I Don’t Care About David Byrne Anymore?

A bike rack designed by David Byrne (photo by Flickr user zombieite)
A bike rack designed by David Byrne (photo by Flickr user zombieite)

David, I received your missive in my Facebook feed. You know, the one where you pseudo-declare, “I Don’t Care About Contemporary Art Anymore?” The one where you complain that the art on view in the galleries you “peruse … when I return from jogging” are failing to raise your curiosity. You write, “I realize that I have begun to view the work itself as being either intentionally or unconsciously produced expressly to cater to the 1%.” You complain that the work is simply “inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund.” You say, “It’s sad.” And then you go on to complain about Damien Hirst, the loss of irony, and the cost and size of abstract art. Boo hoo, fuck off.

But first, I have three thoughts to share with you.

The first is a simple point of order. While I appreciate the solidarity with Occupy sensibilities, you don’t get to invoke anti-1% rhetoric while having an estimated net worth of $40+ million. And while it pains me that Axl Rose, Jimmy Buffet, and (ugh) Dave Matthews all have larger net worths than the man who took America post-punk and kept that anti-corporate sensibility in his pop music, when you are worth $40+ million dollars, you no longer get to complain about the rich as if they are some other species. Noblesse oblige, motherfucker.

Second, you don’t get to declare yourself an “outsider” unless you are actually an outsider. “I used to feel I could vicariously participate even if I was often viewed as an outsider,” you write. “The artists were always welcoming and eager to hang and talk about things with me.”  Perhaps you’ve forgotten that your visual art is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery, one of the world’s most powerful; you studied at RISD; you’ve exhibited at Colette in Paris, Pulse Miami, in Italy, in Tokyo … You have an art résumé most artists I know would kill a small dog to get. And I know dozens of art centers across North America and Europe that would be more than happy to build an entire program where you can engage in a vigorous “forum for ideas and feelings about the world we live in.” All you would have to do is show up. They would probably pay your way.

I agree with you that contemporary art has a problem, and that problem is the obscene amount of money passing through a globalized and elite corner of the art world. As an active member of said art world, I was embarrassed by the crap that came out of art fair week in Miami last year. I felt the heavy burden of “how am I going to explain this shit” when Damien Hirst unloaded his idiotic dots onto the world. I put up with awful museum curation that is little more than asset enhancement for private art collections that will be unloaded at auction houses a few years later. And I watch oil barons stock private art museums in old dairy barns with the saddest laundry list of safe, contemporary works and wonder how someone spending so much money on so much art could learn so little from it. Yes, the world is fucked up, and the art world is a reflection of that.

But that brings me to my third point. “The galleries in Chelsea, on the west side of Manhattan” in the “zone of luxury condos” where you live are a tiny sample of the art world. They may be that part of the art world that everybody talks about; whose exhibitions get reviewed in glossy art magazines; from whom museums acquire new work — they may be the center of the art universe, but they are a minuscule part of it. Let me tell you about the one-armed punk chick who sews art dolls and sells them at Frenchmen Art Market in New Orleans. Let me tell you about the sculptor in Vermont whose constructions sing the entropy of the rust belt. Let me tell you about the painter in Maine whose landscapes are a bridge between 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Modernism, landscapes that speak to a 21st-century way of seeing. Let me tell you about the nonrepresentational painter in New Jersey whose colorful paintings speak to the microcosmic/macrocosmic tension of contemporary life. Let me tell you about the gallery in Portland, Oregon, that’s closing after a three-year run of exhibiting some of the most compelling collage and assemblage work being made today. Let me tell you about the curator whose website sells beautiful, witty, smart contemporary artwork for less than $1,000. Let me tell you about walking into an installation in a gallery in Montreal, turning to my partner, and, for the first time, being able to explain, “this is how my brain works.” Let me tell you about the art that makes me angry, makes me cry, makes me feel like there is still hope for this world, and then let’s go to Provincetown or Harrisburg or Taos or Seattle and see it.

I am over hearing from people within jogging distance of the Chelsea galleries that the whole of contemporary art is over; that art is no longer emotionally or intellectually fulfilling; that art is too expensive even for millionaires. I’m done reading articles titled “Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?,” written by people who haven’t figured out that Manhattan has bridges and tunnels and a subway. And I’m tired of pretending that a global elite has a monopoly on the expression of “ideas and feelings,” when there are thousands of people working every day outside of that slipstream as proof otherwise. So David, please, take your head out of your ass and your ass out of New York. Or, to quote you, “Here’s your ticket pack your bag: time for jumpin’ overboard / The transportation is here … ”

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