April 25, 2011

Shop Talk 2 Respondent: Clark Buckner

Stephanie Syjuco, Shadowshop, 2010–11; photo: Dominic Santos

On Thursday, April 14, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the second of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present three responses to that evening. Do join us for the last evening of discussion, on Thursday, May 12. Please welcome critical theorist Clark Buckner.

Would the Real Artist Please Stand Up?

The second round of Shop Talk was framed by the central question posed by organizers Suzanne Stein and Patricia Maloney: “What is the perceived value of the artist’s production, or practice, and how does it change as art or artist traffic in different environments? The question developed out of the issues raised during the first gathering of Shop Talk, concerning whether Stephanie Syjuco’s project for the museum, Shadowshop, was beneficial for or ultimately at the expense of the artists who participated in it. Originally these issues were posed primarily in terms of finances and professional development; and, during the second round of Shop Talk, they were first taken up again in a similar vein, as a matter of cultural capital and institutional validation.

Artist Charlene Tan asked: was it fair for contributors to Shadowshop to claim to have shown at SFMOMA? Some clearly thought so. Tim Roseborough explained that he had forced his way into the museum’s 2009 exhibition The Art of Participation by taking advantage of an opportunity to bid on gallery space offered by artists Joachim Blank, Gerrit Gohlke, and Karl Heinz Jeron, in their work 1rst Public White Cube. While once he had thought that his presence in the show was accordingly illegitimate, Tim said that now indeed he included it on his resume, and thought that participants in Shadowshop ought to do the same. But others drew a distinction: Stephanie, not the museum’s curators, solicited the artists in Shadowshop. As one person cleverly put it, their work was “in the museum, but not of the museum.” However, a remark by Suzanne suggested that these apparently opposing positions might be reframed (dialectically) as altogether consistent with the intended role of the project within SFMOMA. Shadowshop, she reminded us, was part of the larger exhibition The More Things Change, which surveys art of the last decade collected by the museum.  In this regard, the work in Shadowshop was clearly set apart from the art the museum had sanctioned by adding to its collection. At the same time, however, Stephanie’s project served as a supplement to this very narrow set, by providing space for other artists who have indeed contributed to the development of art over the last decade, even if they have not achieved the same degree of success, or simply work beyond the reach of the museum’s radar. In this way, while distinguishing it from the art collected by the museum, SFMOMA simultaneously extended its sanction to the work in Shadowshop — albeit indirectly, by way of Stephanie’s curatorial discretion.

In a contrary vein, curator Brandon Holmes took issue with artists who felt slighted by the fact that their work was only included in the museum under the auspices of Stephanie’s project, or who distinguished Shadowshop from a proper show since it was actually a shop. In the first case, he argued, their protest was presumptuous: did they really believe, at this point in their careers, that their work had otherwise earned a place in the museum? And what, he asked, was the problem with Shadowshop’s being a shop? A gallery is a shop! Or, still more pointedly, he insisted, “a glorified storage unit that sells things.” Patricia later challenged this claim by arguing that galleries not only sell art, but serve a critical function by contextualizing artworks both in the trajectory of an artist’s career and in relationship to other artists’ practices. Here the distinction again was drawn between art “in the museum” and art “of the museum.” If SFMOMA indeed extended its sanction to the works in Shadowshop when admitting them into the museum, nevertheless the project’s mode of presentation lacked any such critical framing — since it was Shadowshop itself that ultimately was “the work.” As project coordinator Megan Brian had previously explained, the pieces within it had been trans-valued from “artworks” to “wares.” And the effect of this was registered explicitly by a young woman who identified herself as “only a consumer” and complained of being unable to appreciate the works in the shop as artworks because she had no understanding of who made them or why.

Ultimately, however, these considerations of cultural capital and institutional validation gave way to more personal and idealistic reflections on why artists do what they do, and how they value their work independently from the affirmations of the gallery-museum system. Another artist, for instance, cited a friend who worked for a decade with an art collective: she never put her name on her work, and the collective frequently didn’t document their projects. The example served as a provocative contrast to the ubiquitous experiments in “art as life,” which perform the collapse of the distinction between the two as art — which is to say, while in fact presupposing and maintaining the distinction. Another woman, Katy Meacham, explained that, while she is an “artist and art-maker,” she refrains from pursuing art as a career — as if she wants to spare her work the burden of professionalizing it in order to retain the value it has for her. And Tim, the artist who bid his way into the museum galleries, evoked the romantic figure of artistic motivation as a vocation and a compulsion, whose impetus stems from the value inherent in the process.

Finally, in his forceful and highly principled comments, Hadi Tabatabai brought the conversation full circle. His stance was adamantly professional; and he insisted that artists deserve both critical and commercial recognition for their work. But he was militantly opposed to the tendency he saw in Shadowshop for artists to compromise their practices in the pursuit of such validation. One of my co-respondents, Jasper Bernes, heard this as contradictory: as if Hadi were arguing that the way to be autonomous as an artist is to sell one’s work for a lot of money, while to sell it cheaply is to compromise one’s self-determination. Against this, he argued that Shadowshop was democratizing; and he implied that insofar as, in our world, “cheap is sometimes as close as one gets to free,” in fact selling one’s work for less (or perhaps, more precisely, without concern for financial gain) is more true to artistic autonomy. However, as I understood it, Hadi’s point was different: Artists must maintain and defend the validity of their own practices. To do so, it is also necessary to defend their commercial value. Only by doing so can one in fact sustain one’s practice — covering the cost of materials, renting a studio, and preserving one’s time to make art rather than working a “day job.” Furthermore, recognition is only valuable if one is recognized on one’s own terms: anything less is mere pandering for popularity, and fails to do justice to art’s power to shape culture. In this way, while the militancy of Hadi’s position seemed to alienate many, he traversed the divide between professionalism and idealism that otherwise framed much of the conversation: to idealistically defend art’s value and integrity requires professionalism, while to be truly professional (and not merely careerist) requires an idealistic commitment to the value and integrity of one’s art.  And, as Hadi made abundantly clear, this mutual implication of idealism and professionalism again raises the issues that provoked Suzanne and Patricia’s opening question, i.e., whether artists were benefited or compromised by their participation in Shadowshop.

Clark Buckner is a critical theorist who teaches in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. He’s currently completing a manuscript titled Apropos of Nothing: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Coen Brothers (forthcoming, SUNY U.P.).

Comments (4)

  • Yeaux Sdink says:

    Please, no more postings on this subject, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD

  • Rudolf Frieling says:

    Here is the link to the mentioned project First Public White Cube: http://www.publicwhitecube.com

  • Glen Helfand says:

    Clark, thanks again for your insights into this project. There’s something so great about how much dialogue the Shadowshop project has generated (and thanks to Patricia and Suzanne for creating a platform where it could unfold). I have to admit, the second discussion was far less successful than the first, I think mainly because it tended to highlight a pervasive lack of agency on the part of artists, and the fact that these conversations take place in such limited forums– a bubble really. Those of us who are constantly steeped in art contexts tend to not quite grasp the broader context of SFMOMA as a zone that attracts thousands of people who have no sense of the implications we’ve all be discussing, grappling with, arguing about. (I even have a hard time placing it in context with the larger, The More Things Change exhibition of which it is a part.) Would those people sustain any interest in our conversation? (It seemed telling that the ‘consumers’ who attended the Shop Talks didn’t seem to get much traction, even if their position seemed almost exotic in this setting.) And to hear much of the conversation, it seemed as though the notion of selling these affordable works generated more tsuris than pleasure (which I know is not the case).

    Not that the general public needs to be a big part of this conversation– it is that realm of insular art world self-consciousness– but it’s so telling that the role of popular platforms, of places that make the most direct ‘hits’ with the viewing (and purchasing) public has been a lesser part of the discussion. It’s been interesting to hear how difficult it is to address the infrastructural aspects of the projects, the underlying themes, the “what is art” questions. For me the queries relate to engagement with audiences, availability of artwork, and transparency (revealing aspects of how the art world moves along) are the most interesting. I am intrigued by how this project extends historical models– of artists working in ‘retail’ settings, of publishers creating markets for multiples. I get the sense that Stephanie is interested in creating models that cross boundaries of communities and commerce, and we owe her some props for really generating discourse! (Though too bad she wasn’t able to be there to participate in it!) It will be interesting to see, once the project clears out of it’s bricks and mortar manifestation, how Shadowshop moves into art historical mythology. . . .

  • Thank you, Clark, for hearing me out. I appreciated reading your comments.

    My “militant” approach, which is not something I can say I am proud of, comes from my complete devotion to my practice. Art to me is the only hope for humanity, especially in a world that lacks any form of “poetry”.

    I am all for exhibits and discussions that raise questions. However, I think we are so conditioned on having things left open-ended that we have forgotten how good and sometimes necessary it is to have some concrete answers as well.

    The core of these discussions to me is the taboo question, which everyone dances around; What is Art? Is it not possible to answer this? … At least for our time?

    Seventeen years ago my great teacher, Sam Tchakalian, advised a fellow student who was a bit lost and didn’t know what to do, to pay attention to what she didn’t want to do. “You might not know what you like, but you should know what you don’t like.”

    I propose that we take the same approach with the question of what Art is? We might not know what Art is, but we should know what it is not. I believe that if we compiled a list, the answer will perhaps become clearer to us.

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