Monday, January 16, 2017

So Now You Care Where Your Money Comes From: Art, Hypocrisy and Politics

On Friday President-Elect Trump will become President Trump and that is tragic and insane. Even though this all seems like some horrible dream it is going to happen and in the coming days, weeks, months, years it will be the obligation for all those that want to make sure he doesn’t usher in an age of authoritarian despotism to do whatever we can, as much as we can for as long as we can.

This is a time for gloom as it feels like doom and because of this there is a frustration, and a debilitating, seething anger and desire to do something, anything, to take a stand and make it clear how one feels. This has also been taking place in the arts, which would seem obvious because art is mostly made up of creatives who veer heavily to the Left. This makes sense as when you are in the arts you are choosing to be expansive, curious, open, and different. All those are qualities that work against things like bigotry, sexism, fear of the unknown, and fear of what is different. When those on the Right want to classify those who are in the arts as idealists or snobs, then fine, we are but we work hard at being curious and excited about the beauty and possibilities art can do for oneself, human nature and culture.

So there’s how I feel about the big idea of arts importance to society but I do have a bone to pick with some of these creatives and more specifically those in the visual art world. Recently there has been an influx of artists and arts related ‘groups’ that have been taking announced stands against Trump and his ilk. One in an Instagram account called dear_ivanka, which features mostly Ivanka Trump and has open letters/statements directed to her and the fam in general. Second there are all these big name artists denouncing Trump publically such as Richard Prince and his recent unselling of his work featuring Ivanka Trump. All of these have been posted online by various art news and social media sites but I have yet to see critical discourse on what that means so hear goes my ‘populist’ take.

The dear_ivankainstagram account is just the worst. It feels completely self-indulgent and is remedial. It feels like some sort of proposed spin-off for a not actually funny humor/irony web series. Saying things like, “Dear Ivanka, I’ve been raped and need to have an abortion” or “Dear Ivanka, I’m black and I’m afraid of Jeff Sessions” is so so so so cringe, I can’t even. I hate to gossip but I have been told from numerous sources that do know the creator that they are actually quite privileged, aka rich. Okay so what’s the big deal? Who cares if some rich arty people want to do an irony laden social media account? Why, because it’s missing the point and its merits are flawed. To me, this account feels like just another appropriation tool to relativize oneself and thus to capitalize via cultural/social gain. Also, it is EXACTLY what THEY want you to do. Being obnoxious, insipid, and inciting a pandering call to arms is fueling the ‘them vs. us’ feud. Yes, I get it, it is a them vs. us situation in many ways but doing this account is just showing how reductive and lazy we (Lefty art-worlders) are in thinking, talking and changing the real things that matter. Plus, this isn’t diminishing the brand that is Ivanka Trump. It’s just a mirroring back and also a strengthening of her brand. I guess the thing that really bothers me about this is that it is trying so hard to be so many things: flippant, funny, invested. If it were any of those things actually, I would high five its efforts but it isn’t. It just really really isn’t.

Next, let’s talk about how artists are denouncing Trump and its relationship to buying art. Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner are both socialites and they buy contemporary art because that is what socialites do. Artists such as Alex Da Corte, Cindy Sherman, Joan Jonas, etc. have de-cried and denounced Trump and said that they would not sell to that family and in the case of Da Corte has said that he was embarrassed to be seen with her when there was an image of her with one of his works. The most recent vocal artist to be added to this list is Richard Prince who says that the work Ivanka bought from his recent show of Instagram accounts is a “fake” now because he has given the money back and he no longer considers it one of his works.

Richard Prince. Stop. Well besides the fact that that series of works was just horrendous and grossly misogynistic, him doing this pseudo-punk-esq gesture of reversal of sale actually makes this work the most interesting thing he has done in decades. If anything him doing this makes the work more a work of ‘art’ then the sellable revenue vehicle that it originally functioned as. Also, ha! Returning ~$30k for the work and calling it a fake does not remedy the larger problem here and that’s what I want to call out to artists who want to link in their art, bank accounts and politics.

Everyone, everyone, let’s be fucking real here! We know that if you are in the art world and if you make money, and especially if you make A LOT of money, which most of these higher tier artists and galleries do, you are definitely, 100%, selling works to people who make their money from impolitic to very bad things. As most know who read this thing I was in the art game hustle for years and only finally stepped out in a commercial way and I thank the stars for that because this issue of ‘who buys the art’ was one of the biggest moral quandaries I had while working in the gallery system.

The exchanges are clear in this industry art for money.  There are literally hundreds of art fairs a year that the super rich attend like they used to take the Grand Tour across Europe. It is a social status right of passage and being a collector is necessary to that lifestyle and it is the literal oil in the art world machine. Who are the super rich? Well they can be in a variety of industries but the collector is no longer the simple doctor, lawyer type. No, the very rich work in industries that thrive on monopoly and supremacy. Oil, Weapons, Tech (to do god knows what and to whom), Pharmaceuticals, Conglomerated Brands, Real Estate, Manufactures, etc. This list can be translated to all the conflicts, all the damage, all the suffering, all the things that make it so billions of people have nearly nothing while a sliver of one percent have everything. These are the people and their children, their minions, their enablers, and their enforcers these are the people that buy the art.

So, Trump and his socialite daughter are in power now and now you want to say no. No, I will not sell to you because of what you represent. No, I will not be displayed in your house. No, you can’t have that even if you have all the money and power in the world. No? No?! Now you are saying No? If Trump lost the election I doubt any of these artists would have taken a sale back or publically denounced their association with Ivanka Trump. But now that this is the new reality, it is required for artists who have made it such a point to be morally superior and culturally evolved to make this grand stand.

I’m sorry but it just reeks of hypocrisy. And it’s not the artists alone that I am talking about. It’s everyone in the art world who does, wants, desires to make money in this system but also wants to asterisk inclusions to take dirty money even if it compromises their outer politics. The art world has been having their cake and eating it too when it comes to politics and money. They can be holier then thou and do panels and make statements and gather with their compatriots but are they stopping to think and exposing who bought what to pay for all this lifestyle they are living?

Is it any one person’s fault? Yes and no. The art world is notoriously opaque. Like it is the KGB of opacity. Because of this there isn’t a system of checks and balances and the concept of transparency would unravel the very fabric of the smoke and mirrors that is the core of the art world brand. How many times, how many years have I railed against this?! But it’s not about me and my feelings about it. All I am saying is that in a strange way, maybe this new reality, this new administration, is bringing these hidden things to the fore.

Because Trump and his family are now in power there isn’t a place to hide and divert what is really going on in everything. This is a time when facts, transparency, consistency, and truth are all at stake. This encroachment is making many of us feel powerless and desperate. In the face of this, instead of sniggering, complaining and preaching to the choir, do something. If that something is denouncing Trump and not selling works, good first step. But as the world is watching Trump and his ilk, so to should we be watching ourselves and practicing what we are preaching. Don’t want to sell art to him or his family. Fine. But whom else are you selling it to? Frustrated and pissed that someone like Ivanka will be in the White House? Fine. But where does your privilege stem from as well?

Be the change you want to see.  It’s a simple decree but one that I think will help us all get through this and make actual change.

The very first step in all of this is being honest about what is happening in the arts, what is happening in our hearts and minds and then to do something about it. Really actually do something.