Monday, March 15, 2010

The Curator's New (Old) Clothes

I am still at the clinic.
I have a private room, with a writing desk overlooking a leafy garden and my laptop connected to the 'net via a wireless USB. Between daily appointments with doctors and therapists, I have begun to re-engage with the world, albeit slowly and at a remove.
I started opening emails today. The first was an invitation to listen to the high-profile curator, David Elliott, discuss "his upcoming Biennale of Sydney" with the director of a state art gallery. I smirked at the patriarchal ownership of the event but a quote – actually, self-promoting schtick veiled as artistic concept – from Elliot really got under my skin:
"For art to be art (a medium of numinous, sometimes symbolic power), it must maintain a distance from life. Without distance, art has no authority and is no longer special."
In other words, for art to be taken seriously, it must be seen only in a context – a gallery, an institution – that removes it from life.
This is just an ill-considered mash-up of an idea introduced by Marcel Duchamp almost a hundred years ago and adapted relentlessly not only by artists to justify their 'work' but by the entire art establishment to justify their existence. Which is to say that instead of coming up with an original concept for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, of which he is artistic director, Elliot has devised a rickety, out-dated defense of the crumbling traditional system he serves.
So much for the Biennale of Sydney being a major art event.
Art has been a meaningful part of life for centuries. Art galleries – which separate art from life – are a recent, mid-nineteenth century invention. When, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp bought a second-hand urinal, named it Fountain, and photographed it as sculpture at an art gallery, his idea was that removing an everyday object from life gave people an opportunity to look at it differently. This act made the 'found' object art and it had enormous influence on the development of conceptual art – and the 'importance' of the gallery.
The trouble was, galleries, both commercial and institutional, figured out that this was a good way to position themselves – and their curators – as essential not just to distributing and exhibiting art but to defining which artworks and artists should be taken seriously and why.
Now it's the 21st century, not the 20th, and everything is different. The traditional gallery system is dying – soon to be extinct – after a mere 150 years.
Starved of funds and struggling to argue their relevance – look at what's happening at London's venerable ICA – both commercial and institutional galleries are being forced to rethink their functions or close their doors.
Art dealers are scrabbling to find a foothold in the virtual world (I know of a handful who have resorted to attending 'social networking' workshops taught by other art dealers). As bricks and mortar galleries crumble, the magazines they once funded with their advertising – in return for editorials on their latest 'product' – fold.
State-funded art galleries still ignore the virtual world and instead, invest in architectural showpieces to house the relics of the famous dead and dying, while their curators, once feted as celebrities, claim ownership of the exhibitions they assemble, desperate to promote their personal brands and pimp for extra-mural, usually corporate-sponsored employment.
Everyone within the traditional gallery system is struggling to retain either full-time employment or a fan-base. And yet the best Elliot can come up with as a theme for the Biennale of Sydney is a justification of this system's existence? It's so out of touch that it fails both as cultural propaganda and self-promotion.
Art itself is flourishing outside of the traditional system. Artists are distributing their work and ideas everywhere via the web and connecting directly with those who are most interested in them. More and more, their work is nourished by direct contact with this 'audience'. Artists are also connecting more with each other.
The power of curators and gallerists to fence off some art as 'good' (presumably because of its "numinous, sometimes symbolic power" - wank) and dismiss the rest is declining. Artists don't need the blessing of curators and gallerists to be taken seriously. More and more people are becoming interested in art and even better, buying it but they no longer need an outdated, inefficient, elitist system to tell them what is important and what they should like.
If David Elliot has gotten one thing terribly wrong it is that art has to "maintain a distance from life" to have authority. He's too old to understand that ubiquity of access not rarity defines value in the networked 21st century. Art is now, more than ever, part of everyone's lives – and hard drives.


Walter Hawn said...

Two things:

1) As usual, you are right.

2) Glad you're better.


Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

Whoooo-hooooey! Glad you're back

Kate said...

Hazel, you are sounding stronger and weller.
Great to see you back.
Your room sounds quite bearable - enjoy and use this while you need.


Stephen Klow said...

The curator's view sounds like the last shriek of a dying institution. Stay strong. :)

Sean Beard said...

I'm Happy to finally hear you are coming back, feeling better!!!

Good for You :)

leigh waldron-taylor said...

hello Hazel

it's good to read your tweets and blog again--glad to read that you are making your way.

leigh wt

nakedpastor said...

It's always those who consider themselves in places of authority who try to protect it. Always. We are becoming more and more suspicious of authority just for this reason: it is self-serving!

So nice to see you again!

Kurt Manners said...

Glad to see you back.. and how! Thought provoking comment.
Time the art establishment ceased its self serving blab and realised that soloing in the missionary position has become deeply unattractive to the disillusioned onlooker

Jeff said...

Great post. You nailed this. In just enough words.

Maria Brophy said...

Been thinking about you this week. So glad to see you've written and that you are doing better. You are an amazing woman, and the world needs to hear what you've got to say.

erinrichardson said...

Great post, intellegent, perceptive and hey - you are the voice of authority on this subject!

Welcome back Dooney.

lohang said...

Welcome back :)
Insightful and thought provoking post too.

Elizabeth said...

Welcome back!!!!

West Hardin said...

Glad you are back Hazel and great post, well said!

Sarah Marie Lacy said...

It's so good to see you back. :)
You've been missed.

And this is so right, as usual. So glad I'm not the only one who reads that stuff and says "wank".

Angela Hunt/Hunt Press said...

Love your take on this.

Also very happy to see that you're feeling better.

Rebecca said...

Wow, such an eloquent calling out of b.s.; love it! :)
Wishing you all the best as you continue to take all the time you need to feel better.

Karen Martin Sampson said...

So glad you are doing better! Your take on the world of the gallery and museum is penetrating and true...I am not with a gallery right now and finding that it doesn't matter - what a relief!

Anonymous said...


Kellie said...

From a room with a different view, your view (and that of us all out here) is as steadfast as ever. much love and support:)k

justjones said...

I work @ a state-funded art gallery/museum.

I'm amazed how they completely ignore the virtual world. It is clearly an outdated institution in too many ways & I definitely agree with you that it will become extinct.

I already planned to jump off the sinking ship soon & you just provided extra confirmation that I am making the right decision.

Your words are always so compelling. Thanks so much for posting & I am glad you are feeling better.

Anonymous said...

Sam old, same old! Good generalisations, though in my opinion art, or indeed exhibitions, should never be simply critiqued in terms of ‘right or wrong’, in or out, old or new, virtual or other. Indeed, adhering to a position that purports a kind of dualistic ‘art fight’, seems comparable to two bald men fighting over a comb.

Perhaps that's the biggest problem with the 'art as war' spiel – it transcends nothing and, in this context, reads as little more than bruised rhetoric and whinging.

By the same token, thinking about the neo ‘anti-establishment’ attitude you often draw upon, it struck me: are you yourself not also a kind of minor-institution? And, like any gallery, are you not also a ‘brand-name’ caught up in your own web of selective checks and balances that determines what does/doesn't get airplay. Indeed, could you not simply be critiqued as the ill-weened offspring of a system you oppose?

Indigene said...

Now that's what I'm talking about! You can't keep a tremendous woman down! You go girl! I'm glad that you're recovering, take it slow and breathe, (albeit without the fumes). Peace.

Anonymous said...

brilliant as ever ... look out you lot she is back !! thank the gods - I missed you hazel dooney xox

Lisa Klow said...

Well said. We should all realize We've Got the Power.

Aaron B. Brown said...

I didn't know that I was really interested in art until I started reading your blog, or perhaps better to say, that the things I was interested in were a part of the Art world. The word itself conjuring some vague ethereal realm that lay for beyond some ocean, like remote islands across deep blue waters where legitimate art and artists dwell. Cut off from the rest of society by vast distance over which I would probably never travel, much less be a part of it.

But recently I printed some of my abstract photos and had them framed, for the first time actually, and offered them to an auction to benefit Haiti at a local art gallery. They were accepted and one of them sold.

It was an interesting experience, exciting in some ways, disappointing and sobering in others. Usually I'm the one taking pictures of other people's accomplishments, it was strange to be focused upon myself, it made me uncomfortable and I didn't enjoy the experience of having my creations evaluated and/or overlooked. It was somehow different than submitting photos of contracted work, where I have defined parameters and know what's expected. It made me feel insecure and out of place.

But when gallery attendants came to find me as I browse the museum, and treated me like some homeless miscreant that had wandered in off the street looking to make off with some of the "real art" and I was escorted out, I felt a bit more comfortable at least, if a somewhat offended. And when the local newspaper photographer declined taking my photo, well it did kind of hurt. But I suppose it's good to be reminded of one's place in the world by those who can recognize at a glance exactly who and what you are. C'est la vie :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Hazel,

- art has to "maintain a distance from life"
to have authority... REALLY D.E.?!?

I think Art & Love are what Life is all about.


Dave said...

But other than that, the you're in favor of the gallery system, right? LOL
Welcome back! I'm glad to hear you're making your way out of the woods.

Mona said...

Welcome back to the word world from me too...
Stay well!

Mary Anne Davis said...

Missed you in Austin. Glad you are emerging from your trip into the dark. Been there many times. Yes, art is part of life, the other is a male taxonomy which has led so many astray for so long. So much to argue here, won't do it now, hope to soon. Duchamp also turned everything on its head in a good way. Invented conceptual art, pressed the envelope, like that. Nice to have strong, consistant point of view. For a while. The anger might just kill you, though. Be careful.
Love, Mary Anne

karo Akpokiere said...

Thank you for this post Hazel. :-)

Zoe Tan said...

Hi Hazel, glad you're back writing and better! Take care!

Solemn Reverie said...

for some, "prison" is a restful place. at least, it was for my dad...

Anonymous said...

For art to be art (a medium of numinous, sometimes symbolic power), it must maintain a distance from life. Without distance, art has no authority and is no longer special." In other words, for art to be taken seriously, it must be seen only in a context – a gallery, an institution – that removes it from life.

Funny but I didn't interpret what he said in the same way hazel did. Art tells the truth about life and is part of life, but its not a cheap reality show.

The artist needs to take a step back to observe/feel/see life more clearly and more sensitively than anyone else and give it back to us in art to contemplate and experience.

I interpreted his comments along those lines and see nothing wrong with what he said. I liked it. I didn't at all think he was referring to art needing to be experienced specifically in gallery context. I don't believe he was being logistical at all.

veegee (imho)

Anonymous said...

Hazel, u said urself that u prefer to be isolated from much of the world 2B alone with ur thoughts uncorrupted uncompromised. This is only possible when you distance yourself and isn't that what Elliott was referring to?

I doubt he was making reference to how art is presented to the world. Online presentation is great but i prefer to see works up close and real I have to say seeing the artists handwork in person, nothing beats that, it is more potent.

THe gallery situation is not perfect but I don't think its in danger of demise. They are thriving although there are bad years where they don't do so well and some may close down. This has always been the case, but I note that there are a lot of new galleries emerging in Melbourne for younger artists. There is no demise visible here.

There is room and need for all kinds of art market, it is changing of course and the internet has opened up a lot of opportunities which can be accessed together with the bricks and mortar galleries. This applies to every business, art, law, social networking etc etc..

About 20 years ago it was said painting was dead when the digital revolution was new and hot. There was a lot of debate about that and at the same time it was argued no one would be reading books, it would all be online publishing.

However 20 years later we still have it all. Painting is not dead but well and thriving, book shops are filled with new and old releases and customers are still collecting to read liking turning the pages. I've only seen a very few people with an EBook on public transport, but many reading and holding physical books while commuting.

there is room for everything and not all change is progress, we know what we like and no technology no matter how efficient and more mobile, will draw us away from it

It can all co-exist, the old and the new as it always has. There is always something new emerging, but we don't need to euthenase the past - at least I don't think so, the old accommodates the new and works with it expanding ..


Anonymous said...

I think Hazel should open her own gallery called "Hazel Dooney Gallery" and be her own curator / gallerist / dealer etc etc pretty much as she is now but in physical terms as well as online.

Why not enjoy the best of both worlds and always on your own terms.

Of course the physical gallery needs a financier unlike online, the biggest difference. Am sure in time as the 'brand' grows so will Hazel's credibility with the bank and financial backing will be forthcoming easily, maybe a private financier/investor can be found who will allow it all to emerge and wow...

If only I had the money ...