This past Sunday the 92nd Street Y held a public talk with Amy Cappellazzo, Marilyn Minter, Jeffrey Deitch, and Paul Schimmel to extend a conversation within and around Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary The Price of Everything. The talk drew a good audience to the Y’s Buttenwieser Hall, which is to be expected because the film has only gained popularity since it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, having now been acquired by HBO as well as screening in theaters in select cities across the country. At the start, the film’s producers, Jennifer Blei Stockman, Debi Wisch and Carla Solomon, showed clips from the film and then introduced each of the panelists who, prompted by Deitch’s pre-written questions attempted to deal with issues raised in the film. It was a carefree colloquy anchored by Schimmel’s cheery declaration (in response to Deitch’s query) that we are indeed living in a golden age. By this he meant, I believe, that the wide and varied production of art we now experience depends on and is nourished by capital. As Schimmel said, repeating a line he had also given in the film, “There would be no golden age without gold.”
The makeup of the panel: one well known artist, a dealer and gallerist, a buyer and auctioneer, and a curator affirmed for me the ultimately euphemistic nature of the discussion. It felt in essence, though there was some rhetorical hand-wringing about the ways that artists are exploited by collectors and dealers (as one would expect led by Minter), the talk was really a celebration of their position in an art ecosystem largely conditioned by the market. At the very end, this conviction cemented in me when Deitch at last asked which art critic might also have taken that stage with them. The answers were deeply disappointing: Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, and Christopher Knight. Trying to come up with writers that were perhaps fresher, Deitch mentioned Jason Farago (who like Smith also writes for the New York Times) and Sarah Lehrer Graiwer who writes a good deal for Artforum.
It’s as if none of the panelists had gone online in the last few years to actually read art criticism that isn’t printed in New York’s and Los Angeles’s major newspapers, legacy art magazines, or in The New Yorker. More, they don’t seem to realize that current art criticism doesn’t always concern itself with taste making, or with shaping public attention in such a way as to enhance or choke off the attention of collectors. Art criticism deals with issues of community cohesion, decolonization of major institutions, education, relationships among actors within the arts ecosystem, racism, exploitation, institutional responsibility, the public trust, poetry, feminism, and on. And there are creative, insightful writers connecting those issues to current exhibitions and our lived lives to make art not merely something one owns, but rather something that one experiences and through which one might discover oases of meaning. Even if one only looks at print media look at the work of Jillian Steinhauer who occasionally writes for the NY Times as well, and Carolina Miranda who is a staff writer for the LA Times. Or better still, look at electronic media and see the trenchant criticism of Aruna D’Souza, Lindsay Nixon, Sarah Bond, and my own work which plays with the form of the review while also invoking poetry, politics, and museology.
What is disappointing is not so much that the panelists could only trot out a few names from high-status publications, but rather that these four people are presented as leading voices able to give us insight into how the art system actually works. Clearly they have an enormous blind spot regarding the worth and promise of rigorous criticism — which is, at the very least, that readers’ might be sensitized to what their eyes and other senses sometimes initially fail to perceive. There wasn’t an art critic present on stage for the conversation because they didn’t want one. I should mention that I was invited to attend the event by a public relations agent. She introduced herself to me and welcomed me to the talk. I took my reserved seat a few rows back from the stage, while she took hers in the front row.
Editor’s Note: the author participated in an early focus group panel that evaluated the film before its release.