Wednesday, February 3, 2010

From Gallery to Back Alley

by Drew Martin

The relationship between artist and art critic is somewhat of a strained one that reflects the history of judgement, authority and hierarchy in our culture. A cycle exists where an artist creates work, shows it to the public, a critic has a look and deems whether or not the work (and the artist for that matter) are worth paying attention to and paying for. The viewing public, galleries, museums and collectors are all influenced. In this loop, careers are made or squashed and there is much display of plumage, beating of chests and sometimes horns are locked and hair is pulled.

In cinema, Siskel & Ebert made the direct reference to the life and death of it all using the thumbs up/thumbs down rating as if nothing has changed since the mortal gladiator sparring of ancient Rome. Art critics tend to draw out the punishment, more like Franz Kafka's execution apparatus from In The Penal Colony, which fatally inscribed the sentence into the accused's back. Ideally, the relationship could be much more constructive. The artist and art critic have, and should have, much more knowledge of the arts than the average person. Their careers are not sudden mishaps, but something they have been nurturing most likely since youth and they have digested the history of art and are typically quite aware of what each other's peers are saying and doing. If anything, the one who reviews art, especially conceptual art, should help explain the artist's intentions and what the work is about, pointing out the advances as well as the flaws without passing personal judgement.

The reality is much crueler. In the case of the artist, perhaps the work falls short of expectation or he or she is simply too pretentious to be in the same gallery with. Likewise, the critic might have woken up on the wrong side of the bed or is feeling a bit vindictive. The least harmonic relationship is probably that between art critic Robert Hughes and artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Hughes once expressed that Julian Schnabel is to painting as Sylvester Stallone is to which Schnabel blurted that Hughes is a "bum". Schnabel, is arguably the cockiest living artist and Hughes has been unkind before: saying that comparing certain artists (which he names) is like comparing dog and cat feces (with more explicative language).

Apparently there's a new brawl out West, which was brought to my attention by Bill Wheelock, who is a cofounder of The Thinkery gallery in Los Angeles and maintains The Hairy Prone Companion blog. The spat is over a thumbs down review of Diana Thater's show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art: Between Science and Magic...a conceptual art installation about movie magic which includes a projection, from various angles, of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. The short of it is, the reviewer, David Pagel, did not like the show and Diana Thater did not like the review. Just reading the various reviews and comments from Pagel's review in the Los Angeles Times makes my head spin.

To get the argument in full, please visit the The Hairy Prone Companion, where you will find all the appropriate links. With the egos revving it seems that creativity has sadly been jettisoned: the obvious reaction from me as the artist would have been to reshoot the magic trick with a doppelgänger of Pagel looking on, and then, in Monty Python style, have the magically produced rabbit go for Pagel's jugular. Thater has instead contested/protested the review and joined in the comments banter and backlash.

What I find most interesting about this is how it all actually relates to Socrates, Plato and their conversation in the Phaedrus, in which Socrates claims that a problem with written language is that it cannot defend itself from those who might attack it but here we see that the written word is alive and kicking.

>>> The Hairy Prone Companion