Cutting Class IIJohn Haber
in New York City
"#class," "The Critics Panel," and "POWHIDA"
For anyone who thinks that art is just a conversation among insiders, a Friday evening at "#class" was humbling. Dalton and Powhida invited four critics to speak about their part in the art world, and writers filled the audience, too. Jerry Saltz listened patiently, and I did not get a word in myself. Who knows if I count as a critic? Who knows what counts as the art world? Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida make questions like these exciting again.
I could not stay to the end, but I offer this as the second part of a two-part article. Besides, if no one has settled art's status under capitalism in half a century since the Frankfurt school, it is too much to ask of one dealer, two hours, four critics, and a few six-packs of Bud. Ironically, Powhida led the charge against criticism warped by grad school, as if critical theory were about anything but that question. Art is and is not a luxury, and that leaves artists and critics in the same quandary. As a postscript, Powhida tries to resolve it just one year later, by putting himself at the center of the show.
"The Critics Panel" at "#class" never quite agreed about anything, starting with the event's premise: "Art is luxury commodity for the wealthy that limits access to ownership, understanding, and participation." Christian Viveros-Fauné, a critic for The Voice, immediately agreed—as if to move as quickly as possible to something more important. So did Thomas Micchelli of the Brooklyn Rail, while Martha Schwendender, who has written well for almost everyone, objected. Art is so much more, as well as open to so many more than the wealthy. Galleries, as she has to remind her students, are free.
Jonathan T. D. Neil, editor-at-large for Art Review, all but dismissed the role of money. Many artists welcomed the recession, he noted later, hoping it would purge the influence of wealth, but differences in power remain. The panel hesitated, too, to say whether critics are too soft on the system or can change it. Viveros-Fauné, who started my favorite former gallery and favorite New York art fair, knew from experience the importance of a review, especially in The Times. They all acknowledged that rave reviews dominate, because there is so much out there, and writers want to call attention to what they believe matters. They agreed, too, that this overlooks the chastening value of a negative review, but also that political assaults on the system are a poor excuse for interpretation.
They fell into annoyance at "Skin Fruit," the private collection at the New Museum—a parallel to Godwin's law, that in time every Web forum invokes Hitler. They did not stop to ask whether that proved the event's premise or not. Here art has become a wealthy man's toy and little more, and it looks a good deal worse for wear. Neil's line about the recession makes no sense anyway. A recession does not cleanse the economy of money, but instead takes from the have-nots what little they have. The straitened 2010 Biennial could stand for the extremes that remain.
As Viveros-Fauné said, money has always played a role, going back to Renaissance patronage, but perhaps not the role he had in mind. That era produced small, often crude icons for private worship at home, and the growing middle class soon dispersed patronage even more widely. They anticipated homes and dorm rooms today, filled with relatively cheap commodities, not always in the form of reproductions. There is no simple cutoff between the fringe and the system, and each has its own tainted money. That is why Clement Greenberg had to rescue fine art from kitsch—and why artists and critics ever since have had to rescue art from fine art and from the "originality of the avant-garde."
Of course art is a commodity, and that puts pressure on artists. In the same way, reviews quickly become fodder for artist portfolios and Web sites. Winkleman has linked to quite a few already for "#class." Even negative reviews can serve as validation, just as in politics "balanced" coverage in the press validates extreme views on the right. At the same time, of course artists and critics can work directly against the system. They can make or review cheaper art, participate in collectives, act contrary to trends, alter definitions of art, or take the art world as their subject matter—just like "#class."
And of course they have aspirations only indirectly related to class, if at all. They respond to broader desires for understanding and participation. The system eats them anyway and spits them out, never knowing what it has swallowed. Things go wrong almost every time, but most of all when art becomes solely a luxury, just as a luxury car is still a car, but a gadget from Brookstone is no longer a tool. Again, that is just what makes "Skin Fruit" or much of the last ten years so depressing. As Bob Dylan said, "money doesn't talk, it swears," and swearing is lousy performance art—or is it?
Look, I understand, honest. Critical theory is really hard, when you would so much rather be painting. Or something. So let me translate it for you: this is all a load a crap. So is William Powhida, and so for that matter are you.
Feel better now? Probably not—and almost certainly not after the artist's assault on Marlborough. A full year after "#class," he does his best to clear the crap from one of Chelsea's staider or staler institutions, its garage interior, and that abstraction called the art world. If that requires putting himself in its place, so be it. He empties the space of everything but his last name in huge capital letters, a single painting, a small coffee table, a few soft chairs, a frig, and plenty of attitude. It has to be the first time I have felt guilty at entering a gallery and snagging a beer.
If is, of course, lousy beer, although the performer gets to swill something stronger. Call him, for the sake of argument, Powhida's evil twin, with slicked-back hair and a steady stream of invective. On a late afternoon he had the sun-drenched room almost to himself, while loudly demanding more beer and goading others to join him. On the even slicker canvas behind him, he cocks his head, displays the gallery's private brand of bubbly, releases a white dove, and accepts big-breasted adulation. In person, he was delighted to have reduced Marlborough to one painting, but scornful of both. Then again, he and his entourage arrived midway through his opening the night before, by car, and declared the work good.
Consistency here is for little minds. You may find this entertaining and spot-on, and I did. Alternatively, you may take it more or less at face value, like a deeply annoyed reporter for The New York Observer. At a given moment, the star of the show may be thanking young visitors for making him feel like a creep as they flee in panic. He might be sympathizing with an older couple who praise the painting to the skies, ask if he knows Mark Kostabi, invite him to their own opening, and do their best to overlook the curses. Maybe better, accept that you are part of the problem and have a beer.
Is it really critical, much less theory? Powhida has turned a gallery before into object lesson without objects. "#class" conducted a month's worth of discussions on the state of the arts, while he and Dalton spoke quietly and listened. One can see "POWHIDA" as the opposite extreme—or as drinks after class. Marlborough compares it to How to Look at Modern Art in America, by Ad Reinhardt, and Powhida's drawings pick up on Reinhardt's loving but sardonic diagram of the 1946 art scene. Then again, this show excludes drawings and perhaps even the artist.
The performance seems likely to run out of gas, and the performer will be lucky not to keel over or to lose his voice altogether. His picture of big-ticket art as self-indulgence may be chilling, like a meth lab by Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman, or just self-indulgent, like Mike Kelley and Michael Smith—and I leave the choice this time to you. Artists who think that performance has crowded out painting will hate this show. They should remember, though, that they share its distrust, going back to Jasper Johns and The Critic Sees. The issue is not conceptual art versus the handmade, but thinking and feeling. It is about making money or making art.
As described in the first part of this two-part review, "#class," organized by Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida, ran at Winkleman gallery through March 20, 2010. "POWHIDA" ran at Marlborough through August 12, 2011.