The Big Idea

Where Does 2014 Leave the Art World?

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Where Does 2014 Leave the Art World?
The marquee for an SVA panel on Walter Robinson's Zombie Formalism column in December

With 2014 drawing to a close, let’s turn our attention to the art bubble. 

Not a bubble in the art market. By all indications, the business of art is bound to continue its inexorable growth. New art fairs are opening year-round and finding success, marquee New York galleries are expanding to Los Angeles, and art auctions have become ritualistic reaffirmations of the strength of the market, with each new record chiming in like the bell on a gigantic cash register. With wealth expanding around the world to create flush new pockets of eager collectors, and with the United States economy on the rebound, even more money stands to enter the art world. This, in turn, could lead to an even lusher flowering of art. 

Rather, the more salient bubble is the one that exists around the art community, sealing it off from the world around it. The pronouncements that economist Thomas Piketty made in his still-controversial book about the trends driving the ever-richer rich apart from the ever-more-disenfranchised poor were already a priori true to anyone who attends any of the Art Basels, where this bubble is celebrated by the addition of concentrically smaller bubbles. In Miami this was epitomized this year by the Miley Cyrus concert, where the elect who received Jeffrey Deitch’s wristbands enjoyed plenty of room to stretch out and zero lines to the bar while an equal number of people massed outside the Raleigh Hotel.

The concept that the art world revolves around a secret, velvet-roped-off central room where rich men cavort with famous artists and models amid delicacies and drugs was liberalized in Kenny Schachter’s account of one artist at a dinner “unfurl[ing] a folder-sized envelope filled with cocaine in open view of the unfazed wait staff” and ingesting it with his hand. Meanwhile, when hundreds of people shut down I-195 to protest police brutality toward black men, awareness of the event at Art Basel was felt merely as inconvenient traffic and extra surge pricing on Uber.

What does it say that a decadent elite living at a distant remove from the realities of the rest of humanity has been the subject of the year’s biggest movie, the latest Hunger Games adaptation, as well as the recent sci-fi thrillers Elysium and Snowpiercer? Meanwhile, the biggest art exhibition of the year was the Whitney’s retrospective of Jeff Koons, and artist most famous for his sublimely expensive animals that are literally made from bubbles, polished to a mirror finish so the owner can see himself reflected in it. Koons, when he had his famous 2008 show at the Château de Versailles, said he viewed Louis XIV as “a symbol of what happens to art under a monarch (whoever controls it, it will eventually reflect his or her ego and simply become decorative).” An inspiration for his own art, Koons continued, was to imagine the king’s routine, where he would “wake up in the morning, look out of his palace window, and think, ‘What do I want to see today?’” 

Here’s where the bubble presents problems. Consider two memes that went viral this year, Zombie Formalism—the term for a popular style of abstract painting that Walter Robinson coined on Artspace—and “flipper” collectors. The output of the Zombie Formalists, Robinson wrote, consists of abstractions that bend the recent history of painting to pro-forma, decorative ends. The intellectual content that allowed previous developments in painting—gestural abstraction, process-driven minimalism, et cetera—to break new artistic ground is voided, leaving a colorful corpse so devoid of ideas one could imagine it craving human brains. The flippers, meanwhile, have gone whole-hog into this trough, buying this purely decorative art up by the bushel and seeding it into the auction market, causing the artists to catch fire and burn out in record time, like tapers. Of this art, one gets the feeling that zero is at stake aside from money and careers. Like Koons’s sculptures, these paintings are signifiers of a form of affluence and cultural capital, and are hollow inside.

Abstract paintings are often wonderful to look at, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with decor, but it probably goes without saying that this kind of function is not what so many of us—particularly the museum- and gallery-going public—look to art for, or why we devote so much time to looking at and thinking about it. Art can tell us stories about ourselves and, as with the recent spate of sci-fi class-warfare movies, it has a spectacular ability to filter and visualize the uneasy, half-buried phenomena troubling us about the world around us, like dreams. And right now there is no shortage of deeply worrisome tendencies out there that need this form of psychical digestion: climate change, embedded racism, gaping income disparity, the precipitous entry into an uncertain high-tech future, the globalizing of our everyday lives… the list, obviously, goes on. 

The thing is, there are artists making this work as we speak. It’s just that the mechanics of the art world tend to elevate the simpler—or historically older—fare, while this art remains largely outside of the bubble, so most people don’t know it exists. What we—the journalists, curators, gallerists, collectors, and the rest—owe ourselves to do is find and support this work as it appears, ensuring that along with the exposure dictated by the vicissitudes of the market there is also a discourse of fresh, breaking ideas. With the digital tools available today, it’s easier than ever to bring this kind of art into the conversation—something Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited press did brilliantly with their post-Ferguson “reading list” accompanied by satirical mockups of book covers like Sweet Land of Kill Em All and Let Em Die and How Not to Get Shot, “by Cops.” 

None of this is to say that the art press hasn't been doing its part to shed light on outspoken work. Art News's Andrew Russeth, for instance, wrote about memorable shows like Park McArthur's collection of wheelchair-access ramps at Essex Street and Hans Haacke's precision strike on the Koch brother's art philanthropy (specifically their funding of the Met's new fountains) at Paula Cooper; Ben Davis's Artnet essay on Emma Sulkowicz's Mattress Performance at Columbia University brilliantly put her headline-grabbing gesture in the context of feminist art history. And outlets like Hyperallergic keep watch on developments in smaller galleries outside the glare of the mainstream. If you're an art-world insider and know where to look, you can see that there are people on the ground level who are making art that speaks to the current moment.

Bringing this art to the fore is a form of participation, and engagement with the fluid world around us. It’s like what President Obama said in defense of LeBron James’s decision to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt while warming up to play the Nets at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center: “LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, 'I'm part of this society, too.’” Why not resolve this year to take a similar perspective, to every so often take our eyes off the game of art-world glitz and glamor and spend more time looking beyond the bubble?

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