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VIP Girl Goes Incognito

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This weekend in the New York Times Book Review, Barry Gewen examined the current state of art criticism and by extension, the impact of contemporary art and artists today. Gewen methodically and cogently reviewed the history of twentieth-century art criticism and placed its practitioners in a pantheon, highlighting the obvious: without talented and compelling subjects, a critic's role is specious at best. Gewen cited the historically important critics and the artists that helped make their reputation: Clement Greenberg and Jackson Pollock, Arthur Danto and Andy Warhol, and pointed out that the recent literature has accused 21st-century critics of entirely retreating from making judgements, since artists have been broadening the definition of what makes something "art." Gewen cites the lament of the critics who still carry a torch for those earlier years and says the "the presiding spirit over the art of recent Cole Porter" because of the "anything goes" ethos. He likens the experience of Christo's "The Gates" to a "medieval carnival [where] participants were invited to take a holiday from the getting-and-spending responsibilities of their daily lives." And although he dwelled on the more extreme performance and conceptual artists, he asked an important question: Has the art world gone crazy?

I had plenty of time to reflect on these weighty subjects as I waited on the VIP line at the Santa Monica Art Museum Saturday night. The occasion was their annual Incognito art sale. Like their colleagues in Miami, the Santa Monica Museum had figured out that every art lover wants to be a VIP, but unlike the Miami fair where provenance is everything, in Santa Monica they forced everyone back on that most dreaded of all barometers, truly personal taste: at this art sale, you don't know the identity of the artist whose work you are buying. Artists are invited to submit 8 x 10 work especially made for the sale with their signatures only visible once you have purchased it. Each piece sells for 250 dollars.

I already knew trouble was brewing when I couldn't find a parking spot anywhere within a three-block radius of Bergamot Station, home to the museum and many upscale galleries. The Santa Monica neighborhood, like the warehouse section of Miami, has been re-making itself as a cultural outpost. Galleries stud the adjacent mostly entertainment-based conversions and high rises, but the occasional tire company or home security firm clings bravely to their now very valuable real estate. As I walked from my car on the outskirts of the art complex, I ran into a couple of homeless guys who were finding their now-expensive patch of grass still welcoming.

As soon as I crossed the threshold into the parking lot, I knew I was back into the madness of Miami. Although I arrived early, I joined a throng of people rushing towards the Museum. A human wall -- not a performance piece -- four and five deep in some spots, serpentined its way to the museum entrance. I hurried past friends who were Patrons who had purchased 1250-dollar entry passes intending to come back and wait with them once I had checked in. It turned out that my measly 75 dollars was only going to get me onto the VIP line, which itself snaked well past into the main parking lot of arts complex. (Memo to self: read the fine print on the invitation!) I quickly ran over to that line which was separately cordoned off from the Patron line as well as another line of "regular" 25-dollar entries slated for a later time slot which had not yet begun to form.

But here's where Gewen's themes really resonated. It turned out that the VIP line was mostly made up of artists who were coming to check out the scene and whether and how fast their donated pieces were going to sell. I was behind an LA art icon, next to a UC Davis grad who is early in his career and seeking permanent representation, and in front of a woman who revealed that she too was a participating artist only when the others had 'fessed up first.

This year, two wonderful biographies detailed the lives of Willem de Kooning and Henri Matisse, both great artists of the twentieth century. It turns out, most of the time, these guys were working. Though de Kooning drank and hung out at bars at various points in his career, he spent most of his time pulling all-nighters at his studio. Matisse was positively reclusive, collecting his models and muses around his family, eventually working from his bed. Though they often forged close relationships with their most important patrons, contemporary artists don't have that luxury anymore. Not only do they have to make art, they have to make the scene.

It was the artists who had the real skinny on Incognito: apparently, even if you had pre purchased VIP tickets, the line to get in had formed early, some said by two hours ahead of the opening time of 7. One told me he had heard that there were interns who had been waiting on line holding spots for their bosses, well known Los Angeles dealers, who had better things to do on a Saturday, presumably, like sell art at their galleries.

When I finally got to the check-in desk, the Dealers and the Patrons were already well inside of the Museum. In order to get a piece, you had to grab the tag number of the piece you wanted, without checking the back. Once you had pulled it off, you owned it.

I was given a key ring to store the tags (presumably to encourage us to get multiples). And as in Miami, I was being asked to "trust my instincts" -- in this case it was printed rule number 7 on the Buying Guide they handed me along with the ring.

I entered the cavernous space of the museum in a great whoosh. People were already six and seven deep as they studied the walls of double stacked works of art, over five hundred pieces. Everyone looked nervous, and there were lots of whispered conversations and huddles. By stopping in front of a work, or talking about it, you showed your hand....and that meant that the others around you might also become interested in a piece, or think it potentially had a value much greater than 250 dollars. What if it was an Ed Ruscha or Sol le Witt? Though I didn't see any video art (hard to do this on an 8 x 10) there were a few wall constructions and pillows. There was quite of bit of flouting of the tag removal rule: I saw people grab tags, reflect, and then return them to their places -- when I raised an eyebrow, one woman told me it was "allowed" even though security guards were supposed to monitor this. (I'd lay odds on a desperate art collector over a Brink's guy any day.) Andy Warhol said everybody has fifteen minutes but by the time I got inside, only ten or so minutes after the doors had opened, most pieces by well known artists had already been spoken for.

I spent an agonizing half hour going back up and down the packed galleries, trying to be a smart spotter, occasionally enlisting artist friends as well as my fellow linemates in the hunt for a piece. Of course, once I saw that everything I liked had already been red tagged, on the way out, I bought something I don't like at all. I justified this purchase by saying I was contributing to the Museum, but in actual fact, I just wanted to have something to show for my long waits in line.

Inevitably, I had to wait on a line to pay, and then another line to pick up the work. By then, totally unnerved and damp with nervous perspiration, I couldn't wait to wait on the line to get a drink.

My two last visits to the Santa Monica Museum have been exceptional. The museum has taken on the serious and important task of documenting and analyzing various twentieth century Los Angeles-based art movements and I have learned more about the history of art there than in any other museum. On a very limited budget, they have mounted fascinating exhibitions and demonstrated a unique flair for uncovering seminal moments -- especially moments that show how artists influence each other, and collectively make "new" art.

So I'm delighted they have figured out how to work the collectors and raise the money they need to continue their important scholarship. But the string of art fairs, auctions and sales that have conflated with the seasonal sales at department stores and malls have proven that not only is art collecting egalitarian, but that it has been reduced, finally, to the most common laws of merchandising: price (in this case, CHEAP) and timing (always FAST). If, as Gewen says, some critics are cranky with the anything-goes attitude, maybe some collectors will not be far behind.