Opinion

Art-World Cliques

Each taste appears to have their own universe of flavor. (from Vintage Confections’ Etsy shop, via Colossal)

In an essay just published on his blog, gallerist Ed Winkleman writes about “the dialogue” in the context of the art world, a murky concept that seems to encompass everything from critical conversations of aesthetics to growing currents in contemporary art to the ongoing filtration of the art community into a disparate set of cliques each united by their own niche interests. It’s this last facet that most piqued my interest.

“The dialogue,” Winkleman writes, “means different things to different people.” He continues,

“There are, for example, dialogues that are international in scope, regional, national, and local; dialogues that are medium-based; dialogues that are conceptually based; and on and on to the point that you might be forgiven for concluding “the dialogue” is a useless term in discussing practical matters.”

The gallerist, who is known for uncovering some of the behind-the-scenes action of being a dealer through his blog, is insightful when he describes the utility of the term when it comes to determining whether a particular gallery will gain entrance into a commercial fair or not. He writes that if “Gallery X” can’t get into “trendy Art Fair Y,” it’s probably because the gallery’s program “falls outside ‘the dialogue.’” In other words, that gallery’s niche, or brand, doesn’t match the niche or brand that the fair occupies (the “dialogue” they’re involved in), which is established by the galleries that already participate.

Let’s unpack that a little bit. If a gallery isn’t a good fit for a fair, it won’t get in — that’s a recognizable fact. Winkleman doesn’t present this as a good or a bad thing; it’s just reality. As Winkleman has advised artists to be aware of a gallery’s program before submitting their work, he says that galleries must be aware of what their programs are and how they fit into a greater picture when asking to join a fair. Otherwise, a rejection is that much more likely. Each artist, gallery, and fair is participating in their own dialogues, and the more those match up, the more effective the partnership will be.

The consequences of this reality are that as the art world grows larger, with ever more artists and ever more galleries joining an already-huge number of exhibitions, fairs, and biennales, the community as a whole is becoming increasingly segregated into a collection of different dialogues, or niches. We might as well call them “cliques” or “scenes” — circles around certain types of art, certain levels of industry, or certain social tribes. Winkleman dances around the social organization of the art world, preferring to assign the “dialogues” aesthetic boundaries. But there’s an insider-outsider power structure to all of our dealings in the art world that we can all perceive. What we now have, however, are more circles to be inside.

These cliques occur simultaneously, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not. There’s the painting clique, the internet art clique, and the new media clique (one that has historically had a very difficult time reaching the mainstream art-world dialogue, and continues to set itself apart, for better or worse). There’s a blue-chip clique, a lo-fi hipster clique, a Lower-East-Side clique, in fact, there are dozens. Like planets in the explosion following the Big Bang, as the art world grows the cliques both grow in size and grow farther apart.

Winkleman compares the ebb and flow of dialogues in the art world to weather, with bigger artists causing metaphorical “hurricanes” in the global system. I would prefer to think of it in terms of gravitational systems, with cliques warping the areas around them, pulling in the fringes and turning into inescapable forces. We’re all concerned with the gravity of our own planets, because the pull of others doesn’t really impact us.

“Dialogues,” “cliques,” or “gravity;” no matter what term you use, the situation doesn’t sound like a recipe for a more holistic, comprehensive, or open dialogue. Maybe that’s just the brand-conscious moment we orbit in.

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