For the love of God

Last night I watched “The Mona Lisa Curse” in which long-time art writer and critic Robert Hughes discusses the transformation of the art world over the last 50 years; the masterpiece as object of mass consumption, not to experience but to have been seen; the museum’s fall from grace and resurrection as a brand; the collector as investor, money the one and only bottom line. Not news, but moving – particularly Hughes’ own angry sentimentality for a time when art’s purpose was more than, as he says: “To hang on the wall getting more expensive.”

Even more disturbing are the collector/investors, themselves. Savvy pr and business people with grotesquely idiotic ideas about art. Nevermind the marketing executives masquerading as museum directors. Not that anyone can blame them. The age of the museum as arbiter is over. Cash is the most influential critic today.

This brought me back to a conviction I held all through art school: I would never make a living as an artist. I think, at the time, my dedication to artistic obscurity was founded more in a fear of failure than anything else. Not that I admitted such a thing. I generally tended to wax poetic about the absurdity of the art market and its influence on artistic motivations and my refusal to play a part in all of it. Such a purist! I’ve been re-evaluating my stance, however, and after watching “The Mona Lisa Curse,” I’m finding myself more strongly (and sincerely) aligned with my past convictions. These people are morons. With lots of money. I like money. But I hate stupid people who think that money can buy them credibility. They’re the worst kind of lazy, in my opinion: Morally lazy.

So, not that I don’t wish that all of you become filthy rich doing something incredibly fulfilling – but, let’s be our own critics, first and foremost. Because this guy, with all of his millions of dollars, is a straight-up fool:

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Why to belive in others

I can hear the Carnaval parade in the kitchen through the open door to the backyard. Simon and Christopher are outside in the garden building a vegetable bed. After the torrential downpours of a few days ago everything is growing. We have peaches and lemons and lavender and my olive trees are blossoming.

I have a lot of free time this coming week, and I hope to be able to finally make some progress in clearing out the basement so that I can move my studio to the house. The studio I have now is a beautiful place with lots of sunlight and a little fire escape and shining concrete floors. The idea of giving up the space makes me uneasy. Historically, I’ve always needed a place away from the distractions of my daily life in order to work. At the same time, however, I like having people around peripherally to talk and collaborate with. I feel anxious working in a vacuum. The energy developing at the house makes me excited and I feel confident that the move will be a positive one.

Before moving back to San Francisco from NYC, It had been a long time since I’d had a group of people around me who wanted to talk about the same things I did. Who wanted to make things. I had become frustrated and discouraged by the resistance and eye-rolling of the people I knew. I felt like everyone just wanted to get fucked up all of the time, as if that was the one thing we could all agree was “cool” – everything else a troubling question mark that may or may not cast us in an unflattering light. I still find myself anticipating this attitude from people, although I’m trying hard to shake it. I have mostly Jonathan and Christopher and Simon to thank for pulling me out of that dark (and really cool, so cool) place. Hi guys!

So this brings me to something that I spend a lot of time thinking about: What are my expectations of other people, are they reasonable, and when, if ever, do you give up on someone? We can spend a long, long time talking about this. I am far too inarticulate, however, (and far too antsy to get outside in the sun) to bore you here with the labyrinthine multitude of thoughts I have – some of them mutually exclusive – on the subject(s).

I can, however, give you this video, featured on TED.com (a huge inspiration behind SFIS) which I offer in the hopes that it gives a bit of insight into how I view my obligation to the people I care about:

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Who, What, When, Where & How

If you are interested in participating in the first meeting of the San Francisco Information Society on Sunday, June 13th, please send me a little note here with your mailing address as I will be sending physical invitations with full event details in the next week or so.

(P.S. That painting is by Darren Waterston, a San Francisco based artist. If you know this person, tell him that I love him. More here.)

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The Myth of Meritocracy in Fine Arts and Group Strategy

“If salesmanship is an expression of artistic talent, it would be interesting to analyze how some of the successful artists achieved their recognition. Below, I am going to give some case studies.

In “Time Out Guide to the Saatchi Gallery”, there are a few articles that describe how so-called “YBAs”, Young British Artists, lead by Damien Hirst, achieved their international fame. Their beginning is the most interesting part. Counter to the romantic and idealistic notion commonly held by young artists, Damien Hirst appears to have understood that success cannot be achieved alone or based solely on presumed artistic merits. He enlisted his friends from college, like Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume, to work as a team. He organized a group show called “Freeze” for which he sent taxis to fetch important figures of the British art world. Even his relationship with Saatchi is a collaboration.

I speculate that Saatchi, in order to establish himself as an influential figure in the art world, needed more than just money. Initially he collected New York artists like Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Brice Marden. In 1985 when he first opened his gallery, these names were already well-established. For him to earn respect as a collector, he needed to discover artists of his own. Saatchi, being an advertising guru with a deep pocket, found the perfect product in Hirst. Their partnership had all the signs of success. For those in the advertising business, Saatchi’s hit show, “Sensation”, felt oddly familiar and was easy to relate to. Their success reflects their uncanny understanding of how our culture works.

Working as a team to self-promote, like the way Hirst and his friends did, is a common pattern we find in the history of modern art. If you are not familiar with how self-promotion works in the art world, you might find it odd that many famous artists knew each other even before they were famous. If artists were to be famous for presumed artistic merits alone, what are the chances that two genius artists happen to know each other years before they became famous? The reality is the other way around: They became famous because they worked together to be so.

When you read the collection of writings by the 60’s conceptual artists in “Conceptual Art” published by Phaidon, you notice that many of them often wrote about each other before they were successful. This strategy must have worked quite well. If you write how great you are yourself, no one would listen to you. To get around this problem, you write about each other. For the same amount of effort, the latter is far more effective.

We can find many such groups who made self-promotion a team effort in the recent history of art. For instance, the Black Mountain school which included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg. The New York school of Abstract Expressionists which included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

The group strategy makes sense in many ways. You can tap into each other’s resource (studio space, equipment, social connections, etc..). You can share skills and knowledge. Each person can specialize in certain aspects of promotion (writing, socializing, designing, getting publicity, etc..) What you say about each other would have more credibility to outsiders than if you had to talk about yourself. It is easier to organize an event or a show if it is done as a group. If one of them becomes successful, he could direct some of the attention to the rest of the team by frequently talking about them, by trying to introduce them to powerful people, by including them in a group show, and so on. If you work as a team, even if success is a matter of pure luck, the chance of one of the members becoming successful is much greater than you yourself becoming successful. By working as a team, the overall impact would be greater than the sum total of individual contributions, which is a phenomenon called synergy.”

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Sunday, June 13th: Semiotics, Cribbage, and the Exquisite Corpse

It is not without trepidation (not to mention a cool dose of self-admonishment towards my own romantic notions) that I attempt to make manifest a vague, yet insistent, fantasy. I fear coming off as disingenuous or foolishly idealistic, but the truth is that I happen to know a hand-full of very smart and very funny and very creative people who, I feel, struggle with the desire to continue moving forward in the face of fear – of failure, of being misunderstood or feeling isolated.

These are my own fears, as well, and I find myself often wondering at the potential futility of attempting to allay them. Aldous Huxley said, “Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?” A part of me wants to preemptively call it all off before it’s even begun. I feel an obligation, however, to encourage the amazing people in my life to maximize their enormous potential to realize their own fantasies – whatever they may be. This is my most singular and sincere intention in life.

That being said (!), Sunday, June 13th will be the first meeting of the San Francisco Information Society. A tentative program is in place, with additional elements tba. As things currently stand, the 13th will include the following:

Jonathan Barcan will give a brief talk on Semiotics, defined by Wikipedia as “the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, and usually divided into three branches:

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and their effects on those (people) who use them”

A salon-style art “show” (I don’t know what else to call it) will be in place, and a musical program for the evening is in development.

I’ll have some other activities on hand, should anyone feel inclined to take part in shit-talking card games and art-fag creative writing exercises.

In addition, we are planning on putting together a dinner inspired by that afternoon’s free farmer’s market.

Anyone who is interested in participating, please email me. I am hoping to formalize future events and processes, but for the time being, I’m keeping the defining phase of SFIS pretty organic.

I welcome any and all ideas/suggestions/etc.

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Pure Energy

The San Francisco Information Society was born out of almost a year’s worth of conversations centering around social relationships and their ability to impact – for better or worse – one’s intellectual and creative development.

It is the intention of the San Francisco Information Society to promote a casual and open exchange of ideas and to encourage creative growth and collaboration.

SFIS will hold its inaugural session on Sunday, June 13th.

Stay posted for event details and membership information.

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