Archive for the Artistic power struggles Category

On Tuesday, the Star Tribune announced, in a story titled “Upheaval continues at the MIA,” that yet another local arts leader, Stewart Turnquist, has resigned. Turnquist was particularly supportive of, and beloved by, the great mass of local visual artists. He was known for his calm demeanor, diplomatic nature, and ability to keep a program vibrant despite ongoing institutional attacks and growing lack of board support.

Here’s what Strib arts writer Mary Abbe had to say of this news:  “The departure of Turnquist, coordinator of the artist-run Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), signals continuing turmoil at the institute where management has been in upheaval the past five years. In that time, it has had three directors and lost at least seven curators and top administrators to other jobs, retirement or death… As word of his imminent departure leaked out Tuesday, artists worried that it signaled the end of the MAEP program, the state’s most prominent showcase for Minnesota talent.”

I came to know Stewart Turnquist well in my capacity as leader, between 2002 - 2005, of VACUM, a MN-based art critics association. He was instrumental in helping to set up a regular lecture series by our group at the MIA. A few years before I came to know Turnquist better, I described him thusly in a story about the organization he ran (the MAEP):

The meeting starts with opening comments by program coordinator Stewart Turnquist–a senior civil servant in this tumultuous democracy. He is a dapper and cheerful man–he reminds one of a favorite uncle–and has served as the program’s coordinator since early in 1977 (that is, for all but the program’s first year). “Hard to believe, but I’m your obedient servant,” Turnquist begins, after introducing the other members of the MAEP support staff (who are all employed by the MIA): program associate Randall, and program assistant Karen Harstad. He then launches into an hourlong, homespun slide-show recap of the past fiscal year–a state of the union address, or perhaps a state of the art.

In 2005, I wrote about an internal kerfuffle at the MIA — involving a prominent local corporation (which I dub the “Bullseye” corp) — that may have eventually helped lead to Turnquist’s ouster at the institute. At that time, Bullseye Corp had intervened in the scheduling of MAEP shows (the first time such a thing had ever occurred) — pushing back one MAEP show, and extending another — so as not to mess with the timing of a Bible Art show that BE Corp was financing. “What’s most strange,” I wrote, ”is Bullseye Corp, perhaps actually believing the rhetoric of its own advertising (which positioned the Corp as a purveyor of “higher end” and “hip” product as opposed to just plain old run-of-the-mill trinkets and crap) suddenly seemed to be having a lot of influence on artistic decisions at the institution.”

I’ll also add that, a few years ago just after I returned to MN after a short stint away, Turnquist confided in me the on-going struggle he was having to keep hostile fringe agents at the MIA (in particular, meddling board members) from attempting to reign in, or even dismantle, the one-of-a-kind artist-run exhibition program (the MAEP) that he had led for more than 30 years. I’m sure Stewart was not surprised at his fate at the hands of those who are now steering the big art ship. Still, I feel for this great and gentle local arts warrior, and I wish him well with this blessing:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

…Of all this artistic failure?

 According to a new book called Art Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, written by former NEA chair Bill Ivey, the state of the arts in America is (as regular readers of CAFA well know) bad. The reasons for this looming crisis, according to Ivey (from the UC Press book blurb):

The expanding footprint of copyright, an unconstrained arts industry marketplace, and a government unwilling to engage culture as a serious arena for public policy have come together to undermine art, artistry, and cultural heritage—the expressive life of America.

In Arts Inc., Ivey blends personal and professional memoir, policy analysis, and deeply held convictions to explore and define a coordinated vision for art, culture, and expression in American life. According to Andrew Taylor, an arts administration educator at the University of Wisconsin: “Arts, Inc. is the first comprehensive effort to explore the role and potential of a coordinated vision for art, culture, and expression in American public life… Bill Ivey defines a new canvas for more productive and inclusive conversations on the expressive life of our nation and its citizens.”

Lawrence Lessing, of Stanford Law School, says the book is, “a profoundly important diagnosis by perhaps America’s best-qualified critic of the harm to our culture caused by overregulation and inadequate support. Ivey has given us a rich and beautifully written warning about the culture we’re losing, and a powerful and historically compelling image of a culture that could be.”

Arts Inc. is the first title in CAFA’s artistic failure must-read summer book list. 

All this talk about Vincent van Gogh has got me thinking a bit about how artists often ruthlessly back-stab, undercut, and undermine each other in order to get themselves ahead. I recently wrote a quick essay on the subject of artistic competition for a project by the artist Monica Sheets, which began:

ARTISTS AND ART LOVERS OFTEN CREDIT COLLABORATION as a prime driver of creative expression. But if one examined the actual record of artistic accomplishment, one would find that togetherness and cooperation aren’t a very common spur to artistic efforts. Rather, artists often are driven in their creativity by baser impulses: jealousy, vindictiveness, competitiveness, even pure hatred.

Call it “creative differences” if you will, but head-to-head battles abound in art history…

Such behavior makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that artists struggle for a very small pool of reward. On one level, it’s simple and basic law-of-the-jungle behavior. At the same time, it may also just be that artistic people tend to be more high-strung and high-maintenance than their non-artistic counterparts.

Two recent stories bear out both theories. One, an account by Joseph Harriss, in the Smithsonian magazine, of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s life together for two months in Arles, for instance, relates numerous examples of the “creative sparks that flew when these two opinionated avant-garde artists came together in the South of France.” At the key moment, Van Gogh, upon learning his friend planned to leave their “poor little yellow house” after only two months (instead of the planned six months) threw a glassful of absinthe at Gauguin’s head and ran after him in the street hurling wild accusations; then, sometime before the next day, there was that whole cutting-off-the-ear episode (the exact circumstances of which we may never know).

Leading up to this climactic moment, of course, it was clear that Gauguin and van Gogh—though connected by an artistic affinity—were not compatible as people. Their work styles were different, Gauguin approaching each work in a more measured, plotted and composed, intellectual manner, van Gogh working with impetuous, “pell-mell,” poetic and manic energy. Whereas Gauguin worked to build up thin layers of color that affected certain moods, van Gogh’s technique was replete with gestural strokes and an impasto accretion of paint. “Their ideas on art differed greatly,” the article quotes Andreas Blühm, former head of exhibits at the Van Gogh Museum. “[While in Arles] they influenced each other to a degree, and then went back to their original styles.”

The two also clashed over ideas. “Our arguments are terribly electric,” van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “We come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.” Ultimately, according to the article, Gauguin grew contemptuous of van Gogh’s intellect, citing his friend’s “disordered brain” and “absense of reasoned logic.”

Still, the real reason for the dissolution of the friendship may have been simple and petty feelings of jealousy and competition. A few weeks after Gauguin’s stay in Arles, Theo van Gogh sold a number of the artist’s paintings in Paris, giving him more money than he’d had in years, and Gauguin began thinking immediately of leaving Arles to go to Martinique, where he’d start a “Studio of the Tropics.” The portraits that each artist painted of each other in this time period—in their posing, composition, and rendering—were tense, loaded with “defensive and aggressive implications.”

After the glass-tossing, street-shouting incident, Gauguin left on a night train for Paris. The two artists never met again. A few months later, in early 1889, van Gogh entered the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and just about a year later he shot himself.

In 1891, Gauguin finally abandoned his family (back in Denmark) for good and moved to Tahiti. He became ill (possibly of syphilis) and developed a drug addiction. In 1892, he attemped suicide with poison, but he failed. He died of a heart attack, broke, in 1903 in the Marquesas Islands at the age of 55.

I can’t help but wonder whether either artists’ lives would have been different had their relationship not been fraught with mutual competition, back-biting, and intense jealousy; had they managed instead to inspire each other mutually and provide support in each of their struggles.  These questions, of course, are naive and moot. Not only can we never have an answer to them, but competition, jealousy, and ruthlessness are ever the artist’s bread and butter.  So intense and inbred is this behavior that Paul Gauguin, tellingly, continued exhibiting it years after van Gogh was gone.

Toward the end of his life, Gauguin, realizing that van Gogh’s reputation (even in death) was growing faster than his own , began to refer to his former friend as “crazy.” He wrote in 1903 that his stay in Arles was for purposes of “enlightening” a struggling and lost van Gogh. “From that day on,” he claimed, “my van Gogh made astonishing progress.” Gauguin even attempted to alter chronology to date van Gogh’s sunflower paintings after his arrival in Arles.

Even in death, even at the end of life—when nothing else was stake other than reputation—an artist will without a thought throw a fellow artist under the train.

Et tu, artifex?

(Note: A second story of the tragic consequences of artistic competition and mutual jealousy will follow in the next few days.)

In an art world that is ever more beholden to the NEW—to new art, new fashions, new trends, new money, new everything—a very common phenomenon is for artists to fall through the cracks. Artists who, at one point are successfully established in the art world in the end fall through the cracks of changing fashions and fickle tastes. They fall through the cracks of a career that is cut off by new, rising trends. They grow old, making art into old age that was once popular, once part of the rising wave of fashion, yet forgotten because they were inevitably overshadowed by the NEW.

I wrote once about an artist named Sonia Gechtoff, whose rapidly rising career trajectory led her to move to New York City from San Francisco around 1959. In 1960, she was at the top of her game—showing work at the Whitney, obtaining gallery representation, selling enough art to survive. Her future success seemed assured. Then, in 1961, Gechtoff saw a sea-change in the art world—away from expressionism and toward the new “Pop” Art—and her career quickly bottomed out underneath her. Although she survived many years as a painter by teaching classes at this or that school and showing in occasional Abstract-Expressionist retrospective exhibitions, she fell through the cracks of the art world, forgotten in the end.

A current traveling exhibition, called “High Times/High Times: New York Painting 1967-1975,” takes as its subject a generation of painters—many of whom who are relatively unknown—who continued painting in their native styles, mostly abstract, into old age even as those styles were deemed increasingly passé by the art establishment.

A subtext of the dismissal of the old by the NEW in art is much of this, of course, is a power struggle. That is, the art establishment that determines fashions has long been ruled, generally, by rich white men who get ever richer by their machinations and manipulations. Not to be too paranoid and conspiracy-theorist about this, but there’s a reason why women and people of color are legion among those artists who fall through the cracks. Or, as the exhibition description of “High Times/High Times” puts it:

Most art-historical accounts of the late 1960s and early ’70s say little about painting,… [y]et many artists during these same years were exploring radical new directions in abstract painting: pulling painting apart, moving it off the stretcher and onto the floor, creating new shapes and structures, using an entire room or the human body as a canvas. Influenced by social change and the burning political issues of the day, [a number of] artists… created works of great joy, passion, fury, and imagination, expanding conventional concepts of what “painting” could mean. Nearly half the abstract painters whose work is presented in High Times, Hard Times are women, many dismissed at the time by influential art critics, who saw them only as creating an eccentric expression that had some limited value and not as leaders in the renewal of a medium as important as painting. African-American artists such as Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten, and artists from other countries who lived temporarily in New York (Kusama, Blinky Palermo, César Paternosto, Franz Erhard Walther), were similarly denied official recognition. (emphasis mine)

In the great waging war that is the art market, certain artists are the expendable footsoldiers, and curators, critics, gallerians, and museum professionals are the generals who callously condemn them to their fate.