As I surveyed the crowd at the opening of the New Museum Triennial, I noticed a man with a denim tank top revealing an upper arm-tattoo that read NO PAIN NO FAME. Of all the social commentary I saw displayed in the museum that day – on walls, on pedestals, suspended in mid-air – none defined the ethos of the modern art world as succinctly as the words on that man’s arm. After all, people don’t become artists to share their work anymore – that’s what the internet is for. They do it for money, sure, though you’d be hard pressed to find a worse investment than an MFA. No, the only remaining reason to be an artist in 2015, if we’re being honest, is recognition and validation from the gatekeepers of the art world. And for the artists lucky enough to be included, the message is clear: You made it.
The press preview opened on a strong note with the hypnotic performance-art piece “The Island (KEN),” by the art-collective DIS. The setting is a modern hybrid kitchen-bathroom with immaculate white surfaces, supposedly inspired by Pinterest pages. A woman lies down fully clothed and a horizontal shower soaks her whole body before she finally gets up and is whisked away by a second performer holding a towel. The phalanx of writers and photographers documenting every second of the brief performance, many of them from behind glass, called to mind the extraterrestrials giddily observing humans trapped in a zoo on Tramalfadore in Slaughterhouse-Five. The cumulative effect was that of a surreal infomercial unfolding in real time with the barriers of televisual viewing erased.
Equally striking, if somewhat more traditional, are Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s paintings “And We Begin to Let Go” and “Thread,” with their outlined figures filled in with faded collages of Xeroxed magazine photos. Another stand out is Guan Xiao’s “The Documentary: Geocenteric Puncture,” a mixed-media installation consisting of camera tripods and other objects arranged in front of giant sheets patterned with tessellated photographic images of brightly colored snakeskins.
The most stunning section of the show, which has understandably received the lion’s share of exposure in the press coverage so far, is a small area dominated by the artist, writer, and DJ Juliana Huxtable. On one wall hangs two digitally altered photographic self-portraits and two text-based works, their lurid colors and trippy backgrounds doubly conspicuous in the dim lighting. In the middle of the room is “Juliana,” a life-sized 3D-printed sculpture of Huxtable by Frank Benson (when I talked to her later that day, she told me that that Benson used the same technology used to make action figures). Every square inch of the matte surface is anatomically correct, down to the thick braids draped over her reclining body. The piece seems determined to create a new transgendered beauty ideal, combining meticulous realism with the psychedelic aesthetic of Afrofuturism.
If the Triennial show is art as spectacle – with all the glamour that word implies – the Armory show is art as naked commerce. Works by Dali, Warhol, and Basquiat are placed unceremoniously on makeshift white walls just a few feet away from those by unknown upstarts hoping to add their names to the contemporary canon. Viewed outside their museum context, Alexander Calder mobiles seem even more like demented children’s toys, readily available to those wealthy new parents looking to imbue their babies with the gift of artistic discernment. Whatever aura might have been lent to these works by gallery spaces or museums is stripped away, turning Piers 92 and 94 into a high-end supermarket of sorts.
Middle-aged art collectors stood around in small groups talking animatedly in hushed German and staccato Italian. I witnessed one man purchasing a small canvas – “I just love it” – with the casual demeanor of someone selecting a paperback at a bookstore. Even though privately owned works are frequently displayed in public museums, it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of these purchases represent a farewell of sorts to the works in question, some of which are bound to languish for years in warehouses and the rooms of unused homes.
As I navigated the labyrinth of gallery outposts filling the massive venue, I noticed a napkin-sized Picasso painted in gold tucked away near an emergency exit. Remarkably dull, it appeared to owe its entire existence to Pablo’s premonition that even his worst work might one day be used to launder money for hedge funds managers. Far more impressive is “Capri 2013” by the Italian artist Olivo Barbieri, a large pigment print of rock formations off the coast of Capri gorgeously rendered in gold and orange.
On my way out of the show I noticed what appeared to be a large Barbara Kruger painting with the phrase “I shop therefore I am” in her signature white-on-red font, but with the word “copy” in white-on-black slapped over the word “shop.” It turned out the piece was not by Kruger, but by an art collective called Superflex. I asked the gallery attendant, who looked suspiciously like Piers Morgan, to explain. He explained that the barely altered Kruger painting was asking “deeper, more existential” questions than the original, which was merely a critique of consumerism. I thanked him for his time and wandered off, wondering less about existential matters than about Barbara Kruger’s views on intellectual property. Haven’t the totally uncool jokers at Supreme already ripped her off enough?
Luckily, that kind of misfire is the exception rather than the rule. If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s this: the problem with the art world is not a lack of talent and promise. The two exhibitions showcased plenty of upcoming artists who can move and provoke their audience, inspiring awe and starting conversations. The problem is that the gatekeepers of spaces like the Triennial and the Armory show are so utterly convinced of their own indispensability as arbiters of Important Art. When one curator of the Triennial spoke of being “surrounded” by technology during her introduction, it was hard not to hear something defensive in that observation. After all, the significance of technology to art lies not just in its creating new palettes or providing a dystopian backdrop for political commentary; it lies in its ability to democratize art to the point that museums lose relevance.
The advent of sharing platforms like Instagram and Tumblr has created an environment in which it is increasingly easier to gain exposure as an artist, though monetizing this exposure remains exceedingly difficult. In the face of such technological advances, the art-opening-as-event – with its corporate sponsors, open bar, and designer-clad clientele – starts to seem a little outdated, even quaint. And though there was plenty of sex and beauty and madness and all the other things we look for in an art show, I was reminded of Thomas Frank’s description of the countercultural idea: “Its frenzied ecstasies have long since become an official aesthetic of consumer society, a monotheme of mass as well as adversarial culture.” Big art shows might include works that criticize commercialism, but there is a noticeable elitism underlying this critique, according to which the supermarket is grotesque but the museum gift shop is just lovely.
What’s abundantly clear is that this substantial section of the art world has no intention of attacking capitalism, only its symptoms (and only indirectly). As Andrew Goldstein writes in Artspace, “anxieties about selling out have been replaced by strategies for cashing in.” While the curators of the Triennial spoke during the press preview of of the underlying themes of the exhibit – stop-and-frisk, water depletion, failed hopes for revolution – the system that engenders these things is not on trial here. And with a list of sponsors that include JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, how could it be? The politics of the Triennial, in particular, tend to echo those of Adbusters – pointing out the absurdities of modern life while offering no way forward and no way out besides (naturally) the transgressive joys of a downtown art show. After all, part of being a successful enfant terrible is knowing what side your bread is buttered on.
The artist Jayson Musson, a.k.a. Hennessy Youngman, once said, “The fastest route between obscurity and fame is a straight line of cocaine with the right person.” He was joking, kind of, but like all the best jokes it has its basis in truth. How else to explain which artworks get the coveted spots? Is there some fixed set of criteria by which a work of art can be judged? Of course not. Is the price of an artwork directly related to the number of hours the artist put into producing it? Despite my Marxist tendencies, I must admit that this is not the case. So why is this specific art important? The short answer is that it is important because well-connected gallery owners decided it was important and convinced others of this importance until the emperor’s new clothes were visible to all the right people. Of course, this doesn’t mean all you aspiring artists out there should despair. With the right combination of remarkable talent, painstaking effort, and a carefully curated network of friends, you too can climb your way up to the hallowed halls of the art world’s sacred spaces. Just remember: no pain, no fame.