July 2010 Archives

On the Corner




FruitvaleFatTire-IMG_0600.jpgCopyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder

The Importance of Status in Art


If you're a work of art, what is the difference between conforming to what I need to want, versus conforming to what you're trying to be?

The former is about worth, and the latter is about quality. Quality is type, but worth is status.

To get right to the blood flowing on the field of sacred cows, status is not important in art. Status is important in society. In society, status is a mechanism for socializing ideas -- something particularly key to ideas that are not self-evidently important to embrace. Ordinarily, one can always take anything to which has been "conferred status", and immediately ask " to whom is this important and why?", and what should surface is the identity of the social network that needs it to be true. From that point, we simply ask why they need it to be true.

As surveyed, social networks come anywhere between huge and miniscule; solicitous and exclusive; staid and volatile... It is not hard to chart out the many varieties of form available from the three dimensions of size, self-identification, and character. Any given social network takes a form to fit its purpose. But the notion of status within that network is just currency coined to fit that network. Those who "confer status" are the bankers. Naturally, the objective of the banker is to make a market out of the network, and the bankers create markets of status borrowers.  And there you have it: much of the anxiety about status is handwringing over whether the loan is short-term or long.

On the other hand, there is respect. Respect is inherently enduring. Often, in the friendlier neighborhoods of art study,  we can see reviewers working hard to confer status but we see critics working hard to bestow respect.

The seemingly natural hierarchy of the progression to artistic prominence had been that juries would bestow respect, which was then the entry fee to certain networks where, with brokering sponsors, status could follow. Notably, juries are presumed to be made up of critics. Meanwhile, the most exalted of all critics has been the curator. 

But, thanks to computerized communications, the role of the curator is now under more stress than ever -- verging on distress, but not clearly falling into the possible virtue of rebirth through "creative destruction". 

With the influence and appetite of both the media and the internet, what we see is the increasing prevalence of paid competition and free exhibition. On the surface, these would appear to make curators less than necessary for most artists.

 Between increasingly big hi-def media devices, web search engines, the paradigm of juried competition, and general relentlessness in the pursuit of "the new", there is a shift away from the curator's classic special interpretation of a privileged discovery. Now, discovery is not privileged,  and interpretation ranges from collaborative to competitive. Selection processes become packaged productions. And as defacto juries get larger and larger in the "viral" world of acceptance on the internet, the challenge of backing interpretation with a learned  soloist's authority has been losing ground as a basis for bestowing respect.

Losing ground...  except, of course, where the curator builds enough "brand" as a judge. The question becomes, is brand replacing pedigree as the critic's key credential? And if so, then is brand affiliation the artist's proxy for respect?

There is a subtle punchline in here, which is that media and the web have both staked legitimate claims to generating many "social" networks -- in particular, many more of them than have ever been explicitly acknowldged in the past. The key to this "acknowledgement" is the broadly visible promotion of material targeted to these networks. But, similar to target marketing's understanding, the very multiplicity of the networks means that the work that acquires status within them is work that qualitatively distinguishes them as well. So what we are gradually learning to take for granted in art, due to its explosively increased visibility, is the defacto convergence of worth and quality -- of status and type --  even as we are increasingly uncertain about which networks we would say matter the most. The biggest help we should get here would be critics who first of all help prevent overexposure of work that is not quality work of its own type.


Flowers at work




FlowersAtWork-IMG_3745Abw.jpgCopyright 2010 Malcolm Ryder