FAUSTIAN BARGAIN AT CAA?
-- Michèle C. Cone
Visitors to the College Art Association's 95th annual conference in Manhattan, Feb. 14-17, 2007, could tell that the pressure was on by the scene in front of the New York Hilton, site of the meeting -- a young woman being carried out on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. Along with its huge roster of scholarly panels, the CAA also provides a job fair for art historians, and one could easily imagine the disappointing interview, absent job offer and depleted savings that led to the fainting spell, or worse. It's tough being a young art scholar.
But these yearly CAA meetings hold the potential for entertainment as well as tragedy, what with the hundreds of art-history sessions competing for attention, many with off-putting or seductive titles, depending on one's interests -- "Digital Difference, Recontextualizing New Media Art," "The Thematization of the Senses in 16th-century European Art," "Depolarizing American Modernism," "Art and the Mathematical Instinct," "Skepticism and the Arts" and "Art and Pornography" were just a few of the multiple offerings.
One hot ticket for the contemporary art community was a Saturday session organized by AICA/USA, the American branch of the international art critics’ organization. "A Faustian Bargain? Emerging Artists, Critics and the Market" -- a catchy title, to be sure -- included the famous art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, the famous husband-and-wife collector team of Donald and Mera Rubell, and two famous critics, Peter Plagens and Jerry Saltz.
Typically, CAA panelists read longish, scholarly papers. Not so here. Instead, moderator Amei Wallach, former president of AICA/USA, engaged her speakers with a series of hard questions. Why, Jeffrey Deitch, did you schedule a 2007 exhibition of works by Ted Mineo when he was only in his second year at Yale University School of Art? Deitch answered that he was simply recruiting in the same way business leaders seek talent at Harvard Business School. "Anything wrong with that?" he asked. "Sure, part of my job is manipulation. But it's got to be the real thing. You present the work on its own merits."
Plagens was asked about Matthew Barney, whose career he was said to have "jump-started." "The market comes first," Plagens ventured. "The critic's mind is a mental Rolodex, he sifts through it for what’s new. Criticism is a reactive thing."
Saltz was asked about power -- the power of the critic. Does the art critic have the ability to make a market? Yes and no, Saltz said. Some critics have what he called "credibility," that's all. "Marlene Dumas' paintings may be worth $3 million," he said. "I still don't like the work." Don Rubell piped in at this point to say that it took him ten years to decide to buy his first artwork by Dumas. "When does a work start speaking to you, that’s the question."
Everyone agreed that things now are different from the way that they used to be. Not only has art become entertainment, Deitch said, but at Art Basel Miami Beach, the entertainment industry had joined in. It felt like the Cannes Film Festival. The panelists also agreed that the auction houses were big players today.
No one was caught saying that things are turning out for the worst. "No penance," said Plagens. "No demonizing, we are all part of the market," said Saltz. "If prices are too high in New York, go to Poland, go to Leipzig, and you will find interesting, reasonably priced art," said Mera Rubell. "More artists can make a living thanks to us, what's wrong with that?"
During the q&a session, someone asked about the "youth cult" that seems to infect the art market. Not always, suggested Deitch, mentioning the now-popular artist Paul McCarthy, who was 50 before people began buying his work. Another audience member asked, "With no Clement Greenberg and no Lawrence Alloway to guide us, on what basis can one artist be judged better than another?" Saltz was adamant in his response. "The last thing we need is for the likes of them ever to come back." Someone complained that critics write too few negative reviews. Saltz said that even descriptive reviews are not neutral and involve judgments.
Someone dared to ask if there was any difference between art that is entertainment and art that is poetry. Deitch answered by noting that the difference between vanguard art and establishment art has collapsed, an effect he considers positive, since it increases audiences. The final question concerned the survival of non-entertainment art in this context. No one really answered. Instead, the panel ended with loud applause, and artists rushed up to the speakers with announcements of forthcoming shows in hand.
As for me, new artists' names have entered my consciousness. I too have been manipulated, as have you, dear reader. We are all in this together.