March 04, 2011


Wisconsin protests

Anticipating my entry into Open Space has been an unexpectedly thoughtful (i.e. anxiety producing) experience. Agoraphobia is a tempting word for its literal meaning, but it’s not quite the condition I’m experiencing. It is related to a different, yet equally vast space, of open opportunity as well as overwhelming cultural and political shift. That is, these days, it’s infinitely more exciting reading about skirmishes in Wisconsin than what Roberta Smith wrote about the Armory Show.

And that’s just sticking to domestic issues. Art exhibitions, which these days seem to be of a middling variety and aesthetically all over the map, can’t compete with the more focused, if inconclusive actions sweeping across North Africa or the Midwest. Nor should they. Yet here I am, weighing the options about how best to make use of a wide-open, institutionally supported forum that allows for more thematic and stylistic latitude than I’ve been afforded in other venues.

I’m looking forward to using this platform as a means to engage public conversation—and I wager that over the next four months the thematic thread will be one of cultural revision rather than aesthetic innovation. For someone who has been steeped in visual art for decades, that’s a somewhat uncomfortable, though not exactly unwelcome equation. It does, however, suggest the possibility of teetering between weariness and inspiration.

Apparently, I’m not the only one feeling this way. I’ve been surprised by how many art world friends—artists, curators, writers, collectors—who have admitted their doubts about the making, selling or writing about art, wondering how it matters in the broader scope of the world—though more importantly, the role it plays in our lives. I had just such a conversation last night (over rather tasty cocktails), wondering if we’d be better off in a more visibly altruistic profession. There was no tidy resolution, of course, but the conversation spoke to the nature of reinvention and critical thinking. What would the art world be if it didn’t flicker with these moments of doubt? (We’ve had these conversations before, and we’ll doubtlessly have them again.)

I’m heartened to see the content of the first couple entries from my blog cohorts (people I’m thrilled to be in the company of). Norma’s post poetically dovetails with my own thoughts about who we are communicating with here, and when dialogs about art really matter; Christine’s initial diagram reveals a circular thought process that, for me, has been activated by this venue. I’m particularly taken by her question of what keeps us motivated and resilient in this game. It usually involves standing up to those fears and finding new challenges, or by wading back in and encountering an inspiring new work. I did actually read Roberta’s review, and would have to agree with her sunnier assessment of the fairs—she cites them as “pools of information that can humble, broaden and energize you in significant ways.” Here’s to more of that.

Comments (4)

  • Glen Helfand says:

    Thanks for these comments– I’m liking this idea of overlap!

  • Christine Wong Yap says:

    Glen, your points are spot-on! Our time feels so surreal. I find myself asking, “What does this mean?”–realizing, of course, that major transitions like this take time to play out, and time to make sense of. I’m so excited to read contextualizations, questions, speculations, and opinions from you and the participants on this forum.

    I love that cross-connections are already forming… I have only one bone of contention with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, “Creativity”–which inspired the first third of Positive Signs–and it relates to your point about making art more “visibly altruistic.” In the final chapter, Csikszentmihalyi advises readers to increase their creativity and their happiness derived from it by ensuring that some aspect of their work serves public good (though paradoxically, he also acknowledges that being free to pursue one’s fancy is fundamental to creativity). He gives an example: Renaissance art patrons commissioned Florentine painters and sculptors to create artworks that impressed the masses (debatable?). It suggests how being an artist and being a citizen can overlap, to personal and social benefit. Yet it lends the artist no greater insight about how to make compelling art, or how citizens become agents with real power.

  • Glen, this post hits awfully close to home. I wake up in the middle of the night often, asking myself if the energies I put into organizing people at SFMOMA might not be better spent (more socially constructive) organizing in an environment of direct political action. (Wow, can I type that into my employer’s/my own comment box? I just did.) Which is to say that the weight of balance of my curiosity is often towards “cultural revision rather than aesthetic innovation” these days as well. (with a still lingering hope that the two aren’t irrevocably divorced.) Looking so forward to your posts.

  • Tucker Nichols says:

    Thanks for this Glen.
    Weird how the art world can be such a potent mix of empty and full, huh. I feel like Im constantly bumping up against one side or the other. According to the news these days, the world is seemingly on the verge of our own kind of colony collapse disorder. And at the same time, the art market is gaining steam again and the Armory Show is roaring along and everyone is tweeting about what they just saw and it’s all pretty confusing. For me art isnt so good for political commentary or even escape–how lost can you really get in a painting even if it moves you–but maybe because art is a way of trying to figure out where we are in the world we gain a bit of solid footing when it does set off a spark in us. Its fleeting and sometimes even the most moving stuff looks like a pile of video screens or another giant canvas if you turn away for a second, but honestly Im not sure theres another way for all of us who like to look at it, make it, write about it or even go to VIP openings in Miami Beach. Sometimes I scratch my head, and eventually I itch to get back in the studio or the museum to feel something again. The news can be so depressing.

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