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« American High Culture IV: The Role of Universities | Main | Brain Research »

November 16, 2002

Art in Santa Fe

Friedrich --

A busy few days of art-going here on vacation in Santa Fe, wrestling with the way popular and elite art have become ridiculously (and tragically) polarized.

First, a visit to the International Folk Art Museum, full of delights and surprises. Much amazement at how evocative, humorous, melancholy and mysterious folk art can be. Also how traditional, yet how inventive and bizarre: it can make you wonder why sophisticated, cosmopolitan artists bother trying.

Later, an afternoon spent in the local galleries, full of cowboy art, designer abstractions, etc. Art for the tourist trade, yet almost all of it talented and skillful. It’s enjoyably disorienting for a NYC-based arts fan with an overdeveloped critical-intellectual muscle to wander around taste-testing this kind of art. Santa Fe puts you in a pleasing-yourself, quality-of-life frame of mind. You think about food, imagery, houses, and spending money on pleasure. You find yourself thinking, “Hmmm, I could live with that.” Is much of this art made for the market? Sure. Is that any reason to dismiss it? At the moment, I can’t see why. I’m pretty certain, however, that my art-world friends back in NYC will remind me why I should.

Then an evening at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, feeling chagrined, because whenever I’m not in front of her paintings, I can feel annoyed by her. When I see them live, I think, Gee, these pictures are really very catchy.

Finally, a visit to Site Santa Fe, the local stark-and-severe “art space,” an abrupt return to contempo, high-serious, art-world art, and a look at an installation show by Janine Antoni, who’s, ahem, upending assumptions of gender and the body. An impression in plaster of one of her nipples: inner/outer, masculine and feminine ways of doing things, etc. Lots of cows, soap, lard and chocolate: the inside/the outside, consuming/creating, feminine and masculine ways of making art. Hey, it’s possible to get what her work is about and still not like it.

I can see taking pleasure from the folk art. I can see enjoying the tourist art. The O’Keefe paintings are hard to resist (part of the fun being that so many of them are about what it’s like to have a pussy, yet she’d never admit there was any sexual content in them).

Out here in Santa Fe, surrounded by people enjoying Indian art, Hispanic low-rider art, and Georgia O’Keefe, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting much of anything out of Antoni. My own tastes run towards avant-garde art, and Antoni of course can do what she wants – free country, etc. But it’s telling that she gives you next-to-nothing to look at – her work’s all about realizing would-be clever art-world ideas. You have to read and decode it; the only other people looking at her show was a small crowd being led around by a docent, who was busy explaining the ideas.

In fact, her work hardly exists without explanation. Antoni seems a clever, capable illustrator of current art-professor-and-foundation ideas, more a maker of successful grant proposals than of art. It’s supposed to be progressive and radical, yet how interesting to learn that Site Santa Fe counts among its major supporters the Ford and Lannan Foundations – what’s avant-garde about that?

The topic of women and how they feel about self-exposure is a good one, but Antoni won’t give over to pleasure or anxiety. Instead, she dresses her feelings and ideas up in PC clothes, and enlists her talent in the PC crusade. Not a surprise to learn that she's been rewarded with a MacArthur “genius” grant.



posted by Michael at November 16, 2002


Rather than saying Antoni's work doesn't "exist without explanation," I'd say it hardly exists without thinking.

Conceptual work is frequently "about" more than just the object/image in front of you and the pleasure/impact of *seeing* it.

I, for one, find great pleasure in seeing (some of) Antoni's work, especially a sculpture like "Gnaw," which gets me thinking a lot about how it was made (obviously), but it also gets me thinking about other minimalist art, the history of ideas, influences, personalities, and yes, gender (and other pc faves).

Posted by: gregdotorg on November 17, 2002 5:10 PM

Hi Greg

Glad to hear you enjoy Antoni. Like you, I "get" her work; unlike you, I don't really like it. I suspect we might be on the same page where one thing is concerned, which is that we both know that it takes some kind of key to get her work.Few people who haven't had some experience with conceptual art are going to be able to look at Antoni's work and have much of a reaction beyond perplexity. As I mentioned, the only other people looking at her work while I was there were being led around by a docent, who was busy explaining what Antoni is up to.

The meager point of my posting was to contrast art that reaches out and is graspable without a specialist's training with art that does take specialist training to decode, and that's mostly performed (if you will) for insiders.

As well as to marvel at how odd it is that it's the second, and not the first kind of art, that has much of the institutional backing these days.

Thanks for your comments. It's good to see that kind of enthusiasm about conceptual art.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 18, 2002 4:43 PM

Not a meager point at all, but it's one that Antoni's work doesn't really hold up very well. If anything, a lot of her work is so open-hearted and literal with its "keys" you almost wish for a little perplexity: her loom deal, for example, where she weaves her ekg readings into a blanket that she sleeps under in the gallery. No insider or specialist or other institutionally priveleged status needed to "get" that, especially when she's parked there in the gallery chatting up everyone who comes by.

It seems to me that the contrast is starker between work that places a priority on (ie., "is about") thinking or ideas vs. work that's about evoking pleasure/emotion or that emphasizes looking good/beauty.

As for the institutional backing, that seems to me to be more a function of the institution than the art (cf. Norman Rockwell Studies). Noodling endlessly on intentionality or tropes or whatever is just what people in institutions DO (at least that's what it seems like from the outside. You clearly know better, which is why you're smacking them around).

Posted by: gregdotorg on November 19, 2002 5:26 PM

Greg, you might be a little more optimistic than I am about the average museum/gallery-goer's ability to decode Antoni's work, warm and fuzzy though it may be. One of my companions, for instance, a museum docent herself, didn't have a clue what most of Antoni's pieces were about. But, absent some kind of study neither one of us would probably want done, we'll never know for certain.

Thanks for calling me on my use of "institutional support." I should have referred instead to grants-and-foundations support, of course, most of which goes to artists doing work many gallery-and-museumgoers don't feel qualified to judge.

I suspect we differ in a general way in our reactions to artwork that's "about thinking" or "about thoughts" or concepts or process. Artists can (and will) do what they want, of course, and fans will enjoy what they enjoy. As for myself, I've found that most artists, talented in a visual (or art-world-gameplaying) way though they may be, have little ability to distinguish between a passable thought and a ludicrous bit of attitudinizing; what Antoni seems to take for "thoughts," for instance, strike me as recycled old PC platitudes. I tend to hang up on what strikes me as the bad thinking, and this tends to limit my enjoyment of much conceptual art. I have to remind myself to persist, and reflect about the artist's skill in embodying or referring to it. My limitation, of course.

But these are just matters of taste, aren't they? An art critic I know likes to say that the trouble with the contempo high-visual-arts world is "too much Duchamp, not enough Cezanne." I tend to agree -- that's my taste. Like him, I enjoy some conceptual art. And, like him, I find nearly all of it to be games for insiders.

Nothing wrong with that. I do think that it becomes a problem when the standard, much-discussed, art-world thing is by-insiders-and-for-insiders. You and I, insiders (or semi-insiders) both, may not have much trouble with such art. But many others do. There seems to be a very big gulf between interested-amateurs and those-in-the-know these days. Can we agree that that's unfortunate? If not, we might have an actual disagreement, rather than a difference in taste, on our hands.

Best, Michael

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 20, 2002 6:09 PM

There is a gap, no doubt, but I find myself caught off guard and underestimating the ability of 'average folks' to 'get' something, especially as it relates to insidery art.

I think (we) insiders of all stripes are prone to either 1) underestimate non-specialists and/or 2) overemphasize the primacy of the whole art critical/decoding construct. People may "get" something, but just not be interested in it or think it's worth thinkin' about.

Example: in the summer, I got into a row with Nico Israel, who wrote an Artforum piece on Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, the Art Historical Importance of which was surely lost on the local rubes in Utah.

As it turns out, there IS growing local interest in SJ; my Mom's square friends and my anti-cultural sister all dig it, and local news media covered new suburban and rural fans of an utterly "insider" work. THAT caught me off guard, and it'd have made a much more interesting story than the typical artworld road trip.

And while I'm sure citing a hippie like Pynchon isn't going to help my case, I think it's fine to expect people to work a little bit for art, as long as there's an actual payoff (a bar I'm sure we agree not all conceptual artists can clear). On Artkrush recently, I read an interesting article comparing Cubism, reading X-men and reading Pynchon. (# of Pynchon-skimmers=# of Antoni-browsers/5, I'm sure)...

Posted by: gregdotorg on November 24, 2002 10:25 PM

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