Interviews

Art’s Corrosive Success: An Interview with Martha Buskirk

by Alexis Clements on July 27, 2012

Following up on the essay I wrote about the ZERO1 Fellowship sponsored by Google, I wanted to speak with someone with a wider perspective on the shifts that have taken place in the past few decades in the arts, particularly shifts that relate to the interface between art and the marketplace. Martha Buskirk came to mind as an ideal interviewee.

Buskirk, an art historian and critic who teaches at Monserrat College of Art, recently published a new book titled Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace, which presents a dynamic and dryly skeptical account of the nuanced and complex relationships between artists, museums and the marketplace.

The book is informed by Buskirk’s deep knowledge of art history and contemporary art practice, as well as her keen eye for the constantly morphing role of the museum and the curator (among others) in the creation of new work. She nicely summarizes the issues she’s grappling with in the book in a discussion of the artist Carey Young’s work: “… it has become ever harder to distinguish between artistic activity and other forms of commerce or production, even as the residual separation is what gives works of art their cultural and commercial authority.”

I spoke with her by phone late last week to discuss some of the ideas in the book and how some of those relate to grants such as the ZERO1 Fellowship.

*    *    *

Martha Buskirk

Martha Buskirk (photo by Robert Moeller)

Alexis Clements: Early in the book you talk about the “destablization of art as a category.” Can you give readers a sense of what you mean by that?

Martha Buskirk: There are a lot of different ideas that come into play. Obviously one is just that there’s an incredible range of different things that are called art these days. Art is no longer defined around a permanent object — it could be performances, it could be interventions, it could be social situations. So the very notion of what art is is an expanding category. But then the other part of it is that the category “artist” has begun to overlap with other categories — curator, collector — so that these various different frames of activity become intertwined in a lot of ways. And certainly another place that it overlaps is between artist and designer, or artist and stylist.

AC: You anticipated my next question, which is about the destablilization of what we mean when we use the word “artist” and the work that person does. In particular, in the chapter that highlights the work of Allan Kaprow, you reference a quote in which he’s discussing the idea that he is no longer an artist but is instead a “service provider.” What is that shift about for Kaprow and how does that reflect on contemporary art practice?

MB: Basically, Kaprow was presenting himself as a service provider as a counterpoint to the notion that he was an object maker. He was trying to use it to somehow be disruptive to what he was seeing as the art system. The thing is, the whole idea of artist as a service provider has been absorbed into a different kind of art system. So the idea of simply destabilizing a notion of art based on object-production has opened up into a very different notion of artistic production.

Allan Kaprow in the middle of “Yard”

Allan Kaprow in the middle of his work “Yard” (1961), Allan Kaprow papers, ca. 1940-1997 (via hauserwirth.com)

AC: Why is Kaprow an important figure in that discussion?

MB: His own evolution from starting out as a painter and then turning to environment and assemblage, and then to happenings, in some way parallels the larger evolution in the art world. So he is a very important figure in that respect. The particular piece that I chose, “Yard,” was a piece that I found really interesting because of its long history. We date it as a 1961 work but then it kept being remade, and in a sense, its history, as it moved through these different contexts, shows those contexts evolving as well. It showed how people were trying to historicize the 1960s according to more contemporary demands.

AC: One of the ideas you keep returning to in the book is the notion of replication, of an artwork being re-created, reimagined, repositioned or repackaged, and the ways that these alterations or secondary iterations often are assimilated into a museum’s art historical narrative, or a collector or curator’s ideas of why a certain work fits into narratives of their own devising, or even those changed demands of the larger arts industry. What are some of the problems that arise from this process of assimilation or change?

MB: It’s not so much that I was saying assimilation is a given, it’s more about how that assimilation takes place. One thing that I was really interested in showing is how a range of different types of work have then created a range of different types of responses. So basically, the institution itself has been changed in response to artists doing things that are not as easily transportable. The whole process of interpretation can also then turn into a process of remaking. Essentially there’s always an ongoing process of interpretation that evolves over time, but it becomes particularly strange when that process of interpretation also involves a process of using a current interpretation of a work to remake an ephemeral work.

One of things that I’ve been struggling with is that I see this whole process as constantly ambiguous or double-edged. So, on the one hand, yes, there is a process of controlling, or taming perhaps, a political statement if it’s called art. On the other hand, the art world provides a whole platform for dissemination such that a very ephemeral gesture might actually have a kind of longevity to it when it’s called art. I tend to always want to see both sides.

“There’s always been a relationship between art and money or art and commerce, and the most interesting galleries have both been successful as businesses and had a certain kind of far-reaching aesthetic sensibility.”

Also, nothing I’m writing about is, in a sense, completely unprecedented — Clement Greenberg famously talks about the avant-garde being connected to the ruling elite by an “umbilical cord of gold.” There’s always been a relationship between art and money or art and commerce, and the most interesting galleries have both been successful as businesses and had a certain kind of far-reaching aesthetic sensibility. So there’s a kind of tension or ambiguity that has been part of this picture for a long time. But what I’ve been interested in is certain kinds of extremes. And maybe that ambiguity has seemed increasingly out of balance somehow.

AC: That gets at why I was so keen to interview you after writing my essay about the ZERO1 Fellowship sponsored by Google. That grant program seems like a kind of extreme to me, and also a bit strange, in that it seems to have very little to do with actual art making despite claiming to be an arts grant that will generate new art. What is your take on grants or programs that seem to be asking artists to serve a social or corporate good more than they are being asked to make art?

MB: That comes down to this very blurry set of lines that don’t really seem to hold. You know, at one point, one could actually make some kind of a distinction between fine art and commercial art. That line just doesn’t seem at all clear at this point. And certainly, even at the time when people thought they could make that distinction, fine art was being sold, fine art was being used in various different ways as a status symbol in all kinds of contexts. But the notion of the artist as a kind of stylist is completely part of some kind of social networking that then can be called art — because a very broad definition of art certainly includes some kind of social networking. But then social networking has also been harnessed in these very nuanced ways. I think part of it is not so much a force coming from the art world, but rather that almost every aspect of our social interaction has the potential to be, and probably as soon as you blink will be, harnessed for some kind of commercial means. The arts are just a symptom of that, in a larger sense.

AC: There’s a phrase that really stood out to me right at the end of your book about “art’s corrosive success.” That brings to mind two things for me.

First, there’s the economic weirdness of the arts in this particular moment. The visual art market seems to be largely isolated and insulated from the rest of the economy, with people participating in what seems to be a dramatically inflated market in order to gain quick profits, to avoid taxes, and with a belief that art is a viable financial instrument that will appreciate over time, because they look at the past and see Van Goghs and Andy Warhols appreciating so much over time and want to believe that potential exists in a larger portion of work. And economists are happily creating models with myopic viewpoints that make people feel justified in that belief.

MB: And as long as enough of them believe that, then it will actually continue to be true.

AC: Exactly. And I can’t help but see a little bit of tulip mania in that. I mean, many people have speculated about when and if the art bubble will ever burst, but the self-perpetuating nature of the high end of the art market, supported by these outsize institutions that help legitimize and drive massive valuations, seems to mirror other famous bubbles of the past. But it hasn’t burst yet. So there’s that economic belief in the arts.

Then there’s the softer social belief that the arts are good or possess a unique ability that no other industry possesses. Which you can see when individuals and companies and organizations go out and ask artists to solve their problems for them. There’s this weird assumption that artists can come into any field, without real expertise, and offer artistic opinions or artistic ideas or whatever that unique ability is that people believe artists as a category possess, which will ultimately help them develop new products or solve society’s problems. Everybody seems to be engaged in this game right now; I see it constantly in the language of grants. Does that resonate in any way with the ideas you were exploring in the book?

There’s this weird assumption that artists can come into any field, without real expertise, and offer artistic opinions or artistic ideas … 

MB: It’s sort of a twist on the idea of the artist as somebody who’s involved in a wide-ranging institutional critique. The whole notion of institutional critique is something I follow a bit through the book, where it’s been a transformation from something that was a disruptive examination of the status quo to something that’s invited by the museums because, in fact, showing the workings of a museum turns out to be something that actually interests audiences. So you can invite a version of critique into the institution and have it be very popular with the audience and the museum’s educational department. I think what you’re talking about is a somewhat broader notion of that, where the artist is a kind of roving consultant who can do some kind of incisive critique of any situation he or she encounters. Which, you know, I know artists who would be very good at critiquing a lot of different kinds of situations, but on the other hand, the question is what is being served by that.

AC: It’s funny in the context of that ZERO1/Google grant. I expressed my skepticism about the grant program to Joel Slayton, the executive director of ZERO1, who himself was a practicing artist for a period, and in response he said that he believed Google was inviting critique and open to it. To me that just seems highly suspect and also very problematic, as I outlined in the essay.

MB: Well, one of the problems is that they propose to pay the artist, because they’re calling this person an artist, so much less than they would pay any other kind of consultant.

AC: Exactly, that would be chief among the problems with the grant. But beyond that, it seems very awkward for an institution to request and pay for a critique of itself from an artist. It’s something like when your best friend sits you down after you’ve both been out drinking for a while and asks you to be honest with them about their flaws and to tell them what you really think. Anyone with a little bit of life experience would know that you’re going to destroy that friendship if you answer that request honestly. It just seems like you’re never going to be able to have truly open critique in an environment where the paycheck is coming from the object of critique. My suspicion is that any artist who dared to do it fully is either going to have their work quashed or have it flipped into some kind of PR campaign in which the organization professes to have mended their ways but really just keeps right on doing what they were doing.

“Eventually, the choice was between the acceptance of or the rejection of an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism.”

MB: It’s interesting to see certain examples of artists invited into the institution and still somehow managing to push to a point of discomfort. One example of that, which is not from this book but my earlier book, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art, is Michael Asher. He created a work for the Museum of Modern Art that focused on their deaccessions, and just the very notion of compiling that information, much less having the museum disseminate it for him, caused all kind of discomfort.

AC: Right. And there’s the 1971 Hans Haacke exhibition, which you mention in the book and which came up in a recent exhibit at the Center for Book Arts that I reviewed, where he revealed the real estate dealings of people connected to the board of the Guggenheim and his work was shut down.

MB: Actually, what was interesting about that example is that the idea that it was the Guggenheim board’s real estate dealings is one of the myths around the exhibition. It was just revealing that economic information itself that was too much for the Guggenheim at that particular moment.

AC: Oh, so there was no direct connection between the data and the board?

MB: There wasn’t a direct connection — they had wealthy board members, so one could make an oblique connection, but there wasn’t a specific connection there. But that is an interesting example because at that moment, in 1971, the Guggenheim and the director in particular, Thomas M. Messer, really defined Haacke’s work as alien. [From comments by Messer following the cancellation of Haacke’s exhibit: “Eventually, the choice was between the acceptance of or the rejection of an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism.”] And one of the things that’s interesting is that there are so few examples that one can find at this point of something that has transgressed so far that it’s completely rejected.

AC: One of the responses I got to the essay on the ZERO1/Google grant was from someone who mentioned a prize sponsored by the Siemens corporation in Europe. Apparently if you won the prize, Siemens would claim complete ownership of the work you created. In the end, there was a protest from a large portion of the artists who would likely have applied for the prize. The implication I took from his sharing this anecdote is that we don’t see that same protest against the ZERO1/Google grant. For me that brings up a lot of questions about the rush for funding on the part of many American artists, and the poverty or scarcity mentality in the arts today. Do you have a sense that the increased desire to participate in the marketplace of the arts is one of the reasons why these problematic relationships have increased so much lately?

MB: There are a lot of different parts to your question. On the one hand, there are a tremendous number of people wanting to be artists these days. That’s part of the tremendous explosion of the art world — you have an explosion in collectors, museums and galleries, but also all these people going to art school, coming out of art school and wanting to be a part of this scene. So certainly, for any opportunity there are going to be a lot of people interested in taking a chance at it, no matter how much seems like it might be stacked towards the interest of the commissioning body.

AC: And then, in terms of some of the other stuff we’ve talked about, there is the increased participation that grows out of a renewed perception that the arts are something cool, or sexy.

MB: To go back to the issue of collecting — you were talking before about the collector’s belief that their objects will increase in value, but there’s also just a certain kind of fashion of being involved in the arts, of being part of this larger world that overlaps with other parts of the creative economy.

AC: Your use of the word “fashion” feels spot on. It seems as though that’s a big part of what’s driving this trend toward bringing artists into non-arts situations. It’s fashionable to be able to trot in an artist, or trot in art-like activities as a way of showing your sophistication and economic prowess and your connection to people outside of your own industry.

MB: And, of course, artists are asked to contribute disproportionately to other professions — all these benefit auctions that you see where people seem to not think twice about asking artists to create something to be auctioned off, where they wouldn’t necessarily ask someone from other professions to simply give away their work product for free.

AC: One other thing I want to get to before we wrap up is your discussion of art-like objects and the highly commercialized production of the artist Takashi Murakami. For me, Murakami’s work parallels in so many ways things happening in the retail sector, such as the Target corporation’s desire to brand itself as a retailer that brings cheap goods to market that have the imprimatur of luxury and high design or even pop art. There seems to be a kind of intimate link between an artist like Murakami and that mass marketing of luxury and goods that aspire to be art-like.

“… all these benefit auctions that you see where people seem to not think twice about asking artists to create something to be auctioned off, where they wouldn’t necessarily ask someone from other professions to simply give away their work product for free.”

MB: I think Murakami is a really interesting example because Murakami is kind of the epitome of someone who produces paintings, who produces more traditional objects, but also very evidently functions as a brand and produces these smaller, less expensive, more mass-produced products. And so the overlap is very evident, in the case of his larger production, between the idea of the artist as author and the idea of artist as something like a designer brand. For me, he very consciously embraces that full range of possibility, and it’s not something where one can say, “oh look, Murakami is producing these products, we’ll reveal that and somehow critique his work,” because he’s very consciously, himself, blurring that distinction.

To play the devil’s advocate with the Murakami example for a second, the other part of what he does is truly to have a line of products that are available to all tiers of the marketplace. So the people that went to the Murakami exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum who I saw coming out of there with all kinds of Murakami loot were buying genuine Murakami products out of the gift shop and taking some kind of pleasure in that. Now the question is, what definition of art do we use that encompasses the fluffy pillow that came out of the gift shop?

AC: And that’s exactly what your book is trying to piece out. The lesson you could take from that is not so much that what’s revealing is the low-end product, but maybe that everything that he does is part of a continuum. Because you have to think of it all as some kind of product, even though they are products that have an aesthetic punch. So how do you then hold onto the notion of art as a special category?

MB: And I guess one of the ironies that I was trying to pursue in the book is that the idea of art has become increasing hard to define and ambiguous at the same time that the contemporary art world has just expanded exponentially. That ambiguity has not stopped the tremendous expansion of contemporary art museums, galleries and MFA programs.

Martha Buskirk’s Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace is available on Continuum Books and other online booksellers.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Donald-Frazell/1640240703 Donald Frazell

    More white on white crime, until you star dealing with truly Universal HUMAN issues, no one will care. You already have raped the rest of us as is. why should we? Slave masters vs foremen is all. Irrelevant. And not art.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Donald-Frazell/1640240703 Donald Frazell

    By the way, art is simple to define, as all truth is. you just dont want to face it, cant sell art degrees in the Museo/Academic/Gallery degree selling money mill if you did.
    Most things come in threes as one. Your opposed 2 as are always false. of this world, selfishness and but wings of the same party. Truth is always the third way above arrogance of the pseudo intellectual vs power broker partiers. See article below. .

  • http://www.facebook.com/fabianistheword Fabian G. Tabibian

    RE: “His (Kaprow’s) own evolution from starting out as a painter and then turning to environment and assemblage, and then to happenings, in some way parallels the larger evolution in the art world.”

    Doesn’t this really parallel the larger evolution of the US from manufacturing workforce to service industries? Are performance artists akin to consultants?

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