Thursday, October 30, 2008

The tres nifty, truly bombastic, capital-A Art event known as the Prospect .1 New Orleans Biennial kicks off this weekend...and I find myself almost completely underwhelmed by the prospect of its arrival.

This is a puzzling development for me, and, although I am still in the process of working out exactly why this contemporary art extravaganza hasn't lit my art fool fires, there are a few reasons I have sussed out.

New Orleans already has a great deal of home-grown art to recommend it to the rest of the world. If it isn't the music in the streets, it's the galleries all over town, the art markets that are cropping up like toadstools in the neighborhoods, the people doing their own thing with the basic, time-tested brushes and paint, etc., etc. So it may not necessarily be capital-A ART...who the hell cares? When I first moved down here after a few months busting my buns in New York, a good family friend gave me a mug I prize to this day that says "WE DON'T CARE HOW THEY DO IT IN NEW YORK". That is the absolute truth. Why the hell are all of these capital-A artistes needed here, anyhow, and why now?

The Prospect .1 site has a section that professes to answer this question. And it is this section that gets me pondering how my ways of thinking about art have changed.

Full disclosure: I went to a capital-A art school in the northeast. I have a great deal of art history courses, studio art courses, and other visual ephemera still lingering in my brain from those fateful early years. I now think that the main reason I went into working in glass wasn't that it was the warmest place on campus, or for the more structured nature of the coursework (glass is a technically demanding material, and that sort of structure was necessary just so that people wouldn't seriously hurt themselves in the hot shop) - it was because a certain bullshit detector had been activated in those years, and it seems to have gained more power and momentum as I have aged.

I knew, after my first year of foundation art studios and a short time in the glass department, that the artsy-fartsy bull that seemed to pass for highly developed ideas about art in the studio art departments such as painting and sculpture fell pretty flat in the glass department, in large part because of the nature of glass itself and because of the instructors in the department. Someone once passed on to me the words of a member of the B Team, a group of performance art-based glassblowers: "Glassblowers are the truck drivers of the art world." You can only exist on ideological bullshit for so long as a glass artist. After that, life gets financially and technically demanding, and the quality of what you produce must keep up. One must be business savvy in order to stay an Artist. Period.

Now more than ever before, there is a doublespeak in the Art world. It is a language that, ever since the days of the photorealists and the Pop artists, we are now highly conversant in because those visual sensibilities that got their start in the sixties blew up to immense, art-as-business proportions in the Greed Decade of the 1980's and are now running through darn near everything we see. It is a visual savvy born of having seen Keith Haring animation on Sesame Street, or Barbara Kruger's stark images that collapse the boundaries between art and advertising. In fact, at least one of those 80's art stars, Julian Schnabel, has headed right out of the art gallery and into filmmaking.

The question I now have in mind with regards to any sort of Art exhibition now is how much of it is truly art as art in a world where even the phrase "Art for Art's Sake" has been co-opted for market purposes?

At least the Prospect .1 site treats the biennial's raison d'etre with some honesty, after lauding New Orleans' art historical significance. Not to mention a bit of entrenched condescension showing its ugly head by way of a little Art world guilt:

Why a biennial for New Orleans?

Since the post-Katrina floods of 2005, the international art community has expressed a collective desire to make a positive contribution to the city and people of New Orleans. But these intentions have been hampered so far by the sense that there is no suitable public vehicle for channeling this interest in a positive way. In showcasing the city through contemporary art installations, Prospect.1 New Orleans seeks to base an entirely new category of tourism for the city on the growing American interest in contemporary art, as well as the worldwide love for New Orleans.'ve got to wonder at that phrasing. "No suitable public vehicle for channeling" a positive contribution on the part of the international art community to this city? Damn, people, we don't need your pity here! And if you are trying to assuage your feelings of guilt by putting on a show of what supposed real Art looks like, I'd invite all of you to put your skills to work doing something much more useful: gut and rebuild some homes. Help Brad Pitt. Highlight the idiot workings of our city government with a performance piece bulldozing City Hall or something. We're feeling the love all artistic vision of it using the same old tourist economics of "Hey! It's another attraction to bring people here!" and little else.

I still love's the business of it that I can't stand.

But, if they are planning to make this a true blockbuster biennial that will keep on keeping on for years to come, I hope they take some cues from the folks who manage the Venice Biennale.

And besides, it really won't be an international art event as far as I'm concerned unless the Guerrilla Girls show up:

Just my humble opinion as an art fool....


Mark Folse said...

Reading the ridiculous highlighted section all I can think of: if the Art World has so little imagination, then perhaps I shouldn't trouble myself so much over Prospect 1.

Or we can all chip in to send them one of Dr. Bob's Be Nice signs.

I think Pitt's pink house deal or NoLa rising both kick Prospect 1's sorry, pretentious ass, if for no other reason than both are works of visual art that promise a tangible result to the benefit of New Orleans.

If they want to do something for New Orleans on an arts basis, they should take the Gray Ghost back up into the mother ship with them. They should keep in mind that like another famous muralist, he often works with a pistol in his belt.

Schroeder said...

No one has picked up on the idea of an international recovery festival spawned by the high art act of exhibiting pink houses in the dramatic and disappearing landscape of coastal Louisiana assaulted recently by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

As for your comments about artistic pretense descending on New Orleans, the word "descending" just about says it all. It's always been about the pretense. Why is it, for example, that the driftwood collaborative sculpture emerging on St. Claude and Spain Street wasn't approved by Prospect.1? Were the artists too unpretentious and spiritual, or just too local?

Kelly said...

I'm not part of the Prospect stuff but I just got some space at Studio at Colton School on St. Claude and they are doing some great things over there. If you go out at all this weekend, head on over to 2300 St. Claude to see what is beginning over there.

Francine Stock said...

I'm grateful for Prospect.1.
New Orleans has always attracted and nurtured artists of all stripes: writers, musicians, dancers, chefs, painters and sculptors. Looking at art is good for the soul. I've been far too busy and broke to make it to Europe or New York in the past few years to check out the international art scene. The fact that it's coming to us is a major gift. As a city of artists we are the beneficiaries of a free international art exposition. Bring it on!

full disclosure:
I will have work on exhibit at the Colton Studio as well.