Friday, November 18, 2011

Peter Schjeldahl: Polar Bear Runner

Peter Schjeldahl’s lecture at The New School was titled “The Critic as Artist,” taken from an essay by Oscar Wilde by the same name. It could have easily been called “The Critic as Rebel,” given the degree to which it reflected the worldview of a self-taught Village Voice homeboy who works at home largely because he can smoke there. A well-behaved, well-dressed sexagenarian, Schjeldahl is a cutting writer and speaker who can’t always resist wielding his talents for making people laugh out loud. Such was the case when I heard the following description of artistic movements that had emerged during his time as a critic:

“Marcel Duchamp kept being hauled from his grave and sent, zombie-like, against imaginary oppressors.”

Just to confirm: there’s always room for zombies. 

How a person with such an old-fashioned reverence for art criticism can so often confront his audience with the nonsense of it all is an interesting contradiction. In Seven Days in the Art World, Schjeldahl described his profession as superfluous, the last thing a civilisation needs. He nevertheless sees the nobility in making it his life’s work, holding fast to Wilde’s observation that critics be important as artists and equally deserving of defense.

Indeed, the best artists are critics, as far as either Schjeldahl or Wilde are concerned. Both groups are bound with tasks of shock and awe, shining light on “the conventional wisdom that we didn’t know was conventional yet.” For lack of a more original way of putting it, both groups force audiences to reconsider their view of the world. ”Like the artist, the critic creates and affirms values to the degree of his or her individuality,” Schjeldahl observed on Thursday. “This is a rule without exceptions.”

With air running audibly past his moustache and through his two front teeth, he continued: “Independence of spirit doesn’t rule out the worldly-wise career with dealers and assistants and a house in the country, but I do insist that an original, burning dissatisfaction, likely inherited ignited in early childhood, distinguishes artists from their fellow citizens. The same goes for critics as artists.”

I don’t consider myself a critic, but the personal resonance I felt with Schjeldahl’s lecture hit its zenith on this point. I am someone who admires rebels, but seldom identifies as one. It’s the sort of attitude that suited me well to the University of Chicago, where, in the winter of 2005, I listened with few rebellious inclinations as a graduate student showed me some sidebars in the resume of Émile Durkheim.

A Frenchman of Jewish ancestry, Durkheim had a healthy audience of readers when Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer in the French army, was wrongfully tried and convicted of treason. Reactions to the charges against Dreyfus, who was also Jewish, were divided along cultural lines; if you were still proving your worth in ambitious society and wanted to flex your conservative muscles in public, then you echoed the frequently anti-Semitic sentiments of the anti-Dreyfusards. If the bleak, bellicose conformism that the trial represented concerned you, then you joined Durkheim, whose essay, “Individualism and the Intellectuals” described Dreyfus’ innocence as a matter of common sense. It was the duty of France’s intellectual élite, Durkheim argued, to wake up and speak up, but above all to take themselves seriously.

As with Schjeldahl’s lecture, hearing the graduate student tell this story was like watching the part of a Rocky movie where he sprints up the flight of stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a Friday afternoon. Instead of returning to my dorm room to relax or spend time with my girlfriend, I was enraptured by visions of Durkheim stopping students in the hallways of the Sorbonne to sharply demand: “Why aren’t you studying?” I marched to the library, resolved to make something of myself. As I walked through campus, my path was crossed by a several groups of students out together on a run, their shoes crunching over patches of wet sleet and snow. They were almost completely naked. Only decorum prohibits me from evoking the image of Peter Schjeldahl jogging happily among them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Running to Rachmaninoff

After leaving Russia in 1917, as fraught a moment as any in the country’s history, Sergei Rachmaninoff became one of many Russian Romantics who shouldered a deep ambivalence toward their native land. Living in the United States, he was frequently homesick, and put off becoming an American citizen until 1941. Even after the Communist party officially banned his work, the virtuoso musician continued to donate proceeds from his concerts to the Russian army. He longed to be buried at Villa Senar, the estate he built in Switzerland to resemble his childhood home in northwestern Russia, the outbreak of World War II made that impossible. Instead, when he died of melanoma in Beverly Hills in 1943 he was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, an arbitrary plot of land about 30 miles north of Manhattan that was chosen only because it was near the home of a distant relative.

This past Saturday, as part of Performa 11, the Dutch artist Guido van der Werve led a group on a run from Luhring Augustine Gallery in Chelsea to Rachmaninoff's gravesite. A sprightly red-haired man in his mid-30s, Guido could play Rachmaninoff's “Piano Concerto No. 3” as a preteen and was trained at a conservatory as a young man before deciding to study art instead (while learning Russian on the side). An experienced athlete — and a veteran of demanding endurance-art feats, such as standing stock-still at the geographic North Pole for 24 hours — he approached the group pilgrimage with characteristic seriousness. He stretched carefully, wore knee-high socks to prevent shin splints, and took frequent breaks for water and Gatorade that was carried by a crew of gallery staff who followed the runners' path upstate in a cozy SUV.

Read the full story on ArtInfo

Monday, November 14, 2011

What Actually Happened at the LA MoCA Gala

This was a Jeffrey Deitch kind of night, eliciting reactions that run exactly parallel to how people feel about Jeffrey Deitch. If Deitch’s penchant for campy spectacle is not to your taste, then you probably found the gala distasteful. If you admire Deitch’s approach to fundraising and attention-farming, then you’d likely describe the donor gala as a success. If you’re often overcome by imbalances of power and capital in the art world, then you won’t overlook how Deitch’s employment of Abramovic, a fellow art superstar, discouragingly affirms that order.
The full post is on Art Fag City.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Yvonne Rainer’s “Salò” Reference Is Hyperbole

There have been concerns that Hard-to-Reach might be taking the form of a passive Tumblr without enough original writing. I nevertheless feel like this is worth sharing. Read the full post (and the ample exchange of comments) on Art Fag City.

Sirens are sounding as word has spread of a letter written by choreographer Yvonne Rainer to LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch. Rainer isn’t happy. Dismayed after hearing details of the performance artwork organized by Marina Abramovic set to take place during a donor gala for the museum, she describes the planned performance as ”degrading” and “grotesque,” denouncing Abramovic’s project as “another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tell Me About Your Process

Bummed about Joe Frazier? Lift your spirits with these candid insights into how I think I sound when I talk to musicians:

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Call To Action: Why You Should Occupy Sotheby’s This Wednesday

Despite the broad popular support for Occupy Wall Street, its art world incarnations have been more hotly contested. Chief among the critiques of Occupy MuseumsOccupy 38, and Occupy Internet has been a lack of clearly defined goals; while some of us want to tear down the walls of MoMA, others like our de Koonings well enough to prefer change over demolition. Across the spectrum, artists and critics call out for a single purpose that is objectively worth our energy and attention. One such opportunity has arisen in the dispute between Sotheby’s and the union representing its art-handling staff. The line between the good guys and the bad guys couldn’t be clearer if Sotheby’s PR staff had goatees and East German accents and one of the Teamsters looked like Bruce Willis. 
Read the full post.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lists About Art Taste Like Gummy Bears and Cure the Blues

The only offensive thing about Howard Halle’s list is that it might give people the impression that they’ve actually learned something. I really hope commenters were being ironic when they applauded the “art history” lesson available from the slideshow captions; apparently some people can’t imagine how real art history might differ from a brief paragraph with some fun facts. This list is too brief, too arbitrary, and too thin to gather anyone’s attention for more than a few minutes. It is a tremendous success. Via Art Fag City.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Maurizio Cattelan: All" at the Guggenheim

Maurizio Cattelan, "Him," 2005.
Irreverence — for the art world, for art history, and for the culture at large — seems to be the defining feature of “All.” The famous demonstration of this sensibility is Cattelan’s mischievous sculpture “Him” (2001) — hung towards the top of the mass of suspended works — in which Adolf Hitler is depicted in his knees, his eyes and face in an entreating pose, with his body reduced to the menace-free scale of a hobbit. (“Fun-size Fürher!” exclaimed one visitor, as his companion rolled her eyes.)

Read it in full on