Friday, March 21, 2014

Critical Analytics: Show Us The Territory, And We Will Find Our Own Way.

Ed Winkleman (looking for leadership?); William Powhida, Turning in Circles (2014) detail
"Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion." - Francis Bacon
I avoid the academic practice of starting essays with a quote from a great thinker because more often than not the quote is obscure and it does less to illuminate the topic of the essay it hangs above, and more to reflect glory from the great thinker,on to the less-great author of the essay. But that Francis Bacon quote goes a long way to sum up my reaction to a post the gallerist Ed Winkleman wrote on his blog called, "Looking for Leaders..." Ed argues that the flood of speculative cash has thrown the artworld is in a "death spiral" and its up to artists to lead us out of the trap. I Liked Ed's post a lot, even though I found myself strongly disagreeing with its key points. First, that the source of the artworld's problems are auctions, and second, that artists can lead the way to fixing those problems. "Someone will chime in to suggest all we need is enough idealistic dealers who dig in their heels" Ed predicted, "show quality work without compromising, and they'll begin to change how things are heading." But so far, all the responses I've seen have been along the lines that everyone needs to do their part. I don't agree with that either. Right now we are at least twice removed from truth; probably the most we should hope for is to move to an environment of error from the state of confusion we inhabit. Ed's post is a move in that direction. But I don't think leadership is what we lack at all, artists need good data.

Alain Servais tweet captures my attitude more exactly than my own twitter reaction.

In his post, Ed reports that he "had a conversation just the other day with an artist who confirmed for me that so long as there's money to be made in the current market, they felt they should try to make as much as they can too. Why should they be the cross bearer for their generation? And it's clear they're not the only artist who feels that way, regardless of what some would say if put on the spot. Which isn't to say all artists feel this way...just enough to fuel an ever-money-obsessed market." I don't believe it's the way artists feel that fuel the artworld's obsession with money - but how would I know? Part of the problem we all face is that there are no economic studies of the artworld, there are very few systematic studies of any kind. The only data with any depth and breadth we have to look at are auction prices, but they stand out in a context of anecdotal observation/outrage.

I've been asked on a number of occasions if there is any good writing on the economics of the artworld. (Fuck you Tom Wolf and your bullshit-reactionary Painted Word.) The best description I've ever read of the economic condition of artists in the contemporary artworld is Chapter 3 of Freakonomics: "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" Replace "foot soldiers" with "emerging artists", "drug king pins" with "art stars", and you have a pretty good description of the conditions (and delusions) most young artists labour under.
New Jack City (1991); Jacob Kassay (2010) via AFC

Talking with Greg Allen the other day, he joked: “Swing a stick in Greenpoint you’re going to hit someone desperate to be an art star." That's not a particularly original or profound observation, but Greg went on to point out that "That's not a practice, that's a symptom.” To torture Greg's the metaphor a little further, the 'disease' is a perverse set of incentives that, like the crack trade, offer a very few outrageously large rewards, attracting lots of desperate players willing to risk life and limb for a shot at the top slot.

I moved to New York 19 years ago, not because I was desperate to be famous, or wanted to try and make as much as I could, I came to do meaningful work, to take part in the intellectual debate of things. That is how I think of the contemporary artworld, as a debate of things; a debate waged with paint and plywood and Thai food rather than paragraphs and footnotes. The disruptive technology of the intellectual debate of things, is not the internet of things or the internet period, it's art fairs. I will not go so far to say that the fairs have reduced art to "trading tulips", but the fairs definitely reduce the possible bandwidth of the debate of things until little gets through but monosyllabic nonsense. For intellectuals who speaks in things, something important is being lost.
Tyler Green and Roberta Smith disagreed on the what, if any, opportunity the fairs hold for critics.

When I arrived in New York 18 years ago the debate consisted of positions articulated by artists in the form of carefully crafted solo shows, by curators as pointed group shows, by gallerists and museum directors as programs. Around 2000 is the first time I can remember an gallerist pressuring me for small colorful/shiny work. There are lots of low bandwidth settings for art - biennials, most outdoor settings, and the great majority of domestic and commercial settings - but the "death spiral" is a function of the fairs sudden primacy of the gallery. In the past ten or fifteen years, fairs have gone from an interesting side show, to the star of the show, dominating most artists' and galleries' ability to make sales.

"Tulipomania" may be descriptive of the secondary market Adam Linderman and his pals occupy, but that is money swapped back and forth between collectors, dealers, and speculators. Its economic effect on art making is "trickle down" - which is to say voodoo economics - they pose a diluted moral hazard to the debate of things. The fairs, meanwhile, directly effect the primary market of working contemporary artists and their gallerists. Their effect is more akin to the Prisoner's Dilemma - a set of incentives that encourage all the players to betray one another, even when its in their best interest to cooperate.
Tulipomania (1637); Richard Serra, Prisoner's Dilemma (1974)

Not long after I had my first solo show in New York, and just about the time the fairs were really begining to ramp up, I met one such player. An artist who was working with Deitch Projects, and doing well, came to visit my studio. They told me that they had gone to art school to be an illustrator, but decided they could earn more money by applying the ethics of illustration to the artworld. Their advice to me was to treat gallerists as my "clients", to listen to them, and to illustrate the "art" they tell you they can sell. This is not too unlike the thinking of the artist who told Ed,"they should try to make as much as they can too."

This is exactly the sort of thinking one should expect in an environment of confusion; where none of the players have a chance to play more than a few rounds; and the only information they have access to is hearsay - which is the classic set up for The Prisoner's Dilemma. But here is the thing, if players are allowed the chance to play multiple rounds, are given good sources of information about other players, they stop betraying one another and begin to cooperate. The art fairs probably just exacerbated conditions within the art world.  By offering such high returns, discouraging true debate, and trading instead in cliche, witticism, and flash, they have given the Prison over to its absolute worst players.

But at the deepest level, what makes the contemporary artworld function like a crack gang is that the contemporary artworld exists inside of a global economy that increasingly functions like a crack gang. “You got all these niggers below you who want your job, you dig?” explains one crack dealer quoted in Freakonomics. “So, you know, you try to take care of them, but you know, you also have to show them you the boss. You always have to get yours first, or else you really ain’t no leader. If you start taking losses, they see you as weak and shit.” That's a pretty spectacular summery of Mitt Romney's presidential platform.

In the face of global social/economic phenomenon, the idea of artistic avant-gardes spontaneously emerging out of an artworld that is characterized by tulipomania at one extreme and The Prisoner's Dilemma at the other, is an absurdity. The key term there however, is spontaneously. Lets remember that right up until the wee hours, a lot of really smart people, believed a Romney victory was inevitable.
Circular re-imagining of the London Metro (2013)

Ed makes a point of singling out Bill Powhida's current show at Postmasters. I think Bills work deserves to be singled out as well, but not because he's leading the way. Like a lot of studio artists, I tend to keep to my own small corner of the art world. My map of the art world is sketchy at best - like a tourist who knows London as a few key areas around certain tube stations, but has no idea how they might be connected to one another over ground. Bill's mappings of the artworld give us all a God's eye view of the artworld. They are pointed and critical, but whether you agree or disagree with Bill's program, he orientates us.

Nate Silver might say that Bill helps us see "the signal through the noise" -  I'd say he shows us the forest for the trees. I am a big fan of Silvers. He kept me sane through the past two presidential election campaigns. I understand that the new FiveThirtyEight premiere underwhelmed pretty much everyone, but feel that Silver and his new team may have suffered from unfair expectations - aking to the hype that proceeded Dean Kamen's introduction of the Segway (among the rumors I remember hearing in 2000-2001, was that Kamen had invented a teleportation device, an antigravity device, or a jetpack - I shit you not at all).
Felix Salmon makes fun of my hairline at parties, I wonder what he says to Nate Silver when they hang out?

I wish Silver had included contemporary art among the topics he planned to cover. While Silver's concept of "data journalism" may not revolutionize the way news is written with its first 40 posts, or even first 400, I believe that it is a truly transformative idea - if incrementally so rather than the revolutionary variety. Unlike revolutionary turnover, that seems to require charismatic leadership, the progressive power of incremental change just needs to a problem to solve - error rather than confusion. It maybe in art, Silver recognizes that there just isn't enough good data to craft a story at this point. That is what we lack, what we have always lacked; data.

For sometime now I have tried to imagine what "qualitative analysis" of the artworld might look like - probably a lot like what Bill does, but less anecdotally/ad-hoc based, more grounded in empirical rigor - but still cutting and funny. For "quant-criticism" or "critical analysis" - whatever you call it - to become the corrective that the artworld desperately needs (and is now big enough to support) Bill, and whoever else might join him, needs better data. Unlike the poor, and poorly educated, youths caught up in Chicago's drug trade of the 80s and 90s, most aspiring artists are well equipped to make good choices, if they have good information.

Right now there is very little statistical information of any kind. Besides a little bit of statistical info assembled by WAGE and a smattering of governmental departments, we're flying blind right now. No one can point in the right direction, when no one knows has any idea where we stand.
Silver's data journalism chart, posted at 5:38 AM March 17, 2014

Addendum: Chris Coleman storified my twitter discussion with Ed Winkleman

[Full Disclosure: I worked with Bill a couple times over the past year making things for him. I think however this reveals less of a possible conflict of interest on my part, and more, that I have had a great opportunity to discuss Bill's project in detail. Also: I am a product of Chicago's public school system of the 1980s. I was lucky enough to come from a middle class family who enrolled me in a fantastic fine art magnet school, but remember, first hand how terribly that school system failed its poorest students in the 80s.]


  1. Hey John, you might have already have run into them, but the "digital humanties" crowd are starting to have a crack at something that could meaningfully be called critical analytics, or qualitative analysis of data. I haven't seen anything really looking seriously at the art market in the way you describe. But eg the group around Lev Manovich are doing interesting things with computational visualizations of cultural data, "distant reading" techniques, and so on.

    I have no particular affiliation, they are just interesting.

    1. Thanks Adam, thats great to hear, the Cultural Analytics looks really interesting.

  2. there are plenty of artists working like this, and institutions allowing it. Just look/ask around a bit more.

    1. Thanks for helpfully listing some of the specific people/institutions you think might fit the bill.