Episode 40 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Talking to Curators & Laura Hoptman

Talking to Curators / Interview with Laura Hoptman

In this chapter I discuss how to present yourself to curators so that they become attracted to your art and your story.

In the academic world where most curators get their directions on how to pursue their careers as independent or institution-based curators, they are taught how to look at art and evaluate it from a cultural standpoint. There are also curators who do not have academic training and are putting together shows as well, but the majority of curators that you will meet are most likely coming from a curatorial studies program at a university. That means, in most cases, they will have had art history classes and learned how to create exhibits as well as how to visit artists’ studios.

When visiting studios, they are told to look at work in a cultural context. That means that as they talk to the artist and come to their own conclusions, they are looking to see how the artists are reflecting contemporary culture today. In fact, we all reflect contemporary culture to some degree, even those who are not artists. A teenager who is watching videos on YouTube and using Snapchat and other forms of social media is engaged in a form of the culture that reflects who we are as a culture and how teens might be responding to and interacting with specific forms of media

Artists do the same thing even if they are not aware of it, and this is part of what a curator is looking for. He or she is looking at your images and their content and thinking about how this might be a reaction to current political or social trends, or even popular trends in entertainment.

Laura Hoptman was the senior curator at the New Museum and is now the curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Her focus is contemporary art. In the interview that follows, you will learn more about what she looks for and how she finds artists.

The aspect of talking to curators that I would emphasize most is discussing your ideas—not necessarily your art, but the ideas or impulses behind your art. That will allow a curator to understand and interpret your work in a cultural context, and it will also make for interesting conversation. Here is the interview with Laura Hoptman.

Laura Hoptman

The Interview

Cariey: I’d like to begin by asking a little bit about your beginning in the art world. Where do you first remember becoming interested in either of the arts or in curating?

Hoptman: Well, I’m kind of a special case because I’ve wanted to be a museum curator ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in Washington DC and we spent our weekends at the museums. I can remember when I was about four my mother did an art show in the backyard and I watched it. So it’s just something that was part of my DNA from very, very early on.

Carey: What was the show that your mother did in the backyard?

Hoptman: We had a neighbor who is a painter and I remember her nailing the paintings to the pine trees in the backyard. I mean, we had a very culturally interested, if not sophisticated family, and our thing was art and we went to the museums all the time. That was something that I always wanted to do and I focused all my energies as a young person on art.

Carey: And what was the first curatorial work that you did? Was it something as out of the box as nailing paintings to trees? I love that!

Hoptman: I went to graduate school in New York City, but before I went to graduate school I worked in film and video on the Lower East Side, actually right around the corner from where the New Museum is now, on Rivington Street, in a place called Film Video Arts.

So I started my art life in film, video, and performance. I also worked at a place called Franklin Furnace which was a performance and book archive. Then I needed some money, so I was a waitress at the same time. I went back to graduate school a year after I came to New York. I came to New York City in 1983 and I went back to graduate school for art history in 1984 and started my curatorial career in the midst of graduate school.

My first curatorial job was at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and for those who don’t know that place, it’s a museum of contemporary art that was founded in the late 1970s as part of the largest of the Johnson administration’s Great Society programs. It’s a place for emerging artists and I spent three years there, and I remember in my last year I made three hundred studio visits. Can you imagine? So it really started me, gave me a vocabulary, certainly, of the regional artists in the New York area.

Carey: Was that in the eighties when you were doing the studio visits?

Hoptman: Late 1980s, yes. In between, I also worked for Merce Cunningham, which was really interesting. I spent eighteen months with Merce because he was a dancer who was very involved in media in particular. So I worked at the film and video department there for a while. And I also did some time at the Whitney Museum in the film and video department, which at the time, actually, I really loved.

So I had a little bit of experience, but not in curatorial capacity. My first curatorial job was at the Bronx Museum and from there I went to MoMA, which was a quite strange experience but I was very lucky because I had this huge vocabulary of emerging artists and I went to an institution which at that time didn’t know anything about emerging artists.

At MoMA, I spent six years in the drawing department, and did a lot of exhibitions. And then I did the 2004-2005 Carnegie International,which took three years of my life. And I came home to New York. Then decided to return not to a big institution but to the New Museum, because the New Museum was opening a new building here on the Bowery and creating a whole new staff. It gave us an opportunity to sort of envision a new kind of contemporary art museum for New York. That’s my life in a nutshell.

Carey: But you’ve been between several mediums. You were the drawing curator at MoMA and it sounds like before then, you were focused a lot on video and film.

Hoptman: I focused a lot on performance first, then video and film. Not because I liked it but because that was where I could get a job and it was super interesting for me. I’m just very lucky that I have been active in an era in contemporary art where that kind of division between mediums doesn’t necessarily have to dictate what you do in your life.

I worked in the film and video department at the Whitney but a few years after I worked there they dissolved that department altogether. So that there’s no kind of apartheid now between media in museums like the Whitney Museum. And even the MoMA, which is famous for its divisions. I was a drawing curator and learned about drawing, but I did a lot of exhibitions that were all kinds of different mediums.

I did the retrospective of the artist Yayoi Kusama, who’s a great, great person but a magnificent painter, performer, and filmmaker. I did a show called Drawing Now which included the work of—I think I had something like twenty-four artists. There were eight sections and they were wonderful, they are wonderful artists but most of them are probably not known just as drawing people.

There was, I don’t know, Elizabeth Paton, John Currin, the sort of heavy hitter figurative painters of my generation were in that show. You can think of it more as an exhibition of drawing but really coming from the vocabulary of people who are painters—not exclusively, but most of them.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 39 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Personal

The Personal

An essential theme of this book, and most books on advancing a career, is about the personal contacts and friends that you make. Those contacts are often made through inbox messages on social media or email. In both cases, the writing that you do in those initial stages will make all the difference. I would try to imagine how you would feel if you received the letter you are writing to someone. What if someone sent you an inbox message that said, “My show will be up until May 15, here is the link.” Does that sentence attract you and want to make you click the link or go see it if you have never heard of this person before? I would think probably not. The reason is that it is the opposite of personal. It is a directive masked as an invitation. I get messages like this often. But when I get a message that says something more personal, like, “Hi Brainard, I am really enjoying your book, and have been finishing up my website as you suggest. There was one issue I had with using an email newsletter program and integration—is there an email program for newsletters that you would suggest?”

That is something I would tend to answer because it is a question that does not require me to review a whole site to see what is going on. If you were writing to a curator, you could also say something similar, such as, “Thank you for the great work you do, I just saw the show you curated at X space, and I thought your choice of artists mixed with scientists who approached the same subject matter was innovative and inspiring. Mixing two fields of study in this way add to both, and as an artist myself, I found it inspiring.”

In that note, you are not asking the curator for anything, just making them aware that you are sensitive to who they are and what they do. Since you did not leave a website, it becomes even more sincere. Anyone who reads that will probably respond with a thank you at the least and will most likely look at your Facebook page as well. Even if they don’t, in your next letter you can ask a question, or even, gently, send your website, or preferably talk about your work before sending it and ask if they would like to see work. Essentially, I am emphasizing writing that is personal and meaningful and not a quick note with your website link.

Your Story

Everyone has a story to tell, a story about who they are and why they do what they do. Even if you were not an artist, everyone has a passion of one kind or another that they could talk about. In crafting your story, which could be similar to what has been called an elevator pitch, you need to tap into some kind of passion. Since you are most likely an artist if you are reading this, you will be writing about your art and your life. How you end up telling this story in a brief biography or an artist’s statement is of great importance, because it is how you will be initially perceived and perhaps even remembered.

Earlier in the book I reproduced the stories that my wife and I sent about ourselves for the Whitney museum curator when she asked. That was my style and how I approach things. In the interview with Allard van Hoorn, he is telling his story and it revolves around a specific theme that we can all relate to. He talks about wandering and trying to find out what he really wants and who he would like to become. That alone is something we can all relate to and draws us in. Then he describes what eventually became his statement or theme on the basis of his experience with Aboriginal culture and the idea of Songlines, which was a method used by that culture to navigate or map existing structures and paths in the world. It is a concept that in itself is fascinating, steeped in myth, dreams, and a culture that is a mystery to most Western minds. He tells it in a straight-forward manner, no unnecessary theory or mystifying, yet it is interesting and memorable while weaving a line of thinking throughout all his work. It also is something we can all relate to in some form; it is very much about connecting with our environment, the people and buildings around us. It is also sincere. No matter what your story is, that is how easily it could be presented, as a straight-forward account of who you are, and how you became that.

The Form of Writing

That is the form I would suggest when writing about yourself and your artwork. Choose something that is memorable and reach deep into who you are and who we are as human beings. The idea of creating a mystery around yourself does not have to be as obvious as what Joseph Beuys was doing in his statements and texts and work, but that is of course valid, too, if that attracts you. Many artists like to keep it short and sweet and use a piece of writing over and over for statements, but the problem with this is that it can sound too smug, and leaves little room for exploring your ideas. Part of the form your story takes should be about exploring. Like the Van Hoorn example, his idea can be continuously explored in many ways. This is extremely important because it is not about just one idea, it is about how you continue to discover new ways of articulating that idea over and over again.

As I write in the next chapter about talking to curators, the idea of structuring your conversation and approach will rely heavily on how you write about yourself and your interests. A teacher once told me that artists can often be heard saying something like, “I wish people understood me for who I am, not what I appear to be.” His comment on that was that we are in fact only what we say we are. We are not the secret thoughts and ideas we have not yet articulated, we are our words. We are our pictures as well, but to understand art we must understand the artist, and words must be used for that. Thus, your writing should be a clear explanation and exploration of what it is you are discovering and looking for in your work. It should tell the world what you cherish most and what you are seeking to understand. It should tell the world why it is exciting to be doing what you are doing.

It is acceptable to break the rules to some extent here. That is, you can be quirky in your writing, but you must be able to communicate clearly. For example, if you are going to create a poem for your artist’s statement, it should be a poem that is narrative, or something that is understandable and somehow relates to your work. Most of all, the overtone of your writing should be about an idea or ideas that you are interested in. If not ideas, then perhaps topics or cultural reflection of some kind.

When in doubt or stuck, look at the writing of other artists. Look at the brief biographies of artists that have recently won grants or awards. When artists win awards or are given them without asking (like the MacArthur genius award), there is always a brief synopsis of the artists’ work when announcing the grant or award. Those pieces of writing are great examples of how an artist’s work can be summarized in a way that makes sense to the general public and can be easily understood. Usually that is done in less than a paragraph.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 38 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Weaving Your Own Mystery

Weaving Your Own Mystery

This chapter will not just help with writing, but with understanding how to create a story about yourself that invites others to ask questions.

Writing, for most artists, is one of the more perplexing tasks they face. In this chapter I will discuss approaches to writing anything online. That would include getting media attention as well as critical attention for exploring ideas and issues that may be present in your work.

Writing is not a skill that comes easily to most artists, which is why you so often hear the phrase, “the painting speaks for itself.” However, thinking is something that artists must do. Thinking about the world of ideas, the world of colors and context, or poetry, politics, the environment, and more. These are all ideas that may already be present in your work or ones that you have thought of to some degree. If you can think about these things, then you can write about them, too. Perhaps not as well as you paint, sculpt, make photographs or installations, but nevertheless, you can write about issues that are important to you.

Social Media

Think of how a social media platform like Facebook contains so much writing by people who do not consider themselves writers. I find the most interesting posts on Facebook are about what someone is thinking or struggling with in their mind. It usually doesn’t relate to their work, but to thoughts and ideas we all have. The posts about loved ones dying and about how much they meant to someone is an example that resonates with most of us. But comments and fairly long status updates can include writing about art and how someone feels about a recent show, or a recent political event, or something much more personal—about struggles in the studio, or struggles with health and more. This kind of writing works on Facebook, meaning it gets comments and interactions with other Facebook users. The artists making all these posts mostly do not consider themselves writers, but are indeed writing about art and life in a way that relates to their work. Part of the reason artists seem to write well on Facebook is that they are not thinking that they are “writing,” but are rather communicating to others in a way that is not so self-conscious.

Looking and Writing

Being an artist is about looking at the world in a peculiar way, a curious way, and then reflecting some of that investigation in the work itself. It does not matter if you are an abstract or figurative painter, or a photographer or conceptual artist: the work an artist makes reflects the culture around them and how they perceive it. From the grotesque to the political to the poetic, visual artists offer new ways of looking at how we all perceive the world around us. The more every artist is aware of this process, which is often intuitive, the more there is to write about and explore.

If you are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media, there is often a question of what to write and how to meet people that you want to talk to on these platforms. For most artists, the questions is how to meet collectors, curators, and others who could help them in their career.

Writing for Online Audiences

The method I would suggest for writing on Facebook and most other online platforms is to be at least sincere in what you write (as opposed to sharing jokes and videos), because if you want to meet people and attract them to your art, then show off how thoughtful, kind, and sensitive you are. When I get a comment on one of my images on Instagram, for example, and it is more than “awesome shot,” this catches my attention. Perhaps it is something like, “this is my favorite, it’s beautiful,” or even something longer and less vague, like, “this reminds me of those ice cream trucks when I was little and the music they played.” That last one was not particularly descriptive, but it showed that the person writing had a particular memory and feeling associated with the image I posted. If someone wrote that on one of my images and “liked” a few others, I would notice. I would read their comment, and the next thing I would do is click on their name because I want to know who this sensitive person is. Is it an artist, a curator? I will find out by looking through their images, and in my case, I will begin to look at their images and might even comment to return the gesture. It is really that simple in the broadest sense, but is harder to do than it sounds.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 37 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Life as a Nomad

Allard Van Hoorn interview continued…

Carey: And the process you just described, the sound was coming from a number of sources. You’re going around with the handheld recorder but was it also the marbles you were recording with the other sounds that were coming in, as well as what you hear coming from the balloons?

Van Hoorn: Normally, it’s only the simple tool that we use to generate the sound. So when I say make the building into a marble game, it’s the balloons that represent the marbles. And it’s the big balloons that roll down and bounce off the walls that I record.

So it’s the feet moving of the dancers, their bodies against the architecture, and then the balloons against the architecture, and that’s the only sound input. There’s no other external input. It has to be a one-on-one. Let’s say it’s a homeomorphic description that’s to be a direct translation of that input, that energy, the shape the building has to be. So the idea of translating the exact shape into a new shape that is without loss of that shape. So what I try to do is to keep intact the original situation and by slightly intervening in it and creating something new out of it but not changing it.

Carey: It sounds wonderful. I feel like I hear lately sociologists and other people talk about how our world has become more isolated. Not necessarily because of social media or computers, though I suppose that contributes, but we don’t really function as small communities that are singing together, dancing together, eating together, sharing everything together, right? We’re in our homes, apartments, studios living this kind of solitary life to some extent.

I think of your project, the one that you were just talking about, and how it comes back to an audience and DJs are re-sampling and re-mixing. It strikes me as beyond the project itself. There’s a social element here that could be redeeming. I don’t know what the feeling is of an audience but it sounds to me like it’s almost as though everybody’s singing or making sounds together or feels that way.

Van Hoorn: I think it’s definitely part of it, because the idea of re-thinking public spaces, places where we spend so great a percentage of our times, and these are specifically the places that I want to reinitiate as agoras, as places of gathering, as places of re-thinking our relationships to public space through having these joint experiences. The music that comes out is pretty subversive. So the building is kind of alive and submerges the people into the soundscapes that I produce. That music is, in a sense, to bind the people together and eventually in all the places where I execute these works there is this. There is a sense of community specifically because the collaborations are local.

So it’s the local people getting an opportunity to work with their direct public space, in which they live daily, and create this kind of a new relationship; to re-think their relationship to public space.

Carey: Let’s move back a little bit maybe to the roots of you having this kind of perspective, this nomadic sense. How did you get involved in art as a child? Where did you grow up?

Van Hoorn: I grew up in a fairly regular environment. Isolated, and far from art. I did several things throughout my life. I have studied mining engineering and until the age of thirty-three I did not know a single creative person. Everybody I grew up around me in those times were doctors, lawyers, business people, and academics. Until I was thirty-three years old, I was not in contact with anybody who was a dancer, musician, artist, even a graphic designer or performer, nothing.

So when I finally decided to find my personal relationship to the world, I decided it had to come through investigating my daily environment and doing something with that. So all my work ended up being about how we relate to a public space. And everything I do comes from that kind of new born sense of learning because I had to start from the scratch and learn in every project that I do. So every project is different, every action is different and therefore I decided to travel the world to be able to understand different cultures and see different places, in the end traveling to over fifty countries over the last years and doing projects in many, many countries.

It became my tool of investigation and my tool of learning about these concepts of belonging and becoming as an individual. About finding your place and rooting yourself not necessarily in one place, but in many different places at the same time, through maybe a more rhizomatic network of relationships that you create not only with the people, but through this longer ongoing investigation like the Urban Songlines. Actually creating this interrelated network of spaces that becomes music and then carrying it around in your little backpack kind of all the information that is gathered through all these spaces.

So eventually, I let go of myself. Since nine years ago, all my personal belongings fit into hand luggage, which has enabled me to move around very swiftly and easily. For nine years I’ve been traveling with only hand luggage and I became nomadic. Just going from place to place, making works there and working with wonderful people, beautiful collaborations and great institutions and ways of surviving through just relating to the world in different places.

Carey: And so how do you survive as a nomad? I mean, I’m kind of interested in how you actually get and manage these museum projects. You’re traveling around the world. In the very beginning, in your mid-thirties, how did you begin to have a relationship to the art world and support yourself with that?

Van Hoorn: In the beginning you have to walk up to places and you say, “Hmm, new gallery, or new museum, I’m an artist maybe we should talk,” and you make stuff on your own and eventually these things come together. I’m still a Dutch citizen so I pay my taxes in Holland and there is, as we know, some really good support from the Mondriaan Fund, and eventually museums that commission your work provide networks. There’s a lot of residencies that I’ve done through the years and I’ve been teaching and lecturing in many, many places, from the Architectural Association and the Royal College in London, to the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, and several other institutions as a guest tutor. Eventually you publish, you write and you sell some works, some profits come out of these performances although they are scarce. Keep in mind that I have a very light and easy way of living. I don’t have to maintain and replace a lot of stuff, so I can live financially quite nimble as well.

Carey: In closing, it sounds kind of wonderful and also ideal to be nomadic in this way. I don’t know anyone really that is as nomadic as you’re talking about. There are plenty of artists who are doing a lot of residencies but most of the time is spent in their studio, or who are home-based in whatever country they’re residing in. Upon reflecting on the last nine, ten years, how does it feel to be a nomad? What is that like in terms of just traveling or being in the world? Is there anything you miss?

Van Hoorn: Well, the thing that you would naturally miss most is your books because books are always fantastic sources of inspiration and in a way you become mental collaborators between beautiful artists and thinkers. What I learned to do is to find many online publications and I even buy books on Amazon and then sell them, give them away to friends and ask the author to send me the PDF. So I tell them, “Listen, I bought your real book, I’m giving it away to a friend. Could you please send me the PDF so I can take it with me in my little laptop?” And so I gathered a great many books digitally.

Otherwise you adapt fairly easily—I find people are super flexible and adapt into any kind of situation. At the beginning it was more tough than now. Sometimes you find yourself being kind of isolated in a place, but by now I have friends in any place and everywhere I go. There’s a huge network of artists as well as interesting people to meet up with, to talk to, and people who are willing to take you in. They understand the idea of sharing. I think the economy in our community is changing a little bit towards that dynamic. I feel very rooted. Any place I go, I can very, very quickly adapt. I have only the same clothes, four of the same shirts and two of the same pants and a pair of flip-flops and all the rest is equipment. As you will see through my performances, I’m wearing the same clothes through the years but I have four of the same shirts. So I tend to wash them in between but otherwise there’s not a lot that I miss. I became fully adapted to this idea of continuously traveling, sometimes flying to another country up to fifty times a year. What happens in the end is you become rooted in all these places and you adopt this strategy.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 36 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Allard Van Hoorn

Allard Van Hoorn interview

This last interview is with an artist named Allard Van Hoorn, and is a fascinating look into how one artist began in his thirties, found an unusual medium, and has been a nomad ever since. I have interviewed hundreds of artists now from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas, and the most interesting ones have found something that continues to drive them, something like a quest. I think this next interview is one of my favorites because it contains what seems to me to be the quintessential quest of an artist.

The Interview

Carey: I’m talking with Allard van Hoorn. He’s an artist that is nomadic, traveling all over the world for site specific work that he produces. At the moment we’re talking to him from Italy. Allard, thank you so much for being with us today. Let’s talk about where you are now. I know you’re in Italy at a residency. Can you tell me a little bit about the residency and what it is that you’re pursuing there?

Van Hoorn: Yes, this is an open module of the UNIDEE, University of Ideas at the Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto. It’s a huge old textile factory that was set up by Michael Angelo Pistoletto to exchange ideas and to generate agents for social change through arts. We’re doing a workshop here based on architectural principles of the sixties and current movements that work towards changing perspectives on how we relate to our cities and to public space.

Carey: So that’s kind of a fascinating idea for a residency. It is an artist-created institution or residency and it’s obviously a nonprofit. I suppose it’s funded by the government, but perhaps you could say a little bit more about exactly what happens. Is there a workshop? Do you have a studio? Are you working there? If so, on what and for how long?

Van Hoorn: Yes, there are different modules. We are working in a workshop environment with artists, architects, theorists, thinkers. We are generating conversation that leads to possible new directions for structures of education, exchange of ideas, peer groups that allow for our contemporary way of communicating, open travel, and the idea of producing our work with different groups in different places in a more mobile sense than maybe a generation before was able to do.

So here, I’m currently working on the twenty-eighth iteration of my project called Urban Songlines. This is a project that I’ve been doing since 2009. It’s a project in which I translate public spaces and architecture into music by generating sound, site specifically, and then translating that into music. The idea came from the aboriginals that relate to their public space, which is nature, through singing that topography, singing the physical shape of their land, mapping it spiritually, embodying it and managing the relationship with that as well as with the animals that live together in that environment.

My objective for Urban Songlines is to translate public spaces into sound in order to listen to architecture instead of looking at it or inhabiting it. And finally to talk about these ideas of co-ownership and appropriation of public space through collaborating with musicians, dancers, skateboarders, roller derby girls, and technology in the audience in order, in the end, to make our architecture and our public space ours, the cities audible instead of visible.

Carey: So let’s talk about one project that you’ve done. I know that there’s been several with Songlines, but perhaps you could talk about how one was done. Like the factory where you used the fuse box as a method to generate sound. It could be that one or another one. Where you explain a little bit about how the whole event comes together and how the sounds are generated. Perhaps what it even sounds like.

Van Hoorn: When I arrive at a space, when I’m invited to work somewhere, I go into the space trying to find either historical references, future references, or current dynamics that are embedded within this shape and within the idea of the space.

For example, if you look at the Rosenthal Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, this is a space designed by Zaha Hadid. It looks like a gray concrete slab that goes up through a glass square lobby of the museum slowly until that hits the back side, the back wall of the building. And there, it goes up under a ninety degree angle all the way as a spine, as a huge slab of concrete sidewalk, then going all the way up to the roof.

The space is intersected by huge black hanging staircases that were too big to be made within the architectural curriculum. So these were eventually made by a roller coaster company and they hang in that space as a huge X. And what I felt with that space was the idea of playing with verticality versus horizontality. That sidewalk going up straight into the air all the way up to the roof of the building, to me it felt like a game that was playing with ideas of gravity to make it less sober, to talk about what a building could be, I made it into a huge marble game in which I invited local young dance groups to work with eight-foot helium weather balloons that I filled with air. So they were able to run those down the staircases, bounce them off of the wall and used that lobby and the staircases as a huge marble game in order to give it that dynamic.

Then I ran around while they executed choreography of a marble game as a dance piece with eight-foot white weather balloons. I ran around and I recorded the sounds of the physical description of the topography of the building. So literally, the shape of the building being described by the balloons, and with a handheld I recorded myself running around them, trying to keep up with them. Then I sit down in a break, import that into a computer and a laptop and then I create live music of that sound that they generated.

So the speaking voice they generated off of the architecture, off the building, I translate it into music. This becomes the singing voice of the building and after that they re-improvised because I played that music live in front of a live audience and they improvised again to that music completing the dialogue of the dancers with the building. Then the resulting music is eventually pressed to vinyl records that I give it away to DJs for free. The DJs, through the technique of sampling, kind of redistribute that public space, that building in this case to a wider and wider audience.

As I said before, discussing this idea of co-ownership and appropriation of public space by a wider audience that does not necessarily have to be there at the performance. And that’s kind of the complete way, the cycle for Urban Songline to happen. I’ve created twenty-seven so far in places as varied as landing strips, bridges, warehouses, squares, and all around the world. Basically, anywhere or everywhere.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 35 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Art and Culture

Todd Levin interview continued…

Carey: And who were some of the initial artists that you collected?

Levin: Many of those names one would recognize today, and there are many one might not. Most were part of that eighties East Village scene, either centrally or tangentially. Basquiat, Bender, Bickerton, Condo, Haring, Halley, Holzer, Hujar, Koons, Kwong Chi, Noland, Prince, Steinbach, Taaffe, Thek, Wojnarowicz, and many, many, many more. Some names are all but forgotten, but they still have tremendous meaning to me because of the time and place I associate with those artists or their specific works. Separately, I also began a love affair with Surrealism at that time, particularly Joseph Cornell, and began buying his work which continues today.

Carey: Absolutely. You mentioned David Wojnarowicz . . .

Levin: Yes.

Carey: Amazing artist.

Levin: It was clear when one encountered his art then that there was a tremendous amount of emotional power distilled into those works – but I only knew David in passing. We had met and talked a bit and I always thought that his work was incredibly powerful.

The eighties were a different time. There were many talented people – artists, critics, gallerists, curators, performers, musicians, writers – all crushed into a small geographic area together in the East Village, and interacting on a daily basis with one another. That sort of communal spirit has been lost today in favor of another model. There is a tendency for one to look backwards through halcyon rose-colored glasses as one advances with age. Some things are better now, and many things are worse, but it was certainly a different kind of a model specific to that time.

Carey: Yes, it’s hard to say that there’s a scene like that now. I don’t think the Lower East Side would be the equivalent of what was happening in the eighties, unless you see it differently. The idea of artists opening spaces and having conversations is something that was specific to an eighties East Village art scene that isn’t happening now, is that kind of what you’re saying, that kind of communal support?

Levin: Art and culture thrive best in a bifurcated economy. By that, I mean either a very strong or a very weak economy. Most recently we experienced a period that generated tremendous amounts of wealth for consumers of culture. That means there are lot of people with massive amounts of excess capital, and they have to find a place to put all that capital. They’re not going to put it in the bank at one percent. Those people have decided for the moment that one of the areas they feel is a wise place to put their money is art.

Equally powerful for art is when the economy is extremely weak. In that case, arts and culture are most creative when rents are depressed and gallery space is plentiful. Curators, critics, and artists are able to engage each other in the same place. Those sorts of conditions lead to what economists call low barriers of entry. It basically means that the only requirement to participate in a cultural economy at such a time is to be creative, because in a weak economy there are no cost-prohibitive factors. This meant that huge influxes of talented artists flooded New York starting in the late seventies, and that increased the chances of more creative and interesting things occurring in New York. And this all happened vividly during that East Village period of the eighties that we were discussing. The key point to grasp is that the economic downturn that began in the seventies, interestingly, was significantly positive for creativity in the long term.

And this is the reason that when you ask me if the current scene on the Lower East Side might turn in to an East Village model, my answer is ‘no.’ It can never be the East Village as it was, nor should it be – it’s an entirely different thing. The cultural world in the late seventies and early eighties was shifting from modernism to post-modernism. And that was a thumping, epic cultural sea change which only happens once or twice in a century. The previously strict adherence to art forms, and the definition of culture and cultural products were being completely reconstructed during that post-modern period in the East Village. In essence, it wasn’t the Duchampian modality that ‘anything was art’ anymore – but instead, anything had the potential to be an art form. As I discussed earlier, that meant all modes of production were in the same geographical space at the same time. And there was, for the first time, no longer a proscenium between creator and audience.

What’s interesting about all this is just a few years later, by the late eighties, the market translation of culture into a consumer product began with a vengeance – what we now term the commodification of culture. All this happened within a very short time – that incredibly fertile DNA existed within a very short span and birthed an unusually powerful confluence of ideas.

Carey: Would Detroit be an example? It’s very clear what you’re saying, but do you think Detroit might be having all that potential now?

Levin: Detroit is discussed as having potential for artists is because it’s cheap to live there. It’s great if an artist can buy a house for $5000, but the larger issue is that there is no centralized cultural apparatus in Detroit, and there never has been. I don’t think there ever will be. I should remind you that I am from Detroit, so this is not me talking badly about my city. I would say the same thing about any other American city if applicable. New York is unique. It is a place where certain kinds of things happen that wouldn’t happen in any other American city.

Carey: Also, as you were saying, there was a sea change from modernism to postmodernism that took place at this particular time in New York and was manifested in a certain way. Whereas, in Detroit or other cities you may have inexpensive rents but there’s also not this kind of sea change. I don’t know exactly how to put it, but perception of culture or artistic practice was happening as well, correct?

Levin: I think your observation is the crux of the issue. Furthermore, creativity is fundamentally about generating new ideas and new forms. And it’s that cycle that I discussed earlier of a very depressed and then a very thriving economy that makes New York a consistent entry point for the new, where people go to produce the new, and the marketplace where the new can be bought and sold. The art world is simply the apparatus through which the artist is threaded into general society.

Carey: Todd, it is exciting talking to you about all these aspects of the art world that you’ve experienced. And also about you as a collector, as someone who values and understands artists and looks into how this whole system is to some extent created and continues to grow. There are artists listening to this who are from a lot of different groups, most are students, mid-careers, older artists and they are from all over the world.

One of the questions artists have, of course, which a lot of people feel differently about, is how to enter into the market. And that doesn’t necessarily mean how to enter into major collections, although it could be that, but artists are in their studios wanting to sell more work, wanting not to think about selling more work, knowing that as you say that there are all these people out there that have income that they need to spend somewhere. Without going too much into the marketing, and you can really take this anywhere you want, but if there’s something you want to say to those artists about how they are managing their careers and thinking about sales, which they’ll understand is kind of a double-edged sword: not to think to0 much about money on the one hand, but it’s hard to ignore, especially in this economy—the market and its vastness as you’re talking about.

Levin: That is a very broad question. On one hand, one hears artists, critics, and cultural observers talk about art and money, and suggest that they should be completely separate things. This view espouses that the artist should be divorced from transactional methodologies of any kind. I don’t think artists need to be divorced from art market financial machinations. I think the actual problem is that it is impossible to interact with art in any meaningful way, aesthetically or monetarily, if the only discussions taking place are about its price. The meaning of art collapses under the brute weight of pure quantification of data without the requisite education and real world experience to qualify that data meaningfully. And if the meaning (one could also use the word ‘value’) of art collapses, so will its price, sooner or later. Art has offered me a way to better understand myself. If we only discuss art as a mythical asset class, and divorce it from why it was created in the first place, then art and money exchange roles. Money becomes divine by being translated into art, and art becomes commonplace by being translated into money.

Artists who have an interest in trying to enter the art market must be realistic. There are exceptions to every rule, but the reality artists have to understand is if they want to participate in a locally- or regionally-based art market, they can do that anywhere. They can do that in Detroit. They can do that in San Antonio, and they can do that in Portland. But if an artist wants to participate in the international contemporary art market as it exists on the level of important galleries, international art fairs, and major auctions – and it’s not for me to tell an artist that this is a worthwhile thing, that’s for the artist to decide for themselves – then they’re going to have to be willing to put themselves geographically in a place where they can participate directly. New York, Berlin, London, Los Angeles, etc. Those artists will also have to be willing to engage the financial realities of the art market – but again, that’s a decision for every artist to make for themselves.

It’s a real miscalculation, however, if an artist feels they can participate in a meaningful way in the international art market, yet simultaneously remain fully outside that system. Precious few artists are able to do that, and those that man age that rare balance usually have accomplished it by actively participating first when they were younger, and as they gain stature and independence are eventually able to set their own boundaries – artists such as Cornell, Johns, Martin, and Nauman come to mind in this regard.

Carey: Thank you Todd.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 34 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Todd Levin

Todd Levin Interview Continued…

Carey: Are you only working with, or looking for, major blue-chip artists who have had a very extensive exhibition history?

Levin: In my career I’ve worked with a very broad range of historical periods and price points. When one starts out, one is usually on the lower rungs of the ladder in terms of access and the financial amounts involved. If one gains experience and expertise through time, and is recognized as increasingly capable of curatorial responsibility, one moves up the ladder in terms access and financial strata.

I began with art of my own generation. I think it’s natural to begin with one’s peer group, and in my case that was artists of the eighties. Gradually my career broadened and deepened, and became much more multivalent. Today I would agree that the majority of my time is tied up with what you identify as ‘blue-chip’ art, for lack of a better term.

Carey: I’d like to move back a little bit in time to your beginnings in art, maybe the eighties or earlier. What was it—and this could be very early in life if you want—what was it that first attracted you to art, as a child, as a young adult? Do you remember your first experience with art?

Levin: There is no distinct origin point for me. I grew up in Detroit with a single mother – a very well respected and sought after interior designer who was also an art collector. I was exposed to the visual language of art and design from my earliest memories. As my mother was single, I traveled everywhere with her, which meant artist’s studios, museums, galleries, and alternative spaces. It was a regular part of my life since I was a child.

Carey: That’s fascinating. What was she collecting? That seems an extraordinary experience to me as a child. That’s quite a vision to have as a single mother, I would think that with all the other things a parent has to go through, that building a collection is quite visionary, really.

Levin: I think collecting was a natural outgrowth of my mother’s interest in visual language via her interior design practice. And much of the art that she collected has a distinct graphic aspect. Not unlike, perhaps, design renderings or architectural blueprints. It was something that was around the house. It’s something I was accustomed to.

Carey: And you’re also watching and listening which is kind of unusual to see for anyone to be going into artists’ studios as a child, because it sounds like she’s buying directly from artists and you’re hearing the questions she was asking, and how artist are presenting themselves, correct?

Levin: One must remember we’re talking about the early/mid sixties. A very different time and place. There was no art market of the type that we all accept now as the norm. Going to artists’ studios was a much more common and low-key experience than it is now. There was very little money on the table for a gallerist to worry about if a collector went to a studio to “buy direct.” That would now be seen as a financial arbitrage depending on the artist and gallery involved. Things have changed greatly in the last forty or fifty years in the art market.

Carey: So what happened next for you? What happened in college? Were you taking courses in art then, or learning more about the art world so to speak?

Levin: In university I had a dual interest. I had an interest in visual art because I began collecting art in high school. I also had an interest in music, and attended university for doctoral studies in music composition as well. During my university years I developed very strong relationships with artists who I found interesting in my peer group. I was coming to New York regularly at that time because flights were very cheap and I would crash on (artist) friend’s floors or couches. I was exposed to art and artists in the East Village from the late seventies forward. At that time, it seemed that every person I saw on First Avenue was someone in the art world that I either knew personally or recognized. That was my formative first person experience which I drew upon later as an advisor.

Carey: And the artists that you were initially interested in were, I imagine, the seventies and eighties artists. Do you mind saying who those artists were that initially drew your interest? Who of your generation did you begin buying, trading, etc.?

Levin: Well, my mother was collecting artists of her generation– Calder, Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Nauman, Warhol, etc. I saw that she enjoyed the experience of going to studios to meet and talk with these artists, as well as their gallerists. She enjoyed having discussions with lively, intelligent people. It was important to her. In addition, my mother also felt it important to be a good community member in the Arts. She participated on a number of committees and boards at The Detroit Institute of Arts.

It was natural for me to emulate this model of behavior. By the time I was in high school, I was already interested in art and collecting, but mostly on a regional level. Then, during my time in university, I became interested in artists of my own generation. And that was the reason why I began to travel back and forth to New York on a regular basis, to be directly involved in the creation of culture that interested me, in the same way I had seen my mother participate in art of her time.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 33 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Todd Levin

Todd Levin interviewed

The next interview is with Todd Levin, Director of Levin Art Group, an art advisory firm in New York City that assists private individuals in the creation and stewardship of large, museum-scale collections. This is a unique aspect of the art world, where some of the biggest deals take place and also where interesting collections are built. Mr. Levin is well-spoken and offers a concise education on how the world of art advisors operate.

The Interview

Carey: Can you explain your role at Levin Art Group? Exactly what is it that you do personally in the art advisory firm that you direct?

Levin: The art market has historically had a lack of regulation with regards to transparency, and some individuals believe this situation should change. With so much money at stake, art advisors are increasingly responsible for a significant portion of their collector’s net worth, and by extension earning large sums of money themselves. This has resulted in many unscrupulous and/or inexperienced people recently entering the art market, and specifically the field of art advisory. Some of these individuals have done significant damage to the reputation of my field. Because of the foregoing, I believe any responsible art advisor today should act as a public face for the role of art advisory practice by conducting themselves with transparent integrity.

Carey: I know you’ve been in this business for over twenty-five years—and as you’re saying some come and go, or do damage, do unscrupulous things. You have a track record that’s very powerful and very good. How is it that the art market becomes regulated? You said it was becoming more so, but it still seems that it’s something that is, to my knowledge, quite unregulated compared to any other kind of investment. Is that correct and, if not, how is it being more regulated?

Levin: One has to be careful how one uses the term “regulation.” Some people attempt to make the point that the art market is completely unregulated, as if it’s the Wild West. This is a fallacy, because there are existing state and federal laws that govern contracts and transactions that take place within the art market.

As opposed to other types of highly regulated business models that demand far more transparency, however, there is a distinct lack of transparency within the art market. That allows for opportunistic advantages as well as nefarious behavior to take place, which in other professions would be addressed by those contractual and transactional laws I just mentioned. I wouldn’t suggest the art market is unregulated. That’s an incorrect description. I would say that from a legal standpoint it certainly is a very opaque model.

Carey: Right, and we were talking about nefarious actions or unscrupulous deals, is that essentially selling artwork to private individuals or, I imagine, even to public institutions, that is not valued at what the advisor is saying? Or is not as valuable as the advisor is contesting? Would that be an example of an unscrupulous behavior?

Levin: I suppose there’s many types of unscrupulous behavior one could participate in. At its core, the job description of an ethical art advisor is to constantly provide their clients the most exceptional work available at the best possible price. An advisor is only going to be as good as the sum of their past experience and expertise. In addition, I should add that the true measure of an experienced art advisor occurs when the art market suddenly seizes or severely reverses. So there are other ethical concerns in addition to correctly vetting the authenticity and/or market value of artworks.

There can also be a great amount of manipulation that has to do with the market from a financial perspective. There is a fine line between attaining the best possible financial results from a purchase or sale on your client’s behalf, and being involved with market manipulations that could negatively impact an artist’s market in the short- to mid-term. There are other situations where strong conflicts of interest exist. One must work strenuously to avoid conflicts of interests.

Carey: I understand what you’re saying. An example would be buying a lot of an artist’s work to inflate the value of work, right?

Levin: As far as an example, let’s think of it this way. I have a client who has an interest in a specific artist. I then agree to work with a second client who also would like to purchase work by the same artist. After this, I am later offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to access what would be considered the masterpiece that this artist created.

So I’m offered this singular art work: to which of my two clients shall I offer it? I have more than one collector avidly interested in this specific artist, and they both have the requisite monies required to purchase what would be considered the most important art work by this artist. At that point I have a strong conflict of interest – deciding who gets this artwork. And that creates problems for art advisors. I’ve had discussions many times with a number of advisors whom I respect tremendously, and this is my standard query. The general response I get is a shrug of the shoulders and the offhand response, “…oh, you know, it all works out in the end…”

I’m specifically interested in these matters because I’m a board member of the APAA (Association of Professional Art Advisors). And not only am I a board member, but I also participate on the specific committee within the APAA that handles ethical issues. These are the sort of queries we discuss in committee. We try to come to an understanding as to how an art advisor can behave ethically within a market that is opaque, as we said earlier, and also fraught with these sorts of conflicts of interest.

Carey: What this brings to mind for me is hearing dealers like Larry Gagosian or other major dealers kind of vetting their clients to some degree based on their history, their collection. So if you just want to buy an Anselm Kiefer, as I understand, you just can’t go in there and buy that one piece.

Levin: In the case of a gallerist most people assume the gallerist’s client is the person who walks in with the wallet to purchase the work of art. But the true client of the gallerist is their artist. It is the gallerist’s responsibility to have the best interests of their artist at heart, and not necessarily the collector. It’s understood that more than one collector will want a specific work in an exhibition by an artist at a gallery such as Gagosian, so Mr. Gagosian’s job is to decide where that art should be placed to best serve the interests of his artist. If the artist’s work is in demand in general terms, of course there would be more than one person who would want a specific work of art in a gallery exhibition. Particularly in an exhibition where a couple of the works are clearly viewed as being the most desirable. That’s a normal state of affairs, so there is no conflict there.

Now, for an art advisor, who is their client? It is neither the artist nor the gallerist. The art advisor’s client is the collector who is paying them for advice and counsel, and hired the advisor to access the very best works available and then negotiate the best financial transaction. As I said earlier, if an art advisor represents a number of clients, and all those clients want the exact same art work by the same artist, the advisor has a legitimate conflict of interest.

When you discuss what a gallerist’s responsibilities are and what an art advisor’s responsibilities are, one must be clear that these are different situations with different end goals. Whether a gallerist or an art advisor, one needs to understand who the client is in any given transaction.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 32 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / The Transfiguration of the Commonplace

Arthur Danto Interview Continued…

Carey: So now that we’ve inherited this, and young artists have inherited this, and most artists living today, but where is this evolving to? Are we still operating under this new paradigm?

Danto: Yes, I think so. But people have to be taught to live under this paradigm because the question isn’t an epistemological question. That is to say, how would we tell them apart? The question is an ontological one: what is it to be a work of art in contrast with an ordinary object?

That is really the problem that I worked on beginning a little bit with The Artworld but mostly in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace because in there I’ve identified two conditions—it’s not sufficient, but two conditions of invisible things.

The first thing is meaning and second thing is what I call “embodiment.” How the meaning is mapped on to the object, but then you need a third thing which is interpretation. I think the first thing that happens is you get a real vulgarization of what Warhol did, where people say, “Oh, here’s a fuse box, it’s a work of art.” And so you have to say, “What makes it a work of art? What is it to be a fuse box?” and there what you have to do is to start thinking about the meaning and how the meaning is mapped on to the object and how we interpret it, which doesn’t come at all intuitively when we’re just talking about real things.

Carey: Would you say this is what artists are working with today? 

Danto: I would think so, it’s easy to back away from it because it doesn’t seem very inspiring. But sooner or later—I like to think people read my books—they’ll begin to see that they have to work even harder than traditional artists did.

They’ve got to be able to deal with meaning. I was very eager when I was writing those things to back away from the formulas that Greenberg, for example, had introduced and where you’d hear all the docents in museums giving talks—what would that mean? What is the point of that?

My main interest was to reintroduce the idea of meaning, which was basically what Duchamp was interested in. He talked about retinal vision, retinal pleasure. He thought that most of the art that was being made—in his dialogue he says that contemporary art, everything—has been retinal art. He said that’s not the way art history was. There was philosophical art. There was religious art, etc. The primary thing was not to give pleasure to the eye. The fundamental thing was to instruct the eye and he was very adamant about that.

When he talks about that—there was a dialogue at the Museum of Modern Art where he said that with the ready-mades, that they’re surely an aesthetic, they’re picked for their absence of any retinal pleasure. That’s not so easy to find because he only came up with about twenty of them.

Carey: So today, no matter what artists are doing, whether they’re doing landscapes or different kinds of conceptual projects or performances, everything has to have this sense of meaning?

Danto: That’s right, and what I would say about that, Brainard, a good example was Marina Abramovi, performing at MOMA. I mean, anybody could sit across from another person but for it to be a work of art you’ve got to think about what it means and so forth. People responded to it as though they were aware of that, and it was in some way a very profound experience for them.

Carey: Let’s talk a little bit about art criticism today. You are writing, as you say, a bit of an autobiographical piece, and where you are coming from is very different from most critics, in my mind.

Danto: Yeah, there are very few people who’ve gone from philosophy into criticism. I just fell into it because with my history I had set myself up as a kind of a nineteenth century philosopher. I was doing a five volume work on the theory of representation and I began with a book called the Analytical Philosophy of History. I thought, why don’t I just carry that out and say that what sets us apart from the rest of the world is the way we represent it. And then I did two books, one on knowledge, the Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge. And one called Analytical Philosophy of Action.

Then I got the fourth volume, which was going to be about art. I really didn’t want it to be thought of as philosophy, but I found a wonderful title in a Miriam Sparks novel. And I never wrote the fifth because I felt that I was turning art into mainstream philosophy, which I would only get into arguments with, and there was no reason to finish. I did write a one volume work of the whole system called Connections to the World, but that was my thing.

So the treatment of art in The Transfiguration was permeated with traditional philosophical questions about action and knowledge and was not so traditional about history, because what philosophers mostly have done has discounted history as differentiating people. But we’ve got the same physiology now that human beings had twenty thousand years ago, but we’re very different. So history is a really an important puzzle factor there. So that’s not as mainstream as the other stuff was, but it was most original, it seemed to me, with my work.

Carey: Yeah. I think so, too. Your work to me has often seemed very generous in the sense that you’re probing, you’re looking, you’re trying to understand as opposed to critics that are very opinionated in the sense that they’re putting down work.

Danto: Yeah, there’s a lot of that.

Carey: Like the popular Jerry Saltz.

Danto: Oh, Jerry Saltz? Yeah, I don’t think that well of him. I mean, I think he’s a good writer more than one would think, but he does come in as a kind of ordinary person who is responding as an ordinary person will respond.

He does a lot of that, but his wife Roberta Smith is worse. I’ve got an enormous respect for Roberta but every once in a while she just goes off—just goes off on a tantrum where she bashes artists of high achievement, it seems to me. So she’s saying, “You can’t get away with that,” and so forth. Artists like David Reed or Mark Tansey, for example, or Sean Scully, and I don’t know why Roberta does that but she’s a good critic for the most part if she’s not dealing with artists who’ve gone off to a higher achievement.

Carey: And Jerry Saltz you feel is in a similar area?

Danto: I think so, yeah. I remember a few years ago I was writing a lecture for the University in Cleveland. They had a show of William Kentridge and they wanted me to write a lecture on it. He said there, “William Kentridge is an artist in deep trouble, deep trouble,” and so forth. Why is he in deep trouble? He’s trying to make art, and he is an animator, that won’t work.

Carey: That’s what Jerry Saltz said? That Kentridge was an artist in deep trouble?

Danto: Yes. Jerry said, “He’s trying to be a gallery artist using these things as drawings and so forth and he’s not going to make it.” And I thought they were gorgeous. And I thought: What’s Jerry Saltz doing something like that for? Where does he come from by saying that he’s in deep trouble? I mean, this is really one of the best artists around and is doing precisely the kinds of things that I feel artists should be doing, which is to awaken the viewer to the meaning of human life and love.

That is “making it as an artist” of many kinds, and when William showed his work and became suddenly a universal star of Documenta in the nineties, he suddenly was giving people something that they felt was deeply missing from art. That is to say these questions about the power of love and so forth. I mean, it seemed to me that Jerry thought, “I’ve got him. I’ve got him by the balls,” and he didn’t, it wasn’t within range of him. I mean, that kind of thing. It stuck with me.

Carey: Yeah. I’ve heard him speak that way about many artists. In a sense saying what they should do or what they shouldn’t do or how they should make that work, which seems an unusual position for a critic to take, really.

Danto: Yes, well I think a lot of people think that’s what a critic should do, as a matter of fact. When I got started, I have to say that my first impulses were similar to find my way. At first, I really was more negative than I ever thought I had the right to be later on, but that’s how everybody who was writing criticism for a national publication was, really mean.

There was Hilton Kramer who is a paradigm. There was Robert Hughes who was a paradigm and he’s getting off these terrific jokes, but demolishing people that way. It was difficult and at the same time that’s not the way to be a critic, and so I changed the style and really tried to say what the meaning is, how the artist lets you know what the meaning is.

That, the two things: the content and the presentation that I found in Hegel’s aesthetics. There’s a lot more of Hegel in my writing than you’d be aware of, that anybody would be aware of. I used to read Hegel as a guide to what I was doing.

He was a great philosopher and I came upon him really almost when I was retiring but students asked if I would take them through Hegel’s aesthetics. And I thought, well, it’s a nice way to wind up so I did, and I was stunned by what a great thinker he was.

To learn more about Brainard Carey and his services for artists, or to take a class from him, click here.  To join one of his free weekly webinars, click here.

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Episode 31 – The Art World Demystified by Brainard Carey / Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto Interviewed

The next interview was one I conducted with the late critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, shortly before he died. Danto wrote for The Nation for twenty-five years and is credited with inventing the term “the art world.” He is a critic I very much admire since he writes through the lens of being a philosopher, and I am very fond of philosophy myself.

In reading this interview and applying it to studio practice, he gives a background of how he observes and thinks and thus, what a critic might be thinking in your studio when looking at your work. He also talks about what it means for an artist to have a “meaning” for their work.

The Interview

Carey: To begin with, let me ask you what is it that you’re working on these days, is there a particular article or writing? 

Danto: I’m working on a couple of things. I’m writing an essay on going from philosophy into art criticism. How I suddenly found myself, at a certain age, writing in a very different way for a very different audience. I did art criticism for The Nation for twenty-five years. So I’m writing a little, so to speak, an autobiographical study of my own feelings about that.

I really had a twenty-five-year career when basically I was at the edge of retiring from philosophy. Well, it took another ten years. Then I’m trying to write a sort of a little book, about the scale of the book on Warhol that I published in 2009, about really the simplest question: What is art?

I’d like to do that because it seemed to me that in my profession, the thoughts were laid out, like in the Transfiguration of the Commonplace—and that I’m part of the tradition, the traditional set of answers to the question of what is art. I think the history is that you can’t get the definition of art until it’s all happened, and it seemed to me that those great and important things happened in the sixties but have to be taken into account in any definition of art all through history. And so that’s a kind of a culmination of all the arguments I’ve been making down the years on the definition of art, beginning with The Artworld but then basically to the Transfiguration of the Commonplace.

Carey: That was when you talked about After the End of Art as well, which was really when you began talking about Warhol and a whole new world of art which really carries us up to the present.

Danto: That’s right.

Carey: We’re still operating in this world of not reproducing, but where almost anything goes now. It’s based in theory—which is was part of your theory, isn’t it?

Danto: That’s right. I mean, when you began to get the kind of cases that came up in the middle sixties where you couldn’t blankly look at it and think, “Oh, that’s art.” You’d have to have a little bit of theory and you’d have to have, as I say, a little bit of history to see it as art. You’d have to know something about how a thing like that got to be considered art.

So that was what the theory is and how the history contributes—those were not traditionally taken into consideration, it seemed to me. My own experience of walking into the Stable Gallery and seeing all these things, boxes in particular, I thought, “I think I’m ready for that.” I could see that experiences in my own history prepared me for that, but I also thought there are a lot of people who are not going to be prepared for it.

So I had this experience which I think I transcribed in one of the books. I had a friend out of Columbia who was the head of the art department, Andrei, who was a fine artist, a wonderful artist. But he told me a couple of years later, he said, “You know what I wrote all across the guest book?” He said, “I wrote, ‘Shit,’” and I said, “Andrei, I wrote The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.”

Carey: Was this the Warhol show? Brillo boxes is what you’re talking about, right?

Danto: Yes, but what people called different things—there were not that many Brillo boxes by comparison with others. There were eight different kinds of boxes but the Brillo Box was by far the star of that show. I mean, it’s the only one that ever gets talked about. Nobody talks about the Del Monte Peach Halves Box.

Although all of the same questions come up with those as with the Brillo Box but the Brillo Box was originally designed by James Harvey who was an abstract expressionist, second generation abstract expressionist and he was a master of lettering. You could see how influenced he was by the hard-edged abstraction of what was in the air and it’s a magnificent piece of rhetoric for the contents of the box, whereas Warhol got no credit and Harvey got no credit for that at all.

Carey: We’re now almost fifty years from the sixties, when this huge shift happened in work. Now, we have students graduating school that are steeped in the theory from that time. As you look at art, as you look at all this time, where do you feel that has brought us now? Is it just a continuity of the past?

Danto: I don’t think it’s brought us sublimity. You know what I mean? I think that was in a way the end of art as far as I was concerned because you have a situation where anything could really be an artwork and the paradigm of that was Warhol’s making a facsimile of an ordinary utilitarian box, and that they at least looked enough alike that you could think of them as indiscernible and, at that point, what’s the difference between art and reality?

The answer to it is that what separates the two has to be invisible. You can’t tell by looking at them. You can’t tell by picking them out—if you read philosophy in those days and could talk about what art is, you would get a kind of Wittgensteinian answer which says that you can, anybody can just pick them out. If you had a warehouse of pieces of furniture and artworks, you could just pick them out. You don’t have to have a definition. And I thought that with Warhol and Duchamp you really did have to have a definition.

Wittgenstein was very, very eager to get rid of the millennial question of what is art. Which was raised by Socrates in The Republic and has been going along for centuries. You can’t just get rid of it by saying you can pick it out because we now know that you can’t pick it out. You’ve got to have other ways of thinking about it.

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