July 2009 Archives

Busy Dealers

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I have some reviews in the works from my last trip to Williamsburg, and I'll get them up as soon as they're done, but in the meantime I want to share some vague inchoate thoughts I've been having.

Recently I had an e-mail correspondence with an artist and sometime curator. Somehow the subject turned towards a couple of dealers I know who I'd asked to visit my studio. I may have mentioned this here before. My correspondent took issue with my anger with these dealers for having ignored my e-mail invitations. They get so many requests, after all, and they're busy people.

Of course I know that but what made me angry was this: How long does it take to reply to an e-mail message politely declining an invitation? Almost no time at all. And while I understand that an art dealer might get quite a few random messages asking for their time, it's important that I note I'm not a random person to these dealers: They're people I know and have talked with, people who'd cross the street to say hello if they saw me walking. Not total strangers. People I've been friendly with. I might even say we're friends, although I guess we're really strong aquaintances. Not bestest buddies, true, but more than nodding people passing in the hall.

It took me a bit, but I've accepted that these dealers would treat me this way. I'm not actively angry over it any more. I've just written them off as being not worth my notice. That's fine. But what bugged me most this time was my correspondent's attitude. While they didn't say it in quite so many words, the unspoken assumption in their messages was, "You are a supplicant pleading before your superiors, not an equal approaching same. If they deign to answer you, be thankful, but don't expect it." After all, art dealers are busy people running a business. As if being an artist doesn't take effort, as if my time in writing to these dealers was somehow worth less than their time in answering.

It occurred to me that a lot of what my correspondent has written has this tone. And I'm tired of it.

Because the bottom line is this: Art dealers exist for artists. Artists don't exist for art dealers. Without dealers, there would still be artists. Without artists, dealers wouldn't exist. They should be pleading with us, not the other way around. Or, better yet, we should at least treat each other with mutual respect due to hard-working professional people. With the all-important knowledge that without us, dealers are nothing. They're second-class citizens.

As artists we're often encouraged to accept second-class status ourselves. We're told to act professionally, which implies accepting rudeness and obnoxiousness. We're told to get over it, assume it's the price of doing business, not take it personally. Of course art dealers want artists to think that way, because dealers themselves create nothing. They have nothing to show for their efforts at the end of the day but money and the stories they tell themselves.

It's time we stopped believing this and started acting like the assets we are. It's our culture to create.

It's Loonie, I Tell Ya

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Detail of fresco, Pauline Chapel, the Vatican

Detail of fresco, Pauline Chapel, the Vatican (that's Michelangelo in the blue turban)

Artinfo reports the following:

A self-portrait of Michelangelo may have been discovered as part of a fresco that was restored recently in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel.... The Vatican earlier announced that the restoration had been completed after five years at a cost of $5.2 million (Canadian).

I can honestly say I never gave much thought to what Michelangelo might have looked like. But this news story struck me: Because America truly has come to a sad pass if the Vatican is using Canadian dollars.

Michael Martin, Iz the Wiz

Image from The New York Times

I read yesterday that Iz the Wiz is dead. That is to say, Michael Martin, subway graffiti artist, has died.

I must admit that part of me misses the graffiti-covered subways of my youth. But growing up in New York City in the 1980s I hated graffiti. Back then I read Ayn Rand and thought Reagan was a great president -- I was ignorant in so many ways -- and I dreamed of standing at one end of the subway platform with a firehose filled with black paint, turning it on as the train pulled into the station. I'd be a superhero, the Slasher, as in "Yo, you slashed my tag," which is what you'd get yelled at you when you were caught crossing out some other graffitied name.

A friend of mine is a driver for New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority -- they don't call them motormen any more -- and from what he's told me, the removal of graffiti from the city's subways has been an extensive and ongoing process. Back when I was commuting to school some of the lines had been cleared of their external graffiti, leaving the interior to be covered with a dense network of twisting, crawling jet black lines making up the overlapped names and sentiments of a generation of teenagers; I assumed some engineer had come up with a graffiti-proof external coating and the paint just didn't stick any more. Then the scribbling disappeared from the inside, too, but then the old subway cars with their oily beige paint also disappeared, so, again, I assumed some kind of technological progress in the fight against illicit mark-making.

But no: It turns out that the anti-graffiti crusade is much more involved and far-ranging than that. My friend tells me he has to inspect every train car before he pulls out of the yard at the start of his run; any bit of graffiti found anywhere and that car is immediately pulled off the line and sent to be cleaned. At the end of every run, too, my friend has to go from car to car getting everyone off the train. Apparently in the good old days graffiti artists would hide on the train until it was pulled into the yard, giving them free and easy access to every train in the system. (Or anyway the ones parked in that particular yard; MTA has yards all over the city.) Every driver is issued a handle which they plug in to actually run the train; some drivers are fond of banging the handle next to the heads of anyone sleeping away at the end of the line. Then the final defense against subway graffiti is security cameras in every yard, so even if someone gets past the driver's inspection, or hops a fence or something, they get caught before they can even get the cap off their spraycan. Those places are locked down like a bank.

The New York Times obituary for Martin compares him and his fellow graffitists to the artists of 15th-century Florence. Of course the main difference between Leonardo, Donatello, and Brunelleschi and graffitists is the former created lasting works; and not just art that can still be seen, but art that is worth seeing. The graffiti artists never really did more than decorate otherwise drab train cars. They elevated the utilitarian to the status of entertainment, maybe -- maybe not quite that high -- but when some of them translated their work onto panels to be hung on walls, the result was disappointing at best.

5 Pointz stairway

Image from liQcity

The final analysis, then, is that graffiti is a dead end, both for its artists, very few of whom ever escaped -- is Basquiat an exception? Or did he fail to escape? And was he a "real" graffiti artist anyway? -- and for the art world. These days the art world remains enchanted with the idea of graffiti, but the actuality is a place like 5 Pointz: The Institute of Higher Burnin', a wonderland where graffiti is legal and everything is so relaxed and artistic and free, man, that last April a stairway collapsed, nearly killing artist Nicole Gagne. Maybe the owner was out spraybombing an overpass when he should've been getting the building inspected.


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