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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Happy New Year—your work is worth less than absolutely nothing

Can we please fire the curators and move on to another epoch, one that values art?
Ben Ledi, by David Young Cameron. Since I can't illustrate nothingness with photos, I'm giving you four paintings by Glasgow School artists instead. 
Imagine, if you will, that you are offered a solo show at a smart museum in one of the world’s art centers, home to a renowned art school. It’s costing taxpayers £11,000, or $15,000 US. You’d be thrilled, because your reputation as an international artist would be secured.

That is precisely what happened to Dutch artist Marlie Mul, whose work ranges from two-dimensional image/word pieces to straight-up diatribes taped on the wall to sculpture. She isn’t an A-lister; she’s actually pretty obscure. How did she respond? She refused to produce any art at all, but suggested the show could go on, billed as This Exhibition Has Been Cancelled.

The non-exhibit drew 100,000 visitors to Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art. In other words, if you don’t even bother to make it, they will still come. Perhaps it’s been abnormally cold in Glasgow and people needed somewhere to warm up.

Near Dover, 1921, by William York Macgregor
This is the final devolution of conceptual art. We’ve already seen the end of craftsmanship and of ideas. Our incredulity at some of the total dreck in galleries was answered with, “You’re not sophisticated enough to understand. Furthermore, you don’t wear the right clothes, and your glasses are so last year.”

But at least there were objects—insufficient, ill-worked and badly thought-out as they were. This show tells us that even nothingness is to be preferred to the output of working modern artists, many of whom would have given their non-gangrenous left arm for such exposure.

Trying to put the best face on what was essentially a no-show, curator Will Cooper said, “By removing what would traditionally be considered an art object we are presenting the gallery as empty space, giving us a moment to question the value in turning over exhibition after exhibition after exhibition.” Ah, spun bullshit—the métier of the middle-manager.

A Hind's Daughter, by Sir James Guthrie 1883, courtesy Scottish National Gallery
“This wouldn’t fly in my field,” my husband commented laconically. When a firm doesn’t deliver on a government contract here, not only do they not get paid, they can be held liable for damages. It doesn’t fly in the commercial art world, either. When a client forks over a few thousand dollars, they expect something in return.

Not all Glaswegians were as supportive as Mr. Cooper. “It is remarkable how authorities seem to have a talent for finding innovative ways to waste taxpayers’ money,” TaxPayers’ Alliance chief John O’Connell told the Scottish Daily Mail. “For households struggling with rising bills this will seem like a cruel joke. It is also deeply concerning that residents – who are picking up the bill – are not being told how much of their hard-earned cash is being wasted on this charade. Taxpayers expect their money to go to essential services, not to be squandered.”

The head of the Holy Loch, 1882, George Henry
All of this does a terrific disservice to real art. It’s difficult enough for the artist to justify his or her work to the world. It’s difficult to get people to slow down and read the texts of our work seriously. Do we really need to be attacked by the institutions who purport to support us?
This fall I’ve written about Meredith Frampton and other overlooked British realists. Their careers were blighted by the same academics, who insisted that realism and craftsmanship were irrelevant in the 20th century.

With this non-show, gallerists and intellectuals and—yes, gallery-goers—have once again told us working artists exactly what they think of the work we’re struggling to produce.

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