn’t exactly my acquired taste, a few things struck me about the scene at his populist exhibition that would make the art world’s skin crawl but brought me back to my roots of an artist that at ten year’s old had me drawing on any kind of surface I could possibly find, blind to the “rules” of what has become my life as an artist.
Many things abounded to take me back to my humble roots. He let children in first ahead of the line so that they could feel important and be recognized as the only pure people attending the show without any idea of what the art world dictates or demands. He attended the show, not behind velvet ropes as an artist célèbre, but as a regular man and would go off impromptu-style from the cameras that were following him to write inspirational quotes on the wall, such as “Life is Beautiful” and “Follow Your Dreams.’ He took time to pose with anyone who wanted a photo with him and allowed people to take a stuffed animal from a huge installation pile on one of the floors. He had a staff giving away free posters of his work; not one piece but EIGHT posters and a stack of postcards, giving everyone the chance to own a piece of art. And he extended the show for two more full days when he realized that were a large group of people who hadn’t been able to make it the prior four days that it was up. All of these measures reminded me of the pure joy of making and sharing art, regardless of the concept, the strategy or its moneymaking potential. It shone a light on my own snobbery and put me back in a place where art should reside rather then where it so realistically oftentimes does.
Thierry Guetta, you are my accidental hero.