The last time the College Art Association held its annual conference in Washington, D.C., was 1991. This was during the Culture Wars, and Robert Mapplethorpe dominated. The opening reception was held at the Corcoran Gallery, which had caved to political pressure by canceling the late photographer’s retrospective, and the convocation was given by Dennis Barrie, the Contemporary Arts Center director who had been charged with obscenity for not canceling Mapplethorpe’s show in Cincinnati. (He got off.) The anniversary panel that year on the beleaguered NEA was titled “The Next 25 Years?”
In 2016, CAA returned to Washington, in the heat of what we might call the Capital Wars. The NEA survived, but the Corcoran, which closed in 2014 after years of money problems, had not. This time around, the keynote was delivered by artist Tania Bruguera, freshly sprung from detention in Cuba. In a district full of public museums, the hottest ticket of the four-day conference was a tour of Glenstone, Mitch and Emily Rales’s private treasure house in Potomac, Maryland. After four days embedded with the art academic troops in an admittedly incomplete and subjective series of sessions, panels, and receptions, it is this writer’s duty to report that Capital is winning.
A panel of public art practitioners provided concrete advice to an audience of artists who do not support themselves through their work, including: don’t be one of those sculpture gardens with a Calder, a Bourgeois, and an Oldenburg; money exists to buy time, so make a budget for artist fees and childcare; don’t go into debt on your public art commission because you will not make it up in volume.
It was all germane advice that could have helped the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation’s “Stay or Go?” forum. The discussion among artist educators of whether to prepare their students for careers locally or elsewhere kept coming back to the challenges of their own diasporic practices: balancing administrative duties, maintaining their portfolio websites, and finding the time to actually make work (read: childcare).
If bankers talk about art, and artists talk about money, when art historians get together, they talk about commodification. The “Third Wave (or Millennial) Feminism” panel began with Miranda July scholar Cara Smulevitz’s tracing the hipster filmmaker/artist’s arc out of the ’90s punk zine scene and Riot Grrrl’s consumerist transmutation into a Girl Power marketing machine. Smulevitz then presented a promotional video of July unpacking her own limited-edition, self-reflexive conceptual handbag, The Miranda. This MillenFem Boîte-en-valise contains props for July’s endearingly crafted narrative of homeopathic self-soothing, amply lubricated anal sex, and shopping-as-capitalist-critique. Supplies are limited.
From shopping the look to appropriating the gaze: cinema theorist Jenny Gunn’s paper “The Gaze in Millennial Culture” considered the selfie and whether the forward-facing camera phone provides a regendered corrective of the cinematic apparatus which Laura Mulvey long ago identified as the embodiment of the male gaze. (See Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” from the Autumn 1975 issue of Screen.) Gunn acknowledged that, even if they provide evidence of feminist empowerment, selfies are still the self-branding grist for the monetizing mill of the corporate networks we feed them to: Instagram/Facebook, Snapchat, or Weibo. The bright side, art-critically speaking, is that Richard Prince’s appropriationist Instagram portraits help foster awareness by putting a patriarchal face on this exploitative capitalist ontology which subjugates us all. Score this one for Capital, too.
A panel on the latest in digital reconstruction reaffirmed how little we know and how far we haven’t come. Two art historians presented “E-visitors” with virtual re-creations of 18th-century exhibitions; one used a first-person-shooter video-game engine, the other, Google Sketchup. Both austere fly-throughs foster the same acute sense of loss, giving spatial form to the incompleteness of the historical record.
Then the Metropolitan Museum’s Rosalind McKever archly recounted the scholarly morass that is Futurist sculpture, where the works of heirless artists like Boccioni get cast and copied on a lark, and hyperactive estates like Giacomo Balla’s churn out vast quantities of authorized, museum-ready merch. Beyond these auratic shenanigans, two contemporary artists, Barry Ball and Matt Smith, also now re-create Boccioni’s sculptures as their own works. Ball’s posthumous casts are sold to museums in China, and Smith funded his 3-D print of a lost Boccioni on Kickstarter. Though McKever was a backer of this project, her verbal scare quotes and proscriptions against institutional engagement with such objects signaled that she was not a fan.
The anxiety of a sprawling, simultaneous conference like CAA is that you’ll choose the wrong panel and miss something. Two people praised “Diagram Aesthetics of the 20th Century” to me, one because of artist Matthew Ritchie’s impassioned survey of maps he’s loved, and the other in spite of him. The former was a teaching artist, the latter, a credentialed critic. For the artist, the panel’s composition and tone—four historians presenting papers, then one artist’s free-associating slide-show narration—embodied the polarities of the conference and CAA itself. To the critic, Ritchie’s decontextualized visual ramble not only lagged, it inadvertently gave the artist’s game away. Not having seen it myself, I dutifully regretted everything and agreed with both of them.
This relationship between art and art history, and art historians and artists, especially pesky, living ones, stuck with me for the rest of the conference. In an artists’ conversation with LaToya Ruby Frazier, Rick Lowe, a cofounder of the Houston-based nonprofit Project Row Houses, lamented the proliferation of socially engaged art and creative placemaking as essentializing constructs, passing critical fashions that generate hype around a decades-long practice of sustained relationships. Yet as these highly accomplished artists, MacArthur-certified geniuses both, reflected at length on their mutual awesomeness and admiration, I wondered how an engaged outsider might have focused and catalyzed the discourse.
The artist/historian divide also came to mind as outgoing CAA president DeWitt Godfrey sandwiched a frank state-of-the-field report between the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Rosalind Krauss and the introduction of Tania Bruguera. CAA has “experienced steady and sometimes rapid declines in membership,” he said, from a peak of 13,000 in 2010 to 9,000 in 2015, and conference attendance had dropped by 25 percent. Godfrey explained the slide as a decline in cross-disciplinary dialogue and demographic changes: “The research tells us Millennials are not joiners,” was how he teed up “the decline of institutional support for research” and “the transformation of hiring practices” that has left nontenured academics of any generation with little to join.
Precariousness did not initially seem relevant to the panel convened by the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association on artist collaboration. Scholars and artist foundation executives explored the nuances of studio practice and attributions, tracing, for example the changes in wall-label texts for a traveling Joaquín Torres-García retrospective in the 1970s. But then rare-book-dealer-turned-MoMA-curator David Platzker discussed the early work of Gilbert & George, and how they developed their unified practice out of next to nothing, which is all they had. Postal Sculptures and Magazine Sculptures were among Gilbert & George’s ephemeral attempts “to extend themselves” artistically, conceptually, and geographically. Platzker told how MoMA’s acquisition of the artist duo’s first monumental Charcoal on Paper Sculpture, just weeks after its completion in 1970, had a liberating effect on their career. Its title, To be with art is all we ask, has come to resonate with everyone who, Capital be damned, tries to shape their life and work around art. Across many discussions at CAA, though, it now seems apparent that just being with art is not, in fact, enough, and we are asking for more.