Self Authority

Installation view from George Wingate’s one day exhibit, Up Stairs In Sight,* a show of unconventional but undeniable brilliance by an artist more people should know

Artistic gatekeeping. The role of the critic. The mantle of authority. The new democratization of how any of us can find, read, look and listen.

Two years ago Morley Safer lambasted contemporary art in a segment of 60 Minutes, and Jerry Saltz wrote a lively response. While Safer wanders through Art Basel Miami Beach and wonders why the “gatekeepers of art” can permit such bad art, Saltz counters with this: “He doesn’t know that there are no ‘gatekeepers’ in the art world anymore, that it’s mainly a wonderful chaos.”

When Safer references Saltz’s famous statement that 85 percent of the art we see is bad, Saltz responds with this:

I wanted to tell him that the percent I suggested doesn’t only apply to the present. Eighty-five percent of the art made in the Renaissance wasn’t that good either. It’s just that we never see it: What is on view in museums has already been filtered for us. Safer doesn’t get that the thrill of contemporary art is that we’re all doing this filtering together, all the time, in public, everywhere. Moreover, his 85 percent is different from my 85 percent, which is different from yours.

Whether you agree that there are no gatekeepers in the art world anymore or not, vetting and selecting is ongoing. The face of that may be changing, however. An outstanding example is a bold project undertaken by the Walmart-funded museum in Arkansas, Crystal Bridges, to assemble a major show of contemporary art opening this September called State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. Museum president Don Bacigalupi and assistant curator Chad Alligood have been traveling across the country to personally search for examples of contemporary art to be included in that show. Their criteria is “centered largely on the degree to which the artists’ works address themselves to the public. That is, we’re responding to work that offers points of engagement or access to viewers. Sometimes those points are borne in the artist’s facility or virtuosity with materials, others in their referencing of history or tradition, or in their works’ engagement with issues and topics of relevance to our world.”

The deep pockets—and whose pockets they are—as well as the aesthetic proclivities of Crystal Bridges have made the entire museum a controversial subject, and certainly that controversy will continue when this show opens in the fall. But regardless of the aesthetic intentions (which I must admit are not aligned with my own), the immense scope of this project will hopefully have some other unanticipated benefits. Projects like this by their very nature open up space for others to try their hand at something new. I am hopeful that this undertaking will help spawn more explorations into ways to see, more work being displayed, more interest in bringing visual language and expression closer to viewers everywhere.

That is what happened as a result of the Getty-funded mega-exhibit, Pacific Standard Time**, where 200 venues featured art made in Southern California between 1940-1970. After Roberta Smith saw just a handful of the shows she wrote, “Pacific Standard Time has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.” Since then much has shifted around these artists and their impact on American contemporary art.

In writing about the pleasure that can be had from all aspects of cultural offerings, Adam Sternbergh asks why we cannot give up the whole idea that some cultural pleasures are edifying, better, or acceptable than others. Culture, he reminds us, is one of the last arenas of experience that can offer unmitigated pleasure. Why taint our experience with apprehensions about what others deem worthy or unworthy? Can’t we make that call ourselves?

From Sternbergh’s piece in the New York Times Magazine:

Increasingly I find myself attracted to a notion I’ll call cultural libertarianism, which might be best summed up in that old saying “Whatever floats your boat.” Which is to say, I’m less and less inclined to drop the hammer on someone who’s sitting in the corner, contentedly reading Dan Brown. Does this mean I’m obliged to acknowledge and celebrate the artistry of Dan Brown? Of course not. For me, personally, Dan Brown doesn’t do it; he leaves my boat unfloated. If you’re interested, I’m happy to share my reasons. But I’m not going to suggest that your enjoyment of Dan Brown is somehow degraded or embarrassing or shameful. I’ve not only lost my fervor to wage a holy crusade against people who enjoy Dan Brown; I’ve lost my faith in the kind of critical crusaders who do.

Sternburgh, a culture editor/critic, is aware that this position puts him in an uncomfortable spot. “This line of thinking seems to lead to arguing for a kind of critical anarchy — a cultural state in which all opinions are held to be equally valid and critical conversation itself is dismissed as so much distracting noise,” he writes.

The suggestion of critical anarchy is disturbing for some, but for me it is a wild endorsement of the power and importance of self authority. The chaos of the cultural landscape that Saltz describes and gleefully embraces has only one requirement for admission: That we can hear our own authentic response and acknowledge what moves us, personally. I can’t think of another aspect of cultural creation going forward that matters more.

* For more about George Wingate’s exhibit, read this post, Up Stairs In Sight.

** To read any of the many posts written here about Pacific Standard Time, do a search on that term to the left.

4 Replies to “Self Authority”

  1. Your “requirement for admission” is right-on. While culture editors/critics can help us with the many-faceted back stories of artworks, their opinions, ultimately, are no more valid than any one else’s.

    The idea that the average person can’t appreciate visual art is nonsense, as is the related notion that not every one can write a poem – we disprove that every day at TweetSpeak. Technique and quality, of course, are other matters but even on that point, I’d say, look to visionary art, which once was dismissed with a sniff and today is receiving increasing respect and being shown in some fine museums.

    I don’t think we have now or ever will have complete “anarchy”; there will always be someone stepping into the breach. I like to think of it as correcting the market.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Well put. I am no anarchist but like so many aspects of life I will put the individual’s point of view first. Visionary art is a very good example of a big shift in acceptability. Thanks Maureen.

  2. I think the gatekeeper idea fails to acknowledge that the “real gatekeepers” are the ones who, looking BACKWARDS, find reasons to anoint (whoops, mixing my metaphors) the artwork that has manage to outlast its contemporaneous patrons, critics, and the like.

    True indeed that there was plenty of ‘bad art’ during the Renaissance. And we don’t see it. And we don’t read all the bad sonnets (well…a few get dug up now and then by scholars) or the lost, bad plays. So art gets filtered, as Saltz aptly puts it. And it gets filtered retrospectively.

    Our gatekeepers, no matter how powerful they seem now, are not the arbiters of the enduring.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks for this Ann. Your point is well taken and a mollifying one for me. To the future!

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