Wednesday, August 14, 2013

#DayDetroit: Thoughts on the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

A Day for Detroit is a nationwide call to consider the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts in response to the threat of sale of said collection to settle debts owed by the bankrupt city administration. In solidarity, here are some thoughts prompted by Sandro Botticelli's The Resurrected Christ (c. 1480).

In 1480, Sandro Botticelli was at the peak of his fame and creative powers as a painter. A favorite of the powerful Medici family, Botticelli produced sensuous works that celebrated beauty, nature, and eroticism as appealed to his patrons. The Medici were thriving both as bankers and as political figures, dominating the Florentine electorate and the Vatican alike. A parallel can be made with our own time, in which the agents of capital control our democratic institutions and our public spaces of learning, faith, and transcendence, whether religious or secular.

The DIA’s painting The Resurrected Christ is unusual for its moment in that its somber palette and severe, tragic imagery contrasts with the pleasure and ease of Botticelli’s more famous Birth of Venus (c. 1482) and Primavera (c. 1478), completed around the same time for private patrons in the Medici family. Still, this work prefigures what would be the great tragedy of the artist’s life, as the rise of the fire-and-brimstone preacher Girolamo Savonarola would transform Botticelli’s consciousness and his circumstances. Savonarola rose to prominence as an itinerant preacher who challenged the Church’s complicity with acquisitive capitalistic values. His challenge to power was ultimately snuffed, but not before his call to repent was deeply internalized by Botticelli. Tormented by fears of divine retribution for his own cooperation with the Medici, Botticelli ceased to paint non-Christian subjects and found his wellspring of commissions soon run dry. He died in poverty and relative obscurity some 30 years after the DIA’s work was completed.

Today, many who turn away from religion find a different spiritual fulfillment in the contemplation of art. As Savonarola preached that Catholicism would be undone by its marriage to capitalism, many believe today that the undoing of art’s social value is its close relationship to a market based in speculation and asset-hoarding. Bound as we are to the religion of profit, the possibility that the DIA would liquidate its collection to please creditors appears as another kind of repentance, in which a city unable or unwilling to please the gods of capital behaves as though its citizens have waived their right to the spiritual nourishment that art provides. Perhaps it is time to bring back the itinerant preacher who travels the countryside speaking truth to power. Just be warned, it could all end in an auto-da-fé.

Monday, April 08, 2013

#Curating Activism: An Interview with Julio César Morales on Daily Serving

My first-ever piece for Daily Serving just posted, it's an interview with ASU Museums curator Julio César Morales.  We discussed art, activism, and institutional politics, with a flambé on the side.

#Curating Activism: An Interview with Julio César Morales

Monday, March 04, 2013

Thoughts on International Art English and the 2013 CAA Conference

I have been thinking a lot about last month’s College Art Association conference, where I attended a panel on the future of art magazines in which the concept of International Art English came up for debate. The Triple Canopy essay that coined the term, published last July, has been discussed in detail elsewhere, but after reading this recap of the CAA panel moderated by Art in America editor Lindsay Pollock, I have been thinking about the argument Triple Canopy editor Peter Russo and e-flux co-founder Anton Vidokle got into about the fairness of the article’s reliance on e-flux announcements as source material. Vidokle claimed that the study emphasized a community of non-native English speakers as indicative of a certain superficial approach to art language, and whether in turn that emphasis was misplaced and thereby, as he put it, a “typical colonial argument.” His domineering manner aside (he interrupted Russo and TC editor Alexander Provan repeatedly when they disagreed with him), something left me uneasy with respect to Vidokle’s statement. 

While he seemed to claim that Triple Canopy’s article unfairly attacked e-flux, I see the essay less as an attack and more as a quantification of a heretofore invisible system of insider communication. The international art community whose publications e-flux circulates may be, as Vidokle suggested, largely English learners who rely on jargon to communicate in a language they have not mastered. There are certainly colonial structures at play here, determining who creates this language as well as who consumes it. But an article like this one that studies such systems is not the problem here. Rather, it indicates that within a certain size of museum anywhere in the world -- that which has the budget to afford the (not insignificant) cost of e-flux’s service -- employees are under pressure to speak to an international art audience to the exclusion of people in their own communities. 

This represents a colonial system at work in the arts, not because communication is ostensibly in English, but because the institutions that have the financial means to present international art and support ambitious projects are disinvested in their own communities as both audiences and creative artists, and seem to be speaking above the public to a small community of insiders.  As such, the predominance of International Art English in e-flux announcements is of greater concern than its appearance in Artforum or another publication where participation is not tied to both a set fee and non-profit status. If private collectors, artists, and other insiders want to speak their own language, so be it. When non-profit institutions in the public trust have ceased to communicate in language that their public constituencies can understand or access, that is cause for alarm.