Interviews

15 New York Art World-ers on Art Controversies Today

by Warren King on October 13, 2011

With “sensitive to art and its discontents” written into the blogazine’s sub-header, Hyperallergic is no stranger to contemporary art controversy, but we decided to ask 15 New York-based artists, critics and curators what they considers the most important and urgent controversy in visual art at the moment.

Editor’s note: It should be noted all of these items were compiled over the last two months and before the protests of Occupy Wall Street began.

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Ken Johnson, art critic for The New York Times (Flushing, NY)

Ken Johnson

KJ: I think the art world is a pretty non-controversial place compared to, say, the United States Congress or the United Nations. And the art world is too small to make significant waves of controversy in the culture at large. That doesn’t mean, to me, that art is irrelevant — just that topical controversy is not what makes it interesting.

Yasha Wallin, writer, curator and producer (New York, NY)

Yasha Wallin

Yasha Wallin has written for ArtinfoArt in AmericaInterview MagazinePapermag.comFlauntHeeb Magazine and Hintmag.com, among others

YW: I think the most important controversy in art right now, is that there really isn’t much controversy. There are a few vibrant voices out there, but it feels like a lot of work being shown in art spaces — at least around New York City — is safe. Perhaps due to the economy there’s a tendency to make and show more “saleable” work; but given the state of the world, our impotent government, etc. this is precisely the time to use the medium to encourage dialogue and change, as opposed to nurturing art that walks on eggshells.

Defne Ayas (New York and Shanghai)

Define Ayas (Photo via Else Kramer / Witte de With)

Define Ayas is Performa’s Curator at Large.

DA: Discussions that are only driven by 20th century art-cleverness is becoming suffocating. We need to talk about ways in which we can collaborate and inspire each other, rather than just playing the game of “territoriality.” The singular authorship model is dissolving, and a collaborative spirit needs to be embraced universally. For a thorough understanding of the world, we should let go the notion of the two-way “exotic” between “Asia” and “West,” which has still managed to linger in our super-conservative art world, despite all the artistic and curatorial attempts. Wouldn’t it be amazing to embark on research initiatives that look at classical periods and older knowledge systems globally vis a vis now through the filter of contemporary art and visual material culture? This, I believe, is the only way we can jointly seek answers to the looming cross-civilizational issues, and have some cues as how we can exit the art world’s cul-de-sac-state-of-mind.

Guy Richards Smit, artist (Brooklyn, NY)

Guy Richard Smit photographed in his art studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (May 2011) (photo by Anna Schori)

Guy Richard Smit’s most recent solo exhibition was Grossmalerman! at Schroeder Romero & Shedder in Chelsea this May. He will also be featured in the large-scale group exhibition, Dublin Contemporary 2011.

GRS: I think the most pressing controversy facing American contemporary art is how thin and boring it is. My problem with [the Bravo TV show]Work of Art is that its form is so average. It strikes me that contemporary art should offer something wondrous and excellent. But a competition show? With assignments and judges? They could at least add a drinking segment where a judge shoots one of the contestants arbitrarily while repeating a single obtuse phrase as the credits roll. I don’t know. I’d be happy to be a judge though, you know, If they asked me. I have a lot of ideas.

Jack Early, artist (Brooklyn, NY)

Brooklyn-based artist Jack Early

Jack Early’s most recent solo exhibition, “Jack Early’s Candy Ear Machine,” was at Daniel Reich Gallery in Chelsea. Rob Pruitt and Early’s controversial 1992 show “Pop Life: Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue,” which was heavily criticized for being racist, was recently rediscovered in “Pop Life: Art in the Material World” at the Tate Modern in London in 2009.

JE: The most urgent controversial thing in art today is the lack of controversy.

Christian Viveros-Faune, critic and curator (New York, NY)

Christian Viveros-Faune

Christian Viveros-Faune has a weekly column for the Village Voice and ArtReview. He is also a co-curator of the Dublin Contemporary 2011.

CVF: The one issue in art today that I believe screams out for attention is the inability of the culture at large and contemporary art especially to address real life and the increasingly urgent social, political and economic problems that are laying folks low globally. We’re in the middle of terrible recession with millions of people out of work, the totalitarian Chinese are the world’s bankers, artists from Amsterdam to New York are feeling the pinch of the present situation — and after all this, we still act as if success in the art world is measured  by buckets of money and little else. It’s not. It’s measured by relevance both within the precincts of art and the culture at large. And that’s been in ridiculously short supply recently.

Kathy Grayson, curator and editor

Kathy Grayson

Kathy Grayson, former director of Deitch Projects, opened The Hole with Meghan Coleman in June 2010. Grayson recently curated  Facemaker at ROYAL/T in Culver City, CA and New York Minute at The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Grayson is also the Arts Editor for i-D magazine.

KG: Personally, the most interesting controversy, because almost all of them are totally dumb — “controversial artworks” are so boring — is not really about art, but graffiti: “Graffiti” is not “street art.” Graffiti is vandalism, is amazing, is it’s own thing. Street art is soft politics, wheat-paste, lamest-thing-I-can-think-of, the opposite of everything I love about graffiti, and yet people seem confused and think they are the same. No. The most urgent controversy is about copyright and usage: I just read Ryan McGinley is being sued by some lady who takes party photos? Crazy shit like that. People need to sort out the law to respect the natural process of art, which is one of re-interpretation, re-gurgitation and totally free usage. But at the same time artists need to retain something of their “brand” or visual identity or the risk losing all way to make money from their art. Now that is a pickle I would not want to have to legislate.

Peter Plagens, artist and critic (New York, NY)

Peter Plagens

Plagens writes a monthly column called “Eye Level” for Art in America and is a contributing editor to Artforum and Newsweek. He is represented by Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Chelsea. 

PP: The problem for me is that what I see as the problem isn’t a controversy. What’s the problem? That art has gotten so rabidly pluralistic, so malleable, so God-of-the-grapes, so theoretized, so much the property of tenured and tenure-seeking academics (who, to invoke the joke, are so dry they fart sand), wannabe scientists (who are mostly as innumerate as I am) and cultural bureaucrats, that there’s no such thing as art — not even a cloudy, multicultural, beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder thing. Art has gotten like what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, California: “There’s no there there.” Either that or, to quote [art critic] Aidan Dunne of the Irish Times, too much art is (to riff on [German military theorist] Karl von Clausewitz) “the continuation of sociology by other means.”

Peter Dobey, artist (New York and San Francisco)

Peter Dobey

Peter Dobey is represented by the gallery Kroswork in Oakland, CA and has exhibited at Sara Guedj in Paris.

PD: What are the important and urgent controversies in Art? This postulation brings about a larger query.

The question wearily assumes that there is something intrinsically important or controversial in what Art has become today, begging the question where has art gone, what has it become? I think it is more apt to ask where has the art gone in the first place? I am scratching my head.

I see stockpiles of “Visual Art,” in Chelsea, at MoMA, wherever. I see a lot of “STUFF,” “STUFF” that always has new names. But I do not see that which inspires or is engaged with the world as such. Nothing is beautiful or sublime, as Emmanuel Kant would have it. Nothing in any recent prominent exhibits has provoked the kind of thought art should, and if art does not do something for the world, is it really necessary to exist?  Or at least, we wouldn’t really miss it. Instead, I see hundreds of makeshift and shallow “pieces,” constantly referencing a small insider world of fashionable trends, and vehemently avoiding engagement with great works of the past, easily avoiding any fair evaluation or comparison to works that have gone so much further by surrounding themselves with other insubstantial, but hyper-relevant works. The trend towards a new hyper-minimalism, where anti-objecthood and nothingness is emphasized, is to me, not just a new style of art, but indicative of Art itself disappearing. It has nowhere to go but to end, but like a crumbling love affair, it lingers nonetheless.

It has become impossible for me to see art, within the sea of so much contemporary art, as much more than mere products that have relevant jargon pinned to them, in order to legitimize them as “part of a discourse.”  That is, as being incorporated into the art world, without ever touching the world of being.

Bruce High Quality Foundation (New York, NY)

Bruce High Quality Foundation

BHQF: Whether it’s money or morality, instrumentalism is winning the day. It’s a philosophical failing of today’s art schools as much as it is of our nonprofits, museums, press — and of course it is rampant among artists themselves. We console ourselves with Oscar Wilde, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line somewhere.”

Ward Shelley, artist (Brooklyn, NY and Easton, CT)

Ward Shelley

Ward Shelley has exhibited at Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn. He is known for his timelines that chart, among other things, the development of Williamsburg as a neighborhood for artists and those who invented the avant-garde.

WS: I think that currently the most important and urgent controversy in art is that there doesn’t seem to be an important and urgent controversy — at least within the art framework that has been so successfully established over the last 150 years.

We have depended on controversy to clarify and focus the contemporary art conversation – it was the reliable strategy of the avant-garde ans a demand for change and movement. It helped sustain the notion that art had a moral mission to guide, inform and correct society’s shortcomings, rather than just make nice things. But, as a definitive element within the “contemporary art” paradigm, controversy may have run its course.

Such has been the success of the increasingly professionalized art infrastructure that it has created an art world that is like a paradise garden — an enclosure in which to present clever variations of the expected.  Within this enclosure, all corners have been thoroughly explored, it seems. The familiar lines of inquiry now yield only familiar results.

Since the art world has attained critical mass, it attracts a constantly renewing supply of resources and players eager to work with the rules as they now stand, so there is a sustainable resistance to anything like a radical paradigm shift. There is enough width and breadth for creative people to play without feeling particularly restricted, be they artists, collectors, or that new creative profession, curators.

The only real controversy is, “How do I get a seat at the table,” which is age-old and never ending.

Of course, in the world, things are changing so fast it’s a blur, which would seem to provide plenty of controversy. But in the art world, difference no longer makes a difference, controversy is just an aesthetic dance. Under the constant hammer of the 20th century, resistance to the new was bludgeoned into a coma. As long as a work or an idea can get past the paradise garden gate keeper, it receives its art bonafides, but thereafter it remains in the garden.

I believe there are lots of active candidates for a “new art”  with new ideas that present challenges and controversies to the art world.  They tend to be situated outside of the official art frame, and this may be their saving grace.

Because the pattern I see is this:

As new ideas and practices self-identify themselves as art, they demand to be seen within that context.  If they achieve that degree of success, they are admitted into the garden where all the worldly priorities and imperatives they initially based themselves on become homogenized and aestheticized for the new landscaping. In the art world paradise garden, political positions become ineffectual poses and aesthetic positions become high-end consumer goods. If they want to remain vital, they need to remain outside.

But who wants to do that? Co-option seems to me to be the art world’s generous response to controversy. But it has a neutralizing effect.

James Panero, critic (New York, NY)

James Panero

James Panero is the managing editor of The New Criterion. He curated an exhibition at Storefront in Bushwick last month. 

JP: Like almost everybody else, I’ve tried to keep 9/11 as far from my mind as possible. With the tenth anniversary of the attacks coming up, now may be the time to start confronting it. Much of the art of the last decade has been about distracting us from conflict. In certain ways, thank goodness for that. Art gave us a break from reality. But now may be time for art to address larger themes, and for the art world to nurture the engagement. That doesn’t mean getting preachy or violent, but it does mean foregoing easy money (which was never that easy) and perhaps risking life and limb. The example of Ai Weiwei shows that art can resonate around the world and change history.

Carolina A. Miranda, art critic, (New York, NY)

Carolina A. Miranda's Twitter icon

Caroline A. Miranda pens WNYC Culture’s “Gallerina” blog.

CM: I feel more of a gnawing concern than I do an urge to address any burning controversy. It’s something that Ben Davis addressed in an essay he wrote for Artnet last October about art in the time of austerity. Davis said it best, so I’m not going to rewrite everything he said. But there’s a real inequity to the art industry: one where “interns” get “credit” for crafting work sold under other artists names and where the places that need art the most (public schools, community centers, just about every place that’s not Chelsea) find access to it increasingly cut off at a time when the global jetset nonetheless manages to buy $50 million paintings and trot around to biennials and art fairs. It’s symptomatic of some larger ills in our society, so this isn’t just the art world’s problem. But I still think it’s a problem — one that is all too easy to ignore.

Soner Ön, artist, (Brooklyn, NY)

Soner Ön (photo by Jeremiah Mandel)

Soner Ön’s work been included in exhibitions at Mixed Greens Gallery and White Box Gallery in New York, the Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, Les Complices in Zurich, and recently, the Pera Museum in Istanbul.

SÖ: With the current economic climate, Wall Street occupied and the middle class slowly dissolving, many people are being affected, including those in the arts. Coming from a poor urban background, I feel that artists and art professionals are getting closer everyday to the lifestyles of those I grew up around. Levels of people living below the poverty line are higher than they have been in years, and artists are not immune to the realities of our economic climate. Yet with the greed of art colleges raising their tuitions every year alongside student loan corporations armed with preposterous repayment plans — 20 years down the line being an artist or making art for a living may be a fantasy to too many and nothing but a luxury to the very few.

Babak Radboy, artist and art director, (New York, NY)

Babak Radboy (photo by the artist)

Babak Radboy is the Creative Director of Bidoun Magazine and the chief curator of the Bidoun Library. His music video “Power” for Kanye West was nominated this year for a Video Music Award for Best Art Direction.

Art isn’t working, except as an industry. It needs to happen elsewhere and in different ways in order to “work” again. And artists, institutions, patrons, critics and wheel turners of the industry are all equally guilty. And the ways in which institutions are funded and the enormous effect this has in mediating what is shown and what is remembered is astounding. The Guggenheim and Louvre projects in Abu Dhabi are mortifying.

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  • Anonymous

    with all due respect to these no doubt talented people: look harder.

  • http://twitter.com/AleksandrJohn Alexander Cavaluzzo

    Fascinating assemblage of opinions, but it’s a little shocking that so many of them don’t see controversy anywhere. 

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I have to agree, I was trying to figure out why that is, particularly after the recent spat of censorship controversies (Wojnarowicz, Blu, …).

      • Den Hickey

        Well, thing is… how truly controversial was any of that?  Wojnarowicz has been dead for years, so while it is a minor controversy its a controversy over old work by a dead guy.  There simply isn’t much controversy anymore about really contemporary art and I think part of the reason for that is the rise since the 80s of careerism in art as well as the faltering of the hold the moral scolds of the 80s and 90s had on our national dialogue.

    • http://twitter.com/NYCartgirl NYC art girl

      I think it would be interesting to interview art figures based in other cities, compare the range of urgency in their responses. I feel like New Yorkers can be so jaded… Soner On’s commentary is right on!   

  • http://twitter.com/kamelka katarina h

    and super-recent: Marni Kotak’s live birth as performance art: http://bushwickdaily.com/?p=4587

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I don’t get the connection.

      • http://twitter.com/peterdobey Peter Dobey

        The connection being that this coup de théâtre of an art piece is inherently hyper controversial by its mere existence. 

  • Anonymous

    how is it that you invite opinions from 7 artists, and all are male?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749864549 Warren Thomas King

      I invited a diverse group of people to comment, including some female artists I admire. Unfortunately, some did not respond or chose not to participate.

  • Anonymous

    you invited seven artists to comment, 100% male.  why?

  • Anonymous

    Get the hell out of Brooklyn and Chelsea and take a look at the rest of the country — you’ll find relevant and, yes, controversial art “out there.”

  • http://twitter.com/peterdobey Peter Dobey

    Coldbeulah, please point me to where it is in the rest of this country.

  • http://twitter.com/BoysBeGood The Boys

    http://www.boysbegood.com

    There is controversial art being made, I agree with the rest of the comments made here. If you’re not looking, you’re not going to find it.

  • Anonymous

    @Peter Dobey, try New Orleans and Detroit.

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