Two dueling versions of the art world were in plain view recently, specially for Cuban-Americans. In Florida on the one hand, we saw the spectacle of Art Basel Miami Beach 2021 (along with NADA and various other satellite shows) and in Havana the 14th Biennial – all in the midst of Covid-19 and the Omicron variant – as if anybody cared. In the southern heart of American capitalism, huge crowds of ultra-rich investors descended upon the stalls of the 1% selected galleries to scoop up commodified goods sometimes recognized as artwork by other narratives. The haul was in the billions of dollars for mostly blue-chip artists and galleries. Meanwhile, back in arch-nemesis Havana, the communist overlords trying to soften their image by using art as political propaganda had their every-other-year efforts to promote local artists ‘salir por la culeta’, or backfire spectacularly as selected citizens declined to participate or protested the exhibit due to the government’s suppression and jailing of other dissident artists. Miami saw the likes of pop stars Leonard DiCaprio and Adam Levine, casino mogul Steve Wynn, and many other VIP’s entertained with exclusive sessions where they could select their visual investments prior to the common hoards. In Havana, hundreds signed an open letter calling for a boycott that included the likes of Robert Storr (isn’t he just a critic living comfortably in the US?) while another letter from Human Rights advocacy groups including Meryl Streep called for the Cuban government to “…stop its unrelenting abuses against artists…”. As was to be expected, nobody signed any letters objecting to the commodification and institutionalism of the affair in Miami but rather gave tacit approval to the money orgy it represented. There were also no letters from artists calling for an end to the obscene ‘sanctions’ imposed by the USA on Cuba for over 60 years. Miami was awash in celebrities and publicity – it was the greatest of successes – while Havana was ignored or criticized and kicked down some more notches in the global art hierarchy. Somehow the balance doesn’t seem quite right in this equation of the art world between the two centers of Cuban American culture. Attribute these diverse attitudes to obvious regional economic and political inequality. Cuban artists in Miami were marginalized per usual while Cuban American artists in Havana were non existent. Most of this can be rationalized as a result of the highly politicized polarity of the two cities but shouldn’t art be held above that? In any case, the art world proves once again to be as disgusting as usual in its real manifestation on both sides of the Caribbean.
Here we go again with celebrity artists taking over headlines with misguided incursions into the art scene. This time it’s controversial son of President Joe Biden, Robert Hunter Biden. Like George Dubya Bush before him, Hunter is banking on politics and his father’s name to sell artwork on the side – when he’s not too busy pretending to be a lawyer, lobbyist or hedge fund manager which are all part of his past resume. You would think he was already satisfied and proficient at taking rich people’s money. The images are not particularly captivating, as they are the expected product of a quintessential ‘process art’. Hunter blows on alcohol inks for the sfumato effect they lend themselves to or layers them in drops that naturally form color circles. Yes, Hunter Biden blows! I wouldn’t be surprised if he is high when he makes the art since he has a reputation for alcohol and drug addiction in addition to abusing his family lineage. Then, because he is the son of the president, he is granted prestigious gallery shows and prices in the tens of thousands for his efforts. And you thought only Trump and his acolytes were quality scam artists! This particular scam even garnered a puff piece by no less than the New York Times where Hunter is portrayed as a ‘sensitive’ artist living in Hollywood while they ignore writing about real native artists. It seems the art world has devolved into a game of networking and connections rather than any talent or training apparent and this is just another symptom of that malady. Hunter Biden is constantly trying to parlay his lack of experience or expertise into high paying positions – as in Ukraine or China. He should have really quit his dalliance before joining the art world. Go back to drooling over nude dancers Hunter Biden and thanks for your part in debasing the art world!
So it’s been about seven months of Covid-19 now and most things seem about the same as when it started. Artists are programmed to focus exclusively and get lost in their work to the point where everything else disappears so going to the studio and making art at the exclusion of everything else doesn’t seem to have altered many routines at all. Same for the isolation – I believe most artists are naturally reclusive people and loners at heart so mandatory lockdowns don’t seem to deviate so far from the norm. That’s for the practice of art… as for the business of art things aren’t so normal or good. Virtual gallery shows are just not the occasion for social interaction that real exhibits are and Zoom meetings don’t hold a candle to in-person receptions. Most physical exhibits have been cancelled and showing your work in public is a struggle due to restrictions on gatherings and social distancing. Even when they open, galleries are not holding openings or seeing the same amount of traffic since most people are not going out as much – and those that do are making it brief and avoiding other people. I think most artists are beginning to miss the excuse of receptions to gather with other people to discuss life and art. In fact even regular gatherings among friends are now minuscule, cast as suspect and liable to infection so how can you relax and enjoy them? Covid just sucks – and its effects seem to grow longer with time past in this limbo. How strange to miss so many of those ordinary things we took for granted – meeting with friends, going to restaurants and art openings or sporting events. How long until we get back to what was once normal life? Seems like it will be forever at this point – at least six months. All you can say is stay safe and keep making art.
The news out of Art Basel Miami would seem to be all economic and not controversial if you were to only depend on art sites like Artnet or Hyperallergic. But the most significant story ignored by these sites was covered by The Guardian at this link – https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/dec/05/miami-panmela-castro-mural-rio-de-janeiro-removed. The report covers censorship of a mural for the fair by Brazilian artist Panmela Castro depicting an instance of police brutality in Rio de Janeiro. Local Miami police only “complained” about the mural’s content before, according to the report, managers of the ‘Aria 21’ parking section of Art Basel immediately ordered it be painted over, allegedly in order to not “jeopardize good relations with police”. In our times of political tyranny, police militarization, and the Black Lives Matter movement it is imperative that such complicit oppression and suppression of art by police groups instead be denounced and amplified in attention to the public. Especially when the art in question is only being critical of illegal practices and policies involving police in order to correct them. It is not right that an original police crime of brutalization in another country be compounded by local police censorship. It stands to reason that Miami police sympathize and imitate the brutal tactics depicted and so do not want them idolized and immortalized in a local public mural. Shame on Aria 21 and Miami Art Basel for not supporting political art and surrendering to pressure from police. This is not what an Art Fair should stand for, but it is past time to recognize Miami Art Basel for the base commercial venture it really is and not the cultural icon it aspires to be. Real Art is increasing the already great distance from such events when Art Fairs sanction censorship such as this.
Protests directed at Whitney Museum co-chair Warren Kanders finally led to his resignation and that of his wife who was also involved in some museum committees. It was about time. There is no room for artists to surrender their principles to profiteering warmongers, arms manufacturers, or criminals who capitalize on abusing people or nature. Shame on the few artists who resisted the call to boycott this version of the Whitney Biennial in a year of protests. In particular I was shocked by the cowardice shown by Puerto Rican artist Nibia Pastrana Santiago who was apparently herself gassed by Kanders’ chemicals during legitimate non violent protests aimed at governor Ricardo Rosello on the island. According to Hyperallergic, Nibia said “My work is not something that can be uninstalled, the work in itself is my body in action…”. What nonsense and pathetic rationalization! Just say you’re opposed and won’t show sister! Find some valentia and quit making excuses to not join your principled exhibitors and remain in a tainted exhibit. Maybe you will find a way to just remove your ‘body’ from these soiled spectacles if you ever find some real art identity. And shame on all the other artists who for one reason or another preferred the prestige and exposure of the show to taking a moral stand against the corruption of museum philanthropists. It is past time that artists take a stand against those who seek the prestige and affirmation of the art world through museum boards while they exploit and abuse human rights and decent standards. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a trend, now more frequently visible through organizations like ‘Decolonize This Place’, who deserve credit for leading the protest against the Whitney’s complicity with “…death, disaster, and destruction” and raised consciousness among the artists selected. Maybe next time such efforts will be joined by present art-cowards like Santiago who missed their chance to stand against hidden artworld creeps.
I have never been a fan of formal teaching of studio art in art schools although I went through at least seven years of it. Mentoring has a place in the course a trajectory in art but learning old master techniques or aesthetics seems like a futile exercise in imitation and nostalgia. That is why it does not surprise me that Art Schools in this country are generally suffering from lack of students and teaching focus. It seems the smaller institutions are closing or merging in large numbers. We saw this in the DC area with the unfortunate 2015 merging of the Corcoran School of Art into George Washington University. Here is a link to a recent article about this in artnet.com… https://news.artnet.com/art-world/heres-why-art-schools-are-under-such-extreme-pressure-1460836. Even though I find instruction of art futile, I believe the environment of art school is invaluable experience given the proximity to other artists, ideas, history and techniques. According to the article, it seems like about a fifth of the art schools in the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) have faced an operating crisis in the last few years even though the top schools have seen a moderate (2.4%) increase in enrollment. This statistic however excludes schools that have closed or merged. One of the comments in the article promotes the idea of art schools training artists in tangent disciplines as ‘creatives’. It seems to me like this completely defeats the purpose of an art school – may as well teach artists to fish. Most if not all students of art are well aware of the sacrifice necessary and of the lack of options available in the real job market after graduation with an art degree. Most do not see only a future of gallery representation or teaching. Yet I believe most students would agree the experience is worthwhile as long as the focus is exclusive to art and not some lame version of a ‘normal’ education. Intense immersion in an art environment is the real value of art school and art teachers should stop worrying about their students finding gainful employment post graduation… both the anxiety and the prospects do not compare favorably to the realities.
The buffoons in government who continue indefinite detentions without charge at the lawless US gulag in Guantanamo, Cuba have now added an additional layer of humiliation and subjugation – the confiscation of artwork made by inmates there with threats to destroy it. According to an article in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/08/guantanamo-bay-art-new-york-exhibition, authorities have begun to confiscate artwork by detainees after the success of an ongoing exhibition ‘Ode to the Sea’ at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York which runs through January 26, 2018. The authorities now claim all artwork produced by detainees belongs to them and are confiscating and preventing their transfer outside the prison. Originally they announced plans to ‘incinerate’ the artwork but the Miami Herald reported http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/guantanamo/article186891663.html that it may just be ‘archived’ in unknown fashion, leading to charges of censorship, further dehumanization, and violation of human rights. Detainee attorney Wells Dixon declared “Let’s see who can destroy works of art and culture faster, ISIS or @DeptofDefense”, while the National Coalition Against Censorship stated “This baseless policy change uses art as a political football in an effort to prevent these works — and a deeper understanding of those who created them — from informing public discussion of the policies the U.S. government makes in its citizens’ names”. The art program was the prison’s most popular and until this exhibition presented no significant controversy over process or content. All the artwork on exhibit was inspected and put through a rigorous vetting and approval procedure. It is a sad comment on the drift of our democracy that Guantanamo still exists, much less that artwork produced there is now being confiscated with threats of destruction by the fascists in charge.
I was intrigued by a recent Artnet article that analyzed artist by auction sales: https://news.artnet.com/market/25-artists-account-nearly-50-percent-postwar-contemporary-auction-sales-1077026. The conclusion the pair of reporters came to was that only twenty five artists account for nearly fifty percent of all postwar and contemporary art auction sales. Of these artists more than half are American, two are women (Agnes Martin & Yayoi Kusama), one is black (Basquiat), and only nine are living. Other conclusions drawn by the article is that the auction art market is ‘winner takes all’, practically unchanged in its makeup over the last decade, and subject to supply and demand – or how prolific an artist is and how often their work comes up for auction. Although an interesting read, I don’t believe it is a good measure of artistic success to look only at auction sales where profits are driven exclusively by collectors and capitalism. I am hoping they conduct another analysis of Contemporary art that only includes living artists and takes into account gallery and direct studio sales if possible. That would provide a more accurate picture of the actual market for living artists selling art and provide encouragement to a lot more people struggling with creativity in the present.
While skimming through the Hyperallergic site I found this gem of a link… https://hyperallergic.com/382547/study-claims-80-5-of-artists-represented-by-nycs-top-45-galleries-are-white/ It seems CUNY Guttman College professor James Case-Leal conducted a study with his class to determine racial and gender representation in the top 45 New York galleries and found 80.5% are white and 70% are male. Guerilla Girls have been bringing attention to such gross disparity since 1985 with apparently not much changing in the art scene in 30 plus years. The same study found that when including only American artists, white dominance climbs to 88.1%, while only 1.2% of Latinos are represented – even though Latinos as a national minority group number about 16% and surpassed African Americans years ago as the largest minority in the US. Just so you get an idea of the gulf in disparity, Latinos represent more than 27% of NYC’s population. BTW African-Americans were at 8.8% representation in these top galleries. I suppose Trump sympathizers will immediately scream about faults in methodology, micro statistics, and political correctness but the study is nevertheless troubling in how it demonstrates the insistence of white male privilege within the art world and among collectors. Museums rarely hold shows on women artists or contemporary minority artists. Are there really that many more talented white male artists in America or does this only expose the blatant bias of curators and museum directors? Maybe we need a companion study on the racial makeup of these groups plus gallery owners and their corresponding preference for certain artists.
Due to the ineptitude and ignorance of our current president who is ready to cut practically all federal arts funding in favor of MORE military, former buffoon-in-chief George W Bush is getting a mandate-makeover and publishing a best-selling book of his artwork. Next, pigs will fly. This is the man who established the USA as a leader in: extraordinary rendition (otherwise known as kidnapping), ‘preemptive’ war (otherwise known as invasion), indefinite detention without charges, torture and dark sites, extrajudicial drone assassinations, mass surveillance and other high crimes. Art and political criticism have sunk to a new low in our times when such “artists” merit books and media recognition instead of jail time. I am convinced we have Dubya’s rogue administration to thank for the existence of our present orange buffoon and the public’s general acceptance of his many illegal and inhumane policy proposals. But why are legitimate media and art sites now sympathetic to our former monster of a politician? Here is a link to a Guardian article calling George W Bush a “…talented painter with an affecting vision…”: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/06/george-w-bush-art-painting-portraits-in-courage . Paddy Johnson of ArtFCity writes “…at least the one image from the series is really compelling.” These are dangerous times indeed for art and politics when praise and success are so misguided that Donald Trump is elected to destroy American culture and Dubya Bush is hailed as a serious artist.