What happens when creative ideals crash into the art world’s sad realities?
I work for a major international gallery, even though I have a PhD in art history and originally envisioned an academic career. My dissertation on the soft-focus Weltanschauung of photographer Edward Steichen was well received, but landing a teaching job or curatorial position proved impossible. Although I never pictured myself in the commercial gallery world, the funny thing is, I actually like working here. People respect my knowledge, and I am really engaged with the established artists in our program. The gallery recently signed a few new artists who have hot markets but, if you ask me, limited talent. I find myself having to write scholarly-ish texts for gallery publications that make them sound intelligent and even important. While struggling to find the words, I sometimes wonder . . . does writing a thoughtful text about a negligible artist help steer the course of art history in the wrong direction?
The false presumption you make is that anyone will read your essays. Scholarship has very little meaning in this hypebeast art world, and gallery catalogues even less so. It is honorable that you are invested in the power of the word and art history as a field, but you are ignoring that what passes as art criticism today is a boomer like Jerry Saltz puckering for the camera and posting crotch shots from Renaissance paintings.
Regarding your scholarly pedigree, is the concern here that you are selling out by grinding sausage at the art salumeria? Let’s pause to acknowledge that you took an almost futureless terminal degree and landed a real full-time job. Never forget your grad school colleagues stuck in adjunct purgatory grading plagiarized undergrad art assignments and toiling on their obscurant essays that, if they are lucky, may appear in the frigid pages of October, Texte zur Kunst, or Grey Room. Lacking any popular audience, the best they can hope for is a byline in the Brooklyn Rail, Triple Canopy, or other arts publications that are given away for free so that people will read them.
Collectors don’t buy things because of your fancy words, and the ones who probably understand them least are the new Instagram artists you write about. Your soft focus seems to be blurring an unfortunate hard truth: the world barely needs art historians, but galleries do need content producers to extol their art.
I’m a first-year grad student at a prestigious art school, and my famous teacher is def on drugs. I can’t learn a thing from this guy, but other students are psyched just to be near him. He might be a legend but I’m paying $68,000 a year to be here. He barely shows up and hasn’t even tried to learn our names. Everything he says is super negative and he only has lame old Marxist advice to offer. Should I report him?
Instead of feeling so low about this teacher, maybe you should try getting high with him. Walk a mile in his Asics before you condemn him to a life working at Dick Blick. Ask yourself why this legendary artist still needs to teach. You don’t know what he went through, or how the art world might have destroyed him. Try to imagine why he numbs himself with an eight ball before slogging through a day of studio visits. In terms of reporting him, has he broken actual university rules or is he only breaching his own sobriety? If the former, keep notes, get corroboration, and document the infractions that you believe to be fireable offenses to build your case for his dismissal. While school is an idealistic place for you to pursue your personal growth, for him it may be just a paycheck and a halfway house to crash at for a few hours each week in order to stay off the streets.
This article appears under the title “Follow the Content” in the March 2020 issue, p. 24.