Archive for the Holland Cotter Category

We here at CAFA HQ recommend all of you check out Holland Cotter’s recent NYT article “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!“ 

In it, he writes: “The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.” But instead of wallowing in this failure and bemoaning this decompression, an accusation that has occasionally been leveled at this site, Cotter sees this moment as mostly a hopeful one:

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Still, lest we give Cotter and his boundless hippie idealism too much credit, you should know that Cotter, and most of the New York artcritiscenti, have been salivating for this boom to be over for much of the past two or three years, as I recounted in this essay from May, 2007:

While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”

Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

At the end of January, Charlie Finch on ArtNet.com explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”

Cotter and his ilk were not really exhibiting much insight, as one of the the easiest things in the world to predict is that an overinflated bubble will eventually burst. Further, these critics didn’t really offer many useful thoughts in the midst of the market, as they seemed to prefer instead simply to kvetch and complain about the situation, revealing the sour grapes they were tasting from their loss of cultural import in the face of the market boom. Nor is Cotter particularly unique in suggesting that arts folk will get back to simple brass tacks after the dust has settled (I did the same here and here; it’s a pretty easy call).

Still, as you fans of failure know, such tawdry thoughts do make for pretty good reading…

I have no way of knowing yet how accurate was Holland Cotter’s NYT review of the just-opened Whitney Biennial, but, based on his descriptions of the show and what I know of it myself, this assessment sounds about right:

…this year we have a Whitney show that takes lowered expectations — lessness, slowness, ephemerality, failure [emphasis mine] (in the words of its young curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin) — as its theme.

A biennial for a recession-bound time? That’s one impression it gives. With more than 80 artists, this is the smallest edition of the show in a while, and it feels that way, sparsely populated, even as it fills three floors and more of the museum…

Past biennials have had a festive, party-time air. The 2004 show was all bright, pop fizz; the one two years ago exuded a sexy, punk perfume. The 2008 edition is, by contrast, an unglamorous, even prosaic affair. The installation is plain and focused, with many artists given niches of their own. The catalog is modest in design, with a long, idea-filled essay by Ms. Momin, hard-working, but with hardly a stylistic grace note in sight. A lot of the art is like this too: uncharismatic surfaces, complicated back stories…

…the overall tenor of the show is low-key, with work that seems to be in a transitional, questioning mode, art as conversation rather than as statement, testing this, trying that. Assemblage and collage are popular. Collaboration is common. So are down-market materials — plastic, plywood, plexiglass — and all kinds of found and recycled ingredients, otherwise known as trash.

As a side-note, I have visited the past two Whitney Biennials, and I have reviewed them—usually focusing on the Minnesota angle for a little Minnesota-based web-publication. I find Cotter’s quick take above on the past two Biennials to be pretty spot-on, though I’d probably be a little harsher in my assessment of the 2006 show (and, indeed, I was). So, I have no reason to doubt him about the 2008 version.

I also then must say, “kudos, Whitney!” for recognizing—like CAFA—that failure is the order of the day in art.

As a final note, I do plan, once I can break free long enough to do so, to visit this failure-focused Biennial. In a perfect world, in which I have enough time away from my day job and enough left-over energy, I’d write more regular reviews of local and national art for a hungry local audience. (I say this fully realizing that all the local art criticism venues are rapidly dying off.) Still, I’m hopeful that I can, later this spring/summer, visit the seemingly less dire, more circumspect, more internationally derived Carnegie International, which opens in May, and write a comparative survey of these two major art events.

And heck, if I can’t get the review published somewhere good, then you can be sure it’ll end up just another feature of Failure. Stay tuned!