Twenty Questions: David McGee, What I’d Change About the Artworld

Houston Artist David McGee wishes artists felt less dependent on accpetance by institutions and audiences as a measure their success.

also by Glasstire

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11 responses to “Twenty Questions: David McGee, What I’d Change About the Artworld”

  1. David McGee expresses a sentiment that is undoubtedly widespread among the current generation of artists. McGee’s inventory of change provides us with a bridge to earlier notions that speak to a predilection for an artistic identity that is anti-institutional and unconventional. However, It strikes me as incoherent to suggest that an artist can exist without an “audience” (or, without bringing into being a “public”). From the seemingly innocent homily of Ad Reinhardt (“an artist’s job is to exhibit artwork) to the struggle to remain visible while avoiding making of art a spectacle, the ethical core of resistance based on refusal is a familiar romance. Yet the idea that an art practice invisible to any public could be anything other than a self-regarding fantasy of escape is one which I find difficult to grasp and even more challenging to cast as contemporary contribution to the long history of negation in art. That history has no agency outside its antonymic relation to that which is presumed to be the dominant culture of art. Such a dichotomy has the whiff of fabrication about it; to articulate a position of negation today requires what one group of artists has termed the “emergency conditional”. That is, the willingness to continually counter imposed identities, “jobs”, and meanings. But to have an identity one must first have a public; then one may begin to dismantle that falsehood and propose a position of radical undecidability as a defensive move. This is not the same as “no job” whatsoever — which is precisely what “no audience” means. And “no audience” would condemn an artist to oblivion.

    1. oh brother

    2. Mr. McGee’s expressed hope, in my view, is that an artist not be so dependent on institutional validation as a measure of their individual success. How is this “unconventional” or “anti-institutional?” And if it were so, what’s wrong with that? Many institutions have gotten off track by welcoming wealthy collectors onto their boards who insist upon having artists in their personal collections highlighted in order to validate their own personal collecting aesthetic (not to mention increasing the value of their collected objects). And why can’t an artist create a work for themselves? For their own satisfaction? I’ve seen many works in my lifetime whose sole function was cathartic. This entire analysis seems much ado over a simple dream for artists to enjoy a creative atmosphere wherein institutional and market forces are somewhat mitigated.

  2. The reason why one requires an “audience” (read: society) to construct an identity is because an identity is a social fact. For it to be “real”, it needs to be acknowledged as such by a community. Unless, of course, you prefer dogma or decree to dialogue and criticism. This doesn’t mean that one does not strongly invent an identity; it suggests that whatever identity is invented or — if you prefer — is expressed will have no social agency if it is not able to be questioned, challenged, or changed. We are so habituated to speak in hushed tones about the “uniqueness” of the vision of a creative artist that we willingly allow ourselves to be in thrall to a myth. It’s one thing to say: “a human being made this, and we can find in it (read: this art object) a power, grace and meaning that transcends its materiality. We can celebrate our humanity by calling the products of our labor “spiritual”, as well as useful. But it is quite another state of affairs to value the unique products of a particular form of human creative labor as absolutely indispensable to any definition of creativity. The former may be hyperbole, while the latter is elitist mystification. Hence the delicious irony of my correspondent’s remark “oh brother”; in truth, the folksy put down is making palatable a form of invidious discrimination.

  3. I think McGee is simply dismayed by what he sees as artists’ insufficiently critical view of institutions. I too was surprised at the “without audience” comment-that’s pretty extreme; but I took it as hyperbole, emphasizing how McGee feels that artists need to trust themselves, and rely less on institutional approval for validation.

  4. I get it: Lenny Bruce AND Jerry Lewis, not Lenny Bruce OR Jerry Lewis.

    Now I am really intrigued:

    It’s been suggested that there are artists critical of institutions, but that they are Insufficiently so.

    Who are these “weakly” critical artists? And who are the “strongly” critical artists?

    Is it every artist’s job to be critical of the institutions of art?

    Who is responsible for the institutions of art?

    We already have the “done and dusted”, well-behaved category of “institutional critique”. Are we talking about nominating folks for this award? Or are we talking about something else?

  5. A final comment, taken from a recent catalogue essay by Art & Language:

    “If the concept of institutional critique is not to remain pickled in sentiment, it will need to be re-theorised in terms of works that have sufficient intellectual agility and internality to put up a critical resistance to the institution as it mutates and develops. It is in this resistance that we may find some vestige of the autonomy that was lost in the transfiguration of high modernism into expensively framed money, lost again in the trajectory from Minimalist literalism to institutional critique, and lost once more in the postmodern development of Conceptual art into architectural adjunct. The apparent tokenization of the work of art is an institutional effect, not a prohibition on staying awake; nor, for that matter, is it a coercive cultural condition – though (powerful) cultural condition it is.

    Consider then, the idea of the work of art as an essay that gives voice – often a ventriloquist’s voice and form – to a project. Consider further that this form is a fragment lopped off from a conversation – a performance of sorts that is always under the pain of erasure, conceived as both form and social reality.

    Finally, consider the possibility that ‘“This is the work.” “I don’t think so”,’ is the work.”

  6. It’s mighty fine out here in the weeds, c’mon over and still in the shade, enjoy the mud between your toes, feel it bake in the hot sun, just down the less traveled by road, there’s plenty of time before answering the call to supper.

  7. Oh Brother where are thou.
    “Audience” as in the ancient internal language of silence in the studio… READ no audience… a freedom to create without succumbing to the age old pressure from the eventual viewing of Art enthusiasts and critics and naysayers and idiots and educators and fellow professional artists and writers, and photographers, and poets and your friends and your enimies and institutions and musicians and students and electricians and your Momma if you are lucky….
    The discussion of the dissection of the words of this particular artist is curious, (full disclosure; David is my Friend capital F). I found the video to be a little like a confessional and a slip into the empty studio of David’s head… before he has begun a new painting…vulnerable and intellectual and quite honest and always questioning things. Glasstire did a brilliant job capturing a moment with a great contemporary painter. I like this series and I want to see more.
    I personally think there is a difference when an artist critiques an institution vs criticizing it. Maybe that is because I have worked for museums and galleries, I know a little of the navigation of internal roads and they can be pretty tricky…the voice of the artist doing this (critique) holds weight to me if the artist feels change needs to happen in order for a wider or different audience to be reached… or whatever the challenges are that need to be addressed…without personalizing the institution. If the artist is professional they can create the work with no audience or institution in mind and bravo for being able to make that seperation. So perhaps the Audince in question or lack thereof is way more meaningful to Mr.Mc Gee. His generosity in sharing his private thoughts are to be commended. If nothing else, I have a pretty good hunch David will always be open to conversation about Art. Art he has created, or historically Art others have created.
    Ask the person who threw the brick at his head during a lecture in Indonesia a few years back about the audience. David wanted to talk to that person about the differences of opinion they had about V. S. Naipaul. It was painful in a different way. Ultimately the viewer had drawn his own conclusion divorced of dialogue and “BlamO” there was no conversation… only
    medics and a ride back to the airport. This thing tht happens with electronic dialogue seems a bit tragic in my mind, and rings a sour in my middle ear; especially in light of recent local art critics/artists/performance artists riding to the height of controversy (and self induced fame) on the back of The Art Guys and the Art they created. I think Oh Brother is right. Can a thinking man paint what he wants and not paint for an audience in advance? can he want the painting to have an audience but not prescribe what that audience should be? can he be responsible for his art and the intent in which he created without someone else telling the public they know differently what the artists intent was? can an institution do its sole purpose and exhibit art of artists?( yes fundraising and education are means to an end in the sole purpose of ultimate livelihood of said institutions)…. only time will tell.

    But what do I know. I’m just a girl in the (art) world. As long as you’ll let me be….(yes homage to Gwen Stefani)

  8. Oh Brother where are thou.
    “Audience” as in the ancient internal language of silence in the studio… READ no audience… a freedom to create without succumbing to the age old pressure from the eventual viewing of Art enthusiasts and critics and naysayers and idiots and educators and fellow professional artists and writers, and photographers, and poets and your friends and your enimies and institutions and musicians and students and electricians and your Momma if you are lucky….
    The discussion of the dissection of the words of this particular artist is curious, (full disclosure; David is my Friend capital F). I found the video to be a little like a confessional and a slip into the empty studio of David’s head… before he has begun a new painting…vulnerable and intellectual and quite honest and always questioning things. Glasstire did a brilliant job capturing a moment with a great contemporary painter. I like this series and I want to see more.
    I personally think there is a difference when an artist critiques an institution vs criticizing it. Maybe that is because I have worked for museums and galleries, I know a little of the navigation of internal roads and they can be pretty tricky…the voice of the artist doing this (critique) holds weight to me if the artist feels change needs to happen in order for a wider or different audience to be reached… or whatever the challenges are that need to be addressed…without personalizing the institution. If the artist is professional they can create the work with no audience or institution in mind and bravo for being able to make that seperation. So perhaps the Audince in question or lack thereof is way more meaningful to Mr.Mc Gee. His generosity in sharing his private thoughts are to be commended. If nothing else, I have a pretty good hunch David will always be open to conversation about Art. Art he has created, or historically Art others have created.
    Ask the person who threw the brick at his head during a lecture in Indonesia a few years back about the audience. David wanted to talk to that person about the differences of opinion they had about V. S. Naipaul. It was painful in a different way. Ultimately the viewer had drawn his own conclusion divorced of dialogue and “BlamO” there was no conversation… only medics and a ride back to the airport. This thing that happens with electronic dialogue can seems a bit tragic in my mind, and rings a sour in my middle ear; especially in light of recent local art critics/artists/performance artists riding to the height of controversy (and self induced fame) on the back of The Art Guys and the Art they created. I think Oh Brother is right. Can a thinking person paint what he or she wants and not paint for an audience in advance? can he/she want the painting to have an audience but not prescribe what that audience should be? can he/she be responsible for his/her art and the intent in which he/she created without someone else telling the public they know differently what the artists intent was? can an institution do its sole purpose and exhibit art of artists?( yes fundraising and education are means to an end in the sole purpose of ultimate livelihood of said institutions)…. only time will tell.

    But what do I know. I’m just a girl in the (art) world. As long as you’ll let me be….(yes homage to Gwen Stefani)

  9. So many of the opinions raised in response to my comments point to an underlying assumption about what sort of activity art represents and the relation that the artist has to his or her work. This also entails a relation to the culture as a whole.

    Taken as a whole, these opinions really constitute a set of beliefs that are held to be true by artists who share these beliefs. Now, you may balk and say that there is no single truth attached to art; each individual comprehends or experiences his or her own truth. You may go further and say this is the beauty, and wonder, and value of art; namely, that it is capable of expressing a multitude of truths. This may be the appearance to you of the state of affairs of art. And you would defend this argument in favor of pluralism by pointing to the variety of artistic expressions that exist in the field of art.

    I have no doubt that art exhibits a multitude of forms; that some forms of art wear their interiority on their sleeve, more obscure and unconcerned with the approbation of the world beyond the studio. But I am less certain that each of these forms arises from a heteronomous world of art and value. My skepticism is confirmed when I surmise that each of these pleas for art’s specificity is manifestly united in discourse: the demand to suspend analytical judgment.

    It is obvious that art “speaks”, if you will, in a variety of ways; it can exemplify or it can testify, as the old bluesman might preach. But if it is taboo to break the spell of art, then all manner of artistic expression might just as well be considered a fact of nature. And this brings us back to Barnett Newman’s dismissal of aesthetics: it is to art as ornithology is to the birds. Why Newman deemed it necessary to take such a position is a puzzle that art history can illuminate. Whether or not contemporary artists articulate their situation in quite the same way is another matter; one that is hardly lost “in the mists of time.”

    We are spoiled for choice and overrun with information. Why an artist would willingly turn her back on such riches is perplexing but not difficult to explain. Faced with an increasingly conformist sensibility towards all forms of culture, shamanistic gurgling might be the clearest path to dissent. By adopting that attitude the artist, in my view, gives too much away too soon.

    There are other ways to gain a sense of identity as an artist. To see a demonstration of analytical judgment in the face of objects whose origins in human intentionality are likely to remain unrecoverable, I recommend a fascinating review by the art historian T. J. Clark of the British Museum’s stunning exhibition, “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind”. You may read it online at the London Review of Books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n06/tj-clark/lucky-hunter-gatherers

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