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What’s it Worth? Works on Paper at Arcadia–the talk

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November 22, 2009   ·   5 Comments

Matt Neff's two Wu Tang Clan-inspired works, GZA 2009 letterpress, 28.5 x 20.5 inches (left); Protect Ya Neck, 2009, etching, 28.5 x 20.5 inches (right)

The prestigious Works on Paper show at Arcadia, which opened Wednesday, raises worthy questions about the value of art objects in the year 2009.

A woman stood guard over Gabriel Link and Preston Boyce's Health Care Bill, 2009, at the opening. printed paper 11 x 8.5 x 3 inches

A woman stood guard over Gabriel Boyce and Preston Link's Health Care Bill, 2009, at the opening. printed paper 11 x 8.5 x 3 inches

Exhibit juror Joao Ribas, who is curator of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (and former curator of the Drawing Center), selected 22 works by 22 artists  from 1,256 entries submitted by 567.  (The press release said 22 works, but I count 23).

In Ribas’ introductory talk just before the opening event, he immediately distanced himself from the talk’s ponderous title–4 Points Towards a Present History: Knowledge, Representation, Freedom and the Subject. “The real title is, Things I Have a Problem With.” That got a laugh.

Michael Davis Carter, gator 2009, detail, tissue paper, custom frame, 13.25 x 37.25 inches

Michael Davis Carter, gator 2009, detail, tissue paper, custom frame, 13.25 x 37.25 inches

Ribas spoke like a man with too many ideas–he started and restarted sentences, redirected them and then trailed off to begin again.Yet he still delivered a coherent talk, exploring aesthetics, the suspect reality of images, and the evolution of art objects as things that reflect symbolic value and freedom (of the artist) to make choices that don’t necessarily further society or its commercial ambitions.

Pernot Hudson, Samburg's Finest, 2008, silkscreen/graphite on paper, 19 x 25 3/4 inches

Pernot Hudson, Samburg's Finest, 2008, silkscreen/graphite on paper, 19 x 25 3/4 inches

The aesthetics part of his talk was charming–including his projection of David Attenborough’s BBC bower bird video.  And the bit about suspect reality in art and images became especially interesting when he brought up Islamist beheadings on video as indisputably real and as the “most iconic images in contemporary culture.”  (The shakiness of Truth in art was another important theme underlying his selections for the show).

Kistina Martino, Subtitled Film Still: "And the Day After that..." 2009, black colored pencil on paper, 16 3/4 x 17 x 20 inches

Kistina Martino, Subtitled Film Still: "And the Day After that..." 2009, black colored pencil on paper, 16 3/4 x 17 x 20 inches

But it was Ribas’ synopsis of the history of the value of art that interested me most. Here’s my synopsis of his synopsis (this is sort of like crunching down an image on the computer so it’s still recognizable but barely–and of course this too is highly suspect).

The story goes that society, hellbent on creating utile things that it values and needs, has no intrinsic commitment to art. So art is outside the needs of society. And art objects reflect freedom of the artist to operate outside the needs of society. Art represents “radical individual will–the antithesis of what was associated with capital [i.e. money].” So in the 15th century, a division grows between utile valuables provided by the craftsmen of the guilds and non-utile products of artists.

Fay Stanford, Indigenous Princess, 2007, ink on yupo, 21.25 x 15.25 inches

Fay Stanford, Indigenous Princess, 2007, ink on yupo, 21.25 x 15.25 inches

The freedom required in making art, the freedom to make choices and refuse others’ wishes, “creates a class of object that can’t fit into society in the normal way.” It cannot be priced in the same way ordinary goods are priced, and it is not based on consumer needs.

This history leads artists to later “commodify themselves as bohemians,” Ribas said.

As a symbolic marker of wealth rather than a manufactured product for consumers, art takes on a utopian identity, Ribas suggested, precisely because it is made outside the assembly line.

Matt Neff's two Wu Tang Clan-inspired works, GZA 2009 letterpress, 28.5 x 20.5 inches (left); Protect Ya Neck, 2009, etching, 28.5 x 20.5 inches (right)

Matt Neff's two Wu Tang Clan-inspired works, GZA 2009 letterpress, 28.5 x 20.5 inches (left); Protect Ya Neck, 2009, etching, 28.5 x 20.5 inches (right)

Technology, however, has messed with this evolution of art as a symbol of value and freedom and mystical power. “Everyone can express himself through technology. …Technology changes how freedom is expressed. The consumer is also the producer.” At this point, Ribas brought in an aside (or maybe not at aside, it being very much to the point) that the World Bank defines wealth as natural capital and creative capital.

With technology, the concomitant sharing/reproducibility and loss of copyright control give every ordinary Joe freedom to choose. How do you preserve the model of authorship when all around us that model no longer applies? Ribas asked. “The artist no longer has a place of privilege With sharing, now everyone has choice.”

Post on the show next!

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5 Responses to “What’s it Worth? Works on Paper at Arcadia–the talk”

  1. Christine says:

    “Art is outside the needs of society. And art objects reflect the freedom of the artist to operate outside the needs of society.”

    I love this. And it’s so true that technology changes how freedom is expressed. The art world is going through some fascinating changes right now.

    Thanks for your post. I just tweeted it.

  2. Daniel Gerwin says:

    Re: utility (or its supposed absence) in art. Ribas’ brief history of art has big problems. See Arthur Danto’s After The End of Art, chapter 5. Here are a few relevant lines: “[the distinction] between aesthetic and practical considerations has tended to stultify any propensity to ask what practical utility aesthetic experience might have.” (see the Barnes collection for the aesthetics of practical objects) Danto calls Kant’s assertion that aesthetics depends on no possible practical interest “a momentous consequence which has been taken to justify the elimination of…art subsidies from the federal budget as frill”.

  3. libby says:

    Hi, Daniel and Christine, I do think that the whole issue of utility is not necessarily fair or particularly universal. But I do think that artists give themselves permission to be non-utile. And how society incorporates that production of non-utile objects, by giving it a story of shamanistic powers or visionary powers or intellectual value, can either work for or against society’s willingness to support art. Those roles can be deemed utile. After all society supports religion with financial gusto, recognizing its utile value. And I don’t see a big separation here. Vision is vision. Our society gives lip service to its support of other views, but the lip and the wallet are often far apart.
    As for me, I like to keep things out of the philosophical sphere. Here’s my personal view. If I like looking at it, if it makes me think, I find it useful. So, let’s say the utility is education! Well, let’s talk about how well our society funds education…

  4. Daniel says:

    the catch, of course, is that “what we like” and “what makes us think” is based upon our own philosophical positions, biases, etc, so we might as well be conscious about them. especially since so much art since the 1960’s and even today is based on art questioning itself philosophically. which is, I guess, why Ribas talked about these kinds of issues in the first place. this is not to say that art becomes an intelletualized experience, that would be a huge bummer. I’m just saying that we are all responsible to be self-aware.

  5. libby says:

    It’s hard to escape the personal propensities issue. It’s at the base of all taste. We can argue to our hearts’ content about philosophical underpinnings, but ultimately, it’s all about taste, interests, experience, and context (the times, the culture). But “I know what I like” usually is not satisfying enough for people who like to think about art–but not always.

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