For years, I have been calling out our art museums' ties with corporate money and real estate. I have been critical of complacent and complicit contemporary artists who have allowed art to become little more than a bankable commodity and behave like eager worker bees clamoring to deliver the honey to the big queen bees of the art world hive. In the meantime, MoMA, the Starbucks of the museum world, continues to expand its empire (scheming to tear down the former American Folk Art Museum to make way for yet another expansion), Frieze New York has become a chilly reminder of how art fairs have replaced art contemplation with navel-gazing, and artists and art dealers alike are making a beeline for Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's Eclipse, his Manhattan-moored über-yacht, in hopes of making an über-sale.
But the newest trend in this eternal infernal game is something altogether different.
In 1965, John Cage wrote the following headline into his diary: "How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)." Almost half a century later, the art world is swept up by artists who are eager to "make a difference." I like to think of them as drone artists. They swarm the art world with killer-bee tactics to saturate it with their "socially engaged" art, co-opting real and risky political activism to further their careers.
I know and recognize these drones from afar. I could easily pass as one of them if I wanted to, and it would make my life much easier, as non-for-profit organizations are eager to champion them: their incessant talk of "community" adds a touch of radical cred -- guaranteed to sell tables at fundraising events. But I happen to be profoundly suspicious of artists whose art is infused with a blatant sociopolitical agenda, at least as suspicious as I am of politicians. As a matter of fact, the two are one and the same breed to me. I don't know about you, but I expect more from art than politics.
When MoMA reopened in 2004 and thought nothing of charging $20 as its new entrance fee, a hike of 67 percent, I staged a public protest called Penniless at the Modern. I handed out pamphlets in front of the museum and had some heated discussions with MoMA Director Glenn Lowry. On opening day, I arranged for a slew of visitors to pay their admission fee in pennies only, which prompted the museum's head of security to confront us rather forcefully. My message was simple: the Modern was failing its original mission to make art available for a diverse audience, turning itself into a club for the affluent. In short, it had grown physically but shrunk spiritually.
Penniless at the Modern may have been a symbolic act, but it wasn't meant as a performance. It was real, and it was raw. It wasn't commissioned or sanctioned by anyone. I did not make any money with it, (as a matter of fact, the 400,000 pennies for the participants' entrance fees came mostly out of my own pocket), and I did not create any derivative art work from the protest. More importantly, it blacklisted me within the art establishment (and those who kiss up to it) as someone who was to be avoided at all cost.
Years later, I did create a series of street performances that to some may have appeared to have a sociopolitical agenda. A closer look would have shown them otherwise. The series was inspired by Lucy van Pelt's Psychiatric Help booth from Charles Schultz's Peanuts. My booth was not a doctor's office but an incarnation of a pastiche of the contemporary museum world I had created in 2003, The Homeless Museum of Art. I manned it not as a doctor but as "The Museum Director," and my "sessions" were free. However, my character shared one significant trait with Lucy: like her, I appeared to be utterly unwilling to help or even incapable of helping others. I adopted a cryptic, unemotional, dandy-esque persona that was in fact meant to debunk the notion of the artist as a social catalyst. During my openings (The Director is In), I deflected questions about myself or the project, preferring to prod my visitors with questions about themselves. Most importantly, I stayed clear of even hints of earnestness. I repeated these afternoon-long street performance countless times over the course of three years, with no reward other than the gratefulness of some of my visitors for having stumbled upon something that could, at times, become unexpectedly cathartic for both them and myself.
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a young visual artist named Xaviera Simmons who informed me that she was developing a series of in-gallery performances at MoMA called Archive as Impetus that would "explain to gallery goers of the museum some of the politically charged happenings that have occurred as a result of MoMA's activities, actions, incentives and collections." She wrote further that this project would explore the Modern's "political engagements and artist interventions" and that she wanted to include my "MoMA Interventions projects." The main purpose of her email was to ask for my permission to use my images and texts in her own performances "as an explanation of the intervention/engagement." In other words, she was planning to re-stage my protest act against MoMA as a MoMA-sanctioned performance.
That did it. I gather Simmons expected me to be flattered by her request and that she won't be all too happy about my firm decline to grant her permission to recycle my material for her own resumé.
It is time for a sea change. If we allow such opportunistic do-gooders to dominate the contemporary art world, if we allow galleries and art institutions to laugh all the way to the bank by exploiting social consciousness, and if we don't educate the public to be weary of their manipulative rhetoric of political correctness, we will have failed the grand legacy of generations of free-thinking artists who came before us.
This time, I am not going to point my finger at cultural and commercial institutions. This is about the artists who will define our future. Call it a manifesto for making the art world bearable again.
- We need more artists who are not concerned with doing the "right thing."
- We need more artists who find ways to examine and express human misery or bliss without a political agenda.
- We need more artists who don't play by the rules imposed by curators, gallerists, museums and art collectors.
- We need more artists who are wary of "meaning" and embrace contradiction.
- We need more artists who don't pretend to have the right answers.
- We need more artists who don't give a damn about making you feel good or bad.
- We need more artists who are not afraid of running into trouble.
- We need more artists who are able to laugh at the absurdity of life and art.
- We need more artists who don't resemble anybody's idea of what an artist ought to be and who nonetheless produce great art that takes us by surprise, makes us think and reflect, and leaves plenty of room for multiple interpretations.