Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More pats on the butt

Thanks to Jennifer Sullivan for posting this on Facebook today. This is a response by artist Nayland Blake to his artist-friend. See below...

In response…
Today at 1:38am

A friend wrote me a letter and after thinking about it for a while I decided that I wanted to respond to it here. He consented graciously to me reprinting it:

hi Nayland, I hope you’re enjoying your travels. Can you answer me this? How do I keep the faith when everyone tells me my work is great and yet I can’t land a NY gallery? I know it’s the worst time in history, but it’s been years..(and my Boston gallery just closed) I met with my buddy J the other day and told her that my Armory experience left me thinking that the “art” of art these days lies in the facade that hides that fact that all art is a spectacle. The armory show just felt like a wave of junk for rich people and that all the art lost the importance of effecting cultural change or critically examining it. There just didn’t seem to be any impact, or discussion, or reflection.. I’m really losing it.

Take care,



I’ve read this over a few times now trying to come up with an answer for you. Here’s the best I can do:

There are two different things going on here in what your asking. First you ask about not having a New York Gallery. And then you’re asking about art’s ability to effect change. Both of them are factors in “keeping the faith” as you put it. First I urge you to separate them.

Galleries are retail shops, plain and simple. They are stores and artists should treat them as such. So everyone tells you they like your band, why don’t you have a record deal? There could be a million specific reasons why but they boil down to this: No shopkeeper in New York has thought that they could make a buck selling your work. That’s all that it means. It doesn’t mean that there will never be a shopkeeper who thinks differently. It doesn’t mean that the previous ones have been right in their assessment. The idea that having representation in New York “means” something about your level of achievement as an artist is smoke and mirrors. Your achievements in your work should be the things that are evident to you when you look at what you’ve done. Ultimately it’s the only barometer that matters, because you are the person who spends the most time with the work, who lives the experience of making it.

If you get to experience being in the midst of the moment of creation, of exceeding what you thought was possible for yourself, you’ve already won. That is what we should be in the game for. That’s what’s really at stake in the life of an artist. Being able to get up and do that when ever we feel like it. It’s a thing all humans sense as being valuable, but very few have the courage to pursue for themselves. Because people sense that it’s important, and because we live in a market society, galleries take the form that they do. We sell the results of that communion to each other. But all of that market activity is secondary, like buying the plaster image of a saint to remind you of what a saintly life should be. Your real job as an artist is to live that life. I’ve had an inordinate amount of “success” in my life, and I wish I could tell you it had something to do with talent or smarts, but when I look at it it’s been pretty much random. I know smarter, more talented artists who haven’t done nearly as well.

So for the second part of your question: Your sense about art fairs is exactly right. It’s expensive to do those fairs, which are just like the CES fair or the E3 fair. When Sony buys a booth at the electronics fairs, they do so to showcase the stuff they think is going to sell the most. It’s an investment. Same for art fairs. People are laying out a lot of money and they need to make it back somewhere down the line. In previous years it was possible for galleries to delay their return: they could afford to put up a big installation because they were demonstrating that they had lots of money to throw around, that they didn’t need to make it back right away. They could afford to soft sell. They were selling people on the idea of associating themselves with someone who had so much money they didn’t have to think about money. These days it’s different. The mask is off. Everyone is worried about making their rent and their payroll for THIS MONTH, so they can’t afford to rent that square footage at the fair and not see some immediate return.

Where does that leave social activism? Or any engaged difficult idea you might care to name? Back where it usually is, in the hands of people who make and care about such things. Ask yourself: how often in history have shops and trade shows been the forums for social action and change? I don’t think we should expect them to be. We live in a time where the viability of brick and mortar retail is increasingly in question. Who knows what the next model for the distribution of art is going to look like? I do know this: the history of market success and the history of interesting ideas in art diverge more often than they connect. I grew up seeing an art world where that success immediately made your ideas suspect. You grew up seeing one where market failure meant a failure of idea as well. Each situation was fleeting and in the larger sense meaningless.

I think that the way art makes change is one consciousness at a time. It forces us to stop our usual patterns of processing information sometimes through causing us confusion, sometimes through pointing us to pleasure. It is through arguing for the inherent worth of a life lived with confusion or pleasure that art makes us re-think the world we live in. Because in those moments we are revealed to ourselves and others without pretense. We want those moments but we fear them as well, so we tame them, we cloak them in formulas and focus our attention on less threatening things like income levels and social squabbles. So much for change. Our real job is to be the guardians and cultivators of those moments where ever we find them.

Finally, how do we keep going? We do so by making a life that supports the work. And part of that is asking what the work needs. What it needs in terms of material support, as well as emotional support. Do you really need recognition, or response? It’s been my experience that response gets you a lot further. And the responses that have meant the most have been those from the people closest to me. Recognition is a lot easier for me to worry about however, because as I stated above, it’s random and utterly out of my control. So I don’t have to ask myself the inconvenient questions about what I’ve done to cultivate it. I’m safe in my powerlessness. With response I have to be willing to open myself up to people that I’m going to see again, and I’m going to have to give something in return. I’ll have obligations and I’ll be vulnerable to real people not abstractions. As a number of my friends can tell you, that’s not a space I navigate with much grace. It’s where I fuck up a lot. Which tells me that it’s the thing I need to do more of, it’s a thing that the work requires, just like fucking up drawing hands means that I need to draw more hands. That’s the gift that creativity gives us: the imperfections of our creations tells us what we need to work on next. Which is another way of saying which imperfect parts of ourselves we need to work on next.

The adventure of doing that is the only real reason I can think of to keep going.
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