Between a rock and a hard place: why online art coverage and the New York art world do not converge

written, September, 2013

game tree

All taste in art, nowadays, is relational. What do I mean by that? we construct reality and its construction can be imagined as a series of lattices thrown over the sky or the world. These lattices form a kind of scaffolding of metaphors which make up the content and the being of a culture. Awareness of these lattices is rare, in modern life, as we prefer the blank slate of the positivist vision of life. Or, more specifically, when the confabulation of the lattices lock in place, they literally become invisible to those inside the bubble created by them. As a result, the relations between those lattice layers are flattened out and horizontalized and then compressed within personal zones and said to be a matter of personal taste and not cultural ideology. And yet in this personal zone, the extent of which is one’s interest, the relations between layers persists. One’s taste in art is a function of the relations between the layers with which you construct a personal reality inside the larger cultural reality.

For example, consider the magazine and blog site Beautiful Decay. On its upper bar you can see the range of their coverage, it includes painting, sculpture, illustration, photography and street art. Each of these is a node, but there is also the space between them. The taste of the Beautiful Decay site in art is towards surreal magical realism and figuration: if you want to get a wow out of what the latest artists working in these relational spaces is doing, this is place. But their taste is created by the relationship of painting, illustration, photography and street art, and the conventions and tastes surrounding each node as a specialty. It is created by painters who have accepted some of the allowances of figure in the world of illustration, and also by artists who have adopted some of the styles of the graffiti or public wow style of those artists that continue to practice street art. Illustration is a world and a career, fashion photography is career, with an overlap in the surrealism of the stylists, I am not sure about street art. But, either way, each has its own presiding aesthetic, formed by the scope and demand of their field.

So, if you develop painting launched from the starting point of those aesthetics, you end up with the kind of magic surreal figurative painting that Beautiful Decay favors. If you paint, having once worked in one of those fields, your style will likely fall in line too. If you paint with an eye out toward the tastes of those fields too, same thing. If you continue to paint in this way, you are painting, it is art, but it is exists in a transitional onionskin somewhere between art and the art world.

(Adding to the complexity of this picture is the fact that the art section in a more general cultural publication or website is itself editorially onionskinned to fit in with the overall view of the world conveyed by the magazine. For this reason, some art may be included or excluded that will not be included elsewhere.

The context of online presence, driven by SEO, means that Wow Art, just to get a click, is also favored, which again brings us further away from the gallery-going experience.

So, we are several degrees of separation from “the art world.”

I also believe that it is to place a work of art in an algorithm and in the path of taste developed by an algorithm that we are seeing so much weird art doubletalk online. Lines such as “her art references themes related to art history, history, race, values and morals.”

Everything online, it “references,” and it references “themes related to.”

At first, I was horrified by this awful form of artspeak, now I get it, it’s not really writing, it’s keywording masquerading as writing. This is not really writing about art, it is just making a sentence out of categorizing keywords. The job of the editor or even the art writer is to get more hits on their blog or whatever, they must write like this (since “unlike” is an internet word can I, a writer, call this stuff “unwriting”?) or face the pink slip.

And then it goes further. Having clicked on a work of art, you get some algorithm working on you and it offers up You Might Also Like suggestions, which is peeling an even thinner (purely thematic) slice of onionskin off of the relational onionskin that has been built up by that publication in the world today. And you move even further from art (though the difference between, now, your taste path and that of the publication in general, gives you an impression of dimensional reality), toward one of those enchanting tumblr sites that meander with catspaw narcissism from image to image based on personal taste—I really like those blogs, wandering with wows for hours, but they are not really about art).

And then there is the deeper problem.

For, while all this is most certainly art, in the art universe, much of it is only rarely ‘art world’ art. This is not the art of the art world, but of the sweet spot of the overlap of certain relations between certain types of art lying outside of the art world. As a result, their list of what is good or worth seeing will not overlap with a similar list issued by the New York Times, and it is unlikely that it will overlap with the acceptable relations of the New York art world market, where minimalist, conceptualist and postmodern trends overlap, locking the market in certain fixed relations. Their onionskin takes into consideration kinds of contemporary art making that the art market in New York would not countenance, and which the art market in New York might even question as contemporary art at all, but see as “traditional contemporary art”, art of the art universe of art-making persons, and not of the art market, which is the relationship between legacy elements of three or four kinds of art.

For this reason, it is difficult to get a grasp of the art world online because while the art market is fixed on the ground by certain hard relations of inclusion derived from distinctive formative foundations in the history of contemporary art, the online art world is a maze of algoritha peeling art off of a confabulated reality in numerous and indeed uncountable interleavings, few of which might end up as art gallery art in New York.

The arts online, therefore, are between the moon and New York City, the moon is all the possible paths of taste lead by algoritha to their seemingly endless ends, New York City is all the art that is in the city (and I reserve for another meditation the truth that in fact the New York city art world also represents the archaeological remains of the different aesthetic relations built around various media over the past 75 years, as, here and there, in out of the way galleries, you can still find lingering pockets of archaic relationships between art and life from 1950—and it is always fun to stumble upon these surviving relations. One can still much more routinely find echoes of 70s-90s relations in galleries).

By contrast, the mainstream blue chip New York art world lives between a rock and hard place. The rock is the minimalism-conceptualism legacy and the hard place is neo-, that is, what a contemporary artist can do with such a well-worked legacy. Any work outside of the intersections of these limited relations is not welcome. It’s not snobbery, it’s just a different relationship with the real.

To be continued.